Video Transcript: 2020 W4A Keynote: Viviennne Conway

Welcome Everyone


My name is Vivienne Conway, and I am presenting from Western Australia. I’m the Director of Web Key IT, a digital accessibility consultancy located here in Western Australia but operating throughout Australia and internationally. I have been involved with W4A since winning the Google Student Award in 2011. I was able to go to W4A in Hyderabad, India to present my PhD proposal which examined digital accessibility in Australia and their National Transition Strategy. Since then I have been to every W4A and would have missed this one due to surgery on my foot which has me hobbling around in a boot for a considerable period of time.  Having the conference online has allowed me the opportunity to attend the conference and even present this keynote.


When I went to that first W4A, I was stunned to see that most of the people I had quoted in my literature review were sitting in the room – I was more than just a little starstruck, as they were a bit like heroes to me. Today, I am honoured and humbled to be asked to present to this same group.


So welcome everyone.  I am looking forward to seeing the statistics of who is attending and where they are located. It would also be interesting to see how many people we have attending this year who would not normally have been able to participate, being in situations like mine.


In thinking about this keynote, I wanted to veer from my normal rants about the lack of accessibility, the slow uptake of WCAG – often quoted as the 12 year old standard with a 3% uptake etc.  I want to talk about some principles behind what we do and why we do it.


If you look at the website and the introduction to the Conference, you will see that this year’s special theme is “Automation for Accessibility”.

There’s been a revolution in accessibility and assistive technology with the standardization of automation platforms and the lower costs of machine learning and artificial intelligence. What are today’s solutions? What will be the future?

However, with COVID-19, many things (including public meetings) have changed.


The W4A, website states:

“The conference will be using Zoom, an accessible conference platform for viewers and presenters.

Registration is open and virtual participants can now join the entire Web Conference for one low price.

The conference will continue in the Taiwan time zone. Presenters will have an option to pre-record their session.”


While this will limit the person-to-person meetings to virtual meetings, except for those people who are able to attend in person such as residents of Taiwan, it will mean many people who would normally be unable to attend because of travel and accommodation costs and times, will now be able to attend, and at a lower price.  It also means presenters can pre-record their presentations if they wish, so they are then free to enjoy the other presentations.

Who would have thought such a thing would be possible?


I am living in a remote small town in Western Australia, called Hopetoun – population about 1000 but reaching 3000 in the summer as it is on the Southern Ocean – picturesque and rather remote but with gorgeous beaches, fishing etc. 

Needless to say, getting to Taipei would have been difficult even before I had surgery on my foot – I have been pushing my way around the house on a knee scooter since the end of January.  Getting to this conference was out of the question for me this year. 


For me, going online was a great outcome, although I expect many others would have rather attended in person had this virus not been doing the rounds.

There are many things you take away from a conference by attending in person, but there are complications such as the amount of time away from work, cost and distance to travel and cost of accommodation. Being able to participate in an international conference from the comfort of my home is a positive consequence of our technical advancements of the last number of years.

What I want to examine today is the effect of automation on the lives of people living with a disability. You will hear many presentations on this theme during the conference but I have the opportunity to look at issues outside of the normal well-researched, peer-reviewed paper and can take a few moments to reflect on where we have come and where we might be going. I can even add a few of my own thoughts without having to back up everything I say with a plethora of references!


In this vein, as a member of the ‘Baby Boomer’ generation, I reflected on a couple of different cartoons from my youth – The Flintstones and The Jetsons.  Both of these cartoons were created in the 1960’s by Hanna-Barbera. 

There were some remarkable similarities, with episodes of each involving:

  • transportation to/from work
  • home conveniences – entertainment, cooking, cleaning etc
  • both have the father working for a company with an overbearing boss, and both depict a rather traditional 1960’s family but in different situation/time frames
  • both have family pets (my personal favourite was Fred carrying the sabre-tooth tiger outside and getting locked out, having to yell “Wilma!”)
  • both depict families going about daily routines and looking for ways to automate daily needs/functions


One show – The Flintstones depicts a modern type of family but puts their lives and tools into a humorous prehistoric mode, apparently 10,000 BC and using the equivalent to the modern conveniences – Fred Flintstone had a car but the engine was ‘foot power’. There were 166 Flintstones episodes and the show ran from 1960 to 1966. Incidentally, the woman who was the voice of Wilma Flintstone also did the voice for Rosie the Robot and Mrs. Spacely on The Jetsons.


