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Category: a11y

Autism Awareness Month

This is my first April celebrating Autism Awareness / Acceptance month since I was formally diagnosed with autism myself. I believe self-diagnosis is perfectly valid, but I wanted to learn more. Not just for myself, but for my community. Last year I worked with an incredible neurodiversity affirming clinician. She was excited to dive in and learn about my wiring. She helped me understand more about how my neurocomplexity impacts my personal and professional life. In my professional life, in the accessibility space, I continue to encourage others to learn more about neurodivergence. And provide guidance about how to support neurodiversity in the workplace.

Two main tips:

  • Communicate as clearly as possible. Ellie Middleton posted a wonderful video on how to give neurodivergent friendly instructions. It’s short and simple! Please watch it.
  • Be accepting of autistic (or other) behaviors that might deviate from the norm. Personally, I used to expend SO much energy attempting to mask to fit in while in shared office spaces. Working remotely has allowed me to channel that energy to focus on the work itself. But not everyone is so lucky. To learn more about masking, check out autistic reporter Eric Garcia’s great interview with autistic social psychologist Devon Price, PhD. The timing worked out perfectly. I ordered a copy of Devon’s book, Unmasking Autism: Discovering the New Faces of Neurodiversity, and it arrived just now, on World Autism Day.

I’ve been working in tech for 30+ years at this point. But many autistic people experience high rates of unemployment and underemployment compared to adults with other disabilities and adults in the general population. This needs to change. Sustainable progress will require a real, measurable commitment to neuroinclusion. Which includes working with autistic and other neurodivergent people to foster lasting change.

A book resting on a yellow chair. The cover reads Discovering the New Faces of Neurodiversity, Unmasking Autism by Devon Price, PhD, author of Laziness Does Not Exist
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Celebrating Mobility and Inclusion

International Wheelchair Day was first launched in 2008 and is observed every March 1st. Wheelchair user Nabila Laskar says the day’s goals are:

  • To enable wheelchair users to celebrate the positive impact a wheelchair has in their lives so that they can access employment, participate in the community, get involved in social activities and more.
  • To celebrate the great work of millions of people who provide wheelchairs, who provide support and care for wheelchair users and who make the world a better and more accessible place for people with mobility issues.
  • To acknowledge and react constructively to the fact there are many tens of millions of people in the world who need a wheelchair, but are unable to acquire one.
Colorful illustration of a person in a wheelchair with word bubbles exclaiming March 1st International Wheelchair Day

Progress

In 2023, many wheelchair users took to social media. They expressed the impact their mobility devices have on their freedom and quality of life. Here are 10 of their reflections. Last year I was also introduced to a cool company called Izzy Wheels. Founded by two sisters who creates cool wheelchair covers so that wheelchair users can customize their look.

In the past, I’ve also posted about off-road wheelchairs being made available in public parks. From those in my own state of Minnesota, to the beaches of Oregon and beyond. Unfortunately wheelchair users still face many frustrations. Especially when traveling by air.

Problems

Last Fall, a video went viral of an American Airlines baggage handler. Showing a passenger’s wheelchair sliding down a jet bridge chute. It crashed into a metal barrier, flipped over and tumbled onto an airport tarmac.” Sadly, this is not an uncommon occurrence.

In 2022, the 10 largest U.S. airlines lost, damaged or destroyed more than 11,000 wheelchairs and scooters, according to the Department of Transportation. That represents 1.5% of all wheelchairs and scooters boarded onto planes. 

CBS News

When an airline damages, loses, or delays a passenger’s wheelchair, it is a significant problem. It endangers that person’s health and can seriously limit their mobility and independence. Just last month, U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg announced a new proposed rule from the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) that would ensure airline passengers who use wheelchairs can travel safely and with dignity. This proposed rule would be the biggest expansion of rights for passengers who use wheelchairs in the United States since 2008.

Potential Solutions

The proposed rule would take major actions in three key areas: 

  1. Penalties and remedies for wheelchair mishandling 
  2. Safe, dignified, and prompt assistance 
  3. Improved standards on planes 

It’s unclear if this was prompted by Senator Duckworth’s MOBILE Act from 2023. Whatever the case may be, I hope for an outcome that will lead to more accountability and accessibility for travelers with disabilities.

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Against Technoableism

2023 has been a great year for books in the disability space. Previously, I posted about Sounds Like Misophonia by Dr. Jane Gregory. Most recently, my copy of Against Technoableism arrived.

