Global Accessibility Awareness Day 2021

The third Thursday in May is Global Accessibility Awareness Day (GAAD).

The purpose of GAAD is to get everyone talking, thinking and learning about digital access and inclusion, and the more than one billion people with disabilities/impairments.

GAAD homepage

Spring is all around here in Texas, with loads of beautiful blooms like these poppies—a flower often associated with war casualties in the West. It seems like a poignant symbol right now as we assess the loss of lives and survivor health issues of those affected by COVID-19, including millions of people with disabilities.

Beyond trying to avoid physical sickness, disabled people have faced enormous challenges in getting tested, treated and vaccinated. The US healthcare system and government social safety net programs are enormously difficult to navigate with numerous barriers for people trying to get information digitally. A few examples:

  • Coronavirus maps and data in unstructured formats
  • COVID-19 websites that don’t work with screen readers
  • Drive-through only testing and vaccination sites
  • Critical information missing text equivalents, like video captions
  • Vaccine-finder websites with poor mobile support

I spend dozens of hours every week evaluating digital experiences as an accessibility engineer. It’s my job to find weaknesses in the ways information is presented to people. Most of the time, I’m documenting code issues that by themselves are small barriers but combined across a website cause enough inaccessibility that people can’t do what they want to do. I wonder how many disabled people already struggling in a culture that sees us as lesser couldn’t get a test or can’t schedule a vaccination because the people who built these websites didn’t even consider our needs.

I think about my needs as an autistic person with ADHD and bipolar disorder. I’m easily distracted and easily nauseated by moving content. The media query prefers-reduced-motion was made for me. I want to rid the web of every auto-advancing carousel I see. But despite a lot of evidence carousels are ineffective, they are still ubiquitous.

Every day sees more research about why digital accessibility is necessary, and it comes with endless anecdotes from people using assistive technology about how the web and mobile landscapes are still wildly unusable. This problem has been framed as an empathy problem, a coding knowledge problem, even as just a cost problem. So, how do we get designers and developers to care about the needs of the disabled?

It’s clear that accessibility as a concept is not considered a core tenet of good design and development by the establishment. Focus remains largely on the normative desktop browser experience that centers sighted, hearing users without cognitive or mobility impairments. It’s hard to imagine that there is much more we can do in this fight for visibility and inclusion.

I hope this GAAD, you believe you have a right to access information and will demand that right be honored. The time has passed where anyone creating for the web can plausibly deny knowing about accessibility. Whether it’s pointing out missing captions and alt text on social media or contacting customer service about issues a site has supporting assistive technology, each of our small voices can combine into a collective clamor for inclusive design.