The Inventor of the Internet: Make Access to Technology Really Better

Vint Cerf, known as the “Father of the Internet,” and his wife both have hearing impairments.

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This is part of CNET’s “Tech Enabled” series about the role technology plays in helping the disability community.

Vint Cerf is often called the “Father of the Internet”. Daddy considered him to be very strict.

Cerf, who is hard of hearing, has been instrumental in inventing some of the most important technologies of the past half century, including the Internet and email. But once he praises how technology can advance society, he won’t hide words about its track record of accommodating people with disabilities.

He said accessibility shouldn’t be a “messy dust” that designers sprinkle as an afterthought.

β€œIt is a crime that the most versatile device on Earth, the computer, has not adapted well to people who need help, who need assistive technology,” he said in an interview last month. “It’s almost a crime that programmers didn’t take their feet to the fire to build interfaces for people with vision problems, hearing problems, or mobility problems.”

He said that many of the design guidelines for accessible technology exist, but that their implementation has often been subordinate to other design goals.

Cerf was best known as a designer of Internet architecture in the early 1970s, where he helped shape the rules that dictate where Internet traffic goes, and, about a decade later, helped introduce the first commercial email system. Today he is Google’s “main evangelist for the Internet” and contributes to People Centered Internet, a group he co-founded to advance connectivity around the world. He said that his own disability and those of people close to him shaped his approach to technology.

Email, for example, has brought Cerf more than the usual benefit of posting and interacting on your own schedule.

“Because I’m hard of hearing, emails are a very valuable tool because of the accuracy they get,” he said, sitting on a hotel sofa in his trademark three-piece suit before the keynote organized by the IEEE Engineering Trade Organization. (On this occasion she was gray striped and blue shirt). “I can read what has been written instead of straining to hear what is being said.”

He’s not the only one who needs help from technology. About 360 million people worldwide have a hearing impairment, nearly 5 percent of all the Earth’s population, according to the World Health Organization. Then consider people with visual, motor, or other disabilities. In the United States alone, more than one in three households has an individual known to have a disability, according to research by Nielsen last year.

President George W. Bush awarded Cerf the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian award, in 2005.

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Email and the Internet were also crucial to his wife’s adjustment to her disability, although Cerf teases her for being uninterested in email for more than two decades after he started playing with network mail in the early 1970s.

Sigrid Cerf, who became deaf at age three due to spinal meningitis, finally took to the web in the mid-1990s to learn more about cochlear implants: surgically embedded devices that bypass the ear and send out brain signals that interpret them as sound.

I learned about the technology β€” and the doctors who specialize in it at Johns Hopkins β€” by surfing the web. “She couldn’t get anyone’s attention at Johns Hopkins until someone in Israel contacted her via an email exchange,” he said. Even as the inventor of the Internet, Cerf said he was amazed at the role email and the network played in radically changing his wife’s relationship with her disability.

Cerf’s awareness of disability also sharpens his criticism of the shortcomings of technology.

“It can’t be messed-up dust you sprinkle over the program and suddenly make it available, which is the pattern of behavior in the past,” he said. He added that accessibility should be a design choice to be rewarded, “something not many companies have advanced to.”

But he believes awareness among engineers and designers is improving. For people with hearing impairments, speech-to-text products are getting more and more complex, like YouTube’s auto-close captions. Voice command technologies, such as those in Amazon’s Alexa, Apple’s Siri, and Google Assistant, are more common. More recently, neural networks – a programming technique loosely based on how the human brain learns – are developing speech synthesis, to make interaction with technology more natural for people with visual or physical disabilities.

Most encouraging, he said, is the growing recognition in the technology community of the importance of accessibility.

“We need to build these things from scratch,” he said. “These are very powerful things.”

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