Knowbility travels!

Last week, half of the Knowbility team dispersed over San Antonio, Houston, and Washington D.C. to spread the good word of ATSTAR and AccessU.

Jessica took to Washington D.C. for the M-Enabling Summit where she was invited to sit on two panels, Media on the Internet: Accessibility Challenges and Opportunities and App Developers, Competing for Accessibility Innovation. President and CEO of AMI, David Errington, led the panel, which included Chet Cooper of Ability Magazine, Mike Paciello of The Paciello Group, and Joel Snyder, president of Audio Description Associates. There are many challenges currently facing the creation of accessible media content, the biggest of which is a sense of urgency to do so, or lack thereof. Still, the tides are turning on that front, if slowly. Take Netflix, for example, which, in a notable move, added audio description to its popular Daredevil series. Setting universal standards is the next priority as, like Jessica says, “Get three audio describers in a room and you may get four descriptions of the visual content.”

On accessible apps, Knowbility shared its experience dabbling in the app development world with the creation of the AccessU 2016 App through Guidebook. For its first year out of the gate, the app performed overall successfully, with the notable exception of its inaccessibility. Obviously, making the app fully accessible is first on the list of changes to make before next year’s conference. Speaking of AccessU, while in D.C., Jessica got the chance sit down with a few of the conference’s biggest sponsors including Mike Paciello, Caitlin Cashin (Deque Systems), and Mary Smith (SSB Bart) to discuss the future of AccessU and other Knowbility initiatives.

Back down in Texas, Molly made the drive up to Houston for the Texas Assistive Technology Network Conference (TATN), where she spoke with a friendly array of educators, administrators, speech pathologists, and occupational therapists about the benefits of implementing ATSTAR at their respective schools. Though the significant majority of attendees at this particular conference already have the AT basics down pat, interest levels were high for a course that would help the rest of their colleagues get on the same page.

The conversation of implementing ATSTAR on a district-wide level continued in San Antonio, where Sharron rounded out the travel-heavy week with a breakfast meeting that gathered representatives from all six of the city’s school districts. Attendees of the breakfast watched a demo of the course, heard about effectiveness studies that we conducted on schools and educators that have used it, and how their districts can get involved. This coincides with the cementing of ATSTAR’s collaboration with AISD, which, beginning in July, will make the curriculum available to all educators in the district. All in all, exciting things are happening in these dog days of summer but we’re happy to be all back in that dry, familiar heat of Austin!

Our GAAD 2016 picks

Wow! So much going on this year.  High fives to Jennison Asuncion and Joe Devon for starting the Global Accessibility Awareness Day (GAAD) bandwagon five years ago…it has become a global parade, a celebration of the work of the community and a hand up for those just getting started – we love it!

Big favorites around here are the just released Web Accessibility Perspectives, a series of  videos from W3C’s Web Accessibility Initiative.  With humor and brevity, the videos demonstrate the barriers caused by inaccessible web pages both for persons with disabilities and for other users. Videos lead you right to a list of tips and resources for addressing and fixing barriers once you learn to identify them.  On GAAD or anytime, check out the WAI Web Perspectives videos and resources to experience accessibility from the perspective of persons with disabilities and learn more about creating accessible websites.

Our own contribution to the festivities comes from our AccessWorks program. AccessWorks is a database of users with disabilities who can test your website for accessibility from remote locations. The platform was developed by Knowbility and Loop11 to help include users with disabilities in remote usability testing. We are pleased to provide this service for free for up to four users –  only on GAAD  – May 19.   Use the Loop11 signup form and select the Knowbility database and up to four users with disabilities will report on the accessibility of your website

Here in our hometown of Austin, Razorfish hosts an Accessibility Meetup every month. Tomorrow is a special one and we will be there to help celebrate two years of the group along with five years of GAAD. Viva!

It wouldn’t be GAAD without the stellar lineup of experts who feed our minds and our souls round the clock supporting accessibility practice one hour at a time.  It’s Inclusive Design 24 (#ID24) and is 24 hours of free online accessibility talks, hosted by The Paciello Group in celebration of the day.

And those are just a tiny fraction of the celebrations and gathering and demonstrations all over the world that highlight the glory of web accessibility,  helping the web reach its full potential by making sure everyone is included.

