Building a Profession: A Conversation with Rob Sinclair and Chris Peck from the International Association of Accessibility Professionals

Robert Sinclair, International Association of Accessibility Professionals (IAAP)

Photo of Rob SinclairAs Chief Accessibility Officer at Microsoft, Robert Sinclair is responsible for the company's global strategy to make it easier for people of all ages and abilities to see, hear, and use their devices, software, and content. Sinclair manages the accessibility strategy within Microsoft’s Trustworthy Computing division, which focuses on integrity and responsibility in business practices. Sinclair speaks around the world about how addressing needs of people with a wide range of abilities can transform the way everyone interacts in an increasingly digital world.

Throughout his career, Sinclair has worked on more inclusive approaches to technology. At Microsoft, he has championed the concept of people-centric design, which creates multiple ways for people, including those with disabilities, to interact with computing devices and content. He is working on a new generation of technologies that automatically adapt to a person’s individual needs, preferences, and immediate surroundings. Currently, Sinclair serves as board president of the International Association of Accessibility Professionals (IAAP)

Christine Murphy Peck, International Association of Accessibility Professionals (IAAP)

Christine Peck photoChristine Murphy Peck is the CEO of the International Association of Accessibility Professionals (IAAP). She holds 29 years of experience in nonprofit management, certification management, education strategy development, corporate education and facilitation and strategic planning. Peck currently leads the SmithBucklin Washington DC team responsible for implementing educational strategy, program design and delivery, eLearning, certification and accreditation, with a focus on outcomes and client growth.

Previously, Peck founded Peck Performance Group, a consulting practice serving clients in the areas of education, training and organizational development, and served as president and chief learning officer. She served for seven years as the director of education and learning of the U.S. Tennis Association, where she established a full-service educational center providing professional development and educational resources to staff and volunteers in more than 1,000 community-based organizations. She has worked extensively with nonprofit organizations, including start-ups and turnarounds, helping these organizations develop to their full potential while managing multiple projects with combined budgets of more than $20 million.

Newly founded last year, the International Association of Accessibility Professionals (IAAP) already has 1,700 members in 50 countries. The mission of the organization is to define, promote, and improve the accessibility profession globally through networking, education, and certification in order to enable the creation of accessible products, contents, and services. PEAT recently had a conversation with IAAP’s board president, Rob Sinclair, who also has a little day job as Microsoft’s Chief Accessibility Officer, and Chris Peck, IAAP Chief Executive Officer, to find out how they are tackling such a global endeavor.

PEAT: What was the initial motivation for establishing a professional association for accessibility professionals?

Sinclair: The industry is rapidly evolving and moving quickly, but there’s no formal pursuit of accessibility as a field. Everyone’s self-taught. We’re all struggling to keep up with new technologies, new regulations and laws, and there’s no consistent global approach. For example, I would visit another country and meet with professionals there who were very excited about solving a certain problem, never realizing that it had already been solved somewhere else and they just didn’t know. We need to create a global community so we can share best practices and facilitate a shared view of accessibility.

Also, as I traveled around the world talking to governments, companies, and advocacy groups, I noticed that everyone had a common complaint. They were hiring so-called accessibility experts, but didn’t know if they were actually experts, or if they could be trusted. People were getting frustrated with paying hundreds of thousands of dollars and still not getting it right. 

About 4 or 5 years ago, Dan Hubbell, a colleague of mine at Microsoft, David Dikter, CEO of the Assistive Technology Industry Association (ATIA), Andrew Kirkpatrick at Adobe, Shawn Warren at AI-Squared, and I sat down to discuss the idea of a certification program. We had this hypothesis that it would be viable, but no data to back that up. So we worked with Kathy Martinez, the Assistant Secretary for Disability Employment Policy (ODEP) at the U.S. Department of Labor to conduct a survey of technology developers, and 65% of the respondents said they would like formal training and a certification, which was tremendous validation. The timing seemed right, so with David’s help at ATIA, we went out and recruited the founding members and launched at the CSUN Conference on Technology and Persons with Disabilities last year. Chris joined us as CEO in November.

PEAT: What are the lessons learned from your first year?  

Sinclair: One key learning is that the organization has grown faster than expected, and there’s even more demand than we realized. A lot of that is based around the need for a community and interest in training and certification. Another thing we’ve realized is that there are challenges moving from a grassroots effort to something as structured and formal as a certification. You have to have more rigor, process, and oversight.

