By Jeremy Curry
When you think about accessibility, does your mind often wander to disabled parking spots or curb cuts for wheelchair access; perhaps even the large, disabled stall with cold, silver metal bars in the restroom? In today’s world, this is merely a small segment of accessibility. In fact, it hardly touches the surface. As time has passed and the world transforms into a digital marketplace where nearly everyone pays their bills online, purchases products and services on the web, uses a computer at work or school, accesses entertainment via the Internet; you name it, the world now accesses just about everything on the web. Now, think back to what your first thought was regarding accessibility. In the digital world, how does a curb cut for a wheelchair help? How does the disabled parking spot help? Or, how does the disabled restroom stall help? All of these things are important, but when we think about accessibility, the digital world requires accessibility similar to buildings or brick and mortar businesses, but in a context that allows people with disabilities to access the content on a website. As the world has progressed, we must not leave people with disabilities behind. Over the past few years, this has become clear in the corporate world as Section 508 and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) apply to the digital world we now find ourselves. As corporations continue to improve accessibility into their systems, some may wonder if this is purely to satisfy government regulations. Or, perhaps it is only to avoid litigation? While regulation and litigation have certainly helped to drive the “accessibility renaissance”, they are not the starting points. The starting points begin with actual people; real people, who rely on the same technology that everyone else does to perform their job, do their work at school, buy products and services online, and everything else that has become commonplace in this digital world.
Please allow me to help put a face on just one of the millions of people with disabilities who require access to the same things that the general population does every day. This is a story that is very personal to me. . . my story. In the mid-1990s, I was attending public high school just like any other typical American teenager, driving to places to hang out with my friends, and generally having fun. I had various dreams of what I would do after high school, and those dreams eventually solidified into wanting to join the United States Marine Corps (USMC). During the first half of my senior year, I decided to sign up for the USMC and serve my country. Being a large guy at 6 feet, 4 inches tall with a size 17 shoe, I was a poster child for the Marine Corps. During sign up, I passed all the tests with flying colors, except for one - the eye exam. I had never had great sight growing up, but I was able to get my driver’s license, so I certainly should have had no problem passing this time, too. Nevertheless, after a battery of tests, I was declared permanently disqualified for military service. I had no idea what had happened, but my world was about to be turned upside down.
The inability to join the USMC due to poor eyesight created the need to see my eye doctor. To their surprise, the test revealed that in just 6 short months, my vision dropped from 20/20 to 20/80. Not even glasses or contacts could correct my vision. I didn’t understand what was happening. I bounced from specialist to specialist to in an attempt to determine what caused the issue, so that I could fix the problem. After numerous theories and doctors, including the theory of having a brain tumor push on my optic nerve, I finally ended up at the Midwest Eye Institute in Indianapolis on a cold winter, Indiana morning in December 1996, enduring grueling and painful tests. Finally, everything was done and the results had been reviewed.
I sat patiently waiting in a silent, dark examination room anxious for the doctor to arrive. After what seemed like an eternity, the brass knob turned on the door and the doctor slowly entered the room. To this day, I remember the exact moment the doctor stood in front of me in her white lab coat and told me what no one would ever want to hear. “Jeremy,” she said, “You are going to lose your sight. You have Cone Dystrophy. There is no known cure, and you will never lose all of your eyesight where everything is black, but you won’t be able to see anything.” I went into shock as I didn’t believe her at first. I asked what medicines I could take or what could be done, and again, she quietly noted that there is no cure.
I quickly found myself in a place where no one wants to be. It wasn’t until later in life that I read a study that noted most people would rather be told they have terminal cancer or virtually anything else besides being told they would go blind. At 18-years old, I had no idea what to do. College was not in my original plan, and the military was quickly a dream that would never come to fruition. My world was crushed, and I literally didn’t know where to turn or what to do. The initial thought that crossed my mind was that I was going to do absolutely nothing the rest of my life and live off of disability income, which is something that is 180 degrees from my personality. Emotionally, mentally; I was devastated. “Those people” that use disabled parking. . .I was now part of “those people.” My guess would be that when you first started reading about accessibility, that is exactly what you thought. . . ”those people.” But, the reality is that people with disabilities can be any one of us. It might not be you today, but it might be you tomorrow. Or, it might be you in 5 years or more. Over the past 20 years, I have gone from being fully sighted to using a cane and now a guide dog. It hasn’t been easy by any stretch of the imagination. But, as the world becomes more digital and ultimately, more accessible, I’m able to do nearly anything that anyone else can do. However, if the world were not accessible, none of this would be possible. This is where Interactive Accessibility comes in. We help our clients understand, incorporate, and implement accessibility into everything they do. It’s not about rules and regulations; guidelines and litigation; it’s about people. It’s literally about people like me, and perhaps even people like you.
My story may sound like an extreme circumstance, but let’s look at some of the demographics. According to the American Foundation for the Blind, approximately 21 million people in the United States are visually impaired (http://www.afb.org/info/blindness-statistics/research-navigator-just-how-many-blind-folks-are-there-anyway/25). That means nearly 7% of the entire U.S. population is visually impaired. Companies who want to reach the masses would certainly not ignore 21 million people, no matter which demographic it concerns. Adding in all people with disabilities in the U.S. equates to nearly 20% of the population according to the U.S. Census Bureau (https://www.census.gov/newsroom/releases/archives/miscellaneous/cb12-134.html). That’s about 57 million people! So, why make your website accessible? If your site is not accessible, you are potentially not able to sell your products and services to almost 20% of the U.S. population! That’s a huge market potential, and as our population ages, the number is expected to grow considerably. In fact, the U.S. Census Bureau estimates that 56% of women and 45% of men over age 65 have a disability. Combine that with the fact that American households aged 65 and older have 47 times more money than younger households (http://money.cnn.com/2011/11/07/news/economy/wealth_gap_age/) and you have a formula that exhibits a market with a vast amount of wealth that you will not be able to serve if your website isn’t accessible. Therefore, making your site is not only the right thing to do, it’s not only to comply with laws and regulations, but it helps you to serve your customers better and reach markets that you may not currently reach. Ultimately, it’s about people, and ensuring that everyone has access to all of the goods and services available on the web, including yours.