Access Ready State and Local Government
When the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was enacted in 1990, the Internet as we know it today did not exist as a ubiquitous infrastructure for information and commerce. Nor did the information technology-driven workplace. Today the Internet and information technology (IT) play a critical role in the daily, personal, professional and civic life of Americans. More and more, the Internet and IT are central to how the workplace and the government do business. Access Ready Inc. is a nonprofit cross-disability advocacy organization promoting a policy of inclusion and accessibility across information technology through education and best practices. It shall be Policy One of Access Ready Inc. never to be a plaintiff in and/or financially support any legal action or lawsuit related to the accessibility or inaccessibility of any information technology software, hardware or service. Further Access Ready Inc. shall make the results of its technical findings, policy discussions and advocacy efforts available to the public through accessready.org, its social media stream and other public relations efforts. The Board of Directors of Access Ready has deemed inaccessible information technology to be a clear, growing and present danger to the civic, economic and social welfare of people with disabilities. Increasingly, many state and local government entities covered under Title II of the ADA are using websites to provide public access to their programs, services, and activities. To support these activities the internal and employee-facing operations of government are also driven by IT. Without addressing the accessibility of both their internal and external IT, government entities cannot meet their responsibilities to inform, employ, and serve the approximately 25% of Americans who have disabilities according to the centers for disease control (CDC).
An Access Ready Policy advances accessibility across the web and information technology.
Title II of the ADA requires state and local governments to ensure that their communications, including those via the internet and IT, are equally effective for people with disabilities as for people without disabilities. Equally effective communication generally means people with disabilities can access or acquire the same information, engage in the same interactions, and enjoy the same products and services that the government’s communications offer its sighted participants with substantially equivalent ease of use. To be effective, accessible communications must be provided in a timely manner, and in such a way as to protect the privacy and independence of the individual with a disability. These requirements apply to both communications the state or local government makes to members of the community and communications it receives from the community.
In the age of paper-and-pencil documents and in-person or telephone communications, this generally meant providing large print, taped texts, and Braille formats for documents, and using sign language interpreters, relay services, and captioning for meetings and telephone calls. As we have entered the age of internet- and IT-based communication, however, accessible formats have also moved online.
By making a website or online document or video accessible (i.e., screen readable, usable without a mouse, and captioned), a state or local government can make its communications accessible without having to create separate accessible versions. If a website or online document or video is not accessible, on the other hand, the government will have to maintain a separate system for communicating with people with disabilities – one that is likely to fail to comply with the ADA’s requirement of equally effective communication.
Many of the websites and IT used by state and local government agencies are difficult or impossible for individuals with disabilities to use because the technology does not work with the adaptive technology available to people with disabilities. Like curb ramps to sidewalks, building bridges between the standard IT and the assistive technology used by people with disabilities is accomplishable and necessary to allow people with disabilities to access the systems that are foundational to our workplaces and civic spaces. Also, like curb ramps, these bridges benefit everyone – with and without disabilities, are an affordable solution, and are seamless. An Access Ready Environment is one where websites and IT are designed accessibly from the outset and are not an afterthought. A government that embraces an Access Ready policy can accomplish this over a five-year budget cycle, or earlier, without real difficulty.
Being unable to access websites and IT puts individuals with disabilities at a great disadvantage in today’s society. For many, it is now difficult to imagine a world without the unprecedented access to information that the web provides. The Internet is dramatically changing the way that governmental entities serve their constituents.
Through government websites, the public can obtain information or correspond with local officials without having to wait in line or be placed on hold. They can also pay fines, apply for benefits, renew State-issued identification, register to vote, file taxes, request copies of vital records, and complete numerous other everyday tasks. The availability of these services online not only makes life easier for the public, but also enables government to operate more efficiently and cost effectively. For government to ignore people with disabilities as a constituency for goods and services is a tremendous mistake. How can it be acceptable to deny access to people with disabilities, a group that now includes over 25% of the general population? No other minority group would stand for such limitations and society would not allow such a thing. An Access Ready Policy moves government in the right direction.
People with disabilities represent a vast untapped talent pool ready to join the workforce and to serve their communities, but unemployment and underemployment of people with disabilities remains unacceptably high. Failing to hire qualified workers with disabilities leaves them relying on government benefits, even while their communities need their talents and skills. But, too often, once an employer hires a person with a disability, they find that their technology is not sufficiently accessible to allow the person to do their work to their best ability.
What is needed is the adoption of an Access Ready Policy that applies to information technology across the work place. An Access Ready Policy helps state and local governments find, adopt and maintain accessible technology that includes all their citizens, makes the most of all their talent, and reduces the need for redundant ad hoc work-arounds. The promise of the ADA to provide an equal opportunity for individuals with disabilities to participate in and benefit from all aspects of American civic and economic life will be achieved in today’s technologically advanced society only if state and local governments recognize that their information technology systems must be accessible and take action to make it so.
Douglas George Towne
Chair/Chief Executive Officer
Access Ready Inc.