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Accessibility in Education
Who is Responsible for all the Inaccessible Technology in the World? - Part II
When there are several accessible software and technologies in the market, why do we continue to use inaccessible devices, asks Lucy Greco.
Recently our campus had to make a difficult decision about what to do when outsourcing some of our primary campus tools. We needed to find a more effective e-mail and calendaring system to modernize our capacity. Like many other campuses, we were looking at the choices between Google and Microsoft. What I did as an assistive technology advocate and specialist was to provide them the information that I know about how the two companies treat accessibility (Download Publication: Accessibility of Gmail and Google Calendar). Ultimately the campus went with Google, not because it was the better product (and if you look at the scoring, Google actually did score lower) but because there is a visible trend of improvement overall. When it comes to accessibility, Google declared openness and continuing development of accessibility. However, Microsoft did not take any stance towards the place of accessibility in future.
How can we as advocates for accessibility and technology help fix these problems in the future? In the open market, the only way we can do this is through our buying power. My campus has massive buying power and ultimately they said that what they want is improvement and change. The status quo, although it may be basically accessible, does have its little inaccessible gremlins that have never been addressed or changed. Apple has had an accessible installer since 2006 or earlier. Many UNIX versions had accessible installers shortly thereafter. I seem to recall seeing a demonstration of how to install Solaris accessibly in 2007 or so. Two versions of Windows later and soon to be three, and we are still not there.
How do we make sure that other institutions start to make the same kind of statement? People with disabilities need to speak up continually and eloquently. I'm a firm believer in winning people over to your side and not fighting to bring them over. I have worked for many years to demonstrate and educate this campus in what it means to be accessible. I’ve had a small impact, but more importantly, the people I worked with have also had an impact. By teaching others about accessibility and access issues, they themselves became advocates for the cause. I have never been aggressive or hostile to any program or person about accessibility; instead I've always worked with them as a team member and always try to find a positive with every negative. Ultimately the people I work with become better advocates for accessibility than I could ever be independently.
This is how I feel I made a difference in some of our campus’ decisions: I have recently been asked to join two national coalitions working on issues of adoption of technology. One of these coalitions is a group of universities working on a pilot for electronic text. This group comprises people from both IT and assistive technology organizations within the different universities. All the people in this group want to find a way to make the products used in this pilot more accessible. I am excited to be part of such an organization, but I know that we cannot be effective if the administrators at our campuses don't take note of what we say. I feel especially lucky to know that when I do come out with an evaluation of how accessible a product is or isn’t, my campus will listen and take what I say into account. They may not follow my suggestions, but I do know that at least part of what I say is important to them. Those of us in the field need to ensure that we have enough clear content and feedback going to the administrators that some of it will sink in.
Now I want to address those administrators: Ultimately you, the CIOs and the educational technology administrators and you, the faculty, are responsible for the future of campus accessibility. If you decide to purchase a product or use a tool or utility that is ultimately accessible for everyone, you're sending a message to the manufacturers and vendors of products. Even open source software should have its accessibility evaluated by the university administrators.
When you buy a product without knowing if it is accessible, you are telling the world that it's okay to be inaccessible. Only by educating ourselves about what makes a product accessible can we be sure that what the university buys or uses is accessible. If you don't know, find one of us in the industry of assistive technology to help you check the item for accessibility and we will gladly do so. Don't automatically believe the vendor when they tell you their product is accessible! You wouldn't buy a car from a salesman who tells you that it was fuel efficient if it didn't have an actual fuel-efficiency rating. Why would you buy a product from the vendor who tells you that it is accessible without testing?
Also be aware when you use open-source products: The open-source market tends to be more accessible by design, but also has inaccessible pitfalls and barriers. The reason for this is that making things work accessibly takes a few more steps that are sometimes missed. Open-source products also suffer from the problem of too many cooks in the kitchen. An open-source project may have all the commitment in the world to accessibility, but the team that worked on a single module may be all it takes to “break” that particular product. However, the plus to open-source technology is that if you find something that's broken, you're more than welcome to fix it. So giving back to the community and helping to make a more accessible product is actually the best decision an administrator could take.
To answer the question in the title, “Who is responsible for all the inaccessible technology in this world?” I have to look extraordinarily close to home. After all, I bought Windows, I bought my screen reader and I made the choice to use the tools I use and work around problems in the products that I use. Ultimately the finger can be pointed precisely at me - we the consumers of products. Whether we consumers are individuals, universities or government agencies, we all share the blame. But I feel that the more money used to purchase a product that is inaccessible, the greater the consumer’s culpability when that product remains inaccessible. I may not have a choice in which database my office uses, but I do have a choice in the screen reader I use, so I am influencing the market at the micro level, while the administrators influence it at the macro level.Although I am not completely blameless, I share the blame with people that have much more buying power than I will ever have. So let’s see how much influence can be wielded by the large-scale purchasing powers and, no less importantly, the collective voices assembled at any university to create greater awareness and develop and promote accessible products.
Lucy Greco is a blind advocate for accessible technology. An Assistive Technology Specialist at UC Berkeley, San Francisco Bay Area, Greco is the user of various assistive technologies since the early 1980s. She is passionate about the ways technology makes the world more accessible to everyone but especially to individuals with disabilities.
Related Blog: Who is Responsible for all the Inaccessible Technology in the World? - Part I. Read here.
Related Event: DEEP 2012: Designing Enabling Economies and Policies |Toronto, Canada | May 24-25, 2012. Event details.
ICT Accessibility Organization Profile: WID - World Institute on Disability. Read profile.