Category Archives: assistive technology

Accessible Software Is Essential To Learning

A personal Story by Sabra Ewing

For many students, accessible software is essential to learning. This is especially true for those of us who rely on assistive technology. Unfortunately, despite the wealth of publicly available information about accessibility, and a host of free resources, student and educator ignorance about accessibility requirements in education continues to create unnecessary barriers for students with disabilities. Here’s a personal account that I hope will illustrate the need for increased professional development in accessible learning.

I didn’t think I would enjoy my required computer science course when I arrived there on the first day of my freshmen year of high school. We were supposed to start using a program called JCreater, which the technology personnel in my school district were unable to make usable by a screen reader. Believing this to be a great stroke of luck, I didn’t mind when my vision teacher told me that the principal would waive the requirement for me and that I would take a gym class instead. Had I just done a bit of research, I might have learned about a free accessible alternative to JCreater that would have allowed me to easily work alongside my peers, but I didn’t know enough about computer science to know what to look for. In any case, according to Newsweek and World Report, I was either attending the number 1 or number 2 public high schools in the nation depending on the year. I assumed that, if the knowledge of the teachers there, coupled with that of my blindness-specific instructors couldn’t devise a way for me to fulfill the requirement, then nothing could. I lived in ignorance for the remainder of my freshman year, thinking that, without a doubt, I had gotten the better end of the Computer Science deal than my classmates.

During my sophomore year, I began to feel slightly apprehensive about the whole affair. I learned that, in addition to the first required class, I was being denied access to three subsequent optional courses. One was an advanced placement course, another was dual credit. In all, this equated to four classes that could have gotten me more ranking points. But I pushed these thoughts out of my mind. Ranking points didn’t matter to me, I told myself. Neither did the fact that our school had a computer science team and a robotics team. It was true that both teams had many of the same members, and that I had taken to eating lunch near them each day, but that was only because they weren’t too loud, not because I had any interest in what they were doing.

By junior year, I broke down and openly admitted that my interest in Computer Science was increasing. But there would be no point in pursuing it. The fact remained…I had not touched a computer during the two weeks I had been in the computer science class. I had never tried programming for myself. How could I really be sure whether or not I could do it as a blind person?

By the time I became a senior in high school, not knowing had become too much to bear. So near the beginning of the year, when we had a three day weekend, I began doing some research into the matter. By this time, I had picked up on the fact that there are lots of programming languages and that my peers had been studying a language called Java, so I decided to see if I could do the same. That night, I spend twelve hours installing software and learning to use command line as well as the basics of the Java programming language. Ever since I compiled my first application depicting a diagonal line, I knew that computer science was for me. I never considered asking to join the computer science or robotics team because I, along with the other students in my small school, was fully aware that I lacked the necessary skill to do so. However, I did ask the Computer Science teacher why I couldn’t have taken the series of courses by using different software to debug and compile my programs. The terse response was that other software packages didn’t effectively color code various information and that in order to be successful in the class, I would surely need one-on-one assistance the school couldn’t provide. After recovering from my shock that this intellectually developed person couldn’t understand that color coding has no bearing on the experience of a totally blind programmer, I began to feel angry and hurt. This difficult situation and others like it could have been avoided through education and increased social awareness for me and the others at my school.

This is an example of how despite the existence of accessible software, I still didn’t have access to all of the same educational opportunities as my peers. Accessible materials are great, and they definitely constitute a big step forward, but those materials are essentially useless in the hands of un-knowledgeable students and educators. In this case, my teacher’s lack of knowledge meant that I missed out on a series of courses and several extracurricular activities I could have really enjoyed. Had I not wanted to find out the truth for myself, I might not today be majoring in computer information systems and thinking of switching my major to computer science. Worse, my ignorance of the software available to me meant that I inadvertently sent the message to my peers that blind people can never be their full academic counterparts. Today, schools don’t find it acceptable to deny access based on race, gender, and religion. Let’s make sure schools also display knowledge and sensitivity toward students protected under The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

Adobe and NVDA Partnership Improves Accessibility

As Production Manager for the AccessWorks team here at Knowbility, my team and I have spent the past 3 years remediating PDFs and other documents to ensure accessibility.  One of the main issues we face is the inability to reliably test documents using open source screen-readers.  As open source screen-readers like NVDA become more main-stream we believe it is becoming more important than ever to test with them.

Over the past several years we have tried using a number of screen-readers to test documents including JAWS, NVDA, System Access To Go, and Apple’s VoiceOver. While JAWS is our primary testing option, the licensing cost makes it difficult for many small organizations and individuals creating accessible content to adopt JAWS as a primary testing tool for their PDFs.

