Disability Studies Quarterly
Spring 2005, Volume 25, No. 2
Copyright 2005 by the Society
for Disability Studies

How to Make Technology Work: A Study of Best Practices in United States Electronic and Information Technology Companies

Anthony Tusler
Coordinator, Technology Policy Division
World Institute on Disability
E-mail: anthony@WID.org


This article documents the best practices in electronic and information technology (E&IT) companies to make their goods and services accessible to people with disabilities. The results of structured interviews were analyzed and grouped by themes. The research presents discrete best practices that emerged including the need for accessibility champions, the importance of valuing disability, and the value in transforming the company. A case study of AOL's success is included along with recommendations for people with disabilities who wish to advocate for more accessibility to E&IT products. Contributing to the bottom line was found to be the primary motivator for companies to include and maintain accessibility. This article is an abbreviation of the World Institute on Disability publication How to Create Disability Access to Technology.

Keywords: disability, business, technology, universal design


Since the 1970s, the world—particularly the United States—has experienced a subtle, yet profound, change. People with disabilities, who were once relegated to back rooms and second-class citizenship, are now more visible and have secured basic civil rights. Although much work remains to be done, the built environment in particular has radically changed to include assistive listening devices, curb cuts, Braille, and more.

Meanwhile, the digital revolution has dramatically changed the ways we access information, services, and goods. People with vision, hearing, and mobility limitations initially found computers moderately simple to use, making it easier for them to improve their lives through access to jobs, society, and citizenship. That access continues for some people with disabilities. The rise of instant messaging, for instance, has universalized text messaging far beyond the deaf community making communication between the deaf and hearing communities much easier. Unfortunately, other groups of people with disabilities are adversely affected by lack of access due to inaccessible interfaces and software. The increasing use of multi-media, which restricts people with visual or hearing limitations, or the miniaturization of buttons and displays on portable devices, which confounds people with dexterity limitations. Gaining access is increasingly intimidating, difficult, or impossible. The threat to some disabled people's ability to earn a living, communicate, be citizens, and participate in society is disquieting.

In 2002, the World Institute on Disability (WID) held structured interviews and conversations with knowledgeable industry and disability activist experts to discover how leading electronic and information technology (E&IT) companies are successfully making technology accessible, usable, and valuable for people with disabilities. Dedicated to promoting the civil rights and full societal inclusion of people with disabilities, WID is a nonprofit public policy center and an international leader and advocate for increased accessibility to mainstream technology.

The study and the resulting WID publication, How to Create Disability Access to Technology, were funded by the California Consumer Protection Foundation. This paper is an abbreviation of the longer publication. (The full report will be found in the Publications section of WID's Web site, http://www.WID.org/publications). The report cites best practices distilled from the WID interviews and illustrates them with extensive, anonymous examples. It reveals the experiences and lessons learned by these technology industry experts, who are charged with being internal advocates for disability access and concerns. We call them Accessibility Champions. This review of best practices is intended to encourage the technology industry and others to continue improving accessible products and services. As the economic, social, and moral incentives for disability access develop and become known, more accessibility will be created.

One Accessibility Champion recommended that other Accessibility Champions "find true north and follow it." There is social good and profit to be found by including people with disabilities in the design, testing, and marketing of electronic and information technology to ensure accessibility and usability. That is the true north of this report.

What Is Access?

Although disability, as an inclusive term, is valuable when describing the social condition of people with disabilities, "impairments" is a better term for explaining specific access needs. There are five general impairments that should be taken into account when designing accessible products and services: mobility and dexterity; deafness and hearing loss; blindness and low vision; perceptual and cognitive limitations; and speech and language.

A good explanation of creating disability access to E&IT can be found at the Web site of the U.S.-based Telecommunications Industry Association (TIA). TIA's ACCESS—Resource Guide for Accessible Design of Consumer Electronics explains accessible design as:

The term accessible design refers to maximizing the number of potential customers who can readily use a product. While no product can be readily used by everyone, accessible design can impact market size and market share through consideration of the functional needs of all consumers, including those who experience functional limitations as a result of aging or disabling conditions...(TIA, 1996).

