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 Gettysburg  Section 508 Coordinator Training for Federal IT Accessibility Initiative 

by Cynthia Waddell



It is a pleasure to be with you tonight to share my personal story about why I have been involved with the accessible technology effort and to share with you my perspective of Section 508’s impact on our nation and the global community.

But first I would like to revisit some of the news that came from the White House last week concerning President Clinton’s focus on creating digital opportunity for Americans with disabilities.

Last week, as part of his ongoing initiative to bridge the digital divide, President Clinton announced concrete actions by the Administration, companies, universities and non-profits to help ensure that people with disabilities are full participants in the Information Age.

He expressed five key goals:

1. Increasing the accessibility and usability of existing information and communication products and services for people with disabilities;

2. Improving the state-of-the-art of assistive technology;

3. Ensuring that existing efforts to bridge the digital divide and create digital opportunity are accessible to people with disabilities;

4. Using information technologies to increase employment opportunities for people with disabilities; and

5. Increasing access to technologies for people with disabilities who cannot currently afford it.

President Clinton also announced that 45 leading High-Tech CEO’s, in a letter to the President, have pledged to develop a corporate-wide policy on accessibility within 6 months. Companies signing on include 3Com, Adobe, AOL, AT&T, Bell South, Compaq, eBay, Global Crossing, Handspring, Hewlett-Packard, Macromedia, Microsoft, NCR, People PC, Qualcomm, Red Hat, & Sun Microsystems.

These corporate policies will include “best practices” such as

  • Training their workers to develop accessible products & services;
  • Giving their developers adequate resources to design accessible products & services;
  • Identifying & fixing accessibility problems in new versions of their hardware & software and
  • Supporting research and development to improve the state-of-the-art of assistive technology.

In addition, in a letter to President Clinton, Presidents of 25 of the nation’s top research universities have agreed to expand research and education on accessibility.

Universities, including University of California, University of Michigan, MIT, have agreed to take a number of important steps to expand research and education on accessibility, including

  • ensuring that computer scientists & engineers receive training on accessibility
  • expanding the number of faculty who conduct research on accessibility
  • and ensuring that university on-line resources are accessible to people with disabilities.

For example, the College of Engineering of the University of Wisconsin will create a new educational program on design and human disability that will involve the creation of additional tenure track faculty positions.

Among the many other commitments from government and the private sector announced by President Clinton came the announcement that The Mott Foundation will be establishing a Task Force on Equal Access to Technology and Opportunity to develop policy recommendations for expanding access to assistive technologies.

This is my first opportunity in a public setting to say that it is privilege to be called to serve on this task force and that I am certainly looking forward to working with the members of the task force as we move ahead.

So here we are tonight - preparing for the implementation of Section 508 where you will be on the front lines.

Today the US has reached a significant crossroad where our policies, technology and purchasing choices will determine whether or not every person will participate in the digital economy.

Section 508 will serve to lessen the impact of the barriers being erected by the explosive growth of electronic commerce. Section 508 will play a significant role in the paradigm shift from using the web to post information to using the web for dynamic web-based applications.

Moreover, Section 508 is driving a fundamental shift in the design of information technology where functionality and its benefits once restricted to assistive computer technology is now being mainstreamed to enable a multi-modality architecture. Already, a number of states & counties are moving forward to establish statewide accessible IT architectures.

And lastly, our national information technology and research agenda is aligning with civil rights laws - fueling the expansion of technological innovations and creativity.

I cannot help but compare this time to when the Americans with Disabilities Act was passed 10 years ago.

The words of Representative Hoyer from the ADA debate on Capitol Hill are fresh on my mind (136 Cong Rec. H2426 daily ed. May 17, 1990):

“Imagine living in a world where every curb is a barrier; where nearly every telephone is useless and where most stores and businesses are unavailable to you. Where you and your family’s tax dollars go to fund buses you cannot use, trains you cannot ride on, Government programs you cannot get to and jobs you cannot have.

“A world where you want to be included just like all your friends and relatives. Where you are frustrated at receiving a check from the Government every month, a check that effectively serves as compensation for all this discrimination. And where you want desperately to challenge your mind and your body in the day-to-day world of work and in the world at large that everyone takes for granted.

“That is the world of most Americans with disabilities. A world they want to participate in, but one in which the barriers-some physical, others barriers of the mind-prevent them from joining.”

Reading this statement tonight reminds all of us that it frequently did not occur to people as why there were no people with mobility disabilities in inaccessible buildings. And perhaps some of you here today remember the attitudes that prevailed. People would say, “Why should we remove barriers in construction -- I don’t see anyone needing access?”

Likewise, today we are seeing a new set of myths and stereotypes about people with disabilities in cyberspace. Just as architects had to learn how to design accessible buildings, web designers and IT architects will have to learn how to build accessible web sites and IT system designs.

Or perhaps you remember when people thought that it would be unsafe to allow people with disabilities on an elevator. People would say, “What would happen if there was a fire? I’m sure you can think of other attitudinal barriers and perhaps may be thinking, “How would a blind person even get on the web?” Section 508 addresses this question.

Looking back, also remember how even our language was ill-informed. We spoke of people who were confined to a wheelchair, cripple, defective. Today we speak of the person first, and the disability second - a person with a disability - a person who uses a wheelchair - a person who is deaf or hard of hearing.

When I was a child, it was common to hear grown-ups refer to me as “deaf and dumb.” I did not start to speak until age 5 and at that time my Kindergarten teacher referred my parents to doctors. It was thought that I would never learn to speak or go to college and that I should go to deaf school and learn to sign.