What are your favorite events?

An Evening of SXSW Winning Shorts with Tommy Edison

Knowbility is excited to welcome Blind Film Critic, Tommy Edison back for a second year of the audio description contest as a part of AccessU 2016.

“The audio description contest is a lot of fun,” Tommy said. “It’s a thing that a lot of sighted people don’t know about, you know, this whole world of audio description. I mean, that’s the fun of this whole game, right — it’s very educational and it’s a chance for everyone to get to learn. Sighted people get to learn, I get to learn. That’s what makes it so much fun.”

The event will take place at Alamo Drafthouse on May 9th from 6 – 9 PM. Like last year, this year will feature two short films showcased at SXSW. Audience members will get a chance to listen to a professional audio describer provide description for the first film, but we’ll hand over the mic for you to try your hand at describing the second film. Tommy will then select a winner.

“I just judged it on what I heard, who gave the most detail and the person whose description I could follow the best,” Tommy said. “Sometimes people don’t quite describe the right things. For example, a red dress. Unless it’s something like ‘The Case of the Missing Red Dress,’ I probably don’t need to know the color. ”

Tommy’s lifelong love of movies led him to create the Blind Film Critic series on YouTube several years ago. The hilarious and informative series gained immense popularity, and has since transformed into The Tommy Edison Experience, which recently kicked off its third season on Hulu and Amazon Prime.

“The thing that changed for us was, in the comments of the movie reviews, people were very curious about my life, more so than they were about the movies and what I had to say about them,” Tommy said. “So that was the thing that got us to launch the other channel. It’s been quite successful.”

Because the widespread availability of audio description is relatively recent phenomenon, really only gaining traction in the last decade or so, Tommy found himself responding to movies that provided a compelling story and excellent acting above all.

“The movies that I really like are the ones that tell the story, you know, where it’s acted well and the story’s well-written. That’s what I really enjoy,” Tommy said. “For example: Goodfellas, one of my favorite movies of all time. I just love that movie, it’s just great — I don’t really think it needs audio description. I’m convinced that anybody could enjoy that movie just by listening to it, I really do. And there are others; Clerks is another that I just don’t think needs audio description. You could just put that on and listen to it and have a great time and take the ride like everybody else.”

Naturally, compelling acting became a crucial aspect of making a listenable film. Tommy has his favorites.

“My favorite actor of all time is the great Dustin Hoffman and I’ll tell you why,” Tommy said. “When you see Bobby DeNiro in stuff: There’s DeNiro. But when you’re watching Rainman with Dustin Hoffman — that’s not Dustin Hoffman, that’s Rainman. That’s how good he is. That’s how strong he is. That’s how transformative he is. And I really like that, when somebody can make me forget who the actor is. It’s incredible.”

Still, when audio description began to gain traction, it was a game changer.

“My first experience with audio description was The Matrix and that’s a movie I put on 100 times and was like ‘I don’t know, I’m lost,’” Tommy said. “But on audio description, it became the awesome movie that everybody wanted me to see.”

Knowing how to bring a film to life through description is an artform unto itself. That’s why Knowbility is equally pleased to be welcoming back April Sullivan of VSA Texas, the state organization on arts and disability, as the in-house audio descriptor.

“It was really fun to have people do it and try it out,” April said. “Some of them were good at it and some of them weren’t; it takes practice.I think just try and have fun with it because it’s scary at first if you’ve never done it before. If you just try it, even if you mess up completely, at least that’s the first step.”

After taking that initial step, you may find yourself unable to stop providing audio description to every movie you see.

“When I started doing it, every time I saw a movie I just started describing it in my head. I just couldn’t help it,” April said. “It changes the way your mind works in just paying attention to everything you’re seeing because everything’s so visual for us who see that we don’t even pay attention to all the things we’re seeing all the time. There’s so many things that come and go out of our sight and we register them, but don’t even realize it. And so when you have to look at it and break it down and go okay, ‘This is the most important thing that I have to say.’”

That shift in perspective is one of the things April values most about engaging with the world of audio description and the benefits don’t stop there.

“It’s really fun and if folks want to expand their audiences to people who are blind or visually impaired, they need to know what’s out there that they can do to add to it,” April said. “Then  they can start changing their mindset and thinking about what’s happening visually that not everybody’s getting.”  

