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Celebrate ADA Anniversary by Tearing Down 'Virtual' Barriers

By Mary Vitcenda, Senior Editor
I recently read an eye-opening article in the Wall Street Journal with an eye-opening headline: "The Challenges of Surfing While Blind." The article was written by DeAnn Elliott, a Boston-based disability advocate who is legally blind. She wasn't writing about surfing on the ocean, though. Instead, she was writing about surfing the Internet.

Elliott no longer sees a computer screen well enough to use a mouse to point and click. Instead, she uses software that reads the screen to her in a voice that she says “sounds like Stephen Hawking's." The software relies on text labels that identify photos and other graphical objects on screen, such as buttons, charts, and maps.

Unfortunately, the map Elliott confronted didn't include any text labels, known as “alt-text” in web speak, that the screen reader could "see." Elliott described the map as a “brick wall,” and wrote that being asked to click on it (instead of choosing her home state from a list) was "akin to being in a wheelchair and encountering a flight of stairs."

Why am I repeating Elliott's story? Because this year is the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which is a good time to think about what disabled people face every day. It's also a good time to think about the ADA's impact.

On one hand, there's much to celebrate. The signs of ADA's impact are everywhere — designated parking spots, wheelchair-accessible public transit, ATMs marked with Braille, blinking fire alarms and phones, widespread closed-captioning — to name a few. All these changes have improved the lives of millions.

On the other hand, problems remain. According to July 2015 figures from the U.S. Department of Labor, workforce participation for people with disabilities was 19.8 percent, compared with 69 percent for people without a disability. Clearly, discrimination in hiring practices persists.

Where FD Can Best Help

Another problem is that, while the ADA has removed many physical barriers for disabled people, too many “virtual” barriers remain. And the virtual world of email, websites, and other forms of electronic communication is where we, the staff and educators of Family Development, can make a significant contribution toward fulfilling the ADA’s mission of enabling disabled people to participate fully in the workforce and their communities.

The ADA challenges us to make the content of electronic communication modes accessible to people of all abilities — modes such as websites and email, and content such as text, images, charts, videos, and audio clips. In FD, we’re already working to improve what we’re calling “virtual accessibility” — things like providing written transcripts for videos and audio clips, as well as closed captions for videos that are proofread by humans, not just generated by voice recognition software.

But we can, and should, do more to ensure virtual accessibility. Fortunately, there are numerous places to go for tools and resources for use in creating accessible electronic content.

We’ll talk about those tools and resources in future columns. For now, we simply ask that you keep accessibility top of mind whenever you create content for electronic delivery and ask FD Project Manager Heather Lee or Web Production Assistant Ruth Ellis for guidance.

It’s also important to remember people like DeAnn Elliott when you're creating electronic content. Then you'll do things like include in your web edits alt-text to an image or graphic or underline hyperlinks so visually impaired and color-blind people will see them (with or without use of adaptive technology).

In these ways, we can build an on ramp, instead of a brick wall, for disabled people who want to access the valuable information and resources offered by Family Development.
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