Episode 5

Everyone Who Does Accessibility Ends up at Some Point Teaching It

Sarah Horton, University of Southampton, Research Fellow

Sarah Horton is currently a research fellow at the U. of Southhampton working on a study about the teaching of accessibility. Her career began by working with instructional technology in academic circles and the led to her work in web development. She was part of the staff in the early days of The Paciello Group, contributing to audits, design reviews, and usability studies. Along the way she has written many books.

Transcript
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(bright melodic music)

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- Hello, this is Digital Accessibility,

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The People Behind the Progress.

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I'm Joe Welinske, the creator and host of this series.

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And as an accessibility professional myself,

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I find it very interesting as to how others

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have found their way into this profession.

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So let's meet one of those people right now

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and hear about their journey.

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(upbeat music)

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- All right, well, I'm Joe Welinske back

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with another episode where I have the great time

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and honor of meeting with an accessibility practitioner.

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And today, I am visiting with Sarah Horton.

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Hello, Sarah, how are you today?

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- Hi, Joe, thanks.

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I'm doing great.

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Happy to be here.

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- Well, I'm in my home office on Vashon Island,

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which is near Blink Seattle headquarters.

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Where are you talking to me from?

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- Well, I am in a small village in Scotland.

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It's called Freuchie.

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And it's later in the day here than it is for you

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and a little bit clear in the sky, a few clouds.

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- Well, that sounds like a lovely adventure.

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What brought you to that part of the world?

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- Well, my husband's from here.

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And so we, prior to COVID, lived in the U.S. and here,

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and we happened to be here in March of 2020.

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And the rest is history.

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- Well, yeah, I'm familiar with your background,

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but for people that may not be,

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maybe talk a little bit about the types of things

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that you're working on now

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and then after that we can kind of go back

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and look at some of the other things

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that you've been involved in.

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- That sounds like a good plan.

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So I'm involved in a lot of things,

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but the main thing that I'm involved in now,

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I'm a research fellow at the University of Southampton

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in England, the South of England.

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Actually, I haven't been there yet because of COVID,

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so I'm sort of the northern office, the Scottish office.

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I'm working on a study

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called Teaching Accessibility in the Digital Skill Set.

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And so I work with Sarah Lewthwaite and Andy Coverdale,

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we're just a small team in the Education School there.

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And so this study is about learning how accessibility

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is taught and learned.

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And so we've been talking to people

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who are teaching accessibility

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really from all over the world

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and different sectors like academia and businesses

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and the workplace.

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And you know, we're learning

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that teaching accessibility is really complicated.

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So at this point we're just starting

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to write up the findings

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and I think it's gonna be really helpful

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what we're learning from people.

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And I guess a big takeaway from that

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is that everybody needs digital accessibility skills

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and everyone who does accessibility ends up,

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at some point, teaching it.

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And so learning more about how to teach it effectively

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has been really important and interesting.

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- Well, I did teach accessibility

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at the University of Washington.

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- [Sarah] Oh, neat.

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- They had a course on the campus in Tacoma.

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But one of the themes of this podcast

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is that accessibility hasn't traditionally,

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until now, been a, you know, a part of foundational skills

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that people would find at the university level.

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And that's starting to change, which is great.

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And so, you know, this feeds right into that theme

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and, you know, hopefully we'll see more

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and more programs develop for accessibility

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in the education system.

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- Absolutely, yeah.

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It's really key to moving forward and making progress.

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- Well, you know, going right into that theme,

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a lot of people have come into accessibility

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from a lot of different directions.

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And so maybe take us back into your work life,

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live life, and tell me how you first were exposed

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to accessibility and started to think about that

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as a place that you could have as a profession.

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- That's great.

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Yeah, it was fun preparing for talking to you today.

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I did sort of walk back through memory lane

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and I appreciate the opportunity to share that with you.

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I think I'll have to start,

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like back when I started working in tech,

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which was back before there was a web.

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And I was at the Yale Center

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for Advanced Instructional Media working on CD ROMs

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and that controlled laser discs.

