Making Technology Accessible for People with Disabilities: A Guide to Standards and Advocacy Organizations

Published December 3, 2014

By Communications Team

Accessibility standards are driving some of the most profound changes in content and software at McGraw-Hill.

December 3rd is the International Day of Persons With Disabilities (IDPwD) - a United Nations-sponsored day to promote understanding, well-being, and rights for the over 1 billion people worldwide who are living with life-impacting physical and mental impairments. This year's IDPwD theme is Sustainable Development: The Promise of Technology.

For decades now technology has played a key role in making education and learning opportunities accessible and inclusive for people with permanent and temporary disabilities. Accessibility issues play an increasingly important role in how we approach learning system and content development at McGraw-Hill, for example:

  • We’re embedding accessibility into every part of the Agile development practice: from business analysis to information architecture to visual design to development to QA and beyond.
  • We’re making accessibility concerns part of our continuous improvement process.
  • Since we’re in international organization, we’ve aligned ourselves with the world-wide WCAG 2.0 guidelines.

Below are some of the leading standards and organizations that are dedicated to ensuring that technology is equally accessible to all individuals - regardless of physical or mental conditions or impairments.

U.S. Government Section 508 Compliance
Section 508 compliance is regulated by the Information Technology Services Council (ITSC) of the U.S. General Services Administration (GSA). IT vendors who contract with federally funded agencies or receive federal funding are required to complete Voluntary Product Accessibility Templates (VPATs) that describe the accessibility features of their products and/or services in detail.

"Section 508 compliant" refers to technologies and systems that meet the Standards for Electronic and Information Technology that have been defined in accordance with the United States Workforce Rehabilitation Act of 1973. Put simply, the goal of Section 508 is to ensure that technology licensed by the U.S. government can be used the same by people with and without visual, auditory, speech, and other physical impairments. Put in practice, this means including features like text-to-speech capability, adjustable text size and color, closed captioning, and duplicate keyboard/mouse functionality in any technology applications and related media.

Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI)
Led by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), the Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) seeks to make all public content equally accessible to those with and without physical impairments. In addition to influencing domestic and international web accessibility policies, another dimension of WAI activity is to improve the flexibility and utility of Web content to make it accessible and useful for people affected by temporary physical disabilities - such as having a broken arm. The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.0 explains the latest requirements, techniques, and features that are recommended by the W3C to make Web technology accessible for all.

Advocacy Organizations & Groups Promoting Technology Accessibility
With over one billion people living with disabilities worldwide, there are many organizations and advocacy groups that have been formed to help ensure equitable access to technology - among other issues affecting the workplace and educational institutions. Below are some of the most recognized organizations promoting technology accessibility and research on best practices for those living with physical impairments:

  • Coalition of Organizations for Accessible Technology (COAT): An online community of people and organizations who support global technology accessibility. COAT maintains a comprehensive list of organizations promoting technology accessibility at the federal, state, and local level.
  • Assistive Technology Industry Association (ATIA): A coalition of manufacturers and distributors of assistive technologies and services. ATIA is dedicated to ensuring that all people with disabilities have access to the most helpful and effective learning and assistive technologies.
  • Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) National Network: The largest community of disabled persons and advocacy organizations in the United States. ADA offers technology resources that focus on ensuring equitable access and functionality in learning and assistive technologies made available to those living with handicaps.
  • National Association of the Deaf (NAD): The largest U.S. based advocacy organization for the deaf and those with hearing impairments. The NAD focuses heavily on accessibility issues related to closed captioning in technology systems.
  • American Occupational Therapy Association (AOTA): The ATOA's efforts focus on promoting occupational therapy services and organizations that help ensure that all disabled persons in the workplace are afforded the same capabilities, opportunities, and access to technology as those who do not have impairments. AOTA's work also helps support the research and development of assistive technologies to help compensate for physical impairments.
  • American Foundation for the Blind (AFB): The AFB's technology services group conducts audits and produces resources to help ensure that visually impaired persons can effectively use and access and technology systems and services. The AFB also helps connect handicapped individuals with products and companies that make specific accommodations for the visually impaired.