Think you’re ready to try your hand at audio description? You can purchase tickets and find further event information on the Eventbrite website. While you’re at it, be sure to check out Tommy’s site where you can find all of his past videos and series.

Welcome to AccessU 2016!

AccessU is an annual conference that brings leading experts from around the globe to Austin, TX to teach and talk about accessible design skills. The conference provides practical resources, encouraging participants to explore various aspects of digital inclusion and master role-based skills involved in launching successful accessibility initiatives.

This year’s theme is “Accessibility Is A Team Sport,” a concept that focuses on encouraging the dispersion of responsibility for accessibility throughout an entire team.

“The idea of having distributed responsibility for accessibility is just common sense,” said Sharron Rush, Executive Director of Knowbility. “A lot of times, people who aren’t the developers, who aren’t the designers think, ‘What’s my role?’ Our idea this year was to be sure we gave everybody, regardless of their role in maintaining or creating or updating web content, some understanding of the basics of accessibility — why it matters, why it’s important, and what their role could actually be — so that person who does have an interest and feels a responsibility doesn’t feel like a lone ranger.”

Knowbility is lucky to have Jan McSorley as the conference’s keynote speaker. Currently serving as the Accessibility Lead of the Schools Division at Pearson, Jan has spent her adult life advocating for the rights of kids with disabilities in K-12 schools. Throughout her career,she’s come to appreciate the need for a working knowledge of basic accessibility principles from all sides if you want to design a product that’s usable for the broadest possible range of people.

“There’s basically three prongs to the stool,” Jan said. “You have to understand people with disabilities and the laws that protect them, and then you have to understand the technology tools that they use, and then you have to understand the technical side of accessibility. All of that goes into how you design content and if you don’t understand one of those three areas well, then you can make bad design decisions.”

Meanwhile, a team made up of people with different specialties who all understand accessibility as it relates to his or her specific role on a project ensures that the end product is elegant and functional on multiple levels.

“You have a very different understanding and approach if you’re a graphic designer than if you’re a content person who’s just writing content or, certainly, if you’re a designer and you’re designing user interactions,” Sharron said. “Our goal was to help people understand you don’t have to do it all by yourself. Empower as many people as possible in your organization and you’re just going to have better results.”

Still, for those new to accessibility, starting with a technically immersive conference such as AccessU can be a daunting prospect.

“It was really intimidating to get into the accessibility field because there are so many people with very deep technical skill sets,” Jan said. “You just have to sort of go, ‘there’s going to be a lot that I’m not gonna get, that I’m not going to understand, but I need to go and expose myself.’ It’s like immersing yourself to learn a new language. If you go and live in the country and you’re going to learn the language a lot more quickly than if you were afraid and don’t ever expose yourself to it.”

Getting the chance to learn from some of the world’s leading accessibility experts and professionals doesn’t hurt, either. Along with Sharron and Jan, this year will feature such tech luminaries as Becky Gibson (Senior Technical Staff Member at IBM), Whitney Quesenbery (Co-Founder at the Center for Civic Design and author of Storytelling for User Experience and Global UX: Design and research in a connected world), and Paul Adam (Senior Accessibility Specialist/Developer at Deque Systems, Inc.), and many more. You can find course descriptions and a full class schedule on the Knowbility website.

AccessU is always a very rich experience for me because the people that go and present there are some of the most experienced, skilled people in the accessibility field,” Jan said. “So it’s great just to be exposed to that and learn as much as you can.”

Opening up the field to those outside of development and design harkens back to the influence of John Slatin, after whom the conference is named. An English professor at UT, John became involved with the accessibility world after a retinal disease caused the deterioration of his vision. Despite having little previous experience with accessibility or design, he eventually helped create Knowbility and the AIR Program, and continued to work for the cause of accessibility for all until his passing in 2008.

“A lot of people thought that John was a computer science professor, and he wasn’t, he was an English professor,” Sharron said. “He understood, ‘Wow, I’m losing my vision and if this technology is properly designed, I don’t have to miss reading, or research, or any of the things that make my life rich and my job compelling.’”

