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!


Jan McSorley will keynote AccessU 2016

Knowbility is pleased and very excited to announce that Jan McSorley will be the keynote speaker for AccessU 2016! Jan has vast and varied experience building and inspiring teams to integrate digital accessibility into all they do.  From early days spent persuading her peers at the Texas School for the Blind of the importance and value of the Internet to her current position as Head of Accessibility for Pearson School Division, Jan’s career has been one of passionate advocacy for fully inclusive technology.

In her talk, Jan will give her perspective on how to identify key players who can further accessibility within a company (even when those players themselves may not even realize it themselves.) She will share true stories of how to invest in and inspire them so that they wake up one day to find themselves not only playing for the accessibility team, but recruiting others to join.

In her talk, Jan will give her perspective on how to identify key players who can further accessibility within the company (even when they themselves may not realize it.)

“Fairness and inclusion are unifying concepts that almost everyone agrees are important,” Jan says. “Very few people would openly argue against the idea that people with disabilities should be afforded the same access to educational and vocational opportunities as people without disabilities.  After all, in the United States we have civil rights legislation that prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability, so surely businesses and organizations are all abiding by those laws … right?”

“While it would be nice if all we had to do was pass legislation and then have everything fall into place, the reality is that civil rights laws related to equally effective access for people with disabilities are often ignored – sometimes out of ignorance and sometimes deliberately”, she adds. “The underlying reason for ignoring accessibility is that it’s a very complex problem to solve.  Even if there were scores of highly-trained accessibility professionals standing at the ready with capes in hand to save the day, most businesses and organizations don’t even understand their need for accessibility expertise, so they are most definitely not in the position to hire an elite team of accessibility personnel.”

Effective accessibility teams can be built in organizations, even without the open support of management or a robust budget.

“The fact that accessibility is more often misunderstood than understood, makes the jobs of those few enlightened individuals who find themselves as the lone accessibility voices in a wilderness of ignorance, a bit more difficult, but certainly not impossible.  Effective accessibility teams can be built in organizations, even without the open support of management or a robust budget.  The ultimate goal is that every person in an organization is a member of the accessibility team who is doing their part for accessibility within the context of their job responsibilities.”


AccessU is a 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. You can register for AccessU 2016 by clicking on this link: AccessU Registration to catch Jan McSorley and other internationally known leaders in accessible design and development.

Heroes of Accessibility: An Introduction

What is Heroes of Accessibility?

We’re big fans of superheroes here at Knowbility. We love the stories as much as we love what they stand for – triumph of all that is good and just. But we also are huge fans of a different league of superheroes – the every day hero; people who make the world a little bit better with what they do. We have been lucky to meet so many of these heroes in the accessibility world – thanks to OpenAIR. But web-design and competitions aside, we decided it was time that more everyday-heroes were recognized and rewarded for their work in accessibility. We decided to call them Heroes of Accessibility. The first annual Knowbility Community Heroes of Accessibility was held last year and the awards were presented along with the OpenAIR awards at Google, Austin.Knowbility Heroes of Accessibility

 Who are Heroes of Accessibility?

Knowbility accepts nominations for Heroes of Accessibility from the public across 5 categories:

Individual Achievement

This award recognizes an individual who has contributed digital accessibility knowledge and skills to the general community.

Educational Achievement

Educational Achievement recognizes a person or group of people who have created educational resources to help technologists learn to create accessible technology.

Institutional Achievement

This award recognizes a sustained effort to improve accessibility across an enterprise. Nominees can be a business, a government agency, or a nonprofit group that has gone beyond compliance to create and integrate a culture of digital inclusion.

Emerging Leader

An Emerging Leader is an accessibility practitioner new to the field who shows leadership promise.

Unsung Hero

If you think we overlooked a category or area that should be given recognition, the Unsung Hero category lets the public nominate a person or group that deserves recognition but who doesn’t quite fit the categories above.

How to nominate for Heroes of Accessibility?

We are asking you to help us find this year’s Heroes of Accessibility. If you know someone who has contributed to digital accessibility or an institution that has created a culture of digital inclusion, let us know by clicking on this link: Nomination Form

We will collect nominations until Friday, February 19, 2016. You may submit nominations in all categories or only a few or even just one. After nominations close, a nominating committee will review the entries and publish three finalists in each category. The community will be invited to vote for (and provide arguments in favor of) their Heroes of Accessibility in March 2016. Judges will perform the final round or review and one winner will be selected in each category.

Where will I meet my Heroes of Accessibility?

The winner of each category will be announced and  the awrads presented at a happy hour ceremony on Thursday, March  24th, 2016 at the CSUN conference in San Diego.

Why Heroes of Accessibility?


“Web design is great power. Web accessibility is great responsibility.”

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