Green accessibility button on a keyboard.

What is Accessibility?

Accessibility is, at heart, about how everyone senses, moves, and thinks differently. A blind person cannot use a computer mouse or watch an online video. A person in a wheelchair cannot use stairs. A person with dyslexia cannot easily read text. So, accessibility is about finding ways to allow everyone, regardless of their condition or situation, to equally participate in the economy, society, and the joys of life

When proper care and effort is taken to design technology, media, structures, and events, people with disabilities can attain levels of independence and self-determination that most people simply take for granted.

Accessibility Affects (and Benefits) Everyone

According to the 2010 Census, nearly 1 in 5 people in the U.S. have a disability - that's over 56 million people. Of those, over half reported a severe disability that greatly limited their ability to use common technologies like transportation or telecommunications. From reading basic statements to filling out healthcare forms, viewing a webpage, or even shopping online, having a disability impinges heavily on a person's daily life.

The number of disabled people is even more staggering globally. A 2011 statement from the World Health Organization reported:

More than one billion people in the world live with some form of disability, of whom nearly 200 million experience considerable difficulties in functioning. In the years ahead, disability will be an even greater concern because its prevalence is on the rise. This is due to ageing populations and the higher risk of disability in older people as well as the global increase in chronic health conditions such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease, cancer and mental health disorders.

Most people know someone - a friend, colleague, or family member - with a disability. Anyone can face the prospect of disability due to disease or age. Having a disability does not, however, change what many believe is a person's basic right to participate in daily activities and access goods and services.

"...we must empower people living with disabilities and remove the barriers which prevent them participating in their communities" Dr. Margaret Chan, Director-General, World Health Organization

Understanding and improving accessibility is a responsibility that extends throughout all levels of society, from individuals to governments. Every person can strive to understand and learn about different levels of ability, and thus better know how to provide assistance and inclusion. Regardless of size or mandate, high-level government is a powerful force for standardizing communications and accommodations, ensuring that, for example, Braille and sign language are understood across the nation.

For businesses and the global economy, designing and building for equal access has a special importance, and serves to benefit both a company's fiscal responsibilities as well as any sense of corporate social responsibility it may have. The U.S. Department of Justice has noted that the tens of millions of Americans with disabilities represent a vast market that is eager to patronize and promote business that provide improved access to products and services. With current leaps in availability and efficacy of assistive technologies, there has never been a better time and opportunity to make a powerful and beneficial impact by adopting a policy of dedicated equal access.

Usability vs. Compliance - Going Beyond the Standards

One drawback of accessibility laws is that they tend to focus on conforming to a strict set of standards, resulting in companies simply doing only what is necessary to check a box on a list, rather than considering whether their efforts will be of any actual use. Far too often, accessibility accommodations in websites, media, and technologies are deemed compliant according to legal standards, but are ultimately useless to the very people they are intended to assist.

  • A video with poorly rendered captions is technically "accessible."
  • An image of a periodic table with a one-sentence alt-text is technically "accessible."
  • A fully described and captioned lesson on how to use a calculator is technically "accessible."

None of these items, however, is actually usable by a person with disabilities. The video should have captions that fully and accurately represent the audio track. The periodic table alt-text should be highly detailed or provide clear directions to an accessible version of the table. The lesson on calculators should be completely replaced with an accessible calculator and instructions, since a blind person has no use for a lesson on how to use an inaccessible device, no matter how well described that lesson may be.

SeeWriteHear develops global accessibility solutions that are designed with the end user in mind. Our objective is to ensure that the time, money, and resources spent on disabilities accommodations result in solutions that are effective, efficient, and beneficial to client and provider alike. We do this by working at all levels to develop new technologies and processes, train and educate stakeholders and decision-makers, and build networks of communication between governments, businesses, and people with disabilities.

  • Governments and agencies must be educated and informed about sensible and judiciously applied legislation that avoids blanket solutions and sweeping checklists.
  • Corporations and institutions must be incentivized and/or bound by law to provide reasonable accommodations that are of actual use, rather than slapdash solutions meant only to pass cursory inspection.
  • People with disabilities must be informed of their rights and opportunities, but must also be provided with up-to-date information about resources and service providers who excel at inclusivity and usability.