Origin and History
The concept of "Raising the Floor" first arose in connection with work on accessibility standards around the Web. Gregg Vanderheiden was involved extensively in both the W3C Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (as Co-chair and Editor) and in the US Governments 508 guidelines renewal. In the process of working on these guidelines it became clear that creating Web content that would work with 'average' or 'affordable' AT was just too limiting. The base or floor level AT just could not handle modern Web technologies. And in other countries the floor level technologies affordable by most people was often even lower.
The committees were faced with either a) creating guidelines that would result in Web pages that could be accessed using only the latest versions of the best (and most expensive) assistive technologies, or b) creating guidelines that would work with most AT but would severely limit Web content to just basic web technologies. Both of these were untenable.
Since it was not practical or even possible to lower the technologies on the Internet down to the level that assistive technologies (that were affordable to all) could handle, it became clear that we needed to raise the base level of access technologies that everyone could afford. Gregg coined the term "raising the floor" to describe what needed to be done: to raise the base or floor level of access technology that was available to everyone. To raise it up sufficiently that users would be able to reach and use the modern Web content and technologies they are encountering on the Web today (and those coming).
Gregg called Jim Fruchterman, a longtime colleague and successful social entrepreneur in accessibility, to discuss the feasibility of the concept and to see if Jim was interested in helping to launch such an effort. Jim was immediately taken with the idea but thought that the concept was needed beyond just Web content. eBooks and mobile technologies were just two places that Jim thought it should be expanded to. The three domains were quickly converging and should be addressed together.
The two of them began exploring the idea with other colleagues and also took the idea on the road for general input. Quickly a group of interested and like-minded people gathered. Jutta Treviranus at the University of Toronto's Adaptive Technology Resource Centre was already working on key aspects of the problem and brought her team of over 50 designers and programmers from around the world to the team.
The Trace Center's core grant was up for renewal and a project to initiate Raising the Floor was written into the center grant as a core activity. It was a natural extension of the Trace Center's previous work on virtual assistive technologies. In addition, Jim's organization would soon win a contract from the US Dept of Education to provide accessible books to all print-disabled students in the US, and Raising the Floor dovetailed nicely with the contract's mandates for widely and freely available eBook related access features and services (as well as Benetech's Route 66 project). And the work at the ARTC (now the IDRC) in Toronto lead by Jutta Treviranus around web access and open education resources provided many of the basic tools needed to address this area.
The Trace Center core grant was awarded in September and with its start in October 2008, the Raising the Floor Initiative was launched. By the start of 2009 there were already over 50 leaders and key programs who had joined the project from both mainstream IT and the accessibility fields, with more coming on board daily as they became aware of the effort. A listing of those who were early sign ons to the initiative can be found at Early Participants. They came from widely varying backgrounds but all were interested in helping to address the problem of raising the floor to close the gap between them and the requirements of modern and evolving Web technologies.
The concept of National Pubic Inclusive Infrastructures within countries was introduced by the Trace Center in its comments to the US Government's Federal Communications Commission (FCC) during its request for information as it prepared the National Broadband Plan for submission to the US Congress. The NPII was introduced to help reduce the growing digital divide and address the problems being faced by those working on accessibility in an area where technology was advancing so rapidly and moving to the cloud as well.
During 2010 Raising the Floor participants evolved the early ideas and the concept of a Global Public Inclusive Infrastructure crystallized. This led to even more interest from both public and private entities recognizing the need for a paradigm shift in order to provide more support to access technology developers, a more level playing field for commercial developers, and a simpler distribution and application system for users, in order to reach more people than was currently possible.
In Oct 2010, the European Commission released a call for proposals around cloud computing and personalization in response to the work now being done by RtF members especially in the US, Canada, and Spain (INREDIS etc).
In December of 2010, Raising the Floor became an official organization. It chose Switzerland for its home in order to emphasize the international nature of the effort. Gregg Vanderheiden and Jutta Treviranus joined to lead this new effort as Jim Fruchterman's work with eBooks (and Benetech's other work) was expanding so rapidly that it took all his time. He joined the Board and is anchoring the aspects dealing with ebooks and ebook readers.
Raising the Floor - International is now the official home of this effort with local affiliate planned for the US, Canada, and other countries. The coalition has grown to over 100 individuals and organizations.