Discussing European accessibility matters in Frankfurt

On the 27th of March 2009 the first European Accessibility Forum in Frankfurt attracted about 170 visitors to listen to a couple dozen speakers covering all aspects of accessibility.

Impressions of the European Accessibility Forum

Under the motto of "accessible internet for all," the organizers invited experts from all facets of the market to discuss accessibility matters in panels and answer any questions the audience might have on the subject.

Before we go into details, let me congratulate the organizers for pulling off an amazing conference that excelled both in organization and content. All the talks were filmed, recorded, translated live from English to German and vice versa, and transcribed in real time into sign language for the hard of hearing. All of this needs a lot of work and planning and is not cheap - but it is very vital for a conference that revolves around the needs of people with different abilities.

The videos will be available in the future and some of the slides are already available on the web. As with photos, blog posts and other content simply search for the tag "eafra" to find conference related content.

I've been to several accessibility conferences in Germany and have to say that this one went the most smoothly. None of the presentations lost the audience or were too complex or too detailed. It is very easy to get lost in matters only important to the panel participants when talking about accessibility, and all the speakers did a great job avoiding that. If you wanted to learn a lot about accessibility from all angles this was the place to be.

Linda Mauperon delivering the keynote The packed program of the day started with a Keynote from Linda Mauperon, Member of Cabinet of the European Commissioner for Information Society and Media, who told the audience about current and upcoming happenings in accessibility from an EU point of view.

Whilst not technical, the keynote delivered by a representative of the European Union got the conference off to a strong start, by demonstrating the urgency and interest of European governments in accessibility as a political issue.

E-Government is becoming more and more interesting. These days governments want to save money by cutting overhead and streamlining the day to day work of making it easier for citizens to communicate their issues to the right agencies.

Christian Heilmann and Saqib ShaikhThe keynote was followed by a panel on building accessible web applications moderated by Jeremy Keith with panelists Paul Bakaus of the jQuery UI team, Saqib Shaikh of Microsoft, and me. We talked about the technologies and ideas involved in building accessible web applications and considered the differences between websites and web applications. My slides are available on SlideShare:

We covered a lot about ARIA support in libraries, the need to aim for excellence in usability instead of adding accessibility as an afterthought and discussed the realities about desktop applications to be fully replaced by web applications. The general consensus was to build what makes sense rather than shoe-horning technology that makes sense on the desktop side into web applications.

One very interesting announcement was that jQuery UI are looking into developing a pattern and best practices tutorials section for their library. This is something that YUI already does. Adding this would make jQuery a much better offering for deciders who not only want to build things quickly but also based on research of others.

Beate Firlinger, Tomas Caspers, Henny Swan and Dominique Hazaël-Massieux discussing mobile accessibility After the break, accessibility expert Tomas Caspers, Henny Swan of Opera Software, and Dominique Hazaël-Massieux of the W3C Mobile web initiative discussed accessibility for mobile services and sites. The moderator, Beate Firlinger, did a great job covering accessibility issues in mobile interface design and discussed the idea of a one-site-for-all approach versus having specialized mobile versions.

Mobility and accessibility are hot topics. It will be very interesting to see how people with disabilities can profit from location aware applications and technology. At the same time, it will be interesting to see what mobile providers can learn from assistive technology in terms of voice recognition, text-to-speech synthesizers, and one-button interfaces.

Peter Krantz, Christian Bühler, Jonathan Hassell and Raph de Rooij discussing national accessibility guidelines The next point on the agenda was comparing the different national accessibility guidelines in European countries. Eric Eggert of Webkrauts led the discussion. We heard presentations from Peter Krantz on Sweden, Raph de Rooij talking about the Netherlands, Prof. Dr. Christian Bühler telling the German story, and Dr. Jonathan Hassell explaining the UK guidelines.

Surprisingly, this panel was not a sermon about different legislations but a sharing of insights into the differences of approach in different countries. The discussion got even more interesting when someone in the audience asked why we spend such a vast amount of effort on defining laws when they cannot be enforced anyway. It was interesting to see the different reactions and I am looking forward to seeing a consensus in the approaches of the different countries for a European standard.

