200 steps taken toward Web site accessibility

* Another successful Accesibility Internet Rally educates Web developers

The city of Houston has just concluded another successful Accessibility Internet Rally (AIR-Houston), and another 200 people have become more knowledgeable about creating Web sites that are accessible to all people, including those with a disability. At a time when businesses as well as public agencies are under pressure to adhere to worldwide Web accessibility standards, it’s good to know that more Web developers have learned important techniques that will carry forward in every project they do.

AIR-Houston is one of several AIR programs led by Austin-based Knowbility, a nonprofit organization with a mission to promote the use and improve the availability of accessible IT. The award-winning AIR program is a competitive and fun way to teach Web developers about the tools and techniques for creating accessible Web sites.

AIR pairs teams of developers with nonprofit organizations (NPO) from the local community. The developer teams pay a small fee to enter the competition, and in return they receive $1200 worth of technical training for each member of the team. This training prepares them for the AIR competition, but it’s useful information that the developers can apply in their day jobs, as well.

AIR-Houston’s 2006 rally day was October 21 at the University of Houston main campus. About two and a half weeks prior to the rally, the Web development teams were each assigned an NPO to work with at a kick-off event hosted by Rice University. The teams used the few weeks before rally day to plan the new Web site and assemble the content, but no coding could take place until the actual rally day.

“Rally” is almost a misnomer, for this is the quietest rally you’ll ever see. On this day , developers huddle over computers for eight hours, silently scurrying to write the code for their NPO’s new Web site. Coders are required to use the techniques and Web standards they learned in the classes and attain points for how well they do so. Judging is intense, with other developers critiquing the work of the teams.

Douphitt Briggs is a project manager with Idea Integration in Houston. 2006 was his first year to participate in AIR-Houston, although his company had teams in the competition in 2004 and 2005. “I was an alternate for the team last year, but they didn't need me then. This year, we entered two teams in the program, and I made sure I got on one of them,” said Briggs. “Last year’s team had such a positive experience that we wanted to expand our role this year. We might enter three teams next year to give more people the chance to participate.”

As his profession, Briggs works with various corporate clients and their Web sites all day. I asked him what he got out of taking part in AIR-Houston. I mean, why would he want to give up a Saturday to spend all day coding someone else’s Web site for free?

“This program provides a true measuring stick of our knowledge,” said Briggs. “It also expands our knowledge in a very short period of time. The classes were excellent, on top of being a great return on our investment.” Briggs also mentioned that he and his coworkers typically work on long-term projects for just one or two corporate clients, using code standards provided by those clients. Working on the NPO Web site gives the developers a chance to “work from a clean slate” and to try creative ways of doing things. In other words, it keeps them from getting stale.

Briggs and Idea Integration’s Totally Airwolf team worked on the Web site for the Houston Council of the Blind, which provided some tech-savvy members to help make the Web site usable for people with vision disabilities. “We learned so much from the Council members that worked with us,” said Briggs. “After all, they are expert users. They have varying degrees of sight, and they could teach us more about the practical use of the accessibility standards. For instance, we learned that ‘skip links’ aren’t really used much in real life, and that there is no predominate screen reader to code to. I think our team got more out of this rally than the other teams did because we worked side by side with people who really depend on the accessibility aspects of a Web site.”

Briggs says the classes also taught him more about search engine optimization techniques. “We got multiple benefits out of participating in AIR-Houston,” said Briggs. “We’ll use what we learned on every project we have coming up.”

Check out the Web sites developed during AIR-Houston 2006. These Web sites will dispel the myth than “an accessible site can’t be an attractive site.”

Contact Knowbility to see how you or your company can benefit from participation in an AIR event. Corporate teams are welcome in the program. It’s a great way to get very inexpensive but excellent Web training for your whole group of developers.


Copyright © 2006 IDG Communications, Inc.

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