The Future of Digital Accessibility

Hard work and persistent advocacy have built significant momentum in achieving equal access for people with disabilities to digital opportunities in employment, education, and social interactions. While there is much still to be done, accessibility-focused legislation has spurred progress  in industries such as healthcare, travel, and education. The result is increased awareness and implementation of digital accessibility on a much larger scale. Even if the Department of Justice ceases to enforce the mandates that encouraged these industries to pay attention to digital accessibility, the need for inclusion will not go away, nor will those people who fought for the protections in the first place.

Legislation isn’t the only area digital accessibility has gained a significant foothold. You would be hard-pressed to find a web design and development conference that didn’t include topics of accessibility, if not place it front and center. Usability professionals and the digital design community as a whole now see digital accessibility as a key pillar of industry best practices. Still, educating, training, and spreading awareness on digital accessibility issues and skills remains at the core of what we all must do. By empowering people to design and develop accessibly, we ensure that inclusion happens and continues in a more organic and sustainable way.

The fact is, the number of web professionals committed to doing the right thing for diversity and inclusion and equal access has grown and continues to grow along with understanding of the issues. I am confident that the web industry will continue the momentum to do the right thing, regardless of who is in office. We must channel the groundswell of emotion and determination that has arisen following this election to be vigilant, remain steadfast, and continue our important work to ensure everyone has access to information and the benefits of modern technology.

As Lainey Feingold,  Lawyer & Speaker at Law Office of Lainey Feingold, laid out in her pre-election call to vote, and in her powerful follow-up post, digital accessibility is here to stay, it is important to retain optimism, confidence, and community to continue to make progress. Together, we will retain the gains we have made and continue to ensure equal access to digital opportunities for all.

Empathetic Leadership Opens Doors

Board Chairman Rich Schwerdtfeger will lead Knowbility’s first Accessibility Leadership Symposium in May of 2017. The Symposium aims to address the rapidly changing landscape of digital communications by providing global leaders and executives in accessibility with an opportunity to exchange tactics, discuss challenges, and work on solutions in a collaborative setting.

On that note, creating an interactive, discussion-based environment is a top priority for Rich and the organizers of the Symposium.

“We’re not necessarily going to have a few experts dictate to people on how you should do things,” Rich said. “Instead, one of the things the conference is going to do is bring accessibility leaders from all over the world to share their experiences and input on how they address some of the key issues in accessibility. We want to learn from each other and build an expanded network of executives that work together to solve problems, hopefully making the whole accessibility process a lot easier.”

The Symposium will take place May 17-19, the days leading up to AccessU, Knowbility’s annual accessibility teaching conference. Knowbility selected Rich to be this year’s keynote speaker, for which he plans to discuss the merits of empathetic leadership.

“There needs to be a renewed focus on empathy at the top of corporations which, to me, means a degree of leadership,” he said. “What I see often today is that because accessibility has been so much of an issue driven by litigation, we forget at the top of the companies that there are real people involved at the end of the day, people that are impacted because there aren’t equivalent accommodations for them to do their jobs.”

By regarding accessibility as an issue that only affects a few individuals rather than a priority that must be consistently considered, companies devalue their employees and leave their customers vulnerable.

“These individuals are important,” Rich said. “We don’t allow them to reach their full potential because we don’t provide accommodations for them in the business and we don’t enable our information and communication technology. The question we always get is, ‘Well they only have one or two blind individuals.’ Okay, but you just made it impossible for that person to do their job because you don’t value them as a large enough demographic to support them. At the end of the day, you’re also saying you don’t value your customer because you’ve now put them at risk.”

Due to a lack of time, money, and empathy for the employee and the customer, accessibility features are often left on the back burner until legal issues force a company to rectify them,  prompting a quick and patchy fix. Instead, Rich argues, companies should take the time to consider all of their potential users from the get-go.

“Nobody wants to take ownership of the problem — the people that have deployed the system don’t want to take ownership, the management doesn’t want to take ownership of it — but at the end of the day, if we just at down and thought, ‘This is an important video, it’s required for users, why can’t we just take the time and get it captioned so that they can go use it?’” he said. “We need to have that change.”

Still, he understands that these aren’t small challenges, especially for large corporations working to stay competitive on a massive, global scale.

“I do have some sympathy here because one of the challenges we have here at large companies is you’re being pressured to deliver things faster and faster and faster. That’s a huge amount of pressure,” he said. “This is one of the issues we hope to discuss at the conference. ‘How did you address accessibility in an agile work environment? How do we quickly make sure that content is accessible and get it out of the building?’”

