Category Archives: Employment

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?!

 

Are you a veteran of Knowbility’s AIR force?

Accessibility in web education

This spring has been tremendously busy and just as exciting.  Developers and IT program managers are thinking about accessibility more urgently and are seeking ways to integrate accessibility skills into the education of developers of information and communications technologies.

The month of March was a blur of running between training government webmasters for GSA, panel discussions, a booth, hosting a fully accessible performance event and all the networking and socializing that accompanies the SXSW and CSUN conferences.  Whew!  But in the back of my mind during all this has been an encounter I had at the annual ATIA conference in Orlando, all the way back in January.

Encounter at ATIA

I was part of a large group of conference attendees going to dinner at a nearby restaurant.  We divided into several groups riding in separate cars and I ended up with people I had not previously met.  Or so I thought.  Among us were K-12 assistive technology (AT) specialists, AT software manufacturers, accessibility advocates and speakers and trainers.  A sales VP was accompanied by her husband, a web developer for a venerable business supply company that has nothing to do with accessibility.  The hubby was just along for a week in Orlando with his wife.  I’ll call him Jerry.

As we drove through Orlando to meet the others, Jerry and the sales VP in the front seat, me and two AT vendors in back, the conversation centered on web accessibility skills.  Why, everyone wondered, it is so hard for AT software companies to find developers who know how to design to meet web standards and accessibility mandates?   People trained in university programs seemed particularly unprepared to design for accessibility.  We spoke about Section 508 mandates (in place for more than 10 years now) and the Web Accessibility Initiative at the W3C.  We considered VPATs and other mechanisms put in place to encourage compliance and still came up short.

AT Interoperability

The software makers and vendors were especially frustrated since their entire product line depended on interoperability with the assistive technologies that they sell and that their customers rely on.  Jerry, our driver and the only one who does NOT work in an industry directly related to disability, spoke up.

“Accessible design is not rocket science,” he said. “I learned about it 10 years ago and once you understand the basics, it’s not hard to keep up.  You write cleaner code and it works across more browsers and devices.  Accessibility is no big deal, it’s just good design.”

The vendors wanted to know more.  Where had Jerry learned about it?  What motivated him to do it?  After all, Jerry worked for a general business services company, why did have an interest in accessibility?

Jerry is part of the AIR force!

“Well, I was living in Austin Texas,” Jerry said. “And I wasn’t married yet, was working at a start-up, wanted to meet folks and heard about this web design contest to help nonprofits.  I signed up and it turned out it was actually a way to teach accessibility.  I don’t remember the name of it, it was about 10 years ago. It was fun, I learned about accessibility and it stuck with me. It just makes sense.”

So there I am in the back seat and I got goosebumps.

” Wow!  It was the Accessibility Internet Rally!” I said.  “You were part of one of the first AIR competitions.”

News report from early AIR-Austin competitions on You Tube

We got to our restaurant about then and I kept babbling as we made our way inside and found the rest of the group.   When we settled in, I was sitting across from Jerry.

“Oh yeh,” he said “I recognize you now.  I thought you looked familiar.  How is the competition going? “

In the conversation that followed, Jerry said it had been great for him to learn about accessibility not because he had to, was mandated to meet requirements, or felt an obligation.  He learned about web accessibility as a way to broaden and deepen his programming and design skills.  He retained what he learned and tucked it away in his development toolkit.

Have YOU participated in AIR? Let’s hear from you!

It made me wonder who else is out there who learned about accessibility from the AIR program?  AIR has been held in Austin, Dallas, Houston, San Antonio, San Francisco and Denver.  Developers have participated from Dell, IBM, Frog Design, Bearing Point, MicroAssist, MapQuest, and dozens more compnaies.

Where are all the participants from all those businesses and cities? If it’s you – as a volunteer, a developer, an advisor, a nonprofit group, a community partner or a participant in any way – please comment and let us know what you are doing.  Do accessibility skills continue to be useful to you?  What are your thoughts about accessibility and technology education?    We would love to know what the AIR force is up to in 2011.

Hope to hear from you!

JAWSLite?

So many of you know how difficult it is to afford, load and use a full version screen reader.  Even if you overcome the financial burden, sometimes you encounter situations where it is hard to run and use the software.  What if you are on another computer?  What if the full version takes up too much memory to run?  How about when running the full version causes system conflicts and your computer locks up or freezes?  What if you are just wanting to test your website for accessibility using a Screen Reader, but don’t want to fork over thousands of dollars or reboot your computer every 40 minutes with a demo version?