When bioethicist and professor Ashley Shew became a self-described “hard-of-hearing chemobrained amputee with Crohn’s disease and tinnitus,” there was no returning to “normal.” Suddenly well-meaning people called her an “inspiration” while grocery shopping or viewed her as a needy recipient of technological wizardry. Most disabled people don’t want what the abled assume they want—nor are they generally asked. Almost everyone will experience disability at some point in their lives, yet the abled persistently frame disability as an individual’s problem rather than a social one.

The MIT Press Bookstore

Technology needs to do more for people with disabilities. Ashley Shew argues that it’s not the individuals who need “fixing,” it’s their environment. The author is participating in an upcoming free talk. The ITS Technoableism seminar series presents: Ashley Shew on Monday, January 15th, 2024. She was also a guest on The Disability Rights Florida podcast last month.

Against Technoableism: Rethinking Who Needs Improvement (A Norton Short)

Prior to that, the most recent addition to my non-fiction book stack was The View From Down Here: Life as a Young Disabled Woman by journalist Lucy Webster. In her own words, it is “a memoir exploring what it’s like to live at the intersection of ableism and sexism, how these forces have shaped me, and how society often fails to see disabled women as women at all.” Get the book and sign up for her newsletter!

The View From Down Here: Life as a Young Disabled Woman By Lucy Webster book cover Out Sept 2023

Skipping back to October, a couple of significant things occurred. After years of wondering, I was formally diagnosed with autism and ADHD. On the same day I had my final session with my fantastic clinician, a book I pre-ordered arrived. And, in the most ADHD move ever, another copy of the same book showed up the next day. Apparently, I’d pre-ordered it two days in a row without realizing it. That book was Unmasked: The Ultimate Guide to ADHD, Autism and Neurodivergence by Ellie Middleton. Thankfully, I was able to give the second copy to a friend who has been pondering her own neurodivergence.

“Learning the way my brain works has changed everything for me,” she says, and describes herself as almost being a poster girl for what can happen when you get the answers you need.

Ellie Middleton BBC Access All
Author Ellie Middleton grinning while holding a copy of her book Unmasked: the ultimate guide to ADHS, autism, and neurodivergence
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IDPD 2023

Today is International Day of Persons with Disabilities (IDPD); a United Nations day that is celebrated every year on the 3rd of December. The theme for 2023 is ‘United in action to rescue and achieve the sustainable development goals for, with and by persons with disabilities.’

Given the multiple crises we are facing today, the world is not on track to reach numerous Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) targets by 2030. Preliminary findings from the forthcoming UN Disability and Development Report 2023 indicate that the world is even more off-track in meeting several SDGs for persons with disabilities.

Our efforts to rescue the SDGs for, with, and by persons with disabilities, need to be intensified and accelerated, given that persons with disabilities have historically been marginalized and have often been among those left furthest behind.

A fundamental shift in commitment, solidarity, financing and action is critical. Encouragingly, with the adoption of the Political Declaration of the recent SDG Summit, world leaders have recommitted themselves to achieving sustainable development and shared prosperity for all, by focusing on policies and actions that target the poorest and most vulnerable, including persons with disabilities.

United Nations
Ugandan Sign language alphabet drawn on the wall of the Kamurasi Demonstration School in Masindi, Uganda.

Make Disability Advocacy Part of Your Daily Life

From Meryl Evans:

  1. Listen to the voices of people with disabilities.
  2. Be yourself. Always.
  3. Provide two modern communication options always. Online and in person.
  4. Avoid assumptions and ask. Meryl’s example: Getting me an ASL interpreter without asking will deprive someone else who needs the interpreter. There’s a shortage of interpreters. Let’s make sure the right people have access to them.
  5. Understand one person does not represent an entire disability category.
  6. Involve people with disabilities from start to finish and beyond. Pay them for their time. Turning off the sound does not mimic the experience of a person who depends on captioning every day. Refer to No. 4 as companies and product development often make assumptions.
  7. Hire qualified people with disabilities. Data shows that people with disabilities tend to be the most loyal and best workers who bring in more revenue for companies who hire them. The hiring process needs to change.
  8. Make progress with accessibility every day. It can be small steps like adding alternative text (image descriptions) to images. Make captions part of your video creation process.
  9. Skip using overlays on your website to fix accessibility. This isn’t making progress. It’s a step backward.
  10. Avoid hiring speakers who know little about accessibility and disabilities. Some people with disabilities aren’t qualified to speak on these topics.
  11. Ensure XR, virtual reality, and augmented reality are accessible.

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Artificial Intelligence & Accessibility

Since November 2023, Microsoft Disability Answer Desk callers who are blind or low vision can now use Be My AI™ to handle all types of customer service calls. Everything from Excel spreadsheet formulas to interpreting product instructions and diagrams, rebooting a laptop or installing and updating software, and much more.

