Communication Technology Opens ‘Doors’ for Everyone, Not Only People With Disabilities

By John D. Kemp and Brandon M. Macsata
The Hill October 13, 2014

Today, most Americans overlook improvements made since the dawn of the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) in 1990.

Sidewalk ramps automatic door openers adjustable vanity mirrors and automatic lighting and fixture
controls were all designed to help make the “physical” world more accessible for and useable by all people, including individuals with disabilities. Now, isn’t it time we opened doors to the “virtual” world, and information and communication
technology (“ICT”)?

Since 1998, federal agencies have been required by law to make their electronic ICT accessible to people with disabilities. Better known as “Section 508” (of the Rehabilitation Act), it mandates “individuals with disabilities who are Federal employees to have access to and use of information and data that is
comparable to the access to and use of the information and data by Federal employees who are not individuals with disabilities.” [1]

Accessible ICT is an evolving process, evidenced by the United States Access Board, which monitors Section 508 compliance,
updating its standards, as well as other telecommunications
accessibility guidelines. The House Oversight and Government Reform Chairman, Darrell Issa, has introduced legislation calling for the designation of the Chief Information Officers (CIOs) in all federal Departments, including significant changes to the management of information technology. This legislation passed the House of Representatives by voice vote, with similar legislation pending in the Senate.

Congress is currently faced with countless legislative proposals focusing on IT, ranging from healthcare, Veterans benefits, telecommunications and education, to name a few. But
more needs to be done in both the public and private sectors.

Wall Street and Main Street are both being re-defined by technology. The potential for our emerging “digital economy” is endless, if that technology is made more accessible.

Consider this: CTIA recently reported that the mobile data
traffic more than doubled last year! [2] We know that people with disabilities are yearning to leverage accessible technologies in their everyday lives.

Whereas there have been many improvements in accessibility
features on smart phones and mobile devices, there is still a long way to go. A recent report, authored by Nirmita Narasimhan, Program Manager at the Centre for Internet and Society (CIS), and
Axel Leblois, founder and Executive Director of G3ict, summarized the challenge:

“Senior citizens and people with physical or mental disabilities are often unable to access mobile phones because the equipment lacks the necessary accessibility features or because
the price of the adapted phones and services remain unaffordable.

Considering that 15 per cent of the world’s population, or over one billion people, have a disability that affects their access to modern communications, the commercial opportunities for mobile service providers, manufacturers and smart phone application developers are consequently substantial.” With so much of our daily lives dependent on mobile devices and the Internet, it is time that we ushered in an “accessible technology renaissance.

Aside from being the “socially responsible” thing to do, it
also makes good business sense!

In the first quarter of 2013, e-commerce
expenditures reached 50.18 billion U.S. dollarsdd[4]
Worldwide, it is estimated that the total value of e-commerce revenue topped $1.2 trillion in U.S. dollarsdd[5] Maybe the more pertinent question to ask is, “How can we NOT afford to make ICT
more accessible for people with disabilities?”

Ironically, despite its increasing relevance in our everyday lives, the World Wide Web is largely inaccessible for people with disabilities. Many websites are lacking “ALT Tags,” which are
designed to help screen readers used by people who are blind or visually impaired identify and explain images, graphs and charts. Yet, missing ALT Tags are only the tip of the iceberg.

Last year, Walmart had over 59 million unique monthly visitors to its websites. As large as that number may seem, it pales in comparison to Amazon and Ebay, with 149 million and 91 million
monthly unique visitors, respectively (6] These companies, and many more – such as Deque, IBM and Microsoft – are investing in accessible ICT because they understand its inherent business and social value.

Ironically, just as people without disabilities benefit from physical accessibility improvements, they are already benefitting from accessible ICT. According to the UK Office of
Communications (Ofcom), 80 percent of people using closed
captions are not deaf or hard of hearingdd[7]

What is accessible technology renaissance? It is one whereby we envision every single individual, regardless of disability, can fully access the modern marvels of technology. Technology is what drives our economy. Technology is what links our
communities. Technology is what keeps us connected to the world around us. That is why it should be accessible to everyone.

Kemp is president and CEO of The Viscardi Center, and Macsata is general consultant of the National Business and Disability Council (NBDC) at The Viscardi Center.

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