The Flintstones was the first animated series to hold a prime-time slot on television.  It was the most financially successful and longest-running network animated television series for three decades, only surpassed by the Simpsons in 1989. The inspiration of the show came from a television show The Honeymooners which starred Jackie Gleeson, and was also based on suburban 20th Century America.


Many of the features and technologies in the Flintstones were prevalent in the mid-20th century suburban home in America.  Interestingly, some of the concepts of the Flintstones became future inventions, such as ‘moving sidewalks’ from one episode – hence the travelator in almost every airport around the world. This is showing from The Flintstones, The Future of Food.


There is even an episode on YouTube featuring ‘wacky inventions’ of the Flintstones and it is surprising how many have a modern equivalent. The episode of the Flintstones ‘The Future of Food’ reminds me of Star Trek, with Captain Picard ordering “Tea, Earl Grey, hot”


In the last series of the show, a character named ‘The Great Gazoo’ appears who is an alien exiled to earth and works to help Fred and Barney, often against their will.  He isn’t happy being sent to the stone-age, and is only visible to Fred, Barney, their children and their pets.


In The Flintstones, the two next door neighbours are best friends and it appears that do they are very close, doing most activities together, including Fred and Barney travelling to work together, bowling together and other activities.  The concept of living in close community with others is very evident in the show, as we see the two families helping each other out continually.


According to historian Christopher Lehman, the humour of the show is largely from the creative use of anachronisms, with the main one being the placing of the 20th Century society in prehistory.  The show takes its inspiration from the suburban sprawl which developed in the first two decades of the post-war period. Even the homes resemble the so-called ‘cookie-cutter’ homes typical of American suburbs in the mid-20th Century.


The other show – The Jetsons, took the opposite approach and looked at a typical family and put them in a more futuristic setting – with homes suspended in the sky, the use of self-navigating flying vehicles, and even the dog using a treadmill for exercise. The treadmill projected outside of the apartment window. The Jetsons introduced things we never dreamed would become normal life – consider video calling, facetime, Skype, the Apple Smart Watch etc.  In the Jetsons, his boss, Mr. Spacely could find George anytime and anywhere with these technologies – does that sound just a little familiar? What we don’t see here is any connection with people living near the Jetson family, even though they’re in an apartment building.


The Jetsons was on air for only 1 season of 24 episodes in 1962, apart from a few episodes developed in the 1980’s. The whole idea of The Jetsons was ‘what if’ and allowed the mind to dream up possibilities.  It aired right in the middle of the Space Race of the 1960’s and the Apollo program, and Cold War fears.  To quote The Smithsonian Magazine, “Americans seemed equally optimistic and terrified for the future.”


However, what we notice is that both shows use a humorous approach to daily living and its challenges, but only for able-bodied individuals.  To my recollection, I don’t recall seeing any people with disabilities featured in either show:

  • both shows are creations of Hanna-Barbera from the 1960’s,
  • both depict families in specific times, but surprisingly using the same type of equipment such as for transportation to/from work, home conveniences – entertainment, cooking, cleaning etc.
  • both have the father working for a company and depict a rather traditional 1960’s family but in different situation/time frames
  • both have family pets
  • both depict families going about daily routines and looking for ways to automate daily functions and needs.


If we consider our lives today, we still face most of the same issues.  It seems that parking and getting to work is still a cause of headaches, no matter where in the world you live.  While we are starting to use more remote working arrangements, it still has its issues, including speed of Internet connection, and the need to communicate in a personal matter so that we stay connected to our workmates.


We continue to juggle work and home life balance. We are trying to automate home and work functions, and we don’t have those cool Jetsons Jet-Packs we were supposed to be using by now. We have been working on more and more future inventions – all sorts of ‘Internet of things’ devices which are designed to make our lives easier and have the potential to make the lives of people living with disability easier to manage, but we haven’t achieved all of our expectations, especially if you were a fan of The Jetsons. I am hoping to see self-driving vehicles that would allow an equality of access to those with disabilities.


As well as that Jetpack, we continue to wait for robots in the home like ‘Rosie’. Our breakfast doesn’t quite work like the Jetsons, wherein it appears at the press of a button. Our beds don’t fold up out of the way, and the car doesn’t miniaturise and fit into a briefcase we carry into the office. 


We don’t have flying cars, but they might be here sooner than we think.  Uber has a Flying Car Division, rather like a flying taxi service which they estimate will cost as much as the current UberX.  Experimentation with personal flight is ongoing, and indeed jetpacks existed before the Jetsons.  However, they are expensive and noisy and fly for only a few minutes with any reliability.