Four smartphone screens are displayed to demonstrate the user experience walk-through of connecting with Be My AI™ via Microsoft’s Specialized Help profile in the Be My Eyes app. The first smartphone screen on the far left shows the Microsoft company profile in Be My Eyes. The second smartphone screen shows the screen that appears when a blind user selects “Chat with Be My AI.” Be My AI™ sends a message to the users that reads, “Hello! This is Be My AI™ from Microsoft. How can I assist you today?” The third screen shows the conversation with Be My AI™ continued, where a user asks, “How do I disable Microsoft Outlook?” The fourth and final smartphone screen shows the smartphone camera pointing its rear-facing camera onto a Microsoft Outlook inbox on a computer desktop screen.

This is the first use of AI accepting image inputs to augment traditional customer service for people with disabilities. The global deployment meets what Be My Eyes refers to as the 3S Success Criteria™:

  • Success: a 90% successful resolution rate by Be My AI™ for Microsoft customers who try it. Put another way: only 10% of consumers using AI interactions are choosing to escalate to a human call center agent.
  • Speed: Be My AI™ solves customer issues in one-third the time on average compared to Be My Eyes calls answered by a live Microsoft agent (4 minutes on average for Be My AI vs. 12 minutes on average for live agent support).
  • Satisfaction: customer satisfaction ratings have improved with the implementation of Be My Eyes in Microsoft’s Disability Answer Desk with interactions averaging 4.85 out of five stars.

Github Copilot

In other AI Accessibility news, I’ve been reading about Github Copilot. I’m generally in favor of automation, to a degree. In the early days of the web, I was an old school HTML coder. Back when we still built page layouts using table tags (it was pretty terrible but we didn’t know better yet). I remember when the first WYSIWYG editors started coming out in the 90s. The first time I saw Dreamweaver I was simultaneously stoked and horrified. Sure, it made it easier for anyone to build out web pages. Unfortunately, it also generated so much unnecessary, nested, bloated HTML.

Fast forward to today. GitHub describe their Copilot service as an “AI pair programmer.” Examples on their website show it writing whole functions from a comment or a name. Unfortunately, many of Copilot’s suggestions include serious accessibility bugs. Developer Matthew Hallonbacka posted about his findings as they relate to:

  • Alt Attributes
  • Identifiable Links
  • Focus States
  • Spans that should be buttons
  • Color contrast ratios

The danger is that developers will accept code suggestions, assuming they are valid. Be cautious when using Copilot. If you’re expecting a certain type of suggestion but receive one with extra attributes, take the time to look up those attributes. Don’t use the code until you understand what every part of it does.

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Sounds Like Misophonia

National Disability Employment Awareness Month just ended, but it’s on my mind all year long. I’m making this post in the hope that it will help someone else. Or help some folks better understand me and my non-apparent disabilities.

Misophonia

The most recent episode of The Allusionist podcast hits home for me. It tackles two topics I identify with: misophonia and alexithymia. I’ve always been more sensitive to sensory input (sounds, scents, visuals – especially flashing lights and shaky cam). Over a decade ago I made the connection with misophonia for my auditory issues. All the pieces are falling into place now that I’ve finally been diagnosed with both autism and ADHD. If I ever snapped at you or seemed preoccupied during a meal, or when you were maybe drumming on the back of the car seat I was sitting in (hello my musician friends), this is why.

being over-responsive to sensory information, more tuned into sensory information, and more likely to apply meaning or context to sensory information, and that is really a very common feature in both autism and ADHD and therefore it predisposes that person to develop misophonia

Dr. Jane Gregory

I’ve particularly struggled with the sounds of other people eating. I lived with one partner who clanged cutlery against his teeth and it absolutely enraged me, which made me feel awful. Then I worked for a company that had a cafeteria and expected employees to sit together to eat lunch. The acoustics and lighting in the space were so overwhelming it nearly brought me to tears. I opted to take a daily lunch walk instead and quickly eat at my desk afterward. I’ve developed these coping methods over the years. Avoidance or noise canceling headphones are my main tools.

Alexithymia

Alexithymia is the thing I don’t have a handle on yet. I remember being frustrated when a therapist would ask me to describe my feelings or where in my body I felt them. I have no idea. But now I know *why* I have no idea.

“Alexithymia is a neuropsychological phenomenon characterized by significant challenges in recognizing, expressing, and describing one’s own emotions. It is associated with difficulties in attachment and interpersonal relations. While there is no scientific consensus on its classification as a personality trait, medical symptom, or mental disorder, alexithymia is highly prevalent among individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), ranging from 50% to 85% of prevalence.”

