Nothing about accessibility at AnEventApart 2009?

I recently attended AnEventApart (AEA) in Chicago. AEA, spin-off of AListApart ('for people who make websites') and baby of the two founding fathers / gods / gurus of standards-based web design, Jeffrey Zeldman and Eric Meyer, fields a higher class speaker than your average web design event.

This year's bunch included Zeldman and Meyer themselves, and others known to have something of substance to say, like Andy Clarke and Dan Cederholm. Lesser known but nonetheless making an impact were Whitney Hess on users, Kristina Halvorson on content, and Luke Wroblewski's entertaining and eye-opening talk on the many, many, many things you can get wrong in web form design.

No session on accessibility, though.

No session directly about accessibility, anyway. Which is weird, given the dedication to accessibility usually witnessed amongst standards-committed website-makers. Or maybe not. AEA is, after all, based on the premise that standards = good, and for many, standards = accessibility.

Look at description of their category 'standards champion' - 'This gong will be awarded to a site, individual or organisation promoting accessible design in 2009'. It's true, standards and accessibility do go hand-in-hand, clutching each other tightly, but they're not the same. Adherence to standards doesn't guarantee accessibility.

So perhaps the absence of a session devoted specifically to accessibility at AEA is compensated for by its spoken and unspoken presence in (almost all) sessions. This was notable in Dan Cederholm's talk on 'Progressive Enrichment with CSS3'.

Cederholm demonstrated some unbelievably amazing things that can be achieved with ever-so simple CSS3 in some browsers - transitions, re-sizing, movement and more. But he preceded his talk by saying, more or less, 'none of this matters, and that's why it's OK to do it'.

In other words, the fact that these effects can only be viewed in certain browsers, or not at all if CSS is disabled, doesn't get in the way of what really matters - the content. Make content usable and accessible, and then add bells and whistles. In fact, from an intellectual disability perspective, the bells and whistles might make content more accessible.

Eric Meyer couldn't avoid the accessibility question in his talk 'JavaScript will save us all'. What if you haven't got JavaScript? But again, he was talking about using it for progressive enhancement, not for core content. And again, what he was talking about might make content more, not less, accessible for people with intellectual disabilities.

What was really interesting in Eric's talk was the call - in something of an aside - for a Web Accessibility Project, along the lines of the Web Standards Project. It makes sense. Many web designers complain that the WCAG guidance is complex to understand and implement (see this blog and our core findings page). So evangelical translators are needed. Individuals are already doing this, but banding together under the label of the Web Accessibility Project might add impact.

So accessibility was there at AEA, albeit discretely. But accessibility for people with intellectual disabilities was, as ever, absent.


Eric Meyer says:

Hi, Helen‚ thanks for being there and for the write-up!

I think you’re right on about accessibility being woven into the very fabric of the talks. It’s basically reached the point of a given with us and our audience, just as with standards. We have had (and likely will again have) talks specifically about accessibility. It just didn’t happen this time around.

In my case, for example, I wouldn’t say that I couldn’t avoid accessibility in my talk. I wouldn’t ever want to avoid it. In part, what I wanted to show was that JS is a tool that can cut both ways, and that we need to be careful with it, but that we shouldn’t shun it entirely. JS has gotten a little bit of a “no accessibility here” reputation, and like Derek Featherstone, I’d like to show that’s not entirely the case.

Also, I think addressing intellectual disabilities is a lot harder than other types. As a sighted, physically able person, I can approximate for a little while what it’s like to be blind (close my eyes) or paralyzed (force myself to sit still). No, these are not exact matches, but I can use those techniques to help imagine and empathize with those conditions.

But there’s no way I know of to even begin to simulate cognitive disability. I can’t even really imagine what it’s like to be less (or even more) intellectually capable than I am.

That’s the extra challenge I think ID advocates face, and what a Web Accessibility Project could help promote. In that vein, I’m looking forward to what INMD produces along those lines: it’s important, and the more insight you can give us, the better!

15 October 2009

Andy says:

Very good points. I too find there’s a misconception that standards-based web design = accessible website, and unfortunately for many designers (encouraged by an almost obsessive desire to get green ticks and no warning/error messages in the validators), assume that once their site validates to the standards, they must also have done the job with accessibility too.

Places like An Event Apart are the right stage to get the message across that good accessibility (‘real world’ accessibility) goes beyond using web standards and getting sites to validate.

22 October 2009

User-Centered Design and Web Accessibility Blog - AniktoBlog » Blog Archive » Why Web Accessibility Efforts Fail says:

[…] might be in the technological messages delivered to Web designers and developers. According to a review of the An Event Apart (AEA) conference in Chicago recently held last week, there are opportunities to globally disambiguate the connection between […]

Full blog post

24 October 2009

Helen Kennedy says:

Thanks for the comments everyone! Just to clarify – when I said ‘Eric Meyer couldn't avoid the accessibility question’ I didn’t mean this in the sense of ‘Eric Meyer was backed into a corner with a gun to his head’ but rather ‘It was an inevitability that Eric Meyer would talk about accessibility, given the “no accessibility here” reputation of JavaScript’.

Intellectual disability accessibility definitely calls into question notions of universal design, or universal accessibility, because what might be inaccessible for people with other disabilities can be very accessible for people with ID.

Anyway, we have just about finished work on this phase of our site, and would really welcome comment on and evaluation of what we have done here:

Thanks for your interest in our work!

17 November 2009