It is now a well-accepted assumption that, in order to move forward, accessibility needs a unified set of resources that would be reliable, comprehensive, and easy to consume for users of all levels of proficiency in accessibility. There have been many discussions around this idea for a while. Yet, so far, it does not exist, for a disappointingly simple reason: nobody started it yet. And I’m afraid that, in the current state of things, nobody has the ability to start it the way it should be started. This article exposes the reasons why I believe so. But, moreover, it also explores some ideas and propositions that could change this state of things.
Karl Groves appropriately coined such a resource as a “Body of Knowledge” (abbreviated as BoK, or A11yBok), and since he was the first one who proposed it, as far as I know, let’s stick with that name. And if he wasn’t the first one, I would argue that he’s the one who has provided the most remarkable initiatives so far. So, consider it a tribute to his actions, if you like.
In truth, luckily we already have a wealth of free and high-quality resources at our disposal, starting with the guidelines provided by the WAI in the W3C. There are also loads of excellent resources, courtesy of many passionate professionals who provide, for free, some of their findings. But there are a few problems here:
- The WAI material, despite their efforts to guide the newcomers, isn’t exactly appropriate for what I would call “occasional practitioners”. That is, people who punctually need to solve an accessibility issue, but don’t have the time or will to go through the painfully slow process of getting the whole picture. To quote Shawn Henry: outside of the accessibility specialists circles, people need immediate answers on common questions.
- The myriads of resources available on the Web are disseminated, and there’s hardly a comprehensive directory anywhere that would list them all, in a consistent way.
- Those resources form a patchwork of knowledge that has many discontinuities, due to the fact that there is no concerted effort. Most of the time, the authors reuse part of the works they have done in the context of a paid job. So, even if it’s not exactly random, it’s far from being exactly representative of the market’s demand.
- Like for anything on the Web, since anyone can put anything on line, not everything has the same value. Some resources are even full of errors, and they do more harm than good when applied by people who don’t have the ability to correctly assess their reliability.
Indeed, people who already know accessibility enough, or who are learning it, are those who draw most benefits from these resources. That’s one of the reasons why having an expert at hand makes you save a lot of time, as highlighted in my presentation at CSUN 2012: Get the most out of your Accessibility Expert. But I also believe that the ultimate goal for Accessibility Experts should be to empower all Web makers, enough to become useless themselves. As long as accessibility requires the kind of effort required to become a recognized expert, we can’t expect it to go truly mainstream.
That’s why when Karl challenged the Accessibility community to build a Body of Knowledge, I responded to his call. I subscribed to the private mailing list he set up, and participated in the discussion. Inspired by the flow of ideas exchanged, I launched the A11yTips Twitter account, my modest attempt at promoting valuable resources in the Web Accessibility field.
Karl went a lot further, and recently started A11yBuzz, a website that aims at collecting and sorting the best accessibility resources proposed by registered users. It certainly helps tackling the issues of visibility and reliability described above. Now, what it won’t solve, is the incompleteness of the existing resources, made even more complex by the variety of entry levels (beginners or occasional practitioners don’t have the same needs as seasoned experts).
So, curation and collection of links are very useful, but we also need a significant effort in the production of resources, for all kinds of needs.
This has bugged me for quite some time. Denis Boudreau, during the #wacol panel at CSUN12, said:
— Olivier Nourry (@OlivierNourry) Février 29, 2012
And I agree. He also tweeted:
— Denis Boudreau (@dboudreau) Février 29, 2012
And I agree. And he also said:
— Olivier Nourry (@OlivierNourry) Février 29, 2012
Well, obviously the former is true, but I’m not sure about the latter. Based solely on good will and free time, it could take years. And I don’t think we can afford that. The web is growing at exponential speed. The more we wait, the more it will be corrupted with bad practices and inaccessible stuff. Web makers are not waiting for us; they shrug at the lack of resources fitting their needs, and go on as usual. Let’s face it: producing inaccessible content or features has never lost anyone’s job, as far as I know. Whereas being behind schedule, in this world of immediacy, is a different story. So as long as there’s an excuse for not doing things the right way, do not expect progress on that line.
So we need to do something about it. And as fast as we can.
