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WAI: Strategies, guidelines, and resources to make the Web accessible to people with disabilities

Radio New Zealand Interview, February 2008

Shawn Henry talked with Bryan Crump for Radio New Zealand National while in New Zealand for Webstock 08. They talked about the potential for the Internet to enable people with disabilities to participate more actively in everyday life and business; the work of the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI); and including accessibility from the beginning when developing technology.


Bryan: There is a conference on called Webstock in the city. It's all about the Internet. One of those attending is Shawn Henry. She is based in the USA, and she is part of the Web Accessibility Initiative which aims to improve web access for the disabled. She has written a book about it too called “Just Ask” which is available online.

I spoke to Shawn earlier this week and began by asking her if the Internet had the potential to enable disabled folks to participate more in everyday life and business.

Shawn: It absolutely is a huge potential, and some parts of it are living up to its potential, and many are not. There are still a lot of accessibility barriers on many websites that make it difficult or impossible for some people with disabilities to take advantage of the information and interaction offered by the websites.

Bryan: Are we talking about software or the computer hardware or both?

Shawn: When we're talking about the web, we're talking about designing websites so that they can work with whatever assistive technologies a person with disability uses. The one that most people think of is a screen reader which is a software.

Bryan: A screen reader.

Shawn: Yes, a screen reader reads aloud the information on the screen.

Bryan: OK. So somebody who can't see, they can hear.

Shawn: Right. Someone who can't see or somebody who has cognitive difficulties where they can't process the written information, but they can easily process the information when they can hear it.

Bryan: Right. So the idea is to get that kind of stuff really full integrated with the internet as it already exists. So anybody, for example, who can't read very well is able to get pretty much what an ordinary sighted person can just at a click of a mouse.

Shawn: Exactly. Right. So it's designing the website so that it works with the screen reader or other assistive technologies. One of the key things with accessibility is, for most sites, there is not a lot of extra things you need to do. You just need to do things well.

Bryan: The World Wide Web Consortium which you're involved with now, for those of us who don't know all about the internet, what exactly is that?  It sounds impressive. Is it impressive?

Shawn: It actually is, yes. It is the organization that defines the standards for the web, so some people won't recognize HTML and CSS, and those are the common standards for the web. The director for the World Wide Web Consortium is Tim Berners-Lee. I guess I should say Sir Tim Berners-Lee as he is, but he is such a great guy.

Bryan: I was reading the notes. He invented the web.

Shawn: He did invent the web.

Bryan: That's a pretty big call, isn't it?

Shawn: It is.

Bryan: He must have a big brain.

Shawn: He has an amazing brain but he's also a wonderful guy and very down to earth and friendly as long as you can follow his brain which is like the web. His brain thinks like the web. It just goes from one idea to the next idea.

Bryan: You've been hired for sure by the W3C, right?

Shawn: Yes, W3C. Correct.

Bryan: To consult on access for the disabled, right?

Shawn: Yes. The really great thing is, within W3C, we have a group called the Web Accessibility Initiative or WAI. We focus specifically on accessibility and making the web accessible. It is awesome that there is a group within W3C that focuses on that.

Bryan: Apart from screen readers, can you give me another example or two of simple things that could make a real difference for a lot of disabled people?

Shawn: It's really how the website is designed. So the website, for example, is designed so that you can use it without a mouse. Some people who can't use their arms can type with a mouth stick or a head stick. That's one of the things that I'm doing at Webstock. So you want to make sure that the website can be used without a mouse, it doesn't require a mouse. That's another simple example.

Bryan: I guess for disabled people, you're talking about people, for example, who have problems seeing or hearing or using their hands because, I guess, from the waist down, our feet, some people use pedals to operate the web.

Shawn: Yes.

Bryan: Can you have a mouse that's actually controlled by your foot if you don't have any fingers?

Shawn: Absolutely. That's not uncommon. People will be able to control not their arms at all but control their feet, so there are some people who use switches or their feet to type, to control a switch or a mouse or whatever.

Bryan: What gets in the way of those things being designed more quickly?  Is it a case of money because you've got more and more small market things?  Obviously, you haven't got a massive market for those kinds of products. The return gets lower for the company in theory. Is money the main problem?

Shawn: When you're talking about the assistive devices, there's an issue with money. What I'm more concerned about is everybody making their website, making it so that it will work with those. Quite frankly, the biggest issue is just lack of awareness. Most people aren't aware that people with disabilities use the web, and they're not even aware of those simple things that you need to do to make their website accessible.

Bryan: Is it really just a simple thing of getting more disabled people involved in web design in the first place?

