Notes from AHEAD 2014

I’m honored to be the closing plenary speaker at AHEAD 2014, the annual conference of the Association on Higher Education and Disability.

Thinking back to a previous AHEAD conference, I recall a plenary speaker who proudly announced that he didn’t have any slides; he would just be talking. This proclamation was met with applause; even a few very enthusiastic whoops!. So I’m a little nervous about presenting to this same crowd with 70 slides.

Why do some people not like slides? Are they really a bad thing? For audience members who have difficulty processing auditory information, I think it can be helpful to complement talk with visual content. That’s a good application of universal design. Probably the enthusiastically anti-slide crowd that year had endured a few too many talks at other venues (not AHEAD, of course) where speakers simply read from their slides, which is boring; or said things like “As you can see from this slide”, which is offensive to folks in the audience who can’t see the slide. I try not to do either of these things.

For me, the slides are there to complement what I’m saying, and serve to keep things visually interesting for folks who need that stimulation. My voice, without slides, would have only been half a talk. Conversely, the slides, without my voice, would be similarly incomplete. I explain all this in order to justify my not posting the full slide deck online. Without context many of my slides would simply be pictures without meaningful content. So instead, I’m repurposing my slide content in this blog post, in a format better suited to the current medium. Following is the content of my talk organized into two sections, Resources and Ideas.


My Employer and Related Projects

Web Standards

Miscellaneous Cool Resources


Who’s Responsible

Lack of accessibility is rarely any one person or group’s fault. There are several components that play critical interdependent roles in making web/IT accessibility work:

  • Accessibility standards
  • Software and operating systems
  • Assistive technologies
  • Authoring and development tools
  • Designers, developers and content authors

At an institutional level, there are many additional interdependent stakeholders:

  • Disability Services
  • Information Technology
  • Learning Technologies
  • Distance Learning
  • Help Desk
  • Faculty Development
  • Faculty, Deans
  • Libraries
  • Purchasing
  • Administration
  • Add others here…

Three Examples of stakeholders & roles

Example #1: Alternate Text for Images

  • Accessibility standards: The alt attribute for images was included in HTML 1.2, written by Tim Berners-Lee himself in 1993. Essentially alt text was built into the web from the start. The longdesc attribute for adding longer descriptions of complex images such as charts and graphs was added to HTML in 1998 (HTML4). Alternate text for images is a high priority in the W3C’s Web Content Accessibility Guidelines, both versions (WCAG 1.0 and WCAG 2.0). In a controversial and much-debated move, the longdesc attribute has been removed from the new HTML5 specification due in part to its being poorly implemented in the past. However, a new W3C draft specification would allow longdesc to live on as an HTML5 Image Description Extension, which might ultimately get rolled into the final HTML5 spec.
  • Software and Operating Systems: Browsers expose alt text (both alt and longdesc) to assistive technologies. Internet Explorer displays alt as a tooltip onmouseover, which isn’t required by the HTML spec but maybe it’s ok. Some browsers are now exposing longdesc to all users, via the context menu (i.e.., right click on image). Should they do more?
  • Web authoring and development tools: Most authoring tools support adding alt. Many also support adding longdesc, although help is often inadequate for explaining these options to authors. In Office 2010 and higher (and other authoring tools), there are two fields for entering alt text (Title and Description). This is analogous to alt and longdesc in HTML, but has introduced confusion and is inconsistently implemented. See my blog post Alt Text in Word: Title vs Description for additional information.
  • Assistive technologies: Screen readers all read alt. NVDA and Window-Eyes read Description, not Title, in Word docs. Most screen readers announce availability of long description, and user can open the description in a new tab with a hotkey. VoiceOver still does not support longdesc. ChromeVox used to support it, but in a recent upgrade they assigned the long description hotkey to another function. A bug has been filed.
  • Web developers and content authors: According to research I conducted with colleagues (published in April 2013), 60.4% of images on the Top 10 web pages at all higher education institutions in the U.S. have alt text. This is therefore the weakest link, and suggests that more education and outreach, ongoing monitoring with accessibility checkers, and institutional policies are needed.

