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Day 1

The WAI to Web Accessibility: A Tour of New Resources from the W3C Web Accessibility Initiative

Shawn Lawton Henry

The Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) of the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) is focused on make the web accessible and usable by all through advocacy and education.  There is a tremendous amount of content on the website ( As one of the lead contributors, Shawn Lawton Henry presented a tour of these resources.

Although it is always a work-in-progress, one great feature is the points-of-entry for various audience types. The needs and interests of a "policy maker" are very different from a "developer" or "designer" and this is a way to help curate the experience.

Developing Applications for those with Cognitive Disabilities

Michelle Ranae Wild, BEST

Michelle is the founder and CEO of Brain Education Strategies & Technologies (BEST) and works with a team of experts including members with traumatic brain injuries to develop apps which help users with cognitive disabilities manage day-to-day tasks. A very interesting by-product of this process was discovering that the tools and methods user of this app need to structure daily routines are similar to the iterative design methodology used to develop the app: Plan > Monitor > Evaluate > Repeat

User research revealed to the team that pre-injury, most activities are performed on "auto-pilot". After a brain injury, this changes for most, and each step in a process requires focus and attention and cognitive overload becomes a major road block. This is also a lesson for designers to be aware when they are operating on "auto-pilot" allowing biases to creep in instead of paying attention to user needs.

Inclusive Design Workshop

Mary Jo Mueller, Hope Turner - IBM

As a provider of enterprise solutions for businesses, IBM has a vested interest in making sure their products are accessible by all. They have a team dedicated to setting inclusive design standards, documented here:

This session was a hands-on work shop and everyone participated in creating an Empathy Map based on a suggested persona. It was a valuable learning experience, but not for the intended reason. Personas are a standard design tool to help understand audience types, build empathy, and lead to new discoveries. I find them to be fraught with problems, mainly in that they seem to reinforce the existing biases in the design team instead of learning from actual people. In the case of persons with disabilities this can lead the team down the wrong path. This was the case in the exercise performed here. Instead of making discoveries, the group narrowly focused on how frustrating and worrisome it would be to experience the suggested disability. It is not likely that that has anything to do with the day-to-day experience of a person who has faced this challenge their entire life and has a series of strategies to manage the challenge.  This is impossible to simply slap on to a persona and really understand this audience type. (This way of thinking will be confirmed and stated more eloquently in a Day 2 session!)

Day 2

Inclusive Design and Research

Shea Tanis, Coleman Inst.

"What is inclusion? belonging, respect, value"

"What is inclusive design? Considering the full range of human diversity."

Shae Tanis presented a very thorough overview of inclusive design and research methodologies. The main take away is that inclusion needs to be considered at every stage of the process in order to avoid "advocacy theater". This is when diverse audience members are included in discussion and research, but their contributions are not fully valued and they are not involved in testing the results to see if their needs have been met.

Shae also made an important point about why simulations, or the creation of personas, don't work. Individuals are resilient and adaptable, traits which are not reflected in the creation of personas. This is similar to how a sighted novice screen reader user testing a site is not anything like how an experienced person who depends on a screen reader uses one. Only actual users can provide the expertise and insight that leads to discoveries.

Designing Accessible Forms

Jim Allan - W3C

Great technical overview of HTML form elements all documented and available here:

Make a Splash: In depth dive into ARIA

NIcholas Steenhout -

ARAI is a set of attributes added to HTML elements to provide some accessibility functionality that was missing. HTML5 added some of those features. This is why ARIA usage has become complicated and widely misunderstood. In most situations semantic HTML5 is all that browsers need to make elements accessible in a predictable manner. Adding ARIA parameters can confuse or even break the accessibility. So the mantra has become: the best way to use ARIA is to not use ARIA!

Of course there are several cases where ARIA is essential. Here are some examples:

  • aria-live - alerts users to newly presented dynamic content.
  • role="log" - is used for constantly updating elements such as a time counter or stock ticker.
  • role="dialog" - is used for modal windows. Use with caution as browser support is spotty.
  • aria-required - is a preferred method to the HTML5 "required" implementation which can be problematic in the way screen readers announce it.

