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Federal Government Limits Web Access Article

Robert Johnston (Stafford, Virginia) has problems accessing the internet. Drop-down menus open without provocation. When he does want them, they often disappear just as inexplicably. No, it’s not his connection or the machinations of a temperamental operating system. Robert, a federal government senior information management specialist, belongs to a growing group experiencing internet-access restrictions. A new study predicts further deterioration without changes to the law.

“A Second-Class Minority”

Americans experiencing discrimination on the basis of race, religion, ethnicity and gender have powerful resources under the law. Robert’s group, however, has little protection. Like 18 percent of the population, Robert has a disability. Since age 17, he has been legally blind.

Accessibility for people with disabilities is limited. It often comes when the product is already obsolete. This profoundly impacts education and employment. The November, 2011 issue of the First Monday Journal (University of Illinois, Chicago) features an academic study explaining the issues and recommending solutions. Retrofitting accessibility: The legal inequality of after-the-fact online access for persons with disabilities in the United States by Brian Wentz, Paul T. Jaeger, and Jonathan Lazar, warns that disability laws are creating a “separate but unequal” online environment and a “permanent underclass.”

“If current U.S. laws were revised to encourage born–accessible technology and there was consistent enforcement of such laws,” the study abstract states, “the online experience of millions of individuals with disabilities could be drastically improved.”

Ineffective Laws

The Americans with Disabilities Act, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act and the Rehabilitation Act were supposed to equalize the playing field. Nevertheless, little progress has been made. Over 70% of qualified, educated Americans with disabilities are unemployed or under employed.

Capability isn’t the problem. Tim Cordes graduated from medical school in 2010
He wasn’t the first blind man to do so. Other blind people work as NASA engineers, ADAs, mechanics and in many professions often considered impossible without sight.

Why the Dichotomy?

It’s largely due to the growing gap in digital accessibility. Once hailed as the great equalizer for blind people, the digital revolution, despite its possibilities and the improvement over pre-computer days, is now leaving people with disabilities behind.

It affects everything from home and office appliances with digital interfaces to software. It is especially problematic in the area of internet access, essential for education, employment, shopping and recreation. This might be understandable if accessibility was technologically impossible or expensive, but neither is the case. The problem is that accessibility is not mandated.

Robert’s story

Johnston, who has Macular Degeneration, has worked since age 14 and has three children. He can walk around independently but can’t read normal print. His degree is in history and communications from California State University, (San Bernardino). He appreciates being able to “pass” as sighted. This ability shields him from the prejudices that accompany disability, but not from their impacts in the digital world.

There are many accessibility issues. For instance, he can’t read prices in stores. ATM’s are not all alike. If he needs to use an unfamiliar ATM, he may have to ask a stranger.

“So many things require you to swipe a card,” Johnston explained, It’s a privacy issue."

People with limited vision routinely deal with compromising and potentially dangerous invasions of privacy. Not only must they divulge sensitive information to strangers, but this is often done where others can hear. It’s an embarrassment and exposes them to the criminal element.

The One-Solution Fallacy

“The authorities see only the extremes,” Johnston said, “You’re either totally blind or fully sighted.”

One-size-fits-all solutions don’t work. Johnston stated that most visually impaired Americans don’t read Braille. Furthermore, audio access doesn’t help people who are deaf and blind. Neither helps those who can’t use their hands.

Computer Access

Software like the screen reader Jaws (which converts text to speech or Braille), the magnification and screen reader Zoomtext (which Johnston uses) and the voice-activated Dragon NaturallySpeaking already exist. They only work, according to the study’s lead author Dr. Wentz, when software and websites include the special combinations of 1s and 0s that provide the bridge they need to operate.

Accessibility & Work History

Johnston was an owner-operator of businesses in California state office buildings. He ran snack bars and cafeterias, operating several simultaneously. He had employees and dealt with all facets of running a successful business. Then, he applied for a job at olive garden “to try my corporate hat.”

He mentioned his disability on the application, but when he was hired, his boss was shocked by his blindness. Johnston managed for two years, until they got an inaccessible computer system. He left and returned to college. In his junior year, he landed an internship at the Pentagon.

“It was an awesome job,” he recalled, “and it set the stage for where I am today.”

He’s worked for the federal government ever since, but it took four months to get an accessible computer. He knew what to do, but they insisted upon figuring it out themselves.

“I’ve seen them spend way too much money trying to help,” he said, “when all they had to do was to ask the person.”

Show of Compliance

Johnston stated that President Clinton issued an executive order to hire 100,000 people with disabilities over five years. It didn’t happen. Another Clinton executive order called for the federal government to provide reasonable accommodation. Obama re-instituted these orders. Agencies were told to have plans in place by a certain date, but the date has passed without compliance.

“When you don’t have accountability through enforcement and penalties,” he said, "change doesn’t occur.”

The law, according to Johnston, is too vague, and he agrees with Wentz’s study that it is fostering a permanent underclass. The irony is that the federal government can say they’ve tried. If anyone says it isn’t working, the government can choose not to respond and there’s no recourse.

“Other groups are treated differently, because of the fear of retaliation,” he said.

To help its employees advance, Johnston’s agency created an e-learning environment. They procured a theoretically accessible conduit.

“But because expedience trumps virtue," he said, "the agency took their word that it worked.”

The testers weren’t users. Sighted testers tried the program with Jaws, not ZoomText or Dragon Speak. Even for Jaws users, however, the program is clumsy and difficult to navigate. Furthermore, the conduit must be downloaded by the user. The first version wasn’t available in an executable file — the type that automatically stores the files on your computer. The user must have the savvy to know what to do with them. Even Robert’s tech people at work had problems with it.

“It wouldn’t be ok if everyone had to do that.”

Uncertain Future

Though the federal government created an accessibility resource center, Johnston said it is underused. “With no way to enforce compliance, it’s not going to be a quick fix.”

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