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And I was very, very cutting edge at the time,

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but I had gone to school to be a classical musician

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and that doesn't put food on your table,

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so at least not for most of us who try.

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So from that point on, I worked at universities

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and I worked in instructional technology

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and then, you know, the web came along.

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And I took the skills that I had learned

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from the CD ROM SuperCard HyperCard world

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and was able to sort of translate that

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into working on the web.

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And I spent quite a few years working

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in academic computing at Dartmouth

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and then I moved into being the web director there.

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And, you know, sort of along the way,

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I had some really great opportunities.

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And one of them was to start working

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with my previous colleague and co-author,

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Pat Lynch, on"Web Style Guide",

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which is a book that's been around

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since the web was born, essentially.

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Pat wrote the first version of that

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shortly after the web became

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and I worked with him from the second edition

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on that book.

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And we've done four editions of that, which is very cool.

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The last one was in 2016.

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But you know how that relates to accessibility

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at a certain point.

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So I was doing a lot of design

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and I was sort of a thought leader, you know,

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an accidental thought leader.

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And at a certain point, sort of,

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I think it was the early 2000s,

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I started working in accessibility.

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And for that story I get to mention of a wonderful person

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from the accessibility community, Joe O'Connor.

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And I might cry because we miss

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and love him very much.

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So AccessibleJoe invited me to present

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at a conference in Monterey,

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the New Media Centers conference,

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and he asked me to talk about accessibility.

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And I said yes, but I knew absolutely nothing about it.

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I think that was probably the first thought

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I really learned about it.

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So I had to learn really fast

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and I really liked what I learned.

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And then later that year, I went to another workshop.

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That time, it was at Amherst College in Massachusetts.

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And there was a presenter, his name is Gerald Neufeld,

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and he was there sharing his experiences

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as a blind person using technology

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and going to school and going to law,

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Harvard Law School and all

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and sort of contrasting his pre-digital experiences

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with his current digital experiences.

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And, you know, he was just such a great presenter

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and put accessibility into a context

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that was very meaningful and helped me see

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that how enabling technology can be

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when it's designed right.

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So it was kind of between Joe and Gerald

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that I got really hooked on accessibility.

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- Well, I mean, one of the things that, you know,

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that I know about your background

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is you've been a prolific author and written a lot

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in the accessibility area.

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So you know, what was that all like?

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Because you've written quite a lot just, you know,

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in order to be able to write something

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that's useful to others,

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you have to have internalized that

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and practiced it and worked with it.

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You know, one of your books was with Whitney Quesenbery,

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who is the first person I interviewed for this series

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about 40 episodes ago.

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So I mean, how did that all come about

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and what was that like to be able to not only learn

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about accessibility,

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but then to feel comfortable helping others

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to learn about it and to write about it?

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- Yeah, it's a great question.

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I think, you know, I had been writing about web design,

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through "Web Style Guide".

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And a lot of what I was writing

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was absolutely orthogonal to accessibility.

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And, you know, here's my true confessions.

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You know, I wrote about space or GIFs

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and layout tables and taught people

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how to do terrible things with HTML and CSS.

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And those earlier editions of "Web Style Guide"

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were all about how to hack the web

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into something that was more like an interactive experience

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that you might get through a CD ROM-type thing.

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That the possibilities of the early web

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were very limited from a design perspective.

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And then I started learning about accessibility

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and it helped me really understand,

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okay, this is what this technology is all about.

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This is, you know, about adaptability.

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Not trying to nail everything into place,

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but trying to build something that will adapt gracefully.

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And so as a designer who was, I did design code,

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you know, I did sort of soup to nuts.

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Everyone back then did soup to nuts, you know.

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I changed how I designed and built websites

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and I was working at Dartmouth at this time.

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I wasn't, you know, explicitly asked

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to create accessible home sites

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and, you know, admissions sites

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but that's what I started doing.

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And I learned a great deal from so many people

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in the community and really changed my view of design

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from, you know, I was never that comfortable

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about making pretty things.

