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An open letter to Australian digital access providers: let’s grow the industry together

To the Australian digital access community,

It’s hard to believe that two years have passed since I left my full-time position at Media Access Australia and began the journey as a solo Digital Access Specialist. For the most part the journey has been an exciting one: highlights to date include active participation in the W3C Research Questions Taskforce (RQTF), the recent creation of the Centre for Accessibility initiative in partnership with DADAA and Media on Mars, running workshops in Vietnam and meeting so many great people along the way.

However, in recent times I’ve received a steady flow of phone calls, e-mails and requests for a ‘chat’ about the state of the industry. This has included demands to take sides in supporting one company or event over another and several requests for me to back off from digital access work altogether. While I understand that there are the normal ebbs and flows of competition in any sector, and perhaps I was somewhat shielded from all this before I became an independent consultant, it’s still been disappointing to see the industry changing from respectful competition between providers to a desire to tear down the great work being done by others. As such I’d like to speak to you about the importance of all the work being done in the industry as both a person with a lived experience of disability and as an access specialist.     

When I first completed my PhD, I had gained significant knowledge about the world of digital access and its implications for people with disability. However, as a fresh graduate with a speciality in the field I had little awareness or support on what to do with that information. My boss at the Association for the Blind of WA, now VisAbility, saw that I was isolated as a digital access specialist and sent me to my first OZeWAI national conference. This was the first time I realised there was a supportive community of digital access professionals who provided vital guidance and mentorship as I started my work in the area. It’s fair to say that my experience is not an isolated one and I suspect that pretty much every digital access professional in Australia has benefitted from this supportive community. While OZeWAI is a niche conference, it’s the only place that specifically supports the ability of digital access specialists to come together and share knowledge about the sector. I’m looking forward to coming this year and sharing information about my role as lead Editor for the CATPCHA Advisory note and again showing my appreciation as a legally blind person to everyone that has dedicated their careers to working in this space.  

In addition, the past decade or so has seen a separate but equally important series of events pop up which also play a vital role in the digital access journey in the form of meetup groups and Camp events. While OZeWAI is fantastic in supporting people working in the sector, there’s not much need for digital access providers if the broader community doesn’t want to make its content accessible. As such, its important that organisations everywhere understand what accessibility is and how it is embedded into their work practices. This is where local events are so important and it’s been exciting to see the popularity of these groups and events growing. For example, our meetup group remains strong despite its oh-so-early start time of 7:30am and our Perth Web Accessibility Camp had 140 attendees which has been steadily growing for the past five years. The A11y Camp held over east for a few years also appears to be popular, as is the A11y Bytes events held on Global Accessibility Awareness Day. These are all great initiatives in getting the accessibility message out to people. Again, as a person with a disability it’s wonderful to see so many people actively putting on these events and the level of engagement they are having with the community.

However, the calls, e-mails and chats I’ve received recently suggest that there’s increasing competition between these events and I’m a bit puzzled as to why this needs to be the case. All these events are held at different times in different places with the aim of supporting different communities. For example, I doubt many organisations would want to send their staff to both the Perth Camp and the A11y Camp as they meet a similar local audience, cover similar content and are located 4,000kms apart from each other. In my view it makes sense to have these types of events locally so that organisations can easily send along their staff at a low cost and bring that accessibility knowledge back with them. By contrast, the relatively small number of digital access specialists means a national conference like OZeWAI makes sense as a place where we can upskill our own knowledge.  

The issue that’s been raised with me many times recently, especially by members of my meetup group, is that there seems to be a strong push to support one approach or organisation’s work at the expense of all others. Recent complaints raised with me centred on some people joining our meetup list with the sole purpose of spamming our list with commercial products and services which were not only ignored as spam, but also demonstrated a lack of interest and respect in the important accessibility work that our members are doing here. While our group welcomes anyone that would like to come along and speak to us, the point was made that it’s hard to hear the message coming through the front door when it seems like someone is trying to break in through the back.

Speaking to other digital access professionals it seems these issues run far deeper than just those raised by my meetup group with concerns raised across the country ranging from claims of jealousy by some and conspiracy by others. The upshot is that all events are important and there’s plenty of room for more. Given that Perth can consistently draw a crowd, attract quality keynotes and work effectively with competing providers to achieve a great outcome, there’s no reason why great standalone events couldn’t happen in every capital city as we have the population to support them and the passion to host them. It’s my hope that we’ll see more events supported by more collaboration across providers in the future.

While I don’t see a need to compete in the events space, I fully appreciate that there is competition between providers of digital access services and this is a normal part of any sector. Yet recently this seems to have spilled over from respectful competition to a need for some providers to contact me with a request to remove myself from particular types of work. I’m not sure if this is common practice in the industry but given I’ve been asked about my work processes and where I stand, I thought it best to share it with you here.

Firstly, and most importantly, if anyone knocks on my door and asks for help with digital access, I’m going to help them. Sometimes that’s voluntary work and currently that makes up about two days a week of my time. Sometimes that may be commercial work. If the work is not in my skillset such as a phone call I received a few weeks ago about wheelchair brackets in cars, I’ll endeavour to connect that request with someone that can help. Sometimes I’ve knocked back work because it wanders into dodgy territory, but basically if the work helps people and is ethically sound then I’ll usually take it on. I’m also interested in working on things that can help promote the industry more broadly, and for this reason I’ve really enjoyed my work with the Centre for Accessibility initiative as we look to create projects that can strengthen community engagement. Sometimes the work I do may be in competition with other providers, and sometimes it will be something new, but the one thing it will always be is my passion. As such, if you call me with the aim of discouraging me from doing this work, I’m willing to listen but I can assure you it won’t’ change my commitment to the field. 

The final point I’d like to make relates to all people with a lived experience of disability wanting to undertake digital access work. One of the topics that I keep hearing about time and time again this year is debate over which service provider is the largest in Australia. What I’d prefer to hear debated is which digital access provider has the most people with disability employed on a living wage as a part-time or full-time employee. Currently there are lots of talented people with disability available but most are either on a casual contract waiting for the phone to ring or have no work at all. In other countries organisations that work in this space are able to employ people with disability at a decent wage for decent work, so I’m sure the business models here can be adjusted to do the same. The reality is that while people with disability will take casual work if that’s the only thing on offer, the employment situation wont’ get better if businesses are unwilling to bring staff with disability on permanently. The next time I see a newsletter sent out highlighting new staff brought into an access provider it’s my hope I’ll see it feature a person with disability in a permanent position.

To close, I think it’s worth reflecting on two possible futures for our industry in 2019. Do we want a sector where we try to rebrand all our events to gain prominence over others, adversely influence each other’s work  and try to block new initiatives? Or alternatively, do we want to grow the industry together by competing respectfully with each other and supporting everyone’s endeavours – including people with disability – in making a difference? Ultimately we will all decide this question soon, but it’s my hope we can look to 2019 as a time to refocus on what’s important and grow the industry together.  

Yours sincerely

Dr Scott Hollier

Digital Access Specialist

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