Increasing Employment through Accessibility: A Conversation with the World Institute on Disability’s Anita Aaron

Anita Aaron, World Institute on Disability

Anita Aaron photoAnita Aaron is the World Institute on Disability’s Executive Director. Prior to joining WID in 2010, Anita served for twenty years as CEO of the Lighthouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired headquartered in San Francisco focusing on local, regional and national policy and program concerns impacting individuals who are blind, visually impaired and/or deaf-blind. Anita began her disability rights leadership career in 1981 as Deputy Director of the Berkeley Center for Independent Living. Her work in the blindness field resulted in numerous local and national acknowledgements for her individual efforts; however, she believes her most significant contribution to the disability movement overall is a commitment to building bridges between disability organizations, disability groups and among individuals with disabilities.

The World Institute on Disability (WID) is an internationally recognized leader in promoting inclusion of people with disabilities in all aspects of community life, including employment. Founded in 1983 by leaders of the Independent Living Movement, it is headquartered at universally designed Ed Roberts Campus in Berkeley, California.

PEAT recently spoke with WID's executive director Anita Aaron about her organization's work in the area of accessible technology.

PEAT: Can you please tell us a bit about WID's mission and activities?

Aaron: Certainly. WID's official mission, in communities and nations worldwide, is to eliminate barriers to full social integration and increase employment, economic security, and health care for persons with disabilities. So in that spirit we create and manage a variety of programs and tools; conduct research, training, public education, and advocacy campaigns; and provide technical assistance.

I really like to think of WID as a think tank and catalyst for issues that are critical to independent living, employment, and people with disabilities in general. We've been serving in that capacity since 1983, and our work is really driven by societal needs. We ask ourselves where the gaps are, and then pick up on those issues that matter most at a particular time. So WID is often where discussion begins on key disability issues. If you follow a conversational thread back, you'll usually find it leads to WID's headquarters in Berkeley, California.

PEAT: What are WID's views on accessible technology and its impact on the successful employment of people with disabilities?

Aaron: WID's position is and always has been that technology is one of the major game changers for people with disabilities in all aspects of life, including, of course, employment. It's a position that is certainly brought to life when you convene a group of people with disabilities and they share the things they can do now that they couldn't do 15 years ago—or even three years ago! And when you hear about these kinds of advancements, there's almost always a technology piece to it.

WID is keenly aware that as technology becomes more pervasive, people with disabilities will always need to catch up with it. And the more technology that's out there, the bigger this job is. But it's not just about ensuring that new, emerging technology is technically accessible—it also has to be usable.

PEAT: In your view, do employers understand the importance of accessible technology as it relates to disability employment? Do they understand the difference between providing an accommodation, such as assistive technology, and procuring technology that is inherently accessible and/or universally designed?

Aaron: I'm afraid that most employers don't get that, no. Even people who work in the disability community don't always understand the basics of accessibility. To share an example, I happen to be blind, and someone in my field recently sent me an online questionnaire that was not accessible. When I told the sender about this, he replied that he figured whatever assistive technology I had on my system could figure out a way to read it. Well, it doesn't work that way, of course. But his inexperience is not uncommon, and since technology is ever changing, it's easy to understand why we have an awareness problem.

PEAT: In your opinion, what are the greatest challenges for job applicants and employees with disabilities with regard to accessible workplace technology?

Aaron: Well, I think it's still very difficult for job seekers with disabilities to link up with jobs and insert themselves into the interview process. Inaccessible job applications have a lot to do with that. But the recent updates to Section 503 of the Rehabilitation Act have great promise to help with this, because they will prompt certain employers—federal contractors—to transform their IT systems to be more welcoming and inclusive of qualified applicants with disabilities.

So finding one's way into a company is the hard part. But the good news is that, once a person with a disability gets in the door, there is more hope that they can work with their employer and HR representatives to get the tools they need to do their job—and that those tools are accessible of course.

PEAT: Does WID ever help employers or technology providers test the accessibility of their products?