Accessible design also benefits individuals without functional limitations. Features that make products useful for people with disabilities and persons experiencing functional limitations normally make them convenient for everyone else. Closed captioning for television programs and voice recognition software are examples of design features originally intended for people with disabilities but frequently used by everyone. Remote controls that can be operated without looking at them will be appealing to anyone who likes to watch movies in the dark, not just to the visually impaired.

Consider these examples of accessible E&IT product designs. A cell phone's visual display or other visual output is large enough, with enough contrast, so that people with low vision or in dim light could read the information. An automatic teller machine (ATM) uses voice prompts, increased size of print, simple fonts, high contrast, labels with icons or graphics, and progress displays to make it easier to use for someone with a cognitive limitation. Individuals with speech limitations may have difficulty using products that require voice communication, such as a telephone or other telecommunications systems. Designers of systems that require voice input should consider providing alternate methods of control.

Cell phone voice-dialing has been added in the last few years to create hands-free calling. While it is valuable for people with manipulation limitations, the component is only available on the most expensive cell phones, putting it out of reach of most people with disabilities. Another problem is when the feature does not find acceptance in the mainstream market. People with disabilities do not have effective methods to inform E&IT companies about the value of technology product options. This leads to the loss of valuable features in the next version of a product.

An advocate explained, "accessibility is another aspect of bringing the computer to the user—to anyone, at any time."

From the Disability Perspective

At the core of this study is the belief that the participation of those directly affected—that is, customers with disabilities—is essential to making products that are useful. When designing products, people often work from stereotypical and inaccurate beliefs about people with disabilities; they try to "help the handicapped" by alleviating the problems they imagine people with disabilities encounter. Unfortunately, such products often miss the mark because their designs are based on unexamined assumptions. Inquiry into the true nature of accessibility needs must include the input of people with disabilities. Otherwise, the solution does not solve the problem, and the problem solvers contribute unwittingly to the loss of autonomy and civil rights for people with disabilities.

In addition, this WID study focuses on environmental solutions to accessibility issues. In the past, the more frequent approach to accessibility was to devise technological fixes specifically tailored to individual disabilities. By locating the problem in the limitations of people with disabilities, rather than in the environment, the solutions place heavy demands on the individual and are costly as well.

During the 1950s and 1960s, the individual approach was preeminent, and as a result, many disabled people were excluded from schools, jobs, and society in general because their disabilities were not easily corrected by technology or the solutions were prohibitively expensive. Even today, most people, including the experts, do not look beyond these individual solutions. A more useful perspective defines the built environment as the problem. This idea arose from disability advocates and has since been refined by disability scholars (Center for an Accessible Society, 2004). Ultimately, environmental solutions are more cost-effective and help far more people in the disability community and in general society.

This paper highlights the environmental strategies used in the E&IT industry because they do the most good for the greatest number of people and have been the least documented.

What Is a Best Practice?

In one of the few best practices reports on disability, Timothy L. Jones noted in 1993,

The fundamental idea is to create an approach for meeting the [Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)] requirements that does not compromise sound human resource policy but enhances it, that does not thwart productivity but unleashes it, that does not burden managers but empowers them. This is what characterizes best practices under the ADA (Jones, 1993).

Jones' comments on the ADA and employment reinforce WID's belief that disability perspectives will make technology more usable and accessible to both people with and without disabilities, and therefore more profitable for businesses.

For this research, we defined a best practice as a business

  • process,
  • procedure,
  • system, or
  • perspective

that results in increased accessibility and usability of E&IT for people with disabilities.

Another criterion we used to validate a best practice was whether parallel practices in other fields have resulted in accessibility. We also investigated whether companies' practices and procedures included culturally competent disability perspectives, that is, the views of those directly affected—people with disabilities.

Accessibility Champions

To successfully bring accessibility to a company's products and services, a central person or unit in the company must articulate and advocate for disability access and inclusion across all its divisions and activities. The term Accessibility Champion is rarely used as an official title, but it is a useful descriptor for the person who has this pivotal role. One person WID interviewed for this study described himself as the Chief Accessibility Evangelist.

The Accessibility Champion's role is not to perform the work of other departments but to act as a resource, cheerleader, and goad, articulating the need to provide accessible solutions for all the company's offerings. He or she must provide one consistent voice and a clear vision for disability inclusion. Consistency and perseverance will effect change.

The Accessibility Champion (AC) serves as a common point of contact for accessibility issues, such as letters from customers regarding their satisfaction with the accessibility of products. The position should have high visibility and carry the authority to resolve accessibility questions and concerns.

