Interview with Shawn Henry (W3C)

Shawn Henry, from the W3C, was a presenter at Webstock 2008. During a break in the conference, she talked with me about how she first got involved in website accessibility, the need to continue breaking down some of misconceptions associated with accessibility and the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) Versions 1 and 2.

Video and audio versions of Shawn’s Webstock presentation, “Make Your Website Shine, Polished with Accessibility” are available on from the Webstock site.

Shawn Henry in conversation with Roger Hudson, Webstock 2008

Duration: 10:58
February 2008, Wellington, New Zealand.

Shawn Henry Interview Transcript

TITLE: Shawn Henry in conversation with Roger Hudson, Webstock 2008

Roger: Hi Shawn. Welcome to Webstock 08.

Shawn: Hey Roger. It’s great to be here.

Roger: And how’s the conference been, do you think?

Shawn: It’s been really good. I get to be involved with workshops starting Monday morning. And so all the way through this week it’s just a great bunch of people organizing it and really neat opinions and thoughts brought in together. It’s fun.

Roger: So, how did you get started in the area of accessibility, Shawn?

Shawn: Well, I was actually in user interface design, so designing mostly software and got into web when I started having some problems myself. So I had visual problems and wasn’t even able to sit up at the computer long enough to work. And, so I thought I was going to have to give up and not work anymore. And I discovered accessibility and I happened to live in a place where there’s a Trace Research and Development Center that studies accessibility and has been for some time. So I decided to do something about it. And even after I went into remission and was doing better, once I learned the importance of accessibility and how much it can change people’s lives, that was it. I’m sticking with it.

Roger: And then on to the W3C?

Shawn: Yup. Yeah. So, I got into accessibility more than ten years ago and I was integrating it with usability and doing some consulting on that. And then I was really looking at how I could have a more global impact on accessibility, and the W3C was a place for me to do that. So I’ve been there for five years.

Roger: Why do you think it is that still there are people who view accessibility in a negative light? Why is that?

Shawn: There are so many misunderstandings. Early on, in fact, you could not make your site accessible and visually appealing and dynamic. So, years ago, there was some truth to that “myth”. For many years now, that’s what it is, it’s a myth. You can still have a site that is beautiful, that is cutting edge, that is dynamic and make it accessible. But one of the problems is there aren’t enough good examples of that.

Roger: In you presentation today, “Make your Website Shine Polished with Accessibility”, you actually talked about misconceptions a bit. Is that to sort the myths?

Shawn: Yeah. That’s one of the huge ones, is that accessibility is dull and boring. That’s one of the myths and misconceptions that we need to get past. And I think we’re doing better, there are more examples, but I really want to challenge designers to provide us with more examples of sites that are beautiful and accessible. And that’ll really help the field move forward.

TITLE: Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG)

Roger: Since the introduction of WCAG One in 1999, do you think there’s been a general improvement in the accessibility of websites?

Shawn: I think there has been an improvement in sites since 1999. I think part of it was because these guidelines were available internationally. I think part of it is because of some of the government regulations around the world that had been put in place. Certainly, the web is a lot more accessible now than it was then. But there’s still a lot to be done. While there are sites that are working on some really neat aspects of accessibility and there are sites that have included accessibility in their redesigns, there are still so many sites on the web that aren’t doing even the basics, even the simple things, as you know. And that’s sad to me you know, that even the simple things aren’t being done. So it’s better, but we’ve got a lot to go.

Roger: One of the really interesting things I noticed of the audience today is a reaction to your talk when you started talking about it’s not just about people with disabilities, that for everybody, good sites, accessible sites brings benefits.

Shawn: Absolutely. Yeah. When I was selling accessibility several years ago, when most people didn’t know about it, we would talk a lot about the additional benefits, you know the business benefits, the technical benefits. Right now, we can talk about the overlap with making your site work better for different mobile devices and search engine optimization. And there were some, a few people who said, “Well, that’s watering down, that’s limiting the importance of access to people with disabilities.” And, I think it’s great to talk about them together, because absolutely, accessibility should be done because it’s vital and it’s important and it’s the right thing to do. But when we can understand all the additional benefits to everybody, then we can just put it on a higher plane. We can get more time and budget to consider accessibility when we realize it really helps everybody.

