Building an Accessibility Body of Knowledge

This year, we’ve seen a growing prominence of discussions about the idea of developing a resource providing access to trusted information on web and ICT accessibility – an accessibility Body of Knowledge. It would be hard to defend the idea that accessibility knowledge should remain a specialism, held only be a chosen few and made available to others only at great cost, going against the very objective of supporting inclusion that we surely all support. Instead, there’s an obvious attraction for accessibility specialists and those less familiar with accessibility theory and practice to be able to refer to and use a resource that provides authoritative information on accessibility, from development techniques to assistive technology performance and support to legislative requirements to statistics on return-on-investment.

Anyone who’s looked for it will know that useful accessibility information is scattered across many places online, sometimes hidden in paid-access academic journals or white papers. Even academic researchers find the availability of scientific accessibility data frustrating.

W3C WAI of course provides some excellent resources, but its level and scope of publication activity is necessarily limited by funding and policy constraints. Organisations like WebAIM and The Paciello Group also provide authoritative collections of resources but they too are constrained in what they can produce. So the very fact that there are diverse reliable sources of accessibility information means we need a way of joining them all together – a way that’s not Google. I suspect most readers will have come across articles that – well – aren’t quite so helpful about promoting best practice in accessibility. So in connecting the good stuff, how do we also limit the chances of myths and inaccuracies being perpetuated?

A11yBOK and eAccess+ Hub

The ongoing Accessibility Body of Knowledge (a11yBOK for short) discussions that gained publicity after CSUN 2012 have led to an early proof of concept web site (a11ybuzz), with a supporting discussion forum on what the resource should contain and how it should be organised and progressed. Some thoughtful contributions have emerged from Karl Groves and Olivier Nourry in particular, and the effort seems to be building up quite some momentum.

At the same time, the eAccess+ network has been working on a similar idea –the eAccess+ Hub. eAccess+ is a network of 25 organisations active in promoting e-accessibility, funded by the European Commission to raise e- accessibility awareness and activity across EU member states. Production of a central accessibility resource for different stakeholder groups is one of the network’s expected deliverables under the terms of its funding. The Hub started life as a wiki, and at the time of writing we acknowledge has evolved without much control over writing style or information architecture. So the eAccess+ team are fully aware that there is much work to do on improving user experience!

The fact that these two efforts are underway – and there are bound to be other similar activities – illustrates the problem of fragmentation of activity. There’s a high chance that each new effort to produce a definitive accessibility portal intended to unite all pre-existing resources will have the opposite effect of adding just one more voice to the crowd (perfectly illustrated by XKCD).

What do we do next?

So, as a member of the eAccess+ network who have a responsibility to produce something of this nature, but also sensitive to the efforts that others have put into the work that’s happened already, I’m wondering how we can best harness the combined energies of a11yBOK and eAccess+ (and any other similar effort) and synchronise efforts to ensure that we collectively produce something genuinely worthwhile – and sustainable – as a resource we can all trust.

I’m writing this the night before the W4A 2012 conference in Lyon, which will be the biggest annual gathering of the web accessibility research community. I want to take the opportunity during W4A coffee breaks and at the W4A Camp on April 18 the day after W4A to have a discussion about this topic. If you’re around, please come along, and give your thoughts to the following questions (or others I haven’t thought of!).

  • Should the eAccess+ Hub and a11ybuzz co-exist?
  • If so, what should be their relative aims and relationship?
  • What’s the best format for presenting resources to be included (visible information, metadata)?
  • What’s the best way for maintaining quality control of resources in a manageable way (dealing with new submissions and editing existing content)?
  • How should we best provide wider access to academic research?

Please share your thoughts – I’ll provide a follow up comment or post on discussions after the event has finished.

Edit: This LinkedIn discussion provided further insightful views on an a11yBOK, including the question of whether something new is even needed, or whether we should focus on improving what we already have.

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4 thoughts on “Building an Accessibility Body of Knowledge”

  1. I do think that
    a) such an effort is really needed as getting started for new-comers is difficult and in particular finding the piece of information for a certain task or job is often frustrating
    b) joint efforts should be considered but looking at a11ybuzz am not sure if this is the same as the HUB intends. It is an excellent FAQ or news channel, but if I need information on accessibility legislation in a certain country or experts in my regioin … you need an other type of guidance. Such things might work better on the HUB …
    But in any case I really like the effort and attempt!

  2. Thanks David for a thorough discussion of opportunities facing our community at this time. I am in complete agreement that accessibility should not “remain a specialism.” To be effective, accessibility awareness and skills must be integrated into the design and development of all interactive media communications technologies, and not siloed away into a separate discipline. That is one of the main reasons I have been skeptical of another initiative that came out of CSUN 2012 – the proposal to create a society for accessibility professionals. It seems to be that rather than trying to establish these separate sources of authority, we should be using all of our collaborative skills to get inclusive design theory seamlessly integrated into every aspect of the digital media industry.
    The work being developed by a11yBOK and e-access + Hub is enormously useful and has transformative potential, and I see your point about the parallel efforts and the need to find a way to encourage collaboration. These are long term efforts that will be valuable only as long as they can be accurately maintained. Resources must be curated in a way that allows inclusive design techniques and practices to be easily integrated into all training of web and application designers and developers.
    I am a bit puzzled however about why you dismiss WAI at the W3C as “limited by funding and policy constraints.” Surely ANY organization will have funding limitations and every group has policies of some sort. I have a bias in favor of the W3C’s policy methods – consensus appeals to me when making decisions about such a broad reaching technology. But I understand how that process can become an impediment in an environment that changes as quickly as ours does. That is why I have been greatly encouraged as the W3C instituted their Business and Community Groups as an alternative way for people to collaborate using W3C resources, but outside of the formal W3C process.
    I urge anyone who is interested in moving the accessibility ball down the field to investigate a couple of these Community Groups. The first, led by Chris Mills of Opera, is the WebEd Community Group (http://www.w3.org/community/webed/) that seeks to create a standardized, foundational curriculum, based on current web standards, to train web and IT professionals. The second is newly formed and chaired by Jennison Assuncion. It is called WAI-Engage (http://www.w3.org/community/wai-engage) and is meant to provide a space for this community to figure out questions exactly like these you have posed here.
    Accessibility is not a solo act. It is only effective when it is harmonized with all of the other elements that make the web what it is – a place for engaged humans to share ideas, experiences, and perspectives. The more open and more inclusive the web becomes, the more it fulfills its fundamental purpose. Doing this work together at the W3C allows us to tap into ongoing work on related topics and to learn from them, contribute to them and ensure that accessibility becomes fully integrated into thinking about design and development across all types of specifications and standards. Let’s do it!

  3. This is an update with two purposes. Firstly, I’d like to thank everyone who took part in the discussion in Lyon last week – we had a terrific cross-section of input from academic researchers to accessibility consultants, plus input from W3C/WAI, and it was very helpful to get everyone’s views on the idea of an Accessibility Body of Knowledge and how eAccess+ can best contribute in this area. I also appreciate the comments already received on this blog post, which added to the discussion.

    Secondly, I want to outline what I’ll be doing with the results. I’m currently writing my thoughts into something longer and slightly more formal. A version of this report will be internal to eAccess+ to help inform what we do next, but I’ll also share this publicly – via this blog – my reflections on the discussion, what I think should happen next and, if possible, update you on what eAccess+ commits to doing.

    Thanks again!

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