Too often the ACs are isolated within their companies. The majority allude to how little progress and how much more needs to be done to make their companies' product accessible beyond that required by the law requiring the U.S. Federal government to purchase accessible E&IT products (Section 508). The ACs often reported how quickly their companies added accessible features to their products. Few of the ACs were able to point to how accessibility or recognizing the disability market has contributed to their companies' bottom line. The concepts and strategies are still too new to have been demonstrated. Nonetheless, Accessibility Champions, on the whole, are optimistic about the fundamental changes they are beginning to implement. These are documented in this paper.

One AC explained: "The group [accessibility unit] works with all areas to address concerns ranging from support networks to the availability of adaptive equipment to the development of emergency evacuation procedures. It is also a clearinghouse of information for people with all types of disabilities, including visual, hearing, and physical impairments." Another AC described his role as "empowering champions and infecting people."

The ultimate goal is to incorporate accessibility so deeply into all aspects of the company that there is no need for an AC, but until accessibility becomes second nature, such an advocate will be needed.

Best practices of value here are to:

  • find someone with passion to be the Accessibility Champion.
  • use the Accessibility Champion to coordinate work between the internal divisions and disability informants.
  • use the Accessibility Champion as a mediator and translator between the advocacy groups and the company.
  • learn about disability.
  • use community-organizing strategies to create change.

Value Disability and People with Disabilities

Most people—disabled and nondisabled—are somewhat disconcerted when they are asked to value disability, because disability is perceived to be tragic and negative. But people with disabilities often report that their lives have been enriched by their experience. They dislike the poverty, exclusion, and hassle, but recognize that disability is an inevitable aspect of being human and growing older. They know, as playwright Neil Marcus says: "Disability is not a 'brave struggle' or 'courage in the face of adversity.' Disability is an art. It's an ingenious way to live."

The challenge of being successful, while having a devalued identity, has led many people with disabilities to be skillful problem solvers and consumers—making them valuable assets for companies that wish to be successful.

Strategies to value disability and people with disabilities were found to:

  • include people with disabilities at all stages of product life and at each step of the design process.
  • use internal employee groups and external advisory committees to understand the needs and concerns of the disability community.
  • be sophisticated about choosing consultants and informants.
  • guard against designing by mistaken assumptions about disability.
  • include disability with other diversity efforts.

Recognize the Disability Market

Three major factors are gathering momentum to create an unprecedented market force for making goods and services accessible for people with disabilities: the existing population of people with disabilities, an aging consumer and workforce base, and disability rights laws. The number of adult Americans with disabilities—currently more than 18 percent of us—is expected to grow. By 2020, 80 million people will be over 65 and an estimated 51% will have disabilities.

The demographics of the Baby Boom generation will help drive access for decades to come. We know much of what will be needed. There is every reason to begin planning and providing accessibility and usability features today (AARP, 2002). Those who are just now reaching age 60 are wealthier and more active than previous generations. Throughout their lives they have had high expectations for their quality of life. Their youthful idealism lead to the Vietnam era demonstrations just as their career paths lead to the consumerism of the 1980s. How Baby Boomers will characterize their identities as they gain disabilities has yet to emerge. This aging and the resulting disabilities will create an opportunity for disability activists to influence that perception and for the consumer market to include disability access to its goods and services. Too few businesses have recognized this emerging market, and awakening their companies to the profits to be had in producing accessible goods and services is one of the chief tasks of Accessibility Champions. Unfortunately, few ACs report that they are gathering statistics about their customers with disabilities. Such data is sorely needed. As one AC noted, "people with disabilities are not just somebody to help; they contribute to the bottom line."

The Best Practices for this section are:

  • identify current, accurate statistics to help define the disability market for the company.
  • use current laws to motivate the company to create accessible goods or services.
  • demonstrate the profitability of access.
  • tie access to mainstream product needs.

Transform the Company

The primary goal of everyone who wants to see his or her company succeed with the disability market is to make accessibility and disability awareness integral to all aspects of the company. As one Accessibility Champion urged, "Try to weave accessibility into the DNA of the company." Whether it is in marketing, research and development, or product documentation, the needs of the disability community should be included.

