Tag Archives: Jim Thatcher

Web accessibility and coming of age

Knowbility is 13 years old.  Founded in February of 1999, we have become a teenager. It’s often an awkward age for people, and lately I’ve wondered if Knowbility might also be subject to the same common struggles.  Who are we?  Who do we want to be? How do we fit in with the rest of our world?  As our industry of web accessibility makes critical decisions about how best to advance the field, these type of questions inform our position.  Knowbility has grown from community advocacy to industry leadership and before we weigh in with opinions, we owe to our colleagues and constituents some background on how our perspective was formed.

Grassroots origin

It has been a challenging, fascinating, and rewarding journey.  Knowbility started out being all about the community, all the time. Our Accessibility Internet Rally (AIR) program was created to thumb the nose at the notion that accessibility had to be dull or dumbed down.  AIR is a true collaborative brainchild, forged with dedicated combined effort of the broad community, led by people with disabilities, and determined to prove untrue the perception of accessibility as a barrier to innovation.  Give us a chance to teach accessibility to web professionals, frame the development within a competition, and then watch out for the results!

We expect  sites created in the competition to be cool, innovative, and accessible all at once.  And these cool accessible sites are donated pro bono to nonprofit groups.

It worked!  Knowbility engaged thousands of individuals – nonprofit leaders and web professionals – to care about accessibility, at least long enough for developers to build an accessible web site for a local nonprofit group.  Teams from giants like Dell and IBM compete against frisky teams put together in Refresh groups and BarCamps.  And it’s not at all predictable who will win the trophies and  the bragging rights for creating the most accessible site of the year.  For a few years, the team to beat was an independent husband and wife team who ultimately hired on at Convio.

AIR participants went on to work for Apple and Google and Microsoft; they went on to found their own companies; they took accessibility positions at government agencies; and they took their AIR conditioned passion for accessibility with them.

Expertise for hire

AIR participants, trainers, and judges included  John Slatin, Jim Allan,  Jim Thatcher, James Craig, Glenda Sims, Kathy Keller, Phill Jenkins, Brenda Adrian, Jon Wiley, Kathy Wahlbin, Pat Ramsey and many many others.

As the years passed and the trainings became more finely honed and effective, and as the judging form became more standardized, we were able to offer services and to do what many nonprofits can’t do – charge for our knowledge and experience.  We love working with companies and agencies and helping craft their accessibility strategies and roadmaps.  We love organizing accessibility training conferences. Earning revenue is a great opportunity for a nonprofit organization like Knowbility.  Fee for service offerings allow us to train and hire people with disabilities, including veterans with newly acquired disabilities.  So I would be remiss if I did not remind readers that Knowbility can help you with your company accessibility assessment, planning, and implementation.

But the point I want to emphasize is the notion of the free exchange of ideas that comes from collaborative effort. Collaboration is multidimensional, and creates the inclusive environment that is the very foundation of both innovation and accessibility.

The expertise developed over 13 years at Knowbility came directly from the community AIR programs, and AIR is still at the heart and soul of what we do.  I wrote elsewhere about the exhilaration of AIR activities. And, if you are at SXSW in 2012, please plan to attend the awards party to catch some of the excitement.  That thrill and the sense of active participation in a meaningful community collaboration helps create the dedication to accessibility that so many developers come away with. Knowbility has trained more developers on the practical application of accessible web development techniques than anyone, anywhere.

And as a result has accessibility become mainstream for web development professionals?  Nope, accessible design practice is not mainstream at this point and is often misapplied and misunderstood. So, the question is always with us – how do we get there?

Our community is now giving serious consideration to the best way forward in order to professionalize, standardize, and certify accessible web development skills. The notion of a professional accessibility organization is suggested and is worth serious consideration.  All praise to the US Labor Department, the Assistive Technology Industry Association and others who are giving this important matter such deep analysis.

Is it time for a skills certification?

Our perspective has been formed across many years in the accessibility trenches.  In 2001 when Knowbility was still a toddler, board member Jon Carmain urged us to be “first to market” in a web accessibility certification.  We did extensive research and concluded that the field was not stable enough and not ready for a certification to be put into place and that Knowbility was not mature enough and had not enough credibility to be a certifying agent.  But it is a notion that sits always on the back burner as a consideration.

