Waking Up to Digital Accessibility: How the CSUN Assistive Technologies Conference helped me find my calling

My CSUN conference loot. I can’t wait to walk into work with that T-Shirt.

As a former historian, it doesn’t surprise me that my life’s purpose turned on a dime with a research assignment. In my role as a software developer intern, I spent much of my time researching best practices for the implementation of a company design system. A design system:

“offers a library of visual style and components documented and released as reusable code for developers and/or tool(s) for designers. A system may also offer guidance on accessibility, page layout, and editorial and less often branding, data viz, UX patterns, and other tools” ~Nathan Curtis

It was at this moment that I encountered accessibility.

What is web accessibility?

The power of the web is in its universality. Access by everyone regardless of disability is an essential aspect.
~Tim Berners Lee, inventor of the World Wide Web

I came across the concept of web accessibility while reading through the Lightening Design System by Salesforce. They wanted to create semantically correct and accessible components. Why? To ensure that a broad range of people could successfully interact with applications designed through their Lightening system.

“Web accessibility ensures that people with disabilities can perceive, understand, navigate, interact with, and contribute to the applications you create. This means that pages are Perceivable, Operable, Understandable and Robust.”

To be honest, until this point I hadn’t given thought to how people with disabilities might struggle with the internet. I hadn’t encountered web accessibility issues while training in code school — a serious gap that I hope code schools and computer science programs everywhere seriously address.

In my efforts to research design systems, I came across a great podcast by The Frontside Podcast, featuring software developer and accessibility evangelist Marcy Sutton. I reached out to Ms. Sutton to inquire about the field of accessibility and how I could code accessible Angular 4 components for my company design system. (This is still a mystery by the way. Come on Google!) She responded with lots of information about how to get involved in the field of accessibility and told me I should really plan to attend the annual CSUN Assistive Technologies conference. That the experience would be life changing.

She was right.

A conversation and a gift

Conferences are expensive. I had poured over the CSUN website, but I decided that attending was out of the question this year. Having only recently started a full-time job, I simply didn’t have the funds.

That all changed with a conversation.

Last fall I knew I wanted to give back to my community by sharing the world of tech with women. My experience has been so positive, I couldn’t imagine not sharing my excitement for a career in tech. I joined the Charlotte chapter of Girl Develop It, a national nonprofit “that exists to provide affordable and judgment-free opportunities for women interested in learning web and software development.” In my role as partnerships coordinator, I help our chapter leader organize monthly training workshops and events.

I immediately focused on reaching out to Deque, an accessibility company that helps companies “meet compliance goals and make the web a better place.” Their employee Marcy Sutton, who I mentioned previously, had already crafted a web accessibility workshop for Girl Develop It. However, I wanted to see if they might have someone deliver our training in person.

After a few conversations, the CEO Preety Kumar reached out and let us know that both she and her lead trainer would like to volunteer to lead an all-day Web Accessibility 101 Bootcamp. In our planning session, Ms. Kumar spoke about her desire to make a difference in the lives of women in tech.

It was Preety Kumar who helped me get to CSUN. I suppose she heard my enthusiasm for accessibility, and when she realized that finances were the only thing holding me back, she offered me a scholarship.

And so I got to attend this life-changing event because of the generosity of this established woman in tech. She won’t regret pulling me into her world!

CSUN Assistive Technologies Conference

This year marks the thirty-third gathering of the CSUN Assistive Technologies Conference. This conference, hosted by the Center on Disabilities at Cal State Northridge, “has provided an inclusive setting for researchers, practitioners, exhibitors, end users, speakers and other participants to share knowledge and best practices in the field of assistive technology.”

Before attending a single session I knew I was at home. This was a conference marked by incredible diversity. The presenter lineup did not lack for a want of female representation. The audience itself represented a tapestry of diverse people, most especially those with different physical and cognitive abilities.

Everyone was on a mission to seriously address digital equality for all. Amen.

Why are we still doing this?!

I was so thrilled to be in the festive environment at CSUN. However, I was quickly reminded of the seriousness of our mission by the conference’s Keynote Speaker, Daniel Goldstein, an attorney in the field of disability rights for more than three decades.

Mr. Goldstein kicked off the conference with an inconvenient truth. He asked a series of challenging questions: Why are we still faced with continuing inaccessibility when the web is celebrating it’s 29th birthday? Why isn’t digital technology accessibility, like security, seen as a mandatory feature?

Why aren’t we there yet???