Day 3

Eight Traits That Make or Break Your Interface

Rob O'Connell - designer at USAA

I am a long time user of USAA digital services and have seen the improvements by the design team over the years, so it was interesting to gain some insight into how they approach the process. 

The "eight traits" are a bit of a misdirection. The theme of this presentation can be summed up by saying that interface elements have an identity which has inherent behaviors and a predictable presentation so user know what it is when they encounter it and it does what is expected. The "traits" are parameters that are part of the HTML standards and must be used to accurately describe interface elements to screen reader users.

What is unique to this approach is the focus on the DNA of each element and respecting that identity all the way to the presentation to the user. This idea will aid in the creation of a component library where we break each element down and ensure usage is consistent as it is added to other objects.

Designing Inclusive User Experiences

Henny Swan - Tetralogical

Henny is an digital accessibility consultant. She presented a list of tips and things to consider to improve the accessibility of websites. I appreciated her user-centered approach to this, for example, making sure alternative text for image is conversational and makes sense in context, sometimes conveying the emotional meaning of an image as opposed to just the literal. She urged us to consider the users situation when using an app or website, such as a running app which is impossible to use without reading glasses (I totally get this one!)

In the design process, it is vital that designers clearly convey the intention of designs so it does not get misinterpreted in development. Annotations are good way to do this, but be careful to only include what is needed to avoid cognitive overload causing developers to tune out and miss the information.

KEY NOTE: Judy Heumann

Judy is an activist who's work led to the Americans with Disabilities Act. She went on to work in the Clinton and Obama administrations and is still active in the movement. Listening to her story, some of which is presenting in the documentary "Crip Camp" (available on Netflix!) and her new memoir, was the perfect balance to all of the technical and legal presentation of the conference. We are all working to make the web better in some small way, to ensure guidelines are complied with, which is important work, but none of it would even be a discussion if it weren't for brave individuals like Judy who spoke up and demanded their rights. She is inspiring, and asks everyone who points that out, "So what are you going to DO with that inspiration?"

How to Develop an Efficient A11y Testing Process

Lyssa Prince - ABLE Tech

Lyssa gave us an overview of the various website accessibility checkers, such as Siteimprove, and how to compile the results in to an actionable report for clients.

The W3C Authoring Practices list is a vital resource in creating a checklist and understanding the intended functionality of elements.

Performing Task-Oriented A11y Walkthroughs

Sarah Pulis, Andrew Arch

The problem task-oriented walkthroughs solves is that accessibility checkers, such as Siteimprove, can point out issues, but simply passing one of these checks does not guaranty accessibility or usability. Testing based on specific user goals can be a better indicator. 

Of course this approach is useful, but in this presentation it is based on personas, which as described earlier can be problematic. The concepts presented here would become many times more valuable if tested on actual users.

Final Thoughts

I don't know if there really is some kind of collective theme, or if it is just my own journey of discovery, but it the theme last year was that accessibility enhancements benefit all users, then the theme this year was that accessibility solutions require true inclusion of persons with disabilities at every phase of design and implementation.

"Advocacy theater" is when representative of target audiences are brought to the table, but their contributions are left there. Persons with disabilities are the experts who are facing and overcoming challenges every day. They are the team members that can drive innovation and measure the results.

As much as I appreciate and am inspired by the incredible work of the presenters of AccessU, I still feel that much of the discussions present accessibility as an "add-on" and persons with disabilities as a separate group that must be considered. I understand that some distinctions need to be made in order to have a discussion, and that they are not the one's who defined themselves an "others". We are all working to undo this situation, and much work remains. However, I look forward to the time when we can simply consider these as usability issues. As user interface designers we all have a certain bias of what we consider the norm, mostly based on our own capabilities, like what we can easily see or click on. Even the smallest sampling of user tests will quickly reveal that our own concept of the "norm" is not enough. We need to get out of our own way and listen to our users and expand our notion of usability to include all users. There is no line between the "norm" and an accessible alternative. There is only a spectrum of presentation in various ways that can be used or combined to create whatever experience is best for that user at that particular moment.