Global Accessibility Awareness Day 2016(GAAD) gives us time to reflect upon the history we’ve been making together in creating a digital world that is accessible to everyone, regardless of ability or disability.
If accessibility for websites, software or other digital venues, is new to you, you may not be entirely aware of the long road this has been for those of us who live with disabilities. With a growing international focus on making sure that everyone can access information digitally, and the recent view by courts that this is a human right, not just a nice thing to do, it’s important to remember how digital accessibility used to be viewed, in the not so distant past.
Five short years ago to when we were starting our company, we were being told:
- It wasn’t possible to develop websites and software to work for real people living with disabilities. The best we could hope for was to get digital venues to pass baseline accessibility tests through software.
- If at any point people living with disabilities were to be consulted in the development or testing verification process, their services should be offered at little or no cost. The reasoning behind this was because these individuals already received support from entitlement programs and would be the ultimate beneficiary from the digital improvements.
Even as I type this, it’s hard to grasp the attitudes that shaped these outmoded beliefs. Taking into account that some of this was, no doubt, being driven by an industry that benefited financially from selling accessibility software, our little start-up company, stood up to make this argument: the software industry had been founded upon UX implemented with the assistance of non-disabled users. Why couldn’t the same principals and techniques be applied to accessibility with users living with disabilities?
A variety of arguments came back to us which included this common thread:
- People living with disabilities cannot understand or adequately represent their own digital needs.
Because I live with an invisible disability, I do not generally encounter the same type of unconscious discrimination I watch our testers, who live with apparent disabilities, encounter on almost a daily basis. When discussing this with them, they gently explain to me that “not being trusted” to know their own minds/wishes or being considered “mentally deficient at first-glance” despite IQ or education, was pretty standard for them. (This is why WeCo chose to incorporate the goal to “educate the public about the capabilities of persons living with disabilities” into our mission statement.)
It’s wonderful to note that this viewpoint is changing, both in regard to public policy and societal attitudes. Laws, rules and judgments internationally now include requirements to consult users living with disabilities in regards to their own digital accessibility needs. At WeCo, particularly in the past year, we are delighted and warmed by the reception a growing number of digital marketing firms, engineers and developers, are giving us by welcoming our testers into their development process.
Unfortunately, the attitude that people living with disabilities, regardless of intelligence, education or desire to make their own living, should be happy to accept a financially limited and dependent lifestyle, continues to be a pervasive one. At WeCo, it’s extremely common for us, despite being an established digital consulting firm with skilled testers living with disabilities, to receive requests from organizations rationalizing why our testers should be providing services to them for free, or at a fraction of the cost earned by others who work in the UX industry.
One of our company’s Advisory Board Members, who happens to live with a sight related disability, believes this stems from a worldwide history of viewing people living with disabilities as recipients of charity. She explained to me that the word, “handicap” came from the ancient term, “cap in hand.”
On this Global Accessibility Awareness Day 2016, we ask you to join us in gently reminding the world that people living with disabilities, just like everyone else, bring a unique skill set to the table. The “cap in hand” days are over and, with the dawn of technologies that connect us as human beings on so many levels, regardless of our capabilities, it’s time to move forward.