What defines a web accessibility professional?

Regular readers may have been surprised to see my last column, The '100% accessible website' joke—do web accessibility professionals have a sense of humour?, get a bit more attention on mailing lists and social media than usual. 

While the views I expressed have been praised by some and criticised by others, most of the criticism seemed to revolve around the perceived naivety of people who didn’t understand enough about the complexities of web accessibility to appreciate the discussion.

Reflecting on my piece and its reaction, I thought it raised an interesting question: How much specialist knowledge do you need to know to be considered a web accessibility professional?

Searching for a definition

To try and find the answer to this, I thought I’d start with some online searches using the terms ‘what is a web accessibility professional’ and ‘what is a web accessibility specialist’. The results generally considered of training, job advertisements, W3C WAI documents and some International Association of Accessibility Professionals (IAAP) information, but very little in terms of a technical definition.   

Looking through the job advertisements, the criteria seemed to be mainly broken into two parts: a need to be aware of key web accessibility-related policies, and a practical, perhaps even intimate awareness of the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0.

However, none of the pages I viewed suggested exactly how much of WCAG 2.0 you needed to be aware of, and few went as far as to suggest familiarity with tools which could help in either the coding or evaluation process.

Would someone be considered professional enough to employ as a web accessibility professional if they just had the awareness of accessibility concepts that the job advertisements suggested? I suspect the answer would be no, so perhaps this is the wrong way to approach the question.   

In regards to the training, the first three results in the Australian portal of Google came up with the course I co-teach, the internationally available Professional Certificate in Web Accessibility Compliance, run in partnership with the University of South Australia and Media Access Australia.

In the course we cover the use of a screen reader, policy, WCAG 2.0, to the success criteria level, ATAG 2.0 and evaluation methods including WCAG-EM with practical assessment such as building an accessible template and captioning a video.

While this is designed to assist people in ICT roles to incorporate web accessibility into their work practices, it is not designed to make someone a web accessibility professional, but more based around providing practical information. So does this in itself lead someone to become a web accessibility professional? Again, the answer is also likely to be no, although many have indicated to us that training certainly helps in starting the journey.

So, to turn to the IAAP, do they have clear criteria for joining that establishes exactly who is a web accessibility professional? At this point of time, the answer is no for this as well, as anyone can effectively join if they consider themselves a web accessibility professional. Finally what about the W3C? While there are a lot of documents discussing the importance of web accessibility and many professionals involved in developing them, there doesn’t appear to be any clear definitions here either.

Wider searches have highlighted some people who have tried to define web accessibility in relation to working in the area, or having it become a core part of their work, but is there something more that all web accessibility professionals have in common?

Passion for the cause

In my opinion, what defines a web accessibility professional is their passion for supporting the needs of people with disabilities.

I’ve come across many web accessibility specialists who have several tertiary qualifications in the area and others who have none. I’ve met many people who specialise in auditing websites and others who just try to help their government department take the issue seriously, and W3C WAI experts who shape the guidelines we follow.

I’ve also seen how extremely dedicated academics guide research into the area to try and make things better for the future. The thing they all have in common is not their job, or their ability to recite all WCAG 2.0 techniques in their sleep, but their passion to make a difference in the area. 

The journey is a long one

For example, and reflecting on my own journey, I studied computer science at university and then worked in the ICT industry for six years. During this time I returned to study to do a humanities-based Internet Studies course which ultimately led to a PhD in the area, focusing particularly on the needs of people who are blind or vision impaired.

While the writing of a thesis certainly helped me to learn about web accessibility and provided a good foundation, my role with Media Access Australia continued to support my knowledge, and the reading, teaching and discussions with others have been great in continuing to get an understanding.

However, while I have built websites, my coding abilities would pale in comparison with many and I can’t recall all WCAG 2.0 techniques. As a result, I may not be considered a professional in some circles, but few would doubt my passion and I’m very excited to be learning more as consumer and web technologies continue to evolve. Basically, everyone has a different journey, different technical abilities and different skills, but the passion is always there. 

Niche for them, huge for us

One of the problems of defining specific knowledge that has to be acquired before someone can be included in the web accessibility ‘club’ is that it makes it harder for people new to the area to engage with the cause.

This can lead to a perception that unless you are extremely knowledgeable in all things accessibility, you shouldn’t be involved or have a voice. It’s true that to learn all things related to web accessibility you need a very deep technical understanding of web programming, and there is an extremely large amount to learn including WCAG, UAAG, ATAG, WAI-ARIA, HTML5 and many more acronyms, not to mention all the associated success criteria and techniques.

The reality though is that very few have all this knowledge and people instead focus on pursuing the bits that they can use in their work to make a difference. In my view that’s how it should be. 

The danger in having web accessibility professionals criticising each other for their lack of knowledge is that it can result in losing perspective on the bigger picture.

While there is a lot to learn about web accessibility, and it seems like it’s a big area, for web developers, accessibility represents but a small part of the development process. One of the great things about a list like the WAI-IG, the WebAIM mailing list and courses like the one I co-teach is that they give people who are just starting out the chance to learn and ask questions.

While there are opportunities for debates on highly technical aspects of web accessibility, it’s important to ensure that inclusivity is not just about the outcome, but also about the path people take to firstly develop an interest in the area, and then become a passionate accessibility advocate.

So if you are someone who is relatively new to the world of web accessibility, thank you for spending your time to see how you can make a contribution through the work that you do. There is a lot to learn but there’s also a lot of support, and when it comes to supporting the online needs of people with disabilities, it’s great to know that no matter how much knowledge you have at the start, the web accessibility community is big enough to support you and every contribution counts.