Peck: There is so much need that the really hard part is staying focused and being clear about our focus with the community. Process isn’t sexy, but it’s fundamentally important as you move forward. That’s why the board decided they needed a formal management structure and hired a CEO. We want to establish accessibility as a profession which includes standards setting, a huge part of certification. We also really want to help people connect, and provide that education and the training.

PEAT: What are you seeing related to the employment market for accessibility specialists? Are employers recognizing the importance of accessible technology proficiency?

Sinclair: There’s a definite upward trend in hiring accessibility specialists. Comcast, AT&T, Pearson and others have recently established Chief Accessibility Officer roles and have been serious in recruiting dozens of people with accessibility expertise to build or grow their programs. There have been hundreds of positions open for accessibility specialists within the last year, within large companies and nonprofits. Some of this is being driven by new regulations, such as the Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities (the CRPD Treaty). About 150 countries have signed on, and they are drafting new regulations which affects industry. There’s also a lot more competition for technology companies in this space. Ten years ago, Windows was one of the leading platforms in accessibility. Now there’s great stuff from Apple, Google, and other tech companies, and that’s only going to increase.

PEAT: What are the major initiatives IAAP has planned for 2015?

Peck: We’re putting together a professional development framework and body of knowledge on the accessibility profession and beginning necessary work to establish our certification program. We’re also focused on organizational development, so entities can learn how to integrate accessibility into their structure. Community development, making connections, building partnerships, and offering education are also on the agenda. We want to build a place for accessibility professionals to gather, share experiences, and enrich their knowledge. Finally, we also will work on our own structure to keep the organization going.

PEAT: The webinar schedule shows a lot of variety, from policy and professional development to more technical topics like “captioning and audio description best practices”.  How do you decide on your webinar topics?

Peck: The topics are based on what’s coming forward from the community. There’s a need for technical skills, but there’s also a need for the policy and “soft skills” to support accessibility efforts. It’s a challenge. We’ve got members who work in education, banking, hospitality, and other industries who are not working in the digital space, but they still need to provide an accessible environment and the technology to support the efforts of their organizations.

PEAT: How is the certification developing? What is it going to cover?

Peck: The plan is to establish a baseline certification for professionals in the industry and the people related to it, so we’re working on developing a task analysis. It’s a pyramid, so for example at the bottom there’s understanding the laws and the terminology so everyone speaks the same language. But then there’s also the plan for specialty areas like digital capabilities and law and policy

Sinclair: The conversation we’re having right now is about beyond the baseline, when looking at the technical track behind that, how do you validate the skills for a web developer versus a hardware developer versus a smartphone app developer? Sometimes it’s similar, but depending on the specific technology, it can be very different. That doesn’t even begin to affect members working in industries like hospitality and tourism.

Peck: So this all goes back to that process conversation, and discussing these issues with the community and getting feedback.

Sinclair: One of the decisions we’ve made is that there’s no need to recreate what other organizations are already doing, like the architecture industry with accessible building design and RESNA with assistive technology.

PEAT: You recently launched a beta version of an online community tool, called IAAP Connections. This must be a very important tool for you, since connecting and sharing best practices is so important. How’s it going?

Sinclair: We’re experiencing this interesting moment of irony where we’re trying to build a great organization for accessibility using tools common to associations, and none of them are fully accessible! We’re working with our vendors to create a fully accessible and collaborative environment, so we’re essentially building the plane we’re flying in. The feedback’s been very good, and we have a community manager who really knows the tools and is helping the vendor fix things.

Peck: In the short time that we’ve been beta testing, we’ve had 3,095 logins and over 100 posts. The posts have been about finding solutions and sharing information about new laws. There’s been some real sharing, which is great. For example, there are now enough Chief Accessibility Officers to actually have a list!

I’ve seen a few examples where people have been very open about not knowing how to do something, and have asked for help. I’m wondering if there’s a correlation between the size of an organization and the willingness to offer help—perhaps a smaller company feels more comfortable with that. I’m also interested to see what’s going to happen when someone posts a question about a particular technology, and whether a person from the company that developed that technology will respond. If we can get that kind of collaborative cycle going, it will be fantastic.

PEAT: What’s the most important thing you’d like the PEAT audience of employers, technology providers, and technology users to know about IAAP?

Sinclair: That we exist! And that we have a good size group of members, and it’s a nice place to come and ask questions and get advice. Also, that we’re working to put together a more formalized training and curriculum, and we want people to join in and help us with that.

Peck: It’s gratifying to see people connect through our website and become a part of the process. We’re evolving because of all of this great feedback, so we’re always excited to hear from people. 

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