As someone who is deeply interested in making technology accessible to everyone, partly because it is the right thing to do and partly because I am reliant on the technology I use being accessible; Conferences like Axe-Con have always been very appealing to me. Scheduling conflicts have not always permitted me to attend, however. The fact that many of these conferences have moved online due to the pandemic, has made it easier for me to attend. This was my first-time attending Axe-Con. One thing I could expect was impeccable accessibility, all the video players –mainly based through YouTube and Vimeo--, were accessible, along with the forms for registering for the conference. One thing about the conference that I liked, was the fact that the slides were provided for us, as that would enable me to go back and review anything that was on the screen, without resorting to excessive narration by the speakers. The speakers did describe any pictures that might be on the slides, but for them to read any code examples that they provided would have taken too long, and would not have been as effective as the audience member having the code in front of them to examine for themselves.
Axe-con is a digital accessibility conference, organized by Deque systems, one of the largest companies specializing in digital accessibility testing and digital accessibility training for. It aims to bring together developers, designers, business users, and accessibility professionals of all experience levels in order to discuss the building, testing, and maintaining accessible digital experiences.
The conference –which lasted from March 15 to 17– began on the 15th with 3 keynotes. Sir Tim Berners-Lee discussed the history of the evolution of web accessibility from the days he invented the web up to the present. Then from Preety Kumar and Dylan Barrell, the CEO and CTO of Deque Systems, who discussed increasing awareness of accessibility as a need and the influence of Deque Systems and its products on the field. The 3rd , a keynote from the Chief Accessibility Officer of Microsoft, Jenny Lay-Flurrie, who talked about how disabled employees organized in order to start the move towards accessibility in the 90s and early 2005s, her own efforts in the field, and increasing collaboration between companies like Microsoft, Apple and Google to improve implementation of accessibility, such as the creation of the Human Interface Device or HID standard, which has been created to improve communication between braille displays and devices such as phones and PCs. Each day began with its own keynote, but I was unable to watch the ones on the second and 3rd days.
The rest of the lectures were broken up into four tracks, Design, Development, Organizational Success with Accessibility, and Wildcards: which was for everything that did not fit into the previous categories. I have organized my summaries into these tracks, instead of their dates.
Ian Hamilton began his speech by remarking that one of the first games developed for computers, Bertie the Brain, had configurable difficulty to adjust for people with disabilities. He then traced the evolution of accessible gaming from 2012 due to the education and awareness efforts of advocacy groups such as SpecialEffect and AbleGamers, which resulted in increasing attention towards the needs of the deaf and blind and colorblind communities until the present day. The efforts of accessibility gaming activists lead to an increase in the number of people working on accessibility, and full-time accessibility experts being hired by game developers, the number of accessibility related appointments across major game development companies like xbox, has gone from 0 in 2012, to about 50 people currently. The release of the CVAA in 2015 was a turning point in this effort, as it mandated that companies which produced gaming consoles must make any communication options in them accessible. Today, there is a whole range of accessibility options from, subtitles, to audio description, and the use of voice control for people with mobility impairments. A side effect of the need for accessibility, however, has been the difficulty in finding developers who are experienced in implementing accessibility, providing an opportunity for budding developers who have knowledge of the access technology.
While the history of the development of accessible gaming was remarkable in and of itself, what was just as remarkable was the support that accessible gaming gained from the wider community, and the extent to which developers were willing to cooperate with each other. Phil Spencer, the Head Executive of Xbox praising the efforts of PlayStation in terms of accessibility, and developers like Cory barlog and Rami Ismail defending accessibility efforts in the face of detractors who claimed that accessibility efforts were compromising developers’ vision of the games they were developing, is a good example of this. Another key point was when an audience member asked if accessibility could be decoupled from difficulty. Ian Hamilton’s response was no, that the goal of accessibility was to remove excessive difficulty so that users could complete a task within their capabilities. An example he gave was of how a user who was only able to use voice controls, interacted with a game called Celeste. The game had options to enable the player to slow down the game speed and make oneself-invisible to even the playing field, while some players would consider that as counter to the intent of making a game challenging, for someone who had to deal with the challenge of playing the game through voice control, those options evened the playing field.
Maria Lamardo of CVS, began by discussing how color should not be the only way of conveying information and the importance of proper color contrast, along with tools to help us determine the proper color contrast. She continued her speech by discussing the importance of marking whether a particular field was optional or required, and clarifying why a particular type of data might be required. Next, she discussed the effects of applying or not applying certain types of ARIA attributes to labels, such as applying the required attribute in order to notify the user that a particular required field wasn’t filled. The final issue was form validation: notifying a user of the requirements for a particular form and whether those requirements have been met. The most common example, and the example which was given in the talk was that of a password field; where a website might require that a password might have E.G. more than 8 characters, at least one word, at least one symbol; these should be listed and ideally, if one of them is left out the page should notify the user of which one, or at least that the password isn’t strong enough. In the Q/A, an audience member asked whether one input field was most accessible for dates, or individual input fields for the Day, Month and Year were more accessible. Lamardo responded that it would depend on the date being asked, if it was something as simple as the person's birthday the one input field might be best, but if a range of dates were concerned multiple individual fields for each part would be better.
