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This small change could make a big difference for accessible technology

Think about how much you rely on your phone and computer every day. Now imagine having to get through your day without being able to use the mouse. Imagine not being to use a touchscreen -- or maybe not being able to see the screen at all. Could you still do your job?

That's what it's like for millions of people with disabilities that prevent them from using basic technology for work and play. And while few would argue that it's a bad idea to build products that address those issues, a lack of awareness often means that even making products functional for people with disabilities is an afterthought.

Tech firms such as Yahoo, Facebook, Dropbox and LinkedIn announced Thursday that they will develop standard language that lets applicants know that having accessibility knowledge is "preferred" to land a job. The move is part of a larger program called "Teaching Accessibility": a joint effort between disability advocates, schools and the tech industry to make all technology accessible from the start.

The initiative grew out of discussions the organizations were already having through a technology forum set up by the American Association for People with Disabilities, where representatives meet regularly to talk about how to make accessibility issues more visible in the tech world. A line in a job description may not sound like much, but the signal it sends to applicants and universities about knowledge of accessibility issues is a big deal, said Henry Claypool, a consultant on disability issues and former executive vice president of the AAPD.

"It's abundantly clear that commerce, work and entertainment is now engaged online," he said. "If accessibility issues aren’t addressed, the ability of these populations  -- particularly deaf and blind individuals -- is really impeded. You can easily argue that if you don’t have [accessible technology] that people are being excluded. And that’s dangerously close to discrimination."

The announcement builds on work that many of the companies have been doing on their own campuses and in collaboration with each other to train their employees to think about these issues while designing their products, rather than after they're built. Doing so improves the product for the estimated 19 percent of Americans who have a disability and often results in cleaner, more usable design overall.

Yahoo, for example, has built an accessibility lab on its campus where it brings in employees and guests to illustrate what it's like to use technology when you have a disability. The lab is full of computers and mobile devices with software that will read what's on your screen, as well as a variety of gloves, goggles and other tools that simulate a variety of disabilities. Visitors are encouraged to try it all out to get a glimpse of how hard it is to use a computer when you can't move your fingers or can only see a narrow portion of your computer screen.

Alan Brightman, a Yahoo vice president who started the accessibility lab, said that bringing people into the lab to experience even a fraction of what people with disabilities have to do to use basic technology has been incredibly effective -- way more effective than a training video.

"We'd bring in execs, children of execs or product groups, put them in front of the computer and say, 'You’re paralyzed from the neck down,'" he said. "People sit there and try to think it out, then bend over and start hitting keys with their nose -- forgetting they're supposed to be paralyzed.  We let them think a little, and then we finally show them how that’s possible in several different ways."

Actually trying out these technologies also raises awareness in another way, Brightman said. "When that person goes home that night you know they'll tell others, 'You won’t believe what I did at Yahoo today.'" Often, he said, a product team at Yahoo will ask to swing through the lab because they heard from another team about the experience.

Facebook has what it calls an "empathy lab" set up at its new sprawling headquarters where employees can test what it's like to use the site in a variety of ways -- without a mouse, with a screen reader, or using tools designed to help the blind.

Likewise, working with schools helps to ensure that even more people will get this sort of training.

"Advances in technology are driven by people. So it is critical that the people creating new technologies understand accessibility," said Jeffrey Wieland, head of accessibility at Facebook. "Our hope is that together we can tackle this systemic challenge and find ways to make accessibility fundamental to one's learning path in technology."

Brightman, of Yahoo, said that he's excited that this move is coming from a group of companies, as well, which he said reflects the generally noncompetitive and collegial spirit of people in the tech industry who've already devoted time to these issues. "All of us are so excited about getting this started and watching it snowball," he said. "And I can’t believe it won’t snowball."