• Law, Policy -- and IT?

    Tracy Mitrano explores the intersection where higher education, the Internet and the world meet (and sometimes collide).


An (Accessible) Future We Can All Be Proud Of

Why change is needed now.

November 29, 2015

Over the years I have shared a number of personal matters in this blog. In recognition of International Day of People with Disabilities on Dec. 3, I will share yet another personal matter. My brother, Peter, four years older than me, is profoundly developmentally disabled. A very premature birth, combined with a deprivation of oxygen, severely damaged his brain. Then placed in an incubator with 100 percent oxygen, as was the practice of the day, his ophthalmologic nerve died. He is also blind.

In this blog I have not previously shared this information. As director of IT policy at Cornell, when I attempted unsuccessfully to facilitate the promulgation of an accessibility policy, I was accused (by a small but influential few of the detractors) of promoting it “because of my brother.” How I do deplore that comment, let me count the ways. My brother's disabilities are so far from benefiting from a web accessibility policy in higher education that I am prompted to invite those who suggest it to the group home where he lives for a visit.

I know it is a red-herring comment. It is for those who prefer ad hominem attacks to admitting their own anxieties and fears of disability. This tactic goes along with the other comments such as “it will be too expensive” (for an institution with an almost $6 billion endowment) or to ask it of faculty is a violation of “academic freedom” (not!). But then again, the lady doth protest too much. It’s true. I have a sensitivity for people with disabilities that probably does come from my family of origin. I am not ashamed of that fact.

So how to celebrate International Day for People with Disabilities? Let’s begin with that which is obvious to fix: web accessibility. As I have commented upon before: we have standards that work but have lacked a hardy political will to put them in place. In the E.U. that wind is now shifting a bit. The European Commission has signaled very recently (since my last post on this subject) that it is now inclined to act. Once the E.U. promulgates a directive, it will then be up to member states to transpose that directive into national or “local” law.

The directive will almost surely adopt WCAG 2.0 AA, the standard that is now operative for the U.S. under the Americans with Disabilities Act, Title I, which covers federal agencies. Assuming that feat will be accomplished, what is left, then, for the U.S.? Two goals: WCAG 2.0 AA for Titles II and II of the ADA and finishing the refresh of section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act that has been in process for some time yet. Both of those goals involve higher education, and higher education should get supportively behind this effort.

Two observations. First, in the aftermath of the Schrems decision, which focused on privacy and has had the general effect of leveling the protections of personally identifiable information between the E.U. and the U.S., it would seem as if technology may be accomplishing what otherwise seemed to be an impossible political task: harmonization of laws and standards between these two continents. Second, more particularly on the issue of disability, is that we can do this. Once again, technology has played a crucial role. Technical standards are driving harmonization. And that makes sense. An information economy that uses technology for virtually every step of commercial, cultural and communication processes must be interoperable. Standards level the experience for so many people with disabilities. There is no good reason not to incorporate these standards immediately into our political frameworks. While I may be motivated to think about this issue because of my past, I truly believe this is an immediate future that we can all be proud of.


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