Learning from a radical past as we design an accessible future - Technical.ly Philly


Jul. 23, 2019 12:55 pm

Learning from a radical past as we design an accessible future

UX researcher and disability justice scholar Embry Wood Owen on what technologists can learn from disabled communities as they build the public space of the 21st century.
A screenshot from the Paul K. Longmore Institute on Disability’s YouTube video about the Section 504 sit-in.

A screenshot from the Paul K. Longmore Institute on Disability's YouTube video about the Section 504 sit-in.

(Screenshot via YouTube)

This is a guest post by Embry Wood Owen, a Philadelphia-based user experience researcher, disability justice scholar and person living with disability.
While “accessibility” may bring to mind codes and standards, I’d like to invite you to consider something different: an exciting, radical history of activism.

Disabled communities have long worked toward inclusion in public space. Here’s what we can learn as technologists as we build the public space of the 21st century.

Accessibility must be led by disabled people and their abled accomplices.

Time and again, we’ve seen that meaningful accessibility is led by disabled people. In Berkeley, California, in the late 1960s, a small cohort of wheelchair users entered the university as undergraduates. They worked together to fight for access in public space, eventually becoming known as the Rolling Quads. They created the first Center for Independent Living (CIL), an organization for disabled people, run by disabled people, in 1972. There are now 403 CILs across the US, focused on what design scholar Bess Williamson terms “self-directed choice.”

The Rolling Quads believed that design should further independence for people with disabilities. We can adopt this philosophy and consider how the technology we build furthers “self-directed choice” for disabled people. And we can ensure that our accessibility work is increasingly led by disabled people themselves.

Experimentation and iteration allow us to go further.

Early versions of the curb cut illustrate that standards are not fixed, and that collaboration is essential for expanding access. Members of the Rolling Quads and their attendants created curb cut prototypes to facilitate better mobility for wheelchair users in Berkeley. But the knowledge they held was limited to what they needed. As such, they received pushback from blind individuals, who were disoriented when the curb intersected directly with the street without notice. They worked together to create curb cuts with the right grade for wheelchair users and tactile alerts for blind people.


Cross-disability partnership and testing are essential. We must embrace the complexities of access in the technology we create. We can work with diverse groups of disabled users to understand their needs and design accordingly.

To expand access, build coalitions.

When Section 504 of the Federal Rehabilitation Act was signed into law in 1973, it was the first federal civil rights protection for disabled people. The law was exciting, but regulations on how to enforce it were slow-coming. The American Coalition of Citizens with Disabilities set a deadline for the regulations: April 4, 1977. When the deadline passed, they launched a sit-in of federal offices around the country the following day.

Staging sit-ins is always challenging, but doing so when disabled is especially so. Participants needed ASL interpreters, attendant care and refrigerators for medications. Only one sit-in lasted: San Francisco. Activists there built relationships with groups like the Black Panthers and the Mission Rebels and the Butterfly Brigade. These organizations participated in the sit-in, fed protesters and brought supplies. By bringing more groups to the cause, the San Francisco sit-in was able to sustain enough pressure that regulations were passed a month later, transforming the American landscape.

The 504 sit-in shows us that accessibility work cannot be done alone. Systemic change requires coalitions. Working across teams, and getting other individuals on board who have personal experience with exclusion, will make your accessibility work stronger.

For many people, disability is a social identity, not a diagnosis.

When students at Gallaudet University, America’s university for D/deaf students, took over their campus in March of 1988, their demands were clear. They wanted a Deaf university president, and they wanted a majority-D/deaf board of trustees. They were furious that the board had chosen a new, hearing president for the university from a pool of finalists that included two qualified Deaf candidates. They wanted a president who embraced their language, culture and capabilities. After eight days of boycotting classes, marching and protests, Dr. I King Jordan became the first deaf president of Gallaudet. The Deaf President Now movement was a watershed moment for D/deaf culture, which continues to expand and thrive.

When working in accessibility, we can be quick to focus on the “conditions” that we need to accommodate. And while accommodation is important, so too are the communities and cultural identities that disabled people have. Technology is a powerful tool for building culture and connection, as evidenced by the thriving communities of disabled people on social media.

We must be accountable to those who have been repeatedly excluded.

Accessibility has never been a race- or class-blind issue. It was only after many middle-class white people experienced disability during World War II and the polio epidemic that deinstitutionalization was put in motion. Since then, Black activists have played key roles in modern disability movements, but their involvement is often forgotten. And today, many gloss over the connection between disability and poverty, even though 22% of Philadelphia’s poor are disabled.

We have a responsibility to center those who have been repeatedly excluded from our work. This means developing a strategy of accountability specifically towards disabled people who are people of color, low-income and women, trans or nonbinary. We must be designing with them, hiring them, listening to them and repeatedly returning to their needs. It is only then that we will move from access to real inclusion.


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