One of W3C WAI’s finest – an interview with Shawn Henry

Welcome to the first column for 2015. It’s my great pleasure to introduce someone whose work is vital to the running of W3C WAI, Shawn Henry. Shawn very kindly took some time out of her incredibly busy schedule with various working groups and the WAI-IG mailing list for an interview.

Scott: Both professionally and personally you are a strong advocate for web accessibility and the creation of standards. What initially sparked your passion for the area?

Shawn: I initially got into accessibility for personal reasons, but my passion for technology accessibility was really sparked by a couple of other people with disabilities.

I was working in user interface design and usability when I started having health issues. I began to have difficulty using the computer and working because of vision and physical problems from a neurological condition. I didn't think I was going to be able to continue to work. Two things changed my perspective.

One, I learned about research and development on accessible technology. I happened to live near the Trace R&D Center and was warmly welcomed into the field by Gregg Vanderheiden, Wendy Chisholm, and others there. Gregg was my early mentor in accessibility of hardware, software, and web; how people with disabilities use technology; and business and governmental issues.

Second, I learned from a couple of people with disabilities. Jon has quadriplegia and was a programmer at one of my usability clients. Although Jon uses a power wheelchair and has no fine motor control of his hands, he can type using his arms. I often turned to him for support as I was dealing with disability issues. At one point, I said that I was thinking of giving up trying to keep working and just go on disability payments. He said, "I did that once, it was boring." That really hit me—I didn't want to be bored, I wanted a productive life!

Jon's comment and his life had a profound effect on me. (At the time, I didn't have other models of people with disabilities working in such jobs.) Jon had an engaging job, had designed a house to meet his needs, and had an active social life with work friends. If he could do it, I could do it!

Another person who influenced me is Carl, who uses a wheelchair and lost use of his arms from polio. He uses a mouthstick to type. I did a video interview of Carl to use for accessibility training. He tells about how years ago he and a friend built a device to hold down the Shift key so he could type capital letters. (Now, of course, he doesn't need that because StickyKeys takes care of it.) I asked Carl what improvements he would like designers and developers to make to software (this was before the Web as we know it) so that it would work better for him. I was looking for some good call-to-action for my audience. But after thinking for a bit, Carl said something like, "I can't think of anything. I'm just glad that I can use the computer. There are so many jobs that I can't do—I can't drive a bus or stock shelves. But with the computer, there is a lot that I can do."

So my getting into accessibility was somewhat self-serving at first. By the time I began to get better, I was hooked! From Jon and Carl I learned the life-changing power of technology for people with disabilities, and I've been determined to work to make technology more accessible ever since.

Scott: Over the past decade your work through WAI has benefitted literally millions of people with disabilities, a testament to your abilities and dedication. What led you to focus on web accessibility in particular?

Shawn: Well, first of all, I'm just a tiny part of all the work that happens through WAI—there are many people who put a lot of effort into WAI standards and resources. Some people do it as part of their job (that is, their company allocates time for them to work through WAI Working Groups), and many volunteer their time. I also started with WAI as a volunteer in EOWG before I joined as staff.

My real passion is changing societal views about disability and people with disabilities. I've seen that change in myself, in my husband, and in other people. Growing up I didn't know anyone with a significant disability and I had many common misunderstandings and misperceptions. I saw the disability, not the person, and was uncomfortable. (I mention some of the reasons in Interacting with People with Disabilities.)

Then I started dealing with disability. In my late 20s as I developed friendships and business relationships with several people with disabilities, my perspective totally changed. Since then I have really appreciated my relationships with several people with disabilities—people I might not have even interacted with before.

So often people see only the disability and not the person. I want the world to see people and not disabilities. Changing society is a huge undertaking and I wondered how I could help.

The web provides vast opportunities for people with disabilities to interact with the world—socially, professionally, in education, and other areas. And relationships through the Web can develop without the stumbling block that some people have with disabilities. W3C develops the foundation for making the Web accessible. So I figured that working with WAI was a way that I could help change societies' views of disabilities by enabling accessible interaction via the Web.

Scott: When you joined W3C in 2003 you came from another very demanding role. Did this help you to prepare for the work undertaken in WAI?

Shawn: Not as much as I had expected! I had worked in a range of organisations, as a consultant and as an employee—large, small; industry, government, education, non-profit; local, national, international. But W3C is a totally different environment. A few examples:

At one place I worked before I started with W3C, to make a change to the website required two approvals, a couple days, and the webmaster. In contrast, the day I started at W3C, I could edit the W3C website myself directly. There's a lot of trust throughout the W3C team. And they're a bunch of really smart, caring people who are passionate about their work. I think it's a fairly unique culture. I really appreciate getting to work within the W3C team and the wider community of folks in Working Groups, and in web accessibility broadly.

