Growing up in Australia as a legally blind person has been an unexpected combination of challenging scenarios, a strong sense of determination and joy all rolled into one. This may seem like a strange combination but a lot has been possible thanks to the support of family and friends, the pursuit of education and a stubborn streak that has always included a fierce sense of social justice and independence. Yet through it all, the evolution of technology and the pursuit of accessibility has been there to support me.
My passion for technology started as a child with a games console and moved into computing with my beloved Commodore 128D computer in high school. As I undertook Computer Science studies at university in the 1990s the Internet became more commonplace. At this time, it was rapidly becoming apparent to me that this was an extremely powerful medium. You could potentially work from anywhere, customise the computer in the way that worked best for you, and achieve true independence.
Fast forward to today and there’s a lot on offer for people with disability: mainstream computer and mobile devices have great accessibility features in them, and the web is increasingly becoming accessible thanks to the work of great guidance such as the world standard in the W3C Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG).
However, issues still remain and for people with disability their impact can mean the difference between participation or exclusion, success or failure. To share an experience of my own, A few years ago I started work on a research project with two prominent academics. The project started well, based on an idea I had relating to research into the accessibility of the Internet of Things. The two academics agreed to host and participate in the project if I could source funding, which happily was achieved through a successful grant. However, it became apparent immediately that the ethics submission system at the university was completely inaccessible for me as it was not built to the WCAG standard. This led to the project lead, who was also head of the department, agreeing to do the ethics submission instead. However, I was still required to do the ethics training.
What followed became the most challenging accessibity experience of my career. The department head didn’t have much time for the project, meaning the ethics was submitted late resulting in a late approval. The training was also inaccessible resulting in a lot of time being spent chasing up web developers and equity staff to sit the test by an alternative method due to the developers deciding after several months that it would be too costly to fix the website.
Although I managed to complete a full first draft of the project unpaid beyond my contract, the academics wanted changes. When I enquired as to how I could maintain my access to library facilities as an unpaid volunteer, it started a chain reaction whereby I was removed from the project as it turned out the academics had breached university policy when they required me to work unpaid. The academics then took my work and wrote a new report based on my work without authorship. I lodged a complaint as it seemed clear there were several breaches in university policy, but I was unsuccessful although my draft did receive academic recognition in the end thanks to the support of others who recognised what had happened.
The reason I mention this story in the context of Global Accessibility Awareness Day is because in order for people with disability to receive all the benefits the internet can provide, we need to not only focus on accessibility as an action, but also ensure that global policy and legislative frameworks have the abiity to support it. Here in Australia, this means fixing the Disability Discrimination Act 1992 so that it is the organisation, not the person complaining that has to show their content is compliant to accessibility standards. Some have argued that there’s great policy that provides support to the DDA in this space, but the reality is it doesn’t work; In my case, the university has great policy on digital access, but due to the ineffectiveness of the DDA there is no consequence if it is not followed. At this time of writing the issues have not being fixed meaning that if a blind person today were to undertake the same tasks at the university, they would end up facing the same issues and face the same outcomes.
While there are always challenges and battles to be fought as a person with disability, it’s important to return to the word ‘joy’. Thanks to the accessibility features on my computer and mobile phone, I can independently participate in online meetings, enjoy my favourite TV shows, catch up with my interest and hobbies and importantly actively work in the field despite the accessibility challenges that pop up. Indeed, this year has seen unprecedented opportunities for people with disability to participate in education and employment due to courses and working from home opportunities rapidly expanding as a result of the Coronavirus pandemic in fields that were considered impossible to participate in online just a few short months ago. If we don’t forget about accessibility in the scramble to get online, GAAD 2020 may mark the start of improved accommodations for the working environments and assistive technology support to improve employment opportunities: again, assuming we don’t forget digital access in the rush.
With that in mind, it’s also important to recognise that while accessibility challenges do happen – and we need to be vigilant in calling them out, win or lose – there’s also an amazing community of supporters that are passionate in this space who have dedicated their lives and careers to making accessibility happen. As such, there’s lots of passion out there to make improvements if we as a global community create the opportunities for improvement.
So on this Global Accessibility Awareness Day, let’s continue to work together to make the web as good as it can be, and offer thanks to everyone committed to the the pursuit of digital inclusion.