Each year the worlds of disability & technology collide at the International Technology & Persons with Disabilities Conference hosted by California State Northridge University Centre on Disabilities (@CSUNCOD) at the Manchester Grand Hyatt in San Diego, California. This year, I found myself fortunate enough to attend.
Photo: My #CSUN13 badge of honour
I’ve been working in the ‘Accessibility field’ for almost 4 years. Much of my job as as the Adaptive Technologist with Accessibility Services involves the direct technical support of the various assistive and adaptive technologies used by the students registered with our office. Assistive / Adaptive Technologies, or ‘AT’ as it’s commonly known as, can be anything from an ‘off-the-shelf’ device that has been modified or ‘adapted’ for use by someone with a disability, to a device that has been designed specifically with disability in mind to enhance or maintain that person’s abilities.
I became aware of the conference affectionately known as CSUN about a year and a half ago while following a couple of the regular conference-goers on Twitter. After a week of following the hashtag #CSUN12 on Twitter during the conference last year, it was obvious that this was the place where technical ‘accessiblistas’ gather. The conference has developed quite a reputation for showcasing the the latest and greatest improvements, developments and research in web, technical and educational accessibility. I had to go.
My plans came into fruition (a big thank you Trent University) and a simple tweet mid-January of this year announcing that “#CSUN13 was a go”, with #CSUN13 being the hashtag used on Twitter to aggregate all CSUN 2013 related information, immediately connected me to others who were heading to the same event and the networking began. It turns out, there was quite a Canadian contingent represented at the conference, notably many from the GTA who travelled upon the ‘CSUN Express’ on Air Canada Flight 777 direct to San Diego the day before the official start of the conference.
So there I was, sitting at a patio table by the bay in late February less than two hours after my flight landed in sunny San Diego. I was surrounded by a dozen or so individuals, all of whom I had just met in person for the first time. Web developers, project managers in the financial sector, private accessibility consultants and even a federal government employee with authoring expertise on Section 508 (America’s Rehabilitation Act, specifically, how federal agencies make their electronic & information technology accessible to those with disabilities). Companies like Wells Fargo, RBC, Scotia Bank, Paypal, Nuance, CGI, oh, and myself from Trent University, all represented at this table. It was shortly after this photo was taken that things really started to sink in: this whole ‘accessibility thing’ is far bigger and further reaching than I had ever imagined. #CSUN13 was off to a great start.
Photo: Patio in February? Done. via George Zamfir (@good_wally)
The A11Y Community makes this an exciting time to be working in the accessibility field. ‘A11Y’ is the abbreviated numeronym for computer accessibility with the ’11′ in ‘a11y’ representing the number of characters missing in the full word ‘Accessibility’. It should come as no surprise that social media is at the heart of flourishing communities, and the a11y community is no exception. I’d make the argument that if you’re not actively plugged-into or following the current discussions and trends in your profession (be it social networks like Twitter, discussion forums or blogs) you are missing out on some of the best professional development opportunities available. On the social media front, I should mention, searching Twitter for posts tagged with #a11y is a great way to find current trends and hot-topics related to technical & web accessibility for ALL users, regardless of disability or level of impairment.
I was able to attend two separate tweet-up’s while at the conference. The general conference tweet-up that brought together all ‘socially-minded’ conference goers for an informal face-to-face networking opportunity, and a tweet-up hosted by the Make WordPress Accessible community that brought together developers & users aiming to improve the accessibility of Themes used in WordPress. WordPress is a popular content-management system that powers many websites and blogs, such as the Digital Communitas site here. Themes change the ‘look and feel’ of a particular site, much like a design template in Microsoft Office. Most WordPress themes are created by freelance developers, and quite often lack the accessibility features that are required for users of screen reading & assistive technology. The Make WordPress Accessible community was created to promote the awareness of the need for accessible WordPress Themes, and equipping the developers of Themes with the resources needed to create themes with accessibility in mind.