The time it takes to develop deliverables through the consensus process is another thing that is different. As a consultant, I was to get the job done quickly. At W3C, it takes a lot of time to carefully consider all input and develop consensus. While that can be a real challenge and stretches my patience sometimes, I realise the value of it, and really appreciate that the outcome is better for it.

Another thing that is very different is the collaborative spirit. As a consultant, we were often in competition with other companies and we didn't want to give away our good ideas. At WAI, a bunch of people work together to create resources that we put on the web for anyone to use for free (with appropriate reference of course). That feels good.

Scott: Given that WCAG 2.0 tends to get most of the attention is it difficult in your EOWG role to promote the use of other important WAI work such as ATAG, UAAG, WCAG-EM and IndieUI?

Shawn: Certainly that was a big issue from 2006-2009 when we were finalising and promoting WCAG 2.0. We've been able to spread our outreach attention to other work since then. Generally, we promote new work when it's starting up to encourage people who want to contribute to the work. Then when it is getting close to being finalised, we ramp up promotion again.

We've been fairly successful at promoting awareness and use of WAI-ARIA, even before it was finalised. IndieUI is a ways from being finalised, so that's not a high priority for EOWG promotion now. Now that ATAG 2.0 and UAAG 2.0 are nearing completion, we have been ramping up outreach efforts to raise awareness and understanding of where they apply, how to use them in developing tools, and how they can be referenced in policies.

Promoting WAI resources is a good example of how WAI and the broader accessibility community can work together. EOWG needs help to spread the word about WAI resources. When things are ready to be promoted, we announce them on the WAI IG mailing list and Twitter.

Some of the things we have coming up for promotion in the next couple months are new and updated Web Accessibility Tutorials, the WCAG-EM Report Tool, and redesigning WCAG support resources. We'd love help spreading the word!

Scott: With policy and legislative frameworks around the world gradually improving in their web accessibility requirements, have you noticed an improvement in the accessibility of the web at a practical level?

Shawn: Certainly there is a significant improvement from when I started in accessibility in the mid-1990s, but there's a long way to go. Still today many websites are not even doing the most basic things for accessibility. Web accessibility policies are part of what's needed. Yet, for accessibility to be addressed well, accessibility needs to be integrated throughout the whole environment of the Web and web development. For example, accessibility needs to be integrated in education, project management, procurement, etc.; it needs to be a priority for web tools; it needs to be included in web design contests, in job requirements and in job performance reviews. I dream of accessibility being business as usual.

I think a key factor is developers, designers, project managers, and educators being motivated to embrace accessibility for reasons beyond legal requirements — for example, understanding the importance of accessibility to people with disabilities; knowing that as web developers they can impact peoples' lives; and understanding that high quality web work is accessible, and striving to reach that goal. I talk about "embracing the carrots".

EOWG's business case addresses these social factors. And we plan to develop videos over the next year to help raise awareness of these aspects of accessibility.

Scott: I've noticed that to keep up with W3C work across the world the timestamps in your e-mails suggest that you don't sleep much! Do you have any tips on how to achieve a good work-life balance when juggling work across multiple time zones?

Shawn: I used to be terrible at work-life balance—I worked way too much—because there's so much to do and the work is so compelling. Most people in our field do some work from home, and I think many of us face this challenge. I've gotten better. Basically, I've figured out ways to conscientiously separate work time and space. Some things that work for me:

  • Have a separate work area. I don't have a dedicated room just for work, so a while ago I cleared my desk and made separate sections for work and for personal. I actually move my chair to a different part of the desk. It helps me keep from working when I'm not "clocked in".
  • Set work hours ahead of time (which sometimes need to be outside of "normal business hours" locally), communicate them to colleagues, and try to stick with them. I avoid the temptation to check e-mail when I'm not working.
  • Have separate e-mail accounts and social media accounts for work and for personal.
  • Acknowledge that I don't have enough time to do all the things that I am interested in. Prioritise what I can realistically get done. Be willing to let go the things I can't get to. (This may be my weakest point still. :-)
  • Have other compelling activities to keep me focused on other than work. Personally I like kayaking, gardening, cooking, crafts, and activities with kids. The kids are the great at keeping me away from work. When I'm with my nieces, nephews, or youth group kids, they don't let me think about work at all. It's a great break so when I get back to work, I'm refreshed.

Scott: If people would like to contribute to the work of W3C WAI, how can they get involved?

Shawn: There are lots of opportunities! You can contribute your ideas via the WAI-Engage wiki. You can review drafts when we announce them online. You can submit WCAG Techniques any time. You can actively participate in a WAI Working Group or Task Force, which usually involves weekly teleconferences and a few hours or work outside of the calls.

We encourage everyone who might want to contribute to WAI to read through our Participating in WAI site.

Thanks again to Shawn for a fantastic insight into the inner workings of W3C WAI and her wonderful contribution. We will return to a more regular column discussing all things accessibility next month.