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Dr Scott Hollier - Digital Access Specialist Posts

Why Global Accessibility Awareness Day matters: reflections by Dr Scott Hollier

Growing up in Australia as a legally blind person has been an unexpected combination of challenging scenarios, a strong sense of determination and joy all rolled into one. This may seem like a strange combination but a lot has been possible thanks to the support of family and friends, the pursuit of education and a stubborn streak that has always included a fierce sense of social justice and independence. Yet through it all, the evolution of technology and the pursuit of accessibility has been there to support me.

My passion for technology started as a child with a games console and moved into computing with my beloved Commodore 128D computer in high school. As I undertook Computer Science studies at university in the 1990s the Internet became more commonplace. At this time, it was rapidly becoming apparent to me that this was an extremely powerful medium. You could potentially work from anywhere, customise the computer in the way that worked best for you, and achieve true independence.

Fast forward to today and there’s a lot on offer for people with disability: mainstream computer and mobile devices have great accessibility features in them, and the web is increasingly becoming accessible thanks to the work of great guidance such as the world standard in the W3C Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG).

However, issues still remain and for people with disability their impact can mean the difference between participation or exclusion, success or failure. To share an experience of my own, A few years ago I started work on a research project with two prominent academics. The project started well, based on an idea I had relating to research into the accessibility of the Internet of Things. The two academics agreed to host and participate in the project if I could source funding, which happily was achieved through a successful grant. However, it became apparent immediately that the ethics submission system at the university was completely inaccessible for me as it was not built to the WCAG standard. This led to the project lead, who was also head of the department, agreeing to do the ethics submission instead. However, I was still required to do the ethics training.

What followed became the most challenging accessibity experience of my career. The department head didn’t have much time for the project, meaning the ethics was submitted late resulting in a late approval. The training was also inaccessible resulting in a lot of time being spent chasing up web developers and equity staff to sit the test by an alternative method due to the developers deciding after several months that it would be too costly to fix the website.

Although I managed to complete a full first draft of the project unpaid beyond my contract, the academics wanted changes. When I enquired as to how I could maintain my access to library facilities as an unpaid volunteer, it started a chain reaction whereby I was removed from the project as it turned out the academics had breached university policy when they required me to work unpaid. The academics then took my work and wrote a new report based on my work without authorship. I lodged a complaint as it seemed clear there were several breaches in university policy, but I was unsuccessful although my draft did receive academic recognition in the end thanks to the support of others who recognised what had happened.

The reason I mention this story in the context of Global Accessibility Awareness Day is because in order for people with disability to receive all the benefits the internet can provide, we need to not only focus on accessibility as an action, but also ensure that global policy and legislative frameworks have the abiity to support it. Here in Australia, this means fixing the Disability Discrimination Act 1992 so that it is the organisation, not the person complaining that has to show their content is compliant to accessibility standards. Some have argued that there’s great policy that provides support to the DDA in this space, but the reality is it doesn’t work; In my case, the university has great policy on digital access, but due to the ineffectiveness of the DDA there is no consequence if it is not followed. At this time of writing the issues have not being fixed meaning that if a blind person today were to undertake the same tasks at the university, they would end up facing the same issues and face the same outcomes.

While there are always challenges and battles to be fought as a person with disability, it’s important to return to the word ‘joy’. Thanks to the accessibility features on my computer and mobile phone, I can independently participate in online meetings, enjoy my favourite TV shows, catch up with my interest and hobbies and importantly actively work in the field despite the accessibility challenges that pop up. Indeed, this year has seen unprecedented opportunities for people with disability to participate in education and employment due to courses and working from home opportunities rapidly expanding as a result of the Coronavirus pandemic in fields that were considered impossible to participate in online just a few short months ago. If we don’t forget about accessibility in the scramble to get online, GAAD 2020 may mark the start of improved accommodations for the working environments and assistive technology support to improve employment opportunities: again, assuming we don’t forget digital access in the rush.

With that in mind, it’s also important to recognise that while accessibility challenges do happen – and we need to be vigilant in calling them out, win or lose – there’s also an amazing community of supporters that are passionate in this space who have dedicated their lives and careers to making accessibility happen. As such, there’s lots of passion out there to make improvements if we as a global community create the opportunities for improvement.

So on this Global Accessibility Awareness Day, let’s continue to work together to make the web as good as it can be, and offer thanks to everyone committed to the the pursuit of digital inclusion.   

W3C releases videos to celebrate Global Accessibility Awareness Day

The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) Education and Outreach Working Group (EOWG) has published five videos ahead of Global Accessibility Awareness Day (GAAD).

