Guest Post by: Lynn Wehrman, President & Test Management Team Director, WeCo
As the President of a small, mission-based start-up, I’m often asked what led me to leave a comfortable government position to pioneer a company in a field that is only just emerging, covering a need that few companies understand: electronic accessibility. While the reasons were many, including seeing first-hand how inaccessible websites keep people living with disabilities from receiving services and having access to vital information, an extremely important, underlying reason came from what I observed when I was just beginning to encounter the fields of accessibility and disability advocacy.
Like many of us who enter accessibility from a government position, I was a writer/web developer who was assigned to assist with a consumer-based committee who was working on accessibility initiatives with my agency, the Minnesota Department of Transportation. Being the only department that builds infrastructure, DOTs can be exceptionally vulnerable to legal liability surrounding accessibility. As a result, the agency I worked for was encountering a growing number of complaints and facing potential lawsuits over curb ramps and other crucial features in our transportation system that were not working for taxpayers who lived with disabilities.
In response, Mn/DOT forged a committee of individuals representing advocacy groups and citizens living with disabilities, many of whom lived with disabilities themselves, to work directly with the agency to update its Americans with Disabilities Act Transition Plan and begin to implement accessible changes to the state’s infrastructure. My initial part in that effort was to construct an accessible website devoted to this work and to see to it that meeting communications were accessible.
Prior to this position, my contact with people living with physical disabilities was somewhat limited. Working on Mn/DOT’s ADA Transition Plan Committee allowed me to meet people who encountered life in a very different way than what I experienced.
The experience made me realize the amount of time and level of understanding, that is required to truly recognize the needs people have when they navigate life differently and how few people and organizations feel that they should invest that time or nurture that understanding.
For example, I witnessed people living with sight-related disabilities spend hours attempting to locate one piece of information on a website, simply because a web developer had not taken the time to mark the information so that their screen reader software could easily locate it. I also heard the anger in the user’s voice when they contacted the organization, several times, asking them to facilitate the use of their product or information, and realizing that they were not considered a priority.
Many of the early meetings I attended at Mn/DOT regarding the ADA Transition Plan were peppered with that type of interaction and a strongly nurtured expectation on the part of the taxpayers who lived with disabilities that it was likely that no one would listen to their needs.
At the same time, I also watched caring government employees attending advocacy events after their work hours, pouring over research to educate themselves and actively listening to angry and frustrated taxpayers, with a strong desire to change that pattern of ignorance and indifference.
From the unique position I occupied as the group communication coordinator, I was more easily accepted as a member of both the taxpayer and government groups working on the new ADA Transition Plan, and was able to watch the transformation that occurred on both sides. Slowly, with the aid of a trained mediator, I watched as these people began to trust and believe in each other, the process they were engaged in, and transformed themselves from two camps into one. What I learned from what I had observed was both how powerful government can be for the good of the taxpayer who lives with disabilities and how effective the disabled taxpayer can be at teaching the government what they need.
It was from this concept that the idea for WeCo was born. Watching first-hand what could be accomplished when the ignorance, indifference, anger and fear are defused and people simply sit down together and work toward a solution.
The partnership between WeCo and GovDelivery is a perfect embodiment of that hopeful vision. Because of the priority GovDelivery places on “real life” accessibility, they selected WeCo’s human-based testing methods which covers much more than just the devices people use to access their products, it encompasses all types of disabilities people live with, as defined by the US Department of Human Services: sight, hearing, motor skill and cognitive.
This means that, over the course of a typical workday, a WeCo Test Consultant who lives with blindness will describe how her screen reader interacts with a product, over the phone in her home, to a GovDelivery software engineer. In a coffee house across town, GovDelivery marketing staff will meet with a WeCo Accessibility Specialist who works from his wheel chair, to learn how he uses Section 508 and WCAG guidance to test their products and how their customers can benefit from knowing more about the process.
WeCo and GovDelivery are bringing together accessible solutions which captures the real experiences of those of us who live with disabilities. We believe that this synergy can only be passed on to the government organizations that use the products we create and test together.