Update the company's mission, goals, and culture to include accessibility and disability. The vision and values of the company may implicitly include the needs of people with disabilities, but that's not enough; make them explicit. Show senior management how accessibility supports the company mission. Educate them when the company's mission statement mentions accessibility, but company practices do not reflect this commitment.

One school of thought believes it takes seven years of advocacy for social change to occur. To value disability and accessibility is a significant and profound change for a company. Some changes can come quickly, but to transform the whole company to support accessibility and disability diversity will take time and sustained effort.

Companies have found that the following are the keys to changing the company environment:

  • develop a strategic plan for building awareness and implementing accessibility.
  • modify strategies to fit the company's culture, values, and structure.
  • involve senior management in accessibility efforts.
  • address accessibility efforts to all divisions of the company.
  • pay particular attention to recruiting the marketing department.
  • programmers and engineers are key.
  • develop accessibility expertise across the company through education and training.
  • hire people with disabilities both in the accessibility unit and elsewhere.
  • use publicity and the court of public opinion to influence the company.
  • develop strategies to sustain accessibility.

Incorporate Accessibility and Universal Design

The designed world should work for everyone, including people with disabilities. Design specifications for all new and revised E&IT products should include requirements that the product "be usable by all people to the greatest extent possible" (Mace, 1997). This phrase is the core of the Universal Design (UD) concept. According to North Carolina State University's Center for Universal Design, "The intent of universal design is to simplify life for everyone by making products, communications, and the built environment more usable by as many people as possible at little or no extra cost. Universal design benefits people of all ages and abilities" (Mace, 1997). The Trace Center, at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, has embraced UD for its work to make E&IT more accessible to people with disabilities. Both centers have extensive resources on the UD concept and practical suggestions for its implementation.

UD is a powerful tool to convince people within a company to consider expanding the ease of use and accessibility of their products and services. It also provides concrete examples and guidelines that help ease the uncertainty of tackling a new subject.

A good example of UD implementation is Java. Java is a cross-platform programming language that can be used to create everything from a small animation on a Web site to full-blown word processing applications. The American Foundation for the Blind gave Sun Microsystems its Access Award in 2001 "for making accessibility an integral part of the Java platform. The Java Accessibility API software interface allows assistive technologies to communicate with programs written in the Java programming language. This company guides its efforts by its Universal Design philosophy—addressing the accessibility needs of all people in the workplace."

To include everyone in E&IT product design companies have used the following Best Practices:

  • create an implementation plan.
  • create clear documentation of accessibility features for programmers and engineers.
  • develop an internal argument for including accessibility.
  • integrate accessibility into the existing company practices.

Market Accessibility

Creating access isn't enough. Companies must tell people about it. They must market the accessibility of their products and services to customers. Only as a result of effective marketing will accessible products and services contribute to a company's profitability.

At the same time, Accessibility Champions must market accessibility internally to assure that it is valued and sustained throughout the company.

This study identified the following as best practices:

  • inform customers and potential customers with disabilities about accessibility efforts;
  • give customers a way to provide direct feedback on accessibility needs and issues;
  • understand the disability market;
  • stick with core competencies when making accessibility-marketing choices;
  • be careful with images;
  • use accessibility features as a selling point;
  • publicize accessibility efforts internally;
  • develop and use a simple message;
  • develop plans and strategies that can maximize opportunities;
  • institute rewards for good work;
  • document the progress of accessibility efforts.

The Future

What is the future of E&IT? If the past 20 years are any indication, it will be a future of profound change. We will rethink the role of technology and communication. It could be an exciting time of even more access and opportunity for people with disabilities. But the door to education, employment, and civic involvement could also slam shut if accessibility is not built into the core of the new technologies.

Just as we will rethink technology, we will see disability differently. As young people with disabilities become employed and aging Baby Boomers delay retirement and gain disabilities, they will challenge our conceptions of how a worker should look and act.

Baby Boomers have demanded to be engaged and influential in shaping their world. As they age they will surely experience disability. Workers in the U.S. are finding that they need to delay retirement and continue working. There is every reason to think that Boomers will continue to reshape the world to suit themselves as they gray.

