Free accessibility training for Web developers with a heart

* Free training from the Accessibility Internet Rally program because Web site accessibility matters

The Accessibility Internet Rally (AIR) program provides free accessibility training to Web developers who volunteer one day of their time to develop a Web site for a nonprofit organization. What better way to learn the new Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.0 standards and techniques for accessible Web sites?

For five years, I’ve been involved in a wonderful program called AIR, which stands for Accessibility Internet Rally. AIR is the brainchild of a nonprofit organization called Knowbility, whose mission is to promote the development of Web sites that are accessible to people with disabilities. People who are blind or have other vision limitations may use assistive technology like screen readers to browse a Web site. If the site has not been designed with accessibility in mind, the user may have limited access to the site's information.

If you think this doesn’t matter to you and your company, think again. Accessibility has an impact on virtually every Web site.

In 2006, the National Federation of the Blind (NFB) filed suit against Target Corporation on the grounds that Target’s Web sites is inaccessible to people who are blind, and thus in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act. The lawsuit is making its way through the courts and has yet to be settled or decided. Regardless of the eventual outcome, all companies should be asking themselves, “What about our Web site? Is it accessible? Could we be the next company to be sued?”

Certainly the fear of a lawsuit is one reason to want to make your Web site accessible, but there are economic reasons as well. For example, if your Web site can’t be used well with assistive technology, you are basically telling millions of people that they aren’t important to you. According to the World Health Organization, there are an estimated 180 million people worldwide who have a visual impairment. Of these, 40 million to 45 million are blind.

People with disabilities are a huge market opportunity. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, the large and growing market of people with disabilities in the United States has $175 billion in discretionary spending power. Studies show that this demographic as a whole is extremely loyal to companies that are attentive to the needs of people with disabilities. Having an accessible Web site is one way to demonstrate your commitment to their needs.

From a technical standpoint, the techniques that are used to make a Web sites accessible provide numerous business bonuses. For one thing, your Web sites will be more visible to search engines, meaning your site should rank higher in searches. Also, your site will be easier to maintain over the years, reducing maintenance and development costs over the long term. And, there’s a strong correlation between mobile Web browsing and assistive technologies. So an accessible Web site is more extensible to alternative platforms like PDAs and smart phones.

I hope I’ve given you enough justifications to make you want a fully accessible Web sites. Now I’m going to tell you how you can get free training for your Web developers to learn accessibility techniques. It all comes back to the AIR program.

AIR is a fun program with a serious side. The AIR program recruits small teams of professional Web developers and pairs each team with a nonprofit organization (NPO). The developers go through a short training program to learn about accessibility standards and techniques. At the end of the training, there is “rally day.” On this day, the teams spend eight hours to build accessible Web sites for the NPOs in a friendly competition. Judges evaluate the resulting Web sites and award trophies to the teams that churn out “the best” Web sites. Of course, everyone is a winner, especially the NPOs.

Now back to that free training. (Well, it’s not entirely free; a team does pay about $100 to register for the rally. In return, all the team members take training valued at $1,200.)

In the basic course, students learn accessible HTML concepts and techniques. The course is based on the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) version 2.0. These are the brand new guidelines that are in the recommendation phase and in line to be approved later this year. So this course is valuable even to veteran Web developers because they’ll learn about the latest and greatest standards and techniques.

In the advanced course, developers learn about making rich content accessible; for example, Flash, multimedia, advanced Java, etc. You see, a Web site doesn’t have to be plain or boring to be accessible.

The courses also teach developers how to validate their code against the WCAG standards so they have confidence in the results. The emphasis is on looking at the Web site from the user perspective. In other words, can a person using assistive technology view or use every part of the Web site, including interactive elements (i.e., forms) and multimedia content?

This year, there are AIR rallies scheduled in Houston, San Antonio and Austin, Texas. In years past, rallies have been held in San Francisco, Indianapolis, Dallas and Denver. Knowbility is open to replicating the award-winning program in other cities if it can find the volunteers to coordinate the rally. The 2008 rally cities are actively recruiting developer teams right now, so it’s the perfect time to get some free training this summer. If you can’t get to a rally city to get your free training, you can still take the extensive accessibility courses taught by Knowbility outside of the AIR program.

For more information about AIR, Knowbility, accessibility standards and what you need to know about accessible Web sites, visit www.Knowbility.org.

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