What can technology professionals learn from the Arts? In our final interview before AccessU, we talk with Sharron Rush, Executive Director of Knowbility, about the parallels between inclusion in the Arts and Technology. Sharron also shares some exciting news about next week’s AccessU.

Here’s the final instalment of our AccessU 2013 Speaker Interviews:

What AccessU is all about: Sharron Rush

Feel free to download the podcast:

And, be sure to check out AccessU at Your Desk this year!

Sharron Rush transcript

This is the transcript of an interview recorded on May 7, 2013 between Derek Featherstone, and Sharron Rush, Executive Director of Knowbility. It was recorded over Skype and posted as part of John Slatin AccessU 2013 podcast series.

Interview summary

Derek:What can technology professionals learn from the Arts? In our final interview before AccessU, we talk with Sharron Rush, Executive Director of Knowbility about the parallels between inclusion in the Arts and Technology. Sharron also shares some exciting news about next week’s AccessU.
Presented by Knowbility, May 14th to 16th this is THE conference to go to for in-depth, hands-on, minds-on accessibility training. Check it all out at Knowbility.org. That’s k n o w b i l i t y dot org.

[Intro Music]

Derek: Hey everybody, this is Derek Featherstone with Simply Accessible. We are winding up our series of interviews leading up to AccessU. AccessU is May 14th to 16th in Austin, Texas. That’s coming up real soon. That is hosted and presented by a wonderful organization based in Austin called Knowbility.

I have with me on the line today Sharron Rush of Knowbility. Sharron, how are you doing?

Sharron: Hi, Derek. I’m great. How are you?

Derek: I’m doing very well, thanks. I’m excited that the time of year is almost here when everybody kind of descends on Austin to get the very best in accessibility training. I love this event and I know you do, too. It’s something that all of us who get involved with AccessU are very passionate about.

Maybe what you could do for the wonderful listeners out there is just tell us a little bit about who you are, what your role is with Knowbility, and tell us maybe in a few words what your grand vision for AccessU is; why does AccessU even exist? Maybe just an intro to you and then to the event.

Sharron: Okay. Let me say first, we’re going to miss you, Derek. I understand you have good reason, new kiddo, to stay home, but we’re going to miss you and really appreciate the fact that you’re sending so many of your gang from Simply Accessible to be with us in Austin.

My name is Sharron Rush, as Derek said. I’m the Executive Director of a nonprofit group based in Austin called Knowbility. We spell it with a K not to confuse people, but to make the connection between knowledge and ability and that’s what we’re all about. We’re all about where community meets technology meets disability and using the technology to make sure that people with disabilities have equal access to the communication technologies that we all love and use every day.

We started Knowbility in 1998 to highlight the fact that technologies were evolving and there was a strong risk that people were going to be left behind because people didn’t think about accessibility in their design. We decided that what would be a good thing would be to raise awareness of that, because most developers don’t sit down and say, “Hey, I’m going to lock all the blind people out of my website.” What happens is they just don’t think about it.

To raise awareness, we started a web design contest called The Accessibility Internet Rally. We like to think of it as one of the very first hack-a-thons. What we did was train people about accessibility, what it is, what it means, and how to do it. From that, people started saying, “Boy, that training was really useful. You only have a contest once a year. Could we get the training somehow?”

We started providing classes. John Slatin, the late Dr. John Slatin, who was a dear friend and a mentor to so many of us who care about accessibility, was at the University of Texas here in Austin. Glenda Sims and John Slatin and I sat in his office one day and just moved little sticky notes around on a white board and said, “Well, we’d want to teach people this and that and the other.”

In 2000 we did the first one. We’ve done AccessU now in California several times, but most often we do it in May at St. Edward’s University in between their semesters. We just invite the best and brightest minds to come share what they know and invite people who need to learn about this to come and have a submersion experience and learn all about it. We try to do it before Austin gets too hot, and we even had some rain this year so everything’s green and lovely.

Derek: Wow, that sounds pretty cool. I actually wish I was going to be there to see the green. I think it’s been very brown most of the times that I’ve been there in May.

It is a really wonderful conference. I think you invited me back in 2005 for the first time, and I’ve taught at several events. It really is an amazing experience to see everybody coming together.

Not being able to be there this year, it’s been really kind of wonderful to have the chance to talk to so many different speakers and just get that reminder of all the different perspectives on accessibility. We quite often think and we look at things from our own perspective, so I look at most of accessibility from a design or development perspective, but there are all kinds of other perspectives.

Lainey will be talking about the legal side of things, of course, and there will be people talking about document accessibility and people looking at even things like the policy side of things.

That’s, I think, one of the beautiful parts about AccessU is that it brings together not just one perspective, but all different perspectives. How appropriate is that for an accessibility conference, right?