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It felt kind of superficial to me,

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but then to realize, well,

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if I use my design skills and my coding skills

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to make something that's useful and usable,

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that is really interesting.

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And that's kind of where I got very hooked.

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And in doing so, I had opportunities

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to give more presentations and write more

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and write books and things like that.

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So I mean, I just had a lot of opportunities

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and that early exposure, I think,

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shifted my thinking so much in a direction

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that was so much more meaningful to me

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and helped me really focus as a designer

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on the things that matter.

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- Well, I think then you mentioned

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that that brought you into the kind of early mid-2000s

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for your work doing the web development work.

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So what came after that?

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What was the next stage that you entered into?

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- Well, yeah, so there was another, like,

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humongous turning point,

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which was when in 2013, Mike Paciello,

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who's another wonderful member of our community,

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offered me a position

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with what was then the Paciello Group.

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And at that point I left higher ed.

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I was at Harvard at the time

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and I started working

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as a digital accessibility consultant in 2013.

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And, you know, TPG,

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I had the most amazing mentors there.

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And I wish I could just name every single one of them.

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But you know, working with people like Mike

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and Steve Faulkner and Gez Lemon and Patrick Lauke

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and LĂ©onie Watson, you know,

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there was just so many people,

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I'd love to name all of them, but I can't.

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I've left out so many people,

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there was a TPG family, you know,

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and I'm doing raised air quotes,

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but it really felt like a family at the time.

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And then there was this larger accessibility community

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that we would encounter at conferences or mailing lists

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and podcasts like yours and things like that.

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During the time working with TPG

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and then later with TPGi, that's really how I learned

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how to do accessibility.

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You know, I did audits of websites, apps.

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I did audit of a time clock once.

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So it was fascinating.

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Design reviews, usability studies,

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that was like my absolute favorite.

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And I learned so much from those.

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And I did more and more strategic consulting

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as time went on with TPGi.

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So with TPG, at least in the beginning,

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you were really thrown in the deep end.

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And you had to do everything.

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You had to know how to do everything.

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And you know, technical details,

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but then like strategic thinking

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about organizational readiness and things like that.

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And so I really, like, I really built up my chops

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while I was working at TPG

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and I'm so grateful for my colleagues

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and clients who helped me learn and grow from there.

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- Well, it's very interesting to hear you talking

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about your work at TPG.

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I think I'm gonna have Mike Paciello

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on this podcast - oh, great!

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- in coming episodes.

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So it'd be fun to get his experiences,

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but if, you know, for you as being part of that,

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first of all that TPG was maybe one

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of the first organizations that really embraced

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the idea of accessibility as its own consulting activity

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and specializing in that.

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And that certainly seems like it would've been, you know,

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a lot different environment

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from your work at the universities and things like that.

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So kind of, you know, what was it like to,

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as you mentioned, being thrown into the deep end there

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and then, you know, developing in that kind of environment?

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- It was a radical shift for me, absolutely.

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And it was chaotic

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and exciting.

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And, you know, I really just didn't look back.

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I think it was a very good move for me to do that

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and to be exposed to so many different dimensions.

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You know, I worked with very large technology companies.

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I worked for small local, you know, governments.

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I just had this breadth of experience

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that I wasn't experiencing

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within the very protected higher education community.

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And the particular schools that I worked at

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were all elite, you know, universities.

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So it was a pretty radical change.

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And as I said,

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it took me a while to take the leap

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because it is kind of a safe environment

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working in academia, but I'm really glad that I did it.

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And my life has changed so much as a result of it,

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everything changed.

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- And then another transition that brought you

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to what you're doing today with your, again,

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to your university work?

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- Yeah, yeah.

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I know, I keep sort of reinventing myself

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because now I'm back in academia, but as a researcher.

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And prior to this, I was sort of supporting the academic

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and research mission of these institutions.

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And now I'm doing the research,

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but it's accessibility research.

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And so that experience that I had working so many years

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with so many different organizations

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and seeing teaching accessibility

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in so many different contexts and doing it myself

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and being taught and mentored by my peers and colleagues,

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I am bringing all of that experience to this project.

