Emerging Trends | SDG10
April 5, 2013

Accessibility loses a great champion

By Andrea Saks

It is with the deepest regret that I announce the death of my colleague and close friend, Dr. Cynthia Waddell, a lifelong advocate for the rights of persons with disabilities and a world-renowned expert in disability rights law, public policy and electronic and information technology.

The improving accessibility of technologies, the built environment and the job market owes an incredible amount to Cynthia’s achievements over a lifetime dedicated to enhancing social inclusion for the roughly 650 million people across the world living with some form of disability.

Cynthia served as Executive Director of the International Center for Disability Resources on the Internet (ICDRI), an organization with a mission to increase opportunities for people with disabilities by identifying barriers to participation and promoting best practices and universal design of technology for the global community.

Cynthia was the author of the first accessible web design standard in the United States in 1995 that led to recognition as a best practice by the federal government and contributed to the eventual passage of legislation for Electronic and Information Technology Accessibility Standards. In addition, she served as the built environment and accessible technology expert for the United Nations Ad Hoc Committee during the drafting of the Convention on Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD) and was Co-Editor and Co-Author of the ITU/G3ict e-Accessibility Toolkit for Policy Makers Implementing the UNCRPD.

She played advisory roles in countless international organizations and public and private-sector forums, and the ITU membership will remember the instrumental role Cynthia played in the development of Resolution 70, “Telecommunication/information and communication technology accessibility for persons with disabilities”, adopted by 2008’s World Telecommunication Standardization Assembly (WTSA-08). WTSA-08 Resolution 70 was the first ITU text embracing the topic of accessibility, setting the tone for further affirmation of the importance of this work in Resolutions 58 and 70 of 2010’s World Telecommunication Development Conference (WTDC-10) and Resolution 175 of 2010’s ITU Plenipotentiary Conference.

Cynthia’s seminal paper, “The Growing Digital Divide in Access for People with Disabilities: Overcoming Barriers to Participation” (1999) was commissioned by the U.S. Department of Commerce and the National Science Foundation for the first national conference under President Clinton on the impact of the digital economy. She also co-authored two books: Web Accessibility: Web Standards and Regulatory Compliance (Apress 2006) and Constructing Accessible Web Sites (Glasshaus 2002, reprinted Apress 2003). These best practices and technical resources include the first global surveys of laws and policies in countries addressing accessible web design.

Cynthia was held in the highest esteem by all those fortunate enough to have worked with her. She will be sorely missed by her colleagues, friends and the millions of people around the globe to have benefited from her tireless advocacy and activism. In the wake of her passing, her family and I have been immensely grateful for the many kind words received from those who knew and loved Cynthia, and below I have enclosed just two testaments to the character of this remarkable woman.

Gerry Elllis, Feel the BenefIT, Ireland, and active alongside Cynthia in IGF’s Dynamic Coalition on Accessibility and Disability (DCAD):

“We all knew Cynthia as a trojan fighter in every corner of the world for the rights of people with disabilities. She was not very tall; a David facing down nay-sayers and cynics. And yet she was a Goliath in the field of accessibility. I met Cynthia on several occasions at meetings and conferences in various parts of the world. Her knowledge and enthusiasm never failed to bowl me over. Everywhere she went she was known and everyone wanted to spend time with her. One could hardly pay her a bigger compliment than that.”

Michael Burks, Chairman of the Board of Trustees, International Center for Disability Resources on the Internet (ICDRI):

“Cynthia was a tireless advocate for people with disabilities.  She had the ability to analyze technical issues and distill them down so that everyone could understand them no matter what their view.  She analyzed the first Web issues and produced an analysis that helped everyone to understand the situation and to produce solutions.  She was true and courageous and was willing to do whatever was needed to accomplish the goals that she felt were important.  Her efforts and accomplishments helped to improve the lives of people everywhere, regardless of their location, their situation in life, or whether or not they had a disability.  The world will be a poorer place without her presence.”

I was able to visit Cynthia this past February and relay the results of WTSA-12 and the World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT-12). I explained that her logic was at the forefront of my mind as WCIT-12 succeeded in the inclusion of the first-ever Article on accessibility in the International Telecommunication Regulations (ITRs). She was pleased to hear the news of the Article but laughed out loud with joy upon hearing that captioning was offered at both WTSA and WCIT, in all six official languages of the Union. That captioning was offered on a multilingual basis and for transcripts (not just for deaf people) meant to the both of us that captioning for international meetings had now been mainstreamed.

For me personally, her passing makes me realize that we all have to keep moving forward in educating people on the importance of accessibility, ensuring that advances in technology include accessibility features for as many people as possible. The designs of new innovations or codes must integrate accessibility features right from their outset, always prioritizing global interoperability.

Cynthia and I worked together many times in life, all over the world, and in death she has inspired me to carry on so that what she and I and many others believe should be so, becomes so.

Over the last forty-eight hours, I have received countless messages of condolence from Cynthia’s many friends.  I have answered all of you as best as I can. Please post your comments on this blog as it would make all those who knew her, and especially her family, very happy to see how much her work meant to all of us.

Cynthia is survived by her husband, Tom, her daughters, Elizabeth and Christina, and her granddaughter, Julia.

Andrea Saks Andrea Saks is an international telecommunications specialist for the deaf. She has been a key person in the creation of all ITU accessibility initiatives and events including the convener of the Joint Coordination Activity on Accessibility and Human Factors and the coordinator of the Internet Governance Forum’s Dynamic Coalition on Accessibility and Disability. In 2008 she was given the ITU World Telecommunication and Information Society Award and made a Laureate for her lifelong work in accessibility to telecommunications and ICTs for persons with Disabilities.
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Accessibility loses a great champion

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