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Picture of four people, pictured from left to right: Kristen Smith-O’Connor, Andrew Nielson, Michael Horton and Alex Wilson
Pictured from left to right: Kristen Smith-O’Connor, Andrew Nielson, Michael Horton and Alex Wilson

No two screens look the same: sharpening digital accessibility through inclusivity

| GSA Blog Team
Post filed in: Accessibility  |  Equity

Have you ever stopped to think about how much time we spend in front of screens? Just about everything we do from work, entertainment, shopping, news, social media, and even reading this blog is now done online. The rise of digital technology has given us access to so much at the click of a button, but not everyone has the same experience when it comes to their digital accessibility.

Digital accessibility

Accessibility is often seen physically in our communities, from accessible parking spaces to building codes that legally dictate accessibility design requirements. 

But accessibility in the digital world is a little harder for many people to comprehend. Digital accessibility is the inclusive practice of making websites, digital tools and technologies accessible and usable for people with disabilities. People can be born with disabilities that impact digital accessibility or develop them as a result of accidents, illness or age. 

For example, while scrolling through social media, you engage with images from your favorite sports team, friends or family. But others might not see or enjoy these images the same way. With the introduction of alternative text, or ALT-text, image descriptions can help those with vision loss to understand and enjoy images more equitably. 

Here at the General Services Administration (GSA), members of the Government-wide IT Accessibility Program are working to make digital accessibility a priority in the federal government. A small but mighty team, each member brings their own unique contribution to digital accessibility. 

Government responsibility 

For Andrew Nielson, the director of GSA’s IT Accessibility Program, digital accessibility in the federal sphere is part of legitimizing our government as a democracy. We cannot be “of the people, by the people, for the people” unless we include everyone. Our digital services and work products are better when we design them to meet the needs of all people, including those with disabilities. 

Andrew was inspired to contribute to the field of digital accessibility when he realized just how much of a difference some very simple design, coding changes or even document editing can make for people with impairments or disabilities. In 2007, while managing a development team for a new application, Andrew interacted with a blind user during an emergency notification system testing. The user described challenges in the application for a visually impaired person. He realized how the system would fail those users and worried that a lack of inclusivity in an emergency notification system could jeopardize the safety of colleagues. 

He began addressing accessibility issues in the IT projects he helped manage. He’s continued to expand his advocacy for accessibility, eventually focusing on IT accessibility as a full-time passion. 

There is still much to do to make accessibility part of everyone’s daily business. But with Andrew’s passion, he hopes to make accessibility more approachable. 

“Change only comes with time and education, but even the smallest and simplest changes have a way of adding up to great effect,” he shared. 

His team consists of Kristen Smith-O’Connor, Alex Wilson and Michael Horton who each bring their own unique insights and passions to the field of digital inclusion. 

The shadow knows

As a senior ICT accessibility specialist, Kristen says she fell into her career in digital accessibility, but she has always been surrounded by family and close friends who “played a role in achieving independence for adults with disabilities and fighting for a more equal opportunity in schools for children with disabilities.” 

Her first job was counselor for a summer camp for children and adults with developmental disabilities, which she sees as what inspired her passion and career path. She hopes that her work will provide the same opportunity for everyone accessing content - as she does as a user without a disability - and more importantly that some day “as accessibility subject matter experts (and advocates) that we put ourselves out of a job.”

Nothing about us without us

Alex and Michael are not only part of the IT Accessibility Program team but are members of the disability community. 


For Alex, a program analyst, his disability is visual after an improvised explosive device (IED) exploded during a deployment to Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2007. Alex spent over 15 months in inpatient and outpatient rehabilitation and physical therapy, the first five months almost exclusively as a wheelchair user. 

Alex’s challenges have allowed him to better understand the challenges of others. It didn’t stop Alex from working with organizations whose missions were the safety of military and civilians. 

Now as part of the IT Accessibility Program Team, he continues to lead and assist numerous efforts at improving digital accessibility for all. Alex believes that, in the end, “everyone would like to ensure their products and services are accessible; it is simply incumbent upon digital accessibility champions to demonstrate the importance of accessibility and show others simple and effective ways to make accessibility a reality.”


Michael, an ICT accessibility specialist and a 30-year cancer survivor, lives with a red-green color blindness, called deutan. Those with deutan can only distinguish two to three hues instead of the average seven. As a result, deutan color blindness can make reds, greens, yellows and browns appear similar to one another.

About one in 12 men (and one in 200 women) in the United States have a form of color blindness.

Drawing from these experiences, Michael advocates for digital accessibility for those with disabilities: “If I look for alternate ways to access color-dependent information, what other mechanisms does the digital world need to have to allow others to adapt to the world as they experience it?” 

Do it for them

When digital accessibility is achieved, people with disabilities can successfully perceive, understand, navigate, interact with, and contribute more fully to society. Andrew, Kristen, Alex and Michael are champions of accessibility, hoping to lead the way not only at GSA, but across the federal government by providing technical assistance to help federal agencies comply with Section 508 requirements, and to ensure that covered information and communications technology is accessible to, and usable by, individuals with disabilities.

For more information, visit GSA’s Section 508 website