Celebrating the ADA Anniversary
Mike Shebanek, our Senior Director of Accessibility, is a man on a mission to make technology useful for all.
We caught up with him in Oath's Sunnyvale Accessibility Lab, where industry-leading projects like The Disability Collection take form, to talk about the anniversary of the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Signed into law 28 years ago, the bill provided equal rights and opportunities to all Americans with disabilities. We asked Mike about the ADA's importance, where tech fits in, and what the future holds for accessibility.
What does the ADA mean to the accessibility community?
It's a confirmation of something that a lot of people take for granted: the right to be included, heard, and represented. In the past, people with disabilities were denied those rights.
The ADA was the moment in American history that ensured equal access under the law to public spaces, transit, restaurants, buildings, government services, and businesses. It's about civil rights, and it's protected, landmark legislation.
For tech companies, how does it inform product design?
Tech companies must be sure to include people with disabilities in the design and function of their products and services. That means designing products to support assistive technologies like screen readers, switch controls, alternate input devices, and captioning. Tech companies are also now required to include users with disabilities when capturing user feedback to better understand their needs.
There is still a long way to go, but there have been huge gains, especially over the last 10 or 15 years. Accessible technology is becoming easier to use, more affordable, and more widely available.
A woman uses her iPhone with VoiceOver.
Do any particular gains of the past 10 to 15 years stand out?
One of the more important moments was the accessibility of the iPhone. It was the first time that people with disabilities had access to the latest technology at the same time as everyone else. It didn't cost any additional dollars, or need attachments or more software to make it accessible, and it was everywhere.
It was the biggest change in computing in a very long time. Because it's personal, mobile, always connected, and fully accessible out of the box, it led to a transformative change in how people with disabilities think of and use technology. Most importantly, it changed their expectations. Now people with disabilities expect new products to be accessible, and companies are responding.
How did you get involved with accessibility work?
I was working at Apple as a product manager and was tasked with making our computers work for students who were blind. I knew what the state of the art was, and during my research I saw the gap between it and what was available to people with disabilities. It was so huge I could hardly believe it. I recognized I was in a position to change this in a significant way and develop technologies that would enable everyone to use those computers.
Eventually, I led the team that created the VoiceOver screen reader and all of the accessibility features on the Mac and iPhone. I hoped this work would make a difference, but couldn't have imaged at the time how big an effect it would eventually have.
Once you get acquainted with the disability community and their needs, and with what's technically possible, adapting products for accessibility is so rewarding. I'm excited to be able to bridge the gap so that everyone has access to what others enjoy.
How can we all be better advocates for inclusion?
By simply being aware and conscious of inclusion, you'll start to recognize opportunities to make a difference. Whether it's among your family, friends, at work, or in public spaces, being cognizant and not overlooking disability is a huge part of being an advocate.
Then it's your responsibility to say something or do something. Advocate, offer assistance, build accessible products, hire people with disabilities, and make sure not to exclude someone because it might be uncomfortable at first. In every case I've ever witnessed, people who take the time to listen and learn from those with disabilities always come away better and more empathetic advocates.
What do you most look forward to in the next 28 years?
I'm really excited about how many new people are becoming aware of Accessibility and entering this field of work. It has taken a long time to reach a critical mass of people who understand the issues, are good at the technology, and are excited about building products designed at the onset to be universally useful.
On the tech side, there so many emerging technologies that hold incredible promise—if they're made accessible: machine learning and computer vision, speech interfaces, augmented and virtual reality, IoT, 3D printing, robotics, and 5G networking. For example, with autonomous vehicles, the reality that someone with a disability could take and even provide transportation without relying on another person would be a massive win for their independence.
Similarly, navigation on the street is set to see major improvements. With computer vision and augmented reality, tech will help people understand and perceive more of what's around them. In the case of maps, you could arrive and know when steps have changed, if doors are no longer available, or when there's construction. The potential for robots to provide physical assistance in the home or office is also huge. There are so many possibilities on the horizon, many of which promise radical change.
To read more about the Accessibility team's great work, visit our Accessibility page.