One of the major parts of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) deals with accessibility and the ability for individuals with disabilities to access tools, resources, and transportation that are available in all public spaces. In 1990 a significant amount of this access was physical and focused on the negotiation of spaces that could be managed through ramps, TTY, truncated domes, audio description and Braille. Moving along however we have found ourselves more connected to technology than we were in the latter half of the 20th Century and public access often means access to the internet, websites and digital access and use of new platforms that may not necessarily have barriers that are negotiable by canes, wheels or walkers. To further muddy the water, the concepts of what makes up technology as well as the boundaries of accessibility seem to expand exponentially. The use of smartphones, wearables, and advancements in digital entertainment and gaming are making current generations wonder why digital access was not made more explicit in the original ADA text. The ADA is certainly a bastion for protections tied to access, but as technology develops and becomes a larger part of our day to day lives, have the protections in the ADA also expanded?
Legislation like Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act and the ADA have been leverage points on digital accessibility, but many in the disability and tech communities point out that the digital landscape is far from fully accessible. While Section 508 requires digital accessibility of websites paid for by the federal government, many private sector websites still lack this consideration. The ADA offers some limited protections for marketplaces and notes that digital marketplaces should be the same as physical marketplaces in their accessibility, but this is not always fully realized. The misconception that individuals with disabilities have a sort of “accessibility police” that makes things like shops or websites accessible – or that owners are fined for inaccessibility — continue to make it difficult for inaccessible places in the digital or physical world to be addressed. Additionally, while forward facing sites such as marketplaces or information sites, may be accessible for consumers, there is a significant problem with back end and employee-based platforms. Often individuals with disabilities who are working will find that sites designed for time management or specific corporate tools have been created without access in mind because they are not consumer facing. There is a growing cadre of tech firms that exist to design web solutions for digital accessibility, but these would not even be necessary had the websites been designed to be accessible from the beginning. As we move into a future that looks to be more digital by each day, we will question if the ADA provides us with what we need to access this digital frontier. While the ADA prohibits discrimination and offers civil rights protections, this is not the same as requiring access – especially digital access.
For more thoughts on how technology affects the inclusive workplace, check out the NAB’s discussion of how Inclusion Drives Innovation.