Accessibility: Past, Present, and Future

Written by: Harrison Tu
Use of this material granted by Michele Landis, Co-Founder of Accessible360

Accessibility: Past, Present, and Future

 Accessibility is a new, yet old, concept. Before the mainstream digital age, accessibility simply meant wheelchair ramps for those with physical disabilities, and Braille for the blind. However, the digital age brought with it a whole new wave of accessibility.

Before technology, there were several forms of writing for the blind: Boston Line Type, New York Point, and many others. The most widely known is, of course, Braille. These systems were made to make reading materials accessible to the blind and visually impaired.

Similar systems were invented to make audio content accessible to deaf people. Each country invented its own sign language to teach the deaf and allow them a method to communicate.

Digital Technology

Digital technology has followed a similar trend. In 1808, the first typewriter was invented. By 1995, Microsoft began building accessibility into its products. By 2000, there were many screen readers for the blind, including JAWS, a product still widely used today (see “History of Accessible Technology”).

However, many of these solutions had one gigantic problem: they were expensive. Most of these solutions were unavailable to all but the select few that could afford them.

Most of this changed around the years 2005-2006. In 2005, Apple introduced VoiceOver, a free screen reader that would run on Macs. And in 2006, a new organization, NV Access, began to develop NVDA, a free, open source screen reader for the blind.

At last, anyone who owned a Windows or Mac computer, which was and still is the vast majority of users, could have screen reading accessibility built in right out of the box. It now no longer costs any more money than just the computer itself, something that 15 years ago was only a distant dream.

Evolution of the Web

When the Web began, it was a very accessible place. Most of the Web was simply text. Occasionally, there would be a picture or a table. But these things were coded in standard HTML, HTML that screen readers could process and read.

However, as the Web has evolved, it is now possible to have flashy animations: things that pop, whirl, and spin. It is possible to format things in ways that computers no longer understand, because they rely on humans’ visual ability to read and use a mouse. And it is now possible to create web pages with different elements that break accessibility in many ways.

As we create the Web, we must remember that it must be a Web for everyone. These elements, although useful, do not always create an inclusive experience. While great strides have been made in terms of accessibility, there are plenty of opportunities to make even more progress.

The digital landscape will continue to evolve. Not only must assistive technologies keep up, but we need to design with accessibility in mind to make this a truly accessible landscape.

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