New U.S. Plain-Language Law Good for People with Cognitive Disabilities

The Plain Writing Act of 2010 was signed into U.S. federal law on October 13, 2010. Essentially, it requires federal agencies to create documents using plain language.

The law also requires a section, on each federal-agency Web site, that follows best practices of plain-language writing. If indeed that happens, I anticipate people with cognitive disabilities will find such information much easier to understand. This is particularly good for the people with intellectual disabilities whom I have interviewed. A common thread of our conversations related to their self-advocacy interest in contacting their government representatives, and for determining how their government could help them.

I hope U.S. federal agencies set a standard that others will follow. For people with cognitive disabilities, the accessibility of Web site content is just as important as the accessibility of a site’s design. Text must be written in plain, simple language. There are efforts all over the world to encourage the use of plain language, which helps everyone.

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How I Was Introduced To Computer Accessibility

This post is the first of a few in which I will explain how my work in computer accessibility developed into my interest in Web accessibility for people with cognitive disabilities.

Since 1992, I have been part of a team that develops software for people with disabilities. We have always made it accessible given the technology of the time, our awareness of it, and available funding.

In the early years, we relied upon third-party software to help make our own accessible. My first related assignment was to integrate multiple systems: single-switch, screen magnification and speech recognition. Each of their developers assumed their system would be the only one present on a computer. I thus had to force their software into non-competing RAM– and ROM regions; configure the interrupts of their hardware; work around conflicting copy-protection schemes; and develop a unified menu.

I was rewarded by overcoming the technological challenges and by helping people with disabilities use our software to find information essential to their lives. The work I just described originated from a project that is a good example. Known as The Massachusetts Accessible Housing Registry, it was and is now a database of accessible housing units throughout the state. Another example was The Massachusetts Assistive Technology Project, for which we developed a database of equipment. I worked with its director, Judy Brewer, who later became the director of The Web Accessibility Initiative at the World Wide Web Consortium. She was the first accessibility advocate I had ever encountered. She demanded that software be accessible at a time when the public was generally unaware of personal computers. Judy had a significant influence in my nascent career.

I found initial- and long-term satisfaction in helping people with disabilities use computers. For some, our software was the impetus for computer use. For them and others, the software I installed to help them with our own also enabled them to use computers like their peers without disabilities. I remember my amazement and gratification watching people who needed single-switch devices become computer users. Another memory is of a poignant moment. It occurred while I was showing a young woman how to use the speech recognition software. She cried as she told me it was the first time she would be able to write a letter to her mother.

To be continued …