What a “Father of the Internet” Has to Say About Accessibility

Since co-founding the internet with fellow Father of the Internet, Robert Kahn, by creating its fundamental TCP/IP protocol back in the 1970s, Vinton G. Cerf, a.k.a. Vint Cerf, has added an awe-inspiring number of web-related accomplishments to his résumé. Teaching as a Computer Science professor at his alma mater, Stanford University, joining Kahn at DARPA to manage the IPTO’s (Information Processing Techniques Office) networking projects, leading the development of the first commercial email service as Vice President of MCI Communications Corporation, and serving currently as Google’s Vice President/Chief Internet Evangelist and Chairman/Co-Founder of PCI (People-Centered Internet) are just a few of Cerf’s contributions to internet advancement. Despite all this, he insists his work is only half done and one ongoing item on his to-do list is pushing for the regular implementation of web and tech accessibility.

Two Very Personal Reasons for Accessibility

There are many reasons why designing websites and products that can accommodate people with disabilities is crucial, but there are two that are closer to Cerf’s heart than the rest.

The first is that he himself is hearing-impaired and has worn hearing aids since the age of thirteen. He’s stated that email is a valuable tool because he, “...can read what’s typed as opposed to straining to hear what’s being said.” The World Health Organization has reported that about 5% of the world’s population - that’s more than 360 million people - is affected by some form of hearing loss. Cerf’s second personal reason for his stance on accessibility is among those 360 million; his wife, Sigrid.

Sigrid Cerf lost her hearing when she was three years old. She would eventually marry one of the first men to dabble in email, but it would take her another twenty years after Cerf began his work at MCI to discover the benefits of email herself. In the mid ‘90s, She started looking into cochlear implants on the web but was having trouble contacting the doctors at Johns Hopkins Hospital, who specialized in them. Then a contact in Israel helped her set up an email exchange with them and it allowed Sigrid to take the first steps toward conquering her disability.

Emphasizing the Need to Change
Accessibility from Pixie Dust to Priority

Cerf and his wife’s disabilities give Cerf first-hand awareness of the trials that face others with hearing loss, but it certainly doesn’t mean he’s ignorant of the great number of people out there who are affected by other types of disabilities. He’s been sharp in his critique of the current attitudes toward inclusive design, making it clear how unacceptable it is that accessibility is just a “pixie dust” afterthought fix and the majority of web designers don’t even bother with it.

All hopes is not lost though, as Cerf recognizes that awareness of the issue is growing as some developers are spreading the word themselves via events like Global Accessibility Awareness Day and with the increasing releases of tech and web tools that can accommodate an increasing number of disabilities. Building accessibility in, “...from the beginning,” he said, is “...very powerful stuff.”