Accessibility loses a great champion

In Memoriam: Cynthia Waddell

portrait of Cynthia WaddleIt is with the deepest regret that I announce the death of my colleague and close friend, Dr. Cynthia Waddell, a lifelong advocate for the rights of persons with disabilities and a world-renowned expert in disability rights law, public policy and electronic and information technology.

The improving accessibility of technologies, the built environment and the job market owes an incredible amount to Cynthia’s achievements over a lifetime dedicated to enhancing social inclusion for the roughly 650 million people across the world living with some form of disability.

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

Cynthia was the author of the first accessible web design standard in the United States in 1995 that led to recognition as a best practice by the federal government and contributed to the eventual passage of legislation for Electronic and Information Technology Accessibility Standards. In addition, she served as the built environment and accessible technology expert for the United Nations Ad Hoc Committee during the drafting of the Convention on Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD) and was Co-Editor and Co-Author of the ITU/G3ict e-Accessibility Toolkit for Policy Makers Implementing the UNCRPD.

She played advisory roles in countless international organizations and public and private-sector forums, and the ITU membership will remember the instrumental role Cynthia played in the development of Resolution 70, “Telecommunication/information and communication technology accessibility for persons with disabilities”, adopted by 2008’s World Telecommunication Standardization Assembly (WTSA-08). WTSA-08 Resolution 70 was the first ITU text embracing the topic of accessibility, setting the tone for further affirmation of the importance of this work in Resolutions 58 and 70 of 2010’s World Telecommunication Development Conference (WTDC-10) and Resolution 175 of 2010’s ITU Plenipotentiary Conference.

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

Cynthia was held in the highest esteem by all those fortunate enough to have worked with her. She will be sorely missed by her colleagues, friends and the millions of people around the globe to have benefited from her tireless advocacy and activism. In the wake of her passing, her family and I have been immensely grateful for the many kind words received from those who knew and loved Cynthia, and below I have enclosed just two testaments to the character of this remarkable woman.  

Gerry Elllis, Feel the BenefIT, Ireland, and active alongside Cynthia in IGF’s Dynamic Coalition on Accessibility and Disability (DCAD):

“We all knew Cynthia as a trojan fighter in every corner of the world for the rights of people with disabilities. She was not very tall; a David facing down nay-sayers and cynics. And yet she was a Goliath in the field of accessibility. I met Cynthia on several occasions at meetings and conferences in various parts of the world. Her knowledge and enthusiasm never failed to bowl me over. Everywhere she went she was known and everyone wanted to spend time with her. One could hardly pay her a bigger compliment than that.”

Michael Burks, Chairman of the Board of Trustees, International Center for Disability Resources on the Internet (ICDRI):

“Cynthia was a tireless advocate for people with disabilities.  She had the ability to analyze technical issues and distill them down so that everyone could understand them no matter what their view.  She analyzed the first Web issues and produced an analysis that helped everyone to understand the situation and to produce solutions.  She was true and courageous and was willing to do whatever was needed to accomplish the goals that she felt were important.  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.  The world will be a poorer place without her presence.”

I was able to visit Cynthia this past February and relay the results of WTSA-12 and the World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT-12). I explained that her logic was at the forefront of my mind as WCIT-12 succeeded in the inclusion of the first-ever Article on accessibility in the International Telecommunication Regulations (ITRs). She was pleased to hear the news of the Article but laughed out loud with joy upon hearing that captioning was offered at both WTSA and WCIT, in all six official languages of the Union. That captioning was offered on a multilingual basis and for transcripts (not just for deaf people) meant to the both of us that captioning for international meetings had now been mainstreamed. 

For me personally, her passing makes me realize that we all have to keep moving forward in educating people on the importance of accessibility, ensuring that advances in technology include accessibility features for as many people as possible. The designs of new innovations or codes must integrate accessibility features right from their outset, always prioritizing global interoperability.

Cynthia and I worked together many times in life, all over the world, and in death she has inspired me to carry on so that what she and I and many others believe should be so, becomes so. 

Over the last forty-eight hours, I have received countless messages of condolence from Cynthia’s many friends.  I have answered all of you as best as I can. Please post your comments on this blog as it would make all those who knew her, and especially her family, very happy to see how much her work meant to all of us.

