Digital Accessibility Is More Than Just Checking off a Box

I’ve been writing about Digital Accessibility for over ten years. The content is often rather technical, focused on definitions, technical requirements, and court rulings related to accessibility lawsuits. For Global Accessibility Awareness Day 2021 I wanted to do something different. But first, a little on the motivation for the post.

Today is the tenth annual Global Accessibility Awareness Day (GAAD), recognized each year on the third Thursday of May. The hope is that if enough people promote the concepts of digital accessibility, more people who control and specify digital systems, especially websites, will opt to invest the time and money to build, and maintain systems such that people who rely on assistive technology (such as screen readers) can successfully, or even better easily, interact with those digital systems.

Too often discussions on digital accessibility–either at conferences or to clients and prospects–focus too much on technical and legal requirements. Digital accessibility then devolves into whether or not the project needs to, and eventually succeeds in marking the “site is accessible” checkbox.

On the subject of “checkboxes,” I ran into this video while scrolling through my Facebook feed last night. While it only touches briefly on digital accessibility (the narrator shows the effort needed to order her favorite coffee beverage), it is a reminder of the challenges people with vision-related disabilities experience every day and a reminder that they aren’t “checkboxes.” They are people, and they both need, and deserve our help.

So, what often gets lost in website planning discussions is that we are not building accessible systems for the “checkboxes,” we are building them for people. We want to help people who rely on assistive technology to have a less frustrating experience interacting with technology. Building accessible systems is more than just making it easier for a blind person to order a pizza. It is about empowerment and independence.

A sobering statistic is 19.3% of disabled people are employed, vs 66.3% for people without disabilities, according to a 2020 report from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. In this digital age and service-based economy, one of the greatest barriers to employment for the visually impaired is inaccessible computer systems. These range from tools necessary to perform jobs, to company intranets, and even employment application systems. At the most basic, you can’t get a job if you can’t even apply for one.

Despite being an evangelist for digital accessibility for over ten years, one of my great professional experiences was meeting John Samuel, the Chief Innovation Architect at LCI Tech. John, who is visually impared himself, leads a team of accessibility consultants, working with clients to improve digital systems for the ultimate goal of improving employment opportunities for visually-impaired people. In this WRAL TechWire article, John challenged those of us who have full vision to spend time navigating technology as if we had with low or no vision.

I was taken aback when John thanked me for my efforts promoting digital accessibility, despite not having a direct or personal connection to anyone with a visual disability. It all comes down to remembering: we aren’t doing accessibility to check a box, but to help people be more independent.

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