The Need for an Accessibility Profession

Rob Sinclair, Chief Accessibility Officer at Microsoft

Rob Sinclair, Chief Accessibility Officer at Microsoft

By Rob Sinclair,

Rob Sinclair, Chief Accessibility Officer at Microsoft, presents the perspective of the Accessibility Interoperability Alliance (AIA) Steering Committee. For more details on Microsoft’s commitment to accessibility and valuable resources, visit: www.microsoft.com/enable/.

In the past five years we have seen an increasing number of new devices and technologies enter the market, and we know accessibility is not keeping pace. This is partly due to the fact that the community of accessibility practitioners is overwhelmed by the quantity of standards, public policies, new operating systems from Apple, Google and Microsoft, and the rise of mobile apps. Accessibility is an increasingly complex pursuit, and we need a better global strategy to keep pace with the industry. We believe an international society of accessibility professionals can help.

State of Accessibility Today

Although there are some signs of progress, they typically exist in isolated pockets and are not scalable across the industry. Microsoft’s integration of speech recognition in Windows Vista enabled people with no use of their hands or arms to use a PC at no additional cost. Apple’s introduction of the VoiceOver screen reader into MacOS and iOS changed the blind and low-vision communities’ expectations for out-of-the-box accessibility in consumer electronics. IBM led the creation and standardization of ARIA (Accessible Rich Internet Applications) which is helping improve accessibility of Web sites around the world. Microsoft’s revolutionary Kinect peripheral for the Xbox and PC is changing the way many people experience entertainment. However, there are many more examples that indicate we, as a global society, are far from achieving digital inclusion. For example:

  • Few companies understand the business case for accessibility.
  • Most university graduates are uneducated or unaware of accessibility.
  • It is difficult to identify qualified accessibility experts.
  • Most new products and content are inaccessible.
  • Accessibility practitioners are struggling to remain up-to-date.
  • There is increasing use of legislation and litigation to resolve problems.

These issues lead us to search for the underlying causes and how they can be addressed.

Potential Root Cause

Based on a review of the common accessibility challenges from the past twenty years, we believe these symptoms are a result of:

  • Misunderstanding: Many people today still do not understand accessibility, how it leads to improved usability for everyone, and why it is important to achieve social and digital inclusion.
  • Lack of Mainstream Integration: Accessibility is not included in the curricula of most universities; it is not an integral part of the design, development and delivery of commercial products, and it is rarely considered as a strategic element of a company’s business strategy.
  • Increasing Technical Complexity: Five years ago most accessibility discussions related to Web accessibility, Windows software, and open source activities on Linux. Today there are many actively evolving operating systems, new web and application technologies, and dozens of authoring tools.
  • Insufficient Global Coordination and Collaboration: There are a number of individuals and organizations who have created valuable resources related to accessibility. Unfortunately, they are not widely known or were developed in a manner which prevents their use by organizations elsewhere in the world.

The Missing Element: An International Society of Accessibility Professionals

Today, much of accessibility is driven by a community of deeply-dedicated, largely self-taught practitioners. It is impressive to see what they have achieved during the past thirty years, but it is time for accessibility to move to the next stage. Security and privacy have rapidly evolved over the past decade into valued bodies of professional expertise in enterprise organizations. This same transition is needed to make accessibility a scalable, repeatable, internationally-recognized, professional pursuit.

A society of professionals could invest in the following services:

  • Create and maintain a globally-endorsed set of educational resources.
  • Train and certify international accessibility professionals.
  • Build and nurture a global community of experts.
  • Help related efforts around the world coordinate their work.

Conclusion

Without an international community of trained accessibility experts it will be extremely difficult to achieve real change in accessibility. We need this expertise disseminated throughout the industry and governments around the world. Each business leader, designer, engineer, technical writer, customer support specialist, teacher, etc. needs to understand accessibility and apply it in their role. They need a way to remain current and coordinate their work with the rest of the accessibility community around the world. After looking around the world at existing models, we believe a professional society is the best way to achieve these outcomes.

About the Author

Rob Sinclair is chair of the Accessibility Interoperability Alliance (AIA) steering committee (AIA is the technical and engineering division of ATIA). The AIA steering committee is made up of global leaders in accessibility and AT, including representatives from Adobe, Ai Squared, Texthelp, in addition to Microsoft.

 

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One Response to “The Need for an Accessibility Profession”

  • Rather than promote the development of products with accessibility features specifically targeting people with disabilities, I expect the organization will follow Universal Design principles and promote the design of products that work for everyone regardless or age or ability. While a niche market approach would limit funding and media attention, the Universal Design approach offers the largest addressable market opportunity for the least cost and this is a business case that makes the most sense.

    Steve Jobs understood that concept and included impressive accessibility features in the iPhone, iPad, iPod and the iOS operating system. Be sure to read A Guide for iPhone Users who are Blind and Accessible iPhone Apps, which reviews dozens of iPhone apps for the blind. Google later followed suit, including its own suite of accessible features in its Android operating system. Besides being the right thing to do, these initiatives create bigger markets and greater profit opportunities.

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