One of the things that you do, and I know that having been there several times there’s an incredible focus on the arts and on making the arts accessible to everyone because we believe, I think in a lot of ways, that a really well rounded person gets that education, gets that experience in the arts and in other pieces that aren’t necessarily looked highly upon in society. The arts are really a critical piece to making a whole person, I believe.

You’ve really embraced the arts as part of AccessU and ensuring that everything is accessible so that people can have accessible experiences with the Arts. Can you talk a little bit more about some of the events that are happening as part of AccessU and some of the things that you do to help encourage accessibility and the Arts together?

Sharron: I would be so happy to talk about that. I think it’s one of the things that really sets AccessU apart. We do have a really holistic look at accessibility and just the whole experience of technology.

If you think about the way that technology empowers people, it’s not simply a matter of working or learning, which those are so important and we certainly emphasize those, but look at all the ways that we now get our music online and we share videos and we share these artistic experiences. Austin kind of prides itself on being a creative place, a creative city, and of course South by Southwest (SXSW) is one great example where all these creative folks come together.

In doing AccessU, we’re always real pleased to partner with a sister disability organization called VSA Arts. VSA to the Arts is what Knowbility is to technology. It really is an empowering organization.

We worked with them to do performance – on Tuesday nights, that’s the night when everybody is going to be there, whether they’re just going for Tuesday or Wednesday, most of the people are there on Tuesday night. We try to do some kind of arts exhibit or art show.

One year we did a movie at the Alamo Draft House which you might recall, Derek. You can get beer and a meal and watch a movie and we had audio description and captioning for the film that we showed. We passed the equipment around and people go to see what it was like to go to the movies with audio description.

One year, and I remember you were at that one because I think it kind of took the top of your head off when we did the “Sight, Sound, Soul” show with Henry Butler, a jazz pianist. Henry’s playing his jazz and we had a painter kind of paint the music so that if someone was deaf they could see this expressive piece of art take shape while Henry was playing. The whole thing was captioned and audio described and ASL interpreted.

Last year we did a dueling piano thing where everybody went down to 6th Street and we had kind of the live piano, but also the ASL interpretation. At the end the pianists asked the interpreters if they wouldn’t think about becoming part of the band because they thought it enhanced the experience so much.

It’s just like that in the arts, the same way it is in every other aspect of disability and accessibility that I know about. When you start providing access in these different ways, you think you’re targeting a particular group of people, but then everyone has a broader ability to experience whatever it is. Whether it’s getting into the building by opening the automatic door, or watching a movie while listening to it being described, you get another dimension to the experience.

When you include people with disabilities, you’re also broadening the experience for everyone. This year I’m so excited. There was a series of dances that was put on the University of Texas co-op from student choreographers and student directors. They got to do their final show, and we saw one in March called “The Way You Move Your Body.” It was mixed ability dancers.

They have dancers in wheelchairs and not in wheelchairs and blind dancers and deaf dancers who experience the music very differently, as well as fully able bodied dancers in this group experience. It’s just remarkable. It’s called “The Way You Move Your Body,” and the part that was missing is they didn’t have audio description, and they didn’t have the ASL interpretation for the narrative part of the dance.

We’ve worked with Lotus Signs to do the ASL and with VSA to do the audio description, so we think that we’re going to have an even richer experience on Tuesday night this year. “The Way You Move Your Body,” and it’s going to be at the conference hotel, so everyone who’s staying there of course, so even the people who are in town, it will be very close for them to get there. Last year we had some problems with people finding parking downtown.

We’re very excited. We’re turning this hotel ballroom into a dance studio. I can’t wait for that one. I think it’s going to be terrific.

Derek: What a wonderful event. That sounds magnificent, really. I do remember Henry Butler and the “Sight, Sound, Soul” performance. I remember feeling the goose bumps, literally feeling goose bumps as this complete experience was created and crafted around this one location.

I can’t imagine how much fun it would be to see this dance routine on Tuesday night. It really does sound wonderful. It sounds like you’ve done it again and really put a wonderful event for people not just to experience the arts, but to —one of the things that you said, Sharron, is that we look at creating a more inclusive experience in say the arts, and it enhances things for everybody. I love the parallel between what you’re seeing in that scenario and what we do in the digital space. I think that’s really important for people to see that these principles of inclusion and accessibility to all types of different communication and information and any type of material like that, I’d love for people to see that relationship between what they see and experience in the real world and how that translates to their world of creating accessible and inclusive digital experiences.

Sharron: I remember when we did the “Sight, Sound, Soul” there at the Palm Door. I’ll probably never forget. You just got so, I thought you were going to jump out of your skin. You said, “We should always have events like this.”

That was really affirming to me because I think, “Oh, am I just kind of wandering down this pathway into the arts because I think it’s cool?” Just to see how people’s understanding of accessibility is transformed through those kinds of, not that your perception needed transforming, but just to have it deepened and broadened. It’s fun and it’s really exciting.

