This installment of our Accessibility Activists column is an interview with Ken Nakata, the Director of Accessibility Consulting at Cryptzone. Nakata is the former Senior Trial Attorney for the Disability Rights Section of the US Department of Justice.
How did you first get started in accessibility?
Almost by accident, really. I think every liberal-minded attorney dreams of doing civil rights work, but I happened to be in New York working in private practice when a friend told me that the effective date of the ADA was coming up— and that the Department of Justice would likely need to have a few attorneys. I applied for the job and waited… then waited some more. Eventually, I landed an interview and was one of the first attorneys to join the new “Office on the Americans with Disabilities Act,” which eventually became the Disabilities Rights Section. Sometimes you just get lucky as this was the best job I’ve ever had.
When you worked for the Department of Justice, you were the Senior Trial Attorney for the Disability Rights Section. You coauthored reports from the Attorney General to the President and Congress, and you oversaw countless ADA investigations that shaped current law and policy. How did your experiences at the DOJ affect your view of accessibility?
Wow, that’s a really great question! First, my experience reminded me just how important DOJ is in terms of civil rights enforcement. As a (then) young attorney, there is simply no way that I would have been able to have as much impact on our society as I had when I was at DOJ. Second, as a lawyer working on accessibility cases across across the country, I also grew to appreciate smart advocacy. It’s not just about having a great case. It’s also about pushing cases at the right time and in the right courts. For instance, Access Now v. Southwest Airlines was a disaster of a case that set web accessibility back almost a decade. At Justice, we knew that it was the wrong case in the wrong courthouse— but I think it took that more global perspective to appreciate that.
Outside of IT accessibility, what are some of the cooler cases you worked on at Justice?
I really think I had the luckiest careers at Justice. I got to work on some of the early cases involving mental health inquiries by licensing boards and worked on one of the only cases in this area that actually went to trial. In that case, we got a judge to reverse his initial opinion and the decision became a key part of changing the kinds of questions that every licensing board in the country now asks applicants. So that affects just about every doctor, lawyer, psychologist, or other licensed professional in the country. I also pushed Greyhound Lines to make their buses accessible ahead of the schedule outlined in the ADA. We had received dozens of complaints of people getting physically injured or publicly humiliated while being carried onto buses. The settlement we reached with them provided over 3,000 passengers with disabilities with an accessible bus. In fact, Greyhound then started loaning their accessible buses to other bus companies and it created a nationwide accessible bus network before the law required it. One year, I spent on detail to the Special Litigation Section with about 15-20 other attorneys to work on police misconduct issues under a new police misconduct statute. Three of us worked on the Pittsburgh Bureau of Police, which became the nation’s first police misconduct case under that new law by DOJ. That case forms the framework for most of the DOJ cases involving police misconduct to this day that are making so many headlines.
In your current role as Director of Accessibility Consulting at Cryptzone, you have written accessibility best practices for Fortune 100 companies. What are some interesting challenges you have faced while doing this? How does writing BPs for large corporations differ from writing BPs for Federal agencies?
In the private sector, it’s much harder to get focus on accessibility and most companies are less willing to revise their policies until they get sued. Then, suddenly, companies speak in terms of “best practices” first and pay less attention to basic compliance. I’ve always thought that this is a mistake. Whether you’re in the public or private sector, the most important point is compliance— and only once you’ve gotten that buttoned up can your organization start thinking about best practices. In general, it was a lot easier to get public sector organizations to think this way— but not always!
What are you most excited about in terms of IT accessibility?
Definitely the convergence between IT and built environment accessibility. For the last 15-20 years, we’ve always thought about the two fields separately. But, ever so slowly, we’re seeing crossovers between the two fields. Obviously, with over a dozen years in the Disability Rights Section, I spent a lot of time working on the built environment side and have lots of friends who work in that area. But I really believe that we can leverage each other’s talents and domains to make a much smarter, more accessible future. An example of this is interior wayfinding. Just as GPS has revolutionized accessibility outdoors, interior wayfinding leverages WiFi, NFC and bluetooth to give turn-by-turn navigations inside of buildings. That’s all well and good— provided that the accessible route is free of protruding objects and follows built environment accessibility requirements. That’s probably the coolest example of the convergence but it affects everyday things as well. For instance, we work a lot with NASA and perform reviews of science centers and other NASA grantees across the country. We’ve found that sometimes very complex technical displays are best made accessible using very non-technical strategies.
What are some accessibility barriers you would like to see solved?
The biggest accessibility barriers for society aren’t technological. Instead, they are basic, common sense accessibility changes. For instance, an eCommerce site may worry about becoming WCAG 2.0 AA compliant— and may spend years putting off becoming accessible. But if they had a good Accessibility Policy that allowed customers with disabilities to have a phone call or live chat with a representative, that would give so much greater access in the short term than just ignoring their accessibility problem altogether. Title III of the ADA is actually framed to allow this kind of access in many cases. Instead, we get so hung up on the technology that we are leaving entire sectors of our economy largely inaccessible for people with disabilities.