Making accessibility teachable: SICSA

One of the most important aspects of digital accessibility advocacy is helping the next generation of designers, developers and managers learn the skills and knowledge needed to ensure accessibility is part of everything they do.

Recently, I had the opportunity to facilitate a workshop on web accessibility evaluation at the annual Scottish Informatics and Computer Science Alliance (SICSA) PhD conference. This is an event where PhD researchers from across Scotland gather for two days of networking, learning about a range of topics including effective research methods, practical skills communicating and commercialising research, and career planning.

There’s so much to share about web accessibility that it can be very tricky to distil key knowledge into a 90 minute session, which was my time allocation. I focused on providing an overview of the purpose and structure of the W3C Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) and leading a practical exercise to explore some key accessibility evaluation techniques—keyboard accessibility, alternative text for images and semantic markup.

I wanted attendees to gather knowledge and skills that could be used in web authoring work now and in the future. I also wanted them to take away a sense of some of the little things that can make a big positive difference when creating digital content, and also to think about why the accessibility issues they found got to be there. As we know from experience, inaccessibility of web sites and apps is not necessarily due to ignorance or refusal, but often the result of a flaw in processes, decision-making, responsibility allocation or tools used. 

My take-away was that it’s very hard to talk about WCAG succinctly! I spent a lot more time than I’d intended talking about the purpose and structure of WCAG, even though I think it’s important to have that understanding in order to effectively use WCAG as a tool for planning accessibility. This became a subject of lunchtime discussion with my former colleague Mike Crabb, who’s an accessibility researcher at Dundee University and was also this year’s PhD conference chair. 

Mike has become heavily involved in W3C’s Silver Task Force, looking at designing the next generation of W3C Accessibility Guidelines. A major focus of Silver’s work is on exploring how guidelines can best be structured to help their intended audiences be successful. Important intended audiences include people who make and test digital products, and people who make law and policy, but we should also be thinking about the design of accessibility guidelines from a teaching and learning perspective.

What can we do to make guidelines easy to learn and teach, so that knowledge is acquired that is accurate and usable in practice? My experience at the event was a good reminder that accessibility is a complicated topic to teach well, and that Silver’s work is really important to the challenge of teaching and learning accessibility effectively.

Categories: Development

About David Sloan

David Sloan is a Principal Accessibility Engineer and Strategy and Research Lead at TPGi. He joined the company in 2013, after nearly 14 years as an accessibility researcher, consultant and instructor at the University of Dundee in Scotland.


Joanne Lastort says:

It helps if you can limit it to the role of the people in your audience. Designers don’t need to know as much as developers or as testers. It’s great if they do, but you don’t want to overwhelm them. I find this site helpful in narrowing down what each role needs to know:

David Sloan says:

Hi Joanne, I totally agree! By focusing accessibility training on roles, you can concentrate on knowledge and skills that are more relevant to the audience and the work they do. This helps you be more disciplined in the amount of content you want to share, reduces the chance of overwhelming the audience, and makes for a better learning experience. It’s more of a challenge when the audience is diverse—as I found, even an apparently homogenous group like PhD researchers in computing may have different interests and goals when it comes to their careers and web authoring, so then the challenge is trying to strike a balance between different interests, and between breadth and depth of topics.