Six Questions with Shawn Henry – #heweb11 Keynote

Shawn Henry focuses her personal passion for accessibility on bringing together the needs of individuals and the goals of organizations in designing human-computer interfaces. Her most jrecent book, Just Ask: Integrating Accessibility Throughout Design, offers an approach for developing products that are more usable for everyone.

Shawn leads the World Wide Web Consortium’s (W3C) education and outreach activities promoting Web accessibility for people with disabilities. Before joining the W3C Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI), she developed and implemented strategies to optimize user interface design for usability and accessibility with Fortune 500 companies, nonprofit organizations, education providers, government agencies, research centers and international standards bodies.

Although Shawn holds a research appointment at the MIT Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory and has a Massachusetts phone number, she isn’t a super-geek and she lives in Madison, Wis. When not working on her laptop, she is often out paddling her long sea kayak.

1. How did you first become involved in the field of accessibility?

I was working in user interface design when I started having difficulty using the computer because of vision and physical problems.I learned about accessibility at first out of self interest. Once I understood how important it is to peoples’ lives, I was hooked.

With accessible technology, the impact of disability is radically changed. People with disabilities can learn, work, flirt, etc., so much easier via the Web, when it is accessible. But when it’s not accessible, it creates barriers that exclude people from the Web. Accessible technology opens up a whole world of communication and interaction.

2. What are the common Web accessibility pitfalls in college and university sites?

The majority of higher education websites have accessibility problems that cause barriers for students accessing educational opportunities, which is a concern given the obligations of educational institutions to ensure equal access for students with disabilities. We see accessibility barriers throughout websites — from online registration, to online course materials and lectures, to student discussion forums that are often required for participation in courses. Some college and university websites are still not designed and coded well overall, and things that might go unnoticed to most users can prevent people with disabilities from using the website effectively or at all. Simple accessibility checks can tell you a lot about the accessibility of a website.

3. Sometimes it seems like making a website accessible is overwhelming. Where should HighEdWeb professionals begin when looking to increase Web accessibility?

Begin by learning the basics of how people with disabilities use the Web. If you start out just with the standards, it is overwhelming. Instead, read a little, watch some videos, and find some real people to show you their adaptive strategies and assistive technologies. Not only does that help you understand the technical aspects of accessibility better, it shows you the human side of accessibility. It’s very motivating to know that your work can make a huge difference in real peoples’ lives.

The W3C Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) resource “Involving Users in Web Projects for Better, Easier Accessibility” is a great starting point for this. Next, check out “Improving the Accessibility of Your Website.” It provides approaches and tips for increasing the accessibility of existing websites, such as guidance on developing a plan by identifying accessibility barriers and prioritizing fixes.

There are a lot of tools to test the accessibility of your website. “Selecting Web Accessibility Evaluation Tools” helps you determine what types of tools will work best for different situations.

Along with tools, include testing with real people with disabilities. You can learn a lot from quick, informal usability testing. WAI has a resource on that as well: “Involving Users in Evaluating Web Accessibility.”

4. How does accessibility factor into mobile website design?

Accessibility and mobile website design are intertwined. If you make a website accessible, it will work better on mobile devices. And when you’re focusing on making your website work on mobile devices, you can get help from accessibility guidelines because people using mobile devices and people with disabilities experience similar barriers when interacting with websites. This is addressed in resources linked from “Web Content Accessibility and Mobile Web: Making a Web Site Accessible Both for People with Disabilities and for Mobile Devices

5. Do you secretly wish the people at MIT would name a unit of measure after you?

Nah. I wish that all the people developing websites, Web tools and Web technologies would make them accessible to people with disabilities and more usable for everyone. I wish Web developers, designers, managers, instructors, and everyone would embrace accessibility as personally important, excitingly challenging, and highly rewarding — especially in higher education.

6. Cake or pie? Both is not an acceptable answer.

Neither, I don’t each much gluten or sugar. I’ll take fruit over cake or pie any day. I love berries: raspberries, blackberries, blueberries, strawberries, even gooseberries – preferably ones I’ve picked fresh.