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Bridging Digital Divide for the Disabled Remains a ‘Big Deal’

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Ann Chiappetta, a blind New Rochelle resident, said she wants people to be mindful of those with disabilities “and that we want equal access.”

New Rochelle’s Ann Chiappetta, like most blind people, maneuvers around all manner of challenges on a daily basis that most folks likely never consider.

For instance, in our digital age, just imagine what it’s like to navigate a website that fails to consider her disability.

She recalls the aggravation of receiving e-mail newsletters from government agencies, with images teasing valuable information.

“They send out this Constant Contact e-mail blast, and they show an image of a flyer,” she recounted in a phone interview last week. “And that’s all it is. It just says image. Doesn’t show you what the text says. It doesn’t say what it is. It doesn’t say how to click through to get to other information. It’s just an image and a picture. And that’s it.”

But there is good news to report. Just last month, a bill addressing the broader issue passed the state Assembly as well as the Senate.

The measure is one of two disability-related initiatives sponsored by Assemblyman Chris Burdick (D-Bedford) that earned bipartisan support in mid-May.

It requires state agencies to conform any of their websites to widely accepted Web Content Accessibility Guidelines developed by the World Wide Web Consortium, an international standards organization.

Guidelines outline various accessibility standards, such as screen readers, alt text for images, font enlargement and keyboard navigation.

By implementing these features, websites become more inclusive and user-friendly for people with disabilities. (Note to self: Ensure The Examiner News site is up to snuff.)

Digital Infrastructure 

Chiappetta hopes the reform of existing government websites serves as a reminder to keep disabled people in mind right away when building any type of infrastructure, digital or otherwise.

“I mean, if all state websites were made with accessibility in mind at the very beginning, we wouldn’t be in this quandary right now anyway to begin with, because we don’t want accessibility to be an afterthought in any electronic resources for people with disabilities,” she said.

The 59-year-old did note how, generally speaking, she appreciates the heightened awareness legislators have gained in recent years about the needs of her community.

I asked her for another example of the type of irritation blind people might have to endure when visiting websites that neglect to consider visual impairment.

“If I wanted to go to the website and access a bus schedule in the past, the bus schedules were like a scanned image and just plopped up on the website,” said Chiappetta, who lost 60 percent of her vision more than three decades ago when she was 28, as a result of retinitis pigmentosa, a genetic disease.

“So if you could see, you could find out which buses were there because you could read the PDF that’s up there,” she continued. “But if you’re using a screen reader, screen reading technology, there’s no way you could access that PDF. The county did come in and fix that. So now if you go to their bus schedules that they offer on the Westchestergov.com website, you can actually (access the information) with your assistive technology. And that’s like something people would not think is a big deal. But it is a big deal.”

Crossing the Finish Line

As for Burdick, his advocacy for people with disabilities emerged as a heightened priority after a policy debate in the Town of Bedford about seven years ago, during his tenure as supervisor.

After a group home was proposed, it was met with pockets of resistance in the community.

“And I felt very concerned about the young autistic individuals and their families that would be housed in this group home,” he told me in a phone interview late last week. “I saw how difficult it is for people with disabilities. And so when the Assembly’s standing Committee on Disabilities was first formed, I asked to be appointed to it and was appointed to it.”

The prospect of the bill becoming law appears very promising. It sailed through both houses with unanimous bipartisan support, passing 144-0 in the Assembly on May 10 and 60-0 in the Senate on May 15.

While he said he was given no formal assurances, Burdick suspects it’s more than likely that Gov. Kathy Hochul will support the bill and sign it into law toward the end of the year. The bill also requires the Office of Information Technology Services to provide a report to the governor and legislature every two years.

“I consider it especially important since someone who has a disability so often is seeking services from state agencies and the easiest access for that is via the websites of the agencies,” Burdick said. “And so this is something that I have championed and fortunately got over the finish line. I am optimistic that the governor will sign it.”

Burdick’s other recent disability-related bill creates more employment opportunities for disabled people by adding part-time employment offerings within New York State civil service positions.

“The reason why this is important to people with disabilities is because often you have people with disabilities who really want to work, but it’s very difficult for them to work on a full-time basis,” Burdick said when discussing the bill, which also passed both houses, earning unanimous support in the Assembly on May 15.

