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Why I Do What I Do: Challenge, Community, Equity

From a young age, I realized that I thrive on challenge and on challenging others. I am happiest and most productive if there is some degree of technical or social challenge in my work as a web accessibility consultant. This has contributed to my Socratic teaching style--not imparting knowledge directly but exploring truth through discussion and asking a series of questions. When making presentations, I feel like I have failed if the participants leave the session not thinking about what they have learned, but simply knowing what they have learned.

A story that I often tell to emphasize my disdain for rote memorization in education comes from my experience in grade seven science class. In a unit on conservation, the teacher asked, "What takes less water, a shower or a bath?" One of the students answered--the answer I forget--and the teacher told the student that she was correct. I then challenged the teacher, explaining as well as I was able in grade seven, that there was not enough information available for anyone to provide a valid answer. After grappling with the teacher over the specifics of the problem, to no avail, I was informed that I was incorrect, because the correct answer was in the textbook!

Many people try to sell accessibility as something simple, something that doesn't have any effect on the total cost of a project. As much as I wish these two statements were true, they simply are not. Technical challenges abound when attempting to make an information system accessible to all persons, including those with disabilities. The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.0 (WCAG 2.0) can take us a long way to ensuring that a web-based information system is accessible. There are, however, many complexities that simply memorizing and applying these guidelines do not address. WCAG 2.0 is a set of guidelines--that's all. They are important and useful, but not all accessibility barriers are adequately addressed by them, and for these situations pros are required.

I LOVE community. I was fortunate to spend several years in the tiny town of St. Stephen, New Brunswick, and to attend a private university where class sizes were often under 20. While studying there, I took the opportunity to read opinions from authors over the years about community. I believe that humans are meant to participate in community. We are designed to seek heterogeneity (which in itself isn't necessarily a good thing). Our need for community, balanced with an appreciation of the value that can be brought by those who are different from ourselves, is what fuels our sense of self, while at the same time allows us to be a meaningful part of something larger than ourselves.

None of the three technical communities to which I belong--Drupal (free, open-source software anyone can use to create and manage websites), the Fluid Project (an Inclusive Design Research Centre initiative) and the HTML Accessibility Task Force of W3C (World Wide Web Consortium)--is simply a factory of beings with the appropriate skills to deliver a product. Rather, each community is comprised of passionate and caring people who invest them selves into the product, the production process, and the lives of others within the community. As with all communities, this can lead to grumpy days (even weeks or months!) where people's feelings get hurt. I find it incredibly frustrating when decisions with which I disagree are made within these communities. This makes me grumpy (nothing that a dozen samosas can't solve), but I wouldn't have it any other way. The fact that my feelings get hurt, and that I sometimes hurt the feelings of others, means that we actually care enough about what we are doing to be hurt. This is essential for me to be an effective and efficient worker, even if during the most stressful times my diet may suffer!

Without challenge and community, I wouldn't have the necessary drive and energy to work towards greater equity. Truth be told, as a blind user and consumer of information technology, I have a greater stake than some others in ensuring that the information systems that I may potentially use are accessible. More importantly, I truly believe that "all persons have equal value." I do not believe that all persons have equal ability. Since the assignment of individual ability is completely arbitrary, I do not believe that a person's abilities reflect on their value to society.

I cannot make the world a completely equitable place for all persons. There are many who suffer needlessly in ways that are far worse than not having access to online poker, a dating site, or to commenting on a popular blog or news site. But contributing my arbitrary skills towards making the web a more inclusive and equitable ecosystem for all who have access to it, so that we can communicate and participate in life together, is one of the ways in which I can, and do, contribute to society as a whole.

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Adapted from Everett Zufelt’s blog, October 3, 2010: http://www.zufelt.ca/blog

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