Interview - Electronic barriers to
Name: Cynthia D. Waddell
Publish Date: 08 November 2006
How did you start your activities for fair and equal
treatment of people with disabilities under the law?
As a person with a lifetime hearing loss - who has had years of speech and lip
reading lessons - I first became active in cross-disability issues while I was
studying for my Juris Doctor degree at Santa Clara University School of Law. By
cross-disability, I mean the entire spectrum of disability issues impacting
people with visual, hearing, speech, mental and mobility disabilities. At that
time the ground-breaking Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA) had just
been enacted by Congress. I found that it was not enough to learn about
disability rights laws and how they sought to protect people with disabilities
from discrimination. I wanted to know more- what was the practical application
of these laws in society? What were the real public policy challenges of
government and the private sector in meeting these requirements? Did people
with disabilities really benefit from this effort? Did their quality of life
As a pragmatic person seeking practical solutions, I sought
out venues to learn more and tried to put myself in the position to understand
the challenges.Every employment and volunteer position I have had addresses
civil rights for people with disabilities. When I served as a public interest
scholar at the Employment Law Center, I learned about employment issues and
wrote a training manual for lawyers on how to litigate under the ADA. In my
work as an ADA consultant for higher education, I learned about issues
concerning the built environment, faculty access to the work environment and
student access to learning. This was my training ground for eventually serving
as an ADA compliance officer for local government and as an ADA Mediator for
discrimination complaints filed with the U.S. Department of Justice. At one
time I even held local, county, state and federal appointments — all dealing
with access for people with disabilities! Those appointments provided a
reservoir of information as I worked with and alongside people with
Perhaps my work in ICT became known when I wrote the first
accessible web design standard for a local government. This work was prior to
the W3C Web Accessibility Initiative and was the result of an ADA complaint
filed in my office by a blind city commissioner claiming that she could not
access the content of the City of San Jose website. Since San Jose was known as
the capital of Silicon Valley, it was a serious issue. Her complaint led to a
web design standard that was recognised by the U.S. government as a best
practice and adopted by jurisdictions both here and abroad. From then on, my
work intensified for barrier removal in the built environment as well as barrier
removal in cyberspace and ICT. In fact, the accessible web design standard
contributed to the passage of federal legislation strengthening U.S. procurement
laws and requiring the procurement of ICT products and services designed to be
How do you visualise their problems and how do you
plan for them?
In the field ICT, the best way to understand the problems is to consult the
community of people with disabilities and hear what they have to say. In my
paper, The Growing Digital Divide in Access for People with Disabilities:
Overcoming Barriers to Participation (http://www.icdri.org/CynthiaW/the_digital_divide.htm)
I talk about the ICT barriers experienced by people with disabilities. This
paper was commissioned by the White House through the US Department of Commerce
and the National Science Foundation for the first national conference on the
impact of the digital economy in 1998. First translated in Chinese, the paper
went on to be published by the World Bank/IMF Summit in September 1999 and for
the United Nations Economic Forum in Geneva in June 2000. Still relevant today,
the paper points to standards for the accessible design of ICT and also
discusses open source and the need for accessibility to not be proprietary.
Can you please share in brief the objectives and
activities of your organisation (ICDRI)?
Our overarching vision is the equalisation of opportunities for persons with
disabilities. As an internationally recognised public policy centre organised
by and for people with disabilities, ICDRI seeks to increase opportunities for
people with disabilities by identifying barriers to participation in society and
promoting best practices and universal design for the global community. ICDRI’s
mission includes the collection of a knowledge base of quality disability
resources and best practices and to provide education, outreach and training
based on these core resources. ICDRI makes this information available in an
accessible format through our web site at
http://www.icdri.org. In addition, we provide Accessibility Oversight
Professional Consulting Services for government and private sector clients. Our
clients include U.S. and foreign governments, higher education, major
corporations and the United Nations.
Can you please highlight some of your major
activities for the disabled people which have kept major impact on society and
the people concerned?
ICDRI is active in ICT standards setting activities and sponsored the free
online web accessibility checker and portal, CynthiaSays™. This project was
endorsed by the American Council of the Blind and is a joint education and
outreach project of ICDRI, The Internet Society Disability and Special Needs
Chapter, and HiSoftware. Take a look at
The past several years ICDRI has served as the accessibility
consultant (built environment and ICT) for the United Nations ad hoc committee
that drafted the terms of the international treaty on rights of persons with
Our Accessibility consultancy projects have provided
expertise for the launch of award-winning accessible government Internet
portals; public policy and legislative consultancies for state and federal
governments, Congress, the White House (Clinton and Bush administrations), and
foreign governments; and Section 508 ICT expertise for businesses seeking to
conform their products to U.S. requirements for procurement.
One of our current projects impacts a 23 campus university
system in the State of California. We are providing policy, procurement,
implementation, education and outreach assistance for compliance with a State
Statute that codified Section 508 and the accessibility of ICT.
What are the specific activities of ICDRI solely for
the disabled people?
ICDRI enables people in every country to post best practices resources on our
web site. We also facilitate meetings on public policy such as the Pacific Rim
meeting in Manila, the Philippines on accessible ICT, and the annual
presentations held during the Technology and Persons with Disabilities
International Conference in Los Angeles, California, sponsored by California
State University Northridge (CSUN).
ICDRI also employs people with disabilities for the testing
of ICT products for conformance to the Section 508 U.S. Electronic and
Information Technology Accessibility Standards. (36 CFR Part 1194)
Do you think that ICT can help the differently abled
people to develop themselves?
