Accessible Information & Communications Technology and Social Media: Why They Matter

By Guest Blogger Mario Damiani, Policy Advisor, Office of Disability Employment Policy (ODEP), U.S. Department of Labor, Disability Blog, March 25, 2013

Pictured is ODEP Policy Advisor Mario Damiani

In my work helping to develop policies on accessible workplace technology, I have sometimes fallen into the trap of looking just at the “little picture.” By that I mean that sometimes I’ve focused too much attention on making sure that information and communications technology is (ICT) is compatible, or interoperable, with assistive technology specifically screen readers. I know I’m not the only one who has made this mistake, because I come across a lot of information suggesting that once a website is found to work with a screen reader or another type of assistive technology, the accessibility discussion can simply end there. Millions of people around the world use assistive technology, so it is understandable that interoperability is a very important issue. But it sometimes commands so much attention that we forget to look at the “big picture” of fully accessible ICT or the biggest picture of all, universal design.

I find it odd that I have made this mistake since I do not use a screen reader and thanks to laser eye surgery, now have very good eyesight. But I know that may not last forever. Still, what is more likely than the possibility that I might have to rely on a screen reader at some point in the future is the fact that my neuromuscular disease will continue to progress to the point where severe muscle weakness limits my ability to use a computer keyboard or mouse.

Typing long documents has already become difficult enough that I have begun to use speech-to-text technology. In fact, I am composing this blog post using Dragon Naturally Speaking, a speech-recognition software product. I’ll have to thank the person who introduced me to the software and showed me how to train it to recognize my voice. Before I met her, I thought “How to Train Your Dragon” was only a children’s movie, albeit an entertaining one. But if I want to correct one of the many mistakes I am making (correction: that the software is making) right now as I work on this document, I can still do that using the keyboard. Eventually, though, this will change and I will need to turn to technology to find a solution.

So when I get a question about why accessible ICT is so important to me considering the fact that I “only” use a wheelchair (yes, it has happened), I take the opportunity to explain what the future holds for me and why the issue will very likely hit close to home. I also explain that we, those who have a disability and those who do not yet have a disability, are all in the same boat. As more and more people age, they will likely begin to be affected by impairments or disabilities, and this fact alone will account for millions of people who will rely on assistive technology and accessible ICT in their daily lives.

Aside from interoperability with assistive technology, what else does accessible ICT entail? I certainly will not attempt to provide an exhaustive answer to that question here. But if we restrict ourselves to the topic of accessible web content, which I acknowledge is not really much of a restriction considering the amount of information on the internet, we find things like the World Wide Web Consortium’s (W3C) Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0. WCAG 2.0 aims to provide a shared standard for accessible web content that relies on that content being: perceivable, operable, understandable and robust.

I encourage you to read WCAG 2.0 for a fuller understanding of the issues behind these guiding principles, but some examples include making sure that web pages: provide sign language interpretation for all prerecorded audio content; avoid using content that flashes too quickly and could trigger a seizure due to some individuals’ photosensitivity; and clearly explain figurative language or specialized words that would be difficult for some people to understand.

Keeping true to these four guiding principles is essential considering the ever-changing landscape of emerging technologies such as cloud computing, mobile devices and social media – and their increasing use with regard to employment. When these technologies are used in the context of the employment of individuals with disabilities, specifically as tools to help people find jobs or do their jobs, they become employment supports. One of the three priority areas for my office, the U.S. Department of Labor’s Office of Disability Employment Policy, is the expansion of access to employment supports and accommodations. Our aim is to ensure that existing and emerging technologies take into account the needs and perspectives of jobseekers and employees with disabilities, and that our policymaking is focused properly.

Through a recently launched initiative with the U.S. General Services Administration (GSA), we are currently collecting best practices that agencies, companies and others can use to help ensure that their social content is accessible to persons with disabilities and all who need it. These efforts are responsive to three very notable trends:

The work that we and many others are doing in this area is important because, unfortunately, the supply of accessible social media has not kept up with the demand for it. A 2012 survey of more than 1,600 screen reader users found that 33.7 percent found social media to be either “inaccessible” or “very inaccessible.” I encourage you to be part of these efforts and to share your knowledge and expertise by adding tips and comments to the evolving “Improving the Accessibility of Social Media in Government” toolkit.

As I noted above, screen reader interoperability is not the be all and end all of accessible ICT. It is certainly an important metric, but we should also look to the extent to which agencies, organizations and companies comply with WCAG 2.0, as well as the accessibility standards for electronic and information technology pursuant to Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, as amended, or the accessibility guidelines for telecommunications devices pursuant to Section 255 of the Communications Act of 1934, as amended. But no matter which standard(s) for accessibility we use, we must bear in mind that making progress with accessibility or compliance today does not mean we can become lax or stop striving for more universal access in the future – particularly as technology continues to evolve in the years to come.

Mario Damiani is a Policy Advisor at the U.S. Department of Labor’s Office of Disability Employment Policy (ODEP). During his tenure, which began in 2006, he has worked primarily on issues related to accessible workplace technology, as well as on issues such as workplace personal assistant services, reasonable accommodations and increasing the employment of individuals with disabilities in the federal government and federal contractor sector. In addition, Mr. Damiani serves as co-lead for ODEP’s online collaborative policymaking workspace, ePolicyWorks. He also serves as a Staff Liaison to the United States Access Board for Board Member and ODEP Assistant Secretary Kathleen Martinez.

Prior to joining ODEP, Mario worked as an attorney for the District of Columbia Department of Health and a law clerk at both the District of Columbia Court of Appeals and Office of Bar Counsel. He received his Bachelor of Arts and Juris Doctor degrees from The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. He and his wife Theresa reside in suburban Maryland.

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