Cynthia is survived by her husband, Tom, her daughters, Elizabeth and Christina, and her granddaughter, Julia.

Portrait of Andrea SaksBy Andrea Saks

Andrea Saks is an international telecommunications specialist for the deaf. She has been a key person in the creation of all ITU accessibility initiatives and events including the convener of the Joint Coordination Activity on Accessibility and Human Factors and the coordinator of the Internet Governance Forum’s Dynamic Coalition on Accessibility and Disability. In 2008 she was given the ITU World Telecommunication and Information Society Award and made a Laureate for her lifelong work in accessibility to telecommunications and ICTs for persons with Disabilities.


  1. Bruce Gracie · ·

    In my capacity as TSAG Chairman and as an admirer of the work and dedication of Cynthia to promoting accessibility issues in ITU, I would like to extend my sincere condolences to her family, friends and professional acquaintances. Cynthia’s contribution will be an enduring legacy for those continuing to champion the needs of persons with disabilities.

    Bruce Gracie (Canada)

  2. Jorge Plano · ·

    Such a big loss!

    I shared many activities and initiatives with Cynthia and I’ll never forget her endurance and generosity.

    You wrote the right title: she was really an accessibility champion.

    After she had surgery a year ago I kept in my hearth up to recent times the hope that eventually she would recover.

    I share with you Andrea and all other people the sorrow for this sad event. And send you a big hug.

    Jorge Plano

  3. Cynthia’s enthusiasm, dedication and expert advocacy will be thoroughly missed by all her colleagues at G3ict. Her early involvement in the promotion of ICT accessibility, her participation in the Preparatory Committee for the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilties and her lifelong commitment to accessibility leave a strong legacy which will benefit the disability community for the years to come. Her contributions to the ITU-G3ict e-Accessibility Policy Toolkit for Persons with Disbalities and G3ict’s web activities were invaluable. On a personal note, Cynthia’s sharing of her life experiences and achievements will always remain a strong source of inspiration. Our very sincere condolences go to her family and friends who will miss her very much.

  4. Annette Van Vliet · ·

    Andrea, thank you so much for posting this blog. I am overwhelmed by the loss of my sister but so grateful for the time I had with her. I was always amazed by her. Please know that our family appreciates the relationship you shared with her. Cindy always spoke so highly of you. You were a good friend to her. I would love to meet you and thank you in person. Sincerely, Annette Van Vliet (Cindy’s little sister)

  5. […] Mi amigo Martín informa del fallecimiento de Cynthia Waddell, una luchadora por los derechos de las personas con discapacidad. Tuve el honor de compartir algunas charlas con ella y de aquellas experiencias guardo unas poderosas enseñanzas y el recuerdo de una persona cálida y maravillosamente sencilla. Una verdadera pérdida. via Facebook […]

  6. Annette Van Vliet · ·

    I accidentally deleted the ITU blog following…. How do I add it back in?

  7. Andrea: Thank you for your so heartfelt and special words about Cynthia. I am re-posting here my response posted on the web site on hearing the news of her very sad passing…

    My sadness brims over as the passing of a very special and wonderful lady. Cynthia has left us with a powerful international legacy that will continue to make a huge difference to all those who’s abilities she has enabled through her disability ‘enablement’ online work. The catalyst to her life’s work may well have been ‘dis-abilities’, but no doubt, she brought out the ‘abilities’ in the lives of all those she has touched – and will continue to do so. I will miss her very much.

  8. Floris van Nes · ·

    I met Cynthia only once, in the early days of the ITU Joint Coordination Activity – Accessibility and Human Factors, the JCA-AHF. I was immediately impressed with her warm personality and with the ease she could converse with me; notwithstanding the different ‘communication channels’ we had to use.
    Later I read several of her papers and again was impressed – this time with the depth of her knowledge of the various subjects she wrote about, and with the convincing power of her argumentation.

    Her departure is a great loss to the sake of defending the rights of persons with disabilities, which I regret deeply. My sincere condolences go to het husband Tom, daughters Elizabeth and Christina and granddaughter Julia – as well as to you, Andrea. May all of you find the strength to cope with this great loss.
    Floris van Nes, deputy convener of the JCA-AHF.

