As a senior vice president and information technology manager at Wells Fargo, I frequently received the question, “Can the company buy me a…?” Managers and team members always seemed to want the latest and greatest gadget, software application, or piece of hardware. My answer was always, “How will it make you more productive, and how will it fit into our environment?” Most of the time, the requester had no answer to these questions, so we didn’t pursue things any further. However, for those few people who were able to articulate the worth to the bank and the productivity benefits it would bring, I was eager to help, and usually we were successful.
Assistive technology has always been an amusing concept for me. My own disability, cerebral palsy, is quite significant. I cannot drink without a straw, but are drinking straws considered assistive technology? I also have very limited use of my hands, and use a word expansion application to help me type faster. Many people with disabilities I know use a speech recognition system to verbally navigate their computer and the Internet and create documents. These applications have been called assistive technology, but when people without disabilities use them they are just seen as mainstream conveniences and productivity aids. Would anyone call Siri AT? What about speakerphones? Gadgets and applications seem to be classified as AT only when they are used by people with disabilities—and only until the general public realizes how universal they are. When people ask me what AT I like the best, my answer is my Wells Fargo Visa Card—because it’s surprising how much showing that card helps people understand me!
So is it AT, or a mainstream technology product that has accessibility features? The technologies themselves have no such categories, and the differences only seem to arise in terms of who is using them in what context. Most, if not all, developers and companies want to build accessible technologies. Who wouldn’t want their product to be usable by as many potential customers as possible? At Wells Fargo, I always ensured the bank had at least one team member actively engaged with the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI). Its web accessibility standards, such as the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0 are quite good, which is why they’re being implemented in law and practice worldwide. But the main issue was, and continues to be, how to educate thousands of developers on the standards and ensure an ever-changing system continuously conforms to them. I look forward to when changes can quickly, if not automatically, be tested and reconstructed to meet W3C WAI guidelines. I look forward to companies proudly displaying an icon depicting their alliance with accessibility guidelines.
If there’s a learning mission for getting developers up to speed, technology users with disabilities have some learning to do as well, so that we can master our own technology choices, which are often very personal. Before working at Wells Fargo, I co-founded the Computer Technologies Program (CTP) with Scott Luebking. Scott had a spinal cord injury that caused quadriplegia. He had difficulties keyboarding. Although we had the most modern AT available to us, Scott found that placing a pencil between his fingers enabled him to type the most efficiently. Many people I know who are non-verbal due to cerebral palsy have found that they communicate better with a simple letter board than a complex augmentative communication device. These examples are not meant to disparage the wonderful devices available and in development; indeed, many people with disabilities need and use them very effectively. Rather, they simply show the importance of empowering each person with a disability the opportunity to discover and acquire what works best for them, whether it’s AT, a mainstream product, or a DIY personal solution—like Scott’s pencil.
True inclusion may take more than empowerment. Perhaps we should begin to expect that people with disabilities have the personal expertise needed to navigate the technology solution space. One of my favorite sayings is “give a person a fish and you feed them for a day; teach a person to fish and you feed them for life.” It is time to teach people with disabilities that we, like everyone else, can and must work, just like everyone else. Like everyone else, along with that obligation to work comes the responsibility of knowing how to be as productive as one can be. For many people with disabilities that will include learning how to circumvent accessibility barriers and understanding how to educate their employers about their needs, including what accessibility features to look for when purchasing new workplace technologies.
Having been in the workforce for 40 years, I find it odd listening and observing how much energy is used trying to explain to employers which technology may be useful for people with disabilities. We must teach people with disabilities to know what they need and how to get what they need. We need to ensure that when we say, “Can the company please buy me …” we do so with pride and determination, knowing exactly why we need it and how it will enable us to be more productive.