Design for All - The Need for Legislation
Comments by Cynthia D. Waddell, JD
International Center for Disability Resources on the Internet
Ciber Accessibility Center of Excellence
Madame Clotuche, representatives of the European Commission and the European Disability Forum, Members of the European Parliament, and participants in the disability rights movement -
It is indeed a pleasure to be here today to participate in this Roundtable. It is exciting to be in Brussels to celebrate with you European Day of Disabled People. Recently in the U.S. we celebrated the tenth anniversary of the passage of that landmark civil rights legislation, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). When former President Bush signed the ADA it marked a watershed moment: now persons with disabilities would have access to facilities, programs, services and employment just like any other person. A new era of opportunities for all has truly begun, but all things did not magically change with the stroke of the President’s pen.
The past ten years have been a time of hard work to ensure that the ADA would be implemented in full - educating, lobbying, dialoging and cooperating with members of the disability community, government and businesses. You see, legislation does not mean that the work is done and now we can stand still - once the legislation is in place, then the real work begins!
The most important principle of the ADA is that in order for the quality of life to be improved, implementation requires that the community of people with disabilities be consulted. One of the first significant impacts was the establishment of a building code that specifies the accessible elements for designing buildings, public pathways and car parks. Members of the construction industry, building code societies and disability organizations came to the table to draft this important regulation after the ADA was enacted. I recall that at that time it frequently did not occur to people as to why there were no people with mobility disabilities in inaccessible buildings. People would say, “Why should we remove barriers in construction? I don’t see anyone needing access!” And the same comments were heard in regards to transportation. I frankly do not understand why some thought that people with disabilities would not need to enter buildings or use transportation.
Another significant impact of the ADA has been the use of technology in the workplace. Technology has enabled people with disabilities to demonstrate their ability to perform the job -leading many to become independent and self-reliant. Wonderful technologies emerged to enable the blind community to use robust word processing programs without the aid of a personal reader and to surf the World Wide Web. The deaf community could now telephone the hearing community and access television and videotapes through captioning. Text to speech technologies became available to people with mobility disabilities and the examples go on and on.
I believe the ADA opened the door to understanding that the benefits of universal design extended beyond the community of people with disabilities. In fact, a fundamental shift in the design of information technology occurred. Functionality and its benefits once restricted to assistive computer technology began to be mainstreamed to the general public.
But as technology advanced, we began to see persons with disabilities being bumped out of their jobs in the workplace due to “upgrades” in computer systems. Or software compatibility and interoperability problems began to undermine the very assistive technology that people with disabilities were using to perform their job.
At the same time, the World Wide Web was evolving from a text-based environment to a robust, multi-media environment, and persons with visual disabilities were finding out that they could no longer rely on their assistive technology to access the World Wide Web. People would say, “Why would the blind want to surf the web?” And others believing that connectivity was the problem, rather than the accessible design of the website, would say, “Hey they are connected, aren’t they? Why don’t they have access?”
Even the growing use of audio-streaming and webcasts was causing people with hearing loss to be locked out due to the absence of captioning on the web. This was a personal issue for me because as a person with hearing loss, it is simply impossible to lip-read audio on the web. Although I managed the problem by writing the first accessible web design standard for local government, more was needed. As technology advanced, there needed to be additional incentives for the business community to consult the disability community.
Accessible Design - Section 508
Understanding that technology was becoming integral to our quality of life, former President Clinton signed the 1998 Amendments to the Rehabilitation Act - Also known as Section 508. This new legislation became effective in June of this year and it is what I call the “ADA of Cyberspace.”
For the first time in U.S. history, we have legislation requiring functionality in the design of our electronic and information technology including hardware, software, operating systems, web-based intranet and internet information and applications, telecommunications products, video and multimedia products and self-contained products such as fax machines, copiers, hand-helds and kiosks.
As the world’s largest consumer of electronic and information technology, our federal government is required to use the power of the purse to push the electronic and information technology industries to design accessible products. All vendors, whether they be U.S. or foreign, must design for all if they want to participate in the federal government market. A marketplace incentive has now been created to design for accessibility since 1) the federal government must procure products meeting the Electronic and Information Technology Accessibility Standards [36 CFR Part 1194] and 2) a vendor can challenge and ultimately void a government contract award to another vendor if they can prove that their product is more accessible. There is now an added economic benefit for devoting research and development to design for all. In addition, a growing number of State governments are adopting Section 508 since they also want their products and services to reach the widest possible audience.
The information technology industry is now ensuring that design for all expertise is part of their organization and people with disabilities are being consulted. It has been exciting to move from government service to the business sector and to be one of the founders of Ciber’s Accessibility Center of Excellence. Working with business and government to provide education, training, assessment and remediation of their products and web services has been both a thrilling and challenging time.
This is true for my own State of California, where our team was engaged by the Governor’s Office to provide accessibility oversight in the build-out of the new California web portal. It was a pleasure to educate the web developer on accessible design as we worked through the website templates and accessibility checkpoint reviews. Because the State of California is the birthplace of the U.S. disability rights movement, all of us at the Accessibility Center of Excellence were pleased to be part of the accessible eGovernment effort.
In conclusion, it is clear that only through this collaborative effort, will we succeed in implementation. Our national information technology and research agenda is aligning with civil rights laws; fueling the expansion of technological innovations and creativity. What better way than to come together and “Design for All?”
Copyright © 1998