Next year brings changes for people with disabilities.

On September 25, President Bush signed The

ADA Amendments Act of 2008, which will take effect in January of next year.  Much of this amendment has to do with discrimination against not only those with obvious disabilities, but also those whose disability may not be easily seen.  It provides broad coverage to protect anyone who faces discrimination based on his or her disability.  From what I gather, this amendment will protect many people who before now could be discriminated against without consequence, such as someone with Dyslexia, ADD and ADHD, and the list has expanded.

 

Here is what the president said in a written statement given just before he signed the Act:

“The Americans with Disabilities Act is instrumental in allowing individuals with disabilities to fully participate in our economy and society, and the administration supports efforts to enhance its protections. The administration believes that the ADA Amendments Act of 2008 is a step in the right direction, and is encouraged by the improvements made to it during the legislative process.” So what constitutes a legal disability?  If the definition is broadened, wouldn’t it be possible for everyone to have a disability?  I think some people may abuse this law that is meant to protect people.  I could see some people claiming employee discrimination, when really they just don’t want to work hard.  But overall, I think that this is a positive step to help those who have a legidament disability and up to now, have been discriminated against.  There may have to be other details added in future, but to so many, this amendment will improve their standing in the work place and in society.

Apple takes Giant steps toward Accessibility

You may remember my blog some months ago regarding iPods and some of the barriers I mentioned with Apple’s ITunes, and with the iPod itself.  ITunes was virtually not accessible on its own, and a jaws user would have to purchase and use scripts to get the software to function at all, and even with that, accessing every feature was impossible.  As for other screen reader users, they could not use iTunes and therefore would have difficulty using an iPod, since iTunes is the main way to place music onto the unit.

 

Well last week, all of this changed!  To me it seemed that overnight, Apple emerged into the world of accessibility!  Apple released its newest version of ITunes, which looks and feels like a totally different program.  I can actually adjust things, see my lists of tracks and movies, hear radio stations, podcasts, all of it.  I went from using iTunes because I had to, only to simply put music on my iPod, to using it as a media player on my pc.  There are still a few tiny bugs to be overcome, and once released, the newer jaws scripts will add to its usability, but ITunes can now be used out of the box, with any screen reader and without having to configure anything.  I am very impressed!

 

As if that weren’t enough, around the same time, Apple went even farther.  They have now enabled their IPod Fourth Generation Nano to talk!  This is a feature available for that version and for no extra cost to the user.  You pay exactly what the cost of the unit is, enable the speech feature using iTunes and you have an iPod that will speak menu features, track titles and artists, and more!  Unfortunately for me, I haven’t been able to test this out as of yet.  I have the previous version of the Nano.  Perhaps in time, they would be able to make all iPods have that speech feature.  It’s like everything else in technology though, you buy it and something comes out better in a matter of months.  I did purchase what is called an ITel from Cobolt Systems, and that is working for now.  This unit will work on any iPod that has the five pin docking capability, and you can hear track titles and artists, although no other menu features are available.  The best thing about the Apple speech option is that there is nothing extra you have to buy plug in or install.

 

Almost overnight, many in the blind communities went from hating Apple for its inaccessibility to embracing the company and praising them for making such drastic strides.  I have to say, I happen to be one of those.  Although I loved my iPod, I had been very frustrated with the tedious effort that had to be put into accessing something that my sighted peers could enjoy so easily.  Now I’m actually having fun with iTunes and the features suddenly available to me.  And something tells me that there will be more to come in the not to distant future!

Update on UT's shutdown of Accessibility Institute

The Provost Office at the University of Texas continues to send form letters to the hundreds of people who have written in protest of their decision to shut down the Accessibility Institute.   Their boilerplate gives lip services to their admiration for the work of John Slatin and invariably ends with this line:

While we will not have a research Accessibility Institute at UT, we will certainly continue our commitment to web accessibility.

What is unclear is what exactly this “commitment” means.  Resources dedicated to guiding the accessibility effort at UT have been decimated.  For the last ten years or more, the Provost office has shown its committment to IT accessibility by funding one full time faculty position and one full time research position supported by graduate students and administrative staff. Now that commitment has been reduced to one part time position (four hours or less each week) within the Information Technology Services Department.

If the commitment is genuine, why does the Provost Office not make a transition plan that continues funding for a reasonable period of time to give interested colleges – including Computer Science, the Information School, and others – time to find funding sources to continue this important work?  I am told by the Provost Office that “research and scholarship at a University originate with the faculty.”  But there is broad faculty interest, and there is community support.  Leaders from business, academia, and the general public have voiced strong support and recognition of the need for this work to continue.  Reading the names and comments included in the online petition of support for the AI shows strong global support. What seems to be missing is the commitment from the Provost to continue the funding that they have provided for more than ten years to allow transition in a way that maintains and builds on Dr. Slatin’s work.

In the meantime, UT has gone from being a leader in accessibility to a point where it does not even meet the minimum standards that the State of Texas requires of all state funded entities.  If this is UT’s idea of “commitment to web accessibility,” the University is in deep trouble.

Will UT close accessibility doors?

Last week, the University of Texas at Austin announced that they intended to close the Accessibility Institute, founded by Dr. John Slattin!  This came as a big surprise to people both in the local community and many world-wide as well.  The University of Texas has always been a leader in research and accessibility was no different.  Dr. Slattin’s tireless efforts to open and run the Institute during his lifetime has really caused some giant steps to be made in the world of accessibility.  Closing the institute would be a real setback, not only for accessibility, but for the University itself!  As a graduate of UT’s School of Music, I am very proud of my University and would like to see great things continue to happen there in the industry of accessibility.

