This month is a big month. Not only is it Breast Cancer Awareness Month and the lead-up to Halloween, it also marks many milestones for the disability community. It is also the 75th anniversary of National Disability Employment Awareness Month, and the 30th year of the Americans with Disabilities Act. What better way to gain awareness than to attend a conference on the topic? I did just that by virtually attending the Interagency Accessibility Forum (IAAF) earlier this month. There were many government and private sector attendees, all uniting for digital accessibility education and advocation. I learned a great deal about accessibility in the government sector, but I'd like to share some main themes and insights I gathered from the speakers.
Big strides still have to be made for employing people with disabilities.
Since the inception of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in 1990, a great many things have been done to create equal opportunities for people with disabilities. There have also been a great many obstacles, such as the very definition of a person with a disability called into question at the Supreme Court level hindering the rights of many until the late 2000s, when the definition was redefined. Today, the ADA has helped many achieve full participation in society, equal opportunities, and independent living. One area that still needs improvement is economic self-sufficiency: in short, employment. Thomas Harkin, retired senator and primary author for of the Americans with Disabilities Act, cited two main reasons for this issue:
- Recruitment: When people are looking for employees, they seek people out based on qualifications, right? Unfortunately, part of those qualifications often require traditional education, a number of years worth of experience, and other resumé fillers that may be difficult to impossible for people with disabilities to obtain. Traditional recruitment often doesn't target people with disabilities either, or inadvertently
- Training: There are often cases where a person with a disability gets hired for a job, but cannot complete the training because it hasn't been adapted for them. Most of the time, this doesn't mean that the person is not qualified to do the job, but that the training program has not been made with accessibility and inclusion in mind.
What does this mean for the development community, may you ask? I think it renders us responsible to make sure that digital recruitment and training tools are built inclusively, so that everyone can use them regardless of ability. I also challenge designers and developers to think of ways that these tools can assist employers to becoming "blind" to disabilities so that true capabilities shine through, rather than being overshadowed by perception.
Clients are looking for honest reports, not perfect ones.
Procurement was a big topic of discussion at the conference, and some very valid points came up about what clients are/should be expecting from vendors. In today's legal landscape with accessibility suits on the rise, on top of competition for work, vendors are feeling a lot of pressure to claim that their products don't contain accessibility gaps. This, however, does clients (and people in general) a disservice. I was surprised to find that organizations with higher maturity levels regarding accessibility actually don't expect perfection from products they acquire. They do, however, expect to be fully aware of accessibility barriers so that they can A) make informed purchasing decisions, and B) come up with alternative accessible solutions to address accessibility gaps.
The truth of the matter is, most products out there aren't fully accessible, or have issues that need addressing. By detailing these out in Accessibility Compliance Reports (ACRs) or Voluntary Product Accessibility Templates (VPATs), developers are actually proving that they're paying attention to accessibility and can even outline future plans to address these fixes, equipping clients with the knowledge they need to best serve their own audiences.
Accessibility should be considered in all parts of project cycles.
I silently cheered when this concept kept coming up, because I whole heartedly agree. The idea of accessibility being considered on both client/vendor sides throughout the process is something that as a whole is more in its infancy than it should be in the private sector, but is more mature in the public sector. More and more, public and government clients are requesting vendors to supply VPATs and ACRs for their products, or proof of a vendor's competency and ability to provide accessible products that are tried and tested. When this starts catching on more in the private sector, designers and developers that have more experience and maturity incorporating accessibility into their design, build, and testing processes will be two steps ahead of those that haven't started prioritizing educating their teams about all the ways to be inclusive.
The Worldwide view of accessibility is quite different.
One of the talks was a snapshot of accessibility in the world today, which compared the state of legislature and attitude toward accessibility in the United States, Canada, and Europe, brought up some interesting points. All have many standards in place for the public sector, with varied amounts of rules and guidelines for the private sector. I found it interesting that in Europe, where the EU first introduced soft recommendations followed by actual legislation, accessibility has a very different role in the legal landscape compared to the United States. Where litigation is the driving force of accessibility enforcement in the United States, Europe operates under the ideas of transparency, comparing the accessibility of countries and sectors, and maintaining lower financial penalties, but with the possibility of removing products from the market altogether if they continue to be noncompliant. These things, combined with Europe's "shame culture," where nobody wants to be known as neglecting people with disabilities (which is obvious due to transparency protocols), often drive companies to take initiative to resolve accessibility issues on their own, rather than waiting for a lawsuit to arrive on their doorstep. Quite frankly, I'm a little jealous of this culture, especially when compared to the reticence of many United States companies that would rather fight in court than remove barriers to access and offering truly inclusive products to their customers.
Some organizations are doing some really cool things to support accessibility and inclusion.
The Smithsonian Institution gave us an inside look into some of their initiatives to create inclusive experiences at their museums. This was truly mind blowing, as their standard for an inclusive experience not only includes people with different physical and mental abilities, but also people with different ranges of age, emotional health, etc. On top of that, all aspects of the physical space and digital features of an exhibit need to help everyone learn and experience the content in some way. Initiatives like digital docents that help blind people, universal keypads for people with motor disabilities to interact with digital displays, even human density analysis that can help blind people navigate the museum by way of less crowded spaces are just some of the things that the Smithsonian is working on. What's more, they have a paid, voluntary team of people with a range of abilities and ages, which help them to test ideas and prototypes along the way to make sure they're building the best exhibits possible. While ventures like this may seem costly or like they don't apply to the world at large, I think it's important to learn about what others are doing to strive for accessible, inclusive experiences in order to spark our own imagination and find ways to incorporate those ideas into our own work.
There is far too much information for me to share here, but I can say that the IAAF conference was very educational, and I have my own list of action items out of it, which I encourage those of you in accessibility roles (or even with just an interest in it) to consider:
- Consider how to show accessibility maturity during the sales process. Not everyone has already-made platforms or products that they sell. For Rapid Development Group, often we are pursuing a website build or redesign/build, which means we can't show from the beginning that what we're going to make is accessible. What we can do, however, is provide examples of existing work and detail how accessibility is incorporated into design, build, testing, and maintenance phases of projects we undertake.
- Keep an eye out for VPAT training. The VPAT, which is a compliance report for Section 508 guidelines in the United States, is confusing to many but increasingly listed as a requirement on RFPs. Luckily, the makers of the VPAT have promised free online training to be available at some point in early 2021. I for one intend to take advantage and learn more about how to create and evaluate VPATs.
- Always, always, always keep learning. It starts with you. Learning more about accessibility and how you can incorporate it into your company culture has to start somewhere. So take a class. Watch a webinar. Attend a conference. By educating yourself and advocating for its importance in the development process, collectively we can move the global culture towards being completely inclusive.
That's all I have for now! If anyone would like to reach out to discuss accessibility, I'm always up for a chat! Just send a message to firstname.lastname@example.org and start a conversation.