As a software developer and social-justice advocate, my heart raced with the urgency of tackling this injustice. I realized that I had found a new avenue to express my life’s purpose. To help make the web, with all of its amazing opportunities for connection, support, and education, accessible for everyone. Regardless of any context.

Off to the races…

The CSUN conference runs for an entire week. The first couple of days are devoted to intensive half-day and full-day training workshops. The rest of the week is composed of wonderfully full and exhaustive days of sessions on the hour, every hour.

CSUN grouped the sessions into six tracks: education, employment & workplace, entertainment & leisure, independent living, law & policy, and transportation. Every hour there were up to twelve different 40-minute presentations.

Herein lies the most difficult part of CSUN: choosing which of these amazing sessions to include in my schedule. I decided to mix those that addressed high-level accessibility issues with others that provided a granular focus on the how-to’s of crafting accessible design, code and content.

Key accessibility takeaways

While I can’t possibly discuss everything I learned, here are a few takeaways I gained from the conference:

Accessibility is a civil and human rights issue

In her session “The State of Accessibility — 2018,” Deque CEO Preety Kumar discussed global trends for accessibility in Europe, Canada, China, India, and the United States. I learned about the concept of Universal Design, an approach emphasized for web and software development in the European public sector.

“Universal Design is the design and composition of an environment so that it can be accessed, understood and used to the greatest extent possible by all people regardless of their age, size, ability or disability.” ~ Center for Universal Design

This approach reinforces the idea that digital equality is a human right. This concept really caused me to reevaluate my approach to design and development.

Unfortunately, I also learned that in the United States, our current House of Representatives doesn’t agree that those with disabilities should be protected under law. In a 225–192 vote on February 15th, the House voted to severely undermine the Americans with Disabilities Act.

“Instead of expecting businesses to own the responsibility of complying with civil rights laws, it shifts the burden to the individual who is being denied access.” ~The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU)

In her “2018 Digital Accessibility Legal Update”, Lainey Feingold, an internationally recognized disability rights lawyer and author, argued that accessibility allows for participation, inclusion, and equality while at the same time ensuring confidentiality, security, and privacy. Without accessibility, users aka human-beings are left out, excluded, and discriminated against.

Foundation (laws and regulations) + Advocates (Who) + Strategies (How) = Greater Accessibility for All ~ Lainey Feingold

I walked away from this session knowing I wanted to be an advocate for accessibility. I wanted to be part of this global movement.

Shift to the left

CSUN also exposed me to the important concept of “shift to the left.” What does “shift to the left” mean in terms of accessibility? Well, it’s basically a strategy that incorporates accessibility considerations into the early stages of design. Why is it important to shift accessibility to the left? It saves effort, time, and money during product development. Rather than backloading accessibility to developers, create an accessible product from the beginning.

The amount of effort to include accessibility on the “left” side of the design process (when the product is merely a sketch) is much lower than trying to force accessibility into the product when it’s nearly complete. ~ Caitlin Geier, UX Designer, Deque

The idea is to spread the responsibility for accessibility across the entire design and development process. This brings UX Researchers and Designers into the fold.

The shift to the left concept is also fundamental in the development phase. In their session “Building an Accessible Component Library” Ari Rizzitano and Mark Sadecki of edX discussed their process of incorporating accessibility into the workflow of their new design system. By introducing modularity they were able to maintain UX and brand consistency, while ensuring faster and easier bug-fixes. Ultimately, it successfully prevented their developers from having to reinvent the wheel.

“Web accessibility is built on best practices that benefit everyone.” ~ edX

They integrated accessibility functionality into the component library and helped developers shift accessibility considerations to the left of their development workflow. Instead of dealing with issues during the final stages of code reviews and audits, the component library helped developers refocus their accessibility workflow within the initial stages of linting, unit testing, and manual acceptance testing.

WCAG and Section 508

I attended several sessions that addressed issues concerning the guidelines and regulations concerning website accessibility. The first thing I learned is that everyone pronounces it as wick-ag. What is WCAG?

Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) is developed through the W3C process in cooperation with individuals and organizations around the world, with a goal of providing a single shared standard for web content accessibility that meets the needs of individuals, organizations, and governments internationally.

In 1998 the US Congress amended the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which “prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability in programs conducted by Federal agencies, in programs receiving Federal financial assistance, in Federal employment, and in the employment practices of Federal contractors.”

Section 508 was part of this amendment process.

“Section 508 establishes requirements for electronic and information technology developed, maintained, procured, or used by the Federal government. Section 508 requires Federal electronic and information technology to be accessible to people with disabilities, including employees and members of the public.”