Example #2: Rich Internet Applications

  • Accessibility standards: The W3C’s Accessible Rich Internet Applications 1.0 spec makes it possible for developers to identify roles, states, and properties of user interface components on web pages. This serves to make complex, rich, dynamic web applications accessible to assistive technology users. One particular bit of low-hanging fruit in the ARIA spec is Landmark Roles, which identify specific regions of the page such as the main content, navigation menu, and search function. Also, another consortium of web leaders representing industry, standards bodies, accessibility advocates and consultants, and higher education has developed a DHTML Style Guide which defines recommended keyboard models (and corresponding ARIA markup) for dozens of common web widgets.
  • Web developers and content authors: There’s more and more ARIA showing up in web pages and tools that are used to create web pages, which is great. However, in our research project cited earlier, we found that only 3.3% of higher education top pages have ARIA landmark roles. More education is needed.

Example #3: Video

  • Accessibility standards: HTML5 has introduced a <video> element that makes it possible to easily add video to web pages. It has also introduced a <track> element that makes it possible to easily add captions, subtitles and text-based audio description to video. The recommended format for all text tracks is a new W3C spec, Web Video Text Tracks WebVTT.
  • Software and Operating Systems: Browsers support video, but some are better than others at supporting accessibility. See my blog post Comparison of Browsers on HTML5 Video Accessibility for details.
  • Web developers and content authors: Over 100 hours of video are uploaded to YouTube every minute. Google is attempting to automatically caption this video, but currently the results are less than adequate. In order to increase the amount of video that’s captioned on our college campuses, captioning must be easy and affordable. We are only beginning to address audio description.

Ten Steps You Can Take, Starting on Monday

#1. Take a day off

  • You’re working on Saturday.
  • Alternative: Catch up on your post-conference backlog.
  • Then…

#2. Start a grass-roots web or IT accessibility community

  • Email-based discussion list
  • Organize brown-bag lunch events
  • Support the leaders in the group; encourage them to lead

#3. Define accessibility broadly

For example, captions benefit:

  • The Deaf or Hard of Hearing community
  • People who don’t understand English (75% of the World’s population)
  • People with English as their second language (375 million people)
  • People with low bandwidth
  • People who use search
  • People who are time impaired

#4. Stimulate faculty & student interest in accessibility

  • The world needs better, smarter, more accessible tools!
  • We need an IT workforce that understands accessibility.
  • Students with disabilities might especially be interested in making a difference.

#5. Encourage IT people to participate in the open source community

#6. Be part of the crowd

  • Caption or subtitle video at
  • Describe video at
  • Real-time caption events using Scribe
  • Answer the question “What is this?” in real time with
  • Consider institutionalizing crowd-sourcing on your campus

#7. Form a high-level IT Accessibility Task Force

  • Your partners:
    • IT, Web Services
    • Purchasing
    • High-level administrators
    • Others
  • Define goals, activities, deliverables and timelines
  • Assess the current situation, prioritize.
  • Define strategies for solving the problems.

#8. Demand Accessibility from IT Vendors

  • Build accessibility into RFPs
  • Build accessibility into contracts
  • Develop a method for evaluating products
  • Identify at least one responsible person or group, and grant them authority
  • Invest in accessibility-related professional development for IT staff

There are:

  • 18,000 institutions in the world offering graduate degrees.
  • 4,365 accredited higher education institutions in the United States.
  • 2,781 AHEAD members representing 2,135 institutions
  • 1,146 people attending the AHEAD conference, representing 880 institutions

Imagine if we all said…

”We won’t buy that until it’s accessible!”

#9. Create a Market for Accessible Products

  • Praise vendors for the things they do right.
  • Purchase products based on their accessibility.
  • Tell the vendor you did so!
  • Tell others you did so!
  • Encourage companies to market their accessibility features.

#10. Collaborate!