I think you can’t really draw a line between that’s art and this is technology or that’s life and this is art because those things support and extend each other so much in terms of we are able to make the technology or the art experience so much more rich now because of technology. It’s technology that allows that to happen.

Going through an art exhibit with a headphone now and to be able to hear these things described, so many museums are doing audio description in their art tours not just for sighted users, but also for blind users to say, “Here’s what it looks like. Here’s what the history of it is.” The technology is so empowering in that way.

I think for those of us who work mostly in technology, to remember how it’s used. I think you talked to Whitney Quesenbery, didn’t you already?

To keep the user in mind and understand that people bring so many different experiences and expectations to the world of technology and that we have the capability to meet so many of those needs, and in ways that we sometimes don’t even know. We can’t even imagine.

It’s a very exciting field.

Derek: It is, and that’s the beauty to me of getting all these ideas and all these different people together to create something new. We create new meaning from the experiences that we have together.

I know I feel that every time that I’m down there in Austin and I experience something new. I feel enriched, I feel connected, and I feel like we’ve been able to just through interaction and talking through different things that we’re struggling with, that we’re succeeding with, that make some other piece or some portion of the world more accessible. I feel pretty fantastic every time it happens.

I think that’s just a testament to the type of environment that you’ve created there, Sharron. Huge thanks to you for everything that you’ve done for putting on this type of event and for everything else that you’ve done not just for Knowbility but for accessibility in general.

Sharron: Thanks, Derek. I very much appreciate that. Accessibility is one of those things where it is so much not a solo act. I feel so fortunate to be in the community of people that I’m in.

A couple of years ago we submitted a panel idea to South by Southwest called “Accessibility: the Musical.” We talked kind of about this, the fact that you can make the arts experiences so much more accessible because of technology and trying to get the technologists who attend to think about things like captioning and audio description and just the accessibility of the arts experience and really helping people to understand what they need to do to make it most broadly accessible.

We tried to make the thing. I had people from VSA and one of the ASL interpreters. I had a deaf panelist and Desiree who’s a blind woman and a great musician.

We kind of tried to give as many examples as possible, and then we actually got the audience to sing with us with bouncing ball karaoke that was accessible to the blind that Desiree had showed off and all that. At the end, James Craig who you know James from Apple, who used to live in Austin and was an early participant in AIR. James said, “Now if we made accessibility this much fun all the time, we wouldn’t have nearly the resistance that we have.”

I think that’s our goal. That’s always our goal here at Knowbility is that we try to let people see the creative, empowering, fun side of it. We all know there are enough really naughty problems that we have to solve. Sometimes I think it’s just good to be reminded. There’s this extra bonus of creativity and access to things that you might not have anticipated or expected that make it really, just that feeling that you just described of joyful accomplishment.

Derek: It really is. The unintended consequences, that knock on effect that when you see something that you’ve facilitated or created and having this wonderful effect in a way that just wasn’t anticipated at all is really kind of an amazing experience.

It’s coming down to the deadline. It’s really a week from today. We’re recording this on Tuesday, May 7th and it starts next Tuesday. I know we’ve been doing these podcasts for a little while and we’ve been releasing them for a while. Hopefully people have already signed up.

I know it’s getting a little late for making arrangements to get to Austin. The last minute flights aren’t always easy to come by and making changes in plans is quite often difficult.

I know you mentioned briefly to me sort of offline that you have sort of a special, secret surprise for people who aren’t going to be able to make it there, even if they want to. They can’t go and experience the full three days of wonder that is John Slatin AccessU. Can you tell us a little bit about the secret?

Sharron: The secret is we weren’t sure we could pull it off. Last year at AccessU, our friends at Environments for Humans, Ari and Chris, put together an AccessU Summit so that people who couldn’t attend in person could attend from their desk.

This year Ari and Chris were already booked, and so the question was are we going to be able to broadcast the way that they did? We just weren’t at all sure that we would have the bandwidth, that we’d be able to organize with all the other organizing that we were doing.

We put out a survey a couple of weeks ago and said, “If we were able to do it, what would be of most interest and value for a very short day, just six one hour classes?”

Most of the classes at AccessU are either an hour and a half or three hours. We do try to get people to go in depth, and then we have an all day post conference session. This year Molly’s doing one on CSS of course, Henny Swan is going to do mobile accessibility, which there’s a lot of interest in. Then Karl, your own Karl, is doing the forms, an in depth look at how to make accessible forms.

There’s so much depth to those that there’s no way that we are able to really offer that. What we did say is on Wednesday the 15th, we put together six classes based on the voting that we put out there on SurveyMonkey. I have the list here.

The first one will be Strategic Accessibility. Jeff Kline is going to talk about it. He manages accessibility for the Department of Information Resources here in the state of Texas for all the statewide agencies. This is a strategic look based on his book.

