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Dedication to digital access: an interview with Dr Jason White

There’s a saying that ‘if you want something done, ask a busy person’.  This is particularly true of Dr Jason White. In his role as Associate Research Scientist, Web Accessibility, in the Accessibility Standards and Inclusive Technologies Group at the Educational Testing Service in Princeton USA, he makes a significant contribution to digital access. However, it’s his remarkable generosity to continue that work in his spare time across international associations, groups and forums that highlights his remarkable dedication to this work. I’ve been fortunate to work with Jason as part of his W3C commitments and managed to squeeze in an interview with him in his short amount of free time. In this interview, Jason shares his thoughts on digital access from an international perspective, the implications of emerging technologies, accessible travel and music.

Dr Jason White

SH: Thank you so much for fitting in this interview given the scarcity of your free time. To start, what sparked your interest in the area of digital accessibility?

JW: An interest in digital accessibility has been with me since I was in secondary school. It began when I started purchasing accessible books from Computerized Books for the Blind, an organization based at the University of Montana that obtained electronic books directly from publishers and made them available to eligible people with print disabilities. Through their newsletter, I learned of an effort to develop a common format and a conversion mechanism to enable publishers to make their books accessible more easily and effectively. The approach was based on Standard Generalized Markup Language – SGML, which was used by some publishers at the time.

As I was personally experiencing the challenges of not having ready access to books, this work attracted my interest. When I entered university as an undergraduate student in 1993, I applied for access to the Internet (not then generally available to undergraduates outside of computer science), partly to learn more about this work. I became an observer on the mailing list of a newly established group – the International Committee for Accessible Document Design – which had been formed to carry forward the digital book accessibility effort. George Kerscher, who has made major contributions to digital publishing accessibility since then, and who continues to do so today, led the project. For several years, I did exactly what my status suggests: I mostly observed. I read mailing list communications, papers and other documents that were circulated online. The work of T.V. Raman particularly influenced my thinking about accessibility at the time, as it has done ever since.

Then, in 1997, the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) established the Web Accessibility Initiative. I wanted to follow this work too, so I joined the first Working Group in accessibility that was established by the W3C. Several people encouraged me to stop merely observing and to start actively contributing. Over time, I learned that I actually could make contributions.

Opportunities kept opening. I was part of the process that led to the completion of Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 1.0 in 1999. I had the privilege of serving as Co-Chair of the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines Working Group from 2000-2004, collaborating with Wendy Chisholm and Gregg Vanderheiden to coordinate development of what became WCAG 2.0. In 2004 and 2005, I formally stepped away from W3C activities in order to concentrate on undertaking research toward a Ph.D. in analytic philosophy of language, which I pursued in subsequent years.

SH: You originally grew up in Australia. What led to the massive decision of moving to the USA and involvement with W3C WAI?

JW: I graduated with the Ph.D. in 2011. During the following year, I joined another W3C Working Group in accessibility. With Bachelor of Arts and Bachelor of Laws degrees, and with a Ph.D. completed, together with a desire to contribute to social justice, I was seeking professional research opportunities.

In 2013, I was notified of, and ultimately applied for an open research position in Web accessibility at Educational Testing Service (ETS). It was attractive for a variety of reasons, including the presence of colleagues in accessibility whom I already knew and respected from W3C activities in the late 90s, the focus of the proposed work on access to education (with sufficient scope to encompass assessments and instructional materials), the opportunity to participate in research projects leading to published scholarship, and the chance to continue to contribute to the development of accessibility standards. I was also keen to investigate the accessibility potential of natural language-based user interface technologies, such as speech interactions, in which ETS has research expertise. In addition, ETS is a nonprofit organization, thus satisfying my preference to work in a university or in the nonprofit sector. Geographically, it is located close to the thriving intellectual environment of Princeton, obviously an attractive location for anyone interested in research and scholarship. Taking up the position, as I did in late 2014, entailed moving from Melbourne, Australia, to Princeton, New Jersey.

