Accessibility in the National Day of Civic Hacking

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Participating in the National Day of Civic Hacking

The first national Hackathon for Change was held on June 1st and 2nd and was every bit as exciting as I anticipated.  The event had much of the same energy, idealism, and enthusiasm that we see each year in our annual Accessibility Internet Rally (AIR) competitions. If you’re familiar with AIR, you know that since 1998 Knowbility has fostered teams of tech volunteers to donate time and talent by building accessible web sites for nonprofit groups.

Similarly, this last weekend of civic hacking brought more than 10,000 volunteers out within their own communities to participate in more than 95 separate hackathon events.  Data sets from dozens of government entities were made available to the hackers with the challenge to use  publicly-released data, code and technology to solve problems relevant to our neighborhoods, our cities, our states, and our country. If the energy at Austin’s ATX Hackathon for Change was any indication, people of all ages and skills actively and joyfully embraced the opportunity to use technology to make a difference in the lives of citizens – truly awesome!

St Edward’s University hosted the local event and Open Austin was the primary organizer.  What distinguished the Austin Hackathon from the others is this:  alone of all the programs I surveyed, Austin had web accessibility prompts in the orientation materials for all volunteers and included on their Expert Panel an accessibility advocate – me! It is always exciting to watch coders, designers, and planners respond to the accessibility challenge.  The experience led me to examine once again the nature of the field of digital accessibility and what is currently needed to truly advance and bring into the mainstream the practice of accessible design.

Mainstreaming digital accessibility

Some have been calling for the creation of an International Society of Accessibility Professionals.  But here is what I wonder:  What exactly will the establishment of a separate organization for these professionals do to integrate accessibility into the practice of smart, eager, engaged developers and designers such as those who participated in the National Day of Civic Hacking?  Does a professional organization really capture the imagination and fire of those for whom development is a calling and who respond to challenges like gaming and mash-ups?  I truly do not know the answer.

But I do know from participation in AIR and again this weekend that when accessibility is integrated as part of a broader community engagement, it is easy to “get” it.   I see lights go on and accessibility embraced on a community level by bright entrepreneurs, designers, gamers, and developers. I know that when accessibility is integrated into a lively practice, it is more likely to be accepted and improved upon than when it is siloed off into a separate category.

Accessibility practitioners are no different than any other specialized discipline.  If kept in isolation, the echo chamber effect creeps in, bad practices can be institutionalized, and adaptive change becomes more difficult.  Including accessibility along with other design considerations, integrating accessibility into iterative processes, ensuring that accessibility is part of the tumble of the development process – I believe THAT  is the way to keep accessibility ideas and practice fresh, innovative, and truly relevant.

What would John Slatin do?

Participating in the National Day of Civic Hacking was big, fat, super happy fun.  Let’s find more ways to integrate accessibility.  I challenge advocates out there. Instead of (or in addition to) submitting your papers to disability conferences and speaking to the singing choir, why not submit to wild and wooly design and tech conferences – like Big(D)esign and SXSW Interactive – that have nothing in particular to do with accessibility?

Dr. John Slatin was an English professor, a poet, and a lover of technology who happened to be blind.  He inspired students and colleagues as he fostered art, language, and technology-related research projects that were not easily described or pigeon-holed. John was an effective accessibility advocate precisely because his imagination was fired by the potential of technology to bridge gaps of language, culture, geography, and yes – disability.  Let’s get out there and truly demonstrate the truth of John Slatin’s words…Good design IS accessible design.  Onward!

 

 

 

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