Why U.S. access policy decisions matter to the rest of us

If you’re a U.S. citizen reading this then you are stuck with the Trump wins result of the Presidential election vote on Tuesday 8 November. Yet it’s fair to say that most Australians are watching what happens in the aftermath of the U.S. election very closely, as it is likely to have major ramifications for international policy and trade, along with the provision of technology access to people with disabilities.

As an Australian living in one of the most isolated cities in the world (Perth) I, as well as you, may think that the craziness of the whole Trump V Clinton thing doesn’t affect us. Yet we can celebrate – or commiserate, with the poor Americans that have had to put up with the white noise of politics blaring at them for so long. And I thought this November would be timely to focus on how U.S. access policy has impacted on the world and what we can do to build on their policy frameworks in a local context.

 

IS TRUMP OR CLINTON BETTER FOR ACCESS?

Firstly I’d like to say that if you’re a U.S. citizen and you’re reading this just before the election, it’s not my intention to tell you who to vote for based on who is most likely to promote good access policy. However, what I will say is that the direction of U.S. policy matters both domestically and internationally, and given Trump’s record includes the infamous incident of mocking a reporter with a disability, I’ll leave it up to the voting public to draw their own conclusions and continue to watch the battle for the Presidency unfold with interest from afar.

 

IT ALL STARTED IN 1998

To step back in history to when technology-related access became important, we step back to 1998. While 1998 did not mark the start of disability-related policy, the addition of Section 508 to the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 is generally viewed as a breakthrough in access.

For the U.S., Section 508 represented an important employment initiative, ensuring that people with disabilities could work in the United States Federal government through the implementation of a public procurement policy. This effectively led to a requirement that equipment purchased by the U.S. Federal government required accessibity features, and any information being produced had to adhere to accessibility criteria – with guidance based in part from a draft of WCAG 1.0.

While Section 508 was critical for the U.S. and generally viewed as a success, for the rest of the world its implications were also important as it required U.S. tech companies to incorporate minimum accessibility features into their products, and these products were sold far beyond the U.S. For example, it’s no coincidence that Windows 2000 was the first operating system to feature a screen reader (although a relatively poor one in the form of the original Narrator). Apple notably stepped up with its accessibility efforts including a full-screen magnifier by Mac OS 10.2 and a full screen reader in the form of Voiceover in Mac oz. 10.4 back in 2005.

On the hardware front, Hewlett-Packard designed laptops where the lid could be opened with one hand without the base flicking up, and many of these products – especially software-based products – were released worldwide. After all, why make one product for the U.S. Federal government and another for the rest, when you can just make the same product for everyone without having to retool?

 

INSPECT V EXPECT

While it’s clear that U.S. policy has an impact on the accessibity of products elsewhere, it’s also important to acknowledge that credit needs to go to the tech companies themselves as well, and the operating systems used by the rest of the world every day are almost entirely from U.S. companies… so what they do matters.

When Apple introduced Voiceover for the first time they didn’t just do the Section 508 minimum as Microsoft did, but rather focused on making a screen reader that was functional and effective. As I’ve discussed in this column over the years, for the most part it worked, and if any doubt remained about their willingness to innovate, the concept of a blind person being unable to use a touch screen was completely changed with Voiceover in the iPhone 3GS. Competition in the space has seen Microsoft, Apple and Google all provide great touch-enabled accessibility features in their operating systems.

While I do agree in part with the statement ‘companies tend to do what you inspect, rather than what you expect’ – a comment told to me by the Head of Accessibility from one particular multinational company when I was conducting interviews for my PhD – it seems to be the case that after companies get ‘motivated’ by policy, they can then make their tech better. With both the relevant policy and the tech companies being U.S. based, it’s certainly worth us paying attention to what’s happening there.

 

HOW WE CAN HELP AND CONSEQUENCES IF WE DON’T

One of the major downsides to not keeping up with U.S. policy here in Australia, or any other country other for that matter, is that we run the risk of becoming a dumping ground for products which aren’t compliant to the accessibility requirements of other countries. Indeed, just this year, some 18 years after Section 508 in the US, Australia has finally adopted an accessibility procurement policy although specific details on what this actually means along with the roll-out date, are still hard to come by.

With the Section 508 refresh, it’s time again to keep an eye on what’s happening in the U.S. along with other legislative frameworks that have an impact here. For example, it’s no coincidence either that Netflix Australia is the most accessible of the video-on-demand subscription services featuring closed captions and audio described titles unlike Stan or Presto. The difference? Netflix in the U.S. is required to comply with the 21st Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act and there’s nothing specific to require companies to provide video access here locally.

 

LOCAL SOLUTION – LEGISLATE AND PARTICIPATE

While it’s clear the U.S. plays an important role in how accessible our products end up being here in Australia, it’s not the case that we’re somehow at the mercy of the U.S. And not everything happening there is directly relevant to us or captures all of the issues.

One of the critical differences between the U.S. and Australia is that we have no specific legislation to meet the ICT needs of people with disabilities, and as such there is a risk that companies do not have to take accessibility as seriously here as highlighted by the competitors to Netflix.  Rather than value policy which requires interpretation of the Disability Discrimination Act (DDA) to be resolved, it’s time to consider how we can also have legislation such as Section 508 and the 21st Century Communications Act to ensure that accessibity happens here too, rather than waiting for access to cross the Pacific.

The other thing we (and other countries in a similar position) can do is continue to contribute to the creation and adoption of international standards. W3C provides a great opportunity to get access solutions happening consistently across the globe, and another lesson we can learn from the U.S. is to get more educational institutions, corporations, and government departments involved in it.

So as the U.S. election season draws to a close, it’s worth acknowledging the good work that is happening there and look at some of the gaps we have here – so that in the years to come, Australia can reposition itself to be an accessibility leader instead of hoping that the good work of other countries flows in our direction.