Martin Kliehm and Steve Faulkner discussing ARIA The conference then got much more technical again with Martin Kliehm moderating the panel on Accessible Rich Internet Applications (ARIA) with Steve Faulkner of the Paciello Group, Flash accessibility expert Niqui Merret, and Marco Zehe of the Mozilla Corporation.

I've seen Steve talk about ARIA roles and states and landmarks before. I was very happy to see that the presentation went well and people in the audience that didn't previously know about ARIA got away with a good idea of how their products can benefit from adding it. If you want to know more, be sure to check the YUI blog entries on accessibility where Todd Kloots does a sterling job explaining the work YUI does when it comes to ARIA.

The real practical benefit became obvious when Marco Zehe showed the difference of a form with JavaScript validation with and without ARIA support in a screen reader. I have seen a lot of screen reader presentations taht fail to deliver in one way or another. This one didn't. Marco did a clever, down-to-earth demo explaining why ARIA is a good idea.

Niqui Merret is a collector's item insofar as she is one of the very select few that take on the topic of Flash development and accessibility. Her ten-minute presentation showed the history of Flash, the accessibility features and barriers of Flash and how to work around them. She showed some good examples of accessible Flash and previewed Flash components by Alaric Cole that represent accessibility enhancements and are part of the Yahoo Astra and YOS work.

Hartmut Wöhlbier, Chris Mills and Lars Gunter discussing Web Accessibility in higher education Web standards and accessibility in higher education was the next topic and Prof. Hartmut Wöhlbier moderated the panel with Lars Gunter of the WaSP InterAct Curriculum, Chris Mills of the Opera Web Standards curriculum, and Dr. Carlos Velasco of the Fraunhofer Institute for Applied Information Technology (FIT).

It was interesting to gain insight into the state of university education and how companies like Opera and volunteer organizations like the WaSP try to bridge the gap between what universities teach and what companies need from newly hired graduates.

As a side effect, the discussion also revolved around licensing and how copyright and intellectual property within academe can work alongside open source software and creative commons-licensed content. Since this is also comes as part of Yahoo's University Hack Day program, it was good to meet people with the same target market in their sights. I hope we can liaise more and collaborate in our efforts.

Martin Ladstätter, Melanie Müller and Shadi Abou-Zahra Bridging gaps and overcoming differences was also the topic of the next session where Shadi Abou-Zahra of the W3C, Miguel González-Sancho of the European Commission and Melanie Müller of the German Federal Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs talked about harmonising European accessibility guidelines.

The moderator of the panel, Martin Ladstätter of BIZEPS-INFO didn't hold back and asked very interesting and also hard to answer questions on the subject. Unfortunately, Miguel González-Sancho had to leave early to catch a flight, so the discussion didn't get into the European aspect in depth, but focused more on the confusion about the German guidelines. This ended in quite a grilling of the remaining official representative.

Frau Müller however stood her ground and gave encouraging answers to even the hardest questions from the audience. All in all a very interesting panel and something that needs to get sorted quickly if we want accessibility to become a European matter.

Charlotte McClain-Nhlapo, Ellen Engel and François-René Germain discussing the business benefits of accessibility The official part of the conference ended with a panel on the business value of accessibility, with Ellen Engel of the German rail organization Deutsche Bahn, François-René Germain of Orange/France Telekom and Charlotte McClain-Nhlapo of the World Bank.

All of the presentations were interesting and relevant. The World Bank concentrated on the reach of accessibility and the benefits low-technology countries have when reaching accessible content; Deutsche Bahn showed the changes they made to their trains, physical infrastructure, and IT systems; and Orange/France Telekom explained how they've made accessibility a main ingredient in all their work.

Orange promised to deliver a white paper explaining the business benefits of accessibility, how to train your staff to be accessibility-aware, and other matters of mixing HR best practice and disability awareness. I for one am very much looking forward to that.

This conference was a great experience and I am happy to have participated. Accessibility is a very important topic and there is a lot of miscommunication and silo-ing going on. You'll find conferences that are very technical and others that deal with the legal and human interaction aspects of the issue. The European Accessibility Forum succeeded in covering all aspects while remaining relevant to the entire audience. Now I am looking forward to the next A-Tag in Vienna in October to see some follow-up on the communication that started in Frankfurt.

Chris Heilmann
Yahoo Developer Network