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It’s now 30 years since the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was signed into law in the United States. This important legislation sets out the rights of United States citizens with disabilities to access workplaces and communities. The ADA covers higher education, including access to conferences where academic research is presented.
Accessibility for a large event
I’m one of three accessibility co-chairs for the ACM SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (CHI 2021), together with Dr Chieko Asakawa and Dr Kotaro Hara. CHI 2021 is a gathering of around 3500 attendees (pandemic permitting). This is a major event for academics and professionals in the field of Human-Computer Interaction. There are incredible keynote speakers, paper presentations, posters, tutorials, workshops, competitions, a huge exhibition hall, parties, lunches and lots of networking opportunities, all spread over six intensive days. The conference is organized and run by hundreds of volunteers.
As an organizing team, our goal is to make the whole event an accessible, enjoyable experience for all attendees, no matter how they participate. The general chairs have allocated budget. The web chairs have developed an accessible web site. The video chairs are making sure videos are captioned. The registration chairs are including questions about accessibility accommodations on the registration form. The event logistics team are ready to gather accommodation requests and act on them. Literally everyone has a part to play, because accessibility needs to be built into everything we do.
In June we carried out a virtual site visit where we bombarded the venue with questions about accessibility: “What’s the emergency evacuation plan for a person in a wheelchair?” “Where can an attendee take a guide dog to relieve itself?” “Are there ramps and railings for the stages?”, “Is there a room we can use as a quiet space?” We invited an accessibility consultant to help us assess the space, and we’ll be sharing detailed information on the conference accessibility FAQ so attendees can identify any concerns in advance.
There is another equally important side to the conference, and especially conferences in this era of COVID – digital access. Attendees use the conference website, the registration system; and a conference web app. There will also be ways to participate remotely. Authors and program committee members use a conference management system to handle paper submissions and reviews, and a publication system to process final copies of the accepted papers. Finally, the conference proceedings are published in the ACM Digital Library.
Part of the role of an accessibility chair is to check the accessibility of these applications. I use the new IBM Equal Access Accessibility Checker along with manual testing to find issues that might create barriers. The Checker has built-in help for each detected issue, giving suggestions on how to fix the issue and an explanation of why this is important. It’s a free tool, so any developer can use it to improve their code and build up their accessibility knowledge. It is great for doing unit testing on individual components, as well as more complete assessments.
Resources for learning and practicing accessible design
There are many resources available for learning about digital accessibility, but it can be a daunting topic. Some use highly technical language, while others may be out of date. To make the topic approachable for non-experts, IBM’s newly released Equal Access Toolkit offers guidance for all stages of product development, from planning through design, development, and testing. The guidance is divided into three levels. This helps teams to break the work into manageable, sprint-sized chunks, and tackle some of the more important issues first. The toolkit also includes both a unit test process and a comprehensive accessibility test.
It takes a village
People with disabilities are often very generous with their time in providing detailed feedback for broken systems. However, this is not their job, and it creates a burden on top of the problems caused by the barriers themselves. If you are building software for people to use, don’t wait until someone tells you about a barrier you have created for them. That is too late. If you’ve never had a complaint before, it may be because your feedback features are themselves barriers. Be proactive, educate yourself, and build accessibility in from the start. We’d never have an accessible CHI Conference if we didn’t plan it in from the start, and digital access is no different.
Thanks to the ADA, United States citizens with disabilities can assert their right to participate fully in work and society. We all have a part to play in building an accessible world and realizing the promise of the ADA.
ADA Logo Credit: ADA National Network (adata.org)