Global Accessibility Awareness Day is Good – But It’s Not Enough

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Global Accessibility Awareness Day

Here it comes again: Global Accessibility Awareness Day (GAAD), celebrated on the third Thursday of each May. GAAD was created by Joe Devon and Jennison Asuncion, two tech pioneers insistent on digital accessibility as the standard structural principle and prerequisite undergirding every website, app, virtual reality product, video game, etc. Its start a dozen years ago was in response to the ubiquity of inaccessibility online.  Estimates of the proportion of web pages with inaccessible content are as high as 96% globally. 

These numbers show us the status quo a quarter-century after the first publication of the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG), which, for context in internet time, arrived one year after the public launch of Google in September 1998.  

This glacial pace of progress in the basic incorporation of accessible precepts and processes into any digital product design reflects that society remains at best uncertain and at worst terrified of disability. 

The willful ignorance siloing accessible design from the rest of the digital world tells us that, from schools and universities to corporations and government, creating space of any kind to fully welcome disabled people often remains a thought too far. Reluctance to provide digital accommodations that would open doors for many also doesn’t actually have anything to do with the oft-cited excuse of the negative impact that investing in them would have on profit. 

Think about it: when we want to adopt and deploy technology to our advantage, we don’t really drag our heels or look the other way. Consider the velocity with which artificial intelligence has become a part of the advancing world, how quickly it is becoming indispensable to everything from education to commerce. Capital pours into it, regardless of risk to either money or time. Yet devoting a fraction of that energy to fulfilling digital accessibility would yield enormous rewards by enabling millions of disenfranchised humans to harness digital technology to learn, work, shop, or play in the ordinary, everyday way of the mainstream. As has been said by many, think of how curb cuts have made life better for anyone pushing a stroller, pulling luggage, or walking with even a minor mobility challenge. 

The challenge that must be overcome is getting society to ascribe equal value to the lives of people with disabilities. It is imperative to jettison historical fear and superstition surrounding disability.  

The fight to unleash digital accessibility embodied by GAAD and its celebration of all things being digitally accessible is a primary building block of global disability inclusion. Another, somewhat more accepted foundation of inclusion is the mandate for physical accommodations in the built environment that is the unifying directive and most visible target of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990. But even together, these two building blocks of accessibility are not enough to drive us past the pushback against inclusion.

There is a third, more foundational element of this movement, without which neither of the other two can be fully realized: social accessibility. Simply put, it’s the way people behave toward other people. Unlike digital or environmental access, social access cannot be achieved through either legislation or published standards. It will instead come as stories of people with disabilities living our lives — whether that involves great achievements or simply going through each day without the encumbering weights of low expectations and even lower value —  dissolve the long-accepted boundaries that enable exclusion. This article was published in the May addition of AbleNews.

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