Creating web accessibility standards: an interview with Sharron Rush

For this month's column, it's my absolute pleasure to bring you an interview with Sharron Rush, co-founder and Executive Director of Knowbility.

Sharron has kindly taken some time out of her extremely busy schedule to share her thoughts on everything from creating web accessibility standards to bike riding in Texas. Enjoy!

Scott: Your work with Knowbility and the Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) over the last 15 years have made you somewhat of a 'living legend' in web accessibility circles — what first sparked your interest in helping with the online needs of people with disabilities?

Sharron: I am flattered but quite intimidated by the suggestion of 'living legend' status. My own experience is that accessibility is very much a team sport. None of this can be done or even led by a single person.

I was very lucky that my interest in technology access was sparked in Austin, Texas, which is such a great technology hub. The community here included Dr. John Slatin of the University of Texas who became my inspired mentor and co-author of the book Maximum Accessibility that we wrote together and published in 2002.

The Accessibility Internet Rally (AIR) was the founding cornerstone of the Knowbility organisation and was started as community collaboration between Easter Seals, where I was working at the time, and the local branch of Goodwill. We had good collaborative support and guidance from technology entrepreneurs like Steve Guengerich and Jon Carmain. I remember being frustrated with lack of access to technology for my stakeholders and talking to Steve about why tech sector leaders were not more involved with these issues since they tended to be such problem-solvers. He said, "Well Sharron, if you want to get the attention of tech sector leaders, you need to introduce an element of competition and give them a stake in the outcomes." That was the seed from which the AIR competition and eventually Knowbility grew.

Scott: Today we have a lot of guidance on web accessibility thanks to W3C standards and legislative frameworks like Section 508, however this wasn't always the case. Given the profile of Knowbility today, were you surprised that in the late 1990s a small not-for-profit could be created and then go on to make such a big contribution?

Sharron: I am an eternal optimist and did not really think about long-term challenges at the time we started Knowbility. At the Central Texas Easter Seals in 1998, we got a new CEO who did not think tech access was in scope of their mission. It was the technology startup advisors who said, "Just start your own nonprofit." And the startup spirit was in the air, in the water of Austin in the late 1990s so we just took the leap. In 2002, we were recognised with a Dewey Winburne award at the SXSW Interactive festival and it helped raise our profile tremendously.

I hope our contribution has been significant, but I am not always as certain of that as you seem to be. Accessibility has changed to a degree but not to the degree that I would have hoped in that much time and with the speed that technology changes.

Honestly, I think I expected that once technologists were aware of the barriers experienced by so many people, they would solve those problems, Knowbility would close its doors and we would go on to solve the next big problem — like peace on earth or something.

I guess I have been more surprised by those who think accessibility is too hard or not important enough to dedicate significant resources to or to take very seriously. It has not been easy — there is a more resistance than I anticipated — but it has been tremendously rewarding to watch awareness grow of the importance of this issue and to feel that we have contributed in some small part to that change.

Scott: Your involvement in W3C WAI has been extensive including contributions to the development of WCAG 2.0. Could you share a bit about the successes and challenges of being involved in that process?

Sharron: I am so glad you asked that question. The Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) at the W3C is the place for collaborative work on a global scale — I am a total fan girl! The late John Slatin who I mentioned earlier was responsible for getting me involved in WAI when he co-chaired the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines Working Group. At that time they were working on developing WCAG 2.0. I would strongly encourage anyone who cares about accessibility to get involved. The successes are huge in my opinion.

The WCAG 2.0 is a technology-neutral standard that has been adopted as an ISO standard as well as the legally required standard of EU nations. WCAG 2.0 is the basis for the new 508 standard in the US (some day). And the guidelines do not stand alone. There are extensive supporting techniques documents, WAI-ARIA for dynamic web interactions, testing suites, and training modules that are all freely available to help people learn about and implement accessibility within their particular role.

Everyone with responsibility for digital properties from web developers, to content producers, to product procurement officers, to program administrators should be able to find and use resources that will help them succeed in creating accessible content and interactions.

You probably won't be surprised to learn that the challenges that I see grow out of the very strengths of the W3C process and resources. As an organisation that operates by consensus, it can sometimes seem to proceed at a glacial pace in internet time. And the extensive nature of the support resources can be overwhelming for someone wondering where to start in learning about and implementing accessibility.

Fortunately, the WAI staff is aware of this and has worked with the W3C to foster community involvement that is a bit more agile. The hope is that the community groups and collaborative wikis will make the evolving accessibility environment more responsive to real world needs and easier to engage in.

Scott: In recent times you've been very active in a number of WAI groups including Education and Outreach, WAI-Engage and accessibility around e-government. Through your engagement in creating and providing resources to the wider community, have you seen a growing acceptance by ICT professionals around the importance of web accessibility?

Sharron: Hmmm, that is a surprisingly difficult question to answer. It's true that I love working through the W3C groups — it completely appeals to my communitarian spirit and seems to align precisely with what the Open Web Platform is all about — the web for all! But I know that not everyone feels that way and that there are some genuine concerns that developers must make creative sacrifices to embrace accessibility or that the economics of accessibility don't make sense. I know that both of those arguments are false but I do try to listen openly and honestly to those concerns.

I am impatient with making what they call the "business case" for accessibility because not everything in life can be decided on economics. At the risk of getting too far into the weeds, it finally comes down to why you believe societies are organised. Do we create institutions so that a few people can maximise profits and create great hoards of wealth to share among the select? Or do we have a responsibility to create institutions that enable more and more people to live sustainable lives? It is people who adhere to the enabling point of view that are most likely to innovate in the accessibility space, beyond mere compliance.

