An interview with Australian accessibility pioneer Dr Andrew Arch

Welcome to 2014!  It’s my great pleasure to kick things off for the year by bringing you an interview with Australian web accessibility pioneer Dr Andrew Arch. 

Andrew has kindly taken some time out of his extremely busy schedule with the Australian Government Information Management Office to share a little about web accessibility, his extensive work in roles relating to government, not-for-profit and the W3C itself.

Scott:  You are arguably the best known accessibility specialist in Australia with hard work and dedication to the web accessibility space for well over a decade.  Yet many people may be surprised to learn that your initial career and PhD were in Agriculture!  Could you share with us a bit about your journey into ICT and what led to your passion for web accessibility?

Andrew: Yes, agriculture to accessibility – a matter of taking opportunities that looked interesting when they arose. I was working for the Department of Agriculture in Victoria when the web first came to our attention in the early nineties. It was serendipitous actually as, after years as a natural resources economist, I was managing a unit providing economic, demographic, soils and statistical information in a consistent manner across the department and the IT guys were playing with Mosaic and wondering what use it might be. Well, as the department already had a wide area network the use was obvious – set up a web server to distribute the statistical information on demand to all offices! After establishing the Department’s website, my interest in accessibility arose through looking for ways to make it easier for farmers to access the web. In 1998 at WWW7 in Brisbane I attended sessions by Judy Brewer and Jutta Treviranus and could see the overlaps between disability and situational impairments. A stint at the Department of Human Services, who had a strong interest in disability, cemented my interest.

Scott: In seven short years you built up a successful consultancy business for Vision Australia from what was originally a largely unknown WCAG 1.0 standard here in Australia.  Given that WCAG 1.0 had a very small profile when you began, how did you approach the issue of engagement with government and industry?

Andrew: I joined Vision Australia in early 2001, not long after the Australian Government adopted WCAG 1.0. The initial role was a combination of web manager and web accessibility testing and training, but the web accessibility side quickly grew to a full-time role. Our initial workshops were a variety of short awareness events in conjunction with Vicnet but soon developed into full-day explanations of WCAG 1.0 issues, testing and solutions. Working from within Vision Australia enabled us to relate web accessibility to real people and that was one of our strengths. 

Significant numbers of state and federal agencies began to implement WCAG 1.0 and by 2003 there was a significant increase in awareness of the importance of web accessibility. 2002 also saw the Australian Bankers’ Association adopt an industry standard around WCAG 1.0 following the AHRC report “Accessibility of Electronic Commerce and New Service and Information Technologies for Older Australians and People with a Disability” which led to work in the financial sector. Engaging Sofia Celic and Steve Faulkner as part of the team enabled us to meet the growing demand for training, testing and consulting.

Scott: During your time with Vision Australia, you became more involved with the W3C by joining the organisation as one of Australia’s first members and personally participating in the Education and Outreach Working Group.  Given your already busy workload, what made you decide to dedicate time outside of work to the development W3C WAI documents?

Andrew: Vision Australia felt that online was the future for participation for many people with disabilities and that by joining the W3C we could participate in creating that future. As we were actively promoting WCAG 1.0 and undertaking a lot of education and outreach ourselves, EOWG was the obvious initial choice as a WAI working group to join. Also, as Australia is a long way from the US and Europe where we perceived lots was happening with web accessibility and in the early 2000’s we had a very small community here, participating in an international fora helped validate the approaches we were taking and allowed us to tap into the wider experiences around the world. Participating in WAI also enabled us to give back to the W3C based on our experiences and I was active in developing the Business Case (which started out elaborating on the auxiliary benefits to organisations).

Scott: Given you have been able to make such a large contribution to WAI from Australia, do you have any tips for Australian who want to get involved more with WAI working groups but get scared off by the unfortunate time zone we find ourselves in?

Andrew: WAI provides many ways to participate – from reviewing documents to active group participation. To keep abreast of WAI updates, I’d recommend joining the low-volume WAI-IG mailing list.  I’d also strongly encourage anyone to nominate for any Working Groups or Task Forces they’re interested in (explaining the time issue if the teleconferences are at 3am) – sometimes you’ll still be welcomed even if you can only participate by email. New groups set the call times to suit the participants, so nominating early when a group is being established can mean a time that suits us in Australia.

Scott: In 2007 you made the decision to leave Vision Australia, and for that matter Australia entirely, moving overseas to continue your W3C work as a Web Accessibility and Ageing Specialist on the WAI-AGE project.  Could you tell us a bit about the project and your involvement?