  9. Trish van den heuvel · ·

    Hey Andrea – I never met Cynthia only hearing about her from you but I do know of your great esteem for her and how much she meant to you. So, to both her family and yourself, I offer my deepest condolences – Trish

  10. Back in the mid 90’s when Cynthia was still slaving away trying to get the City of San Jose to meet its accessibility mandate, she contacted me to learn about Web accessibility. This was even before the W3C Web Accessibility Initiative was formed. That began our almost 2 decade friendship. I miss her. I offer my deepest condolences to her family and friends. The world is a bit poorer with her passing.

  11. Marie-Therese Alajouanine · ·

    I have been deeply touched by this sad news and I could not believe it. Cynthia was always so good humoured and has done so much for accessibility. We will not forget her.
    Thanks to Andrea for her words about Cynthia.
    My sincere condelences to all her family.
    Marie-Therese Alajouanine

  12. Andrea, thank you for sharing your kind thoughts on Cynthia. She will be greatly missed by many, including the board and membership of the Global Alliance on Accessible Technologies and Environments (GAATES). She was instrumental in the founding of our organization, and had most recently been serving as our 1st Vice President. As a pioneer and leader in the field of accessible ICTs, she leaves an enduring legacy of promoting the abilities of all persons, including persons with disabilities.

    The final project that Cynthia undertook on behalf of GAATES was The UNESCO Global Report: Opening New Avenues for Empowerment: ICTs to Access Information and Knowledge for Persons with Disabilities. This report builds on five regional reports commissioned by UNESCO to look at the use of ICTs to access information and knowledge by people with disabilities (PWD). The Report is now available and be downloaded at the GAATES site (

    Marnie Peters
    GAATES Executive Officer

  13. Dear all

    Thanks for posting this ‘sad announcement’ I agree with Axel that “her contributions to the ITU-G3ict e-Accessibility Policy Toolkit for Persons with Disbalities and G3ict’s web activities were invaluable.”
    But I am confident that her important work will be continued by others like ourselves.

  14. I had the pleasure to work with Cynthia all over the world. She was a beacon of hope and inclusion for so people all over the world. Future generations will benefit from her life’s work. I always enjoyed speaking to Cynthia and even when we were talking about business and accessibility invariably she would get me laughing. She had a lovely sense of humor and was tenacious about inclusion, accessibility and policy. She was a treasure to our community. Not only was she brilliant but she had a beautiful laugh and a great smile. I will miss the leader, the advocate and my friend Cynthia.

  15. I first met Cynthia at a NCDAE conference and was extremely impressed with her thought leadership in the area of accessibility. I subsequently read her books, white papers and postings, all of which formed the foundation of my own approach to accessibility. Cynthia laid the foundation of thought leadership in the field of accessibility that many of us followed as we entered the industry over the past decade. She was a pioneer in the truest sense of the word! My sincerest condolences to her friends, colleagues and family.


    Je suis vraiment touché par cette triste nouvelle. Dans le cadre de mes recherches pour la mise en oeuvre de la politique de l’accessibilité aux TIC dans mon pays en Côte d’Ivoire (Afrique de l’ouest), j’ai souvent lui les contributions de Cynthia. Et cela m’a énormément aidé. C’est une grande perte pour le monde de l’accessibilité numérique en général et en particulier pour l’Afrique de l’ouest qui commencent à amorcer la question de l’accessibilité aux TIC pour les porteurs du handicap. Nous allons continuer ce travail qu’elle nous a laissé. Il faut immortaliser son oeuvre en créant un PRIX Cynthia Waddell de l’accessibilité aux TIC afin d’encourager des initiatives dans les pays en développement ou en Afrique.
    Mes sincères condoléances à la famille.

  17. Thank you for posting this memorial. Cynthia, thank you for all your work in accessibility, from your early days at the City of San Jose when I first became aware of your work till your passing. Your family and friends are proud of all you’ve accomplished. We will miss you.
    Phill Jenkins

  18. Ricardo Alvarado · ·

    Hi Andrea – I never met Cynthia only hearing about her . Being myself hearing impaired I can appreciate her wonderfull job. So, to both her family and yourself, I offer my deepest condolences – Ricardo

    PD: How can I help?

  19. She was a beacon of hope and inclusion for so people all over the world. Future generations will benefit from her life’s work. I always enjoyed speaking to Cynthia and even when we were talking about business and accessibility invariably she would get me laughing

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: