Volume XIV Number 1, March 2014

John Slatin, AIR-Austin, and Web Accessibility: A Remembrance and a Look Forward

Sharron Rush
The more things change, the more they remain the same.
—Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr

The French novelist Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr coined this phrase in 1849 in the wake of the Industrial Revolution that was sweeping through Europe. The phrase occurs to me as I reflect on the evolution of information technology (IT) accessibility during the twenty years that have passed since this journal was first published. We have certainly seen change. We use many more kinds of devices, and we use them more often for more basic life activities that we could have imagined 20 years ago. We are coming to a better understanding of the varied experiences of users across a broad range of abilities. We have put legal requirements in place to mandate equivalence in those user experiences. So the landscape has undoubtedly changed. And yet, can we say that people with disabilities now have equal access to the technologies that have transformed our society? Here is a snapshot of my journey through this landscape. I have some observations to share and a few concerns for the direction in which we seem to be heading. See if you agree.

Austin, Texas 1998

In the mid 1990s, I worked at Easter Seals in Austin, Texas, a city that was being transformed from a relatively quiet college and legislative enclave into a major player in the booming technology start-up field. For those of us working in programs to deliver rehabilitation, education, and employment services to people with disabilities, it was not difficult to see the enormous potential for IT to support the independence of this marginalized group. But how were we to get programmers, the technology “makers,” to pay attention to the communication needs of all users? I actively pursued exploratory conversations  based on these questions. I spoke with tech entrepreneurs, disability organizations, early thinkers about the “digital divide,” and a brilliant English professor at the University of Texas (UT) named John Slatin, who happened to be blind. The notion of accessibility was profoundly important to John as he watched text-based IT evolving to include multimedia and scripted interfaces—an evolution he thoroughly embraced.

Many are surprised to learn that John, who died of leukemia in 2008, was an English professor and not a computer scientist. Like so many at that time, he was self-taught about technology. John Slatin saw the potential for people with visual impairments to enjoy unprecedented access to research, narratives, and self-expression as a result of the emerging communications technologies. He was among the first to offer computer-based English classes and John’s graduate students excelled in teaching their own students to explore the use of multimedia authoring tools. He founded the Institute for Technology and Learning, which eventually became UT’s Accessibility Institute.

In 1998 as I spoke with John and others, it was often noted that the start-up technology environment was intensely competitive. The tech sector also had a reputation for lack of community involvement in Austin. An idea emerged that if we wanted to engage the technology “makers,” a competitive element would be appealing to them.


The Accessibility Internet Rally for Austin (AIR-Austin) was conceived as a way to get technologists interested in accessible design from a competitive standpoint. We announced that there would be an accessible design contest and set out to recruit teams of web professionals to participate. The idea was that teams of technologists would earn their accessibility chops in basic HTML accessibility classes taught by people like John Slatin; Jim Allan, webmaster at the Texas School for the Blind; Simon Fleischmann-Shostak; and others. Teams were then given the chance to strut their stuff in an 8-hour design contest, each team making a site for one of Austin’s many local nonprofit organizations (NPOs). We had never heard of a hackathon, but we held one. Phil Jenkins of IBM showed up to join a team and stayed on to judge the accessibility of the sites that were made that day. In 1998, this was the very first website for many of these organizations. Our idea was to foster community involvement, help a large number of NPOs, and get accessible design skills into the hands of those who could do the most good—the developers and designers. The prize was a big shiny trophy and bragging rights. It was “gamification” of accessibility before we even knew the term.

Building an AIR Force

The outcome took us all by surprise. More than 20 teams participated from web shops like White Lion, TradeMark Media, and Human Code, to large companies like Prodigy, IBM, and Tivoli. Websites were created for groups like Goodwill Industries, SafePlace, and Keep Austin Beautiful. Some, but by no means all, were disability-related organizations. People participated eagerly and in some cases, brilliantly. Soon I was hearing, “Next year, we will make this or that or the other change.” Next year?  Suddenly we had an annual program on our hands. John Slatin began signing his email with the epigram, “Good Design is Accessible Design,” and we were off. 

In 1999, Jim Thatcher, recently retired from IBM, joined as a judge and the famous “Judge Brothers” came together. Jim Allan, Jim Thatcher, and John Slatin made the AIR judging form into a precise instrument to measure and report on the accessibility of the NPO sites. James Craig, then at Frog Design, participated on a design team and became an articulate and brilliant advocate, trainer, and teacher. People who contributed to AIR in the early years like Charles Chen, Jon Wiley, Michael Moore, and Glenda Sims, went on to work in accessibility at government agencies and companies like Google, Microsoft, and Deque Systems. It became clear that all of the moving parts that went into the contest—the technical training for the teams, the preparation of the NPOs to be good clients, the evaluation metrics of the sites for accessibility, event coordination, etc.—would require full-time, year-round management.

Knowbility.org was founded as a way to continue to offer the AIR program and to expand into other cities. Our expectation was that we would hold a few of the AIR contests around the country, the idea of accessibility would catch on, and we would fold up our tent and find another problem to work on. After all, once the technologists understood access barriers and learned to design properly, the problem would be solved, right? I believe that is still the right idea, but AIR alone could not make it happen.