The next best option for content creators with limited budgets is to use NVDA. While NVDA has many similar functions and hot keys as JAWS, there are still some areas for improvement such as navigating tables in PDF.  In JAWS you can use the “ctrl+alt+arrow” keys to navigate within a table and ensure the proper column and or row headers are read.  In NVDA this is currently not possible.  The only option is to navigate to a table using “T” and then use the arrow keys to navigate within the table without reading column or row headers. An abbreviated list of NVDA hot keys can be found on the WebAIM website.

Collaboration between Adobe and NV Access (the creators of NVDA) will help ensure document testing is complete and accurate when using this open source screen-reader.  It is my hope that this collaboration will not only make NVDA more compatible with accessibility features of Adobe PDF files, but will also help Adobe to further increase the accessibility of the Portable Document Format with the upcoming PDF/UA standard (ISO 14289).

Adobe’s Statement of Support for Open Source Assistive Technology

AccessU at CSUN 2012: Assistive Technology and Web Accessibility — Live Demos Show How it Really Works

Are you tired of reading and hearing about Web accessibility, but never feeling like you understand what it’s all about? Have you tried using assistive technology on your site, but found yourself becoming frustrated and confused? Or have you thought about developing a site with accessibility in mind from the start, but then wondered who “those people with disabilities” really are? This panel is your chance to see live demos, become familiar with the strategies people with disabilities use to access the Web, and ask questions to help you put theory into practice.

During AccessU’s plinary session on Monday morning, February 27, three people with disabilities — Kim Patch, Wayne Dick and I (Jennifer Sutton) — will use the Before and After Demo, as well as other sites we visit frequently, to illustrate Web accessibility issues and how to resolve them. We’ll cover the basics so that presenters can focus on very specific techniques and situations during their sessions.

Who Will be Revealing the Mysteries of Assistive Technology?

I am Jennifer Sutton, and I’m a screen reader user who will show you how Freedom Scientific’s JAWS for Windows works with a couple of Web sites. I am an independent Web accessibility consultant and writer who has been passionately committed to accessibility throughout my career.

Kim Patch of Redstart systems will use Dragon Naturally Speaking, coupled with a few other tricks she has up her sleeve, to give you a sense of how someone who finds it difficult or impossible to use a mouse and keyboard accesses the Web using speech. She’ll show you the value of enabling efficient, consistent navigation methods and keyboard shortcut flexibility. You’ll learn what makes a difference for people who navigate your site or Web application by speech.

Wayne Dick, a retired professor at California State University, Long Beach, has low vision, and he uses style sheets to tailor his online reading experience. He’ll show you a bit about how his style sheets work and discuss what you can do to help him, and others like him, have a pleasant site visit, without having to make your site look boring.

We’re happy to have Shawn Henry of the World Wide Web Consortium’s Web Accessibility Initiative moderate this panel. She’ll be inviting your questions and helping us keep these live demos lively.

There are a few days left to sign up for Knowbility’s AccessU at CSUN, so please join us. We’ll take the mystery and myths out of using assistive technology, and we’ll show you what a difference an accessible site can make.

The Amazing Accessible Internet Rally

In eight hours, you could drive from Austin to New Orleans for soul food and zydeco, or you could head west to Roswell to find out if aliens really exist. You could take a trip to the Gulf, wriggle your toes in the sand, and come back home. You could get on a plane and fly to Alaska or Hawaii or Panama. You could even run a marathon – or two or three, if you’re strong enough.

You can do amazing things in eight hours.

You can even build a website!

Knowbility’s 14th AIR-Austin Rally

Participants of Air Austin applauding.

Trust me, spending eight hours in front of a computer coding a Web site can be just as exciting as hopping a flight to the great white north (and much warmer, this time of year). Just ask the developers who came out on Saturday for the 14th annual Accessibility Internet Rally for Austin.

Imagine it: 21 web developers, five non-profit organizations, and dozens of volunteers, supporters, and judges, fed, caffeinated, and locked up for the equivalent of one workday, fighting to design, build, and test the best accessible website possible.

Coding Under Pressure (and Having Fun Doing It!)

Teams arrived early, fueling up on coffee and breakfast tacos graciously donated by Starbucks Coffee, Texas Coffee Traders, and Amaya’s Taco Village.

Then, at 8:00am, everyone gathered in the lobby to fire the metaphorical starting gun. Volunteers cheered on the developers as they dashed to their seats to start their work. After that, little was heard throughout the halls and rooms of New Horizons Computer Learning Center other than the clacking of keys.

