November 11th is Veterans Day in the United States. This November 11th, 2021, is also World Usability Day, as this day is on the second Thursday of every November. It is appropriate for these two days to fall on the same day every now and then as they have the common thread of independence and empowerment for the disability community.
World Usability Day exposes the need to harness technology to benefit humanity. Technology has vastly improved the lives of the disability community and empowered us to live independently. However, independence for people with disabilities was not even recognized as possible until the Independent Living Movement began in the United States.
The roots of the Independent Living Movement stem back to the increase in disabled veterans coming home from WWI and WWII. Great advancements in medicine, like the invention of penicillin and improvements in amputation techniques, made saving thousands of lives possible. Technology was booming and lives were improving, but access and policy had yet to change.
Before veterans began populating the disability community, people with disabilities were rarely on the scene. If they were, their disabilities were hidden. Veterans having a need for access, a need to get back into their communities, gave a voice to the disability community; accessibility advocates finally had a fighting chance. Thus, the Independent Living Movement was sparked.
The Civil Rights Movement stoked the fire for human rights and many young disabled people began speaking out that they too desired a fulfilling life. The tiny spark became a beautiful blaze. Out of this movement came the longest sit-in at a federal building in US history; in 1977, a large group of activists advocated for the federal government to enforce Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, the first act granting the disability community rights in society.
The Americans with Disabilities Act, signed into law in 1990, expanded the coverage of disabled rights to include the private sector. Even though the ADA is the minimum, as it is one document and not able to encompass diverse needs, the essence of this law is monumental in giving people with disabilities the right to fully access the benefits of living and working in society. The ADA is just a start. We need to build on its foundation to create a truly accessible world.
Since the ADA is simply a law, it does not automatically change mindsets or infrastructure. Thirty-one (31) years after the ADA, it is still difficult for disabled veterans and the disability community in general to access their communities. Joblessness and homelessness are both large issues that impact both veterans and people with disabilities. Increasing access to technologies, whether that be a wheelchair or telehealth communication, can, in turn, provide access back into the community for those who have continued to be hidden away.
Universal Design may be one answer to this need. It is the design that creates access for everyone, no matter their age or ability, with minimal or no accommodations. This means that everyone can use the designs and the benefits from it. The curb cut effect demonstrates this well; designs originally built to provide access to the disability community, like curb cuts, benefit society as well.
Both veterans and people with disabilities need access to bring their diverse voices to the table. This is beginning to take place as people start to think outside the box and incorporate usability for all into their best practices. When disability and its all-encompassing meanings are addressed, access for all comes to fruition.
Disability is diversity. This is not only due to the spectrum of and within disability, or to the range of access needs, but also because disability intersects with every identity in which one can identify, like being a veteran. Disability is the largest minority and anyone can become a part of our community at any time. Thus, the investment of accessibility and inclusion is beneficial not only to the disability community but to the general public now and into the future.