SH: You wear a number of different hats in your work.  Could you share a bit about your roles and how you coordinate them internationally?

JW: I divide my attention between participating in the development of accessibility standards, and engaging in accessibility-related research projects carried out by the Accessibility Standards and Inclusive Technologies group at ETS. Web standards are fundamental to digital accessibility work undertaken at ETS, both in research and in the development of operational assessments. Thus, a further aspect of my role is to collaborate with colleagues at ETS who are involved in the practical implementation of digital accessibility in a joint effort to arrive at solutions to detailed issues that arise, and to facilitate positive engagement with W3C activities which support the emergence of standards-based mechanisms for overcoming accessibility challenges. There is a strong commitment to standards-based approaches that can be delivered consistently via the Web, in digital publishing, in the classroom and within assessments.

In addition, I am a participant in the work of the DIAGRAM Center, a collaborative educational accessibility project supported by the U.S. Department of Education and led by Benetech – the nonprofit organization which is best known for Bookshare, a digital library of accessible books made available to people with print disabilities. My contributions to the DIAGRAM Center are part of a collaboration between Benetech and the Accessibility Standards and InclusiveTechnologies group at ETS, as participants in the DIAGRAM project community.

SH: The biggest news to come out of W3C WAI last year was the release of WCAG 2.1. How is it’s uptake going?

JW: WCAG 2.1 was adopted in a revision of the EN 301 549 standard for public procurement of information and communication technology in the European Union. This is a significant move toward wider implementation. To what extent the new success criteria in WCAG 2.1 affect the development of web sites and web-based applications at large remains to be determined. If empirical studies are carried out, we may obtain well informed answers to this question. As is true of standards generally, we can expect uptake to grow over time, with the open questions being: to what extent, and how quickly?

SH: In our work with the Research Questions Task Force we’ve been looking at the issues around inaccessible CAPTCHA. As a lot of people only know CAPTCHA as the difficult-to-read letters locked in an image, could you share a bit about the work on updating the W3C advice?

JW: Much of the update is based on a review of the accessibility literature and other relevant scholarship related to CAPTCHA. There are various kinds of CAPTCHA, some involving video games, image recognition, or sound recognition, for example – tasks that are supposed to be easy for human beings to solve but difficult to solve reliably in software. Having reviewed the literature and discussed the implications for accessibility, the Research questions Task Force and the Accessible Platform Architectures Working Group have substantially revised the advice published in 2005. Drafts of the revised document are currently under review. Comments from the accessibility community and from the public in general are welcome.

SH: Given your extremely busy schedule it’s important that you have reliable tools. what type of assistive technologies do you use that are reliable to get you through the day?

JW: I use a combination of refreshable braille and speech output. I think it is valuable for those who work in accessibility professionally to be familiar with assistive technologies available under several operating systems. For example, screen readers under Microsoft Windows, such as JAWS for Windows, NVDA and Microsoft Narrator differ among themselves, but also differ more significantly, for example, from VoiceOver in the Mac OS environment, or from ChromeVox under Chrome OS. I find that having several operating systems available provides a more objective understanding of the capabilities and limitations of the different screen readers, and of screen readers in general, while allowing me to keep up my knowledge of how the different operating systems are evolving in relation to nonvisual access.

In my daily work, I use a combination of web browsers, Microsoft Office applications (mostly for email and calendar access, and sometimes for editing documents), and UNIX/Linux tools, such as Emacs, Pandoc, Git, and LaTex. Nowadays, there is less of a divide than there used to be between the Microsoft environment and operating systems derived from UNIX, including Linux and Mac OS. Thus, I can still use most of the essential Linux tools that I prefer even in a Windows environment, as well as on a Mac or in Linux itself.

SH: There’s been a lot of talk around the next-generation Silver / AG accessibility standard. How is it going?