Roger: So Shawn, what are the major differences, do you think, between WCAG One and WCAG Two?

Shawn: There’s a couple of different things. One is that WCAG One was developed in a world where we focused a lot on HTML. WCAG Two has been developed to apply more broadly to different technologies now, and to be able to apply it to different technologies in the future. So, with WCAG Two, we have the basic guidelines themselves, which are intended to become a W3C recommendation standard. And then we have the supporting documents, like the techniques documents which tell you how to implement WCAG in different technologies and different situations. So WCAG 2.0 itself is really designed to be more applicable to different technologies now and in the future. Some of the other things that are different are the testability. One of the issues with WCAG One is that it wasn’t clear sometimes for certain provisions whether a website met WCAG One or not. So with WCAG Two that’s been a key factor. We really want to make it clear. We have Success Criteria now to make it clear when you have a website that meets accessibility guidelines. What that guideline is, what that Success Criteria is, and how you can meet that, that’s much more clear.

Roger: With WCAG Two, we introduced the concept of Accessibility Supported. What does this mean? It’s a little unclear to some people.

Shawn: Well Accessibility Supported is one of the ways that we allow the guidelines to apply now and in the future, to apply in specific situations. Basically what it says is, in order to meet WCAG, in order to provide accessible content, you need to use technologies that are accessibility supported. You need to use technologies that work with assistive technologies and work with the accessibility features of browsers and other user agents. So, that’s the concept. Now, some of the benefits of that, you can have web content use different technologies in certain situations. So for example, if I’m developing an internet application that everyone needs to access, I can’t rely on SVG, because not everybody has SVG player, right? However, if I’m developing an internal application just for within my company and I know everybody has access to a SVG player and they have the tools so that it’s accessible, then I would be able to use SVG in my content.

Roger: But as we’ve mentioned already, in terms of WCAG One, these guidelines did become sort of enshrined in legislation or recommendations from different governments. Do you see any sort of jurisdictional problems, with one country having, setting, one level of accessibility supported with another on the internet?

Shawn: I think it’s certainly something that we’re going to need to look at and see how it plays out. Because we allow this flexibility, we’re going to need to work on how we can define that and how that can benefit accessibility, benefit developers and be a positive thing and not a negative thing. So, I think that is something we are going to have to work on, we’re going to have to watch.

Roger: Just changing a little bit. With social networking sites like Youtube and Myspace, where do you think the responsibility for accessibility lies in these sites?

Shawn: I think it’s very broad. As I mentioned in my talk you know, accessibility is partly the role of the content developer, partly the role of the browser, media player, user agent and assistive technologies, but also the authoring tools. And so, there things that these tools can do, that the sites can do, to help encourage accessibility, as well as just allow it. I mean, some of the sites don’t have any provisions for adding accessible content. So, even if I am adding content and I understand accessibility and I want to make something accessible, I can’t! So the first step is allowing that, the tool allowing that. And the next is going further and actually encouraging it; so when the user puts content on, asking them for whatever is necessary for accessibility.

Roger: So it’s a sort of shared responsibility, the person generating the content and the site or tool that makes it possible?

Shawn: Absolutely, yeah. Definitely shared responsibililty. The first step is the tool has to make it possible and encourage it. And then we can work on educating the people who are putting the content on.

Roger: So, what lies ahead Shawn? Do you think there will be WCAG Three?

Shawn: (Laughs) We have talks about this, yeah we’ve been talking about what lies ahead next. I think it is going to be really interesting to see what we do now that there is such a convergence between content and user agents and authoring tools, you know, we were just talking about using authoring with really web content mixed together. So I am not sure there will be WCAG Three. I think there will be guidelines three, but maybe they’ll be all combined, we’ll see.

Roger: Many thanks for your time Shawn. And thanks for a great presentation at Webstock 08.

Shawn: Thanks so much Roger. I appreciate the time to talk with you.

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