During most of my 20-year career at Mathematica, I’ve focused on our commitment to and expertise in making our work accessible to the widest audience possible. A person with a disability must have equal access to information and be able to use it in the same way as someone without a disability. As we celebrate Global Accessibility Awareness Day, I’ve been reflecting on how our work has evolved over the years along with our focus on diversity, equity, and inclusion.
In 2008, I traveled with my colleague Jennifer Baskwell to Washington, DC, for training at the U.S. Department of Agriculture TARGET Center (Technology & Accessible Resources Give Employment Today Center) on how to meet the requirements of Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act. We sat with other Mathematica staff and listened to the presenter explain tags and alt text, elements of PDFs that we had never heard of before. We came away questioning what Section 508 meant for us and the company, how involved we were going to get in these new requirements, and what tools and training were available to help us. Around the same time, Mathematica recognized the importance of disability issues to the work we were doing in education, health, and other areas and launched the Center for Studying Disability Policy as a trusted resource for quality research.
That summer, Jennifer turned out one of our first 508-compliant deliverables, a report for the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services. Jennifer noted the report “took almost all summer to figure out,” as it was full of tables, figures, and other things that make 508 compliance a challenge. In those days, before compliance-checking applications such as Global Access, we had to work within the limitations of Word and Adobe Acrobat and fix errors manually.
Over the years, our concept of accessibility broadened along with the types of products we made accessible (for example, we used Ramp software by Deque to make HTML tables compliant). Making content accessible became more than filling out a checklist to ensure that alt text and tags were available, or providing a link to a plug-in needed for a website to render properly. As we offered more and more products beyond traditional printed reports, we focused on adding captioning and visual indicators to videos and webinar recordings, making sure reading order was correct on websites and in tabular data, and developing graphics with adequate color contrast and text representation. We began to consider how we could make products inclusive and accessible by incorporating plain language principles into our writing, and assessing page layout to help those with learning disabilities.
Our Journey to True Accessibility
As technology has evolved, processes to ensure accessibility continue to improve. Ten years ago, a colleague working in multimedia spent an entire weekend threading closed captioning and time stamps into a video in Adobe Premiere. Not too long after that, we could upload a script and sync it. Now, YouTube does the work for us.
After the “508 refresh” in 2018, the process for meeting the requirements became clearer, and the workload began to grow. A decade ago, each federal agency we dealt with seemed to have a different 508 checklist. The refresh brought consistency to the process and expanded accessibility requests beyond federal agencies to include state, international, and foundation partners. In 2008, we made eight (very large) PDF documents and one presentation 508 compliant. In the first three months of 2021, we handled 365 requests for 508 compliance, and we are on track to quadruple that number by the end of the year.
Accessibility is now the baseline for everything we produce. To ensure quality and efficiency, we have aligned our process with the life cycle of a product. Now, we build and update our Word, Excel, and PowerPoint templates with accessible fonts, colors, styles, and structural elements baked in, so that files convert into PDFs that we can more readily make compliant. And we include as much tagging, logical reading order of elements, alt text, and metadata as possible. For large data analytics projects, we use scripting languages to produce accessible reports. Our web programmers have developed an extensive library of accessible website controls and code. We use Tableau to create compliant data visualization projects. Video products and web events incorporate closed captioning, and we create versions of videos with audio descriptions of complex visuals. Expertise and responsibility for accessibility are distributed across our staff through multiple drafts and stages.
As we celebrate this 10th anniversary of Global Accessibility Awareness Day, our commitment to making our work accessible to the most diverse audience has never been stronger. We join the founders of Global Accessibility Awareness Day in their goal to get everyone talking, thinking, and learning about access and inclusion for the more than 1 billion people with disabilities worldwide.