My Name Is G. Jason Head.

I Thought I Knew About Web Accessibility.

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I’ve been running Refresh Pittsburgh for over 6 years – and every meet-up has been memorable. The last one, however, was a particularly good one.

A few weeks ago, we were approached by Chris and Gabe from the Pittsburgh Accessibility Group.  They were interested in doing a joint meet-up between our two groups.  We jumped at the opportunity as we thought it would be a perfect partnership and something that both groups could benefit from.  With Google Pittsburgh offering their beautiful space to host the event we lined up night of great speakers and demo all focused around web design and accessibility.

The result of our combined efforts was one of the more rewarding  and educational events I’ve been a part of organizing.  There were two presentations that particularly stood out for me.

Gabe McMorland did a fantastic presentation and demonstration of how to use the web using JAWS – the most popular screen reader. (There is also an open source alternative, NVDA, which is free.)  What made this presentation unique is that Gabe lost most of his vision when he was 19 years old.  Gabe puts on a good presentation – he’s great in front of a crowd and a talented speaker.  This was also the first time I ever saw a screen reader in action with someone who depended on it.

I’ve been developing web sites for over 15 years. I’ve read plenty of articles, blog posts and even a few books about building accessibility into web sites. Up until this presentation, I thought I was doing an above-average job when it came to adding accessibility features to my code.  But watching Gabe using the screen reader – especially how he interacted with it and how the screen reader responded to his using it – well, let’s say I have a completely different perspective on what I thought I knew.  The challenges that a blind user faces while using the web are many – but it does not take much for us to make sure that we can make it easier for them to access and use the same information we do.  Spending an extra few hours during your web project planning and while you are designing and coding can make a world of difference.

Another presentation that evening had a larger impact on me.  Mark Steidl has cerebral palsy. He spends his life in a wheelchair and his only means of communicating is by using a DynaVox machine.  Mark doesn’t let his handicap stop him from living his life whle he attends college at CCAC.  Along with his father helping, he demonstrated to us how he used his DynaVox machine to navigate online without the use of his hands. Mark was using the CCAC website as his example – and just this week it went live with a new design.  So we not only got a first-hand look at how Mark uses the web, but we also saw some mistakes that CCAC could have fixed on their site to make it a lot easier to navigate.  The amount of time it took for Mark to do simple tasks could have been addressed in fixed in a fraction of time by the CCAC webteam.  I would hope they reach out to him to help them create a better experience for the users of the CCAC website.

There was one thing I learned at this meet-up, its that if you are a someone who works on the web building anything – front-end, back-end, designer, project manager, UX design – hell, even if you are just the sales guy on your team – you need to make an effort – go out of your way to see how a disabled user navigated the web.  What you think you may know about making the web more accessible to those with disabilities will be improved exponentially by doing this.   Perhaps it’s time we talked less about developing for different devices and start talking about developing for people.

This two-hour meet-up has changed my outlook as a developer. I think we’ll be doing much more on this topic at Refresh Pittsburgh, in addition to an upcoming workshop and feature presentation at the next Web Design Day conference.  Thanks so much to Gabe and Chris for partnering with us at Refresh Pittsburgh for one of the better meet-ups I have ever attended.

You can learn more by joining us at Refresh Pittsburgh and also at the Pittsburgh Accessibility Meetup.