The notion of a certification for web sites, for web developer skills, and for usability professionals is one that has merit. The question is how?

On Feb 28th, the Assistive Technology Industry Association (ATIA) will convene an Accessibility Forum at the 27th annual Conference on Assistive Technology and Persons with Disabilities organized by CSUN. The topic our community is asked to consider is “Taking Accessibility Mainstream: Making the case for an international society of accessibility professionals.”

This is a great topic for consideration and comment.  The forum agenda and the line-up of panelists is stellar.  This brief history of Knowbility above is offered so that readers will understand our background and put our comments in perspective. Next week we will post again with Knowbility’s position on the creation of a professional accessibility organization as a certifying body for such a set of certifications.  Stay tuned and weigh in with your own perspectives – we’d love to hear them!

Everything you need to know about web accessibility

Join us in San Diego!

What could be nicer than San Diego in February?  Great weather, world class web accessibility training and a 50% discount to the CSUN conference too!

Register Now

Click to register!

Register Now for Knowbility’s world-renowned AccessU program, offered in Feb 27th and 28th in collaboration with the 27th Annual International Technology and Persons with Disabilities Conference.   This unique conference-within-a-conference is designed to provide useful, practical training for skill levels from novice to expert. The lineup of experts is amazing and they will teach you all you need to know about web accessibility whether you are a designer, a programmer, a project manager or an administrator.

What to expect?

AccessU will run two concurrent tracks tailored for different registrants’ needs

Track #1 – Administrative

Focuses on the business side and geared towards procurement officers, project managers, HR professionals and more.

Track #2 – Technical

Dedicated to materials and topics for technical staff, designers, and developers.

More information

Expert hands-on instruction by Jennison Asuncion, Margy Bergel, Denis Boudreau, Ann Chadwick-Dias, Derek Featherstone, Lainey Feingold, Shawn Henry, Molly Holzschlag, Todd Kloots, Sharron Rush, Jim Thatcher.

Attendees may move freely between the tracks. Participants may register for the full two-day program at $595.00; one-day program at $425.00.  And registration for AccessU provides a 50% discount for the regular CSUN conference!

Or you may choose to register for AccessU only by choosing the Pre-Conference Only option when registering.

More on the CSUN website about AccessU details and Registration.  We hope to see you in San Diego in February.

Photo of instructors

Sharron Rush

Ann Chadwick Dias

Marguerite “Margy” Bergel

Shawn Henry

Denis Boudreau

Molly Holzschlag

Derek Featherstone

Jennison Asuncion

Todd Kloots

Knowbility, AIR and September 11, 2001

AIR-Austin Participation BadgeOur local NPR station, the daily paper and countless other media spigots are asking for remembrances of 9/11.   As my mind goes back to that day and I allow the political to fall away, what I remember is the Accessibility Internet Rally for Austin (AIR-Austin). At that time AIR was kicking off its fourth year of bringing the community together around the powerful idea of access to technology for all.

If you have never competed or volunteered in a web Accessibility Internet Rally (AIR) program – here’s how it works:  Knowbility recruits nonprofit groups who need web help – and in 2001 many were getting their very first web site.  The program also recruits teams of web developers – that year we had teams from IBM, from Dell, from St Edward’s University, Frog Design and many others.  Our chair was a VP from St. Ed’s, John Houghton.  With the help of the Judge Brothers – Jim Thatcher, John Slatin, Jim Allan and other advisors – we had recruited and trained nearly 20 teams and nonprofits.  On the evening of September 11, we were scheduled to meet at our historic local beer hall, Scholz Garden and announce which team was matched to what nonprofit organization and allow them to begin to plan their accessible web site. Rules were originally drawn up by Jayne Cravens who used to say that AIR was party that began at the oldest beer garden in Texas and ended up on the world wide web!

When the horrific events of the day unfolded, we eventually remembered our kick-off party, scheduled for 6pm that evening.  Our mighty staff of three made calls to each other and to the advisors.  We knew no one would come, and that we would have to postpone the kick-off and probably the Rally.  We might cancel the entire event for 2001, who could tell with the whole world upside down?