One of the great things about events like CSUN, is their ability to make people build connections, exchange views and experiences, which sometimes results in new lines of thoughts. It’s exactly what happened to me. It got my wheels whirling, my plugs sparkling, and pieces fell into places to form an idea. It actually is a simple idea, yet I haven’t seen it phrased anywhere, so far. If you are interested in all the premises that led me to this idea, then go ahead and read what follows. If you are in a hurry, impatient, or tired of my endless babbling, but yet interested in this idea, then jump to the meat of this article.
A bit of context
At the CSUN Tweetup I met Derek Featherstone, and it definitely was one of my CSUN highlights, for I have been an admirer of Derek’s work ever since I started working in this field. Derek gave me a piece of Elle Waters’ scarf, making me a proud member of the CSUN Fellowship of the Scarf. The story behind this scarf had started 2 days before. During a discussion about what property is, and how it affects our field, John Foliot seized Elle’s scarf and said “now it’s mine, because I said so”. Derek took it back, and said “I’ll destroy it, and then it will belong to nobody”. Finally, the poor scarf ended shredded into pieces, and distributed to passers-by, so that it belongs to everybody (pardon me if I didn’t get all the details right: I was told the story in a very noisy place, and it was at the end of my second beer over an empty stomach). Derek and I share the belief that whatever helps improving accessibility should be the property of nobody, that is, of everybody. And we both would love to help building this, but, heck, we have to pay the bills. Meaning, getting paid for what we do, and that’s pretty contradictory with that ideal. Derek also said at some point:
time is always an issue.
Very true… Yet, this is subject to discussion. One of the common traits of the people in the accessibility world is: we never have time. Possibly because we love what we do, and perhaps because at its very core, accessibility is a matter of generosity. And so we work more than it is expected from us, because we are eager to give our best and prove the value of our work. Also, not many of us have a 9 to 5 kind of job, whereas a large part of the accessibility folks are self-employed, entrepreneurs, or hard-working employees of tiny companies working their ass off on a daily basis, in order to just survive. But, as any other human being, we have 24 hours a day at our disposal. What we do of them is the result of a constant and semi-conscious balance of our needs, desires, and constraints. So when we say we don’t have time for building something like a Body of Knowledge, what we are really saying is: I have other things to do that have a higher priority, like doing the job that pays my bills. And indeed, if we had to build a Body of Knowledge, it would probably require our full time and energy. So, sorry, but no.
Later on, I remembered a conversation I had had with a client, during a training session. I was providing several links to resources I recommended, and she complained about the lack of a unified, one-stop website where all of this stuff would be stored (sounds familiar?). Rather abruptly, I replied “Well, hire me for 3 months, and I’ll do it”. It ended the conversation. It was a bit unfair to that person, because her request wasn’t unreasonable. Yet, at that moment of that day, it had sounded to my ears like “why don’t you give away the results of accumulated years of painful learning, you lazy, selfish bums??”. And I had got tired of hearing that kind of complaints. Why on earth should that cost be supported exclusively by those who have already spent time and energy over the years, dealing with even patchier information and resources, spending countless nights and days to understand and solve a given issue, for no more glory than the satisfaction of having solved it? Why those who would truly benefit from a Body of Knowledge, that is, those who are not willing to take the path of self-teaching we all painfully took, wouldn’t pay for it?
Finally, one thing that struck me at CSUN, was the luxury of the venue. The Hyatt Grand Manchester is easily the finest hotel I have ever visited. There was plenty of diligent staff people, dedicated to helping, catering for, and serving the thousands of people attending the event. Heck, the coffee budget, sponsored by one of the event’s partner, was probably equivalent to a fair share of my personal turnover as a consultant. And don’t get me wrong: I loved the fact that a conference on disabilities attracts that much money; that powerful sponsors had deemed worthwhile to support it. I saw it as a reason to hope for a brighter future for accessibility. It was also a welcome change from the usual state of guerilla I generally find myself in: no budget, no time, and not that much appreciation of the value of what you do; and yet, you are expected to provide excellent service. And you do, as much as you can, because you believe in what you do. One of my CSUN lessons, indeed, was: some businesses and organizations recognize the business value of accessibility, and they are ready to prove it. In quite a spectacular way.