And now suddenly, we are dealing with the fact that a very small virus is threatening to bring the economy and our normal lives around the world to a grinding halt – hence the reason this year’s W4A is in this online mode.


Companies functioning on a typical routine of staff going into the office Monday to Friday are rapidly adapting to allow and sometimes require employees work from home and ‘telecommute’ – one wonders what new ideas will be spawned from this current pandemic – but I expect there will be many.


We have all seen images of great new AT which will have enormous benefits in the future for people with disabilities Some of these we have seen here at W4A. We can think of:

  • glasses which interpret obstacles
  • eye gaze software improvements
  • wheelchairs capable of using stairs, and allowing the person to stand upright
  • software that interprets charts and graphs for the screen reader user
  • advances in sign language depiction for websites
  • devices which allow a person to read Braille through a mouth device


Some of these innovations are finding their way very quickly into our schools such as the pen which converts written text to audio.  Students with dyslexia can then listen to the text through a headset.  This technology can be used in the classroom settings and for exams and is now used extensively in Australian schools for students diagnosed with dyslexia and other print conditions. But we all know there is so much more that can and will be done.


I do have concerns about some of the upcoming automation.  For instance, when we move to fully autonomous cars, how will this transition?  We won’t transition straight from driving our own cars to jumping into the autonomous car and telling it to take us to work. We need to consider how the two systems will merge, and how accidents can be avoided. The cost of these vehicles may be out of reach of people with disabilities, remembering that people with disabilities statistically have lower average earnings. We will need to decide how the responsibility for accidents will be decided.


On a different level, what about the effect of the machine bias of machine learning algorithms?  For a long time, we have been told that machine algorithms are biased against senior citizens and people with disabilities for things like health insurance, life insurance premiums etc.  Who will manage this and how will it be made fairer?  Who’s going to do the monitoring? 


I know that in Australia, the Australian Human Rights Commission is monitoring this issue closely and has released discussion papers on the subject and urged that it be pulled back until the lives of people with disability can be protected from possible outcomes.  Many people strongly believe that automated employment tools are biased strongly against people over a certain age and use different algorithms to screen out older applicants, or those with a disability, or even those who don’t have the right keywords in their cover letter.  It is hard to hold a machine accountable, and easy to blame them rather than take the blame ourselves.


I was thinking recently about children attending a school excursion (virtually) of the Egyptian pyramids and they were able, in this virtual world, to walk around in the pyramids, feel the walls, hear the echoes and get a realistic impression of the size and construction of these structures.  I was thinking about how a child who couldn’t see or hear or walk etc. would get this same extension.  If my child was blind, what kind of enhanced experience would they receive, and not getting it, would that limit their ability to participate fully?


I know that many creators of augmented and virtual reality systems are using these tools to enhance the experience of people with disabilities – for a child in a wheelchair travelling to Egypt to see those pyramids might be too difficult, using AR or VR might enable them to experience a close representation of the event.  But I personally don’t feel they would get the full extent of the experience that others do.. And some children with different disabilities would not be able to use the AR or VR features at all.  I think we have a long way to go.


Automation in the home has great potential for people with disabilities – being able to turn on the lights before they enter, adjust the temperature, find out who is at the door and unlock it or not as they wish, all improve the living experience of the person with a disability, and starts to resemble some of the things from The Jetsons.  While this home automation is advantageous for many people living without disability, for many people living with disability, it is a necessity if they are to be able to live independently.  In the 1960s film series depicting ‘Ma and Pa Kettle’ and family, they win a modern house in a competition – and it comes complete with built in vacuum cleaning systems, microwaves and ashtrays built into the armrests of sofas that self-empty.


The Flintstones, looked at a pre-historic impression of current technology – with televisions, lawnmowers, voice mail, air mail etc.


The Jetsons, looked at the same type of family but imagined what the future might look like and how they would go about these same daily living tasks.


Let’s take a little look at the two shows and see if we can determine which (if any) most resembles 2020. First of all let’s look at the Flintstones

  • lived in close proximity to each other
  • worked and socialised together – the notion of community is strong
  • used ‘modern’ conveniences to make their life easier and;
  • worked in the traditional model of a rather industrial era – the quarry

The Jetsons

  • lived in homes in the sky, possibly to escape pollution or over-crowding. The family lived in an apartment building but really don’t interact very much with other characters
  • the show did not dwell much on others outside of the main characters and those from George’s office
  • they used futuristic conveniences to make their life easier – Rosie the Robot for instance, the car that folded up into the briefcase, the bed that folded away
  • George still worked in a rather traditional model, but in a more technological frame – the office rather than the quarry


So, how can we relate culturally as we compare these two television shows?


