When Kevin White found himself longing for people to talk with about the challenges of accessibility work, he didn’t just go online and join a meetup group; he decided to organize a conference with his peers. Here is Kevin’s report on the first-ever Accessibility Scotland conference, held last September in Edinburgh.

Putting out the call

A photo of Edinburgh castleScotland has a thriving web community built on great developers, designers, testers, and UXers. I have been part of this community for more than ten years, during which time I have regularly attended various meetups and conferences to discuss all things webby. One thing I always wanted to experience in Scotland, however, was a conference that was solely focused on accessibility.

I will admit to being selfish; I wanted to meet people interested in the same things I was and, more specifically, facing the same problems I was. As a UXer trying to help organizations make accessible websites, far too often I would be engaged at the validation stage, the end of a project, only to find that organizational awareness of accessibility was not what I might have hoped for. I’d seen too many organizations thinking they didn’t need help, or putting a bandaid on the situation too late to make a difference. It wasn’t the problems that bothered me so much as it was the lack of community around me to hash these things out with, or start the conversations I had been craving.

I wondered if there were people out there who were thinking, like I was, “Is there a different way to do this?”

The years rolled by and I bumped into more folks of a similar mind. Then last year three of us – David Sloan, Wojtek Kutyala, and myself – decided that if no one else was going to organise something then we would. Oh dear.

Accessibility Scotland is born

The upshot of a lot of work (mostly by folks other than myself) was Accessibility Scotland. On the 16th September, 70-odd bleary-eyed developers, designers, testers, project managers, and others turned up at Codebase in Summerhall, Edinburgh, lured by promises of coffee and accessibility goodness. While the coffee supplies dwindled, the accessibility goodness flowed out in abundance.

Out of all the conversations I had on the day, one that stood out the most was after the event. I was chatting with some attendees who were nearing the end of a vocational course in web development they had taken. The talks they’d just heard at Accessibility Scotland had revealed to them something completely new and important. Despite the great feedback we received from attendees, including from these students, I couldn’t help feel sad that all the work they had done on their course hadn’t touched on accessibility at all. If they had not gotten themselves to AS that day, they would have entered the field with great digital skills but no understanding of how using those skills could empower people with disabilities.

Time for a new approach

For all the vibrancy, energy, and intelligence in Scotland, we still fail far too often to ensure that we are making a world that is open and welcoming to all, regardless of ability or disability. More often than not, when I am brought in to evaluate sites or apps, there are basic errors that simply shouldn’t occur. And that bugs me. It bugs me because I feel that accessibility should be part of the core disciplines for people who create digital stuff.

In the scheme of things, and this might be doing me out of a job, this stuff isn’t hard. Not compared to the bazillion other business and user requirements that are regularly thrown at project teams. I grant you, there are challenges, especially when your new designer has decided that what would really make this site stand out is a clickable haggis bouncing across the bottom of the screen as the only way to access the application form (a fictional example, of course).

Where I think we are failing most is that we are teaching accessibility in the same way that many approach accessibility – as a bolt-on; an afterthought.

This needs to change; and, while change does not just come from more educational conferences, I’m certain that Accessibility Scotland introduced change to a few minds that day. We need to bake this into the education and training of the new generation of digital professionals in a way that makes a difference. For example, accessibility should be a testable component of submitted work. A key part of this is connecting the technical knowledge to the experiences of real people and cultivating recognition of how high-quality, accessible content has a positive impact on lives. Developing a sense of empathy in digital professionals won’t solve all the problems, but it could give us more people who can and will raise questions about how their creations are experienced by people with disabilities.

When we had our planning meetings for Accessibility Scotland we knew that what we wanted most to create was the space for these discussions to happen and that empathy to develop. In some cases, the space to even start this conversation. I knew most of the audience who would be attending, and I knew they were already versed in accessibility, but I also knew there was more to be talked about.

Expanding the horizons

At the end of the event, countless feedback forms all said the same thing: Please do it again. It was a lot of work and a lot of stress to put it on, so it was rewarding to know that people appreciated it and are hungry for more.

To me, conferences are for expanding boundaries, pushing the edge of our knowledge, exploring the horizons of what’s possible. We didn’t quite get there at the first Accessibility Scotland, but we’re on our way. In the process of thinking about Accessibility Scotland 2017, we are looking at adding a training feature to the event. We want to take the talented community of Scotland’s designers and developers and keep them in the conversation of how to design in a way that keeps people with disabilities in mind. That’s designing holistically.

One of the most profound talks of the day served as a brilliant reminder of how imperfect accessibility is. We live in an imperfect world. In some ways, it’s quite refreshing to be reminded that we’re not going to get it right all the time. Things will go wrong, we’ll miss stuff, but we’ll keep listening and doing the best we can.