So what is this idea?
Let’s sum up the situation: we need a comprehensive, reliable, easy-to-use set of accessibility resources. We have scores of competent and talented people who would have the ability to do it, but they are busy with earning the money they need to live. On the other hand, accessibility can channel in money provided by motivated sponsors. So how could we change that state of things?
I say: let’s shift the weight on the balance. The best experts of our fields can’t give time? Let’s buy it. Let’s pay some of them to start the solid and robust foundation of an Accessibility Body of Knowledge.
Now, that doesn’t sound like what community work is supposed to be. Agreed. But we have to take into consideration the need to go fast, and the fact that we are competing against the sad reality of the system we live by. So rather than fighting it, let’s use it, let’s use its mechanisms to reach our goals.
Allow me to describe you how such a community-based work has been achieved in a very short time, with good cost-efficiency, with the appropriate fire starter.
The Accessiweb model
Accessiweb is a reference list based on WCAG2, edited and hosted by Braillenet, a French non-profit association. It’s the core of a whole system comprising training programs, certifications of individuals and websites, and an active community of 500 or so professionals who have been trained and certified against that framework. Accessiweb is internationally recognized as a top-notch resource, and possibly one of the best methodological tools ever designed to achieve WCAG2 compliance. Cherry on top: it’s free to use and reuse at will, by anybody.
When the WCAG2 were published, Accessiweb had to rewrite its current version, based essentially on WCAG1. They also had a new “competitor”, the official guidelines published by the French government, the RGAA, that was supposed to be applied by any administration, national or local. Braillenet being a tiny team of already overworked people, and being pressed by the time, this is how they proceeded: around Denis Boulay, Director of the certification program, they gathered a team of top experts, driven by Jean-Pierre Villain as the lead author, who invited Aurélien Lévy and Laurent Denis at the working table. Believe me, you had there the French Dream Team of Web Accessibility of All Times. And they got paid for building the foundations, walls and roof; plus they provided the furniture and decoration material. Once they had an almost-finished product, it was submitted to the close scrutiny of about 25 members of the Accessiweb community, who had volunteered to do so.
As a result, the new version of Accessiweb, totally refurbished, was ready in 6 weeks, public validation included, for an overall budget of 60 man-days, complete with the website and community management. For the record, the previous sub-version had taken 18 months, with 3 persons involved.
I believe this model can be applied to our grand project. The hardest thing is to start, and to start well. If we had a Super Team of Super Experts tackling the job, and getting paid for it, I trust we would rapidly have a very respectable foundation. Then, the community could jump in, and finish the job. Or I’d better say: continue the job, since of course, it’s a never ending task, the Web being what it is.
How much would that cost?
Well, frankly, I have no idea. Perhaps we could ask it differently: what the folks at WebAIM, AccessibilitéWeb, or Braillenet, would do with $100.000? What an alliance of, say, TPG, Marco Zehe, Derek Featherstone and Henny Swan would do with $500.000? These are heavy figures for an isolated small company fighting for their survival, but I bet it’s not so hard to raise such funds among corporations like those that sponsor CSUN. Anyway, probably the best way to know the cost, is to ask those who would be interested. More on that later…
What to start with?
First of all, and since there’s money involved, we need a controlling instance. Let’s call it the Board. That Board would be the supervisor and guide for the Dream Team chosen to build the foundations. It should not interfere with the operational aspects of the project – let the pros work –, only ensuring that the money is appropriately spent. They could also be in charge of raising more funds if the program needs it.
This Board would need some kind of shelter. It could be an existing org, an ad hoc consortium, a private coalition, whatever. I am no lawyer, couldn’t say what is best. But by any means, it should be light-weight, in order to remain agile, and it should consume as little money as possible, so that it all goes to the works.
I hear some of you thinking “what about the W3C?”. Well, again, I don’t know. I have an immense respect, borderline devotion, for what the W3C has done. But, from sheer ignorance, I can’t tell if it’s an appropriate vehicle. I’ll leave that question open, and would love your views on this.
Why sponsors would be interested in this?
