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W4A2017 & WWW2017 accessibility conference highlights

After three years of being involved with the logistics to bring WWW2017 and W4A2017 to my home city of Perth, Australia, the Web for All (W4A) 2017 conference arrived in April with a host of great papers. Here’s a few of my personal highlights from W4A2017 and the W3C accessibility track at WWW2017.  W4A2017 conferenceWith this year’s conference focusing on accessibility and work, the first day kicked off with an excellent keynote by Alastair McEwin, disability commissioner for the Australian Human Rights Commission.   The presentation titled ‘Working together: technology as the foundation for better employment outcomes for people with disability’ noted that with 4.2 million Australians having some form of permanent disability, more needs to be done to improve employment opportunities.  In particular, Alastair explained that employers are often not prepared for people with disabilities which can lead to misconceptions about staff needs, and explained that the benefits go far beyond work itself as engagement in the workforce also means inclusion in society. Key recommendations discussed that could improve employment consisted of addressing inaccessible information in the workplace, and the potential benefit of the NDIS. Alastair highlighted that currently Australia has quite a low employment rate of people with disabilities when compared to comparable countries which is particularly concerning, so action is needed quickly.  

Jeffrey Bigham presented a paper titled ‘Scopist: Building a Skill Ladder into Crowd Transcription’.  The focus was on Stenography and the production of captions. It was explained that Stenographers use a special keyboard to reach 300 words per minute. While the equipment can be expensive, tools such as OpenSteno can map the commands onto a traditional QWERTY keyboard.  The challenge is to be able to swap between the two in real-time. The paper focused on how the required keyboard could be predicted meaning that there was no need to actually swap as the software would be intuitive enough to pick it up, and hence speeding up the process.

Another presentation I found really interesting was William Grussenmeyer who focused on the topic ‘Evaluating the Accessibility of the Job Search and Interview Process for People who are Blind and Visually Impaired’. This looked at a study of people who are blind or vision impaired and the main issues they had around the start-to-finish processes of finding employment. Interestingly two of the key issues raised were inaccessible PDFs for applying for jobs, and inaccessible on-boarding content that made it difficult to get set up in a new job.  I’ve had similar experiences personally whereby I have been able to do the job itself but completing the initial setup of a job such as completing the government form relating to personal details and tax information has only been available on paper and needing help with that.  This was picked up in the key note on Day 2 by David Masters from Microsoft who discussed ‘Microsoft’s Journey towards Inclusion’. David made the point that Microsoft has largely addressed its on-boarding issues and ensures that the recruitment and employment processes are accessible from start to finish which is encouraging. Rosemary Spark at W4A2017Rosemary Spark continued the discussion in the topic ‘Accessibility to Work from Home for the Disabled: The Need for a Shift in Management Style’ which made the point that a flexible workforce is beneficial to people with disabilities and despite the general perception that people don’t work as hard at home, the reality is that it actually improves productivity and performance.

 Outside of the topic of work, Keith Fitzpatrick from the City of Cockburn provided a great insight into the processes of local government in creating an accessible website. There was also a great paper on the Internet of Things authored by a number of people from W3C WAI.

 A role I shared with A/Prof Justin Brown for W4A this year was as co-chair of the Google Doctoral Consortium, and it was great to see the winner Tahani Alahmadi from Griffith University present her paper titled ‘A multi-method evaluation of university website accessibility: Foregrounding user-centred design, mining source code and using a quantitative metric’.

 There was also an excellent presentation by Kevin Carey who offered some interesting food for thought on the pursuit of access and much excitement in the Paciello Group challenge. This year the Challenge provided an opportunity to test out some products that had been created around research including a method to navigate website using only eye tracking and a clever use of simplifying words in e-mail to make it easier for people with cognitive disabilities to read.

In addition to my role as co-chair for the Google Doctoral Consortium paper, I was also given the great honour to deliver the William Loughborough After-Dinner address, focusing on the topic Technology, education and access: a ‘fair go’. With 100 people enjoying the beautiful warm autumn night overlooking the Indian Ocean, it was a great way to share a meal and a lot of fun was had by all. I’ll post a separate update with links to the video once it becomes available. With W4A wrapping up after three days, the accessibility-related conference was complete but some accessibity presentations remained.  On Wednesday 5 April the main WWW2017 conference had a W3C track which included three disability-related presentations.  The first topic was ‘Digital Service Standard for the Australia Government’ by Andrew Arch from the Digital Transformation Agency, followed by ‘A conversation without barriers’ by Marie Johnson from the National Disability Insurance Scheme. I rounded out the session discussing the future W3C standards of WCAG 2.1 and Silver that are currently in development.  With approximately 50 attendees in the room it was great to see accessibility issues get some mainstream traction.

 With W4A and WWW moving to France in 2018 it will be exciting to see what new and innovative research projects are presented as the great work being done in this space continues.

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