The animated videos cover:

  • Easy Checks — A First Review of Web Accessibility
  • Evaluation Tools
  • Conformance Evaluation, including the Report Tool
  • Involving Users in Web Accessibility

The W3C has allowed the videos to be used freely under a Creative Commons License, including in upcoming GAAD promotions and events

Access when you least expect it: an interview with Jason McKee, Accessibility Shield

One of the things I’ve always been fascinated about is how people come to be involved in digital access work. Sometimes it can be a personal experience relating to disability, while for others there is a ‘light-bulb’ moment where a profound need to work in the field appears unexpectedly. One person that fits the bill for the latter is Jason McKee, Chief Marketing Officer at Accessibility Shield. In this interview, Jason discusses with me his passion for digital access, reflecting on accessibility in the Coronavirus era, the work he is undertaking with his company in the USA – and chainsaws!

Jason McKee

Scott: Thanks Jason for the opportunity to interview you. First up, what led you to work in the area of digital accessibity?

Jason: A few years ago I met with a client who was blind. We were meeting for a marketing campaign but the gentleman was using his screen reader when I entered the conference room and the sound stopped me in my tracks. He was listening so fast I couldn’t make out the words. He went on to tell me about how he accessed the web and how inaccessible it was. After that meeting I started to research accessibility and 7 days later I formed Accessibility Shield with my partners.

Scott: From that experience, what made you decide to put your efforts into starting Accessibility Shield?

Jason: Learning how Assistive Technology accesses the web challenged everything I thought I knew about technology. And realizing how this issue was not even part of the conversation for most tech companies made me realise this was a rare opportunity. I had the chance to be part of a nascent movement, one that would do good in the world. Starting a business is hard work, but this was a chance to build a company whose mission was involved in Civil Rights and I could not pass that up. Within a few weeks I was attending conferences and meeting the inspirational people who make up this industry. They inspired me and if you’re inspired you can do anything.

Scott: Is it difficult to market accessibity as a concept?

Jason: I think it poses unique challenges. It’s not something you can market with traditional techniques such as price or convenience. I learned early on my job was to educate. I found that if I told the story of accessibility, how it all started and what it means in the big picture I could get business owners to pay attention. I like to talk about how Steve Jobs was influenced by accessibility (even if he didn’t know it at the time), and how the Internet itself was built by a man who was deaf and looking for a better way to communicate (Vint Cerf).

Scott: Accessibility Shield offers a real-time accessibility assessment which sounds very innovative. Could you tell us a bit about the process?

Jason: We pride ourselves on our commitment to leveraging software to solve problems. A lot of accessibility issues require manual assessment. However, once that work is complete our platform provides an “at-a-glance” view of accessibility that no one else provides. My team is passionate about delivering practical, efficient solutions at low cost and that has set us apart in an industry that is still trying to figure out how to make accessibility a viable option for the average business owner.

Scott: Do you have many people with disabilities involved with your work?

Jason: Yes! And it’s something all accessibility companies should do. We are proud to announce that we have just created a program in our home state of Pennsylvania that provides employment for disabled individuals. The program is funded in part by the government, which allows us to train the individuals to become certified User Testers. This provides our clients with the clearest picture available of how their website is used by the disabled. We created the program and the certification and are in talks to expand it to the federal level. It is carving out an entire new industry that provides a service for clients as well as new career choices for the disabled.

Scott: When people think about the tech sector in the USA, it’s often associated with Silicon Valley or New York. How have you found it working outside of these hubs?

Jason: This is a great question. I was listening to a special forces soldier interviewed on a podcast the other day. This guy was a war hero and he said one of the things that bothered him was that because he was an elite soldier with all these medals people put a lot of assumed value in everything he said. This was a problem, he said, because people get blinded by the labels and stop trusting their own judgment. I think this same thing happens in the tech world. If someone is from Silicon Valley there are often assumptions made about their abilities. This is a trap we all fall into from time to time but it highlights the need for scrutiny and common sense evaluations. Great ideas come from a variety of places. It’s the old don’t judge a book by its cover argument. It’s our responsibility to look beneath the veneer of companies. I’ve talked to many companies with all the pedigree and none of the punch. I much rather prefer being the underdog with the great idea. I come from humble beginnings and my home city is blue collar so maybe that’s why but it’s something I take pride in.

Scott: With new technologies emerging beyond the web what do you think the future holds for work in this space?

