Lack of Awareness Makes Accessibility Inaccessible

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Lack of Awareness Makes Accessibility Inaccessible

By Anil Lewis

It was supposed to be a slow progressive deterioration of my retinas over time, perhaps years. Yet, on a Monday morning in October of 1989, Retinitis Pigmentosa (RP) took enough of my vision so that I could no longer read my computer screen. All of my hopes and dreams to complete my college degree and to pursue my career goal of becoming a bank vice president were lost over a weekend.  I have often said, “If I only knew then, what I know now.” I had no idea that access technology, like Job Access With Speech (JAWS) for DOS, the Braille ’n Speak, and Optical Character Recognition (OCR) scanning software were around; awareness of their existence would have made it possible for me to continue along my path with far less disruption. The lack of awareness simply made my future inaccessible. Global Accessibility Awareness Day is a time for us to educate the world about accessibility, and by doing so, we will make it possible for hundreds of thousands of people to live the lives they want.

When websites, products, and services are made nonvisually accessible, it creates opportunities for blind and low vision individuals to be competitive, contributing members of society and the workforce. However, even if the technology is made accessible, it does not benefit those who are unaware of its existence. So, on May 20, 2021, the tenth Global Accessibility Awareness Day (GAAD), we emphasize the importance of integrating accessibility into everything digital (web, software, mobile, etc.), and strive to spread awareness of accessibility around the globe. 
If I was only aware of access technology earlier on, I could have continued my post-secondary education and maintained my employment. 

Although I did not become aware of the National Federation of the Blind until I was no longer employed, I am fortunate that NFB members found me in time to encourage me to live the life I want. They made me aware of the training, tools, and strategies that I could use to continue my post-secondary education.  For example, I became aware of a more affordable OCR scanning software solution at the time called OpenBook, which allowed me to scan and read my college textbooks, handouts, and other learning materials. I spent many nights manually scanning the 300 pages of multiple textbooks so that I could access the information that was readily available to my sighted peers. At that time, there emerged a service called Bookshare that allowed me to deposit my scanned books into a repository of books that had already been scanned by other blind students. If I was lucky, I was able to access a book I needed that had been previously scanned. Today the Bookshare service, through relationships with various publishers, offers easier access to a much larger volume of materials in various formats, utilizing several access methods. Global Accessibility Awareness Day is not just a time to share how much accessibility has evolved, it is an opportunity to make more people aware that accessible technology exists which makes it possible for blind people to engage in the world and contribute our talents toward the greater good. 

Today, I am proudly employed as the Executive Director of Blindness Initiatives for the National Federation of the Blind, not a bank vice president. My career goal changed as a result of my desire to pay forward the debt I owe to those who have made it possible for me to reclaim my life, and I take joy in the work I do for the Federation. It is very possible that had I been aware of access technology on that Monday morning in October, my life may have been completely different. The work I do to create opportunities for blind people far exceeds the gratification I would have received managing a financial institution. I am pleased with the direction my life took, but I am sure this is probably more of an exception than a rule. Many people have their lives needlessly disrupted due to the lack of knowledge of the tools that would make it possible for them to maintain their quality of life despite the onset of blindness. We must promote awareness of the availability and need for accessibility.