Dylan Barrell and Katie Olson of Deque Systems outlined approaches that would enable implementation of accessibility in a manner that was quick and cost effective. Both speakers emphasized the importance of a proactive approach, whereby accessibility is prioritized and implemented before the release of a product rather than reactively implemented afterwards. The first step towards establishing and operationalizing the accessibility program, is persuading company executives to prioritize accessibility, by informing them about the benefits of implementing accessibility and of the drawbacks of not doing so. Increasing revenue by bringing over millions of customers with disabilities is one advantage of implementing accessibility policies and facing a potential ADA lawsuit is a potential drawback of not doing so. While it is important to establish a central accessibility team, it is just as important to create practices so that developers can implement accessibility independently and are not completely reliant on the team. One part of bringing accessibility into the company culture is tracking which developers in the company were trained in accessibility and to what extent. This is especially important, as the members of a team can constantly change as employees are moved to other teams and new employees are hired by the company, and not everyone may be equally cognizant of accessibility policies. It is also important to outline digital accessibility policies, and whether the digital accessibility policy will be part of an already existing policy such as a general accessibility policy or its own policy. Part of coaching teams in accessibility, will be to get them in contact with disabled people, so that they can see demonstrated firsthand the challenges faced by disabled people and the techniques they use to interact with digital technology, so that developers can better build systems to accommodate those techniques. Creating an accessible design system or component library that can be used over and over –thereby removing the need to go back to the drawing board every time an accessibility issue crops up--, and adoption of automated accessibility are also important factors, to make accessibility cost effective and agile.
Natalie Russell from UserTesting –a platform which provides companies an opportunity to view their products as tested by users– gave an account of how they were –reactively—implementing accessibility policies on their digital platform through Deque’s assistance. When I had seen the name UserTesting, I had assumed that the company was testing for accessibility, but it was, until recently, about general user experience without any emphasis on accessibility. A running theme throughout the talk was the importance of implementing accessibility proactively, and the difficulties UserTesting encountered due to their reactive implementation, such that they were unable to put expected resolution times, due to the fact that unexpected tickets of accessibility issues were being created, or because they didn’t have the skillset to resolve them. Stating that the cost of reactively fixing accessibility issues could be 30 times greater than the proactive approach, Russell recounted how UserTesting went from a reactive to a more proactive approach towards solving accessibility problems by first educating their staff about accessibility needs through learning activities, then formulating procedures for solving accessibility issues and giving their staff the tools through which they could detect and solve any issues.
Adrián Bolonio from GitHub began his lecture by giving an example of how accessible and inaccessible systems could be, through the example of a steep ramp, which would be difficult for people with physical disabilities to use and a ramp that is fenced off which would be impossible to use, the ideal is to even the ramp so that all users can use digital systems. Recommending that developers test their code as they develop, Bolonio began by demonstrating automated testing with various tools including Deque systems Axe, wave, and Google’s Lighthouse. Next, he emphasized the importance of manual and simulation testing as automated tests can only detect 20 to 50% of the problems on a page and demonstrated simulation testing with axe inside from Deque systems, accessibility inside from Microsoft, and vision deficiencies emulation on google chrome. One question during the Q/A section was whether he would recommend using only one of the tools he showed or multiple, his answer was that he wouldn’t recommend using only one or even one family of tools, as using multiple tools would give us a more comprehensive idea of the problem. Another point he emphasized in response to several questions, was the extent to which Artificial Intelligence was not ready to handle accessibility testing autonomously from humans, and while quite a few advances had been made in artificial intelligence, a human element remained in accessibility testing that AI could not understand now.
There has been a great deal of progress made in the field of accessibility over the last decade, but there remains a lot of work to be done. It was an enlightening experience to hear from those on the forefront of implementing accessibility, whether it be people like Natalie Russell who are responsible for developing accessibility in their own companies or long-time accessibility advocates like Dylan Barrell. I have tried to summarize these presentations as best I could, but the depth of detail in many of them has made it difficult to do full justice. I would encourage anyone interested to register for Axe-Con through the link below, to watch these lectures themselves. But hurry, they will only be available for the next 6 months.
Here is the link: https://www.deque.com/axe-con/register/
Once you register, Deque systems will send an email with instructions for setting a password, you will not create one on the registration page.