When I was 18 years old, while on vacation with my family, I was driving back from the beach on a summer night, when in the blink of an eye, I lost control of my vehicle and my car rolled over in an accident that broke my back, paralyzing me from a spinal cord injury. As an active, athletic, college-bound teenager, I woke up in a hospital E.R. to the news that I would never walk again. And the doctors were right: I haven’t walked in 40 years and have been in a wheelchair every day since.
As I recovered from my injury and re-entered life, I found the physical world to be a mixed bag in terms of accessibility. Schools, restaurants, theaters, concerts, stores, just hanging out in a public place with friends — all usually required planning in advance. I needed to think about things like whether there was a ramp or stairs to enter the building, whether the doors and spaces were wide enough for my wheelchair, whether there was a parking place that would allow me to get my wheelchair out, and whether there was an accessible restroom. While some situations worked out, many did not.
But why am I sharing this part of my life, and starting out discussing my experiences as a person with disabilities? Because when it comes to creating a fair and just world for individuals with disabilities, we still have a lot of work left to do. While perhaps not intentional, what I experienced was a form of discrimination that prevented me from doing things with the same freedoms that individuals without disabilities took for granted every day.
However, things changed for the better.
Thirty years ago, this month, lawmakers passed sweeping legislation to end disability discrimination in America. The Americans with Disabilities Act (A.D.A.) is a civil rights law that guarantees access for individuals with disabilities to all areas of public life — including places like banks, movie theaters, schools, and restaurants. It went further to also transform employment opportunities, requiring employers to provide reasonable accommodations to any qualified job applicant. It prohibits governments from discriminating against individuals with regard to programs, activities, and public services. This was life-changing legislation for me, allowing me to go through my everyday life without worrying about physical barriers, and allowed me to thrive in the physical world.
But the world continues to change, and the world we live in today is no longer merely just physical. We have been moving online for decades and recently, with the impact of coronavirus forcing so many of us to work from home, school from home, and socialize from home, the digital world is becoming as important, possibly even more so, than the physical one. With physical distancing as a mandate, look no further than your own kitchen counter to homeschool your children or take your latest video conference call. We are now in a post-COVID digitally dependent world. For me, I rely on my computer as much as I rely on my wheelchair.
Now, imagine barriers preventing you from interacting in this digitally reliant world. You need to order groceries or supplies, and you can’t, because the e-commerce site isn’t accessible. You try to pay your utility bill and can’t; the website’s navigation isn’t set up logically. You can’t seem to sign up for unemployment assistance; the form isn’t accessible for you. You missed the latest emergency alert because your social media site doesn’t provide captions. This is what individuals with disabilities face daily — and we’re no small segment of the population.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 26 percent of the U.S. adult population has some form of disability. Sixty-one million Americans are unable to hear, or unable to see, or have mobility issues or cognitive challenges. Furthermore, a 2020 report revealed that of the million most popular web pages in today’s world, 98 percent presented accessibility barriers. That means one in every four adults is unable to seamlessly navigate the most popular online content. And with 12 million websites created every month, statistics indicate the problem is getting worse, not better, for individuals with disabilities.
This type of unequal access wasn’t OK 30 years ago, and it shouldn’t be OK today.
Today, I am the CEO of a company committed to creating an internet that is accessible for individuals of all abilities. I know that I’ve benefitted incredibly from the access that has been enabled in the physical world by the A.D.A., and because of those experiences for me and others like me, we won’t stop until we can confidently declare the online world is equally accessible.
But we can’t do this work alone. The A.D.A. was passed because communities throughout America came to the consensus that something needed to change. Protestors and professionals alike came together for a common cause. It’s time for all of us to apply that same effort, energy, and impassioned work to spearhead a new revolution. We need a digital revolution that guarantees the same freedoms for the entire population.
So, as we reflect on 30 years of incredible progress when it comes to equal rights for individuals with disabilities, we have work left to do. My hope is that you educate yourself about digital accessibility and join me in my commitment to ensuring no one, regardless of ability, is left behind.