Because once it exists, I bet this BoK will be seen by millions of pairs of eyeballs across the world, on a regular basis. It is also prone to stay alive and useful for a while, so having your brand and/or name attached to it can only be a smart marketing move.
Besides, for companies that rely heavily on skilled staff, either directly or through their contractors, any educational improvement on a large scale, turns into improved products for a globally better return on investment. And the bigger they are, the most perceivable it is.
How would be selected the Dream Team?
One of the pitfalls of having money involved, is that it attracts greediness, and not necessarily competence. So we need a safeguard against that. This is where the community has its word to say.
Let’s organize an international contest, through which any candidate (individuals, companies, non-profits, groupings of any kind) would submit their own plan, complete with team, budget, timeline, proposed resources, courses of action, etc. During a preliminary, private submission phase, the Board would select the most relevant projects, possibly auditioning some and help others refine their plan if needed.
Once this short list established, all the proposals would be published for everyone to judge them. They would remain open to public discussion as long as the public phase goes. Then, the community would vote (I guess non-anonymously, as to avoid any cheating) for the project they deem most likely to succeed. That way, all those who are already well-known and respected would have a better chance, since they already have a supporting base. I understand this will bar those who have been below the radar, so far, and yet having an interesting project. But in that field, the most popular groups and individuals are also those who have proven their value and dedication for years, so it’s only fair that they are being recognized as worthy to be trusted for this mission and responsibility.
What would this Dream Team do?
It’s up to them to decide what’s best, and up to the community to support their views. But I guess a reasonable approach would include:
- Identify needs. The tricky part is to not rely solely on the accessibility community inputs; actually, I believe we must primarily aim at those who are still outside this community, precisely because they are those who will benefit from a BoK with the most immediate results. Besides, they are the vast majority. Additionally, collecting inputs and requests should be an on-going process, in recognition of the evolving nature of the Web.
- Make an inventory of the existing resources that meet those needs, and integrate them.
- List what is missing, and start working on that. Either by themselves, or by utilizing the funds they have been granted, to hire specialists among their peers.
- Report publicly on their progress, and provide an opportunity for the community to comment on the direction of things.
- Publish early, publish often. Let’s avoid the tunnel effect, please.
- Once the foundation is robust enough, release it to the public. The Dream Team, the Board, and any of their members or contributors, should not be able to claim any kind of authors rights or ownership. It needs to remain the property of everybody.
Once public, the BoK would live its own life, like any other community-driven project. All that would be required would be hosting fees, some maintenance, and self-curation. Nothing too costly anyway.
How long would it take?
Part of the answer would be in the hands of the successful candidates, but a plausible scenario would be:
- 2 to 3 months to set up a Board, and raise the seeding funds
- 3 months to select the winner (1 month for the Call to Tenders, 1 month for the pre-selection, 1 month for the public selection)
- 6 months or so to build the foundation of the BoK
So, in about one year, we would have this long-awaited Body of Knowledge, or at least a clean, solid foundation for it, built by those that we, as a community, have elected to do so.
Me speak no English, what about me?
As a non-native English speaker, I’m quite sensitive to the issue of localization. I’m lucky enough to read English sufficiently well for my professional needs, but I know many of my peers have a hard time with the language barrier. So, as part of the mission of our Dream Team, we should be careful about how localized versions are planned and delivered. Some of the funds could even be devoted to these developments, giving an opportunity for local professionals and sponsors to be a part of it, at a scale adapted to their national context.
Why do I share this?
Because I really want to see a Body of Knowledge happen some day, and the sooner, the better. I have a gut feeling that this idea could actually work; yet I am just a guy somewhere in France, with neither the connections nor the personal means to push it further. So my biggest hope is that someone with the right kind of power reads this, finds it interesting, and proceeds with making it become a reality somehow. I also hope that on this basis we can have a fruitful discussion about what options we have, and the subsequent solutions we can imagine for it to happen – and finally, do it.
What do you think?
These are pell-mell thoughts, born in the aftermath of CSUN. I decided to not put too much research into this, in favor of submitting them as early as possible to your comments and inputs. So bear with me if this seems rather incomplete, or unrealistic; the goal here is not to deliver a fully-fledged project, but merely a basis for discussion.
So, up to you now!