The Book

This book contains everything I wish I’d known when I was a teenager, hiding a giant whirring walkman in the pocket of my school uniform so that I could block out the sounds of my classmates clicking through all the colours in their four-pens. It’s not just coping strategies (although there are plenty of those), it’s also full of ideas to help your brain make new associations with sounds, which brings down the intensity of your reactions. I cover some of the exciting research that’s happening in the world of misophonia, connect you with your inner miso child, help you deal with big emotions and embrace the meerkat within. Adeel Ahmad shares stories from our volunteers who worked through the book while it was being written. There are several out-of-date pop culture references, and you’ll be happy to hear that my editors and early readers very firmly encouraged me to remove the rest of them.

Dr. Jane Gregory: Sounds Like Misophonia
Sounds like misophonia banner with cover of the book. How to stop small noises from causing extreme reactions by Dr. Jane Gregory with Abdeel Ahmed published by Green Tree
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Disability Employment Awareness

Somehow it’s already November. But every October, it is National Disability Employment Awareness Month (NDEAM). This celebrates the contributions of America’s workers with disabilities. And showcases supportive, inclusive employment policies and practices that benefit employers and employees. The Office of Disability Employment Policy (ODEP) chose “Advancing Access and Equity” as the theme for NDEAM 2023.

I shared these resources within my company at our monthly Accessibility Community of Practice meeting:

I also shared the good news that civil rights litigator Karla Gilbride was sworn at the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. The role was vacant as she waited a year and a half to be confirmed. She will lead the EEOC’s critical litigation efforts on behalf of workers accusing their employers of discrimination based on race, sex, age, disability, and other characters. Gilbride is blind and the first person with a known disability in the role of general counsel at the EEOC. This is in line with our “Nothing About Us Without Us” motto and I’m glad of it.

Visit Global Disability Inclusion for more information! On the history of disability employment awareness in the United States, and some of the stigma still surrounding it.

Collage of arrows in various colors pointing forward, with images of disabled people at work. The text reads “Advancing Access & Equity, National Disability Employment Awareness Month, Celebrating 50 years of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973.” Also #NDEAM, #RehabAct50 and dol.gov/ODEP.
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Getting to Know WCAG 2.2

First, what is WCAG:

The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) are part of a series of web accessibility guidelines published by the Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) of the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), the main international standards organization for the Internet. They are a set of recommendations for making Web content more accessible, primarily for people with disabilities—but also for all user agents, including highly limited devices, such as mobile phones.

Wikipedia

WCAG Version 1.0 was published in May of 1999. I’d already been a front end web developer for several years at that point. I recall thinking these guidelines were a great idea. Even early on, I understood the inequity of the web and barriers to access. At that time, it was still somewhat rare to have access to the internet at all, via dialup or DSL. But those who did have internet access ran into barriers created by inaccessible Flash files, for example.

As web technologies evolved, the guidelines were updated. WCAG 2.0 was published in December 2008. Nearly a decade later, WCAG 2.1 was published in June of 2018. And, as of October 5th, the WCAG 2.2, is finally official! For those following this closely, it’s felt like a game of Chutes and Ladders. WCAG 2.2 went up the ladder to reach the Candidate Recommendation (CR) phase more than once in the last couple of years. Only to be knocked back down the slide to be reworked.

Initially, Focus Visible was going to bump up from Level AA to Level A in WCAG 2.2. I was thrilled about this. When there are multiple elements on a webpage, visible focus helps highlight which element has the keyboard focus. This helps users who rely on a keyboard to navigate. It shows them which element the keyboard will interact with. Users with attention or short-term memory limitations also benefit from a visual cue to where focus is located. Unfortunately, it’s remaining at Level AA. I’m not the only one disappointed by this. Despite that, other gains have been made.

Level A

  • 3.2.6 Consistent Help: Certain help mechanisms that are repeated on multiple web pages must occur in the same relative order to other page content, unless a change is initiated by the user.
  • 3.3.7 Redundant Entry: Information previously entered by or provided to the user that is required to be entered again in the same process must be: auto-populated or available for the user to select.

Level AA

  • 2.4.11 Focus Not Obscured: When a user interface component receives keyboard focus, the component must not be entirely hidden due to author-created content.
  • 2.5.7 Dragging Movements: All functionality that uses a dragging movement for operation must be achievable by a single pointer without dragging. Unless dragging is essential or the functionality is determined by the user agent and not modified by the author.
  • 2.5.8 Target Size: The size of the target for pointer inputs must be at least 24 by 24 CSS pixels (with some allowable exceptions).
  • 3.3.8 Accessible AuthenticationA cognitive function test must not be required for any step in an authentication process, unless specified criteria are met.

