The '58 sound

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!).

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.