The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is currently celebrating 25 years of removing barriers and empowering people. It is a federal civil rights law that was enacted to enable the more than 50 million Americans who live with disabilities to feel welcome and live more independently. However, it doesn’t go far enough in ensuring that people with visual impairments can navigate and explore buildings with ease and confidence. For example there is nothing contained within the ADA about text speech – a simple but revolutionary advancement that allows people with visual impairments a sense of independence and a chance to experience, even enjoy, their surroundings.
To comply with the few provisions of the ADA that relate to people with visual impairments, state and local government facilities, public accommodations, and commercial facilities only have to be ‘accessible’ and ‘usable’. This is typically accomplished in the form of a braille or large-print sign, which requires the user to locate it to make it useable in the first place.
These signs are created with the best of intentions, and in many situations are perfectly functional—such as restrooms or elevators, to ensure to the user that they are in the correct place. But imagine a museum or theater—in such an open space; the presence of a sign isn’t necessarily intuitive. One would need to touch all the walls and surfaces in search of any signage, just to discover if it exists at all.
Sadly, the terms ‘accessible’ and ‘useable’ ignore the concepts of function and pleasure. As a result, most organizations don’t make the modest enhancements to their facilities to enrich the experiences of people with visual impairments.