Jason: I’ve heard you speak about some of the potential in Virtual Reality and I think that industry holds promise for the kind of innovation that can bring all of us into the next phase of digital opportunity. And there are new ideas applied to existing tech, such as specialized web browsers, which I think will bring some exciting new experiences. Some of this we work on in-house and it’s very promising. But the thing I get most excited about is the idea I haven’t heard yet. Somewhere there is someone working on an innovation that will improve all of our lives. This is what keeps me optimistic in challenging times – knowing the human spirit of innovation will continue to drive us all forward. This is also the primary reason why we need accessibility today. If a child born in India has the idea that will move us forward but also happens to have a disability that child will not be able to develop that idea. An accessible web gives the human race the best opportunity to improve the world. We still live among ignorance, hatred, violence, oppression, wasted resources, planetary climate consequences and a million other things that need innovation. We need to do a lot better than we have been doing and that means all hands on deck. The current web excludes more than 1 billion people and that is unacceptable.

Scott: The Coronavirus has had a major impact across the world and changing how we work. What do you see are the implications for the profile of accessibility?

Jason: I was at CSUN in Anaheim when the virus became real for most of us here in the US. There was a lot of fear and panic at first, but before long it became clear that this pandemic, as awful as it is, will have a silver lining. In all crisis there is opportunity and in this crisis the opportunity is to have a discussion about how we expect the world to live via the web when the web isn’t accessible for 20% of us. When I think of the people isolated at home, living with a disability that makes it impossible to order groceries or communicate online I am reminded of how important our mission is. This is our chance to educate the world on accessibility because the consequences of an inaccessible web are staring us in the face. We need governments and private industry and innovators all to treat this issue with the respect it deserves. It is not going to be easy but it is possible and that is what I work on every day.

Scott: Outside of digital access, what do you enjoy doing in your spare time?

Jason: Well, since the virus outbreak I’ve been at our cabin in the mountains of West Virginia. It’s been nice to be able to get outside and what I’ve learned is that I love clearing trails. We ride ATVs and clear fallen trees and build bridges so when I’m not working on accessibility I’m running a chainsaw and I love it!

Scott: What advice would you give to someone that is looking to get into the digital access space?

Jason: I would encourage them to get involved in the community. You and I met at OZeWAI in Perth and we’ve had so many great conversations since then. Accessibility events all seem to be full of great people and I think the easiest way to get involved in this industry is to meet some of them. It really isn’t like working in any other industry and I am forever grateful I was given an opportunity to get involved.

Scott: How can people get in touch with you?

Jason: Email is best: jmckee@accessibilityshield.com

Scott: Jason, thank you very much for your time and insights.

W3C WAI works on improving text-to-speech pronunciation, calls for feedback

The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI)  Pronunciation Task Force and the Accessible Platform Architectures Working Group (APA WG) have issued a Call for Review on work relating to standardising the way text-to-speech software such as screen readers pronounces words in HTML content.

The Review includes a request for feedback on the following documents:

  •  Explainer: Improving Spoken Presentation on the Web. This document briefly introduces the context for W3C work on pronunciation, describes the advantages and disadvantages of two approaches and poses questions for additional input
  • Pronunciation Gap Analysis and Use Cases. This document provides more detailed context, describes required features for pronunciation and spoken presentation, describes specific implementation approaches for introducing presentation authoring markup into HTML5 (called “use cases”), provides a gap analysis and describes how the required features may be met by existing approaches

In the press release, w3C WAI states that:  

“We particularly request input on the following:

  • Are there additional use cases and requirements not described in these documents?
  • Are there aspects of these requirements, use cases, and gap analysis that are incorrect or insufficiently defined?
  • Have we overlooked some aspect in this analysis that should be addressed?”

To provide feedback, you can open a new issue in the W3C Spec GitHub repository at https://github.com/w3c/pronunciation/issues or e-mail : public-pronunciation@w3.org.

Australian Access Awards set to return in 2021

Following up from the success of the first Australian Access Awards in 2019, the Centre for Accessibility is proud to announce the return of this bi-annual event in 2021.

The Australian Access Awards are a national celebration of organisations, designers, developers and content creators who are implementing accessibility in their digital resources. The first Awards recognised digital accessibility efforts across government departments, educational institutions, corporate businesses and not-for-profits.

‘Accessibility is a social movement’ said CFA Director Dr Scott Hollier when speaking on the important role the Awards play in creating systemic change for people with disabilities.

‘The first Awards was a fantastic event that celebrated the great work of organisations and individuals across Australia in making their websites and apps accessible. Thanks to the great community support and our valued sponsors, we’re excited that we’ll be able to continue recognising best practice through the Awards as a bi-annual event’

The call for nominations will be opened on the 20th of May 2021, coinciding with Global Accessibility Awareness Day.

For any further enquiries about digital accessibility and the Australian Access Awards please get in touch.