Driven by laws passed prior to the dawn of the internet (The Rehabilitation Act of 1973), and more recently, by laws commonly associated with building ramps (Americans with Disabilities Act), advocates of the disabled community are gaining legal ruling momentum by demanding that online formats, such as websites, videos and electronic documents, be accessible to everyone.
At the center of it all is a Minnesota micro-business called The Wehrman Collaborative or WeCo. Started in 2011 by a former State of Minnesota Federal Program Coordinator and web developer, Lynn Wehrman, who identified what she felt to be a large, unidentified need in the marketplace and an even greater untapped resource to fill it.
“The pressure is beginning to be felt by everyone,” Wehrman explains, “both government and private vendors are being told that if their software or websites aren’t accessible to people living with disabilities, contracts won’t be signed and services won’t be used.”
Until recently, testing to determine accessibility by was executed almost entirely by software programs. However, these software programs are riddled with false negatives and positives that aren’t able to truly represent the wide and varied needs of real people who use assistive computer devices, such as screen readers (which read web pages aloud to users who can’t view them) or non-hand held assistance devices (used by people who have limited fine motor skills) such as eye tracker and speech recognition software.
“The concept of developing a team of user experience testers who are first and foremost, experts and navigating life with their given disabilities, came when I began working with Mn/DOT’s Americans with Disabilities Act infrastructure committee website.” Wehrman elaborated. “I wanted to grasp how our committee members, many of whom were nonvisual web users, truly interacted with our website before completing the task of redesigning it to meet the needs of stakeholders who live with disabilities.
They welcomed me into their homes and taught me how their technology worked. I also witnessed their frustrations when they couldn’t find information they needed, or even locate public transit information, because most websites weren’t designed with some very simple accessibility principals. It was there, in the living rooms of those committee members, that our discussions became the basis for WeCo’s mission and product line.”
The “double win” of WeCo’s company concept comes from who the organization employs to deliver these highly valuable user-experience based testing services. People living with disabilities experience an unemployment and underemployment rate of nearly 80% in the US. (US Department of Labor) This means that literally thousands
of highly qualified, and many times highly educated, job seekers, have little chance of being gainfully employed.
People living with disabilities experience an unemployment and underemployment rate of nearly 80% in the US.
WeCo currently provides contract testing employment to 18 Certified Test Consultants (or CTCs) and a growing support staff which presently includes six professionals living with disabilities.
Wehrman, who lives with a cognitive disability herself, added, “In our first round of test consultant interviews in 2012, we brought onboard three cum laude college graduates, two with advanced degrees, who had worked primarily at volunteer roles for nonprofit organizations or as at home data processors.
WeCo President and founder Lynn Wehrman is known and respected for her unique talent of solving the accessibility challenge.
That’s when I realized the full impact of what WeCo was building: a chance for intelligent, educated individuals to have a professional career in a field that could benefit from their expert insights.
It’s not only good business, it’s the right thing to do.”
WeCo provides customized accessibility testing and training services, as well as workplace sensitivity and accommodation training, to a range of large and small organizations, both government and private, across the US.
Their current partnership with GovDelivery, Incorporated, located in St. Paul, means that their Certified Test Consultants are testing software products used by the White House and the UK Parliament. Learn more at: theweco.com.