We still mainly live mainly in homes close together, but there is the tendency for promoting higher-density living such as the apartment building. However, Australia is rather different from America in this regard with most people still wanting their own home on their own block of land. The concept has traditionally been that we need our own home, on our own block, with a BBQ and enough room to play cricket. That is changing, but many Australians are not in favour of high-density living, though city planners continue to try to push in this direction.


There is a growing tendency for us to have less interaction with our neighbours, to work in cubicles separated from fellow employees and to isolate ourselves at times.  While there has been plenty of research into the need for a ‘high touch’ environment in our ‘high tech’ society to prevent isolation, (John Naisbitt, “Megatrends”, 1988) this seems to continue to be a problem.  Some researchers have linked this disconnection with others as one of the causes of mental health issues such as depression.


John Naisbitt wrote about High Tech/High Touch – Technology and our Search for Meaning in 1999. He states that: “Because of the intrusive pace of technological change, High Tech/High Touch is far more crucial today than it was in 1982 …in the … Megatrends”.


In 1967, the Random House Dictionary defined technology as “a thing, an object, material and physical separate from human beings.” by 1987 they had changed the definition with the word technology changed to “interrelation with life, society and the environment”. Technology was no longer seen as existing in a vacuum.  I think we see this much more today, technology is completely interwoven in everything we do.  For many, even operating home appliances is automated with technology such as Google Home and others.


High Touch is a little trickier to define.  Naisbitt says: “It's the look of an unknown three-year-old girl who turns suddenly to show you her sweet fresh face and flashes a smile that belies her stubborn personality, it's the love of your own child, it's panting for breath because the view was worth the climb, it's wanting to help your father because you notice that bending is now difficult for him, it's listening to the ever-constant rush of a creek, it's forgiving your friend who was mad at you for having a baby before she married, it's smelling a wide bowl of soup, it's longing for a lover, it's feeling god in your throat, it's sitting quietly, it's a lick on your face by a dog you once disliked, it's an idea that tickles your soul, it's a cold wind that burns your face, it's recognizing when you're wrong, it's crying at the beauty of a painting, it's a rhythm that beats in your bones, it's doodling and liking what you've drawn, it's gazing into the eyes of a nursing baby, it's feeling empathy, it's forgoing power to do what's right, it's acknowledging another person's place in this world, it's being respectful of a waitress, it's honouring a mother's depth of understanding, it's honouring a father's steadfastness, it's honouring a child's space to grow without fear, it's delighting in watching a thirteen-year-old boy find his way in a new community, it's giving of oneself to nature, to human emotions, to family, to the universe, to a higher power. High touch is embracing the primeval forces of life and death. High touch is embracing that which acknowledges all that is greater than we.”


To me, it is all the things that make life so precious.


Naisbitt says that High Tech/High Touch is a ‘human lens.’ It is:

“…embracing technology that preserves our humanness and rejecting technology that intrudes upon it. It is recognizing that technology is an integral part of the evolution of culture, the creative product of our imaginations, our dreams and aspirations-and that the desire to create new technologies is fundamentally instinctive. But is also recognizing that art, story, play, religion, nature, and time are equal partners in the evolution of technology because they nourish the soul and fulfil its yearnings. It is expressing what it means to be human and employing technology fruitfully in that expression. It's appreciating life and accepting death. It is knowing when we should push back on technology, in our work and our lives, to affirm our humanity. It is understanding that technology zealots are as short-sighted as technology bashers. It is creating significant paths for our lives, without fear of new technology or fear of falling behind it. It is recognizing that at its best, technology supports and improves human life; at its worse, it alienates, isolates, distorts, and destroys. It is questioning what place technology should have in our lives and what place it should have in society. It is consciously choosing to employ technology when it adds value to human lives. It is learning how to live as human beings in a technologically dominated time. It is knowing when simulated experiences add value to human life. It is recognizing when to avoid the layers of distractions and distance technology affords us. It is recognizing when technology is not neutral. It is knowing when to unplug and when to plug in. It is appropriate human scale.” That’s another quote from Naisbitt. It is important to note that Naisbitt wrote the above in 1999, but I think I can say that we find this even more appropriate today than ever before.


