Many are just learning about digital accessibility — designing and programming in ways that ensure disabled users can access technology. That fact is, however, accessibility is not new; teams just haven’t been implementing it until now.

In a recent viral TikTok video, Grace (who is blind) showed off using the BrailleNote Touch device — a refreshable Braille display for typing and reading content using Braille characters. The video was quite informative but the reactions and comments were unexpected. Many people found the technology fascinating and an amazing new innovation. In reality, however, refreshable Braille displays have been available in the U.S. since 1982 (source: the National Federation of the Blind).

See my “Intro to Web Accessibility” video for more on assistive technology.

Why were so many people astounded by this technology? Why is it news that Grace and other blind folks can leverage assistive devices and settings to use computing devices?

One of the main reasons is because disability is often invisible to us unless it directly affects us or our close companions. Even when people work in technology, they are often still unaware of “assistive technology” – the settings, tools, and techniques employed by disabled users to accomplish tasks including on the computer.

A main root cause for this invisibility is a societal ill called “ableism”. At a very high level, ableism is the discriminatory viewpoint that disabled people have less to offer and are less valuable (and thus less valued) than non-disabled people.

Consider these scenarios and see if you can relate:

  • People rarely acknowledge disability in their day-to-day encounters, even when explicitly considering Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) topics. For instance, people often only consider accessible meetings and conferences if a vocal disabled person is part of the group and advocates for themselves.
  • People accept disability may bring challenges but shun the adjustments and accommodations needed to be inclusive. For instance, a teacher may understand that Dyslexia makes it harder to read but think giving a Dyslexic student more time on tests is an unfair advantage.
  • People may be aware of what’s needed for access but consider the needs “features” or “requests”. For instance, a company may push captioning functionality of an audio feature to a later release rather than putting it in the initial launch.
  • People create and share “inspirational” videos of disabled people but never look at the subjects as “aspirational”. For instance, a disabled child will struggle to take a few steps (when otherwise that child should use a mobility aid), and people will get emotional about the triumph but pity the overall condition of the child. Additionally, they won’t realize that celebrating someone not using a mobility aid is harmful and further perpetuates putting disability in a negative light.

People also tend to create false narratives that disabled people aren’t a large user group or a group that participates in their areas of focus. The actual narrative is that disability is present in a significant portion of our population, and instead we consistently exclude people with our actions such that they can’t equally participate.

As a result of being invisible, disabled people are not considered in how we build out experiences nor are their access needs taught in classrooms. The leads to outcomes such as 98% of the Web’s top home pages having fixable, preventable accessibility errors (see the WebAIM Million Report). People don’t realize the part they play in creating access.

So, what actions can people take to overcome this?

  • Learn: Take time to learn the accessibility standards for your field and decide to adhere to them.
  • Advocate: Bring attention to the cause of accessibility in your school and work environments. Don’t leave this to disabled colleagues.
  • Implement: Change your habits when producing content to ensure you are demonstrating accessibility in what you do.

Below are several resources to educate and get you started. Small steps can have big impact.

Resources

The following resources will help on your journey to learning more about accessibility.

Digital Accessibility

Documents

Conference & Groups

Ableism

Disability Media

Feature photo credit: Disability:IN

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