Nº 3 2013 > Obituaries

Remembering Cynthia Waddell

Advocate for accessibility for people with disabilities

Cynthia Waddell
Cynthia Waddell

Cynthia Waddell, a lifelong advocate for the rights of people with disabilities, and an expert in disability rights law, public policy and electronic and information technology, passed away on 3 April 2013.

Dr Waddell received her BA cum laude from the University of Southern California and held a Juris Doctor from Santa Clara University School of Law. She was a lecturer in law and pursued a career dedicated to enhancing social inclusion for the 650 million people across the world living with some form of disability.

Dr Waddell served as Executive Director of the International Center for Disability Resources on the Internet (ICDRI), an organization that seeks to increase opportunities for people with disabilities by identifying barriers to their participation, and by promoting best practices and universal design of technology for the global community.

In 1995, Dr Waddell created the first accessible web design standard in the United States. This was recognized as a best practice by the Federal Government and contributed to the passage of legislation on electronic and information technology accessibility standards. Dr Waddell served as the built environment and accessible technology expert for the United Nations ad hoc committee during the drafting of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD) and was co-editor and co-author of the ITU/G3ict ­e‑Accessibility Policy Toolkit for Persons with Disabilities.

Dr Waddell played an instrumental role at the World Telecommunication Standardization Assembly in 2008 (WTSA‑08), in developing WTSA‑08 Resolution 70 on “Telecommunication/information and communication technology accessibility for persons with disabilities”. This was the first text that ITU adopted on the topic of accessibility, and it led to further affirmation of the importance of this work by the World Telecommunication Development Conference in 2010 (WTDC-10), in its Resolutions 58 and 70, and by the ITU Plenipotentiary Conference in its Resolution 175 (Guadalajara, 2010). Dr Waddell also played advisory roles in countless other international organizations, and in public and private sector forums.

The Growing Digital Divide in Access for People with Disabilities: Overcoming Barriers to Participation, a seminal paper written in 1999 by Dr Waddell, was commissioned by the United States Department of Commerce and the National Science Foundation for the first national conference under President Clinton on the impact of the digital economy. Dr Waddell also co-authored two books: Web Accessibility: Web Standards and Regulatory Compliance (Apress 2006) and Constructing Accessible Web Sites (Glasshaus 2002; reprinted by Apress in 2003). These best practices and technical resources include the first global surveys of laws and policies in countries addressing accessible web design.

Among other awards, Dr Waddell in 2003 won the Government Technology Inaugural Award for Leadership in Accessible Technology and for Pioneering Advocacy and Education. She was held in the highest esteem by all those fortunate enough to have worked with her.

Michael Burks, Chairman of the Board of Trustees of ICDRI, recognized that “Her efforts and accomplishments helped to improve the lives of people everywhere, regardless of their location, their situation in life, or whether or not they had a disability.” Gerry Ellis of Feel the BenefIT, Ireland, called her “a trojan fighter in every corner of the world for the rights of people with disabilities.”

Andrea Saks emphasizes the importance of carrying on Dr Waddell’s work so that the designs of new innovations or codes integrate accessibility features right from the outset, always prioritizing global interoperability. Ms Saks is an International Telecommunications Specialist for the Deaf, Convener of ITU’s Joint Coordinating Activity on Accessibility and Human Factors and Coordinator of the Dynamic Coalition on Accessibility and Disability.

Ms Saks paid this tribute: “At the age of three Cynthia could not speak because of her profound hearing loss. Doctors told her parents that Cynthia would never speak, never go to normal school and should learn sign language. Well history proved those doctors wrong. Cynthia Waddell was a woman who overcame barriers, not only for persons with disabilities but for women as well. She had a memory that was phenomenal. You could ask her any question about accessibility legislation or websites and she would produce the information in an instant. More than that Cynthia was a kind and cheerful person who deeply cared about others. I can still hear her in my mind saying my name so loudly with such happiness to see me. To lose her professionally is one thing but to lose her as friend is my greatest loss of all.”

Christopher Jones, co-Convener of the Joint Coordination Activity on Accessibility and Human Factors, said that Dr Waddell “has opened a big door, and it is our duty to push that door further open until all of us are able to fully access the world of communication and information. Throughout the world, there are enormous gaps in accessibility for people with disabilities, whatever their different needs are. We need to ensure that these gaps are closed. We are blessed by the enormous progress that Cynthia achieved in opening up the road for all of us. That will be her memorial.”

Cynthia Waddell is survived by her husband, her two daughters, and her granddaughter.


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