Rallies are not enough

Despite the success of the AIR program replication, the problem of accessible technology design was not solved. We held Accessibility Internet Rallies in San Francisco, Dallas, Denver, Houston, and Los Angeles.  We held rallies for universities in Texas, Georgia, and California. The AIR developer training evolved into an annual 3-day curated training conference held at St Edward’s University in Austin called John Slatin AccessU. The judging form became an assessment tool and Knowbility now offers accessibility auditing and consulting services. Other programs also evolved from the accessibility expertise developed within the AIR program. But accessible design was still seen by the developer community as a marginal skill. It was (and is) rarely taught in college courses on web design. Students can receive a degree in computer science, in digital communications, in interactive game design, and never even hear about accessibility. Why not? I don’t know the answer, but I do know that once-a-year trainings and hackathons in disparate locations did not address the scale of the problem. 

We are exploring ways to scale the AIR program more effectively. For the past two years, under the volunteer leadership of Rich Schwerdtfeger of IBM we have been experimenting with a model that we hope will not be site- or city-specific and will allow participation from anywhere in the world. We have created online training modules and recruited teams and NPOs from across the globe to participate. Rather than an 8-hour hackathon, the program has become a 6-week practicum in accessible design. This is the second year, and we are generally pleased with the results. More people are participating, doing good work, and forging community bonds around the idea of inclusive design. While the virtual or OpenAIR concept addresses some of the limitations of the original AIR format and is a practical, hands-on way to teach accessible design, more is needed. A massive effort is required to raise accessibility awareness and skills among the people who make the ubiquitous technology products and services on which our society has come to depend.

Accessibility integration

Accessibility education should be part of every technology training effort at all levels. From K-12 through community and technical colleges, to university level courses, accessibility should become part of the standard tools of the trade. Current initiatives to create a professional specialization in accessible IT are doubtlessly well intended but from my perspective, somewhat misguided. I have written previously about my concerns for the formation of an association of accessibility professionals, based on my belief that accessible design will never be fully implemented as long as it is considered a separate discipline and is not seamlessly integrated into the professional development of every designer, developer, and product manager working in technology. And yet, integration cannot be arbitrarily determined. We have a set of global guidelines at the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C). As much as we bemoan the complexity and glacial pace of developing common standards within the W3C process, consensus and technology neutrality are fundamentally important in keeping an open web. I also consider current efforts to control accessibility within a self-contained system to be equally misguided, creating technology fragmentation and potential confusion for users. 

For example, a standard has been proposed for the K-12 online testing environment to meet the needs of students with disabilities. But the Accessible Portable Item Protocol (APIP) standard does not build in conformance with the W3C’s Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) and is deeply flawed in my opinion. It is not sustainable, is based on an incomplete understanding of how real users actually interact with assistive technology (AT) and the subject matter, and does not allow for the vast differentiation in the combinations of disabilities and AT that may be required. As we move forward, I urge people who care about accessibility to work closely with the W3C to contribute and to build consensus within their Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI).  

The most widely known guidelines developed within WAI is WCAG, which was revised and released as WCAG 2.0 in 2008. Less known but equally important are the Authoring Tool Accessibility Guidelines (ATAG) and the User Agent Accessibility Guidelines (UAAG). ATAG and UAAG are also in the process of being updated, and community input is encouraged. But WAI is not only about guidelines and specifications. Free resources are available and in development to support accessibility practice.  Useful training and testing tools are found in the Before and After Demo, the ARIA Authors Guide, and the ongoing work of the Indie-UI Working Group. The WAI Education and Outreach Working Group (EOWG) is developing free tools for testing, training, and implementing accessibility. People who care about accessibility should use these resources and provide feedback to improve and expand them.

Accessibility in the next 20 years

Going forward, my hopes for accessibility have not actually changed a lot. I believe that accessibility will be realized as good developers and designers understand the barriers and are trained to think about the elimination of those barriers as a design specification. If and when technologists are trained to think about accessibility as an inclusive design challenge; when we create authoring tools, browsers, and AT that support inclusive design principles; and when responsibility for accessibility is shared by all and measured with other performance standards at every step in the design, development, procurement, and implementation process; we will all be able to agree with John Slatin that “Good design IS accessible design.”  


Knowbility. (2011a). Finalists announced—Three teams go on to round two! Retrieved from http://www.knowbility.org/v/open-air/

Knowbility. (2001b). Welcome to Knowbility, Inc. Retrieved from http://www.knowbility.org/

Knowbility. (2011). John Slatin AccessU. Retrieved from http://www.knowbility.org/v/john-slatin-accessu/

Measured Progress, Inc. (n.d.). The APIP standard. Retrieved from http://www.apipstandard.org/

W3C. (2014). Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI). Retrieved from http://www.w3.org/WAI/

W3C. (2013). Authoring tool accessibility guidelines (ATAG) overview. Retrieved from http://www.w3.org/WAI/intro/atag.php

W3C. (2005). User agent accessibility guidelines (UAAG) overview. Retrieved from http://www.w3.org/WAI/intro/uaag.php

W3C. (2012). Before and after demonstration. Retrieved from http://www.w3.org/WAI/demos/bad/

W3C. (2013). IndieUI overview. Retrieved from http://www.w3.org/WAI/intro/indieui

Scheuhammer, J. & Cooper, M. (2013). WAI-ARIA 1.0 authoring practices. Retrieved from http://www.w3.org/TR/wai-aria-practices/

Rush, S. (2014). John Slatin, AIR-Austin, and Web Accessibility: A Remembrance and a Look Forward. Information Technology and Disabilities E-Journal, 14(1).