‘Three Basic Things’

One of Chiappetta’s committee colleagues with the Westchester County Office for People with Disabilities is New Castle’s Lucille Rossi, who knows the challenging terrain of advocating for people with disabilities all too well. As the mother of a 23-year-old daughter with an intellectual disability, along with two other children, Rossi has confronted the complex maze of services and support.

A member of various disability committees, including New Castle’s Every Person is Connected (EPIC) group and Burdicks advisory panel, Rossi noted the need for comprehensive planning in education, employment and housing transition for young adults with disabilities.

“The way I like to describe it is, or like to synthesize it is, people with disabilities, just like everyone else, need the three basic things, which is employment, housing and access to the community,” Rossi said in a phone interview last week.

Of these three buckets, Burdick’s government website reform bill addresses the community access issue.

“I mean, for people who have vision impairment, you don’t know if there’s a job opening at Target because you can’t read their website,” Rossi said. “You don’t know if there’s affordable housing available because you can’t explore the housing listings. You don’t know if there’s a concert in your town, if your town’s website doesn’t have accessibility.”

Chiappetta, for her part, highlighted the need for accessibility to be a fundamental consideration from the inception of website development. She emphasized that if all state websites were created with accessibility in mind, it would eliminate the need to retrofit and fix accessibility issues later, ultimately saving time and resources.

“If all state websites were made with accessibility in mind at the very beginning, we wouldn’t be in this quandary right now anyway to begin with because we don’t want accessibility to be an afterthought in any electronic resources for people with disabilities,” Chiappetta said. “Just doesn’t make sense.”

“We want the playing field to include us because so often we’re the last ones at the table, and we want to change that,” she also remarked.

Blueprint for Access 

Web Content Accessibility Guidelines are a widely recognized set of principles developed by the World Wide Web Consortium to ensure web content is accessible to people with disabilities. In recent years, government websites have made significant strides in improving accessibility by adhering to guidelines and implementing practices that ensure perceivable content, keyboard operability, color contrast, consistent layouts, accessible forms, multimedia alternatives and regular testing for compliance.

I asked Chiappetta to elaborate for sighted people on how websites need to execute in their design for blind people.

“Basically, a sighted person would go to the website, they check out the top banner, they kind of scroll around with their eyes, they’ll see the way the website is formatted and how it’s sectioned out and all that,” she said.

“Well, when you’re using a screen reader and assistive technology, the assistive technology software will start at the top and read down, here’s the column from the left to the right. And it’s really important to understand that that’s the way it has to be so it can read all the Javascripting and all the stuff that’s incorporated to make the website readable and usable on the internet.”

She said people sometimes forget that sites must be coded correctly so that screen reading software can navigate the pages just as easily as if someone were using a mouse.

“We don’t use a mouse,” she noted. “We use a keyboard and we use text-to-speak software that speaks out everything on the screen to us. So if any of those page elements aren’t coded correctly, then we’re not going to get that information.”

I asked Burdick if any new funding would be necessary to make the required changes. He said none would be needed.

“Because the state agencies are required through the Office of Technology to continually update the website, we were not asked, as I recall, to put any kind of fiscal (provisions) on this,” the assemblyman replied.

Despite the important work being enacted on the state level to ensure access, federal rules do exist.

Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities in all services, programs and activities of state and local governments.

“The Department has consistently taken the position that the ADA’s requirements apply to all the services, programs, or activities of state and local governments, including those offered on the web,” the U.S. Department of Justice Civil Rights Division states about the ADA and web accessibility.

Lessons Learned

The most important lesson here is that accessibility should not be an afterthought. Given how our digital infrastructure has been constructed, tacking on fixes is a necessity.

But, as our technical world continues to evolve and new tools emerge at breakneck speed, it will be crucial for engineers, business leaders and policymakers to weave this type of mindfulness into the fabric of our digital infrastructure with all new products, right out the gate.

Just as disability access became the norm in the physical world thanks to policy reform, the same expectation has started to become established in the online world. Burdick’s bill is another positive step in that direction.

While physical ramps need to be built for buildings, digital ramps for the online universe are just as critical and need to be kept top of mind.

This is the first installment in a continuing series about issues impacting local people with disabilities.

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