A favourite example for me is from Apple in the early 2000s. They were told by the California State University system that the school would not participate in Apple’s iPod-based lecture service because the device was not accessible. Now, Apple could have gone to court and fought the decision as so many other companies have done in the past. But they did not do that. Instead, they embraced the challenge; they put the world's finest thinkers and designers on the problem and within a few short years — maybe months — they had accessibility built into the device, and integrated it into new product lines. The result has been an iPhone explosion — the device is adopted by more blind users than you can count. Other users have found that — well by golly, these disability features make the dang thing easier to use for me too! Is that a business case? Maybe — Apple products are selling like mad. But it is also a testament to the fact that true innovation is, by its nature, inclusive.

Long answer to your question — are more ICT professionals embracing accessibility? Maybe not, but the smartest ones are.

Scott: Your knowledge on accessibility has been sought after by many in government over the years, including some visits to the White House. In the era of financial crises, fiscal cliffs and a lack of bipartisanship in [the United States] Congress, is it more challenging now to engage with government to keep web accessibility on the agenda?

Sharron: I am a big believer in the importance of government leadership. Corporate institutions have responsibility to no one but their immediate shareholders. Democratic government is responsible to us all. The legal mandate is clear and inarguable. In this space, the challenge becomes ensuring common understanding, getting people the training they need to do what is required. With all of the best will in the world, sometimes people implement what they think are accessibility features in ways that make no sense and may even create additional barriers for some users.

Jared Smith of WebAIM does a hilarious talk called Web Accessibility Gone Wild. An overwhelming number of people support the ADA and the idea of equal access for people with disabilities — it is truly a bipartisan issue. So I would say budget consideration is less of a hurdle than lack of comprehensive, integrated training for all levels and roles that touch digital communications.

Scott: Education is moving toward greater reliance on e-learning platforms — are there particular accessibility considerations there?

Sharron: Absolutely! In K-12, we have defined access to the curriculum as a basic right of all students. In days gone by, that could mean Braille textbooks and other simple interventions that often took a long time to identify and provide. Kids could (and too often did) slip between the cracks. With the advent of digital communications technology, we have unlimited potential to include all students in learning opportunities, and to give them free and open access to the curriculum in ways they can use.

Learning environments can be customised to meet the needs of those who have cognitive and physical disabilities. This takes planning, and genuine cooperation from curriculum product developers and testing platform developers. Sadly, this is not occurring in significant numbers. Students with disabilities continue to be left out in numbers as great or greater than in the past. The dropout rate is twice as high as for students without disabilities. The legal requirements are there and my opinion is that this is a situation where purchasing agents rule. If all school systems simply said, "Nope, if it is not accessible, we are not buying it," things would change — and quickly!

Scott: One of the things that you have done very successfully is raised web accessibility awareness within the developer community through initiatives such as the Accessibility Internet Rally (AIR) design competition. What is the key to its success?

Sharron: Competition! In years past, we have given a simple trophy to the teams that create accessible websites for nonprofit groups. In 2012/2013 we upped the ante under the leadership of program Chair Rich Schwertdfeger of IBM and are giving SXSW registration to the winning team. But really, developers love a good smack down. Who is the best? AIR provides basic training and orientation to accessibility and then challenges developers to use new skills and create the most accessible website for nonprofit organisations. Since 1998, thousands of developers have been trained and more than 200 nonprofits have received accessible websites through this program.

The nonprofits certainly benefit but I like to believe that we have also placed a few moles in corporate America and higher education. People like James Craig, Glenda Sims, Charles Chen, Jon Wiley, went on to work on accessibility at Apple, University of Texas, and Google after being involved with Knowbility and/or the AIR program. So I think that if you present accessibility as a design challenge like designing for mobile rather than an obligation like flossing your teeth, you are more likely to engender among imaginative thinkers that creative engagement that changes the world for the better.

Scott: Each year there seems to be new technologies that dominate the consumer landscape, and new accessibility initiatives to support them such as Indie-UI to support gesture-based accessibility. Do you have any thoughts on what might be around the corner and its accessibility implications?

Sharron: My expectation is that whatever is the great next thing will have accessibility built in rather than having to catch up. The benefits are so clear and the legal requirements are in place. So we will stop arguing about if we are going to do accessibility and focus more on how to do it well. Accessibility will be seamlessly integrated into every new project plan and product development prototype. Users with disabilities will be part of every marketing study and usability testing effort. Hey, a girl can dream, can't she?

Scott: On the rare occasions that you have some spare time, what things do you enjoy doing that's not related to web accessibility?

Sharron: I am an avid reader and belong to Austin's Yada Yada book club. I love to dance and I sing — I belong to the South Austin Women's Chorus and we will perform in April. I also love to walk around the Texas Hill Country and I got a bike for my birthday last month, which is great fun. And of course, I am from Texas so it's not unusual to find me with a beer in hand swapping stories with family and friends.

Scott: If someone is interested in getting more involved in web accessibility, what would you recommend they do?

Sharron: Take that leap, it is so worth it and you will find a community of passionate people who share openly and freely — we are all in this together! Join the WAI-Engage community group. Participate in the WAI Interest Group. Browse through the Before and After Demo (BAD). Participate in an AIR competition to receive training and the experience of creating an accessible website from scratch. If you have a disability, sign up for the AccessWorks portal and become a tester. Attend AccessU in May in Austin (before the 'big heat' settles in). If you attend SXSW, come find the Knowbility booth on the tradeshow floor. Hope to see you there or on any of the online community spaces. Onward!

Scott: Sharron, thank you so much for taking the time to share your accessibility thoughts.

Well, that's it for this month. Next month we'll return to a more regular format, looking at new WAI happenings.