Ben Caldwell is a Web Developer at Pushing7 and PEAT's lead consultant on web accessibility issues. He served as co-editor of the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0 from 2002-2010 while working as a Web Accessibility Specialist at the Trace Research and Development Center, a pioneer research institute in the field of technology and disability.
Lessons from the Front Lines of Accessible Product Development
What do you get when you challenge over 50 technologists to improve the accessibility of a popular workplace product? One unique and rewarding hackathon. In April, the organizers of the 2017 Web for All Conference joined forces to host their second Accessibility Hack—a four-hour, in-person event that charged participating designers, coders, and others with making accessibility enhancements to TAO®. TAO is a leading open source assessment platform used in public sector employment settings, such as pre-employment testing. This event perfectly complemented the larger Web for All (W4A)/World Wide Web (WWW) Conference’s theme this year, “The Future of Accessible Work.”
PEAT was proud to join Bankwest as a co-host of the hack, with prizes donated by Microsoft and the Paciello Group. It was a thrill to watch the event unfold. We broke participants into five teams based on their skills and experience, making an effort to ensure an optimal mix of technical knowledge, accessibility expertise, and professional experience. Many teams found it challenging to get started given their unfamiliarity with the TAO tool set and the complexity of the code base. Fortunately, the TAO development team was available to assist participants remotely via a digital workspace.
Each team addressed a different aspect of the TAO product’s accessibility. For example, one team worked on the product’s visual focus and hover states, while other teams explored the accessibility limitations of various widgets that required the use of a mouse. The winning team identified a variety of issues with the product’s keyboard navigation and code markup that could be interpreted incorrectly by screen readers. As they so aptly put it during their presentation to the judges, "retrofitting accessibility increases development time exponentially!"
The feedback from the hack was overwhelmingly positive. Based on a survey of participants, 85% indicated that due to this experience, they will be more likely to incorporate accessibility best practices into their future work. Furthermore, 87.5% said they would attend again.
So what are my major takeaways from the Accessibility Hack? For one thing, events like this are a great way to learn from individuals with different levels of expertise. It was also exciting to watch the participants collaborate and leverage their shared experiences. At the end of the day, the participants appear to have learned three key lessons:
1. Experience and exposure matter
The attendees seemed deeply motivated by first-hand exposure to the user challenges they were exploring. Moving forward, the more we can expose developers to accessibility shortcomings from the user’s point of view, the more willing developers may be to implement accessibility features in their future work.
2. Small changes, big impact
Participants learned that, even when retrofitting a product, developers can often make easy, small changes that make a big difference for end users.
3. Collaboration works
When it comes to accessibility, collaboration between developers, designers, and accessibility experts is valuable for all. As their diverse viewpoints come together, the accessibility folks gain a better understanding of technical challenges, and the developers learn to think a bit differently about how various users approach their software. And that is something the participants will, hopefully, take back to their own organizations.
For those who weren’t able to make it to this year’s Accessibility Hack, you’ll be happy to know that similar opportunities abound in the open source world. Small groups or individuals can make a big difference in product quality by submitting issues, creating patches, or helping with accessibility testing and documentation.
Congratulations to the winners and participants, and our deepest thanks to W4A and WWW for hosting this year’s conference and hack. You helped shine a light on accessibility’s role in the workplace and the role of technology in advancing the employment of people with disabilities.
First place winners: Hans Hillen, William Grussenmeyer, Chris Leighton, Wayne Hawkins, Matthew Putland, Kieran Mesquita
Second place winners: Amanda Mace, Alice Forward, Justin James, Andhieka Putra, Jason Brown, Vibhor Kanojia