Making Accessibility Meaningful and Achievable

This is a transcript of one of a series of discussions with W4A researchers that took place during W4A 2015. It features Vivienne Conway, WebKeyIT, Australia.

Vivienne talks about her work providing accessibility training to staff in government organisations, and the impact that has had on process and practice. Vivienne also looks forward to W4A 2017, which will take place in Perth, Western Australia.

David Sloan: Vivienne, you’ve done a lot of accessibility research in Australia, and I think a lot of that has led to enhanced understanding of what training needs people have in industry and government. Can you talk a bit about your work and how it’s informed training?

Vivienne: Sure. In Australia, we have the Australian Human Rights Commission, which administers the Disability Discrimination Act. So they had a four year programme, to make sure that government led by example, by bringing all their web sites into line with WCAG 2 (Level ) AA, which meant that many of them had no concept to start with of what it was or how to get there, or what they needed to do.

So a lot of work, although we do auditing and testing and all that sort of stuff, a lot of our work is involved in training, and training government organisations who will bring us on-site to be able to run training programmes for their content editors, or for their developers.

Or seminars for decision-makers to help them understand the needs of people with disabilities and how it relates to a business case with increased use of the web site—people being able to do their core business on their web site without having to phone the helpdesk, and tie up staff time.

So we show them the benefits of incorporating accessibility into their practices. We’ll often do a baseline audit of their web site, and then we’ll train their staff and we’ll work with them from the design stage up, so that they can incorporate accessibility into their workflow as opposed to trying to retrofit after they’re all done, and leaving the standard “one week for testing” when they’re ready to launch.

We would sooner get in early, and be able to help them design accessibly, which I think is important. But they can’t do that unless they first had that level of training on what it’s all about and what the guidelines are, and what the requirements are, and why this is important and to…

While we say it’s easy enough to teach somebody the technical aspects of designing a web site, you can’t always give them the heart attitude towards being inclusive, and the reasons for including people with disabilities and how that benefits them, and then that has the flow-on effect of making it better for everybody.

But if they can at least get the right heart and the right understanding—it’s important to be able to put yourself in somebody else’s shoes. You know, could you do the core business on your government web site if you had no sight? Could you, if you’re a local government, could you find out—how to register your pet, if you couldn’t see or you couldn’t use a mouse?

And we give them lots of stories, and lots of patterns and lots of business cases to try to help get them onside because it’s no good just saying “okay, we’re now going to make sure our website meets WCAG 2 AA” without helping them to understand what difference it’s going to make in people’s lives.

Things like the person who could go into a grocery store if they were blind, and with help they would know flour from sugar and what brand and what the prices is, but how it changes their lives if they can use that same corporate web site from home and order their own groceries and have their own power of choice and security of the payment function etcetera without having to rely on somebody else. And the independence and empowerment…

DS: So you’re moving people away from thinking about compliance and conformance to “this is what real-world impact this knowledge has on improving the way that organization provides services or support?”

Vivienne: Very much so, and I think the government with their plans for accessibility also realize that they’re going to get a better buy-in from organizations if the people that are doing the designing, the people that are doing the content editing actually understand the difference it makes in a person’s life.

DS: Right. And are you…so you’re learning a lot about the different…the way these organizations are structured, and the different roles, so you can understand who to target with specific information?

Vivienne: The necessity to get a champion in an organization is critical—somebody preferably very high up in the organization, who is going to help set policy, who is going to understand, who quite often will understand the important of ISO guidance even when it comes to their financials, and when you’re able to point them to the ISO guidance that WCAG is for their organisation—for websites—they’ll often really come onside.

And quite often if they have some kind of personal understanding on the needs of people with disabilities…you’ll often find one who says “oh, my nephew has—is a paraplegic “ or whatever, and you can get that personal and heartfelt understanding of the needs, and then they will drive it.

And they will make sure that their staff understand it, their staff get the buy-in. And then when it comes to the developers, “well of course we want to make it accessible…this matters to people”. And this changes things.

DS: So I guess there must be a critical difference between a champion and a subject matter expert who’s left to do it all?

