One of the founding principles of International Association of Accessibility Professionals (IAAP), and one of the aspects that was most important in the National Federation of the Blind (NFB) in joining IAAP, is the great need for clarity and education in web accessibility. The National Federation of the Blind, as a longstanding advocate for accessibility, has every interest in supporting the recognition of professionals working in the industry. By working with others in the industry, we aim to both contribute to the field by bringing more blind individuals into the profession, and learn from the experience of our peers in order to share this knowledge with our membership and blind accessibility professionals.
It is still very difficult for those who are not well versed in accessibility to determine what to look for in hiring an accessibility professional, in figuring out what training is useful and what is not. There is no central clearing house, no single authority when it comes to going beyond reading the guidelines, and actually making web accessibility work in a business, a university, or an agency. There is no manual, and very few good examples.
Standing on the sidelines never did much good, and so the NFB has been passionately involved in opening up websites and the opportunities that go with them wherever possible. That involvement has translated into the Non-Visual Accessibility Web Certification, and in countless ongoing partnerships with every stripe of organization; on a rare occasion, and as a last resort, we have also used the law and regulations as a tool to achieve access.
As the main team involved in web accessibility at the NFB, the Access Technology (AT) team which I direct, has had to constantly expand its expertise to keep up with and ahead of the growing role of the web in the lives of blind people. In my tenure as Director of Access Technology, the emphasis of the team has expanded from being primarily on access technology to sharing that focus with changes on the web. We have adapted accordingly by acquiring the necessary skills, always working from the user experience, and with special attention to the critical importance of user testing, alongside automated and guideline-based assessment.
The NFB works to address the knowledge gap about access to the web in a couple of different ways. One of those ways is offering training sessions that attempt to bring together the acknowledged experts in the field to share their knowledge.
A barrier, that anyone trying to find their bearings in web accessibility is likely to run into, is that the different levels at which people deal with accessibility in an organization require different types of knowledge. The person drafting or enforcing the accessibility policy and the coder making the changes have some needs in common, but for the most part they will want a very different level of detail and, especially, they will want very different resources.
It is not easy to find an angle on web accessibility that will suit everyone who would benefit from knowing more about it. The path that we have chosen for one of our recurring events, the Web Accessibility Training Day (WATD), is to split it down the middle. The morning is devoted to general interest sessions, taking in the big picture, while the afternoon splits into tracks for technology and policy. The technology track focuses heavily on delivering tangible and immediately usable techniques to the professionals who do the work on the websites and applications. The policy track gets into the specifics of how to make accessibility happen within an organization, what the best practices are, who the people are who are setting the example, and what their tools are. There is a very concrete, practical bent to the sessions because what is not immediately applicable tends to get immediately forgotten. We do what we can to make it count, and to use our connections for everyone else’s benefit. It is a strategy that has paid off well enough to keep the seats full in the last two iterations of the training, but we survey, evaluate, and change accordingly wherever we can. It keeps us on our toes, because as a relatively small user group; we have to be the experts, represent our experience and why it is important, or risk losing our voice. Educating the public on web accessibility and its broader benefits is high stakes, and we are accordingly highly invested in knowing the field and spreading the word.
Web accessibility is not the only training we do, of course. There is a broader range of skills and contacts that we try hard to share at every opportunity. This fall, the AT team is running a three-day train-the-trainer conference specifically for access technology trainers and educators, since that is the most effective way for us to reach people without losing the ability to do hands-on training. You cannot escape the web in that setting either – so many tech companies are shifting their products to the cloud.
It is high time to rid access technology of the ten-year tech lag that has so long plagued blind consumers, and that goal seems to finally be coming into view. The focus of access technology is moving from dedicated hardware and highly specialized software, to software that rides lightly atop mainstream platforms and hardware that can work in different roles – with a computer, with a phone, with a tablet on its own. It is a change that we are especially keen to make users aware of. If a sizeable section of access technology is going to piggyback on mainstream technology, then it is, again, especially important to be educated and to be heard. We are also talking about 3D printing in that workshop, for example. 3D printing is one of those new buzzwords covering a less-than-new technology, rapid prototyping. As that makes its way into consumer hands, people everywhere are finding creative uses for the machine that makes everything (from plastic, for the most part). We are experimenting busily, and it is a great opportunity for tactile graphics – tactile images for the blind – to make it into more classrooms and offices. That is a great opportunity, but only if we pay attention, and think about how we can make it work now, not later. I think that may be the most difficult, and most exciting part of my job; I have to always be on the lookout for what is new, and how it applies to the NFB membership and blind and low vision people in general.
Good training is the fulcrum on which web accessibility turns. That much is clear, so we are putting our shoulder to the wheel. You can find out more about the NFB’s Train the Trainer event and the Web Accessibility Training Day at https://nfb.org/training-the-trainers and https://nfb.org/web-accessibility-day.