High Tech/High Touch is enjoying the fruits of technological advancements and having it truly sit well with our god, our church, or our spiritual beliefs. It is understanding technology through the human lens of play, time, religion, and art.


But what will our children’s future look like? 


When it comes to technology, will they wonder what it was like to drive your own car the way we wonder about pioneer ancestors travelling by covered wagon?  It reminds me of when one of my daughters asked me if I was a pioneer and travelled to school by covered wagon?  Amused? Actually, I was, as it gave me ammunition for later in her life.


When it comes to that concept of ‘high touch’, will they still find the value in the same things we do now, and that our forefathers did? That human connection with others.  I think that will still be the same value, but it may be more elusive to find if people get too caught up in that ‘high tech’. 


I hope that we can learn things from our past as we look to learn new things in the future.  I am hoping that we don’t lose touch with the important things such as the love for our children and our desire to see life made more meaningful for people. I hope that this enables us to continue to advocate and word towards technological improvements that make life easier for people with disabilities. What I am also hoping is that the world of tomorrow will take advancements in technology to make the lives of people with disability better and enable them to live and participate to whatever degree they want in the current society, open new doors for further education and career opportunities, and give them freedom to move and interact as they see fit. Overall, I hope that the world of tomorrow gives them a more equal opportunity in life with their counterparts without disability. I hope that it will allow people to continue to participate as they age to whatever degree they wish, and allow others to benefit from their life experiences.


In doing research for this talk, I came across an interesting cartoon episode of the Jetsons where they visit the Flintstones. In this episode they have an experience of each other’s’ worlds with the Flintstones accidentally being teleported into the Jetsons era. 


According to Danny Graydon, who is a London-based author of the official guide to “The Jetsons”, Graydon explained why he believed the show resonated with so many Americans in 1962: “It coincided with this period of American history when there was a renewed hope — the beginning of the ’60s, sort of pre-Vietnam, when Kennedy was in power. There was something very attractive about the nuclear family with good honest values thriving well into the future. I think that chimed with the zeitgeist of the American culture of the time.”


I don’t know if you noticed it or not, but neither of these cartoon shows ever had a person with a disability in the show.  I know that is changing, and there is much debate about how that is done. It does show that our social conscience is becoming more attuned to the need for inclusion and diversity in all areas of life – work, homelife, sports and entertainment.


So, have you decided if we are living as the Flintstones or the Jetsons?


While we certainly are not living as the Jetsons yet (I’m still waiting for my jet-pack), we are not Flintstones either.  We are developing yet more means of automating our lives, improving the lives of people with disabilities, and streamlining some of our work processes.  However, I don’t think anyone here would say we have arrived, and they probably won’t ever say that – there is always more to be done. Perhaps we are ready for a new cartoon, showing an exciting view of what the future could hold, but including characters with a broad range of abilities.


For myself, I sometimes feel like I am living somewhat as a Jetson. I just had foot surgery which replaced deteriorating bone with lots of screws, plates and bits of metal. This surgery will improve my quality of life and without it, I would have been in a wheelchair in the future. I have had the same done with most of my fingers. This is really a kind of ‘Jetsons’ surgery, and something that could only be dreamed of even when I was young.


But I find myself wishing for more of the Flintstones, the closeness with our neighbours, that intertwining of our lives, of living simply, even of being able to go a single day without being a slave to my mobile devices. 


Some recent scenes shown on television of grocery stores crowd behaviour in the midst of the Corona Virus, show a noticeable shift from caring for others. Images shown involve hoarding of groceries and homewares.  Many people don’t appear to be thinking about the other person at all – it almost looks like an active retreat into ‘survival of the fittest’. There will probably be articles written about the reaction of people in the midst of a pandemic.


Perhaps, it is a subject we should all ponder a little more. If you, as I do, want to make those changes – embracing new technology, encouraging innovation that will enhance the lives of others, but maintaining our connection with others – then it is something we must consciously do.  Perhaps we need to look at Naisbitt’s description of ‘high touch’ and try to incorporate these special things more into our day to day lives. Now is as good a time as any to make those changes.


You might wonder how I would answer my initial question about the Flintstones vs Jetsons in regard to community and technology, I think I’d have to say that I am more of a Flintstone than a Jetson, with regarding to the importance of community while strongly advocating for the ethical use of technology to improve the lives of people. Thank you.