Shawn: That's part of it. Part of it is education, just sharing the information, doing radio shows, doing conference presentations. The other thing that we really need to do is get more involved in education. So when people are learning web design that they're learning the basics of accessibility.

Bryan: Is that what you're partly doing for W3C?

Shawn: Absolutely.

Bryan: Education, trying to get the word out as well as consulting on things that could work better with internet itself.

Shawn: Yes. The main focus of our work is to create guidelines or standards that define what you need to do. So people know what they need to do, and so they can design the websites to work with all different kinds of browsers and assistive technologies, etc. So our main focus is actually defining those standards, but then, we have a group that focuses on education and outreach.

Bryan: What are you going to do with those standards?  Make them mandatory or are those standards really guidelines?

Shawn: We're not in a position to make them mandatory. However, there are some governments and some organizations which have adopted those as mandatory standards.

Bryan: Such as.

Shawn: The previous versions, I believe, Canada has, and I think Australia has, New Zealand has created their own. Actually, I had a good discussion earlier in the conference with a gentleman who is involved with the New Zealand standards, and we're talking about some of the advantages to harmonizing on international standards around the world rather than each organization or country creating their own.

Bryan: What's your impression of the way New Zealand has approached disabled people in the net?

Shawn: There's a lot of really neat work going on. There's still a lot of lack of awareness as all over the world.

Bryan: Have you been to our beehive yet?

Shawn: I have not.

Bryan: That's that funny building in Wellington which is shaped like a beehive, and it's where the big bosses, the parliamentarians, politicians hang out. It used to be how to get around in a wheelchair.

Shawn: That's not uncommon. Yes, it's challenging. It's an interesting experience to be in a wheelchair for a while and see what issues are with getting around.

Bryan: Your own passion for increasing the availability of the internet to disabled people, where does that come from?

Shawn: Well, it originally actually came from personal self-preservation. So when I started having difficulties and couldn't read the computer screen very well, I had difficulty just sitting up long enough for a long time and using the keyboard and such, I thought I was going to have to quit work altogether.

Bryan: You're a computer specialist, aren't you?

Shawn: Right. I was doing user interface design in general. So I thought that was it, and I just so happened to live in a town where there's a research center on it, accessibility, and got hooked in with that and decided I'm going to do something about it. Then, even after I started to get better once I learned how vital it is and how empowering it can be, and yet, it's not being done, and I stuck with it. As you said, I'm quite passionate about it.

Bryan: What happened to you that affected your vision?

Shawn: I have a neurological condition, and so I would just have significant difficulty focusing. I had double vision and things like that. Still now, I browse at about 150% zoom.

Bryan: I'm trying to imagine that.

Shawn: You started out mentioning how empowering it is, and even when I was very sick and all I could do is lie in bed and listen to it, there was a lot of information I could get. So I could still keep up with what's going on in user interface design and web development when the sites were accessible. This field changes so fast, and if I hadn't been able to keep up for that time, then I would have just been out of it, but instead, for the most part, I could get information that I needed and be able to keep up with the field.

Bryan: You are completely recovered now.

Shawn: No. I still have relapses and remitting. So I have some issues still and it comes and goes, so I'm still a personal user of a lot of the accessibility features in websites.

Bryan: You're listening tonight on Radio New Zealand National. I'm talking to Shawn Lawton Henry. She has come to New Zealand for Webstock. It's a computer internet conference. She is talking at the conference about the accessibility of the web for people who are disabled.

We've answered this question already but I'm going to ask it again. Will the people who don't have a disability of whatever form can really understand what it's like?

Shawn: Yes. I think enough to be a good web developer, absolutely. Just spending a little time observing somebody use a screen reader, observing somebody with another disability interacting with the web, you can get enough information to understand what you need to do as a web developer.

The other thing that I advocate is including real people with disabilities in your design process. So I've written a book on that which is available free on the web, and it's fully accessible, “Just Ask: Integrating Accessibility Throughout Design,” and that is the focus. How do you get people in to help you with your design, to test your designs, to help you understand what the issues are that they're facing so that you can design them accessibly.

Bryan: Someone who wants to have a look at “Just Ask” or have a listen, it's all setup so somebody in New Zealand, if I've got the right hardware, they'll be able to access whatever way they choose.

Shawn: Absolutely. It's on the web, and it's fully accessible. So whatever equipment you're using, it should work just fine with it.

Bryan: What about hardware?  Are the big computer companies providing the sorts of material which allow people to access the software regardless of whether it's getting developed or not?

