Marla Runyan was just a few minutes into a presentation on accessible websites when the projection screen behind her went black.
It wasn’t an accident. Runyan, who has low vision, wanted to show her audience what it’s like to use a computer when you’re blind. Using screen reading software, which speaks aloud the text on a computer screen, she quickly filled out a volunteer form on the Perkins School for the Blind website.
“We were able to fill out this form even though we couldn’t see the screen,” she said. “That’s because it’s accessible.”
Runyan was speaking to a group of policymakers and congressional staffers as part of a briefing on assistive technology organized by the Consortium for Citizens with Disabilities. The Washington, D.C. event featured a variety of panelists who described their own experiences with assistive technology as well as the federal government’s role in providing access to devices for people who need them.
“Technology plays such an important role in the lives of all people with disabilities,” said Mark Richert, director of public policy at the American Foundation for the Blind, which co-sponsored the event with Perkins. “It can influence and empower just about every aspect of someone’s life.”
Runyan, who is director of digital accessibility at Perkins School for the Blind, was joined by disability rights attorney Bobby Silverstein, who described access to the Internet and computer technology as a human right that should be protected by the legal system.
“Think about how much of your day includes working with your computer, calling somebody on the telephone, using the Internet,” he said. “Think about your ability to function if you did not have access to those pieces of technology.”
Following the briefing, audience members were invited to an assistive technology expo to learn more about devices like the Perkins SMART brailler®, an electronic braille typewriter used to teach literacy to children who are blind, and innovations like Perkins’ BlindWays app, which helps people who are blind navigate to public transportation.
They also heard about Perkins Access, a team of Perkins technology experts led by Runyan who help businesses and organizations make their websites accessible.
Several lawmakers attended the event, including U.S. Senator Ed Markey of Massachusetts who spoke of the power of technology to make sure people with disabilities are “able to maximize their God-given intelligence and ability.”
Markey was joined by U.S. Representative Joseph Kennedy of Massachusetts who commended Runyan and the other panelists for their leadership around assistive technology.
“Thank you for being here,” he said. “We need your voices, we need your advocacy, we need you standing up for every single person in our community.”