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.

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