The “Why” of Teaching Accessibility

Nearly one in five people in the United States have a disability. Emerging technologies stand to transform how people with disabilities interact with the world around them. If these technologies are designed to be accessible, they can break down barriers to education, employment, and community engagement. At present, however, many of the emerging technologies being designed and brought to market by companies across the world are not accessible to people with disabilities. (You can find more information on the accessibility of emerging technologies in PEAT’s XR Access Case Study.)

There are several factors that influence the accessibility of emerging technology. One of the principal factors is incorporating accessibility training into the curricula of college and university courses teaching technology design and development. This is a critical component of ensuring students understand the “why” and “how” of developing accessible emerging technologies. Teach Access has built its program around this idea, and it is what this case study focuses on.

Organizational Understanding of Accessibility Needs

Companies often do not design technology products from the perspective of a person with a disability, and people with disabilities are not typically involved in the design process. The good news is that awareness of the importance of supporting diverse users, including those with disabilities, is increasing and there is a growing focus on creating diverse, equitable, and inclusive workplaces. One way to build organizational understanding of accessibility needs is to hire people with disabilities onto technology development and design teams and as faculty at colleges and universities teaching design and development. Involving people with lived experience can help increase understanding of specific accessibility challenges and possible technology features that can provide or enhance accessibility and effective use.

Search for Skilled Workers

The technology industry is actively seeking employees who are trained in developing technologies that are usable by all, including people with disabilities. What’s more, a growing number of companies are increasingly requiring new hires in engineering, product development, User Experience (UX) design positions, and more to have accessibility skills. In 2018, PEAT and Teach Access heard from 70 companies about the technology skills gap. Sixty-three percent of respondents indicated that their staff did not have sufficient accessible technology skills, and sixty percent noted it was difficult or very difficult for their organization to hire candidates with accessibility skills.

During orientation we ask whether new hires know the basics of accessible tech. Less than 1 in 10 have ever even heard of it.

Anonymous respondent to Accessible Technology Skills Gap Assessment

Enhancing Talent Pipeline in Colleges and Universities

In a review of schools participating in Teach Access,[1] less than three percent of engineering and computing technology course descriptions reference “accessibility” or “people with .” As students prepare for their future in technology-based careers, they aren’t learning the skills they need to build technologies that everyone can use. Why is that? The reasons are varied but include a lack of accessibility and universal design curricula in colleges and universities, a lack of funding to support the integration of accessibility into curricula, and a lack of knowledge and expertise on accessibility topics among faculty.

Emerging technologies must be ‘Born Accessible;’ therefore the entire tech-sector and all tech-dependent companies’ work forces will need to be ready to build accessibility in on Day One…Our entire education system, from K-12 to post-secondary to post-grad, can enhance the universality of the world’s technologies.

Larry GoldbergLarry Goldberg, Co-founder of Teach Access and XR Access, and Head of Accessibility at Verizon Media.

Now What?

To reach the goal of making technology accessible to everyone, we must broaden expertise across industry by creating opportunities for students enrolled in technology based higher education programs to learn about accessibility in the classroom. Students in fields such as computer science, product and graphic design, engineering, web development, user experience research and design, and human-computer interaction (HCI) must be better prepared to enter the workforce and create future technologies that are truly inclusive. Only then will technology reach its true potential.


Footnotes

[1] Teach Access academic members are defined as college and university representatives who agree to participate actively in Teach Access activities, including spreading the word about the Initiative to their colleagues, infusing accessibility into their curricula, creating teaching materials, building awareness of accessibility, and more.