Voices from the TechSoup Community: Accessibility

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This is part of an ongoing Voices from the Community series of blog posts culling popular topics of interest from the TechSoup Community Forums and other online channels.

In response to NetSquared's July Net2 Think Tank on the topic of Building a Culture of Accessibility, I've compiled some of the suggestions and discussions from TechSoup's Accessible Technology and Public Computing forum.

Opening Hearts and Minds

As our community discusses the topic of building a culture of accessibility, an important distinction arises. Beyond -- or, perhaps more properly, before -- the nuts-and-bolts business of making accessible technology and making technology accessible, comes the foundation for such. As community member and Executive Director of Knowbility Sharon Rush points out, a culture of accessibility requires "open hearts and minds, the ability to listen and look in new ways, the willingness to lay aside basic assumptions, and a true commitment." Jayne Cravens, host of the TechSoup Volunteers and Technology forum, echoes Sharon and notes that too few IT managers and web developers make accessibility a priority.

While some web developers may feel that meeting accessibility standards is too large an effort, Rush holds that the time is right to take that very effort on. The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of People with Disabilities "has recognized access to technology as a foundational right in today's world," while the United States Department of Justice has begun looking at extending American Disabilities Act protections to the Internet.

A Plethora of Resources

Luckily, resources abound for anyone wishing to learn more about how to develop more accessible technology.

Sharon Rush weighs in again, this time with some of the best resources for learning about web accessibility methods. At the top of her list is the Web Accessibility Initiative of the W3C, the group responsible for official standards, web protocols, and practices.

Peter Cheer, host of the TechSoup Accessible Computing and Public Technology forum, grants that the wide array of information about web accessibility standards might seem overwhelming. But he goes on to offer a nifty resource that is aimed at a more general audience while not attempting to be comprehensive. This e-book from the OneVoice for Accessible ICT Coalition outlines the first measures a web developer should take toward making a site accessible. Entitled The First Seven Steps to Accessible Websites, the book answers the question: Where do I start?

In addition to online resources, there are also on-the-ground events and conferences organized around the topic of accessibility. Peter Cheer shares the upcoming 3rd Annual CUNY Accessibility Conference slated for August 4, 2011. There is also the Accessibility Unconference in Boston on September 17, 2011, and the 2011 da Vinci Awards on Sepetember 22, celebrating global excellence in assistive technology.

Tools for Free

Free tools are another great assistive technology resource that our community shares information about on the forums.

Peter Cheer notes that the Verbally app for iPad offers useful features: an onscreen keyboard with word prediction in combination with word/phrase choices, as well as male/female speech synthesized voices. And it's free, to boot.

Another recent free tool that Peter brings to our attention is the new release candidate version of the Open Source MS Windows Screen Reader from the Non Nisual Desktop Access (NVDA) project. Highlights include automatic reporting of new text output in a variety of clients, support for global plugins, additional key bindings for braille displays, and more. Community member and TechSoup Web Content Developer Carlos Bergfeld agrees that it's a great tool, although it doesn't play as well with Google Chrome.

Perhaps this is not surprising, as it seems that Google's apps are also not working well with screen readers and other accessibility tools. As Jayne Cravens points out, this is particularly a shame because some of the institutions that have led the charge in compliance are the same ones outsourcing certain functions to Google -- most likely without knowing how this impedes accessibility.

A Place to Start

This lack of knowledge again raises the fragmented nature of information available on accessibility, as well as the difficulties in enforcing standards. It's an ongoing issue that will need continued discussion and examination, but entities such as TechSoup and NetSquared highlighting the challenges and fostering dialogue with the community is one place to start.