AccessU: Hands-on Education for Improving Workplace Accessibility

When launching an accessible workplace technology effort, it can be daunting to figure out simply how to start. In growing my own small business, I’ve been working regularly to build these skills, but I realized this spring that I needed to efficiently address the gaps in my knowledge base. As many businesses find after assessing their needs, I concluded that staff training was in order—and the hands-on technical approach at the John Slatin AccessU conference turned out to be a perfect fit to my needs. 

This year’s conference hosted over 250 attendees, nationally-recognized speakers, and local experts, including

  • User Experience (UX) researcher Whitney Quesenbery, who covered the relationship between usability and accessibility in designing a web for everyone, and key considerations such as plain language 
  • Web developer Karl Groves, who discussed issues and best practices related to technical implementation 
  • Lawyer Lainey Feingold, who gave a 2016 update on digital accessibility issues from a legal perspective

I especially appreciated that many sessions were focused on practicing accessibility in computer labs, rather than just talking theory. Likewise, it was easy to customize according to my needs given that there were learning tracks for all levels of experience. 

Automated testing 

This crash course taught me how to use and assess various testing tools for identifying accessibility errors, including the opportunity to test out various free tools such as aXe, WAVE, and the Chrome Accessibility Developer Tools plugin. As a marketer, these tools provide great “sniff-tests” in my own process of deciding which templates and platforms to suggest to clients, and would be a key step for anyone working on procurement with vendors. It’s important to note, as session leader Luis Garcia stressed, that it is pertinent to use these tools in tandem with dedicated user testing (as Knowbility’s Sharron Rush detailed in a recent PEAT Talk).

Using screen readers

Learning to use a screen reader can be enormously helpful to anyone involved in ensuring workplace accessibility, particularly since it can quickly highlight key accessibility errors that go easily unnoticed by someone operating a computer with a keyboard and mouse. This technology is used by a good portion of people with vision impairments to access digital information by having the device read text aloud. Desiree Sturdevant guided us through two of the common types of screen readers, and how to operate each, including:

Each system operates differently, but now that I have taken the course, I can apply several of the tips and tricks I learned in this session at home before publishing content to my website.

Accessible presentations

As someone who frequently offers trainings, I got a lot out of Mike Zapata’s presentation on PowerPoint—especially getting comfortable with the technical structure and mechanics of preparing, designing and delivering presentations with accessibility in mind. These steps are relatively simple, but not second nature. For example, PowerPoint provides no prompts to add alt-images, and it doesn’t remind you to review the selection pane to check on the navigation order. I like to get creative with my slides and bypass existing layouts, and this used to mean I would sprinkle text boxes and images randomly throughout my decks. Now I know I must edit the slide master and reorganize the selection pane in order for it to be accessible. It requires several steps, but now I have created a variety of slide masters to reuse, and inserting alt-text has become more intuitive.

Continuing education is key for workplace accessibility

A conference like AccessU can be a great fit especially if you understand the "why" behind accessible workplace technology, but are daunted by how to implement. As with most elements of running a workplace, continuing education is necessary for everyone involved in a workplace technology initiative, whether you are working on how to make your recruiting efforts more equitable or grappling with how to ensure that your workplace tools are usable by everyone. Having a chance to play with it “hands on” can make a big difference, and one characteristic I particularly appreciate about accessibility conferences is that people in this space like to share what works. That friendliness makes it easy to come in even as a complete beginner.

And of course, AccessU isn’t the only opportunity to get staff training. PEAT maintains a good list of continuing education opportunities as part of their staff training resources. This guide is full of great resources, including a detailed guide of where to find free accessibility training resources online. Of course, these lists are always evolving and I’m already planning to do more continuing education myself, so if you know of any other great training resources, either online or in person, please share them in the comments!

About the Author

Eliza Greenwood photo

Eliza Greenwood

Digital marketer Eliza Greenwood specializes in the role of social media use among people with disabilities as a way to identify marketing opportunities, and to keep a pulse on varying trends across channels. She is currently launching an accessible training series to help people use social media for career mobility. She previously worked as a sign-language interpreter, and also directed the award-winning documentary “Austin Unbound” (2011).