Simplifying the web accessibility message – reflections on CSUN 2012

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A few weeks ago, I was very fortunate to have the opportunity to travel to San Diego for the CSUN 27th Annual International Technology and Persons with Disabilities Conference, commonly known as CSUN 2012. 

While it was great to share information on our recently launched social media accessibility resources, what really struck me about the experience was that so many people were so active in supporting the needs of people with disabilities and how many of those voices were calling for a new way to get a simple web accessibility message into the mainstream.

This topic was discussed and debated at the conference, especially in the session Web Accessibility Community Collaboration. It was almost standing room only as people flocked to see the panel of what I can best describe as the all-stars of the web accessibility community including Shawn Henry, Jennison Asuncion, Sharron Rush, Denis Boudreau, Jennifer Sutton and Shadi Abou-Zahra. 

As the discussions between the panel and the audience began, the key question to emerge was ‘How can we, as the web accessibility community, best provide guidance to web accessibility beginners?’ There have been many times when I’ve gone to Google and searched for ‘web accessibility’ or even ‘WCAG’ and found a page full of results that weren’t exactly what I had in mind.

With government and legislative frameworks adopting accessibility standards and with the W3C doing such great work on new standards such as ATAG 2.0 and HTML5, the panellists made a very good point: what are our options in providing people with an easy to understand introduction to key web accessibility concepts.

Body of knowledge or reinventing the wheel?

One response that was very popular was the suggestion of a simple, yet definitive wiki for beginners that ranks highly in search engines.  The wiki could be a very simple guide to web accessibility outlining the key reasons why it’s necessary, how people with disabilities use the Web and how to fix the problems. 

After the wiki discussion, the conversation expanded to talk about broader ways to build a body of knowledge around web accessibility.  A great commentary on this takes place in Olivier Nourry’s blog post, How we can build a body of knowledge on web accessibility. Here, Nourry reflects on why there is no really clear, centralised body of knowledge of web accessibility information regardless of expertise or professional role. 

There were many comments from the audience sharing in the frustration that it is difficult to wade through an assortment of content aimed at different levels of technical expertise, and such an initiative would be highly beneficial.

The counterargument is that such a portal already exists in the form of the W3C WAI and that there is a risk of reinventing the wheel.  It was suggested that it may be better for people who are interested in championing the case for web accessibility to invest their efforts into improving and simplifying resources through official WAI-supported developments.

Personally, I don’t think there would be any web accessibility professional who doubts the great significance of WAI.  Without web accessibility standards, it would be extremely challenging to put forward the case for web accessibility in a practical way. 

However, while the W3C resources are usually the place where we end up, they are not necessarily the best place to start. A simplified, role-based resource for understanding and implementing web accessibility – a guide or a set of tools – would undoubtedly bridge a significant gap. 

Accessibility sessions in mainstream conferences – and attending them

Another way to help break down the sometimes daunting and highly technical documents of the W3C is to introduce people to the message by getting accessibility sessions into mainstream web development conferences.  One panellist explained that in a major conference based in the US, a request was made to put an accessibility presentation in as a plenary session. 

This was granted, but only as a 10 minute spot straight after the keynote.  The panellist made the point that while that year the 10 minute presentation was the only one on accessibility, the following year saw several presentations included.

This is largely credited to the demonstration that accessibility is an important part of the overall web development strategy. Here in Australia there are some mainstream conferences such as Web Directions Southand Edge of the Webwhich both feature accessibility presentations which is great.

However, there is a danger associated with this as well. The CSUN audience was generally in agreement that not only should people try to get accessibility sessions in the conferences, but that the web accessibility community should attend them. Ultimately conference organisers will only support the sessions that people want to see, and if no one is prepared to attend the mainstream conferences, the lack of accessibility sessions will be a self-fulfilling prophecy. 

Be the fire fighter, not the cop

The quote ‘be the fire fighter, not the cop’ used by one of the panellists was one that I’d never heard in accessibility circles before, and it really brought home to me  why the discussion in the session went so well, and perhaps why CSUN works so well as a conference.

While there were disagreements in discussion, one area where everyone was united was that our role was to help, not to police. In my experience, web professionals are generally more than happy to incorporate accessibility once they understand why it’s important, what the issues are and how they can address them in their work practices.

While the big stick of policy and legislative frameworks is important, such implementations free us up to help people make the transition to an accessible web and in turn support the needs of people with disabilities. 

It was great being a part of CSUN 2012 and I’ve enjoyed having the opportunity to reflect on the things I’ve learned.


For more coverage of CSUN 2012, see Dr Hollier’s 5 Good News Stories from CSUN 2012.

Dr Scott Hollierrepresents Media Access Australia on the W3C Advisory Committee and publishes the W3C Column monthly.


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