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And so while I sort of, I kind of,

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I get away with being a researcher, again, air quotes,

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because I don't have the research background,

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I don't have a PhD or the qualifications

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that you might expect from an academic researcher.

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I bring a perspective

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to my colleagues who are

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and bring a perspective to the job

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that I think has been, that we all have felt,

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has been very beneficial to the work we're doing.

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- Well, it would be good to hear a little bit,

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maybe if you have some insights about things for the future.

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I know I started with accessibility in 1998,

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so like 24 years ago.

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But it wasn't, you know, my full-time work

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for a long time.

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But when I think back to, you know,

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when I was just starting with it, it really excited me.

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And looking ahead, I was thinking,

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I kind of thought maybe we would've been farther along

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with accessibility within the world than we are.

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And then now looking back,

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I'm also amazed by a lot of the technological developments

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that have improved the lives of, you know, so many people.

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So there's always that, you know,

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did we go far enough?

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What's still to come?

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Do you have any thoughts about that?

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Any things where you're hopeful, you know,

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for the future or areas that you, particularly,

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are looking forward to working on?

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- Yeah.

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You know, I am pretty hopeful and at the same time,

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discouraged as well.

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I think that working in the education area

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has given me hope because I am absolutely positive

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that accessibility needs to be a core competency

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for anyone who touches anything digital.

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And that's everyone.

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At least those who are fortunate enough

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to be on the near side of the digital divide.

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And so, having this focus on accessibility education

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or digital accessibility education

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and seeing progress in areas like program accreditation

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and, you know, standard programs for computer science

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and then all of the things,

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like these peer learning opportunities

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like you and I are engaged in right now.

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This is where to invest, I think, right now.

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And that there's an appetite for it.

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There's the Teach Access work that's going on

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in the U.S. that I don't know

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if you've talked to anyone from there,

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but I'd highly recommend following up with teachaccess.org.

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There's a lot of attention being paid now to education

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and raising awareness and building competency.

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And the other area that I feel hopeful about

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is the other area that I've been doing a lot of work in

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with standards because, and they're intricately tied,

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because we need to be able to teach the standards

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or requirements one might, I like to think of them,

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as requirements, design requirements,

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technical requirements,

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as a way of specifying how to build accessible technology.

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Making those teachable so that people can learn them

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and adopt those requirements and practices.

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And so I'm working on the WCAG 3,

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the new next generation accessibility guidelines work,

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but I think the guidelines that we have

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are pretty darn good.

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They're just hard to teach and hard to learn.

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And so I like that I'm bringing the education

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and the standards together.

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And that makes me hopeful

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as sort of a foundational aspect of moving forward.

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- Well, thanks for mentioning the Teach Access.

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I wanna look into that.

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I do follow the work that the working group's doing

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for Web 3.0 and it's always a lot of hard work

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from lot of hard working volunteers to make that happen.

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But Sarah, it's been a pleasure

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to have this conversation with you.

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I appreciate you taking the time to do it

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and, you know, hopefully, we can meet in person

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at a conference sometime.

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- I would love that, thank you so much.

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And I wanted to just thank you for hosting

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these video casts and having done so many of them.

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And I'm really excited to hear Mike's.

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He's gonna upstage me, totally.

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I know that.

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But it's been really great fun talking to you.

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- All right, well thank you very much.

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Bye, Sarah. - Thanks, bye-bye.

About the Podcast

Show artwork for Digital Accessibility
Digital Accessibility
The People Behind the Progress

About your host

Profile picture for Joe Welinske

Joe Welinske

Serving as Accessibility Director at Blink is Joe's main activity. Blink is devoted to helping ensure that digital products and services can be used by everyone. As Director, Joe is responsible for helping Blink's practitioners to build accessibility into everything they do. He also evangelizes the need for accessibility with Blink's clients and partners.
Joe is a co-organizer of the Seattle Inclusive Design and Accessibility meetup group and he serves as the Secretary of the King County Metro Paratransit Advisory Committee.