Level AAA

  • 2.4.12 Focus Not Obscured (Enhanced): When a user interface component receives keyboard focus, the focus indicator SHOULD NOT be hidden at all (even partially) by author-created content.
  • 2.4.13 Focus Appearance: When the keyboard focus indicator is visible, an area of the focus indicator should meet specified size and color contrast requirements.
  • 3.3.9 Accessible Authentication (Enhanced): A cognitive function test should not be required for any step in an authentication process, unless there is an alternative method without a required cognitive test or there is a mechanism to assist the user.

Lastly, the obsolete 4.1.1 Parsing has been removed altogether.

The folks at Intopia have already published an updated WCAG 2.2 Map. The map provides an overview of WCAG in a visual format, breaking down success criteria by level of conformance. Their accompanying article is helpful as well.

The WCAG 2.2 Map featuring all success criteria laid out around four quadrants for Perceivable, Operable, Understandable, and Robust.
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International Color Blind Awareness Day

September 6th is International Color Blind Awareness Day. It was John Dalton’s birthday. He was one of the first scientists to study the condition and to make strides in color blindness research.

Color blindness impacts 1 in every 12 men and 1 in every 200 women. Most color blindness is inherited genetically. People often become aware of their condition in childhood. However, some people may not realize they are color blind simply because they are not aware that others see color differently. That’s where testing comes in. There are a number of color blind tests online. Eye doctors can also administer testing. The most common type of color deficiency test is the color plate test.

Ishihara test plate to test for color vision deficiency

Color contrast between text and background is important. It affects many people’s ability to perceive the information. Colors with poor contrast will increase the difficulty of navigating, reading, and interacting with websites and apps. Good design includes sufficient contrast between foreground background and colors. Not just for text but also for images links, icons, and buttons. This is an evergreen (pun intended) post about the importance of color contrast in digital accessibility.

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August Accessibility News Round-Up

Some fun news for a Friday! Writer and wheelchair user Sophie Morgan enjoyed the first wheelchair-accessible safari in South Africa’s Klaserie National Park. “The African bush and all of its delights are just waiting to linger in the memories of those who are able to experience her. Now, the world’s first luxury wheelchair-accessible safari is ensuring that privilege can belong to everyone.”

In the US, here are 10 Wheelchair-friendly Trails Through the Country’s Best National Parks. These accessible national park trails are suitable for people using wheelchairs, scooters, crutches, and walkers.

In my home state, our Great Minnesota Get-Together (State Fair) started just yesterday, Thursday August 24th, 2023. And runs through Labor Day, September 4th, 2023. This year they’ve made some improvements to make it even more inclusive. Their accessibility guide provides information about:

  • Mobility options, including electrical outlets for recharging electric mobility scooters
  • ASL interpreting services
  • Captioning services
  • Audio description services
  • Sensory friendly visits
  • Service animals

Last month was Disability Pride Month. It’s a time for us to celebrate within the disability community, sure. But also to put the spotlight on some challenges we face. In the case of athlete Alex Parra, it is the high cost of athletic prosthetics:

When I was told that a running blade was going to cost $35,000 I thought I was never going to be able to run again. My life changed when I received my running blade from the Challenged Athletes Foundation. Not from my medical provider or from the help of insurance but from a non profit that was willing to help

As time went on I realized there needs to be change so I wanted to bring awareness to the disability community and how much that we have to spend on any disabled equipment or medical devices that we NEED.

So I wanted to run a Marathon on crutches. Although I didn’t finish the 26 miles (16 miles total) I was still able to accomplish something that I never thought I would’ve been capable of doing

This would not have been possible without everyone’s love and support along the way so truly from the bottom of my heart thank you. With your help we have been able to raise a total of $2500 and bring change along the way!

Alex Parra


Last but not least, I love this silent disco story. Vibrating haptic suits give deaf people a new way to feel live music. Made possible by Music: Not Impossible. An off-shoot of Not Impossible Labs, which uses new technology to address social issues like poverty and disability access. A recent event at Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts called “Silent Disco: An Evening of Access Magic” showcased the suit’s potential.

Concert goers dancing at the Silent Disco dance party at Lincoln Center, New York City on Saturday, July 1, 2023. Haptic suits designed for the deaf community were provided by Music: Not Impossible.
Lanna Apisukh for NPR
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