What does it take to call yourself an accessibility expert?

Yesterday, February 28, 2012, the Assistive Technology Industry Association (ATIA) hosted an event titled Taking Accessibility Mainstream: Making the Case for an International Society of Accessibility Professionals as an all-day pre-conference session as part of CSUN. The context for this event is as follows:

This forum is intended to bring focus to the needs of the development community in achieving accessible technology.

As evidenced by the results of the Developer’s Survey on Accessibility conducted in late 2010, respondents highlighted an industry and profession in the midst of a fragmented landscape of partial solutions and serious obstacles to the attainment of more uniform, universally accessible technology. These obstacles range from basic challenges, such as a lack of developer skills, little or no coverage in engineering courseware, and lack of testing/development tools, to more subtle issues that include a poorly understood business case and lack of a cohesive professional identity for accessibility developers.

The objective of this Forum is to allow for sharing of insights and best practices, discussion of critical issues facing the industry, and advancement of the concept of an International Accessibility Professional Society with an infrastructure to support it. The goal is for those within the business and development communities to be the driving force for change in the accessible technology environment.

The schedule for the event indicates that they’ve identified three primary challenges facing a professional society focused on ICT accessibility:

  • Challenge 1: The Explosion & Divergence of Technologies & Platforms – How to Develop for Accessibility in this Environment? – Highlighting the very rapid changes to ICT technology and rapidly diverging platforms that ICT professionals need to keep up with
  • Challenge 2: The Increase in International Accessibility Policy Activities & Standards Work– How to Keep Up & When to Influence? - Highlighting the concerns surrounding what such a society’s stance would be with regard to standards, whether to remain neutral to standards or advocate some other others, etc.
  • Challenge 3: Approaches to Educating & Training of Designers & Engineers on Accessibility – Does Certification Provide a Solution or Create a Bigger Problem? Highlighting the challenges relating to whether & how to train, what to train, who to train, and whether or not certification is needed, what to certify, etc.

The folks involved in this event obviously did a lot of excellent work leading up to the event, but much of the conversation surrounding this event for the general accessibility community was relatively recent. One of the better blog posts on this topic, leading up to the event was published by Sharron Rush of Knowbility: Considering the Case for Creating an International Society of Accessibility Professionals. Beyond Sharron’s excellent post, the comments to the post are also great, and warrant a careful read.

During (and after) the event, Twitter users utilized the hashtag #a11ysociety to mention highlights of the meeting or to discuss their thoughts about the things being said. After the meeting, Léonie Watson posted her thoughts at the NoMensa blog: Is there a need for a professional accessibility society?

Training and Certification

I’d like to focus for a moment on the Training & Certification part of this conversation. During the latter part of this event, there were breakout sessions organized to discuss the three challenges outlined above. Needless to say that since my job is as Director of Training, I would gravitate toward this topic. I’ve trained hundreds of development staff on accessibility and feel very strongly that ignorance is the enemy, not malice, when it comes to inaccessible ICT.

Generally, I was very dismayed by the discussion in our breakout session, which mostly was a discussion about why things are bad, but not how to make them good. Given that (at least in my mind) our task was to discuss what role training could have in solving these challenges, it was disappointing that more solutions were not offered.

What is an expert?

Partly through the conversation, someone asked “Can you call yourself an accessibility expert if you don’t understand disability?” This statement was received with resounding support by all. It seems a universal truth, with which I also agree, that if you don’t understand the challenges that people with disabilities face when using ICT products and services, you don’t really know accessibility. Knowing what challenges people face is central to knowing how to reduce or eliminate challenges.

Can you call yourself an ICT accessibility expert if you don’t understand ICT?

Given the above question, I had a follow-up question: Can you call yourself an ICT accessibility expert if you don’t understand ICT? The other participants jumped on me in unison. Clearly, I had gone too far. I had poked at a soft spot in the accessibility community: our own ignorance.

Almost a year ago I said this: There is a low barrier to entry for accessibility people. Derek Featherstone said it more bluntly 6 years ago: In order to become an accessibility consultant, all you need to do is buy some business cards with the title “Accessibility Consultant”. These statements didn’t seem to get the same reaction as when I raised the topic yesterday. Why is it now that, in the context of an professional certification, the idea that we actually know what we’re doing is so shocking?

We must wage war against our own ignorance

The hands-down best thing about a professional society is that it will afford us the ability to help combat the ignorance – both externally and internally – that is pervasive when it comes to ICT accessibility. We need to combat the lack of knowledge that ICT development staff have about accessibility so that they can do a better job. But also we, as accessibility professionals, must also work hard to educate ourselves. We need to understand that our value as accessibility professionals isn’t just in our ability to tell people what is wrong, but why it is wrong, and specifically what must be done to fix it. If the ICT developers are doing things wrong, we need the ability to educate them on how to do it right. That requires, at least at some level, a degree of technical expertise in the platforms you work in.

Models from other professional societies

The ATIA sessions primarily focused on making comparisons to IAPP. This is a comparison that I think makes sense in that they’re also relatively new, somewhat small, and face similar challenges in the enterprise. I’d like to also suggest two other organizations we may want to look at from the training perspective: ACM and PMI. Both ACM and PMI are vastly larger organizations than any accessibility professionals society is likely to ever be. What I like most about them, however, is that educating new & existing members is an are of specific focus for both organizations. PMI, for instance, requires holders of the PMP certification to earn a specific number of PDUs to retain the certification. Beyond certification, PMI chapters around the globe constantly hold training classes and special events to educate members.

Membership to ACM pays for itself immediately in that one of the benefits of membership is access to the ACM Learning Center which offers hundreds of courses ranging from Business Skills to programming.

Regardless of whether or not an accessibility society is created and regardless of whether a certification is created we, as a community, must aggressively seek to address ignorance. It is important for our clients/ employers, important for ourselves & our personal growth, and important for accessibility.

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If you or your organization need help with accessibility consulting, strategy, or accessible web development, email me directly at karl@karlgroves.com or call me at +1 443-875-7343. Download Resume [MS Word]

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  • [...] a lot of discussion beforehand (e.g., Knowbility’s blog being only one of them) and afterward (What does it take to call yourself an accessibility expert? and Is there a need for a professional accessibility society?). We are all better for engaging in [...]

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