An empathetic approach to leadership also means reframing the relationship companies have to accessibility features. For example, avoiding litigation shouldn’t be the sole reason companies decide to take the extra step of incorporating accessibility into the initial planning process of new products or software. Putting focus on accessible design has also proven to be a marker of success over the last few years.

“You look at some of the successful companies now that have invested in accessibility and have made accessibility important, they’re doing very well,” Rich said.  “One I can point to is Apple, another one has recently been Microsoft. For example, if you take an iPhone today — the latest iPhone that came out — when you receive a voice message and you tap on it, it writes the whole transcript for you. So if you’re in a noisy situation and you can’t hear the recording, you’ve got all the text. Is it perfect? No, but it’s good enough to get the gist of the message and that puts you ahead of the game.”

Having worked for IBM since 1990 where he began as a contractor before transitioning into research, Rich is no stranger to the innovation and application of accessible technology.

“In fact, in the 1990s at IBM, we pioneered some of the first voice recognition systems for mobility impaired people for both command and control and dictation,” he said. “Now we’re starting to really see this become mainstream today in everything we do.”

Beyond addressing specific accessibility issues, tactics, or solutions, Rich hopes the symposium will help build a strong network between global accessibility leaders, facilitating progress on a faster, more efficient scale.

“At the end of the day, the leaders are the ones who set the cadence in large companies on what gets done,” he said. “If the leadership is there and they know they have the vehicle and tools — we’re basically expanding their own toolbox on how they can address issues better. To me, this is the first of it’s kind. We’ve never had anything like this before in the industry and it’s needed.”

You can find more information on the Symposium on the Knowbility website. For sponsorship and registration information, contact Jessica Looney at

Code for America Summit - Inclusive Design Toolkit

Inclusion and accessibility at the Code for America Summit

Last week I was fortunate to attend the Code for America Summit in Oakland where civic-minded technologists, government innovators, and entrepreneurs in the civic space gathered. Representing Knowbility, my aim was to connect with others to learn and share ideas around accessibility and inclusion for delivering government content and services to the widest audience possible. What I experienced was that and so much more.

On the first day of the two-day conference, Jenny Lay-Flurrie, Microsoft’s Chief Accessibility Officer, gave a thoughtful and passionate main stage talk titled: Accessibility in the modern world. In the digital accessibility community, we’re all aware of Microsoft’s work on inclusive, accessible experiences. But, it was truly enlightening to hear how she framed their company’s approach and the benefits they realized by doing so. She said: “We found a new way of working by hiring people with disabilities and building inclusive environments for all.” Their workforce diversity allows them to think of everyone as they design and develop, making products that are accessible and leaving no one behind.

In addition to the main stage talk about accessibility, one of the break-out sessions was accessibility-focused, titled: Inclusive design: building empathy for innovation. This workshop session was facilitated by Sarah Morris and Kris Woolery, both Senior Design Strategists at Microsoft working on their Inclusive Design Team. At my table, I worked with web professionals from the City of San Diego, the CIO of San Francisco International Airport, and a director of a non-profit in Denver that provides technology training for those who are changing careers. We worked through several empathy-building exercises that will be valuable for all of us as we move forward with our work to help deliver services to people in more efficient and equitable ways.

In addition to the accessibility-focused sessions, I found that the undercurrent of the conference was the inclusion of all people, particularly those underserved or misrepresented, of which accessibility is certainly a factor. As we listened and talked with one another during the summit, it was clear that we’re in a great position as technologists to put our efforts to serving more people, more equitably, and with more efficiency than ever before. I, for one, am inspired and eager to work toward helping our communities serve everyone via the promise that accessible technology holds.


Accessibility Club #4 and BeyondTellerrand in Berlin

I had the pleasure of traveling to Berlin recently for two events:  The one-day Accessibility Club on November 7 and and one of the two days of the BeyondTellerrand conference on November 8.

Accessibility Club

Karl Groves started his European Tour by kicking off Accessibility Club, organized by Joschi Kuphal of Tollwerk and Stefan Judis of Contentful. In his talk, Karl outlined the history of (semi-)automated accessibility testing: From Bobby to his own project

His main point was that accessibility tools are often not compatible to modern web development workflows, like using project boilerplates, templating, frameworks, versioning, unit testing, and deployment.

Accessibility testing needs to be integrated into the workflow and not be separated – else, it always lags behind. Karl then showed how testing can be integrated in common tools, like Grunt and git, in his examples using

The prospect of developers catching automatically testable accessibility bugs before expert reviews and user testing is enticing as it leads to better initial versions and has the potential to reduce the effort of all involved.

After Karl, Job van Achtenberg took the stage and enlightened us with a lightning talk about input methods, probably introducing voice input to some people in the crowd for the first time.

