• United States

Accessibility helps everyone

Nov 04, 20024 mins

As a network executive, you want to be responsive to your users’ needs. Those users might include people with disabilities – the temporary or permanent loss of a major life function, such as mobility, sight, hearing or cognitive ability.

In recent years, technology vendors have gone to great lengths to make their products “accessible.” Accessibility means the product can be used or adapted for use by people with disabilities.Take the common modern-day PC. Almost every PC coming off the assembly line today has accessibility features. Switches, buttons and plugs are often in the front of a machine so that a person with limited mobility can reach them. Keyboards have raised bumps on the F and J keys so that a person with limited sight can find the home row of keys. The buttons are concave to support limited dexterity accessibility.

Accessibility extends beyond hardware and into software. Windows XP, in particular, is noted for its accessibility features. You can adjust the operating system’s settings to make screen readers work better. You can get visual warnings for system sounds. You can make the keyboard ignore inadvertently repeated keystrokes. These features are important to someone with limited sight, hearing or dexterity, respectively.

Hardware and software vendors aren’t entirely altruistic in their motivations. In 1998, the federal government strengthened a law called the Rehabilitation Act. Section 508 of the newly enhanced law requires that when federal agencies develop, procure, maintain or use electronic and information technology, they must ensure that it is accessible to people with disabilities unless it would pose an undue burden to do so.That means any hardware or software vendor that wants to sell to the federal government must ensure that products comply with the law. Many state and local governments also follow the guidelines.

Because the government market is a hefty one for technology firms, most vendors have chosen to adapt their products. The adaptations, such as the bumps on the keyboards, are nonintrusive, and in many cases provide benefit to people without disabilities. (Ever try to use your laptop on a dimly lit plane? Those bumps help you to quickly find the right keys.)

Beyond simple accessibility, assistive technology is an add-on program or device that vastly enhances the functionality of the PC and the effectiveness of the user. Products include things such as screen readers, which are software programs that provide graphics and text as speech; Braille embossers, which transfer computer-generated text into embossed Braille output; and alternative input devices, which let individuals control their computers through a means other than a standard keyboard or pointing device.

Products of all sorts help people with limited vision, hearing, dexterity, mobility and cognitive ability. A user would select a program or device based on his specific needs. With the right assistive technology in place, a person’s disability becomes irrelevant in his ability to perform a job.

Web sites also should be designed with disabled users in mind. There are legal challenges in the courts right now that should prompt all Web developers to make sites fully accessible. The World Wide Web Consortium has published guidelines for this purpose (visit Further, there are numerous tools and utilities that help you develop and test accessible code (see Making your Web site and Web-enabled applications fully accessible makes good sense, as it only expands the community of people who can fully utilize your site or application.

If this topic interests you, please read my series on accessiblity in IT in the Technology Executive newsletters. For more information on assistive technology, visit The Assistive Technology Industry Association at Search for various types of assistive technologies at

If you have people with disabilities in your user or customer community – and statistics show that you probably do – give them the IT tools they need to fully and productively use your network or Web resources. In return, you’ll be rewarded with some of the most loyal employees and customers you’ll ever have.