Approaching design with the people you’re designing for in mind, rather than focusing on compliance issues, keeps innovation and technology moving towards its ultimate goal: helping people do the things they wouldn’t be able to do otherwise.

“It’s much more interesting from a human perspective and John was a great example of that,” Sharron said. “He understood the dynamic quality of how this technology is able to give voice and connection to people who had previously been marginalized and left out.”

You can read more about John and his lasting impact here.

AccessU has an (almost) accessible app

Each year after John Slatin AccessU, Knowbility’s annual web accessibility training conference, we sit down with stakeholders to debrief and suggest improvements. In 2015 the deep yearning was for an app. Attendees, instructors, and staff felt an AccessU app would help everyone stay in touch with general events, quickly communicate changes to the schedule, and provide overall support to the community-building that is a foundation of what makes AccessU the great event it is. And of course, the app had to be fully accessible.

We are so pleased and excited to be able to announce the new (almost) accessible AccessU app that we wanted to share with you a bit about our journey.

Building from scratch was quickly found to be outside the budget of a small non-profit org like Knowbility. And so the search began for an accessible, customizable conference app that we could subscribe to. We enlisted the brilliant Jon Gibbins to help with the search since we would work with him on the customization. Searching for “event apps” or “conference apps” yielded quite a few options. But you probably won’t be surprised to learn that response to our inquiries about accessibility ranged from “Oh yeh, it is accessible to both iOS and Android devices” to “Accessible? what do you mean by that?”

So instead, we began asking “Does your app meet the BBC Guidelines for mobile accessibility?” Lots of “Let me get back to you on that” followed by resounding silence. After a few months of this, we were beginning to lose hope. But then – hallelujah – we got this from Alicia at Guidebook:

“Thanks for reaching out to Guidebook. I just doubled check with our support team, and they said they believe we do meet BBC’s mobile guidelines…”

OK there are a few caution lights here such as “they believe we do…” but still, we were encouraged! A few quick calls to verify that we wanted to buy the subscription version, become paying customers, work with an assigned support rep, and we were off to a warm and friendly dialogue.

In the meantime, Jon discovered that Guidebook had actually published a VPAT – and they were the first conference app we found that did so.  Jon began validating the VPAT while Board member Hiram Kuykendall did a quick informal check of the free Guidebook app. Hiram came back with not-so-good news. The app was not really very accessible at all – unlabeled buttons and form fields, images with no alt text, interminable navigation – the usual suspects.  Hmmm, back to you, Jon – what about that VPAT?

Jon’s more formal testing of the VPAT revealed that Guidebook had unfortunately misstated several accessibility features.  Our experience is that often when VPATs are inaccurate, it is due to the fact that a company does not fully understand the requirements – and that seemed to be the case here.  We offered to deconstruct the VPAT for them – at no charge – and help get the product aligned to their public claims.  Guidebook said, “Sure thanks, we will work it into our development sprints” and voila, we were all singing in tune,  had a common mission and shared understanding of what was possible within that timing.  Wahooo, let’s go!

Knowbility’s John Sweet and Jon Gibbins worked with the Guidebook team over the next few weeks, pushed the accessibility improvements out to the app stores, and the result is the first ever AccessU app.  Please download, use it and continue to give feedback. We are so pleased with the way we have been able to work with Guidebook to improve the accessibility of this handy tool. But we know it is not yet fully accessible – the class rating system is still wonky, for example – and so we want to hear from you about your own experience. We are hopeful to get the rating system accessible in time for the conference but will craft functional alternatives if that proves to be impractical. So, while it is not all rainbows and unicorns, we extend kudos to Guidebook for working with us,  and are very excited to be able to offer this service.

We learned valuable lessons – if you hit an accessibility barrier, look for another way. If you are turned down in your accessibility requests, keep asking. Most people genuinely want to be inclusive and if you support them and make it clear where the path is, they are more likely to follow it. Since our AccessU theme in 2016 is teamwork, we found this to be a terrific experience to share and now we pass the ball your way.

Please reply here with any comments you have and/or send your experiences and suggestion to IT Director John Sweet who is simply john at knowbility dot org.

We sincerely thank our friends, the good people at Guidebook and can’t wait to hear from you all. See you next month at St. Edward’s University in Austin Texas!


"Good Design IS Accessible Design." — Dr. John Slatin