Musings: Accessibility, it really is about curb cuts

Do you remember the days before the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) when curbs were something you had to step over when crossing the street?

Today, curb cuts are ubiquitous. Imagine crossing the street pulling your bag on wheels, and then banging over the curb. Or strollers, the FedEx delivery person with the dolly and so many other uses. Have we forgotten that curb cuts were mandated through the ADA for people in wheelchairs who couldn't cross the street due to the barrier of sidewalk curbs?

The Web Accessibility Initiative of the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) guidelines and Section 508 of the U.S. Rehabilitation Act for federal agencies and their contractors are the curb cuts of the Internet. I heard Judy Brewer of the W3C speak at one of the original WAI meetings at a conference in Boston in 1997 and use this analogy.

In December of 2004 I attended another conference in Boston. It had been seven years when I sat in a room with less then 20 other people and listened to Judy Brewer speak. At this conference there were literally hundreds of people who were interested in accessibility with varying levels of knowledge and experience. Douglas Bowman spoke to a packed room. Doug has a rare skill as a talented designer who also understands the technology. Doug told a story of his years in this business and his recent first meeting with an Internet user who is blind. I had the same experience in 1994 when building a website for an organization for people with disabilities.

Today all federal websites and electronic communications must be built to be accessible under Section 508. Anyone receiving federal dollars to provide electronic resources must also be in compliance with Section 508. We have come a long way.

But is website accessibility about blindness? No more than ramps are only for people in wheelchairs and curb cuts only benefit wheelchair users.

I'm not blind, but sometimes I wonder. I have been known to trip over invisible obstacles, fall off my shoes, walk into walls and I always have at least one bruise on my shins from banging into my coffee table. But I'm not blind.

Even though I am not blind, I do use features that are built into Windows for the blind or people with low vision. They make my life easier. For instance, I can adjust Windows default settings to enlarge the text size of title bars that can be difficult to read when using higher screen resolution settings.

My prediction is that in five years most sighted people will be using built-in accessibility features in ways we have yet to imagine. As computers get smarter and wireless devices smaller, instead of an iPod for music we will see people with their ear buds and hand held devices listening to their email and attachments, having their news sources read to them and other applications that we haven't imagined yet. Even five years ago Kindle was only available as an imagery device on the Sci-Fi channel. As our computers become more portable and hand held, we will be using them to make our lives easier. And then in no time we won't be able to remember how we lived without them - like curb cuts.

Update: It is so exciting to experience the outcome of my prediction. It's happening now. Smartphones have built in speech to text, and we can 'talk' to our PDA's (personal digital assistants) and, they answer!

Okay, you say - so what does this all have to do with accessible websites? Everything. If we are going to move forward in the next ten years with our technology as pervasively as we have in the past ten years, it's because we are going to be accessible. We are going to use all these cool features that most of us have sitting on our computers, smartphones, iPads, etc. waiting to be used, in ways that the original designers never conceived.

And we are going to be able to do it because the websites we develop will be built to be accessible to as many people, browser types and web enabled devices as possible.

-Nancy Massey

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