I walked away from these sessions realizing I have so much to learn about these regulations and that I want to become a Certified Professional in Web Accessibility. This can be accomplished by taking two exams: the IAAP Certified Professional in Accessibility Core Competencies and the IAAP Web Accessibility Specialist (WAS).

I have found many online opportunities for accessibility training. The most thorough that I have found is through Deque University, which offers twenty-three classes to help you prepare to be an accessibility specialist. While at CSUN, I attended a session by Greg Cohen on semantic html, and he told us about his course titled “Meeting Web Accessibility Guidelines (Section 508/ WCAG 2.0),” which is part of the HTML learning path at Pluralsight.

a11y Accessibility Heuristics

While I had heard of both a11y and UX heuristics, I hadn’t heard of the two terms put together. UX heuristics are broadly defined rules of thumb originally drawn from the interaction design principles defined by Jakob Neilsen, a Danish web usability consultant. A11y is another term for accessibility. In their session “Accessibility Heuristics: A Practical Framework for evaluating designs for accessibility,” UX Designer Caitlin Geier and Principal Consultant Denis Boudreau of Deque, define a11y heuristics as

“ accessibility specific rules of thumb inspired from WCAG and built for the purpose of evaluating designs for a11y.”

You can apply these Top Ten a11y Heuristics to the very earliest design phases, including the creation of personas. They concluded that if you’re already doing heuristic evaluations it should not be a problem to add accessibility heuristics.

Addressing the empathy gap

I learned about the concept of the “empathy gap” when attending the session “Agile and Accessibility” led by Deque’s VP of Product Development, Dylan Barrell. Empathy gaps among our product team members, Barrell argued, is a major reason that efforts to improve accessibility often fall short.

How are product teams supposed to design and develop for those with disabilities when they have no idea of individuals struggles and limitations? He proposed that companies hold empathy events, through such mechanisms as an empathy lab, which allows employees to work with assistive technologies first hand. Inclusion was also sited as a strategy, either by including disabled users in UX research or by increasing the diversity of product teams by hiring those with disabilities.

Waking up to this struggle

Because of CSUN I felt much more aware of the struggles faced by persons with disabilities. On the last morning of the conference, I took a shared Lyft to the conference hotel, which included the driver, me, and another young woman. We picked up another passenger, who I knew was blind due to his white cane.

Both the driver and the passenger in the car responded with pity and each said “poor thing” simultaneously. I was immediately offended. I had just spent several days observing many people with disabilities fiercely, unapologetically advocating for themselves.

The driver got out to help him load his luggage. As the blind man began to orient himself to the car, the taxi driver grew frustrated and literally reached out and pulled him by the jacket in frustration, while speaking loudly and slowly. I was stunned by the driver’s aggressively condescending and rude manner.

Later, after processing this moment with my colleagues at CSUN, I realized that this discriminatory behavior happens all the time.

Thankfully, the young man and I struck up a conversation because we were both headed to CSUN. He was an international student, here from Korea, spoke perfect English and was double majoring in Political Science and Computer Science. He was, in short, absolutely amazing.

While I was angry, I realized the real problem centered on the fact that these two people in my taxi didn’t know how to empathize and assist. It made me realize that I needed to broaden my own community by building relationships for those who have disabilities.

There’s such a need for us all to broaden our social groups and get acquainted with more diverse groups of people. Why? Well, first, so that we aren’t complete jerks due to ignorance. Second, because we are truly missing out on lovely souls who have much to teach us about living life.

The value of female mentors in tech

One of the best aspects of this conference was meeting some amazing women willing to mentor me. I struck up a conversation with Glenda Sims, the Team A11y Lead at Deque, and we connected immediately. She has been in the accessibility field for more than twenty years and offered to mentor me in this field that has sparked my passion! How cool is that?!

I also met another fantastic woman in tech at the final CSUN-related event, the axe-Hackathon, where the challenge was “to contribute to making the web accessible to people with disabilities.” Brigitta Norton, a manager at Capgemeni whose career focus has also centered on accessibility, showed me how to write accessibility reports. Together we used axe-core, a free accessibility checker for WCAG 2 and Section 508 and wrote accessibility reports using the WCAG-EM Report Tool.

The motivation of CSUN

I went to CSUN with an interest in accessibility and I walked out determined to be both an accessibility specialist and an advocate. I can’t wait to see where this next year takes me. I suspect I’ll be working toward the call to do “accessibility for good.”