That is unless, of course, you were waiting in the Judging Pit. The AIR judges had their own space where they hung out 3 people talking during the AIR Austin rallyand were available to answer questions from participating developers. They filled the rest of their time by singing 60s war protest songs, looking at pictures of Ann Abbot’s trip to Amsterdam, and spying through the windows to admire Jim Thatcher’s shiny new BMW.

Meanwhile, the five development teams worked side-by-side with their assigned non-profit organizations to make their accessible website vision become a reality. Representative Elliott Naishtat, the 2012 Honorary Chairman for AIR-Austin, dropped by after lunch to thank the teams for their hard work to eliminate the digital divide present in our community. The teams looked up long enough to say “hello” and nod in appreciation. And the judges gathered together for a picture.

Programmers working during AIR AustinAs the day sped by, the intensity grew. With the 5:00 deadline looming. Spurred on by the clock and tweets of encouragement, each team found ways to maximize the time for ultimate coding potential. From eating lunch at their stations to skipping team photos (“Our fourth team member will be back for the picture at 5:00. We promise.” Uh, huh, sure…). One group even locked me out of the room as I came to sound the warning bell that time was up. Little did they know that I had a key handy for just such an emergency.

Sharron stepped in to sing a “good-bye” song as the minutes ticked past 5:00 with developers still glued to their keyboards, and teams ended the day in the same way that they’d started – amidst cheers and applause of gratitude from Knowbility staff and volunteers.

What’s Next?

Over the next few weeks, our judges will evaluate the sites these teams built. They’ll go over them with a fine-toothed comb to identify accessibility errors and point out successes. The winners will be announced at the 2012 Dewey Ceremony & AIR-Interactive Awards at South by Southwest Interactive Media Festival.

If you’re going to be in Austin on March 11, we want you to join us! Be sure to RSVP for the party.

In the meantime, take a look at what these development teams accomplished in eight hours!Knowbility swag buttons

Want to see more? Check out the sites built for AIR-Interactive, the all-virtual competition held concurrently with AIR-Austin:

Thank you to all participants and volunteers! We appreciate your contributions, look forward to assessing your efforts, and can’t wait to announce the winner on March 11.

Considering the Case for Creating an International Society of Accessibility Professionals

This is Part 2 of a blog series.  The first was Web Accessibility and Coming of Age

The 27th Annual International Technology and Persons with Disabilities Conference will be held in San Diego between February 27 and March 3, 2012.  On Tuesday of that week, the Accessibility Interoperability Alliance (AIA) – the technical and engineering division of the Assistive Technology Industry Association (ATIA) – will host an Accessibility Forum. For a $245 – $295 additional fee beyond the cost of the regular conference, attendees may participate in a series of panels and discussions entitled “Taking Accessibility Mainstream – Making the Case for an International Society of Accessibility Professionals.”

CODE for Accessibility Task Force

The forum discussion is based on research, commissioned by the US Department of Labor’s Office of Disability Employment Policy (ODEP), about the barriers to the implementation of accessible design techniques by mainstream developers.  I participated in the research project as Chair of the Sub-Committee on Education for the project which ATIA led and named the CODE for Accessibility Task Force.  The Task Force describes itself as  “driven by the private sector and focused on the accessibility-related needs of the developer community.”

It is quite a worthy project and ATIA is to be commended for organizing it. I was pleased to be part of the Task Force, sharing and updating much of the research I had done several years earlier for Knowbility’s own certification studies. The Education sub-committee worked collaboratively with input from universities, software companies, and technical services companies. Our conclusion was that a certification in web accessibility skills could be quite useful, but the report stopped short of recommending a framework for the delivery of a certification program.

ATIA went on to compile case studies to explore the possibility of creating a professional association dedicated to training web developers and certifying skills.  The full CODE Task Force Report can be downloaded from ATIA as well as a Case Study Implementation Analysis based on scenarios similar to Task Force recommendations.

In summary, the Task Force Report is a compilation of the work of the four sub-committees and the Case Study document compares the need for web accessibility to parallel needs identified within the web privacy and security arena and other areas of web specialization.

Knowbility’s position

I won’t be able to directly participate in the forum since I am teaching two days of accessibility policy and web development skills at preconference session called AccessU at CSUN that occurs at the same time.  But because my name is included as a Task Force member, I feel like I must contribute to the ongoing discussion to say that I am by no means convinced of the need to create yet another professional organization.  My hope is that our community will step back and think long and hard about universal accessibility goals and ask ourselves if this is really the best way to accomplish them.