We decided that we would make our way to Scholz to provide some re-orientation information to anyone who might wander in.  We expected that a few people might come by.  Well, at about 5:30 a few did wander in.  They hugged each other gently and held on for longer than usual. They looked stunned and smiled gently, almost reluctantly at one another.  Soon there were more.  By 6:15 every single team and every nonprofit was represented.  The advisors were there, the judges were all there, the advisors and teams were there for the kick-off – it was clear they wanted the events to proceed!

John Houghton got on the little riser stage and prepared to go on with the match-up announcement.  We were clearly, each one of us in the crowd of people, surprised that we WERE a crowd.  John spoke for all of us, it seems, when he said,

“On this day when we have seen the worst that humans are capable of doing to one another, I wanted to be here.  I want to participate in the best that we are capable of.  I want to build a community that shares skills and knowledge and works to improve our capacity to help one another. That is what the AIR program means to me and it must mean that much to you too, because you are here.  Let’s get to work!”

We cried, we held each other, and we got to work.  In 2001, AIR-Austin volunteers built web sites for more than two dozen NPOs, including Austin IDEA Network (now the Entrepreneurs Foundation of Central Texas), Lone Star Girl Scout Council, GENAustin, SafePlace, Family Elder Care, Keep Austin Beautiful, Blackshear Elementary School, Girlstart and others.  Of course, the sites have changed with the times and for many of these groups, the momentum of that first AIR site carried them along.  Sponsors included IBM, Austin Usability, Mitsubishi Electric America Foundation, the University of Texas and Dell.

Since 1998, we have produced AIR programs all over the US, including Houston, Dallas, San Francisco, Denver and Atlanta raising awareness of why and how technology access must be made available to all.   In all that time, we have not missed a year in Austin – not even when the planes took the buildings down in New York City.

Jim Thatcher receives Lifetime Achievement Award at the 26th Annual CSUN Conference

Collage of photos showing Jim Thatcher as an incomparable accessibility leader, teacher, advocate and friend.

Nearly 200 people gathered to recognize Jim Thatcher‘s unparalleled contributions to technology access on May 17th at the CSUN Conference at the Grand Hyatt Hotel in San Diego.  The occasion was an award from Jim’s peers to honor a life dedicated to ensuring technology access for people with disabilities.  Leading accessibility advocates and practitioners led by Preety Kumar, CEO of Deque Systems,  came together to share stories and remembrances of working with Jim.  People talked of how they had been influenced by Jim’s brilliance, his passion and his deep commitment to equal technology rights for all.

Rich Schwerdtfeger started the tributes with a remembrance of Jim’s work at IBM.  His touching account of how Jim’s work developing pioneering screenreader and other assistive technology for blind users at IBM, had seminal influence on Rich’s own career and his dedication to the cause of technology equality.  And Rich made it clear that Jim’s ability to inspire others was an key element in IBMs leadership position in accessible technology.  From the  very first screenreader technology through developing internal accessibility guidelines to HomePage Reader, Rich spoke of his pride in being part of Jim’s team.

I got to speak next about Jim’s post-IBM career – about his leadership as Vice-Chair of the Electronic and Information Technology Access Advisory Committee (EITAAC) that wrote the standards for Section 508; about the course he wrote on Web Accessibility for Section 508 for ITTATC; about his work as an expert witness in the Target and Amazon cases and as an advisor to the NY Attorney General’s office regarding Priceline and Ramada Inn.  But mostly I spoke about Jim’s inspiration at the grassroots level, about his work to make the Accessibility Internet Rally (AIR) such a vibrant way to pass the accessibility torch to the next generation of web professionals.

As young developers sign up to compete in AIR and realize that they will be trained and their entry might be judged by Jim Thatcher (!), it connects them to web accessibility far beyond legal mandates or questions of compliance.  I got to speak of the mighty band of Judge Brothers – Jim Thatcher, Jim Allan and John Slatin who guided the program development for so many years.

