Having trouble hiring skilled technology workers? What would you say if you knew there was a huge untapped pool of workers who were readily available but overlooked?
That underutilized group? It’s the blind.
You might assume that visually impaired people, particularly in this day and age of touchscreens and mobile phones, couldn’t manage computers. But adaptive technologies such as Google Glass, screen readers that enable the blind to use touchscreens, the Internet of Things, and Braille smartwatches are making it easier than ever for the blind to navigate the everyday world—and the work world.
This was supposed to have been helped by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Intended to make it easier for the disabled to manage independently, it celebrated its 25th anniversary earlier this year. But more work is needed.
Because the ADA was written before the popularization of the Internet, it can’t be used to help promote online inclusion for the blind, writes Mark Riccobono, president of the National Federation of the Blind. “Blind people can access computer software, websites, and mobile applications using technologies such as text-to-speech engines and electronic Braille displays,” he writes. “But these tools only work well when electronic information and technology are designed to be compatible with them. Every day, most blind people, and many others with disabilities, encounter barriers to performing otherwise routine tasks, such as paying bills or booking a flight. At best, these barriers are merely frustrating—at worst, they can lead to loss of productivity, educational opportunity, or employment.”
For example, a recent study by Jonathan Lazar, professor of computer and information sciences at Towson University, found that only 28 percent of blind applicants were able to complete online job applications because many of the sites in the study didn’t use standards of accessible Web design, writes Tori Ekstrand in Slate. Social media sites are also among the offenders.
This lack of support also becomes a demographic issue with the aging population. According to the American Federation for the Blind, by 2030, rates of vision loss is expected to double along with the country’s aging population. In fact, according to the National Council on Disability, about 25 percent of people will acquire a disability at some point in their lives, Ekstrand writes
The Justice Department has been expected to advance rulemaking on Web accessibility for all websites under the ADA, Ekstrand writes. “The DOJ has publicly stated that it views the Internet as a ‘place of public accommodation,’” he notes, adding that in the past year and a half, the DOJ has filed statements of interest in accessibility lawsuits regarding private websites. On the other hand, since 1990, appeals courts have been divided as to whether the ADA applies to the Internet, he writes.
Currently, accessibility standards are only in place for government-run and government-funded sites under Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act, Ekstrand writes, noting that revised standards are set to take effect later this year.
The White House is also working on extending the ADA to the Internet, writes Alex Howard in the Huffington Post—a development any organization with user-facing websites should be aware of. “When it does, watch out,” he warns. “There are a breathtaking number of websites and Web services that could be deemed to provide ‘public accommodation’ under the ADA.” That said, adding accessibility to a website adds only 2 percent to the cost, if it’s done from the outset, Ekstrand notes.
Once the ADA is applied to private websites, penalties for violation can be heavy—up to $75,000 for a first violation and $150,000 for subsequent violations. Moreover, each noncompliant page could be considered a separate violation.
Some progress is being made elsewhere. In Oklahoma, for example, the Electronic Information Technology Accessibility (EITA) Act, a state law enacted in 2005, is intended to ensure that digital services for state agencies are built and developed for people with disabilities.
But aside from the financial penalty, support for the blind, and disabled in general, is simply the right thing to do.
“The Internet is increasingly about essential life needs, especially when it comes to access to employment, government services, health care, and education,” Ekstrand writes. “Try applying for a job or enrolling at a local college or university without a broadband connection, and you’ll run into trouble. As access becomes more integral to the essentials of everyday American life, the gap between those who have access to the Internet and to its content—and those who don’t—grows.”
We hope this opens your eyes to the problem of website accessibility.
Simplicity 2.0 is where we examine the intricate and transitory world of technology—through a Laserfiche lens. By keeping an eye on larger trends, we aim to make software that’s relevant to modern day workers, rather than build technology for technology’s sake.
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