I will be testifying on Dec. 16 in Washington D.C. at a Department of Justice hearing on proposed new ADA regulations to expand accessibility requirements for websites, closed captioning, video description, electronic equipment (ATMs, kiosks, payment terminals) and emergency-notification technology.
I will have five minutes to speak. The following is a written copy of my proposed testimony. I welcome all constructive feedback.
I lost my job two years ago because my employer refused to make critical software accessible to me as a blind person. The resulting economic loss converted me from a contributing, tax-paying member of society earning $33,000 annually to a Social Security beneficiary taking $16,000 each year from the system. I am testifying here today to ask you to take necessary steps that will provide decision makers with the guidance necessary to ensure companies, educational institutions, government agencies and all organizations allow full participation by everyone, including people with disabilities.
I believe that, here in the 21st century, whether or not to be accessible to people with disabilities is largely a choice rather than a matter of technical challenge. Companies like Adobe Systems, Apple and Microsoft provide thousands of hours of audio and video tutorials and many more pages of written documentation covering techniques available for using their technologies to create accessible information and software. Non-profit organizations like the Web Accessibility Initiative and Web Accessibility In Mind, and government agencies like the Access Board also deliver useful assistance for making websites and other technologies accessible. The field of available information on accessibility is expanding every day, so why does most technology continue to lock out people with disabilities? What must be done to incentivize decision makers to drive the move toward universal accessibility and inclusion for everyone?
It’s a sad fact that, while a small number of agencies, companies and organizations voluntarily choose to include people with disabilities by implementing accessibility measures, most choose to continue excluding people with disabilities by failing to consider accessibility in the development of new products and by ignoring requests to phase accessibility into existing products and services. One of the purposes of our government is to ensure equality of opportunity for everybody. In that light, I am asking that the Department of Justice enact expanded ADA regulations that guide decision makers to a time and place where all of us can live, learn and work regardless of our disabilities. In other words, I am asking the Department of Justice to draft regulations that result in the most possible accessibility.
Given the depth and breadth of resources and technologies available today to make Web sites accessible, I ask the Department of Justice to require all entities covered under the ADA, including companies, government agencies and organizations of all sizes, to make their Web information and services accessible to people with disabilities by way of standards such as the Web Accessibility Initiative’s Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) or Section 508. It makes sense to require accessibility for all brand-new websites as soon as they are put online for public consumption and to allow accessibility to be phased in for existing websites, where the costs and time needed are much greater in cases where accessibility was not a consideration at the beginning of the development process. Accessibility is a choice and, given the availability of resources and technology, I do not believe there should be any permitted alternatives to website accessibility.
In the same way people with disabilities need access to software and websites, we must also be granted the opportunity to use equipment and furniture on terms of equality with people who do not have disabilities. Banks like J.P. Morgan Chase and technology leaders like Apple have proven that equipment including ATMs, computers, MP3 players, smart phones and voting machines can be made accessible. As this equipment, and other technologies like point-of-sale terminals, become the default ways of doing business, I am asking that the Department of Justice enact regulations that will result in the full inclusion of people with disabilities through accessibility without delay. As is the case with websites, I believe it is reasonable for brand-new equipment to be accessible at the time it is manufactured and sold and for accessibility to be phased in as old equipment is replaced with new, accessible versions as they are released to the marketplace.
Imagine what would happen if you lost access to your money. How would you react if you were barred from buying groceries because you couldn’t use the payment terminal? How would you feel if you applied for the job of your dreams, only to find out you couldn’t be hired because you were the only employee who wouldn’t be able to use the office copier, the FAX machine or a critical piece of computer software needed in order to carry out the duties?
I hope the answers to these questions will guide the Department of Justice to enact ADA regulations that mandate accessibility for newly manufactured equipment and phase it in for businesses as they replace old equipment with new models.
Finally, what happens to people with disabilities when our lives depend on access to technology in an emergency? Do our lives hold the same value to society and do we have the same right to save our lives as people without disabilities?
Advocates like myself are testing the answers to those questions right now as we try to get Everbridge, a company that provides emergency notification services to universities and other ADA-covered companies and organizations, to make its website accessible to blind people. If a university uses Everbridge to provide emergency notification to its students, faculty and staff, do blind people have the right to receive the same information at the same time? Sadly, thus far, Everbridge has effectively said “no” by completely ignoring the requests of blind people to make its services accessible.
It’s a sad fact that most businesses, government agencies and organizations continue to believe it is acceptable to ignore the accessibility requests of people with disabilities or to pat them on the head and tell them they’ll get around to it one of these days. The Department of Justice can send a clear message through the ADA regulatory process, that the value of people with disabilities is the same as that of people without disabilities and that they deserve the accessibility necessary to enable the full participation only equal opportunity can provide.