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Reflections of a First-Time Attendee at the Web For All Conference

The Web for All Conference logo: addressing information barriers

Crista Earl, AFB's Director of Web Operations, and I were excited to attend the Web For All (W4A) Conference this year, in Montreal, Canada to share information about the AFB Accessible Video Player. Web accessibility is an important part of our work at the American Foundation for the Blind. We are committed to making our website and all of our products—from apps to online courses and webinars to books—fully accessible to people with vision loss.

The theme for this year’s conference was “Education for All on the Web,” a timely topic because the rapid growth in online learning has created many accessibility challenges. Papers focused on everything from tools and approaches for improving alternative text descriptions of images (yes, sadly still a problem in 2016!) to figuring out techniques to provide students who are blind or visually impaired with access to complex online math problems.

Presenters from around the world tackled everything from web-based games for detecting dyslexia in children to strategies for improving online education for adult learners with sensory, motor, and intellectual disabilities.

Jutta Treviranus, Director of the Inclusive Design Research Centre (IDRC) and professor at OCAD University in Toronto, gave a powerful keynote talk on “Lifelong Learning on the Inclusive Web” and spoke about the “cobra effect”—the idea that there can be unintended consequences of over-simplistic solutions to complex problems.

As she noted, “Education is a complex adaptive system involving politics, regulations, economics, families, communities, media, students...” all of which combine to make accessible education “a wicked problem.” She argued that accessibility strategies must recognize that accessibility is relative—to individual requirements, goals, and context—not absolute. Therefore, we need regulations that are responsive and evolving, not static.

This led us perfectly into the next talk, an update on “Web Accessibility Guidelines for the 2020s” given by Michael Cooper, representing the W3C Web Accessibility Initiative (W3C/WAI). The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0 were designed as a universal set of guidelines for content authors, but they depend on user agent support for maximum effectiveness.

WCAG 2.0 is 8 years old now, and starting to show its age. It now has to account for:

  • Smart phones
  • Web payments
  • Automotive interfaces
  • The Internet of things
  • Social networking
  • Ebooks
  • And more

Identifying all of the possible ways user needs could be met is time-consuming, and involves evaluating the pros and cons of each approach, and then prioritizing which approaches are most effective. Cooper encouraged all who are interested to consider participating in the W3C’s activities and working groups to help improve web accessibility.

It was invigorating to spend time with other professionals who are grappling with the issues of how to best deliver online education to learners with a variety of needs. Congratulations to the six doctoral students funded by the Google Doctoral Consortium, the four visually impaired students honored with IBM People with Disabilities Awards, the four recipients of Canvas and Intuit Student Grants, the winners of the Intuit awards for best technical and communication papers, as well as the winners of the Paciello Group Accessibility Challenge! The Pearson Accessible Equation Editor received the judges’ award, and NavCog: a turn-by-turn smartphone navigation assistant for people with visual impairments or blindness won the delegates award, decided by attendees’ votes.

Next year, the Web4All conference will be hosted in Perth, Australia as a co-located event with the WWW2017 conference supported by Media Access Australia.

Related Links:

Web Accessibility

Four Ways Google Is Building a More Accessible World for the Visually Impaired

Photo of Google logo from the Sydney Google office

On the heels of major accessibility announcements from Twitter and Facebook, tech giant Google recently highlighted its own efforts to build a more inclusive world for people with disabilities. Here are four ways Google is working to improve the lives of people who are blind or visually impaired:

1. Gaining equal access to information—As part of the Google Impact Challenge the company recently awarded $20 million in grants to 29 grantees around the world. One of the grantees, the DAISY Consortium is developing industry-standard accessibility tools for publishers to ensure that every book is accessible to people with disabilities.

2. Getting around—Another Impact Challenge grantee is Wayfindr from the Royal London Society for Blind People, which delivers audio-based directions to users’ smartphones. Eventually, the goal is to allow people who are visually impaired to independently navigate anywhere, indoors or outdoors. Perkins School for the Blind was awarded a Google Impact Challenge grant to develop a mobile app that helps users independently locate bus stops and other very specific locations.

3. Improving screen readers—Now, every ChromeBook comes with a built-in screen reader called ChromeVox, which allows people with visual impairments to navigate the screen via text-to-speech output. The newest version, ChromeVox Next (beta), includes a simplified keyboard shortcut model, a new caption panel to display speech and braille output, and a new set of navigation sounds.

4. Creating accessible appsThe Accessibility Scanner is a new tool for Android that lets developers test their own apps and get tips on ways to enhance accessibility. For example, the tool might recommend enlarging small buttons or increasing the contrast for easier use by people with low vision.