You mentioned the fact that there was a lot of interest. This one and the mobile accessibility clinic were the two that got the highest number of votes. Strategy and mobile were the ones that people voted for the most.

The mobile accessibility clinic is going to be Henny Swan and Paul Adam, basically solving problems and answering questions. We’re not going to do the teaching like we do in the post conference, but it’s going to be people who attend will be able to bring their questions to Henny and Paul to do a real time problem solving.

We’re also going to walk through the resources of the Web Accessibility Initiative at the W3C. Just a walk through what’s there. They’ve done a lot of work this year in trying to make some tutorials available. They have a before and after demo. There’s a lot of new stuff there besides all the ARIA work. We’ll show that off.

There’s an hour on open source tools, and hour with Whitney Quesenbery on usability testing, and then Susann Keohane of IBM accessibility is going to talk about integrating accessibility in Agile development scenarios. Those were our top vote getters.

We’re going to put those six online on Wednesday. I think the registration for that should be open tomorrow on the website. Of course, anybody who’s attending, if they especially wanted to come in to the site because it’s all going to be onsite at AccessU, people can also sit in and take those classes in if they wish.

Derek: Brilliant. It sounds like you have some options for everyone, for the people who get the chance to get down there or up there, I guess depending on where you are; get to Austin to see it firsthand. They have a huge range of classes to choose from, but it sounds like you’ve picked six absolute winners in terms of doing this as an AccessU at your desk. That sounds really wonderful.

We’ll make sure that when you get the link for the registration, let us know and we’ll make sure that we post that as part of the transcript and as part of the show notes.

Sharron: Okay, sure.

Derek: So that people can get to that directly. That sounds really fantastic. We’ll definitely highlight that.

Is there anything else that you want to share with us, Sharron, or let people out there know about Knowbility or about the conference?

Sharron: I guess I would just remind people that we do AccessU and we do the Accessibility Internet Rally, AIR. We transformed AIR last year. It had always been a city based competition, so we would do eight hours of development for nonprofit organizations. Teams would get together and do that.

It got to be increasingly difficult to do everything that people needed to do in eight hours. When we started doing AIR, it was really very simple sites that nonprofit organizations need. Nonprofits, too, have gotten more sophisticated in what they need. People want to learn more about the advanced techniques.

I would encourage people who can’t get here and can’t take this training to look into participating in Open AIR. Rich Schwerdtfeger who leads the development of ARIA at the W3C; he’s also the CTO for accessibility for IBM. He is the Chair of that Open AIR competition and he’s really opened it up so that people can participate wherever they are, from all over the world, learn about accessibility, and then donate some time to develop a website for a nonprofit organization.

It’s a good way to get training, also to get practical experience actually applying the training that you get, and then to get the feedback from the judges about how well you’ve accomplished what you wanted to accomplish. That’s a great way to get training, as well.

We have AIR and we have AccessU, but Knowbility trains all the time. That’s a big part of what we do. If anybody out there can’t get to AccessU, doesn’t really think they can participate in AIR, and just needs training, I would encourage them to join in and be part of the Knowbility community. Let us help you figure out what you need.

I think the fact that we train in the way that we do where we pull in people like Simply Accessible and St. Edward’s University, you don’t very often find people who know everything, other than you, Derek, of course.

Derek: You’re too kind.

Sharron: We try to be a resource for connecting people to the exact expertise and kind of help that they might need in their accessibility journeys. It’s always a journey. We try to give people what they need and help them have some fun along the way. AccessU is a big part of it.

It’s been interesting as the podcasts have gone out, it’s hard to tell, but registration keeps coming. It looks like we have a capacity at St. Ed’s; it’s a small university. It’s a lovely and very small university, but we’re getting close to capacity now. I think this was a really good idea to let people know a little bit more about what’s going on, what happens there when you get there, what is AccessU all about. It’s been really great.

Also, we’re always here. Call if you have any questions about what to expect and especially if you have any access needs yourself. Just give us a call. Me or Kim or somebody will be here to answer your questions and make sure you get what you need. That’s our mission.

Derek: A wonderful mission it is, Sharron. Absolutely wonderful to talk with you. It doesn’t happen nearly enough. Thank you so much for taking the time today. I think this was really fantastic.

We’ll get this posted on the website right away. Thanks again for all that you do, but also for all the things that you inspire other people to do. I think that’s a huge part of this.

Thanks again. I can’t wait to see you in person again.

Sharron: I know. It’ll be great to see you. Thanks for everything.

Derek: Thank you, Sharron.

Sharron: Great to be here. Bye.

Derek: Bye.

Derek:If you haven’t met Sharron Rush yet, you simply must. Register now for AccessU or find out more about all of Knowbility’s great programs at knowbility.org
– that’s k n o w b i l i t y dot org.

[Outro Music]