Vivienne: Yes. We often get a lot…if you just go in and you ask to speak to the IT people, you’ll get a lot of pullback. They won’t want to…it’s just one more thing you’re asking them to do, it’s some kind of bureaucracy and some kind of government requirement and “why should I have to do this” and “you’re making more work for me and I’m not getting paid any more” and you get that kind of push and pull.

But if they understand that actually it’s going to make things better. And it’s going to make things better for everybody, and the business is not going to have as many calls, you’re not likely to end up in court, because you haven’t complied with somebody’s complaint, then it’s actually going to make everything better.

And you get that team spirit, but you’ve got to have the champion first, to be able to tell the staff, “you know, yes it’s going to be a little tight, and we’re going to have to try to do this within our budget”, and this happens in government all the time, where they’re not given any more money to meet their requirements, but have to do it.

So, if you can somehow help them to understand that it’s another reason for getting up in the morning, you’re making somebody’s life better, then you get that buy-in.

DS: Yeah, I suppose that’s kind of an important reality check, isn’t it, you’re trying to engender change in an organization’s approach, without that organization having invested in it by providing more people or more…you’ve got to make the change within the constraints of budget and…

Vivienne: Yes, it happens all the time, like a government department will be told “we have to meet WCAG 2”, and they, well, first of all they don’t even have the staff to audit, let alone the training in what’s required.

So they’re either going to have to up-skill in their own time, or they’re going to have to bring somebody in. And it’s going to put hardships, and it’s going to put constraints on people. But if you can help them to understand that it’s a short-term thing, and they’re actually going to be better.

And if it’s a developer, they’re actually going to have additional skills that are saleable skills, then you get a better buy-on.

DS: So, yeah, or they might get a better job!

Vivienne: Yes, they might get a better job, they might go and work for somebody else completely! But, you’ll find that they’ll be happier knowing that what they do makes a difference to somebody’s life.

And I think there’s that sort of satisfaction, that we find throughout the accessibility community, that you’re actually making a difference to people’s lives.

DS: You’re involved in the organization of W4A in a couple of years’ time, aren’t you, in Perth? Tell us a bit more about what’s going to happen, what we can expect from that?

Vivienne: We’re going to have some really different things…I mean we’ve been involved for 4 years now altogether in preparing the bid for 2017 in Perth. And we want to do a lot—

DS: And this is Perth, Australia! It’s your accent people are listening to, not mine(!)

Vivienne: Definitely Western Australia, definitely not Perth, Scotland or anywhere else…there’s a few Perths! But we’ll be having it there, we won the…in Korea (last year) it was announced that we had won the bid. Next year’s in Montreal, which will be really good, and we’re working with the Montreal people as well.

But in 2017 it’ll be in Perth, and we wanted it to be a very different experience. We’ve got a really active accessibility community in Australia, and in Perth we have a meetup group that’s very large and very active. We run an unconference every year, and we think we’re going to be able to add new things where we want to really help the world to see that although Perth is the most isolated capital city in the world, 60% of the world’s population lives in Perth’s timezone.

And, we’re going to use our remoteness as a bit of a key to some of the ways the web changes lives, and the fact that it’s no longer dependent on where you live, because you could be working out in the middle of nowhere and still have the same input into the web. So I think we’re going to be using the concept of our remoteness as an ability to illustrate, we’re hoping to do some transmitting into some of the Asian regions in real-time.

Some of the ideas…we want to have an area where people can communicate in real-time to remote Aboriginal communities, and the people working there and to understand the needs of people in remote areas. So we’ll be doing some different things!

DS: I’m looking forward to it already! And I guess just the involvement of the local web accessibility interest community brings it together again, and breaks down that barrier between W4A being seen as an academic niche research endeavor, and something that’s much wider and more inclusive.

Vivienne: We’ve got a lot of very excited developers, and I think it’s going to be very good for them!

DS: I can imagine!

The 13th Web for All Conference

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Intuit will award $2000 and $1000 to the best technical and communication papers

Google will sponsor 6 PhD students to participate in the W4A Doctoral Consortium

IBM will provide travel grants to the winners of the People with Disabilities Student Award

The Paciello Group will give the Judges' and Delegates' awards to the winners of the Accessibility Challenge

Canvas and Intuit will award student grants to attend W4A

The ABILITY Magazine will feature the W4A 2016 award winners in their printed and online publications. See the 2015 winners report