Unless society removes physical and electronic barriers to participation, people
with disabilities will not be able to participate and society will not benefit
from their diverse contributions.
How can ICT be useful for increasing the efficiency
and ability of differently able people?
It is our experience that when ICT and mainstream technology conforms to
accessibility standards, then we reduce the need for expensive customisation of
products for people with disabilities. We have also learned that a person does
not need to have a disability to benefit from accessible ICT. When it is dark, a
person who cannot see will benefit from a screen reading software that reads the
page out loud. When a person cannot hear because the room is noisy, captioning
of video enables content to be used. When a person cannot even use a keyboard
because their hands are busy, speech input enables access. Or if a person
cannot use a mouse for some reason, keyboard equivalents enable access. The
list goes on. Building universal design into ICT provides the greatest
flexibility and interoperability for everyone.
With your expertise in disability legislation and
technology, which areas do you think that major works need to be initiated for
more success and achievement?
I believe we are at a crossroad where technology and ICT is impacting
our daily life in complex ways and our choices will determine whether or not
everyone will be able to participate. For example, VOIP will be a challenge as
traditional telecommunications blur with the Internet. We need to keep user
functionality at the forefront so that the technology adjusts to user
preferences. Technology standards for accessible design and interoperability
will continue to be critical factors so it is important that the international
dialogue continues to move toward a common standard.
Apart from the organisational activities, what other
activities you are currently associated with?
My current activities include assisting corporations in their ICT product design
cycles for conformance with U.S. Section 508 accessible design requirements. As
discussed earlier, I am also assisting a major university system in their
compliance with a State statute requiring the procurement and development of ICT
conforming to Section 508. This involves the development of policy,
procurement, implementation plans and education and training.
I am also a frequent writer and speaker at many government,
university and industry forums in the U.S. and abroad. For example, this year I
gave a keynote for the National Association of Secretaries of State and provided
an update on the State impact of Section 508 and my work on the accessible
design of electronic voting machines. I also assisted the government of Ontario,
Canada, in their planning for implementation regulations of the Accessibility
for Ontarians with Disabilities Act. And just last year, I gave a keynote at a
side event of the UN World Summit on the Information Society in Tunis, Tunisia.
It was entitled ‘Bridging the Divide: Accessible ICT and Persons with
Disabilities’. Other international activities are discussed at
In the publishing arena, I have just published my second book
as a co-author in July 2006,’Web Accessibility: Web Standards and Regulatory
Compliance’. One of my chapters contains the latest research documenting 26
countries and jurisdictions around the world that have adopted accessible web
design as a policy or law. My first book, Constructing Accessible Web Sites, is
still very popular. For more information, see our website at
What can be the ideal way of helping mentally
handicapped people with the help of ICT?
The ideal way to help people with mental disabilities is to address their needs
on a case by case basis. For example, people with specific learning disabilities
will thrive in education if they have access to screen reading software.
To provide education and professional consulting
services for access to ICT for persons with disabilities in developing
countries, what strategy and policy might be helpful?
Poverty and lack of education and access to the technology itself, is one of the
most significant barriers in developing countries. Cultural barriers are also
an issue in societies where it is not commonplace to see people with
disabilities at work and play and participating in every aspect of society. The
ideal strategy and policy that would be helpful depends on the particular
community and developing country discussed.
How can the policies and strategies be more effective
for the beneficiaries?
No policy or strategy can be effective unless the effort is informed by the
beneficiaries themselves. People with disabilities need to be part of the
decision making and planning effort alongside disability experts or the entire
project will fail
e-Accessbility day: International Day of Disabled Persons, 2006
‘E-Accessibility Day’, International day of disabled persons 2006
observes its theme that falls on 3 December. United Nations with its concerted
efforts and collaborations with like minded organisations aims to raise
awareness among world governments, private bodies and the public on the
significant benefits of access to Information Technologies for persons with
disabilities, to make them self sufficient, confident, emotionally balanced,
economically productive and intellectually transparent in the society.
Information and Communication Technologies have equipped to create opportunities
to everyone in society, No longer do the socio cultural barriers of inaccessible
formats like age, gender, languages, physical borders stand in any way to
participate. Once scaled to the heights to foster every individual choice,
Information and Communication Technologies, for persons with disabilities no
longer remains an hindrance in playing their part to best of their potential in
annual observance aims to promote an understanding of disability issues and
mobilise support for the dignity, rights and well-being of persons with
disabilities. It also seeks to increase awareness of gains to be derived from
the integration of persons with disabilities in every aspect of political,
social, economic and cultural life. The theme of the Day is based on the goal of
full and equal enjoyment of human rights and participation in society by persons
with disabilities, established by the World Programme of Action concerning
Disabled Persons was adopted by the General Assembly in 1982.
• Involve: Observance of the Day provides opportunities for participation by all
interested to focus upon catalytic and innovative measures to further implement
international norms and standards related to persons with disabilities.
• Organise: Hold forums, public discussions and information campaigns in support
of the Day focusing on disability issues and trends as
• Celebrate: Plan and organise performances everywhere the contributions by
persons with disabilities to the societies in which they live and exchanges and
dialogues and aspirations of persons with disabilities.
• Take Action: A major focus of the Day is to translate all the rolling momentum
into practical action to further implement international norms and standards
concerning persons with disabilities and to encourage their participation in
social life and development on the basis of equality.