I recently learned about a petition that is now circulating to submit to Freedom Scientific, the manufacturer of the Screen Reader JAWS for Windows.  It would be fantastic if FS really looked into the option laid out in this petition to make a JAWSLite.  There is definitely more tough competition out there in the Screen Reader Market, with Serotek’s System Access, and NVDA for Windows, both having versions available for a smaller price.  System Access can be run from any computer, right from the web browser, without the need to load the software onto the machine.  NVDA is open source and free, and while their support for popular applications may be limited now, there is a great potential for that piece of assistive technology.  With that in mind, take some time and have a look at the JAWSLite Petition and even sign it.  So far there aren’t a ton of signatures, but we can change that.  It may be all for nothing, and yet big things start with small actions!  If enough of us get behind this, perhaps we can help FS continue to stay competitive in a growing marketplace of screen reading options!

Knowbility Hits the National Airwaves

Last week, Sharron Rush and I were privileged to be interviewed by NPR’s Bob Garfield for his show “on The Media.”  It was a fabulous chance for us to tell our story, to explain why accessibility is so vital for everyone.  We talked about not only the federal mandates and legal requirements, but the inpact accessibility has on individuals in their lives.  I got to demonstrate JAWS working on a couple of websites, as well as show how my iPhone has been made accessible out of the box.  Many listeners may not know what a Screen Reader is, much less hear one in action.  The technology is amazing, but unless the designers of websites and software develop with accessibility in mind, those technologies cannot work properly.  This interview was a fantastic experience and we have confirmed that it will air this weekend!  So check your local listings to see when and where the show is on in your area!  There is also a podcast for “On The Media,” so you can always listen that way.  If you have friends, coworkers or acquaintances who just don’t know what we’re fighting for, tell them to tune in!  We really hope that this national attention will help to further our cause and make more people aware of the importance of access for all!

Microsoft Office 2010 Promises More Accessibility

If all goes according to plan, Microsoft will release it’s 2010 products some time next month.  There seems to be many exciting features that will be unveiled, some of which have already been out in public beta.  The introduction of web applications for the most popular office products is exciting to many, giving them the opportunity to work on documents in a much more powerful and collaborative way.  But to me, the most exciting features that will be available in the 2010 release are those dealing with accessibility!  I have been a user of Microsoft products since the year 2000 and those first days were very difficult.  Not only were the Microsoft products inaccessible, but the assistive technologies had not yet evolved to support their use.  Office 2003 began to include some accessibility, and the Screen Readers and other AT reformed their programming as well.  When Office 2007 was released, a few features particularly in reading Power Point files became less accessible.  I personally found the ribbon system in 2007 hard to use and understand, especially after I had grown so used to the structure and keystrokes of 2003.  In many ways, I found the earlier version more stable, user friendly and accessible.  All that said, I am very anxious to give 2010 a shot!

Most of the accessibility focus in Office 2010 has to do with document creation.  There will be an accessibility checker tool available to run when creating any type of Microsoft document.  Larry Waldman, a program manager on the Microsoft User Experience Team, provides an excellent overview of the Accessibility Checker and how to use it in documents.  From the description, it looks as though it will be customizable and work almost like the spell checker.  I will be anxious to see if this tool is accessible for people using Screen Readers and other AT.  I myself want the ability to create accessible documents.  Most automated tools that check for accessibility are not accessible to assistive technology.

Another feature that will be available in document creation is the ability to provide expansions for acronyms.  There is a fabulous article written by Karen McCall on the Microsoft MVP Award Program blog that details the use of this tool in Word 2010.  Document Authors will be able to create a list of acronyms and their expanded text, so that a reader who may not be familiar with the acronyms can easily find their meanings.  For example, I use AT a lot and I would be able to inform my readers that this stands for Assistive Technologies.  From her description of how to create these lists of acronyms and their meanings, it seems that this process will be accessible to me as a document author.

Another related product that will be updated this year to include more accessibility is SharePoint.  The team is making a great effort to develop this collaboration software with accessibility guidelines in mind.  The 2010 release promises improved accessibility in many areas!  You can read details about the new enhancements on the Microsoft SharePoint Team Blog post entitled, “Accessibility and SharePoint 2010.”

It looks like more and more corporations, businesses and individuals are bringing accessibility considerations on board when developing or enhancing their products!  Our efforts in awareness and education are paying off, but we still do indeed have a ways to go.  Accessibility should not just be an added on feature, but part of the standard in product creation and development.  For every developer that incorporates accessibility in their design, there are at least 10 who do not.  As a result, users have to research or use trial and error to find out which products are accessible to them.  While things are moving in the right dirrection, I would love to see a day when every website, software and hardware includes access for everyone!