Jim is unfailingly generous with his time and his knowledge.  His passion is contagious and he infuses many with his fervent advocacy.  After IBM, Jim influenced young developers who took some of that dedication with them in their accessibility work for Apple, Google, Frog Design and many many other companies.

I told the story of meeting Kareem Dale, special assistant to the President on Disability issues and how, when he learned I was from Austin, Kareem’s first question was “Do you know Jim Thatcher?”

Curtis Chong, former technology director at the National Federation of the Blind told of once telling him “Jim, you are the only sighted person I know who thinks like a blind person,”  and that Jim treats blind colleagues without pity or condescension but with a clear understanding that people are equal when given equal access to tools.

It is a rare and wonderful privilege to know and work with Jim.  It is also a responsibility.  This is so because Jim understands as few people do what Marshall McLuhan said about tools.

We shape our tools, and thereafter our tools shape us”

Jim inspires us all to dedicate ourselves to work together to ensure that the information and communication technology tools that are transforming society are equally accessible to all.

Jim himself told the story of choosing the name “PC SAID” for his software invention and being dismayed when his boss chose “screenreader” instead.  More stories told by Andrew Kirkpatrick, James Craig, Lainey Feingold, Chieko Asakawa and others rounded out a picture of Jim Thatcher as a man who has profoundly shaped and continues to influence the field of information technology accessibility and who is enormously generous in sharing his vast experience.

In honor of Jim Thatcher a fund has been established at the Texas Audubon Society .  If you would like to help honor Jim, please use the link and be sure to put his name in the Notes section of the form.  And please share your own stories of Jim right here as well.

Thank you Jim!

 

 

Dedication of AccessU to John Slatin

Here is the text of the opening dedication of the 2008 AccessU, renamed to honor our beloved colleague and mentor, Dr. John Slatin who died in March. Following these remarks, Jim Allan and Jim Thatcher unfurled a banner with the new conference title. That banner now resides on the John Slatin AccessU web site.

Good morning and welcome. I am Sharron Rush, Executive Director of Knowbility, the nonprofit organization that collaborates with St Edward’s University each year to bring AccessU to you. Thanks for being here so early. And indeed, thanks for being here…thanks and congratulations on caring about access to technology for everyone, including people with disabilities. We hope you gain skills and information you can use and we always learn from you what your challenges are in implementing accessibility in the world of government agencies and businesses.

AccessU is hosted here at St. Edward’s University for the fourth year. It’s not possible to think about producing this training institute without the steadfast support, encouragement and leadership of St Ed’s. Bill Cahill, the visionary Vice President of Information Technology here at St Ed’s entrusts the campus to us and then Brenda Adrian and Cousett Ruelas and their colleagues make it happen. Please help me thank them for their hard work (applause).

Knowbility’s staff, led by Teenya Franklin have also worked tirelessly to bring together all of the great information and hands on learning that you will have over the next couple of days. Please help me thank Teenya, Kim, Jeff, Anneka, Mike and Steve (applause). There are also dozens of volunteers, who help produce AccessU because they care about this work and are generous with their time – thank you all. (applause)

The instructors you will have here at AccessU are among the brightest lights in the field of accessibility research and innovation. You will get to know them well over the next couple of days and I will ask them to wave or stand so you know who to look for in the hallways. Please feel free to talk with them and take advantage of their experience and presence here. We are fortunate to have their enormous talents and skills and will talk at greater length with several of them at the forum tomorrow at lunch. Today’s lunch will feature a talk by a wonderful speaker named Beth Finke who I met at a conference last year and have been scheming to bring to AccessU. She is bright, funny and so engaging I know you will adore her.

It is exciting to be with so many people who understand the importance of this work and who themselves are working so brilliantly in so many ways to make sure that everyone has access to the opportunities afforded by advances in telecommunications technology. And it is at these times when we are all together that we miss our friend, our mentor and our dear comrade, John Slatin. We miss him terribly.

