Is there a need for a professional accessibility society?

Is there a need for a professional accessibility society? This is the question being discussed by the accessibility cognoscenti.

The debate was given focus at the Taking Accessibility Mainstream event, hosted by the Assistive Technology Industry Association (ATIA) on 27th February.

There is clearly a need for greater accessibility professionalism. Accessibility is currently unregulated and without official professional standards.

There are recognised accessibility guidelines, standards for accessibility, and a critical mass of people and companies that consider accessibility their primary field of experience. The inevitable counterpoint is the growing number of people (or companies) that claim they are skilled in accessibility, or who genuinely believe they are but don’t have the knowledge or experience to deliver.

A professional society could help solve this problem. Amongst many other things, it could introduce accessibility training programmes and certifications relevant to the different roles within our industry.

As discussion gained momentum ahead of the ATIA event, I voiced my concern that a professional society could segregate accessibility, rather than take it mainstream.

Listening to Rob Sinclair (Microsoft), Rich Schwerdtfeger (IBM), Peter Korn (Oracle), Judy Brewer (W3C) and many others who shared their thoughts at the ATIA event, I realised that the two things were not mutually exclusive.

A professional society could help make accessibility mainstream. It could help create confidence in the marketplace by promoting accessibility as a recognised and trusted profession.

Establishing accessibility as a recognised profession could create career pathways that would begin in education and extend into industry. In these (and many other) ways, it would be an opportunity for accessibility to come of age.

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6 comments

  1. Luke McGrath says:

    Hi Leonie, good article making sense of the snapshots I’ve been hearing via Twitter (#a11ysociety).

    What do you think about entry for professionals who want to major in accessibility? To my mind the society has to be open to all, regardless of qualification. That would motivate people to join rather than segregate as you say. Any training/certification would need to be incremental (an accessibility 101 to begin with?).

    What about the different aspects? Do you think there should be ‘HTML accessibility’ ‘Javascript accessibility’ certificates or more general training and testing?

  2. Ian Hamilton says:

    Interesting.. as companies are investing in the services of accessibility consultants in order to meet considerable legal obligations it certainly makes sense to for those consultants to be professionally accredited.

  3. I believe that the accessibility community should really look at what certification has brought to other communities, good or bad. The Web is full of discussions about issues and benefits that certification has brought to the Scrum practitionner community.

    As a Certified Scrum Master (Scrum Alliance) and as a Certified Professional Scrum Master Level 1 (Scrum.org), I did enrole myself inside those certification processes. Have that, in any way, maked me a better Scrum Master? No. Have that, in any way, influenced some clients hiering me as a team coach? Sure. Persons that are signing contracts are influenced by those certificates. They believe that a paper could makes me a better professional. The certificate is to the curriculum vitae what the tie is to my shirt. With all the respect to all CEOs out there, the only thing they should ask themselves is: “Is this hacker in tie a Scrum practitionner?”. Experience is the only thing that provides me with good agile reflexes.

    The same thing applies to my accessibility skills. If there was any professional accessibility society, would I enrole myself inside the process of being part of that society? Of course. Would that make me a better accessibility practitionner? Absolutely not. I would enrole myself inside that professional accessibility society because I wouldn’t like a potential client choosing a “certified” or “member” of that professoinnal accessibility society with no experience over myself, with as little as five years of experience a a fully commited accessibility practitionner, trainer and coach.

    Here is some food for thought:
    * Is Scrum Certification Having Another Makeover? http://www.infoq.com/news/2010/02/scrum-certification-makeover
    * Is Scrum Master Certification Hurting Our Industry? http://www.rational-scrum.com/2010/10/is-scrum-master-certification-hurting-our-industry/

  4. Léonie Watson says:

    Thanks for your comments Luke.

    I think the idea of an accessibility 101 course makes sense. It would create a knowledge baseline that could be acquired by anyone with an interest in the field.

    In terms of specific courses, my suggestion would be for the curriculum to take a role based approach rather than a technology based one. For example there might be study pathways for procurement officers, project managers, usability consultants, creative designers, code developers and so forth.

    We’d still need to consider the blend of skills that many people working in the accessibility field have in practice. It could be that each study pathway has multiple tiers, enabling someone to take different skills to different levels.

    I’m thinking aloud here of course. The important thing is to keep the dialogue going and involve as many people as possible in the dialogue.

  5. Léonie Watson says:

    Thanks for your comments Samuel. You’ve touched on one of the interesting aspects of the discussion.

    It doesn’t make sense to me to focus on certification without curriculum. I don’t think it’s the test that makes someone a professional, it’s the training they undertook in order to pass that test.

    I don’t believe that certification has much to do with talent or experience either. Talent comes naturally and experience comes with time. If you’re lucky enough to have both, you’ll probably be a leader in your chosen profession.

    There are many people out there practicing accessibility at the moment, and we all went through some kind of training. Perhaps we taught ourselves, learned at school, or received training at work. The trouble is that this is a fragmented and unprofessional approach.

    If we could use our existing knowledge and experience to create an accessibility curriculum, I think it could give people a robust starting point to a career in accessibility or to blending accessibility into an existing role. When someone completes the training we could be relatively confident that they have achieved a certain level of knowledge in the subject. Whether they excel at accessibility or not would then be a matter of individual talent and experience, as it is with all other professions.

    I’m leaving aside the matter of staying current, because this comment is already long enough. The curriculum would need to be regularly updated though, and if certification was introduced it would probably need to be retaken at reasonable intervals.

  6. I am a bit worried that membership fees and any obligations to train and retrain, visit courses (maybe even physically) will be quite costly for people working in the field. Accessibility consulting, training and evaluation isn”t exactly the job to furnishes you with a generous budget for training and professional memberships.

    Also, given the different levels of expertise and different backgrounds, it will be hard for any particular curriculum aimed at professionals to be well tuned to the needs and capabilities of each individual trainee – even a role-based one as Leonie suggests. In this field, you constantly read or hear about things you have heard a hundred times. On the other hand, you also constantly hear about new methods, techniques, hardware, AT etc. There is less time than a we have at hand to stay abreast with all of that. In many ways, self-training (picking something out of the many presentations, papers, articles, code samples, or video clips out there) seems the most efficient way of learning. And, of course, discussing issues with your peers, because there are often so many aspects to a11y issues.

    I think Samuel is right in saying that it is experience that counts. Each new experience makes us aware how much there is in this vast field that we still don’t know about. I think the most professional position is to be frank about the limits of our knowledge. As professionals, we will then enlist the help of (subcontract) those that do know better then us, where necessary – the scripting expert, the Sharepoint expert, the you-name-it expert. It doesn’t make sense (and is impossible anyway) to learn everything that might be useful.

    Lastly, I think that while some disdain towards people who claim to be experts without much expertise is justified, it seems more important not to frighten off those people that are genuinely interested when they discover accessibility issues and want to take part in spreading the word and educating others. The basic tenets are not that hard to grasp and easy to demonstrate. So we should not make it appear an arcane profession in the sense that you’d better be quiet until you really know your onions. The most important thing is probably to establish broader awareness. (To be sure, you still want solid advice for implementers, but that is still a lower priority, I feel.)

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