Falling as it does in the last month of the year, today’s 26th International Day of Persons with Disabilities* is a good time to reflect on progress toward achieving Intopia’s aim of ‘creating an inclusive digital world’.
It also comes after a spate of major web tech conferences in Australia during the second half of the year, which may provide some sort of a barometer for that progress. I’ll get to that in a moment.
Right now is actually a good time to be a digital accessibility consultant. Addressing the needs of people with disability has become more urgent in recent years as more products and services have adopted online digital delivery as a standard and, increasingly, the default.
Legislation has provided some imperative – many countries now have laws that mandate accessibility. The business case is also becoming better understood – why shut out a fifth of your potential market? Perhaps the rise of User Experience as a design discipline with its focus on usability has also helped to move web accessibility from edge case to part of the main mix.
On one level, at Intopia we see ongoing and increasing interest from government, corporate, commercial and community-based organisations in what we do. They’re seeking hard-edged assessment, realistic testing with people with disabilities, and pragmatic advice on how to not just conform to technical requirements but create products and services that are genuinely accessible.
On another level, in recent years we’ve seen leading global tech companies like Microsoft, Apple, Google, Twitter, Instagram, and others take direct, practical steps to increase access for people with disabilities. Yes, some of these are overdue, but some are also ahead of expectations.
This is where conferences come back into the story. Conferences, workshops, and meetups are an important and genuine form of professional development for web professionals – how to do what’s good now, what’s coming next, what skills we need, how our peers do what we do – these events let us absorb expert advice, discuss it with our peers, and take it back to our own work.
Taking as examples two conferences I know very well, Web Directions (disclosure: I used to work for them) and UX Australia (disclosure: I still do some work for them) and a new Sydney conference I attended last week called code♥️design, I’d make the following points:
- Each featured more talks focused on accessibility than I’ve ever seen before at mainstream web design and development conferences. Some were quite technical, some less so, and several featured Intopia speakers (we do weddings, parties, anything).
- There were more references to accessibility in non-accessibility focused talks than I have ever previously encountered. Yes, people who speak at conferences like these might be more likely to be articulate about accessibility, but it really feels like we’ve all moved on to an assumption that accessibility is part of the job. Thankfully.
- Given that consideration of digital accessibility is getting a higher profile, it’s perhaps not surprising – but still very gratifying – that conference organisers are taking greater pains to use venues that provide a range of accessibility options.
- Aligned with the last point, I see speakers at these conferences giving ever greater and more precise consideration to making their presentations accessible. This is one of those classic cases where making a presentation more accessible to people with disabilities makes it more accessible to everyone and is a delight to see.
2018 was a watershed year for two Australian conferences that focus on web accessibility – and there aren’t many countries that have two major conferences focused on web accessibility – in the OZeWAI conference and A11y Camp (again, disclosure: I was involved as a volunteer). I offer the following observations:
- Each featured deep dives into technical web accessibility issues – not in every talk, obviously, but there was enough WCAG, HTML, CSS and JS to keep any acronym lover happy.
- Each broadened the range of accessibility needs considered, from temporary and situational disabilities to developmental and social impairments.
- Each empowered people with lived experience of disability to speak, grounding their talks in the real world.
- Each featured more international speakers than ever, broadening our perspectives while placing our own work in a global context. And I’d say we in Australia are at least holding our own.
- Each paid as much attention to why we do what we do to as to how, covering advocacy, ethics, standards, legalities, requirements, conformance, and social commitment.
- Each featured a greater number of non-accessibility focused web professionals than ever. This is a very, very good thing.
Web tech conferences are to some extent leading the way toward a greater understanding and implementation of accessibility, which is a great thing as the attendees are the people designing and building the websites and apps that deliver our newly digital products and services.
I was prompted to think about this by an incident at one conference, where an attendee asked me if I was concerned that accessibility was being more widely understood and practised, because that would put companies like Intopia out of business.
My response was that on the one hand there is a massive amount of work to do before we can do without accessibility experts – a lot of digital products are not yet accessible, and the way websites and apps are being built is becoming more complex and ambitious, even as computer science itself pushes more boundaries, and we’re going to continue to need technical people to make and keep things accessible.
On the other hand, if web accessibility does ever become so truly universal that designers, developers, content producers and all the related web professionals don’t need external help, Intopia would be delighted to have made ourselves redundant – our business model exists only to serve the purpose of making the world a more accessible place for people with disabilities.
That seems a long way off yet, but we’re getting closer – day by day.
* There are several variations on the name of this day in common use, including International Day of People with Disability and International Day of People with Disabilities. I’m using the name given by the United Nations when it gazetted the day in 1992.