As an organization, the American Foundation for the Blind is dedicated to creating a world (and a world wide web) that is open to everyone, and we are thrilled that tech companies are addressing the needs of the 20 million Americans who are blind or visually impaired. To learn more about our commitment to accessibility, you can google us, or read more about our commitment to accessibility on our website.

Assistive Technology
In the News
Readers Want to Know
Web Accessibility

Happy 150th Anniversary Anne Sullivan Macy!

Anne Sullivan three-quarter portrait age 15

Dear Annie,

Happy birthday! Today, we celebrate your legacy and excellence as an educator. You insisted that your student, Helen Keller, could learn and accomplish just as much as any seeing and hearing child could — and you were right.

You were a tough teacher — when Helen misspelled a word in an essay or letter, you made her rewrite the entire text — but you also had a finely tuned insight into a child’s psychology. You instantly recognized that Helen was a very bright child who just needed the tools to communicate with the world around her.

You were critical of the conventional teaching methods of your day. When you were honored with a "Teacher’s Medal" at the Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco, you took the opportunity to admonish the teaching establishment and the status quo:

Every child begins life an eager, active little creature, always doing something, always trying to get something that he wants very much. Even before he can utter a word, succeeds in making known his desires by cries and grimaces. He invents and devises ways to get the things he wants. He is the star performer in his little world; he is the horse, the coachman, the policeman, the robber, the chauffeur, the automobile. He will be anything that requires initiative action. The one thing he never voluntarily chooses to be is the grown up personage that sits in the car and does nothing.

Our education system spoils this fine enthusiasm. We impose the role of passenger upon the child, and give him no opportunities to exercise his inborn creative faculties. The alluring joy of creation is not for him. He is deluged with accomplished facts. Naturally, he becomes mischievous and difficult to manage. He is compelled to defy his teachers in order to save his soul.

Our schools give no encouragement to assimilation, reflection, observation. They kill imagination in the bud. They uproot the creative ideals of childhood and plant in their place worthless ideals of ownership. The fine soul of the child is of far greater importance than high marks, yet the system causes the pupil to prize high grades above knowledge, and he goes from the schools into his life work believing always that the score is more important than the game, possession more praiseworthy than achievement.

You practiced what you preached. Early on, you took Helen outdoors and let her experience the physical world around her. You turned whatever fascinated her into an opportunity to learn. It is unsurprising that Maria Montessori, a woman whose work you had studied, would come to praise your innovative teaching methods.

For the past 13 years, I have worked as the keeper of your and your pupil’s archival collection and legacy at AFB, and my respect for you has never stopped growing. Perhaps your own very difficult childhood resulted in an extraordinary empathy and understanding that all children, regardless of the circumstances of their birth, have the capability to learn if given the chance, as well as the right to a rich and enjoyable education.

Generations of children are still thanking you. Happy Birthday, Ms. Sullivan!

Image: Three-quarter profile of Anne's head and shoulders. Her hair is parted in the center, pulled back, and braided into a bun at the back of her head. Her dress has a round decorative collar. Circa 1881.

Helen Keller
Personal Reflections
Public Policy

Join Parents and Teachers in Supporting the Cogswell-Macy Act on April 14th!

The American Foundation for the Blind needs your help! This week, we are asking all of you to support the Cogswell-Macy Act, the most comprehensive special education legislation for students with sensory disabilities to date. Call in on April 14th to ensure key resources are available to these students and their parents and educators through and expansion of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA)

Parents and teachers around the country are rallying around this bill. We asked for stories about the importance of specialized services for children with sensory disabilities like hearing loss, visual impairment, blindness, or deafblindness.

Here are just a few of their responses to the question, "How would improving the 'child count,' strengthening the reporting requirements of IDEA, and establishing best practices for teaching and evaluating students with visual impairments help your child?"

Quote by Nicole Schmidt: I believe my son is capable. I believe my son should not have limits put on him without giving him a chance. AFB logo on lower left and Support H.R. 3535 on lower right


“Hello, I am a parent to a child who is deafblind.  Andrew is almost 11 and attends our local school district. Andrew prefers sign language as a form of communication and he has yet to get this form of communication that he needs at school.  

I am very confident in saying that I believe my son can learn. I believe my son is capable. I believe my son should not have limits put on him without giving him a chance. I believe my son deserves a language. I believe that not only my son deserves a purposeful and meaningful day, but I believe ALL children deserve this same right!”

