Global Accessibility Awareness Day 2019

What Accessibility Really Means

For the past eight years, the third Thursday of May has marked Global Accessibility Awareness Day. Started by Joe Devon, GAAD is targeted towards “the design, development, usability, and related communities who build, shape, fund and influence technology and its use.”

From GAAD: “The purpose of GAAD is to get everyone talking, thinking and learning about digital (web, software, mobile, etc.) access/inclusion and people with different disabilities.”

By its very nature, this lends itself to a conversation primarily about accessibility for those who are blind/visually impaired or deaf/hearing impaired. I can say that over the past ten years I’ve seen the impact digital technology has had for those who are blind—my husband is blind and uses technology every single day for all kinds of things. Being married to a blind person, though, I’m also very aware of the fact that there are so many improvements that still need to be made, some of which are really quite simple (like properly labeling menu items on websites and applications and using alt text correctly).

The thing is, though, disability goes beyond being blind or deaf. Some common disabilities that most of us encounter on a day-to-day basis are:

  • Blind/vision impaired
  • Deaf/hard of hearing
  • Mental health conditions
  • Intellectual disabilities
  • Acquired brain injuries
  • Autism Spectrum Disorder
  • Physical disabilities

The awesome thing is that when we create technology with accessibility in mind, we can do some really great things. The other awesome thing is that those who are differently abled are sometimes responsible for finding new ways and reasons for using digital technologies, or for forcing change.

So how do those in the broad disability community use technology?

I’ll start with my husband, Phillip, since it’s the easiest example for me to run with. He’s used a computer with a screen reader since he was a kid (he is part of the fewer than 10% of blind Americans who can read Braille, but if you’ve ever seen a Braille book you understand why digital is preferable). He uses his iPhone and iPad and the built-in VoiceOver screen reader on a daily basis. There are a decent number of apps he can’t use because they haven’t been programmed with accessibility in mind, some that are somewhat functional, and others that are really good. But his Kindle app allows him to read books digitally, opening up pretty much an entire world of reading to him (prior to the Kindle app being made accessible he would buy physical books, scan them in, and then read them on his computer via an OCR reader—which was a pain).

We have Sonos speakers that are Alexa-enabled, so he can just ask Alexa for a weather report from our personal weather station, or to play the Texas Rangers on SiriusXM. We have a Nest thermostat, so he can control that via his iPhone rather than being dependent upon me to do it (which is handy because I’m not always home). There are apps that he can use to scan barcodes on food labels that will tell him the cooking instructions for that particular item, apps that tell him what color something is, or that use artificial intelligence to tell him what he’s looking at (although for some reason said AI keeps getting dogs and cats confused, so clearly there’s some work to be done there). He’s also a kidney transplant recipient, which means he has to monitor certain health vital signs on a daily basis (this is to check for rejection of the kidney). For that, he has a talking blood pressure monitor, a bluetooth scale (with its own app), and a bluetooth thermometer (also with its own app), and all of that data is put into a spreadsheet so that we can easily share it with his medical team. And honestly, that’s just the tip of the iceberg of how we use assistive technology in our household.

Assistive technology not only helps the blind, but it also helps those with physical disabilities. From disabled veterans with severe spinal cord injuries to adaptive game controllers that let anyone play video games, accessibility obviously doesn’t just apply to those who are blind.

There’s even a whole mess of assistive technology for kids with Autism Spectrum Disorder, along with a decent amount of research about how assistive technology can help support autistic children at school and in life. There are also a decent amount of apps out there for autistic kids. Unfortunately, most autism apps are geared towards children or their parents, leaving autistic adults kind of out in the cold. But adult Aspies, especially, have found ways to make digital technologies work for them. From list and organization apps, Amazon Echo devices, pill reminder apps, and chore gamification apps, adult Aspies have found ways to use apps to help with organization and executive functioning skills. Coloring apps? Great for stimming. Online counseling apps can be fantastic for when you’re in full shutdown or meltdown mode and the mere thought of leaving the house only makes things worse. And the ability to shop anywhere, at any time, and even order groceries from an app on your phone and pick them up without ever having to go into the store is huge for a lot of ASD adults (stores can be really overstimulating with their fluorescent lights, cacophony of sounds, hundreds of visual inputs, and too many people).

Basically, there are two sides to the accessibility coin: making sure that technology is accessible to all, but also the utilization of technology to make the world accessible in ways that it otherwise wouldn’t have been. Sometimes accessibility is intentional, and sometimes it’s unintentional. At its very core, though, accessibility should be baked into everything we create digitally. Not only is it a best practice and good for business, it’s basic human decency.