Imagine that the latest book of your favorite book series has just been published, but you are not able to read it or listen to it. Imagine your favorite band has just released its latest song, but you are not able to hear the beat. These are just two of many examples that the disabled community deals with everyday. Recently, the Center for Publishing Innovation held a conference on Accessibility, with the goal of helping publishers, academic institutions and the general public understand the legal necessity and appreciate the great opportunity of making all forms of content accessible to everyone.
As a member of the Board of EIES (Electronic Information and Education Service) of New Jersey for the last three years, I was very excited to attend this conference as EIES of New Jersey’s mission is to provide the visually impaired with the best reading service of the day’s news.
The Accessibility Conference featured an All-Star panel, and due to a last minute cancellation, I was asked to step in and present Eve Hill’s speech. Ms. Hill is the Deputy Assistant Attorney General, Civil Rights Division of the US Justice Department. After delivering her speech, I was compelled to write about the conference as I believe that publishing industry is not addressing this topic as aggressively as it should.
2014 Data Points:
The number of people with learning disabilities is quite substantial. The American Community Survey (ACS) report provides the following data points:
The ACS estimates the overall rate of disability in the US population in 2014 was 12.6%.
Rates of disability increase with age. For the population under 5 years old, less than 1.0% had a disability. For the population ages 5-17, the rate was 5.4%. For ages 18-64, the rate was 10.5%. For people 65 and older, 36.0% had a disability.
Of the US population with disabilities, over half (51.6%) were people ages 18-64. Forty percent (40.7%) of people with disabilities were 65 and older, while children and youth with disabilities accounted for only 7.3% (ages 5-17) and 0.4% (under 5 years old).
34.4% of US civilians with disabilities ages 18-64 living in the community were employed, compared to 75.4% for people without disabilities – a gap of 41 percentage points.
Employment rates vary by type of disability. Employment rates are highest for people with hearing disabilities (50.7%) and vision disabilities (40.2%) and lowest for people with self- care (15.4%) and independent living (15.9%) disabilities.
Almost thirty percent (28.1%) of US civilians with disabilities of working-age in 2014 were living in poverty. For US civilians of working-age without disabilities, the national poverty rate was 13.3%.
Hill’s presentation focused on three key themes, first, defining the law and the cases they have presented, second, the challenges of the community with disabilities and finally, the great opportunity for institutions and publishers.
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires “equally effective communication” with people with or without disabilities. ADA Title II requires that all public and private schools, colleges, universities, and other educational content providers are required to make all their online offerings accessible. Per Ms. Hill’s address she stated that, “schools must ensure that a student who is blind or has low vision acquire the same information, engage in the same interactions, and enjoy the same services as sighted services with substantially equivalent ease of use.”
In June 2010, the Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights and the Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights of the Department of Education wrote to college presidents throughout the country explaining that requiring the use of inaccessible emerging technologies in the classroom violates the ADA.
Over the last six years, the Justice Department has brought charges against a number of institutions and companies. Detailed below is a sample of the cases and the legal resolutions.
2010 – Six Colleges re: KINDLE – As a result of the complaints by the Federation of the Blind, Kindle reached settlement agreements with six colleges that they will not purchase, require or use in the curriculum, the Amazon Kindle DX e-book reader unless it is accessible.
2012 – Sacramento Public Library had purchased several Barnes & Noble NOOK e-book readers for its patrons. The NOOK was inaccessible to blind people so the settlement under ADA Title II required the library to buy at least 18 accessible e-book reader devices to lend to their patrons who are blind or have other disabilities that make the NOOKs inaccessible to them.
2013 – Louisiana Tech reached a settlement agreement with the Justice Department for using a version of an online learning product (MYOMLab) that was inaccessible to a blind student.
It should be expected that the Justice Department will continue to aggressively pursue similar cases to ensure that all institutions are in compliance with the ADA law.
Challenges for the Disabled Community
Imagine you are in your first year of college sitting in your Introduction to Psychology course and the instructor directs the students to a document that is on their computers. When visually impaired, you are not able to read the document. You are immediately put at a distinct disadvantage versus your peers, moreover your education is being diminished, due to your accessibility to the material being limited.
For students with hearing issues, similar challenges are faced, as their ability to hear the lecture is impaired. They are not able to fully participate and contribute to the class discussion due to their hearing disability.
Consider the student taking an online course. They are not able to read and hear the instructor’s lectures, the course materials and the questions from their classmates. In today’s digital world this is a reality for the students and the parents of these students. Students are not the only people that are affected by these digital limitations. There is a growing population of adults with disabilities that are part of the professional workforce and their performance is greatly affected by the mere fact that they are not provided equal access to information due to their disability. How much productivity is lost at thousands of companies due to team members with visual and hearing disabilities that don’t have equal access to information to perform their duties?
The Great Opportunity for Publishers, Institutions and Companies
Publishers are always concerned about managing their investments in their businesses. Anytime there is a new product, service, idea or technology, the scholarly publishing industry always asks the question, what is the return on investment on this project? How will this new technology, product, service, etc., help us to grow our business? Does it make business sense for us to make these upgrades to our platform, our services, our policies, etc., to provide our team members, our partners and customers with the best level of service?
I would suggest that the answer is a resounding “Yes!” Innovation is not limited to adding a new feature, a new business model or a new product. Making your data, website and other services accessible to the disabled community is one of the most innovative actions that the publishing community can undertake.
The Benefits of Hiring Workers with Disabilities:
Proactively hiring people with disabilities can give employers a competitive advantage over companies that do not hire the disabled. Kregel and Tomiyasu (1994) found that employers view employees with disabilities as having a positive effect on their coworkers. The same study also found that employers believe that workers with disabilities provide taxpayers with economic benefits. By employing people with disabilities, a company may be eligible for federal tax credits that can offset accommodation costs. An example of a tax incentive is the Work Opportunity Tax Credit. This allows an employer to take a credit for up to 40% of the worker’s first $6,000 dollars in wages earned the first 12 months of hire. A second program that offers incentives is the U.S. Social Security Administration’s Ticket to Work Program. This program gives companies the opportunity to generate $4,800 in the first nine months of hiring a recipient of social security benefits. Corporate social responsibility has economic benefits as well. A survey conducted by the Gallup organization and the University of Massachusetts’ Center for Social Research found that 88% of the 800 respondents said they would prefer to give their business to companies that hire people with disabilities.
Ms. Hill’s speech provided a number of suggestions to the publishing industry as to how we can be innovative:
Be responsive to your market and claim market share and minimize your customer’s ADA liability risk
Incorporate accessibility in your products and services as a matter of course and as a priority
Build it in, check it, make it easy to use, and tell your customers about it
If your client has a problem fix the problem permanently
Include accessibility in performance evaluations and hold people accountable
Instead of waiting for a lawsuit to spur your company into action, be proactive and take a dramatic leading edge decision that will allow your content to be consumed by the entire world community. As the disabled community continues to grow within our user communities and companies, making your content truly accessible will only help to augment the research value chain. Enhancing the research value chain will raise the tide for everyone and that is truly a win-win scenario.
Making your content fully accessible will greatly improve the entire world’s user community’s access to your content. It will demonstrate to the disabled community that you are an employer that values everyone and your company will gain a new productive and committed workforce. Just as important, making your content compliant within the ADA guidelines will put your company in compliance with the law.
Accessibility is the new wave of innovation and it is the right thing to do.