The world has been changed already by people with disabilities. A mundane but important access feature is the curb cut. Curb cuts, or curb ramps, make everyone's life easier. All sorts of wheeled vehicles, from wheelchairs and baby strollers to rolling luggage and delivery hand trucks, go easily from the sidewalk to the street and back up again. All new construction includes curb cuts because they are required by Federal and local laws. Lobbying and advocacy by disability groups forced the creation of these statutes because people with disabilities argued that their civil rights were being abridged by a lack of access. The unintended consequences of the creation of curb cuts everywhere are legion, including faster, more efficient deliveries and the use of rolling luggage. Curb cuts have also created a natural crossroads where able-bodied and disabled people meet. The term "electronic curb cuts" was originally coined to describe the need for accessible Web pages. The phrase is now used as an analogy for the need to have all E&IT products be accessible to people with disabilities. In the built environment curb cuts have become useful to so many segments of the population. There is some evidence, for example, captioning of television broadcasts, that "electronic curb cuts" will also be invaluable to everyone.

As people with disabilities gain their civil rights and place in the work force, there is a shift in general society in how people with disabilities are seen. Rather than being a liability, people with disabilities are assets to society and the workplace. This will help people of the greater populace see themselves and their own limitations more positively. This will be a profound shift for a society inundated with images of thin, beautiful, young people.

E&IT continues to be innovative and fast-paced with rapid turnover of products. People with disabilities have been the early adopters of some products. The blind were quick to purchase the then expensive cell phones as they came to market. Electric wheelchair users were not far behind. With the fast pace of product design, it has been difficult for people with disabilities to influence the refinement of interfaces and features. As the E&IT industry matures, though, increased standardization of the interface is likely. After all, most of the world has an assigned place for the brake, accelerator, and steering wheel. As standardization of controls comes down the pike in E&IT they must have Universal Design to include a large percentage of consumers. When standardization in E&IT becomes ubiquitous it is critical that the MP3 player, FAX machine, and the yet-to-be-invented gizmo have standardized buttons, switches, and displays which are accessible. E&IT needs to be easy-to-use for everyone, including people with disabilities.

Easy-to-use is the central idea of Universal Design (UD). The premise of UD is that "the design of products and environments be usable by all people, to the greatest extent possible, without the need for adaptation or specialized design." (Mace, 1997) UD is needed because many products are designed for people who are like the designers. Because the designers are young, able-bodied engineers, their designs work for a small subset of the general population. For years, women have joked and complained about the height of kitchen countertops. Because the architects and contractors were generally men and generally taller than women, they designed and installed countertops that worked for them with little regard for the end user.

The designer and marketing ranks need to include a more diverse group that will take into account the graying of America. There needs to be more designers with disabilities in E&IT companies. The design cycle continues to be so focused on rushing new and revised products to market that little or no time is spent developing thoughtful, effective interfaces. Even Apple's MP3 player, the iPod, with its innovative sleek industrial design and easy-to-use interface lacks accessible design. Its small screen and lack of a large print option makes iPods difficult for many people to use. Unfortunately Apple's competitors are failing to leapfrog Apple's design to produce an even better interface that might include features valuable for people with low vision pointing out the need for people with disabilities to be involved in all cycles of design.

The aging of America and the increase in disabilities will drive E&IT manufacturers to pay more attention to Universal Design. It will not work to design and market products specifically for people with disabilities. The marketing and distribution cost will be prohibitive.

The marketing departments of E&IT companies will demand ease-of-use from their engineers and designers. Marketing staff will develop strategies and campaigns to sell easy-to-use, accessible products to the broadest possible market—a market that includes the aging, and people with disabilities.

After all, older people and people with disabilities buy and use products for the exact same reasons as the young engineers. The need and desire to communicate, create, and be entertained is universal. Companies who survive and prosper will pay attention to universal needs of all.


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Center for an Accessible Society. (2004). The 'new paradigm' of disability. Retrieved March 16, 2005 from http://www.accessiblesociety.org/topics/demographics-identity/newparadigm.htm.

Jones, T.L. (1993). The Americans with Disabilities Act: A review of best practices, New York: American Management Association Membership Publication Division.

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and the Electronic Industries Foundation. Retrieved May 3, 2004, from http://www.tiaonline.org/access/guide.html.

Vanderheiden, G.C., & Vanderheiden, K. R. (2002). Product accessibility and the technology industry. Proceedings of 2002 RESNA Research Symposium on Universal Design, Minneapolis MN.

Copyright (c) 2005 Anthony Tusler

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