 

Below is a statement released by Sharron Rush to the press and public.  I think her words and those of others she has included say it all.

 
Contact:
srush@knowbility.org
512 305-0310 / 512 797-7351

 UNIVERSITY OF TEXAS ANNOUNCES INTENTION TO CLOSE WORLD-RENOWNED ACCESSIBILITY INSTITUTE
Decision opposed by technology industry leaders, disability community, academics

Austin, TX- August 29th, 2008 – The University of Texas announced last week its intention to close the Accessibility Institute, founded by Dr. John Slatin, a faculty member who passed away earlier this year.  The Accessibility Institute was founded by Dr. Slatin in the early 1990’s as the Institute for Technology and Learning (ITAL), to research effective methods for employing technology in teaching and learning environments.  His work at ITAL and the emerging dominance of electronic information technology  led Dr. Slatin to research design methods and practices that would ensure that no one was left out of educational opportunity because of disability.   His own progressive blindness was one factor, but Dr. Slatin’s passion for art, literature and the humanities led his commitment to include everyone as technology transformed teaching and learning.   At the Accessibility Institute, John Slatin pioneered studies that helped an emerging industry frame its ideas for highly usable and inclusive interface design methods. 

A colleague in the English Department, Dr. Peg Syverson, worked closely with Dr. Slatin.

“John was not merely an innovator; “ Dr. Syverson says, “He was a visionary. And he was not a visionary who merely saw into the future.  He brought the future he saw into being. And the future he brought into being was dazzling and entirely unexpected.  John saw … that technology could become a vehicle for liberation and transformation in the humanities.”

At the Accessibility Institute, Dr. Slatin built a staff of researchers and graduate students who integrated technology, accessibility, and learning for everyone through research, education, advocacy, consulting, training, and service to the campus community and state agencies struggling to comply with accessibility requirements mandated by the Texas legislature.  UT’s example of incorporating accessibility into all educational research and development was one that is upheld as a standard all over the nation and the world.  The World Wide Web Consortium invited Dr. Slatin to co-chair its Web Content Accessibility Guidelines Working Group, a position he held in 2005 and 2006. 

Because of the recognized leadership position held by the University of Texas, the closure announcement came as quite a shock to the campus community and to accessibility experts and technology industry leaders globally.  As business, government and academic institutions all over the world strive to build inclusive information technology design tools and techniques, the closure of one of the nation’s leading research institutes in the field is baffling to many.

“I learned that UT’s decision was final on the same day I learned that Target stores had settled their accessibility lawsuit with the National Federation of the Blind,” says Sharron Rush, accessibility expert and co-author with Dr. Slatin of Maximum Accessibility, an accessible design manual published in 2002 to great acclaim.  “While John might chuckle at the irony, he would be bitterly disappointed in the short-sightedness of the University. We have invited the Provost’s Office to meet and hear our concerns and suggestions for transition, but they have so far declined to meet with us. ”

Ms Rush, her nonprofit employer Knowbility, and others in the disability, academic, and technology community launched an effort today to persuade the University to maintain and build on this important body of work.  They have petitioned the administration to give serious consideration to requests to move the Accessibility Institute into the School of Information or otherwise provide continuity to a transition of Dr. Slatin’s work.  The petition, addressed to Executive Vice-Provost Steve Monti, took just a few hours to garner more than 130 signatures from people all over the world, including representatives of Apple, Adobe, Google, IBM and numerous academic institutions and state agencies.

Selected comments:

 Dr. Jon Gunderson, University of Illinois:  It is very important for the advancement of universal design that institutes like the Accessibility Institute at UT becomes an important part of the basic research agenda of the university. I urge you to reinvest in the institute to bring researchers to bear on the fundamental and applied accessibility of human disability and technology.

 

Dr. Terry Thompson, University of Washington: UT-Austin has long been a model for web accessibility. This tradition should be upheld, not just for the benefit of UT-Austin, but for higher education institutions globally who have turned to the Accessibility Institute for guidance and leadership.

 

Dr. Chris Strickling, Texas Department of Aging and Disability   I am disturbed to discover that there are people at the university who do not recognize the value of the work and vision of the Accessibility Institute. Web accessibility, universal design research, and all of the projects of the AI are of immense importance to our communities, both academic and cultural.

Katherine Druckman, Publisher:  As a webmaster for a major publication…I know that web media will only become more significant, and with it accessibility studies must continue. People in my field have come to know UT as a knowledge center, and as a Texan I would be quite saddened if that changed.

James Craig, Apple:  The Accessibility Institute…started me and countless others on the road to helping thousands make accessible products and websites enjoyed by millions of people worldwide. The Accessibility Institute’s influence for the greater good cannot be overstated.

Matt May, Adobe Systems:  As painful as the loss of John has been to the field of accessibility, it would be especially sad to also lose his institute, all within the same year. We need the work of the Accessibility Institute to continue, in order to benefit a constituency which faces greater and more complex challenges to access than ever before.

To sign the petition, read more of the comments from around the nation and the world, or learn more about the issues and the importance of this work, follow the links on the Knowbility homepage at www.knowbility.org. Just a side note, when this petition began, within hours we had over 200 signitures.  Now as of today’s date, we’re at over 800 signitures.  If you haven’t already, please sign!!