In early May, I attended “Access U” in Austin, Texas. There were numerous sessions running at the same time, but there were not official ‘tracks’ per se. As a result, I changed my course selection numerous times leading up to the event.
I would place the sessions I went to into a few different categories:
Organizational Change/Management Level
Enterprise Accessibility Compliance Concepts
Moving Large Organizations Towards Accessibility and Standards
How We Use The Web
Crystal Vision – Freedom Scientific
Designing for Accessibility: Beauty Secrets of the CSS Masters
The session on “Moving Large Organizations Towards Accessibility and Standards“ was very interesting as it spoke of framing accessibility not as an altruistic or sales-motivated action, but rather one of QA. Working within established standards would facilitate testing and increase overall product quality. Looking at it this way can help sell accessibility to a company, with tangible returns.
We can’t expect everything to be compliant overnight, must prioritize. For example:
Compliant (immediately, no excuses) : All new or revised pages, top 10% visited pages, critical pages
Compliant by (date) : legacy resources (encourages archive of old/outdated pages)
Overall, I came out of these sessions with a better understanding of how I could ‘sell’ accessibility within my organization. As I told one of the presenters, his single session had justified my attendance at Access U.
Soon after returning to work, I presented the ‘8-Step Implementation Model’ with notes as to the current status of my organization to management, it was well-received.
These were very interesting sessions. I would say I gained the most personal insights from these. Blind users showed us how they used the JAWS screen readers to surf the web. I used this opportunity to ask specific questions about accesskeys and changing user settings to optimize the use of a specific web application.
The results were different than what I had heard in the past. These users were willing to make changes to their settings, looking for the most effective way to work. In contrast, I had heard that users did not change from the default settings. The information I received from the users allowed me to consider ways we could leverage the power of assistive technologies.
For example, evidently there is a way for users to set ‘custom labels’ on input fields. This is a way for users to deal with poorly coded sites, but I saw it as the opportunity for us to offer supplemental information. Although these labels are set by the user, there is a way to export them, to share with others. So therefore it would be possible to set custom labels across a product, then export this file and offer it to users “to optimize your product use”. Yes, it would require some overhead, and I am not sure how exactly they are tied to the specific input fields and what would happen if a page changed at all, but it was still an idea that got me thinking.
The one challenge, of course, is needing to remember that “optimizing for blind JAWS users” is not the same as making a product accessible..
I attended two sessions related to specific coding practices for achieving accessibility on the web. Most of our products are forms and we have definitely had some challenges so I was really looking forward to the forms session. I was less excited about the CSS session.
The forms session was well organized, with plenty of examples for us to go through. Unfortunately, I found that the level of complexity of the forms we are trying to build is above what we would go over in class. It was, however, a good opportunity for me to confirm that we have the basics (labels, etc) down.
The CSS session was actually quite good. The speaker went through an enormous amount of material, thankfully captured on the 10sharpdesign website . I will admit I had an “oops” moment when she talked about using links with background images, and how with CSS and images turned off, the user gets nothing. I guess we should stop doing that…
Although the forms session disappointed a bit, I felt both would have been great for people who were a bit less familiar with coding for accessibility.
I wasn’t sure about these ‘general accessibility sessions’ but in the end, they were great for simply getting my mind going. Glenda Sims presented the “ Accessibility – What NOT to do ” session and I really enjoyed just hearing her stance as someone actively working in the field. The biggest take-away message I got was that the field and our understanding of it and the best practices and techniques are ever-evolving. We shouldn’t be so afraid of not doing something exactly right that we don’t do anything at all. She spoke specifically of ‘skip-nav’. This is probably the first aspect of ‘how to make a site accessible’ that people learn about. Yet Glenda introduced an article she’d written that basically showed that skip-nav is no longer as necessary for users of assistive technologies.
Something she mentioned really floored me - they ran user testing and the users of assistive technology were able to perform the tasks quicker than sighted users: they were not distracted by the visuals. This is in stark contrast to what we’ve seen in testing, but it gives me hope!
One thing that was mentioned again and again, was ‘ask the users’. We can only assume so much. This is also an issue of working towards making something actually accessible and usable, rather than compliant. She also mentioned an article by Shawn Lawton Henry about user testing: Just Ask !
My last session of the conference was Testing for Web Accessibility by Jim Thatcher. I’ll admit, I was a bit awed to hear him speak. The session was well-run, we had a survey to fill out before and after the session, on how much of the WCAG guidelines were able to be tested automatically, about which version of the various types of guidelines and standards were most easily tested, etc. It helped frame the talk.
Jim went over a number of different testing tools, and basically showed how automated testing really isn’t very effective. He cited an article by Gez Lemon that showed how many free tools aren’t worth their price ;) He also did a review of some different tools, with the results at his site . I took notes all through the presentation and still missed capturing so much of it: http://www.afhill.com/blog/testing-for-web-accessibility-access-u/
Ultimately I suppose the main thing to keep in mind is that although it is a daunting task, we have to test, and we can’t rely on automation. IBM managed to get it down to three minutes per page to test.
I am really thankful to have had the opportunity to attend Access U. As much as the sessions were useful, I was also grateful for the opportunity to meet with other attendees as well as the presenters. It was great to hear so many people speaking about their passion. My only regret is that I live so far away and will unlikely attend ‘Access U’ in the future. Not only did I learn new valuable information to bring back to my workplace, I have a renewed energy and dedication to the field!