PEAT Talks Recap: Making Tech Fields Accessible
While jobs in the technology industry have grown exponentially, they’re not always accessible to applicants with disabilities—and Ather Sharif is on a mission to change that. Ather is the founder of EvoXLabs and a software engineer, freelance web developer, and consultant who is passionate about researching web accessibility and developing tools to make the web a more accessible place.
Bridging Research and Accessibility Implementation
Ather started EvoXLabs in 2015 while attending graduate school. In researching web accessibility, he noticed a “disconnect between the industry and the research and the academia with respect to web accessibility specifically.” He set out to bridge that gap. EvoXLabs supports his research and brings it into the technology industry, preventing duplication of efforts and using research to support the implementation of best practices in accessibility. Under Ather’s guidance, EvoXLabs developed a partnership with AccessComputing at the University of Washington. This program connects students with disabilities with mentors, internships, and technology through many projects currently in development:
- Project WhiteCane focuses on applied research on web accessibility. It’s specifically centered on people who are blind or have a visual impairment and seeks to make tools, like browser extensions, so that developers aren’t required to change their actual website.
- The Free and Accessible Websites for Nonprofits (FAWN) Initiative builds free, accessible websites for nonprofits. Ather aims to get the nonprofits on board so he can then take this experience to bigger tech companies and show that it’s possible to have high-quality, accessible sites.
- The Spinal Cord Injury (SCI) Video Blog formed out of Ather’s own experience as a quadriplegic. The blog serves as a platform for people with SCI, providing them with visual demonstrations of daily life activities.
- The Accessible World Conference is funded by AccessComputing and based on the idea of universal design. The conference brings together people from health care, technology, education, policy, and recreation, challenging presenters to explain their work in a way that all participants would understand.
- The EvoHaX Hackathon is also funded by AccessComputing and focuses on accessible and assistive technologies. Through this effort, a community of developers comes together to work on solutions to a variety of issues, depending on the year’s theme. These developers bring different ideas and backgrounds to the table, leading to the development of universally designed products that work for everyone.
EvoXLabs’ final project is a bit of a secret, but Ather let webinar participants in on the details. “Aditum” (the Latin word for “access”) is an initiative that involves making nonprofit organizations’ data available for general access, so people can utilize it to develop better analytics and solutions.
Internships Provide Real-World STEM Experience
EvoXLabs’ partnership with AccessComputing has been critical to Ather’s work. As one of the largest communities of students with disabilities in the STEM field, AccessComputing provides funding for many of EvoXLabs’ projects. Those who complete internships through AccessComputing and EvoXLabs get the necessary real-world experience to start building a career in STEM.
EvoXLabs’ internships focus on developing participants’ skills with computers. “Our goal is for them to not stay with us but go out in the world and be amazing programmers or be amazing at what they do. And if we can assist in doing that, that's what our goal is,” Ather said. Past interns shared that their internships allowed them to feel more confident throughout the process of searching for jobs.
What’s Next for EvoXLabs?
Additional services that EvoXLabs offers include accessibility testing and consultation, all informed by their research. They work with clients to develop solutions for accessible websites, portals, or content management systems. Moving forward, Ather hopes EvoXLabs can collaborate with likeminded people and organizations to enhance accessibility and awareness. Not many people are aware of accessibility, Ather lamented, and it’s his mission to fix that. In particular, he hopes employers will take his message to heart and consider accessibility while hiring people with disabilities. He believes this is the way toward more inclusive workplaces.
To learn more about Ather’s work with EvoXLabs, be sure to check out the archived PEAT Talk. And let us know in the comments: what action steps are you taking to make workplaces more inclusive and accessible?