The History of Digital Accessibility and Why it Matters

We live in a world of technology where the blind can snowboard and the deaf can “hear” music. Where a kid who can only move his thumb is at the top of the leaderboard in Call of Duty. We haven’t gotten to this point by accident; we are here by purposeful design.

What did it take to get here? Many battles, many policies, and a lot of people who care. And, yes, we still have a long way to go. But before we worry too much about the future, let’s dive into the past and walk along the circuitous and rocky road of digital accessibility that has led us to today, starting in the United States with the Rehabilitation Act of 1973.

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The Rehabilitation Act of 1973

Many things come to mind when you think of the 1970s: bell-bottoms, seriously groovy mustaches, possibly the tv show M*A*S*H. (Right??) What you may not know, however, is that a critical law passed in 1973 had a very positive impact on millions of people with disabilities: the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. This act prohibits federal agencies (and their contractors) from discriminating against individuals on the basis of a disability, whether it be through employment, financial assistance, and (wait for it) technology. This means that any type of technology (from kiosks to websites to apps and more) deployed by the federal government and its contractors needs to be accessible to people with disabilities.

Americans with Disabilities Act (1990)

Most people have heard of the Americans with Disabilities Act, or the ADA, as it’s often referred to. However, it’s more common for individuals to think of it in relation to accessing a physical space. For example, a wheelchair ramp, large bathroom stalls with rails, etc., all fall under building code regulations that conform to the ADA guidelines. And not every building space needs to comply with these guidelines. The ADA states very specifically that “places of public accommodation,” or any space that can be used by the general public, needs to conform to the law. So, while an individual’s home does not need to have accessible parking spaces, a country club, for example, will need to.

The ADA is very interesting because when it was passed in 1990, the World Wide Web was a nascent initiative and few people (with, perhaps the exception of its inventor, Tim Berners-Lee) ever considered how it might need to be interpreted for digital content. However, today, multiple judges have ruled that websites, apps, and the like are considered “places of public accommodation,” and need to be accessible to people with disabilities. The problem? No specific wording exists on how, exactly, organizations are supposed to achieve that. (More on that later.)

The Department of Justice (DOJ) puts a stake in the ground when it comes to digital accessibility (1996)

Once internet use began to spread like wildfire, people with disabilities were understandably frustrated when they couldn’t access the content on the web. But because Title III of the ADA (the section that includes the reference to public accommodations) didn’t specifically identify digital content as “public,” they had no legal recourse. That is, until the DOJ publicly asserted that, yes, websites are considered public accommodations.

However, given that the ADA does not offer clarification on digital content, it’s up to the courts to decide; lately, the courts have been siding with the plaintiffs more and more. Domino’s Pizza fought their lawsuit tooth and nail, even sending a writ of certiorari to the Supreme Court for appeal in summer of 2019. However, the Supreme Court rejected their petition, and Domino’s Pizza will now be facing a very public trial – essentially fighting to have the right to discriminate against blind people. Pizza, anyone?

Maguire v Sydney Organising Committee for the Olympic Games (1999/2000)

A few years after the DOJ made its landmark statement about how Title III applies to digital content, Bruce Maguire filed a lawsuit against the Sydney Organising Committee for the Olympic Games (SOCOG). Brought under Australia’s Disability Discrimination Act, Maguire argued that SOCOG had discriminated against him and other blind people by failing to supply information in Braille format of where to order tickets, not offering the souvenir program in Braille, and operating an inaccessible website. SOCOG fought the charges mightily, but Maguire ultimately prevailed, and the court ordered SOCOG to remediate its website. As a result of this case, the Australian government soon ordered its agency websites to adopt W3C guidelines (WCAG).

Section 508 amended (1998)

When the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 was made into law, technology wasn’t quite where it is today. Even in 1986, when the Section 508 amendment was added to expand the Act’s purview to those working as contractors for the federal government, the internet as we know it today was still a decade away. That’s why the year 1998 is so critical to digital accessibility: it’s the year Section 508 was amended to include digital content. For all intents and purposes, the Section 508 amendment means that both the Federal government and organizations that want to do business with the federal government both need to have accessible digital assets. So, don’t go thinking that because you’re not part of the government that this doesn’t apply to you!

Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 1.0 released (1999)

Tim Berners-Lee, the “official” founder of the internet, was (and still is) quite keen on ensuring everyone has equal access to it. (Side note: the first time Tim Berners-Lee mentioned accessibility for people with disabilities in a keynote speech was after attending a workshop hosted by no other than TPGi’s founder, Mike Paciello.) Berners-Lee and the web guidelines group he founded, the W3C, first came out with WCAG 1.0 in 1999. Comprised of 14 guidelines that each covered a specific element of web accessibility (e.g. “Provide equivalent alternatives to auditory and visual content”) and 65 “checkpoints,” WCAG 1.0 was a landmark step towards making the web a more inclusive place. The hard part was encouraging organizations to embrace it.

VoiceOver released for Apple products (2005)

If you’ve ever wondered how blind or low vision people use smart phones, today is your lucky day to find out! They use something called a “screen reader,” which, as the name implies, “reads” aloud what is on a screen. VoiceOver is a native screen reader for Apple products. This is a historic milestone because in 2005, most smartphone companies were more concerned about how to make their products faster, smaller, and cheaper than they were with how to ensure that their products were universally useable. In bucking this trend, Apple continued to cement its status as a champion of inclusive technology.

WCAG 2.0 released (2008)

Almost a decade after releasing the original Web Content Accessibility Guidelines, the W3C came out with an updated version, WCAG 2.0. Seeing as how the original guidelines were created in a time when AOL was still the gateway to the web for most people and email was still a “newfangled technology,” the update was eagerly embraced. The second version of the guidelines built upon the foundation created by its successor and focused on four distinct principles: perceivable, operable, understandable, and robust. Included with these principles were more guidelines for developers to ensure an accessible web experience for all users.

WCAG 2.1 released (2018)

In what is beginning to seem like a pattern, ten years after WCAG 2.0 came onto the scene, the indefatigable W3C released WCAG 2.1. This is the current version of the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (as of 2019), and is what organizations striving for accessibility should aim to conform to. The main difference between WCAG 2.0 and 2.1 is an emphasis on underrepresented or absent elements in WCAG 2.0. For example, the new guidelines included more information on accommodating those with cognitive disabilities, who use speech input software, and who leverage screen magnification features, to name a few.

What does this mean for organizations?

The fact of the matter is that need for digital accessibility is not going away, and nor should it. Worldwide, the WHO estimates that 15% of the population lives with a disability. As demographics throughout the world continue to illustrate the trend of larger and larger percentages of the population hosted on the top of the population pyramid, accessibility becomes a more pervasive issue. We are all growing more disabled every day, simply by growing older.

Smart organizations know to read the writing on the wall and to embrace future trends far before they become mainstream. As digital lawsuits continue to increase exponentially, now is the time for forward-thinking leaders to conduct an assessment of their digital assets and ask themselves if they want to be leading the charge to the future or scrambling to catch up. Don’t get left behind! For a free website accessibility scan of your site, try TPGi’s Initial Domain Analysis (IDA) today.

Categories: Business, World of Accessibility