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Sharron Rush

Executive director and cofounder, Knowbility, Austin, Texas

This Person Makes Technology More Accessible to All

Digital accessibility is a right, according to the UN Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities. Yet a huge majority of websites, applications and other digital platforms remain inaccessible to many of the billion people in the world who live with an auditory, cognitive, neurological, physical, speech and/or visual disability. People with disabilities want what most people do: opportunities to learn, to work and to participate in social and civic events.

These activities increasingly take place online or in digital formats, so access to digital technology becomes critical to equal opportunity. Austin, Texas-based Knowbility, founded in 1999, addresses this digital divide through awareness, education and services.

spinner image sharron rush
Courtesy of Sharron Rush

The problem I’m trying to solve

Digital equity means that people with disabilities have the same access to digital technologies as everyone else. That’s important, because so many of our daily activities are based on digital technology — those who are shut out lose so much. During the pandemic, we changed how we went to work, to school, to family events. Most of us found ways to connect despite our isolation. But a lot of conferencing technology was inaccessible to many people with disabilities, so millions were locked out due to design choices built into the technology.

Society has gotten better at making the physical environment work for everyone — by integrating curb cuts for those with mobility issues and audible traffic signals for the blind, for example — but we’re not similarly designing and building tech environments for people with disabilities. When those technologies are not available, people with disabilities are marginalized in a way that has profound impact.

The moment that sparked my passion

​I was 50 when we started Knowbility in 1999. My job at the time was to find or create employment opportunities for people with disabilities. Austin was becoming a tech hub around then. The problem was that the technologies the tech pioneers were using to do their innovative work were not accessible. For me, that was really it. Here was our town being transformed by the tech industry, which was crying for people to do this work. And here I had people who were smart and able, and they were excluded by the very tech that was transforming my town and our world.

It was clear that a paradigm shift was needed in technology design in order for disabled people to live independently and with equal rights in the emerging digital world.

What I wish other people knew

​I wish people understood that when you design for people with disabilities, you make online products and services better for everyone — just as wheelchair ramps also benefit people with strollers, suitcases, canes and hand trucks. Technology design has to be made as accessible as buildings.

It’s incredible how much better almost any product will work if designed with disability in mind. Here’s an example. We advocate for plain language to help people with cognitive and learning disabilities like dyslexia. Studies show that the use of plain language helps all users. People make fewer errors filling out forms. They comply more accurately and quickly with requirements. They call customer support less frequently, saving time and money for both the consumer and the business.

And think about this: We are all on the spectrum from ability to disability, particularly with regards to aging. No matter how fit a 90-year-old you are, you aren’t doing what you could at 23. Anyone can be born with or acquire a disability, temporarily or permanently.

Advice to others who want to make a difference

Reflect on the difference you would like to see, and be really clear about your goal: What change do you want to see in the world? You must be prepared to hang in for the long term. I thought this problem would be solved pretty quickly, that tech designers would embrace inclusive design once they understood how current development practice was locking so many people out of equal participation. Yet here I am, 20 years later!

Why my approach is unique

Knowbility looks at digital equity as a creative challenge rather than a legal one, although legal strategies are important and necessary, of course. We started with an accessible web design contest called the Accessibility Internet Rally (AIR). People loved the friendly, cooperative competitions (and the prizes: a bowling trophy and bragging rights). Knowbility continues to produce the annual contest, and it still engages people in the issue of digital inclusion in a uniquely creative, positive way.

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