As I've been thinking about Accessibility and how I might construct training for it, I figured the History of Accessibility, at least as it relates to the United States, would be interesting. As the digital world has been with us since the end of World War II, many of the adaptations that are discussed came about after that, specifically starting with the 1960s.
In the 1960s, researchers began exploring accessibility for people with disabilities. Early efforts focused on creating hardware and software adaptations for individuals with limited mobility or vision.
In 1973, the U.S. passed the Rehabilitation Act and specifically Section 504 was passed. This was an important step in that federally funded programs could not discriminate based on disability. Anyone who knows anything about federal programs gets that they can have a tremendous impact on software development, even back in the 70s. We see this today with the fact that lots of software get purchased by the federal government and they can often demand that certain requirements be met and companies will jump to make sure they are able to get those dollars. In this case, it made for a marketplace where accessibility technology had a chance to make money.
The 1970s and 1980s were a time where Accessibility products and projects made a big jump. IBM introduced ScreenReader in the mid-1970s. While only available for IBM computers, it was still a working example where on-screen text could be reliably converted into recognizable (albeit synthesized) speech. Apple OutSpoken provided a similar product for the Apple II, providing access to text-based applications.
The Refreshable Braille Display was another big jump, allowing users to type in to their computers and then read back the responses or actions from a flat display that would raise and lower small nubs that, when the user passed their fingers over them, would represent braille and allow blind or sight impaired users to "see" through touch, and moving to the next line would refresh all of the characters.
A variety of alternate input devices became commonplace in the 1980s. An example I remember seeing early on in my late teens was a large trackball where the spinning ball was the size of a softball with large buttons. Sip-and-puff switches allowed users the ability to control devices and access switches by inhaling and exhaling.
In addition to the refreshable Braille Display, braille translation software made it possible to print off documents that were translated to braille.
A big step for Accessibility came with the popularization of the World Wide Web and other countries also stepping in and making laws that fought against discrimination of disabilities, as well as providing incentives for developing standards to help people with disabilities get access to information.
In the U.S. the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990 was passed and expanded on the Rehabilititation Act of 1973, though this was more of a physical infrastructure focus. In 1998, Section 504 got some additional strength with the passage of the ADA and Section 508, which specifically dealt with requiring federal agencies to comply with regulations making information and technology more readily available to people with disabilities.
The UK passed the Disability Discrimination Act (DDA) in 1995. The EU likewise took center stage with the Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) in 1997, sponsored by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C). Australia introduced the Disability Discrimination Act (DDA) in 1992.
The EU took steps to establish the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), an international standards organization. It created the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 1.0 in 1999, providing a framework for creating accessible websites. Today, most people who look at and consider Accessibility look at the WCAG requirements first, because if the WGAG requirements are met, a large percentage of any other country's Accessibility laws are included there. The WGAG standard continues to be debated and refined, and additional coverage has been added over the years. WCAG 2.1 is the current fully supported version but WCAG 2.2 and later versions have been in the works for quite some time.
As time goes on and interaction with products becomes more defined by portability and touch, more accessibility features are being developed and are coming for mobile devices as well. Speech recognition, which has been an add-on for most home computer systems, is built in with most modern cell phones. Pinch to zoom and resizing are also tools that are accessible if not specifically designed for the purpose. Responsive Design is also a later development that helps considerably with accessibility. I've long said that the benefits one gets from examining agents and resizing for the display available get us 80% of the way to more accessible designs, as many of the elements needed to display the content also help with formatting data in a more accessible manner.
This is just the tip of an iceberg that could go on for a. considerable amount but this paints with a broad brush and gives some of the significant developments. I'm sure I missed several. If you feel there are some additional items or milestones I should have included, please let me know :).