In a Barcamp-like fashion, ad-hoc sessions where created. I hosted one on the future of WCAG, attended one about the perceived tension between design and accessibility and one about the accessibility situation in Austria (which have stricter accessibility rules than Germany, especially also including private companies).

All in all, it was an interesting event with a nice turnout (over 30 participants) and a lot of good conversations. There was a minimum donation towards Karl’s travel of 15 €, and everything that exceeded the cost will be donated to Knowbility. We thank Joschi, Stefan and Karl for their contribution to this wonderful event.

Joschi has published some photos on flickr (including the article image).


BeyondTellerrand is organized by Marc Thiele, and happens twice a year, in Düsseldorf in spring and in Berlin in fall. Being in Berlin anyway, I could not pass on attending at least one day of the event.

I learned about AMP (Accellerated Mobile Pages) and how to make them work in a more progressively enhanced way from Paul Bakaus. Ariel Cotton then gave us an insight of how we have designed the world around us and how design and art relate to each other.

Then Sacha Judd took the stage and told a story about fan fiction related to the band One Direction, where – mainly – women use (web) technologies to create this fiction. A survey uncovered that those women underestimated their abilities to work with technology. Sacha’s advice was to change job descriptions to be more inclusive, for example to think about the problem-solving skills required and not just state that 7 years of problem-solving skills are required. A video of the talk (no captions) is available.

Afterwards, Tim Kadlec talked about the unseen aspects of web development: Security, Accessibility and Performance. He argued that as those aspects are not immediately visible it is much harder to make the case for them, in contrast to, for example, visual glitches or missing functionality. Yet there are real-world issues with those problems: Huge web pages that drain data plans, insecure baby monitors that break half of the web by issuing a huge DDOS attack on the central DNS servers, and potential lawsuits for not being accessible. A video of the talk (no captions) is available.

I have not seen Mike Monteiro speak before. I’ve seen videos, but his talk praising the ordinary people was a furious reckoning with how a small group of people is seeing the world. Organizations claim to “Change the World”, while in reality they only change the world for their own benefit. Real change comes from ordinary people, Mike exclaimed, for example from people who won’t give up their seats in a bus after a hard day of work (referencing Rosa Parks). A video of the talk (no captions) is available.

In the penultimate talk of the day, Heydon Pickering, talked about writing less code. By just not doing some things, accessibility and performance are much easier to achieve. As an example, he quoted social media buttons, which embed a lot of extraneous JavaScript and blow up a web page easily. He also referenced buttons created with <div> elements and JavaScript instead of using the <button> element. “Less is More” people often say, but in reality less just means less. Less code means less complexity, less bugs, less QA. A video of the talk (no captions) is available.

I was not able to catch the last talk of the day, as I had to catch my train home (this blog post was written in part at 125 mph, riding an ICE train).

Your favorite device feature probably started as an accommodation for disability

October – the National Disability Employment Awareness month in the US – in now in the rear view mirror.  We meant to take at least a minute before we get immersed in year end holidays to salute the work of scientists, inventors, and entrepreneurs who have applied technology to the needs of people with disabilities and in the process transformed the workplace.

From the eyeglass to the iPhone, features developed for people with disabilities become standardized, fashionable, and eventually indispensable. I look forward to the day when “accommodation” and “innovation” are seen to be closely related because, as a matter of fact, historically they are.  Here are some examples:

Computer punch cards

Many know Herman Hollerith as the inventor who developed an electromechanical punched card tabulator to assist in summarizing information. Widely adopted in the early 20th century, the system led to the formation of IBM and was the foundation of computer programming for decades. What many do not know is that Hollerith was severely dyslexic, could not read well, and developed his punch card code to store information for himself.


Alexander Graham Bell’s wife was deaf, as was his mother. The idea of “electronic speech” occurred to him while visiting his mother in Canada. His endless experiments with hearing devices in trying to accommodate communication needs for people he loved eventually culminated in his being awarded the first U.S. patent for the telephone in 1876.


In the early 2000’s, when Apple introduced a service to college campuses to provide recordings of lectures to students, it was rejected from the 23 campus University of California system because the graphic interface could not be operated by blind students. Apple saw an opportunity, put great designers on the problem, and developed a speaking interface that became Siri, now used by billions of people of all abilities around the globe.

Good Design is Accessible

The point of these few examples – and there are countless others – is that when we design workplaces and communications systems to meet the needs of people with disabilities, we solve unanticipated problems for all users.  As we say farewell to October 2016, please seriously consider how to better use technology to include people with disabilities in your workforce and then learn from them how to innovate the 21st Century workplace.

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