Photo: A shot from the back of the room at the WordPress Accessibility Tweet-up at #CSUN13
The reality is, that while the web seeks to be a collaborative and unifying place for all, it still remains inaccessible to many. It’s the tireless and relentless force of a11y community that aims to change this by increasing awareness of the issues and changing the habits of those involved in the creation process. I heard a great deal of discussion during sessions and informally around the topic of ‘Responsible Design’ and holding yourself accountable for not only the quality, but accessibility the end result. Everyone at every level (R&D, developers, project managers, user experience & interface designers, etc.) is a stakeholder in the accessibility of a product, application or website. An excellent analogy I heard was that of baking chocolate chip cookies and thinking of accessibility as the chocolate chips. Adding the chocolate chips in after the cookies have baked is not the same as adding them in during the appropriate mixing step. Accessibility as an afterthought or ‘add-on’ should not (and can not) continue to exist for the betterment and advancement of an inclusive web experience for all.
Technology continues to change and enrich the lives of its users. While this is true regardless of ability, it is especially true for those who as a result of their disability, rely on it for routine activities. Have you ever witnessed, first hand, someone without vision navigate a computer interface using only a keyboard, shortcut commands and screen-reading software? How about using an iPhone with the screen off and utilizing gesture based accessibility navigational shortcuts and using the dictation & text-to-speech abilities of Apple’s digital assistant ‘Siri’ to read and reply to messages and navigate the web? It’s extraordinarily impressive, encouraging, and a testament to the efforts of those in the accessibility industry to create products useful for everyone.
Photo: The Microsoft booth, one of many vendors represented at the showcase during the CSUN conference.
The CSUN conference also plays host to vendor exhibits in a ‘trade-show’ style setup where companies showcased their latest and greatest assistive technologies and services. It was an impressive setup with many, many vendors and cutting edge assistive technologies, but I couldn’t help but feel overwhelmed by not only the vast number of products that seemed similar, but the exorbitant cost associated with many of these technologies. Take, for example, one of the magnification systems commonly used by those with low vision. They can, at best, be described as a ‘digital camera on a stick that attach to an external LCD monitor’ yet some have price-tags upwards of $2500 (!) attached to them. It’s unfortunate that costly AT equipment often adds another layer of ‘inaccessibility’ to many.
When the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA) was drafted back in 2005, it created the framework for an inclusive province where no matter what a person’s ability, they could fully participate in life within the province of Ontario. Such legislation does not (yet) exist elsewhere in Canada, nor does it exist in the US. While much can be said about our government’s dedication to and efficacy (or lack thereof) in enforcing the AODA, the spirit of an inclusive province remains. As an Ontarian attending this conference, it was encouraging to hear the AODA brought up on a number of occasions as an example in positive light. Way to go Ontario.
I made a conscious effort when planning my schedule to attend sessions across the multiple conference streams to make sure I got an excellent variety of technical, theoretical and practical take-aways. The hardest part of choosing the sessions was knowing there were other sessions running simultaneously that were just as interesting. I heard of blind instructors controlling classroom technology via gesture-based commands on touch panels with audio output at NC State University, and saw employees from Google demonstrate latest developments in accessibility across the Google suite of applications including Apps for Education, YouTube captioning and Android. I saw Mozilla demonstrate their brand new mobile operating system, and showcase the accessibility in their Firefox browser. I listened in on expert panels discuss breeding accessibility into the corporate culture, explain some of the fundamentals of accessible rich-internet applications, and how to develop accessibility in IT policies, procedures and practices. What a wealth of information, and in all honesty, complete information overload.
When the sessions came to a close on Friday evening, and things started to wrap up, I found myself struggling to comprehend what all had just transpired those last 3 days. A month later, it’s still somewhat hazy, and I’m still processing the events of #CSUN13. What is clear, is that I departed Toronto not entirely sure what I was heading into, my wildest expectations were completely shattered and I returned home with a new-found appreciation, awareness and desire for promoting the for the world of technical accessibility. Overwhelmingly positive conference experience? I’d say so.