In some ways it may not be fair to comment without hearing the case fully made.  But on the other hand, I have been involved with this research effort for over a year and have thoroughly read both referenced documents.  At this point, Knowbility does not support the formation of a new professional organization.  I wrote background in an earlier post to put the following remarks in context.  Here are  three top reasons for being skeptical about creating a separate professional organization for accessibility. We could offer more, but are especially interested in hearing from others who have been watching or considering this issue.  Please respond with your own thoughts.

Three reasons to think twice about creating another professional organization.

1. There IS an authority in web accessibility standards and design techniques

The case study document refers several times to the need for an “authority.”  However, there already IS a global authority on web accessibility at the W3C.  It is the Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) and develops global standards that align with other W3C technical specifications. (Full disclosure, I serve as an Invited Expert on the Education and Outreach Working Group for WAI).  Work there is done by consensus and is largely free of vendor bias.  They have a process to develop certifications and are already global in scope.  The W3C also works in open, non-proprietary methods that are consistent with accessibility.  We all know that the consensus process at the W3C can be cumbersome and tedious, but they have recent success in streamlining that process through community groups and other methods.  WAI works collaboratively (much more important in the context of accessibility than for the privacy comparison that was made in the case study). With the exception of IBM, I am not aware that the corporate sponsors of the Accessibility Forum have made major, significant, sustained contributions to the field of accessibility.  Rich Schwerdtfeger and IBM of course provides outstanding leadership on the development and promotion of the completely open WAI-ARIA guidelines, one of the most significant advances in recent accessibility history. Note that the ARIA work was done at the W3C.

2. Too expensive – needed voices will be excluded

Which brings us to item two, the costs associated.  The case study contains plenty of multiple million dollar budget items that will need to come out of someone’s pockets.  Whose pockets will provide those funds…  developers? … the companies that employ developers?  Why not spend those projected millions to support organizations that have history and existing leadership in accessibility rather than reinventing the alt tag? Before proceeding any further I would want to know more about how the planning has engaged with the community most affected – people with disabilities.  While there seem to be individuals with disabilities serving on some committees, I have not seen any indication that this planning process reached out to and included the full community.  My hope is that associations, such as the American Association of People with Disabilities (AAPD), the Coalition of Organizations for Accessible Technology (COAT), and other groups that speak for the wider community of people with disabilities are being consulted.  But no groups like these are listed as major sponsors.  Remember “Nothing about us without us?”  If you are attending CSUN and can’t afford the additional fees to participate in the Accessibility Forum, head to the Wednesday conference session on “Web Accessibility Community Collaboration” and WAI staff and volunteers from the W3C will be happy to hear your thoughts.

3. Accessibility must be integrated everywhere, not only commercially

The last and probably the most important reason for not segregating accessibility into the purview of a professional organization is the need for it to be woven into the fabric of any and all web and application development.  The analogy to the privacy issue that is cited in the case study document only goes so far.  For privacy issues, it makes sense to create highly regulated oversight for concerns that impact the protection of citizen and consumer financial and personal data.  Privacy is an issue that is easily subject to the development of strict protocols. Accessibility is more of an art.  Accessible design and development must be taught in context. That is one of the reasons Knowbility’s AIR program turns developers into advocates so effectively. Creating a separate society of accessibility professionals will reinforce the notion that accessibility is something outside of the basic development process – just the opposite of what advocates have been working for for years. Accessible design is more likely to catch on, in my opinion, if it is seamlessly integrated into all training for web and application development offered in all educational settings. The integrated approach makes the most sense to me and promises to have the greatest impact in making true the adage that the late John Slatin used to sign off on his emails – Good design IS accessible design.

An excellent example of how this can work is in progress at – you guessed it, the W3C, under the leadership of Chris Mills from Opera.  It is the newly formed Web Education Community Group and has the potential to integrate accessibility training into any training received by web developers at any level – trade school, community college, university, or elsewhere.   So by all means create certifications, but not within the context of a new professional association to which we must all pay dues and whose conferences we must add to our annual round of expenses for travel and fees (see number 2).

Let’s figure it out together

I don’t want to leave with a list of complaints like a truculent teenager. I want also to recognize that this was a great deal of useful research by ATIA and the AIA. It is an important conversation to have.  They deserve a round of applause and thanks for bringing this up, creating the Task Force, and sparking the discussion – kudos for moving the conversation so far forward.

I strongly agree that it is time to think about certification. But can’t we think of another way to do this?  Please?

OK, now you know what I think.  As always, we at Knowbility want to hear from our community.  What do you think?!