Accessing Higher Ground – a Brief Reflection
The Accessing Higher Ground (AHG) Conference: Accessible Media, Web & Technology began in 1998 as the result of receiving a small $3,000 grant from the Parents Association at the University of Colorado Boulder. With a start date only a few years later than the Information Technology and Disabilities (ITD) Journal, we share a similar trajectory of addressing an environment increasingly dominated by the rise of the web in the late 1990s and, more recently, by mobile devices.
Looking back through AHG agendas, spanning the years 1998 to the present, is a reminder and chronicle of how technology, assistive technology, and curriculum access has changed in the past decade and a half. Surely there has been a rise in the number of AHG sessions addressing web accessibility and accessible website design, and the web has come to play an increasingly important role in postsecondary education—as a communications, pedagogical, and research tool. But perhaps other, more significant changes have been reflected in the evolving session topics seen at AHG: in audio books, moving from analog tapes to digital format, first with CDs, then instantaneous download of audio books directly to mobile devices and the ever-increasing merging of electronic text with synchronized audio output (a development spurred by the DAISY project and other advances in technology); the growth of learning management systems and content management systems and the issues they engender; and the rise and fall of Adobe Flash content as an access issue (I say fall because the percentage of sites using Flash has been decreasing, particularly since Apple decided not to support the format on their iOS devices).
A number of other trends are reflected in the changing agenda topics of AHG. Sessions on accessible PDFs did not appear until 2002, a year after the release of Acrobat 5.0, the first version to include the tagging of PDF elements which allowed for the creation of PDFs with a reasonable level of accessibility, particularly for screen reader users. The more pressing and contentious argument in recent years—seen more on online discussion lists than perhaps at AHG—has been the debate between those who argue that PDFs offer an equivalent (or equivalent enough) level of accessibility and usability (when properly tagged and prepared) to HTML documents; and those who argue that PDFs fall short for users with reading issues such as low vision and dyslexia who rely not so much on screen readers for their primary mode of access, but on a level of text customization not available through PDFs or third-party tools that render them. Although I will not step into this debate in this forum, I will say that the fact that this is being debated at all shows the progress PDFs have made in accessibility since the pre-Acrobat 5.0 days, when the accessibility community was justifiably up in arms over the inaccessibility of PDF documents.
Returning to the web and web accessibility, a number of trends have significantly influenced the discussion and approaches in this area: the rise of a web standards approach to website design; the increasing importance of semantic markup led by Google’s taking semantics into account when indexing web pages; and the increasing influence of a universal design approach to information and communications technology (ICT), including web design. The adoption of web standards and the growing influence of universal design (UD), in the built environment, in education, and in ICT, have followed similar development timelines. The Web Standards Project (Web Standards Project, n.d.) began in 1998 prompted by the Microsoft/Netscape browser wars, where each company sought to establish its own “non-standard” for HTML rendering, a bane for both developers and AT users. The UD movement, though beginning in the late 1980s and early 1990s, seemed to gain traction after the publication of the 7 Principles of Universal Design (Connel, B., et al., 1997).
The first presentation on universal design at AHG was in 2004, in the area of Universal Design for Learning (UDL). The topics of UD for the Web and Web Standards began to appear in 2005 and have increased in frequency since. After a grant was awarded to The University of Colorado Boulder to promote the inclusion of Universal Design in University Curriculum (UDUC) in 2012, the UD content at AHG reached a pinnacle in 2013 with over 10 sessions, including a full-day pre-conference session on Integrating UD into University Curriculum and the keynote talk by Dr. David Sloan on Teaching Universal Design—the Dundee Approach.
When I was approached to write an article for this issue of the ITD Journal, I was asked to address AHG’s role as an agent of change in the field. Determining AHG’s role in this manner is difficult. How do you measure and quantify intangibles such as “influence” and “change agent”? I do view AHG and similar conferences as a forum where information, strategies and new developments can be shared and disseminated. AHG does fill a niche in providing deeper and more advanced training in the area of accessible media, web, and curricula.
However, the Access Technology Higher Education Network (ATHEN) seems to have had a more significant influence in the area of access and accessibility in the postsecondary environment, particularly considering the size and limited resources of the organization. From my point of view, the relationship between AHG and ATHEN has been synergistic and mutually beneficial. Selecting AHG as the official conference and annual meeting location for ATHEN has helped to increase attendance and support for the conference while simultaneously providing a rich source of speakers. Meanwhile, AHG has helped to increase awareness of ATHEN and its resources and promote membership in the organization. Perhaps this synergistic relationship has been AHG’s most significant contribution to changes in the field.
Looking towards the future, I believe that the next few years offer AHG the opportunity to influence the field in a number of areas. AHG’s involvement with promoting universal design in curriculum was mentioned above. If continued funding is received for this project, AHG has the opportunity to significantly promote UD content in curriculum through AHG mini-conferences and by using the conference as a forum to disseminate and share curriculum resources in this area. The 2013 conference was notably fruitful in gaining input and advice both from the UDUC advisory board and from conference attendees.
I also believe the video library developed from conference workshops (University of Colorado at Boulder, n.d.) are an untapped resource for training and education for accessible media, web content, and curricula. With the discussion from various quarters on accessibility certification or credentialing, I believe AHG in collaboration with ATHEN has the opportunity to make a contribution in this area.
Finally, in looking over the agendas from past conferences and considering the ongoing relationship with ATHEN, I am reminded that AHG and ATHEN are more than a conference and a professional organization, respectively. They are just as much a community. Somewhat amazingly, it seems that there has always been someone to step in and fill a need or gap at the conference. I look forward to the future activities of this community and the contribution it will make to accessibility and access to curriculum in the postsecondary environment.
Web Standards Project. (n.d.). Web standards project. Retrieved March 1, 2014 from http://www.webstandards.org
Connel, B. E;, Jones, M., Mace, R., Mueller, J., Mullick, A., Ostroff, E., . . . Vanderheiden, G. (1997). The principles of universal design. NC State University: The Center for Universal Design. Retrieved from http://www.ncsu.edu/ncsu/design/cud/about_ud/udprinciplestext.htm
University of Colorado at Boulder. (n.d.). Promoting the integration of universal design into university curriculum (UDUC). Retrieved March 1, 2014 from http://uduc.org/videos/php