JW: The Silver project has released promising drafts of proposals for the structure of its requirements and for the conformance scheme. This is interesting and valuable work, in that it revisits some of the assumptions that underpinned the development of WCAG 2.0. I also hope the opportunity will be taken to create guidance regarding the accessibility of speech-based interfaces, virtual reality, and related technologies that occupy a larger role today than they did when WCAG 2.0 was in its formative stages.

The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines were developed as one component of a suite of documents created by the W3C to enhance the accessibility of the Web. The other two components are Authoring Tool Accessibility Guidelines (ATAG), addressing the design of editors, conversion tools and other software with which authors develop web pages and web applications, and User Agent Accessibility Guidelines (UAAG), concerned with support for accessibility within web browsers, plug-ins and other software that presents web content to the user. If we consider an information pipeline that runs from the author of web content (a web site or an application) to the person who ultimately reads and interacts with such content, then it is clear that W3C guidance was intended to enhance accessibility at all stages. The content would be written using an authoring tool that was accessible to people with disabilities, and which was designed to create content conforming to accessibility requirements. WCAG defined what those accessibility requirements were. The content would then be presented to the user by software that supported accessibility features and assistive technologies as specified in the User Agent Accessibility Guidelines.

Currently, only one of these components – WCAG – is under active development. In practice, it also receives the overwhelming majority of attention. One of the open questions regarding Silver is whether, and how, it will address the other two pillars of accessibility guidance – authoring tools and user agents.

SH: Given the amount of work you do, relaxation must be a valuable and rare commodity!  What do you enjoy doing in your spare time?

JW: I enjoy listening to music, ranging from early music to twentieth-century compositions. It’s a pleasure at the end of a busy day of work. Music subscription services make available a vast catalog of recordings. In addition, I read general technology-related web sites, and occasionally scholarship outside of my current areas of research activity. Living across the street from Princeton University makes it very convenient to attend research seminars and public lectures on campus in my free time. In particular, the ethics seminars organized by the University Center for Human Values are deeply rewarding. I can also be found on various screen reader and accessibility-related mailing lists, sometimes asking for advice, but also trying to help other participants whenever I have solutions or ideas to offer.

SH: Your work involves a lot of travel, do you have any tips for people who are blind or vision impaired as to how to get around with the minimum of fuss? 

JW: For a minimum of fuss, good planning is valuable. It doesn’t solve all of the potential problems, of course, but it greatly helps. Knowing exactly what you need to take, making sure that you’ve packed it, and having transport arrangements in place for every step of the journey are measures that would help anyone, but which are particularly useful for a person who is blind or who has a vision impairment. Ensuring that the address and phone number of your accommodation are accessible and easily reachable at all times is important – I’ve made that mistake, and learned from it. Although improvements in out-door and in-door navigation technologies will further facilitate travel in unfamiliar environments, the need for good skills and appropriate planning can be expected to remain important.

SH: What’s the best way for people interested in digital accessibility to join in W3C activities?

JW: Perhaps joining the Web Accessibility Initiative Interest Group would be a good starting point, followed by deciding whether to participate in one of the accessibility-related working groups. Which group to join is a decision that depends on the individual’s background and interests. Each of the working groups has also established specialized task forces that concentrate on specific needs or accessibility challenges. This structure of distinct, but interrelated groups may be confusing to the uninitiated. Thus, it would probably be valuable to take the time to understand the over-all structure and objectives of the working groups before starting to participate.

There are formal procedures for joining a W3C group, which differ depending on whether one is an employee of a member organization of the Consortium, or wishes to apply to participate under invited expert status. The best starting point for learning more is the home page of the group, which should lead to documentation that explains how to join. Communication typically takes place by mailing lists, teleconferences and face-to-face meetings. It may take several weeks to become accustomed to the collaboration arrangements and technologies used, but there are always other participants from whom help can be sought.

SH: Jason, it’s been a privilege to learn more about your remarkable dedication to digital access. Thank you very much for your time and I’m looking forward to our continued work on the W3C Research Questions Task Force.