Last week I had the good fortune to attend Accessible Future, an NEH-funded workshop on making the web more accessible to people with disabilities, led by Jennifer Guiliano (@jenguiliano) and ProfHacker’s own George Williams (@georgeonline). The 2-day workshop was held at the School of Information at the University of Texas at Austin. The first day was dedicated to more theoretical explorations of disability, accessibility, and disability studies, while the second focused on implementing accessibility features in digital environments (topics included HTML5, WordPress, and Omeka, among others).
Day One included interesting discussions of differing notions of disability, as well as some of the debates concerning the theoretical and political distinctions between “universal design” (the idea that an environment has been designed to be open and accessible to anyone), and “inclusive design.” Several of the participants noted that the concept of “universal” might be an impossibility, given that what is accessible to a certain group of people might preclude accessibility for a different group. Dan Brown from HumanWare made the pointed observation that “universal design” implies that once the project has been finished, the continuing need to think through and beyond its accessibility is assumed to be over. Dan disagrees with this, given how complex the issues of disability and accessibility are. Dana Ayotte (@artyyotty), Inclusive Designer at OCAD University, also indicated why “inclusive design” is preferable to “universal design,” as “universal” implies a one-solution-fits-all model, whereas we’ve reached a stage of advancement that we should be able to provide more personalized, tailored solutions for individuals.
On Day Two, we rolled up our sleeves and got down to tinkering with tools and existing add-ons to commonly-used platforms. Perhaps the most important thing that I learned in these sessions was that good markup—for example, consistent HTML code that tells the browser how to interpret certain elements to display them—isn’t only a good practice for web designers, but also for improving the accessibility of a webpage. When Dan Brown introduced us to screen readers -- software that allows visually impaired users to browse the web by listening to web content read aloud by a digital voice -- he noted that such users often navigate long web pages by first jumping from header to header. For such users, the more that the structure within the document is semantically marked up with such features as headers and sub-headers, the easier it is to get to the needed information that they need. Jeremy Boggs (@clioweb) took us through a workshop where we went through some of these key principles, and he has kindly provided sample code and other materials.
Overall, it was a thoughtful, engaging workshop where I learned a great deal about accessibility and the web—and am grateful to now possess information to help me to redesign my websites to make them more accessible. If you missed this workshop, you can attend one in academic year 2014-2015: either at the University if Nebraska, Lincoln (Fall 2014), or at Emory University (Spring 2015). You can get more information about the workshops at AccessibleFuture.org.