Shawn: Yes. A lot of the hardware is separate. Assistive technology is developed separately. There are certainly things that you need to build into the hardware to make them better, simple things like landmarks on keyboards, knobs, nibs, so you can tell where your fingers are and things like that.

Bryan: The major operating systems as well like Windows or whatever, how do they perform when it comes to access?

Shawn: There are a lot of really neat features in the operating systems, for example, that allows people to do modified key presses with one finger, with one keystroke or whatever.

Bryan: Modified - how does that work?

Shawn: If you were going to do an @ sign, it is Shift-2 usually to get an @ sign.

Bryan: That's right.

Shawn: So one of the things that you can do is set sticky keys, and what that does is when you press the modifier key, it sticks down, and then the next key that you press is modified.

Bryan: I see.

Shawn: So if you type with a head stick, which is common, say, for people who have cerebral palsy, then you can use that to usually just have the one press at a time and that's how you press a modifier key.

Bryan: You mentioned screen reading. We've talked about that a couple of times. What about voice recognition technology?  How important is that to the future of access for disabled people?

Shawn: Most of the people that I personally know and that I work with have found that when it's the only option, it's useful, but for the most part, it's not robust enough. Also, a lot of people with, say, cerebral palsy may have difficulties speaking.

Bryan: So it's no good for them.

Shawn: It's no good, yes. I've tried using it and, for me, it was too difficult and too slow. I actually have a husband who I call my amazingly intuitive voice recognition software.

Bryan: Yes, it goes without saying.

Shawn: He typed most of the book. He knows what I'm going to do. I'm a bit spoiled on that.

Bryan: Off the top of my head when I was reading my notes about the conference, I thought, “Yes, voice recognition, that must be future. ”  If we got to the point where the software was much faster, our computers were much more powerful, would it be useful?

Shawn: That absolutely has a place. Voice recognition is used for some mobile device communications and things like that. It's useful in some cases, and that's one of the technologies I think that will benefit everybody as most of the things we do for accessibility can benefit people without disabilities. So I hope that continues to develop, and certainly, it's a lot better than it used to be.

Bryan: If there was one technology that you would really like to see developed to help disabled people, what would it be?  Is there anything on the wish list that you might have?

Shawn: It's really not a new technology. Again, it's just making sure that the technology that we are developing can include accessibility from the beginning. So for example, in the Web World, there's some development. I'm not going to name specific products.

Bryan: That's all right.

Shawn: A lot of actually the newer technologies that have come out for the web lately started out not being accessible. So they've had to build accessibility in as they've gone on, whereas, for example, the technologies that we developed at W3C, we are including accessibility from the beginning, and that really makes it a lot more effective and a lot more efficient when accessibility is considered early on in the development of a new technology.

Bryan: We, in the west, perhaps have it reasonably well compared to people in developing countries. Are you interested in what's happening in terms of access of disabled people right across the planet?

Shawn: Absolutely, yes. We're definitely worldwide. We have a group that focuses on internationalization within the accessibility group. We have people around the world that contribute to our work. My colleague was in India last week. I couldn't do both India and New Zealand, so we got to split up, and actually has found a lot of interest there, and we have some connections there as well as different parts of the world. We also, within W3C, have a group focusing on just the web in general in developing countries.

Bryan: In the end, do you think that things will be achieved mainly by a change of mind set rather than change in technology?

Shawn: Absolutely because right now, the technology exists to have very good access for almost all websites and situations and, certainly, software products. It's a little more challenging with hardware. So it's a matter of just getting the awareness and education, people understanding the importance of it and understanding the additional benefits. It's not just for people with disabilities. What you do for accessibility is going to help everybody. It's going to help, for example, to make your site work better on a mobile device.

A good friend of mine is able to have a job, and so he contributes to society through his job, through the taxes he pays, through the house that he had built, as opposed to just living off public assistance. He's able to contribute to society in many ways.

Bryan: How long has your book been available online?

Shawn: It has been available a year.

Bryan: The feedback, mostly from other disabled people.

Shawn: Very excited. There's a phrase in one of the disability movements, nothing for us without us. The book really promotes people with disabilities being actively involved, and people are very excited to be able to contribute and for their opinions to be heard and to be considered important.

Bryan: Are you going to do an updated version?

Shawn: We'll see. It took a year of my life.

Bryan: Your husband's life too by the sound of the book.

Shawn: That's right. Exactly. So I do keep updates. It's on the web so I don't have to do a whole new version. It's available on a print copy as well, but I wanted to make it available for everybody. So I have done incremental updates here and there.

Bryan: Shawn, it has been great talking to you. Thanks very much for coming in.

Shawn: It has been wonderful. Thank you for your inviting me.