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The ADA Enters The Digital Space

2015 is the 25th anniversary of the signing of the ADA. We will be posting 25 posts over the next 12 months which will focus on the ADA- how it has changed society and what still needs to be done. Our goal is to cover for you, dear reader, as many different angles and issues as possible. Below is the second post in our #ADA25For25 series. The first post can be viewed here

Dana Marlowe

(credit: Rebecca Drobis Photography)

By: Dana Marlowe

The Internet allows us all to relive our glory days. If you celebrate Wayback Wednesday, Throwback Thursday or Flashback Friday (with their associated Twitter hashtags, of course), some of the images, videos and memories might time travel you back to 1990.

If that’s a year that’s near and dear to you, perhaps you would fondly remember waiting for an episode of a new cartoon called “The Simpsons,” or maybe you were anticipating the first images to come from the Hubble Telescope. Probably more than you care to admit you were synchronizing hand motions to Madonna’s “Vogue” or jamming to MC Hammer.

But do you remember where you were when President George H.W. Bush signed the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)? That was the equivalent of disability advocacy going quadruple platinum. And it’s still rocking our charts twenty five years later. So strike a pose, because ‘U Can’t Touch This’ blog from taking a ride on a nostalgia rocket.

Writing this from the perspective of an accessible technology company, my favorite flashbacks come not only in music, but in tech products and devices. It’s always entertaining to see the differences between then and now. People ‘back then’ were saving on floppy disks as opposed to the cloud now. They were gaming on MS DOS, not touchscreens on tablets. The World Wide Web was just proposed–HTML then was not as fully developed as it is now. People with disabilities were using human readers to access print content in the 80s and 90s, and now PDFs scan text to access screen reading software. They were calling with TTYs and now text messaging and voice relay is ubiquitous. Look how far we’ve come, both in business and personal advances!

The ADA covers public accommodations, or entities, both public and private, that are used by the public. Used primarily more in the physical sense of physical buildings and services, language from the 90s never fathomed how prevalent and pervasive the Internet would be, nor the supporting technology. All of those places the ADA mentions have websites, yet are those sites covered?

Bill Gates has said that “The Internet is becoming the town square for the global village of tomorrow”, and he’s truly right. The Internet builds upon itself in unfathomable speed and innovation. But if all the architects don’t have a voice, can they get inside a structure that could be laden with barriers? Ironically, also in 1990, Tim Berners-Lee, the father of HTML, published a more formal proposal for the World Wide Web and the first web page is written. You don’t have to believe in coincidences, but websites are as old as the ADA, and the two grew up simultaneously.

I believe that technology is a great unifier. It levels the playing field. Accessibility is the nexus where technology innovation and disability advocacy meet. It’s an incredible union.

The ADA and accessible technology

Dana Marlowe presenting at the “Comics & Medicine Conference” at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine about the intersection of graphics medicine, technology, and accessibility. (credit: Sharon Rosenblatt)

When the ADA was revised in 2010, more attention was placed on accessible design with inclusion of new technologies. Many notices of proposed rulemakings included the Internet as a focus. Yet, as of publication date of this blog, there is no specific published law or section that defines how the ADA is applied to the Internet. Moreover, it doesn’t consider how a person with a disability would access content, especially with their assistive technologies like screen reading software, magnifiers, Braille displays, and more.

The lack of coverage in the ADA hasn’t stopped the fight for access by people with disabilities. In fact, many organizations have been sued for the inaccessibility of their websites under the ADA arguing that the web is a public space. Netflix was sued by the National Association of the Deaf for failure to provide captioning for some streaming content. Companies like the one I work for, Accessibility Partners, help prevent lawsuits proactively by ensuring that accessible solutions are released pre-development and with the input of users with disabilities.

But that Netflix case was almost three years ago. Today, there is a lot of momentum behind making the Internet an inclusionary public space. The Internet is only scratching the surface of what it means to have access to a public space. How do we get to the Internet? The answer is through our devices and hardware technology. Items like smart phones, tablets, kiosks, computers, and more that have broadband capabilities. These devices must factor in accessible design with feedback by users with disabilities. We’ve found that using testers and engineers with varied disabilities not only levels the playing field for technology, but also helps employ those with disabilities. It’s truly a success in multiple categories.

The ADA realizes the necessity of accessible technology for access to the Internet. While on the radar, it is slow moving. For another flashback, in June 2014, they proposed a rule that will address technical standards and obligations of state and local government agencies and public accommodations to make websites accessible.

Mark your calendars! The next regulatory process is scheduled for March 2015. There are already laws that cover government web content, and we are very optimistic that the ADA will be expanded to cover more public spaces. Wishing a very happy twenty-fifth year to this groundbreaking law, but with the caveat to continue helping those with disabilities as you mature.

Like Accessibility Partners on Facebook and engage Dana on Twitter to learn more.

Dana Marlowe is the Principal Partner of Accessibility Partners, L.L.C., an IT consulting firm. Dana works to remove barriers in technology, and to make opportunities available for people with disabilities. Dana partners with Federal Agencies, international organizations, and Fortune 500 businesses to help them create accessibility roadmaps and audit products to make them more usable for everyone.

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