Impressions from a German Web 2.0 accessibility conference

Last week on Tuesday, I attended a German web 2.0 accessibility conference titled Einfach für Alle – Konzepte und Zukunftsbilder für ein Barrierefreies Internet, loosely translated “Simply for all – Concepts and Visions for an accessible internet”. The conference was organized by the Aktion Mensch initiative Einfach für alle. I was invited to participate as an expert on Web 2.0 technologies in a workshop titled “web applications – The software inside the browser”.

The workshop consisted of four experts, one moderator, and about 20 participants in the audience. In addition to myself, there was one other blind expert, Anna Courtpozanis of WEB for All, one web designer (Martin Kliehm of Namics AG Germany, and Dr. Carlos Velasco of the Fraunhofer Institut für angewandte Informationstechnik, and head of the BIKA Web Compliance Center. The workshop was moderated by Jo Bager, journalist and editor at one of the most widely used German computer technology magazines called C’T.

The workshop started out with the introduction of the experts and their statements for the workshop. Both Dr. Valesco and I put a strong emphasis on ARIA, both getting the point across that ARIA is the way to make Web applications accessible today and in the future.

Mrs. Courtpozanis emphasized that screen reader vendors and browser manufacturers should work more closely to ensure better accessibility for web applications, a point I definitely agree with! She also was of the opinion that accessibility in web applications becoming the common thing rather than the exception, is 10 years away still. I honestly hope that we can reach out to web developers and make this happen sooner!

Mr. Kliehm’s statements were all around sharing innovation and thus infusing progress, that this progress is going to be a community process, and that the W3C will be the over-all infrastructural framework for this progress to happen. As examples, he mentioned Yahoo and Google sharing their applications with everyone, therefore driving the web forward. I also see us at Mozilla in this context: We’re sharing the innovation with everyone, making it accessible and driving adoption through standards workgroups. Needless to say that this is definitely a community process! And yes, the W3C is the organization through which we also drive the standardization effort for ARIA, for example.

After we had finished our statements, the workshop discussion quickly turned into a Q & A session between mostly the web developer audience and the experts. There were many questions regarding interaction with screen readers, quite a number of questions surrounding ARIA (some of the web devs hadn’t even heard about it yet), and the state of support for these new technologies in Firefox and other browsers. We could help the audience understand some of the concepts ARIA is based on. We could also show them how they can use NVDA or Orca to test their sites for accessibility using Firefox 3.

Mrs. Courtpozanis and I also gave examples of web 2.0 applications that we can use, and also those we cannot yet use. One that we both use is GMail, one we both cannot access is Google Docs. Incidentally, the note taking took place in Google Docs on the Eee PC that the moderator had brought along.

In the end, we mutually agreed that the key is to teach and advertise the technologies to make web applications accessible in seminars, at conferences, through blogs and other means to raise the awareness among all web developers, not just those that already are sensitive to accessibility needs.

It was a good workshop, although it did have a Q & A session characteristic over periods of time, seeming more like web devs finally having a chance to ask the screen reader users all the questions they hadn’t had a chance to ask before. But the moderator managed to always keep us in check and not detour too much. :-)

I also visited a second workshop on that day, titled “Accessibility and Mobility”. The goal was to try and see how accessibility on the web 2.0 can also help mobility. The only expert was Mr. Jochen Hahnen, staff member of the competence center Kooperationssysteme des Fraunhofer-Institut für Angewandte Informationstechnik. He brought with him an application consisting of both a web portal and a mobile phone software that allow joggers or bicyclers to record a certain route they regularly take for trasining, and then upload that recording to the portal. That way, they can compare themselves to others using the same track, or see how their fitness develops over time. Incidentally, the web portal and mobile phone software were both not accessible, even though the usefulness for e. g. blind people or wheelchairers is imminently clear: This product could be used to upload good routes to use for wheelchairers, or information like a moving construction work facility for blind walkers. Mr. Hahnen clearly stated that this software is currently designed specifically for sportives, but could be further developed to also be a portal for visually impaired or wheelchair users.

The way this workshop was done leaves me with a bit of a mixed feeling. On the moderator’s side, there was nothing to complain about. He made the best of the situation. However, the expert invited for this workshop, or the product chosen to showcase, was off the mark. It has remained unclear whether the organizers simply didn’t know that the product is currently not accessible, or whether they wanted to give the Fraunhofer Institute an incentive to make it accessible. One thing was clear: Mr. Hahnen could not meet the audience’s expectations, and he was literally pounded on by some participants several times for the application not being accessible.

The over-all framework consisted of both a study conducted by Aktion Mensch on the use of web 2.0 offerings by handicapped people, and the start of the Biene award 2008. The Biene award has been given to German web sites that, in the given year, made a special effort to make their web presence more accessible. It is by now the most recognized award for accessibility in the German-speaking world.

On the inofficial side, I found that many participants already knew one another, and that I was sort of the new kid on the block, only knowing a handful of people from my previous job. In that sense, the conference also had a bit of the atmosphere of a family gathering. And I can say that I was welcomed very warmly into that family. There were several people there who expressed grattitude that Mozilla finally joined them through me.

I’d like to thank the Einfach für Alle team for the invitation! It was an enlightening experience!