When Ed Summers began losing his vision 20 years ago, it took him about six months to learn how to use assistive technologies.
Summers had a degenerative retina condition, and lost his vision two decades ago, turning to screen readers and other assistive technologies to help him use a computer.
In the years since, he has worked as a developer and an engineering manager, and has aimed to make technology – both the use and development of it – more accessible for people with disabilities.
He is now the head of accessibility at open source tech giant GitHub and has made it his life’s work to build and lead accessibility programs.
“There are eight billion people in the world, and 1.3 billion people with disabilities – if you think about the technology that we all use, that technology is created by a very small group of people,” Summers said.
“There’s maybe one per cent of the population creating the technology that all of the community is using.
“The basic strategy we’re using when talking about accessibility is if we can make the platforms where people develop software and invite people with disabilities to be the first-class contributors to the development of that technology that’s used by all, that will greatly increase the chances that the technology will be accessible for all of us.”
To mark Global Accessibility Awareness Day last week, GitHub unveiled a number of initiatives aimed at improving accessibility in its products and software development in general.
These include removing hundreds of barriers in its GitHub Global Campus project, a new primary navigation experience designed with accessibility baked in from the start, and a new search functionality.
This new version of GitHub’s search is far better for users with a disability, Summers said.
“The new search is just super-fast and has been designed with accessibility in mind from the bottom up,” he said.
“As someone who uses a screen reader, it’s absolutely delightful to use. Now that I’ve been using it I don’t understand how I lived without it.”
Summers joined GitHub in August last year on a mission to improve accessibility in software development.
“It’s been a great coming together of life experiences – I’ve been digging into this space pretty deeply,” he said.
“The primary reason I came to GitHub was to ten-times my impact. There are 100 million developers on GitHub and 330 million repositories – there’s a lot going on.”
Summers has faced a number of obstacles in his career in tech due to his disability.
“There are different dimensions and obstacles, and there are preconceived biases that are explicit and implicit against people with disabilities,” he said.
“Over the years I think that’s getting a lot better and we’re making good progress, it’s now a lot easier to participate. And with COVID, we all started working from home and that really levelled the playing field to a large degree – employment numbers went up during the pandemic.”
According to a World Bank report, there is a significant disability digital divide, and technology is a “disruptive force in enabling the inclusion of persons with disabilities”.
“Technology is the problem and the cure – it’s a double-edged sword,” Summers said.
“As technology becomes a ubiquitous part of life, it has the capacity to change everything for people with disabilities.
“But if essential services aren’t accessible then we can be excluded, and we can lose access to many of the things we have access to today as new technologies come online.
“It’s a bit like three steps forward, three steps back when it comes to technology. With the introduction of new technologies, sometimes they’re accessible and sometimes they’re not and we have to play catch-up.”
GitHub is working on further accessibility improvements, including CoPilot Voice, an initiative now in technical preview which allows users to code completely hands-free, using only their voice.
“One of the principles that drives our work is ‘ship to learn’, and we’re applying that to accessibility,” Summers said.
“These accessibility improvements are a point in time. It’s where we are today, and there are more announcements to come. There are plenty of things in the works right now.”
A key part of Summers’ work is aiming to ensure that users with a disability are considered at the very early stages of a tech project, rather than as an afterthought.
“We’re pushing accessibility into design culture – it’s so much easier to design accessibility from the beginning rather than pushing it after the fact,” he said.
“We’re empowering people with disabilities to contribute to software development and the development of new technology as first-class contributors, and that will open up accessibility of technology for all people with disabilities.”
This is particularly important with the “revolutionary” new AI technologies such as ChatGPT, Summers said.
“It’s absolutely essential that people with disabilities have access to all of the deployments of these generative AI technologies as they come online, or we will very quickly be left behind,” he said.
“It’s absolutely critical that people with disabilities get the opportunity to participate in this amazing AI revolution.”