Accessing Higher Ground Conference Recap

by Christine Scherer

In November, I had the opportunity to attend Accessing Higher Ground, an accessibility and technology conference in Denver, Colorado. The conference presentations focused on how to use technology to support disabled students in their academic careers. It was a great opportunity to speak with other accessibility professionals about the opportunities and challenges they face in their work.

Here are some of the changes, trends, and innovations happening in the world of accessible and assistive technology.

WCAG 2.1: Updates to the Guidelines

The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0 have been in place for several years without substantive updates, even as technology has continued to evolve. The World Wide Web Consortium, the organization that creates many standards and guidelines for the Internet, has been working on updates to these guidelines for the last year. These guidelines will reflect not only changes in technology, such as the increasing use of mobile devices, but also an expansion in the types of disabilities that will be supported.

For instance, John Follot of Deque Systems explained in his presentation on WCAG 2.1 that a major focus is figuring out how to build in better support for people with cognitive disabilities. One proposed idea focused on building in code that would allow users to choose whether or not to have certain key, common information–such as navigation to a home page or contact page–represented by words or symbols. It’s a complex task, but an important one, and I’m excited to see what the new guidelines look like.

Including Students in Accessibility

Following a complaint filed by the National Federation of the Blind, Wichita State University launched a university-wide campaign to make their entire campus fully accessible. This is a massive challenge, and one that understandably involves a lot of training. Carolyn Speer’s presentation focused on how they are training not only faculty and staff, but also students, to build an accessible campus. The student training provides the theoretical background for accessibility–the reasons why it is important and why it requires involvement from everyone on campus–as well as concrete guides for how to, say, give an accessible presentation, down to details of font size and microphone usage. It’s a daunting challenge, but WSU has made great strides so far.

More than Just “Save As PDF”: Accessible PDF Training

I attended multiple sessions about how to create accessible PDFs. PDFs can be a highly accessible document type, but they have to be created and formatted properly. The most important thing to keep in mind when creating accessible PDFs is that the source document–whether created in Microsoft Word, Open Office, InDesign, or any other software–needs to be accessible, too. A poorly created Microsoft Word doc can be made into an accessible PDF, but it will take a lot more time to fix headings and reading order in Adobe Acrobat Pro than it would to create it properly in the first place. I plan on using what I learned in these sessions to create a new process for accessible PDFs in our courses.

These are only a few of the many, many things I learned at Accessing Higher Ground. The conference was packed with information, much of which I hope to bring to our course design process. Accessibility is a constant journey, and with web accessibility, the quickly changing nature of technology makes it even more challenging. So connecting with others on the same road and learning from them was a great help and a great experience.