AccessU is an annual conference that brings leading experts from around the globe to Austin, TX to teach and talk about accessible design skills. The conference provides practical resources, encouraging participants to explore various aspects of digital inclusion and master role-based skills involved in launching successful accessibility initiatives.
This year’s theme is “Accessibility Is A Team Sport,” a concept that focuses on encouraging the dispersion of responsibility for accessibility throughout an entire team.
“The idea of having distributed responsibility for accessibility is just common sense,” said Sharron Rush, Executive Director of Knowbility. “A lot of times, people who aren’t the developers, who aren’t the designers think, ‘What’s my role?’ Our idea this year was to be sure we gave everybody, regardless of their role in maintaining or creating or updating web content, some understanding of the basics of accessibility — why it matters, why it’s important, and what their role could actually be — so that person who does have an interest and feels a responsibility doesn’t feel like a lone ranger.”
Knowbility is lucky to have Jan McSorley as the conference’s keynote speaker. Currently serving as the Accessibility Lead of the Schools Division at Pearson, Jan has spent her adult life advocating for the rights of kids with disabilities in K-12 schools. Throughout her career,she’s come to appreciate the need for a working knowledge of basic accessibility principles from all sides if you want to design a product that’s usable for the broadest possible range of people.
“There’s basically three prongs to the stool,” Jan said. “You have to understand people with disabilities and the laws that protect them, and then you have to understand the technology tools that they use, and then you have to understand the technical side of accessibility. All of that goes into how you design content and if you don’t understand one of those three areas well, then you can make bad design decisions.”
Meanwhile, a team made up of people with different specialties who all understand accessibility as it relates to his or her specific role on a project ensures that the end product is elegant and functional on multiple levels.
“You have a very different understanding and approach if you’re a graphic designer than if you’re a content person who’s just writing content or, certainly, if you’re a designer and you’re designing user interactions,” Sharron said. “Our goal was to help people understand you don’t have to do it all by yourself. Empower as many people as possible in your organization and you’re just going to have better results.”
Still, for those new to accessibility, starting with a technically immersive conference such as AccessU can be a daunting prospect.
“It was really intimidating to get into the accessibility field because there are so many people with very deep technical skill sets,” Jan said. “You just have to sort of go, ‘there’s going to be a lot that I’m not gonna get, that I’m not going to understand, but I need to go and expose myself.’ It’s like immersing yourself to learn a new language. If you go and live in the country and you’re going to learn the language a lot more quickly than if you were afraid and don’t ever expose yourself to it.”
Getting the chance to learn from some of the world’s leading accessibility experts and professionals doesn’t hurt, either. Along with Sharron and Jan, this year will feature such tech luminaries as Becky Gibson (Senior Technical Staff Member at IBM), Whitney Quesenbery (Co-Founder at the Center for Civic Design and author of Storytelling for User Experience and Global UX: Design and research in a connected world), and Paul Adam (Senior Accessibility Specialist/Developer at Deque Systems, Inc.), and many more. You can find course descriptions and a full class schedule on the Knowbility website.
“AccessU is always a very rich experience for me because the people that go and present there are some of the most experienced, skilled people in the accessibility field,” Jan said. “So it’s great just to be exposed to that and learn as much as you can.”
Opening up the field to those outside of development and design harkens back to the influence of John Slatin, after whom the conference is named. An English professor at UT, John became involved with the accessibility world after a retinal disease caused the deterioration of his vision. Despite having little previous experience with accessibility or design, he eventually helped create Knowbility and the AIR Program, and continued to work for the cause of accessibility for all until his passing in 2008.
“A lot of people thought that John was a computer science professor, and he wasn’t, he was an English professor,” Sharron said. “He understood, ‘Wow, I’m losing my vision and if this technology is properly designed, I don’t have to miss reading, or research, or any of the things that make my life rich and my job compelling.’”
Approaching design with the people you’re designing for in mind, rather than focusing on compliance issues, keeps innovation and technology moving towards its ultimate goal: helping people do the things they wouldn’t be able to do otherwise.
“It’s much more interesting from a human perspective and John was a great example of that,” Sharron said. “He understood the dynamic quality of how this technology is able to give voice and connection to people who had previously been marginalized and left out.”
You can read more about John and his lasting impact here.