The ADA — Digital Lessons from Adapting the Physical World

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Lessons from the influence of the Americans with Disabilities Act on our physical spaces can (and should) inform our digital world.

Celebrating an Accomplishment

Each year on July 26th, most major US cities and many organizations celebrate the signing of the Americans with Disabilities Act (the “ADA”). This landmark legislation certainly deserves celebrating for how it has changed our country — not just in how we construct buildings, but in our attitudes towards disability.

ADA requirements are included in school curriculum for architecture students, adaptations like curb cuts are almost commonplace and used by everyone, and seeing a person with a disability out-and-about is no longer the anomaly it was just a generation ago. By no means are things perfect, but the ADA took significant advocacy work to bring into law and has been instrumental in great strides towards equal access.

Bumper sticker in red, white, and blue coloring reading "A.D.A., The Americans with Disabilities Act, To Boldly Go Where Everyone Else Has Gone Before" and an image of a wheelchair icon breaking chains on their wrists with the words "Free our people".
Bumper sticker made by pivotal advocacy group ADAPT

Reflecting on the Journey

The digital world is now the next frontier, and there are many lessons to learn from outfitting the physical world. Take Greyhound buses, for instance, one of the leading companies for long-distance travel, particularly in the years leading up to the ADA’s signing.

Before the ADA, the school of thought was that people in wheelchairs don’t travel, so why accommodate them? (Notably, this way of thinking is called “ableism”.) Wheelchair-user-led protests blocking the buses demonstrated this assumption was presumptuous and inaccurate, forcing Greyhound (and the nation) to take notice.

Diverse group of mobility-impaired protesters with signs such as "All board" and "We will ride" seated in front of Greyhound bus on city street.
Disabled activists protested Greyhound’s discrimination by blocking buses

Following ADA mandates for “reasonable accommodations”, Greyhound then created a system that seemed right in their eyes — stow wheelchairs in the luggage compartment while a companion carries the person onto the bus (and, of course, that companion can ride for free). Without doing any research to confirm this, I will presume and assume Greyhound’s officials were all non-disabled and did not consult the disability community because they clearly didn’t understand how outrageous, debilitating, demoralizing, and dangerous that policy was.

After more picketing, Greyhound built lifts and put procedures in place for assisting travelers. However, because these accommodations were add-ons that didn’t fully integrate into the system, Greyhound was sued in 2016 for failing to maintain those accommodations and for discrimination.

News article with title, "Greyhound Agrees to Pay Passengers With Disabilities It Discriminated Against"
Despite opportunities for full integration,
Greyhound continued inadequate practices

The Takeaways

While I’ve called out Greyhound, many have approached access needs in much the same way:

  • Not accounting for disabled people under the assumption they don’t participate in that activity.
  • Only addressing accommodations out of legal obligation.
  • Not designing adjustments in a way that is dignified and user-friendly.
  • Designing solutions that require intervention rather than allow independence and are thus less likely to be maintained.

Does that sound familiar to the current state of our digital world? Because, unfortunately, it is.

So, here’s a proposal: Why not learn from the path of the ADA as it applied to physical spaces and jump right to the lessons learned for our digital world?

Legislation to Generate Movement

While we technically have legislation in place for digital accessibility such as anti-discrimination language in the ADA and detailed technical specs in Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act, the idea of digital inclusion is still not yet fully integrated. Rather than wait for more protests and lawsuits, however, organizations can simply make the commitment today to meet standards such WCAG (the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines) and CVAA (the 21st Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act).

There’s only upside to doing so: designing and coding for accessibility leads to innovation, a better user experience for everyone, and a codebase built to extendable standards. Why wait to embrace what’s already the right thing to do?

Teaching Accessibility

Our “digital architects” (i.e., designers and developers) unfortunately do not yet learn accessibility in school. Movements such as Teach Access are trying to combat this, and many companies offer internal training. But how about in your content, products, and services? Are you teaching accessibility in your courses, demonstrating good practices in your products, embedding accessibility in your activities?

Our future technologists need to learn about disabled people and accessibility, much like future architects, and this starts by making it the norm on everything we produce.

“Nothing For Us Without Us”

We have to ensure that disabled voices are heard in any solutions. This includes accessibility user research, disability advisory boards, and hiring disabled colleagues. There are national and local disability organizations you can partner with, and even staying connected to #DisabilityTwitter is a phenomenal resource for getting firsthand knowledge and truth.

Everyone must embrace integrating diverse users into workflows and products from beginning to end.

Taking Next Steps

Accessibility can be a lot to take in, but much of it starts with the right attitude and end goal to be inclusive. Then you’ll find yourself embedded within the many resources available, such as Stark’s Resource Library and The A11Y Project. You can even sign up with me as I have a lot of upcoming content and events in store.

For now, let’s all try to be more aware of how to be more accessible.

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