Opinion: Blocking the Disabled on the Web Means Blocking Innovation

Without the inspiration and innovation of two disabled individuals, the digital world likely wouldn’t be what it is today. Yet that same world so summarily excludes disabled individuals today that we’re eliminating the very people we will need to solve the web’s future problems.

Since the Americans with Disabilities Act was passed in 1990, our nation has worked to accommodate the needs of the disabled. Because of this, almost one in five disabled adults are now employed. But equal access has been ignored in the digital world. Almost 98 percent of the homepages of the top million websites are to some degree inaccessible today.



Jason McKee is a cofounder of Accessibility Shield.
The simplest way to understand accessibility is to unplug your mouse and monitor. Try to navigate a website using only a keyboard. Building a site that works with this method is not difficult or expensive. It requires mere adherence to the standards that were established more than 20 years ago by the World Wide Web Consortium, which is chaired by World Wide Web inventor Tim Berners-Lee . Unfortunately, the average web designer or developer either doesn’t know about these standards, or ignores them.
US companies are being pressured to comply with these standards under ADA requirements. In the most high-profile case to date, Domino’s petitioned the Supreme Court to hear its case and to rule that such accommodation to the disabled population should not be required. Last month, the court ruled that it would not hear the case, reaffirming the lower court’s decision that the billion-dollar pizza chain must make its website and mobile app accessible for disabled users.

As we grow more accustomed to paying bills, working, learning, communicating, filing taxes, and registering to vote online, it will be harder to live without access to the web. Applying accessibility standards now will benefit millions of Americans and nearly 1 billion disabled people around the world. It will also be easier, and cheaper, than doing it later.

The digital innovations we enjoy today were brought about in large part by a few unique individuals blessed with brilliant minds and tenacity. As it happens, some were disabled, and it was their disability that inspired their innovation.

In 1971, Vint Cerf was a PhD candidate at UCLA when he learned about a digital communication project. Because he is deaf, Cerf was intrigued by the idea of communicating through computers, and he decided to make it his life’s work. The project, known as Arpanet, was the earliest glimmer of today’s internet. Cerf’s work provided the infrastructure for the web Berners-Lee would create in 1989.Around the same time, Josef Engressia, who was born blind, helped revolutionize personal computing. Engressia, who later changed his name to Joybubbles, had acute hearing, and was drawn to the telephone. By age seven, he had learned how to manipulate the phone system’s computers. A series of specific tones, he discovered, signaled the system to connect callers at specific locations around the world. Joybubbles also had absolute pitch, and could whistle these tones into the phone to fool the computer into thinking the money had been paid for the call. He first made headlines after being arrested at a pay phone where he was charging people $1 to place long distance calls. Word spread and soon there developed a community of “phreakers,” the earliest hackers.
When Steve Jobs learned about Joybubbles’ work, he was inspired to create his first digital offering to the world. He asked his friend Steve Wozniak to build a device that could make the tones needed to fool the phone system. Others had created similar devices, but these so-called “blue boxes” were mechanical and often unreliable. Jobs knew digital technology would make a device more effective, reliable, and powerful.