—Nicole Schmidt

“My 4 year old daughter, Avery, was born visually impaired and one of our first worries was how she would function in a sighted world. She required extra human help and devices to learn to crawl, eat, walk, use a white cane and even talk, due to her disability.  And although she receives excellent care at her special needs pre-k, I still worry about her future as far as access to enough resources/devices and getting her needs met.  She requires many extras that are vital to her learning. 

It is clear that schools need more funding to more appropriately meet the needs of these children, in terms of more qualified vision impaired aids, as well as therapists for speech and motor delays, which often accompany visual impairments. 

This act is so important in ensuring kids like mine can keep up with their typical peers!”

—Ann Devereux

“I am the mother of an adult child who is still receiving instruction from the local ISD. I believe that while this act is too late to help with my son, I believe it will give children across the country a better opportunity to actually learn something than my son ever did.

My son was labeled as emotionally impaired, and it seemed like the educational system gave up on actually teaching him how to read braille or even enlarged print. He never learned how to read beyond that of a first grader and now as the parent, I see many things that should have been, but never were.

I believe this act would give our children a better learning opportunity as the schools will have to take into consideration their visual and hearing impairments and not just a mental deficit.”

—Ruth Paris

"As a parent and as a man who has lived with Optic Nerve Atrophy for my entire life I feel the great need for children to be evaluated and tested to ensure their performance level in the school setting runs as smoothly as possible. By strengthening the child count and improving requirements of IDEA, the state and federal lawmakers as well as board of education workers, teachers, and physicians must get involved to inform parents and students of programs that are available.

I personally feel very strongly and passionately about this movement.”

—Jarrien Murdock

"Our son, Cole, who is blind and deaf, would greatly benefit from improving the requirements of reporting under IDEA and from establishing best practices for evaluating and teaching children who are blind, who are deaf, and who are deaf-blind. Cole was born with CHARGE Syndrome, which is a medically complex syndrome that has impaired most of his systems to include being blind and deaf. 

When he was a baby, we were told that he may never walk, talk, eat or do many daily life skills.  Not only is he doing these things, he is doing so much more. 


Cole is now in the 4th grade, and until I saw the Cogswell-Macy Act, I had given up all hope that Cole would ever receive a free and appropriate education. Attending a school with professionals who are trained in evaluation and teaching methods specific to Cole would give him the opportunity to be educated, be with other kids, and learn skills which would allow him to become a successful adult.  This act gives me hope that Cole will be able to attend school again.”

—Shawn & Raymond Herrick  

"We need this Act! Thank goodness the Cogswell-Macy Act champions kids with visual impairment and multiple disabilities! All kids should count...even ones with multiple disabilities!”

—Bette Lee

Personal Reflections
Public Policy
Readers Want to Know

Facebook Launches Its Own Approach to Making Photos Accessible to Blind Users

Woman using an iPhone with earbuds connected

Today, Facebook announced a new feature, "automatic alternative text": Using Artificial Intelligence to Help Blind People ‘See’ Facebook. The feature takes advantage of Facebook's object recognition technology to offer people using VoiceOver on iPhones or iPads a description of their friends' photos. The descriptions are coded as alt text, a standard HTML attribute that allows web designers to provide text alternatives for images.

"This step toward automatically describing photos helps those of us who are blind or visually impaired more fully appreciate the power and joy of Facebook. We are pleased that Facebook continues to address accessibility and harness targeted innovation. We are excited about the availability of its newly implemented access feature, and we are happy to help spread the word to people who are blind or visually impaired," says Lee Huffman, AccessWorld Editor and Manager, Technology Information.

Note that the feature is currently only available to users of iOS devices who have their language set to English, but Facebook says, "We plan to add this functionality for other languages and platforms soon."

Mashable reported that Matt King, Facebook's first blind engineer is revolutionizing social media as we know it, and notes that "the AI-powered tool is part of what Paul Schroeder, VP of programs and policy at the American Foundation for the Blind, described to me as a 'tipping point with accessibility.'"

The Verge also profiled some of the engineers involved in the project, who explain the reasons for the high-tech approach: Facebook begins using artificial intelligence to describe photos to blind users. And this Facebook blog post goes into further detail about what's happening Under the hood: Building accessibility tools for the visually impaired on Facebook. It will be interesting to see if, in the future, users will have the option to review the automatically generated alt text for their own photos, and improve them manually.

Matt King was quoted by The Verge as saying, "Inclusion is really powerful and exclusion is really painful." We applaud Facebook for taking this step toward meaningful inclusion.

In the News
Web Accessibility