Aaron: We do, from time to time. While WID doesn't have the skill set to fix systems, our staff and constituents are certainly users, so we frequently serve as first-step beta testers. We'll test a website or technology tool from a usability perspective and show IT people how we do that. As you can imagine, it's often eye opening to the developers who don't always know how people with certain disabilities interact with their products. But WID makes clear that we are just a starting point. We merely do basic user testing, and then, based on the results, we can refer companies to consultants who have expertise in accessibility.

PEAT: What are your thoughts on accessible technology and the regulatory landscape?

Aaron: Well, WID would love to see a Section 508 that is more effective in enforcing accessibility. You can retool 508, but the challenge is monitoring compliance and educating people so that they don't make the wrong accessibility choices. For example, employers need to learn how to write vendor contracts that have enforceable accessibility requirements. So regulations are step one, but there are too many gaps in how the regulations can be monitored for them to be a comprehensive solution.

As I mentioned previously, I'm very excited about the updates to Section 503 and what they may mean for self-disclosure by both job applicants and existing employees with disabilities. It certainly will be interesting to see how businesses will start to encourage people to self-identify and whether or not that will prompt more companies to become aware of the need for accessible technology.

PEAT: Tell us about WID's Technology Policy Program and your experiences working with the IT and telecommunications industry to make their products and services accessible.

Aaron: WID's Technology Policy Program provides training and technical assistance to the information technology and telecommunications industry to make their products and services accessible. It then develops public policy recommendations and identifies best practices with a focus on identifying, evaluating, and recommending solutions to accessibility barriers in websites, programs, facilities, and communications.

Our current programs include investigating how mobile technologies can influence young adults with disabilities to consider STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) careers, analyzing the use of mobile technologies by persons with disabilities, and exploring how apps can facilitate independent living. We're also interested in how seniors are using technology to live independently longer and how developing countries are using technology.

We consider our Policy Program to be a tree-top level examination of the issues that really matter. It aims to find ways for products to be developed in an accessible, usable, and affordable way.

PEAT: What advice would you give to an employer who is looking to create a workplace inclusive of people with disabilities with regard to technology?

Aaron: First and foremost, a commitment to accessibility must be embraced from the top down. It must be part of an organization's agenda and general philosophy. Then, employers can start by having their systems evaluated so that they have a starting point to work from. But, don't be afraid of issues that will crop up, because accessibility is a moving target.

At work, I think all people should be able to do their jobs, and it should be the goal of the employer to help make that happen. It's about productivity and being hired to do what you should be able to do.

PEAT: How about job seekers with disabilities? What advice do you have for them?

Aaron: I think the most successful job seekers are those who understand the tools they need to work productively. Yes, employers are supposed to know that, but if a person uses accessible or assistive technology, they need to know more than the employer on how it works. It's the same as knowing how to sell yourself in an interview—it's being able to tell a manager that, for example, PDFs can be a problem to read, but if they are set up the right way, they can be perfectly accessible.

PEAT: We know how important partnership and collaboration can be in the pursuit of progress on the disability front. Are you aware of partnerships that really helped to improve technology accessibility?

Aaron: Definitely. WID is always happy to partner with technology providers and employers to help move the needle on accessibility. In fact, tech companies often turn to us for advice and user perspective during the product design phase, which is always a best practice.

I'm also very encouraged by some of the partnerships going on in Silicon Valley. For instance, I know that certain accessibility experts, often from competing companies, have formed industry dinner groups to exchange knowledge around accessibility. Membership is restricted to people who are actually on the ground working in accessibility jobs, and considering how guarded tech companies can be, I think this is pretty progressive. Attendees of these dinner groups aren't sharing source code, but they are sharing experiences. So I have to hand it to the young industry professionals who are thinking broadly about accessibility. These are the same people who are proactively getting together on weekends to talk about accessibility, and entering contests to develop accessible apps.

I see this same enthusiasm at industry conferences, such as the annual M-Enabling Summit on mobile accessibility. Developers actually seem jazzed about accessibility, which, to me, is very exciting. I really hope that I'm reading that trend correctly. If I am, it means that we can expand the pool of developers who understand universal design, and who are challenged to make it a reality.