However, my parents found a doctor in Los Angeles who fitted me with hearing aids and believed that my residual hearing was enough for me to be mainstreamed in school (and this was before mainstreaming as we know it.) But it meant that I had to have speech and lip reading lessons after school for years and years before I could even get to my homework. I was a determined kid - because I went on to college as an “A” student and eventually graduated from law school.

Today I serve as the Disability Access Coordinator for the City of San Jose - responsible for citywide compliance with state and federal disability access laws. So tonight, let me take you back in Internet pioneering time to 1995 and the Wild Wild West -- where there were no laws and every frontier web site was on its own.

As the Americans with Disabilities Act Coordinator, I received an ADA administrative complaint against the City of San Jose by a blind City Commissioner. The Commissioner complained that she was unable to access City Council documents as part of her work in advising City Council because the documents were posted in an inaccessible format, ie. portable document format (pdf).

As I researched the problem, I found that I, too was a stakeholder, given that I needed captioning to understand webcasts and audiostreaming. It simply was impossible to lip-read a videoclip on the net.

By June 1996, the City of San Jose Accessible Web Design Standard was launched. In trying to explain the accessible web standard I wrote, you would hear me say, “Just as curbcuts enable people using wheelchairs to navigate our City streets, “electronic curbcuts” enable people with disabilities to navigate our web site.

Before I knew it, USGSA recognized it as a best practice and invited us to participate in the January 1997 Presidential Inaugural Technology Tent on the Mall. Shortly thereafter our accessible web design standard was recognized as a best practice by the CA League of Cities and adopted by a number of jurisdictions worldwide. And this was prior to the launch of the W3C Web Accessibility Initiative.

And so tonight I am going to share something that has never been said in public. At the same time that we accepted participation in the President’s Inauguration, our IT director declared that he was going to pull the entire City of San Jose web site off the net because he did not have the funding to continue our web site. Well, once City Hall learned that we were invited to participate in the Inauguration precisely because of our accessible web standard, you can imagine how quickly funding was located to keep our web site up. And that is the story about how the accessible web standard kept our City’s web presence alive. After all, we are the Capitol of Silicon Valley.

And so fast forward to 1999, when President Clinton convened the first national conference on the impact of the Digital Economy where my paper was commissioned. It is entitled, “The Growing Digital Divide in Access for People with Disabilities: Overcoming Barriers to Participation.” (See “Papers” at http://www.icdri.org/cynthia_waddell.htm)

My paper is not about the Digital Divide and those who “have and have not” and is to be distinguished from the other US Department of Commerce Report, “Falling through the Net: Defining the Digital Divide.” It is the sole conference paper about those who “can and cannot” - the impact of the digital economy on the community of people with disabilities.

For the first time it was clear that significant barriers were emerging throughout our technology systems and that there were significant business case reasons for why accessible technology was needed.

Fortunately, a closer look at the design features of accessible technology reveals that the benefits extend beyond the community of people with disabilities.

For example, accessible web design enables the very functionality needed for a diverse community to conduct dynamic, web-based transactions - whether or not it is for business or government transactions, voting or long-distance learning.

In addition, CD and videotapes can be archived through captioning and electronic textbooks can be made accessible.

Even illiterate populations can access the web by listening to screen readers audibly reading the text on the web page.

But perhaps the most significant benefit for the global economy is the fact that accessible web design enables low technology to access high technology; thereby contributing to a stable, sustainable electronic infrastructure.

People with slow modems and low bandwidth can access the electronic content of the web even if they do not have the state-of-the-art computer equipment. Likewise, people with personal digital assistants and cell phones can access the content of web sites incorporating accessible web design features.

Therefore, it is not surprising that a growing number of governments around the world have adopted accessible web standards to ensure participation in the global economy.

Some of the barriers discussed in my paper include: web-based transactions, long-distance learning, electronic textbooks, internet kiosks, internet voting, inaccessible system design, internet service providers, smart cards and even household appliances.

The paper struck a cord in the global community. Soon thereafter it was republished by the World Economic Development Congress in 9/99 for the World Bank/IMF Summit and then last June in the Official Business Briefings for the United Nations Forum on Electronic Commerce held in Geneva.

It is now undergoing numerous foreign language translations and is being cited by governmental entities around the world. All because a City of San Jose ADA compliance officer acted on a complaint from a blind citizen asking for equal access.

As I mentioned, governments worldwide are adopting accessible technology requirements: Australia, Canada, Denmark, France, Ireland, Japan, Portugal, and the UK to name a few.

And in May 2000 the European Commission in endorsed the W3C Web Content Accessibility Guidelines for its member states.

Yes, the fact that the United States is moving forward with Section 508 is already having an enormous impact and the rule is not even out yet!

As we all know, a lot of work remains to be done as we move forward in the implementation of Section 508. Some of the challenges ahead include:

  • Improving the agency-wide survey and self-evaluations of our IT
  • Addressing the Digital Signature law and the problems associated with ensuring that contract formation on the web is accessible;
  • Tackling open standards and interoperability issues - including Instant Messaging
  • and Preventing the proprietary extension of accessible IT standards.

As I said in my Growing Digital Divide paper, “Technology changes, but civil rights do not.”

In closing, amidst all the technical and legal maze of requirements, standards and guidelines, it is important to keep one thing clear:

Accessibility provides opportunities for governments to provide services to the widest audience and the most employees, to the greatest extent possible, in ways that have been inconceivable until now.

The benefits- economic, political and ethical- far outweigh the cost of this effort. The cost of being inaccessible - missing the boat on the coming age of thin clients, failing to serve your most needful citizens and employees, and legal liability - can be incalculable.

This millennium offers unprecedented opportunities for efficient, effective governance. Your role in the Section 508 effort means that the US will lead the global community in closing the digital divide. Let’s be on the right side of the digital divide.

Thank you.


Copyright © 2000 Cynthia Waddell



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