Facebook, LinkedIn, Microsoft, Adobe and Yahoo are just some of the tech companies joining forces for a new initiative that aims to make tech more accessible to people with disabilities through higher education.
Teaching Accessibility launched last week ahead of the 25th anniversary of the Americans With Disabilities Act, with the goal of encouraging college students to build online tools, raise awareness, and increase training on unique issues impacting the disability community.
“Students in fields such as design, computer sciences and human computer interaction must be better prepared to enter the workforce and create future technologies that are truly inclusive. Only then will technology reach its true potential for connecting and enabling everyone in the world,” according to Teaching Accessibility’s principles and objectives.
How products are used by people with various impairments, such as color-blindness or dyslexia, aren’t a required part of the college curriculum for developers and programmers. But companies such as Yahoo aim to change that internally and through Teaching Accessibility.
“We’re not alone in the tech field in wanting our employees to be more up to speed in making the Web more accessible,” said Larry Goldberg, who runs Yahoo’s accessibility team, a small but mighty group of developers and designers who test all of the internet company’s products to make sure they can be used by people of all abilities. “Just like teaching cybersecurity in computer science classes, accessibility needs to be taught. We had to grow our own [accessibility-trained staff] instead of expecting them to know it like HTML or any other tech skill” right out of school.
Stanford University, University of Maryland, Georgia Tech University, the University of Colorado’s cognitive disabilities institute, and Carnegie Mellon University have all signed on to the program with the mission of making accessibility mainstream. Through Teaching Accessibility, partners will edit all levels of current college curricula for computer science, design, and research programs. The program will also work to expand internships and research grants for projects that focus on accessibility.
To test products, Yahoo regularly assembles user groups, including people with various impairments. The company also built an accessibility lab in its Sunnyvale, California headquarters, which allows newly hired developers to experience what it’s like to use the internet with a disability and the tech solutions that improve usability. Similar to the initiative, Yahoo plans to help change how college students think about tech accessibility by emphasizing in job descriptions a preference for experience in developing product accessibility, Goldberg said. The goal is “building it right the first time.”
The privacy community began emphasizing the importance of cybersecurity years ago, and society is reaping the benefits of those early conversations, Goldberg said. “We want to see the same happen with access.”
Accessibility isn’t a new concept and tech companies have been criticized for disregarding how products and services can be used by people of different abilities. Ride-hailing apps Uber and Lyft, for example, are fighting lawsuits for discriminating against blind and wheelchair-bound users.
“At the end of the day, accessibility is about understanding a diverse demographic of people and doing your best to provide a service that does not discriminate. It’s a lot easier to think about it from the start,” Laurence Berry, an accessibility designer with FutureGov, a London-based tech firm for public services, said in an email to ThinkProgress. “It’s great that these tech companies are getting more involved in accessibility, I think that in the end we all need to understand what accessibility is and take responsibility for ensuring what we are working on is accessible.”
To make sure its products work for a diverse group of users, FutureGov has created an app that lets users create and draw from a database of “personas” as a way “to better understand how people with diverse needs and abilities will access our websites,” Berry said, adding that he hopes to make the app available through open source soon. “The tool is for quick reference during the design and development stages and mixes in a variety of additional user needs from visual impairments to cerebral palsy in to your persona collections.”
“We recognise [sic] that not everyone approaches the web in the same way and try to think carefully about how to create an experience that everyone can benefit from,” Berry said. “Empathy plays a huge part in this. Experiencing the service or product from a wide variety of different perspectives helps us to understand where frustrating interactions or show-stopping blockers occur, to think more critically and more carefully consider design decisions to create a better experience for everyone — not just a few.”