The pros and cons of accessibility professional associations

Over the years there have been a number of web accessibility issues that have led to heated discussion, but few topics have divided the community more than people’s views on the International Association of Accessibility Professionals (IAAP).

As my own organisation is seriously considering joining it, I’m going to risk biting the hand that feeds me to explore why the IAAP has stirred up such passionate views and whether or not there is merit to signing up.

Building a body of knowledge

Regular readers of this column may remember my article ‘Simplifying the web accessibility message — reflections on CSUN 2012’ which looked at the conversation around the need to create a set of resources that would be reliable, comprehensive and easy to consume for users of all levels of proficiency in accessibility. This was an issue beautifully explained in Oliver Nourry’s article ‘How we build a body of knowledge for web accessibility’.

While the article didn’t particularly focus on the creation of a professional association, there was much discussion at the time that this was one of many options to bring the web accessibility community closer together and find a way to provide better engagement with accessibility within the wider community. 

I remember at the time there were divisions regarding the creation of such an association, with many arguing that it would essentially be reinventing the wheel given that the W3C already has a set of resources that are deemed to be reliable and comprehensible. However, the last part — providing resources that are easy to understand — was the key sticking point.

While initiatives such as WAI-Engage which followed CSUN 2012 tried to address this, the highly technical nature of web standards and the perceived daunting task for an ICT professional to learn hundreds of pages of coding techniques suggested that there was still a need for something more. Insiders understood that web accessibility wasn’t the daunting, scary thing it appeared, but what could be done to change it?

Enter the IAAP

One solution was to create a professional association. The merits were that such an association would instantly raise the profile of web accessibility and assist the wider community in knowing where to go and who to talk to when it came to making web accessibility happen. If an appropriate accreditation process were established, such an organisation could potentially become a shining beacon to the development community, connecting accessibility specialists with developers and translating the technical accessibility standards into easy, practical steps for ICT professionals to incorporate into their work practices.  

As a result, it wasn’t too surprising when the International Association of Accessibility Professionals appeared just over a year ago. Its original mission statement was to “…define, promote and improve the accessibility profession globally through networking, education and certification in order to enable the creation of accessible products, content and services”.

From our point of view as an Australian not-for-profit organisation, the goals made a lot of sense. We also believe in the importance of promoting web accessibility and supporting ICT professionals to incorporate accessibility into work practices, and we absolutely value education as demonstrated through our partnership with the University of South Australia in delivering the remarkably popular Professional Certificate in Web Accessibility Compliance course. 

While we remain proud of our W3C membership, an opportunity to join the IAAP and work together on that education aspect to make it easier for the wider community to use seemed like a great fit.

However, when we investigated how the accreditation process worked and how much it would cost to join, it was disturbing to learn that there was actually no accreditation process and a high not-for-profit membership fee. Looking through the list of members it also seemed very US-centric with the usual suspects — large corporations and assistive technology providers — which made us question how much opportunity there would actually be to be involved in making positive change at an international level.

One year on and the debate continues

While we decided not to become a founding member, it has been interesting to observe the various arguments around membership, and in my view the creation of the IAAP has actually done more to divide the web accessibility community than unite it.

The WAI Interest Group has discussed it at length and there seems to be great debate within organisations as to whether they should sign up or not. The most interesting views I found though were at the W4A conference this year, where I spoke to a number of W3C people and academics about the pros and cons of IAAP membership. The general consensus of views seemed to be that the IAAP in its current form is largely irrelevant — for now.

While on the one hand the W3C welcomes anyone or anything that tries to advocate accessibility, and so IAAP was seen as a positive from that point of view, the fact that anyone could pay their membership fees and call themselves an accessibility specialist crushed its creditability.

In relation to the day-to-day operation of W3C WAI and other organisations producing content and standards, it seemed to them that the IAAP didn’t really affect what they were doing, and at the moment didn’t offer anything that would impact on their work.

That said, there were some who perceived the IAAP as a potential competitor depending on what it did in the future. (However, what we define as web accessibility today may be different in the future as technologies arise.)

Interestingly, though, the W3C believes that the IAAP is in the process of developing some specific training and courses, so the practical aspect, and more specific competition to W3C, may happen in the future.

While it was tough to find any IAAP advocates at W4A, there appear to be a lot of them online and understandably within IAAP itself. Its latest newsletter stated that its membership now spans over 40 countries, noting that “…diversity is essential to achieve our goal of a unified approach to accessibility that is relevant worldwide”. 

One good thing about this is that it helps address the concerns that my employer had when IAAP was first established — the issue of being too US-centric. With the IAAP actually being International now, while I believe the membership fees have plummeted, the argument for joining starts to trend towards a ‘why not?’ rather than a ‘why?’, and this will ultimately strengthen its membership, and hopefully its ability to unite rather than divide the web accessibility community.

So much web accessibility, so little time…

Perhaps the reason why I’ve been a little reluctant to embrace the IAAP is that we are currently a W3C member, and while there are so many ways we as an organisation can be involved in the various standards and developments of WAI, it is very hard as a not-for-profit with large demands on time to get involved at a level deep enough to contribute.

When we first became a W3C member, I joined a few of the working groups, but quickly discovered that the demands are high and withdrew from most of them. I’m hoping to get involved again soon but I’m conscious that it will be difficult to make a contribution at the same level as others, and don’t want to be viewed as a lurker or a slacker. 

However, despite the challenges in getting involved with WAI, at least I understand what the responsibilities are and how to achieve them. For me, the ‘why?’ argument for IAAP is strong because, like many at W4A this year, I struggle to see how a web accessibility club which requires no accessibility knowledge to join can achieve the education part of its mission statement.

David Sloan explained this beautifully in his blog post thoughts on professional accreditation in digital accessibility. “I see far less (public) IAAP focus on sharing knowledge more widely; and specifically on working to improve the quality of education... Efforts need to focus on increasing depth and breadth of coverage of digital accessibility; and on existing accreditation systems to set a higher benchmark for what should be expected by curricula.”

Returning to the purpose of IAAP, is it contributing to the body of knowledge?  Is it making the web easier to use?  At this point the answer is no, and that needs to change.

To close, I want to stress that I’m not particularly anti-professional accreditation, and not even anti-IAAP. I also don’t personally share the ‘reinventing the wheel’ argument as I think a professional association can play a different role to the W3C as it may be helpful to have a filter between the complex world of web standards and the developers trying to make them happen.

What does concern me though is that, with no guarantee that members have web accessibility knowledge and little in the way of education beyond the occasional webinar, at this point in time the IAAP is not living up to the ‘education’ aspect of its mission statement, and it needs to change if it is to unify, rather than divide, the web accessibility community.

It’s my hope that in a few years I’ll reflect on this column and on how much the IAAP has grown, but in the meantime I’d encourage IAAP members — which could include us soon — to continue looking for ways to address the issues raised by Sloan and others.