Andrew: WAI-AGE was one of a series of EC funded WAI projects, the latest being WAI-ACT. The EU has invested heavily in research connected with ageing, from smart homes to biotechnology, as result of their ageing population. WAI-AGE was a project to increase accessibility of the web for older people as well as for people with disabilities; Vision Australia was actively involved helping older people cope with ageing-related disability, so the opportunity to work more in this area was an obvious one to pursue. The opportunity to live and work in France (and subsequently the UK) was also an influencing factor in applying for the Web Accessibility and Ageing Specialist position!

After an extensive desktop study of the impacts of ageing, particularly as they related to computer use, we determined that much of WCAG 2.0 applied to older people online – particularly many of the usability aspects. One specific output was Developing Websites for Older People.

WAI-AGE was closely associated with EOWG and produced a variety of educational materials, some of which are described on WAI’s Web Accessibility and Older People page, but also included a major update to WAI training materials and some notes to help people provide feedback on inaccessible websites.

Scott: Returning back to Australia you have been heavily involved in Australia’s National Transition Strategy through your work with the Australian Government Information Management Office.  How do you think the NTS is going so far?

Andrew: Australia was a leader in web accessibility in the early days of WCAG 1.0 and the NTS has revitalised government commitment to making its information and services available to a wider audience. While the NTS 2012 target was not met across the board, there has been tremendous effort put in by most agencies to educate staff about web accessibility and review web publishing process and procurements. The government might not meet the 2014 target in full, but the ongoing legacy of the NTS will mean continual attention to the online needs of people with disabilities for years to come.

While the NTS set hard targets for WCAG 2.0 conformance, most in the industry acknowledge that web accessibility is a journey. Part of that journey is awareness, part is continually changing technologies – witness the explosion on mobile uptake and web access in recent years, and part is the ongoing effort to continually improve the usability and accessibility of the information and applications that are progressively updated. I’m hopeful that the NTS will morph from a pass/fail conformance requirement into a business-as-usual continual improvement approach that strives for the WCAG 2.0 gold standard but doesn’t always maintain it.

Scott: I’ve recently heard from a number of sources that as the Level AA deadline approaches that there has been more emphasis in government tenders on making sure that any government website is made with WCAG 2.0 in mind, even to the extent that tenders have to demonstrate their ability to check their own work for compliance.  Do you see this as a sign that the NTS is having the desired impact? 

Andrew: Procurement reviews were always part of the NTS, including revising public procurement documentation and selection criteria to contain specific references to universal design principles and WCAG 2.0 conformance as necessary. AGIMO published some specific guidance on this to support agencies in 2012, and we are definitely finding that it is making its way into public tenders. In my view this is a positive sign about the impact the NTS is having on the accessibility of online developments.

Scott: With readily evolving consumer products including wearable tech, can you share some of your thoughts on where you think it’s all going and how we’re likely to engage with the web in the future?

Andrew: That’s an interesting one. I used to be a believer in single purpose tools, but these days I use a leatherman and a smartphone and a tablet. I’m not one who has to be connected 24/7 so don’t think I’ll rushing out to buy Google Glass when it hits the consumer market. However, the indications are that we’ll all be connected via apps in the not too distant future, which does worry me slightly from a privacy perspective. Big data and the associated analytics now being undertaken mean that we’ll soon be categorised and targeted whether we like it or not.

One of the benefits of the current developments in 24/7 always connected computing is the mainstreaming of assistive technology as everyone experiences various situational impairments on a regular basis. For example: hands-free, eyes-free interactions are now required in many situations; captions mean we can watch video in places where we were once just subject to announcements and the sound of people talking; transcripts enable us to efficiently skim though some of the 100s of hours of video uploaded every minute; contrast options allow us to use mobile devices indoors and out; font selection and screen zooming helps when reading glasses are forgotten. As assistive technologies and adaptive strategies become more common place, this has to be of benefit to older people and people with disabilities and enable much greater participation in an ever more online world.

I’m an optimist and I think the future will be better than the past – for everyone!

Scott: Andrew, thanks again for your time and such great insights.

Dr Andrew Arch can be reached on Twitter: @amja 

W3C News

Before finishing up, a few bits of news. 

Well that pretty much wraps it up for this month.  Thanks again to Dr Andrew Arch for a fantastic interview and will bring you a more regular W3C column next month.