Jim Allan the webmaster for the Texas School for the Blind and John Slatin’s “Judge Brother” for many years, suggested that we name this conference in honor of John because these three days are all about teaching one another and learning from one another. Teaching and learning…among the things that John Slatin excelled at. As many of you may know, Professor John Slatin of the University of Texas helped start Knowbility, the AIR program and all of the work that we do around the issue of access to technology for all. John’s ability to see decreased throughout his life due to retinal disease. For the last three years he also gallantly battled leukemia. He died in March of 2008 and our community and each of us individually is bereft.

John’s eventual blindness was certainly one motivating factor in his interest in accessibility, but his appreciation and understanding of the power of technology came long before he lost his sight. Many people forget or never knew that John was an English professor.

In fact, I wasn’t sure I would tell this story, but I told it to Kathy Keller this morning and we decided that John would enjoy sharing it. John’s wife Anna Carroll told me at breakfast the other morning that many of their friends from Body Choir did not know that John was a UT professor until they attended his memorial service. Body Choir is a group that meets weekly or twice weekly – an improvisational, amateur dance company where friends gather and move as they are inspired to the music chosen by a facilitator. They dance solo, in pairs or in groups. Anna often facilitates and is very much at the center of the amazing energy that is Body Choir.  John loved to dance with the group and he and his guidedog Dillon were often on the dance floor with the group. 

Surprised by her friends’ ignorance of John’s profession, Anna asked them, “Well what did you think John did?” “Not sure,” they replied, “Thought maybe he was just a happy unemployed blind guy who like to dance.” (laughter) John was so good at meeting people where THEY were and joining them in the things that were of interest to them.

John was a poet. He loved language and the arts and saw in technology the potential to amplify an individual’s ability to tell his or her story, to share the narrative and even to share the structure and telling of the story…hyper-narrative he called it. The promise of interactive storytelling and multi-sensory experiences were all tremendously exciting to John and he explored these avenues adventurously. At his memorial service, John’s UT colleague Peg Syverson recalled her days with him,

“John used to joke that he used technology because he wanted to make English expensive. He meant he wanted to make English count, in ways that the University can recognize and appreciate….John was not merely an innovator; he was a visionary. And he was not a visionary who merely saw into the future, he brought the future he saw into being. And the future he brought into being was dazzling and entirely unexpected. The advent of technology into our field was poised to mechanize routine activities such as grading papers and giving exams. John saw it differently, that technology could become a vehicle for liberation and transformation in the humanities. It could liberate teachers and students from stale, predictable pedagogical practices, and it could transform the humanities from a musty archive into a world of dynamic and creative possibility.”

I took English at UT during that time, leaving my empty nest as my kids were grown to finish a degree started many years before. I took an English class from Tonya Browninga brilliant teacher whose graduate advisor was John Slatin. She mentioned John’s influence consistently as she seamlessly integrated technology into her teaching. The fusion of discovering the Harlem Renaissance writers or Walt Whitman or Wallace Stevens as we learned the narrative potential of new technologies was thrilling. Of course I had no idea that the “John Slatin” that Tonya referred to so often would become such a mentor in my own life and work.

So it is no wonder that when someone with the brilliance to understand so well the revolutionary potential of technology, when someone like John Slatin raised his voice to insist that he not be shut out…well, who could fail to listen?

John’s voice was undeniable and yet not strident and I rarely saw him angry. He became an accessibility expert as a way to ensure that he too could use technology to pursue all of his many interests. He volunteered and served with Knowbility, on University committees and on standards boards. He became a leader because leadership was needed. And that is one of the tragedies of his too too early departure from this life. It seems to me that John was still becoming. He was always learning and sharing and helping us all to learn from him.

So I could tell stories and stories about John…and I am sure I will. I will tell them to you and I encourage all of you to tell me and to tell each other your stories about John during this conference we are naming in his honor. And if you have not yet done so, read his blog the leukemia letters.

Remember him through your stories, our stories and through his work. John would like that. John’s wife Anna is gathering ideas for a long term memorial for John on the John Slatin Wiki, so please feel free to submit any ideas you may have.

And now I will ask John’s two Judge Brothers, Jim Allan and Jim Thatcher to come up and unfurl the banner that we will hang today and for the rest of the days and years that we teach accessibility here at John Slatin AccessU. Thank you.