Talk about the passion

So, I’m back home after a week in Spain. The main purpose of my trip was to serve as General Chair of the International Cross Disciplinary Conference on Web Accessibility (W4A 2009) held in Madrid on 20-21 April. I thought I’d reflect on how I felt the conference went, and the key messages emerging from presentations and discussions.

But first, some background. W4A was started up by a group of accessibility researchers at the University of Manchester, and was first held in 2004; founders Simon Harper and Yeliz Yesilada still do an enormous amount of work behind the scenes each year.

I’ve been lucky enough to be involved in the last three W4As in various roles. What makes W4A different from other accessibility, web standards and human computer interaction/usability conferences?

I think it’s a combination of a few things. Firstly, it’s a research conference – our presentations are all instances of where boundaries in web accessibility research are being pushed back; so there’s no ‘Accessibility 101’ or ‘Introduction to WCAG 2’. There’s a quality control process – all submissions are peer-reviewed and the best selected for inclusion. W4A is cross-disciplinary, so we receive contributions and attract attendees from academia, from industry and from the public sector, from all over the world. W4A is held alongside WWW, the largest annual web conference in the world, so we always have a great venue in an exciting city (past venues include Beijing, Edinburgh and New York).

These factors mean that we attract an audience that is highly knowledgeable about accessibility, so are ideally placed to critique what they hear, challenging or supporting the speaker as appropriate. And, as a 2 day conference, there are plenty of opportunities for interaction beyond the conference schedule.

The theme this year was Web Accessibility and Older Users; and our two excellent keynotes from Andrew Arch and Mike Paciello, along with several other talks, focused on this subject. But we also heard about a range of topics, from user-generated content accessibility to a new approach to delivering user-agent sensitive web content through innovative server-side technology. Every paper presented at the conference will be available in full from the ACM Digital Library, and presentation slides will also be on the Slidehare W4A09 event.

Rather than go into each paper in depth, here are the key messages I heard from throughout the two days:

  • The overlap – and also the differences – between designing for older and for disabled people were clearly identified. We heard that older people do not necessarily want assistive technologies that may improve access to the Web but may also identify them as ‘special’ or ‘different’ or somehow.
  • We mustn’t forget just how important ATAG and UAAG are to the web accessibility picture; but we can look to an example (ATutor) of where authoring tool and user agent support (through personalisation) for accessibility have driven development.
  • Because of shortcomings in user agents (and user awareness of functionality available in user agents), there is developer frustration at having to do more than just meet WCAG to support accessibility – but the resultant demand for ‘more training for users’ is a very challenging request to meet in the short term.
  • Objectively and accurately measuring Web accessibility remains an important strategic and administrative exercise – and hence a research topic.
  • User stories allow empathy and understanding to be fostered, and realisations of the often huge gulfs between expert developers and designers, and older people unfamiliar, wary, and sceptical of web technology (but who are still – and this is important – potentially enthusiastic users).

W4A 2010 takes place on 26-27 April next year in Raleigh, North Carolina. What can you expect if you come? Well, a great two days hearing about some exciting work and also meeting with accessibility people from all over the world. If you want to present, you have three options:

  1. A Technical paper – a full 8 page submission describing completed research or a new theory relating to web accessibility.
  2. A Communication paper – a 4 page submission providing a description of work in progress, or other emerging work that isn’t yet complete enough to form a Technical paper.
  3. The Web Accessibility Challenge – a more practical option for people who have developed a new technology or technique for promoting accessibility, and who are prepared to demonstrate it to the audience and judges.

I want to re-emphasise the importance of W4A as a cross disciplinary conference – it’s not just for academics, but for anyone who’s doing any kind of research and development with a web accessibility focus. We want views and opinions from as many different perspectives as possible, because in my view that’s what’s made W4A so successful so far.

The organising team have had some great feedback from delegates this year, and have many ideas for how to make the conference even better than this year – but more suggestions will be gratefully received. We were particularly pleased to see how well using Twitter helped us raise awareness of what was being discussed beyond the conference, and it was fantastic to see so much interest from beyond the walls of the conference room (see the #W4A09 Twitter feed)! My thoughts on making the conference experience as accessible as possible are something I’ll be blogging about separately.

To finish – some other favourite moments from my trip to Spain:

  • A wonderful few days in Barcelona, including giving a web accessibility talk at the Universitat de Barcelona, the topic of which will be the subject of another blog post… I discuss in a separate post;
  • Visiting the Camp Nou football stadium and immediately becoming a Barça fan;
  • Travelling at 300km/h on the AVE train from Barcelona to Madrid. 690km in less than three hours!
  • Catching up with old friends, putting faces to names that previously only existed as email or blog authors, and meeting up with new accessibility people at W4A;
  • Chatting about football with the jamón-carving waiter at lunch during W4A, who turned out to be a Real Madrid and Liverpool supporting madrileño with a Scouse accent;
  • A night of tapas (including black pudding and fried eggs!) and sangria in the buzzing area of La Latina, courtesy of Yod Samuel Martí­n García;
  • A fantastic couple of hours in El Prado, being moved not only by some of the world’s most marvellous paintings but also by the sheer enthusiasm of the people there – especially the many groups of young school kids gathered round a classic Goya or Velázquez listening to the story behind the picture.

It was a great week, and I’m already looking forward to W4A 2010. Maybe see you there?

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