Years ago, I was issued a compelling challenge by my friend and colleague, Dr. David Braddock, executive director of the Coleman Institute for Cognitive Disabilities. He asked me to consider examining the right to web access for people with cognitive disabilities—and I was intrigued. At the time, increasing attention was being paid to web accessibility for people with sensory disabilities, such as vision and hearing loss; however, little of this work had addressed the needs of users with cognitive disabilities, such as intellectual disabilities and traumatic brain injuries.
Researching this topic was enlightening, and it raised important issues about how to reconcile web content equality with the goals of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the U.N. Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD). The rights of individuals have seldom come without some legal protection as well as shifts in attitudes and practice. This requires recognition that people with cognitive and other disabilities are entitled to full and equal inclusion in society, which includes the right to what I like to call web eQuality. In my opinion, the equal opportunity to use and comprehend online information fundamentally supports our rights to independence, employment, and other basic life activities.
Ultimately, I detailed my findings in a book titled eQuality: The Struggle for Web Accessibility by Persons with Cognitive Disabilities. Here are a few examples of the numerous legal challenges that have been brought forward by individuals with cognitive and other disabilities related to eQuality that I explore in my book:
- Ali works for a large hotel chain and is blind. In seeking to keep his job and advance at his company, he requested that the company’s intranet system operate effectively with his screen reader software program to perform his job and participate in management training programs.
- Kerry has a print disability which prevents him from gaining information from printed material in the standard way. He claimed that his company did not accommodate his print disability during the online hiring process as they required completion of an online assessment within time constraints. Since his use of screen reader software did not enable him to process the questions in the allotted time frame, he requested a reasonable extension of time.
- Michael, an attorney for the U.S. government who has a print disability, wanted to telecommute to work on certain allowable days like the other employees. Unfortunately, the intranet service, and the agency’s online remote security systems, and Virtual Learning Center were not compatible with Michael’s screen reader software.
These stories, along with others, involve individuals with disabilities seeking full and equal opportunity in employment. All relate to technology accessibility, and all point to the need for “eQuality for all” in today’s workplaces.
So, what can be done to support individuals across the spectrum of disability to attain employment and achieve opportunities for economic independence and self-sufficiency? One answer is that web-based educational, vocational, and rehabilitation programs must offer accessible and tailored training and transition-to-work programs. In addition, web equality must be a driving principle throughout the entire life course of people with disabilities. That means educational experiences and career development programs serving youth with disabilities must feature web content that is both accessible and written in plain language.
And, of course, the wide range of technology applications used both during a job search and on the job must be made accessible to all users, including those with cognitive disabilities. This applies to technology used during hiring practices, employee orientations, onboarding, work-related training, online collaboration, web-based learning, and more. All involve issues of web equality. Similar efforts should be considered for job retention and career advancement, performance review, injury prevention and return-to-work programs, as well as in post-employment and retirement issues. Without such efforts and awareness, qualified individuals with disabilities often experience a “technological wall” that inhibits their abilities and opportunities for career advancement.
Twenty-five years ago, Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the web, understood that the web maintains its participatory integrity when its content—its meaning and use—is open to all. This is what the disability community seeks. Not to hinder web and workplace operations, but rather to have the full and equal choice to participate online in the same ways as do others. The question we must ask is not what the world would be like without web content equality, but why we would choose to live in a world without it. Web content equality supports the promise of independence as well as the equal opportunity to participate in the workplace.