Accessibility in web education

This spring has been tremendously busy and just as exciting.  Developers and IT program managers are thinking about accessibility more urgently and are seeking ways to integrate accessibility skills into the education of developers of information and communications technologies.

The month of March was a blur of running between training government webmasters for GSA, panel discussions, a booth, hosting a fully accessible performance event and all the networking and socializing that accompanies the SXSW and CSUN conferences.  Whew!  But in the back of my mind during all this has been an encounter I had at the annual ATIA conference in Orlando, all the way back in January.

Encounter at ATIA

I was part of a large group of conference attendees going to dinner at a nearby restaurant.  We divided into several groups riding in separate cars and I ended up with people I had not previously met.  Or so I thought.  Among us were K-12 assistive technology (AT) specialists, AT software manufacturers, accessibility advocates and speakers and trainers.  A sales VP was accompanied by her husband, a web developer for a venerable business supply company that has nothing to do with accessibility.  The hubby was just along for a week in Orlando with his wife.  I'll call him Jerry.

As we drove through Orlando to meet the others, Jerry and the sales VP in the front seat, me and two AT vendors in back, the conversation centered on web accessibility skills.  Why, everyone wondered, it is so hard for AT software companies to find developers who know how to design to meet web standards and accessibility mandates?   People trained in university programs seemed particularly unprepared to design for accessibility.  We spoke about Section 508 mandates (in place for more than 10 years now) and the Web Accessibility Initiative at the W3C.  We considered VPATs and other mechanisms put in place to encourage compliance and still came up short.

AT Interoperability

The software makers and vendors were especially frustrated since their entire product line depended on interoperability with the assistive technologies that they sell and that their customers rely on.  Jerry, our driver and the only one who does NOT work in an industry directly related to disability, spoke up.

"Accessible design is not rocket science," he said. "I learned about it 10 years ago and once you understand the basics, it's not hard to keep up.  You write cleaner code and it works across more browsers and devices.  Accessibility is no big deal, it's just good design."

The vendors wanted to know more.  Where had Jerry learned about it?  What motivated him to do it?  After all, Jerry worked for a general business services company, why did have an interest in accessibility?

Jerry is part of the AIR force!

"Well, I was living in Austin Texas," Jerry said. "And I wasn't married yet, was working at a start-up, wanted to meet folks and heard about this web design contest to help nonprofits.  I signed up and it turned out it was actually a way to teach accessibility.  I don't remember the name of it, it was about 10 years ago. It was fun, I learned about accessibility and it stuck with me. It just makes sense."

So there I am in the back seat and I got goosebumps.

" Wow!  It was the Accessibility Internet Rally!" I said.  "You were part of one of the first AIR competitions."

News report from early AIR-Austin competitions on You Tube

We got to our restaurant about then and I kept babbling as we made our way inside and found the rest of the group.   When we settled in, I was sitting across from Jerry.

"Oh yeh," he said "I recognize you now.  I thought you looked familiar.  How is the competition going? "

In the conversation that followed, Jerry said it had been great for him to learn about accessibility not because he had to, was mandated to meet requirements, or felt an obligation.  He learned about web accessibility as a way to broaden and deepen his programming and design skills.  He retained what he learned and tucked it away in his development toolkit.

Have YOU participated in AIR? Let's hear from you!

It made me wonder who else is out there who learned about accessibility from the AIR program?  AIR has been held in Austin, Dallas, Houston, San Antonio, San Francisco and Denver.  Developers have participated from Dell, IBM, Frog Design, Bearing Point, MicroAssist, MapQuest, and dozens more compnaies.

Where are all the participants from all those businesses and cities? If it's you - as a volunteer, a developer, an advisor, a nonprofit group, a community partner or a participant in any way - please comment and let us know what you are doing.  Do accessibility skills continue to be useful to you?  What are your thoughts about accessibility and technology education?    We would love to know what the AIR force is up to in 2011.

Hope to hear from you!