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The UW and society: IT accessibility after 30 years of ADA

On July 26, 1990, President George H.W. Bush signed the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). In doing so, he said, “I now lift my pen to sign this Americans with Disabilities Act and say: Let the shameful wall of exclusion finally come tumbling down.”

Thirty years later, a lot has happened to make American society, including the University of Washington, more accessible. For example, there are curb cuts, ramps, accessible entrances into buildings, braille signage, accessible crosswalks, and accessible parking spaces. And systems are in place to provide accommodations for students, employees, and visitors with disabilities. However, despite all these gains, there are still shortcomings in all these areas.

Accessibility of information technology is similar. When the ADA was passed in July 1990, the World Wide Web was an idea posed by Tim Berners-Lee, but it hadn’t been implemented yet, and computer technology was many years from becoming the ubiquitous tool and resource that it is today. Technology has grown exponentially in the last 30 years, and the accessibility community has worked hard to keep pace with that evolution and ensure new innovative technologies could be used by everyone. At the UW and throughout society, we have made progress in making IT accessible, including websites, digital documents, videos, hardware, and software. It is technically possible to make nearly all of these technologies accessible today by following standards and best practices. However, many of the technologies in common use today are not accessible, and as a higher education community, we still have a lot of work to do to ensure our IT resources provide benefits, rather than barriers, to students, employees, and visitors who use them.

Anyone at the UW who distributes a document in Word, PDF, or Google Docs; uploads a video; creates a website; or has a role in making an IT purchasing decision; has the responsibility of ensuring that IT resource is accessible to everyone. UW-IT Accessible Technology Services provides this website, and a variety of activities and events designed to support the UW community in this effort.

Over the next week, and throughout the summer, there will be opportunities at the UW to celebrate the positive changes made possible by the ADA and to consider next steps—as individuals, departments, and as a university community—for continuing to improve accessibility.

  • Monday, July 27, 11am – 1pm: The Washington State ADA 30th anniversary celebration will include presentations by Governor Inslee and Lt. Governor Habib, as well as disability advocates and community leaders. It will also include historical video footage, an interactive panel discussion, and musical entertainment. The event will stream live on TVW.
  • Thursday, July 30, 10am – Noon: Tech Talks, sponsored by UW Tech Connect, will feature a talk by Sheryl Burgstahler, Hadi Rangin, and myself titled ADA Anniversary: 30 Years Of Breaking Down Barriers in IT Accessibility. This session will explore how assistive technology and technology accessibility have evolved over the last 30 years, plus barriers that still exist and strategies for addressing them as we move into the future. For additional information, including a Zoom link, see this event on the Seattle Campus Calendar.
  • Now through October: Take the IT Accessibility Challenge 2020! Do your part to help realize the vision of the ADA by completing any of 20 simple actions to make websites, Canvas courses, online documents, and videos more accessible.
President George H.W. Bush signs the ADA
President George H.W. Bush signs the ADA on the South Lawn of the White House. Sharing the moment as he signs the Act are (standing left to right): Rev. Harold Wilkie of Clairmont, California; Sandra Parrino, National Council on Disability; (seated left to right): Evan Kemp, Chairman, Equal Opportunity Commission; and Justin Dart, Presidential Commission on Employment of People with Disabilities.