European Accessibility Forum Frankfurt, Friday 27th March 2009
Report by Chris Mills, with contributions from Henny Swan
When Martin Kliehm invited me to come over to speak at this conference about educational initiatives, I was very intrigued — I am a big advocate of accessibility because I am passionate about the web as a universal communication and education medium. But I am certainly not as knowledgeable about accessibility as my peers - Henny and Bruce. And I am not really that familiar with the accessibility crowd.
This is not a burden however — it is a boon to me, as I love to learn more and meet new people. I learned so much on this day that my head was spinning and I felt quite exhausted by the end of it!
Martin really created a fantastic conference here — the panels were translated across from German to English simultaneously (or the other way if needed), and people were present to sign for the benefit of deaf audience members as well. He even took care to make sure the venue and available hotels were accessible.
The plane ride over was funny — I just so happened to be sitting on the plane across the aisle from a few other geeks, who expressed an interest in the presentation flashing across my screen. I lept into action and seized the chance to do a useful rehearsal of my talk before getting there! The evangelism started before I even got to the conference ;-)
I got there in good time before the speakers dinner started on Thursday, but being a useless tourist I completely failed to figure out what train to get on for the Frankfurt Hauptbanhof. Time started to tick away so I got a taxi to the restaurant. As I was driven through the temperate Frankfurt outskirts by possibly the most humourless taxi driver I've ever met, we listened to cheesy 70's disco music on the radio. A strange combination indeed.
I got to the restaurant - a rather nice Chinese place, and started chatting to loads of great people. Old allies like the marvelous Miss Henny Swan, Jeremy Keith, Jessica Spengler, Lars Gunther, Christian Heilmann and Niqui Merret, and new friends like Marco Zehe (Firefox accessibility QA engineer), Saqib Shaikh (Microsoft accessibility consultant), Steve Faulker from TPG, and Peter Krantz from Sweden.
Jeremy mentioned that he was really pleased with the Opera Geolocation build coming out, and we also talked a bit more about our idea of doing a geek band night at the next SXSWi ;-)
I had the offer of bar plus beer, but I decided to get an early night, as I had a lot to do the next day.
After a pleasant breakfast, I headed on in, and got settled. It was nice to say hi to Jon Gibbins, and I also got stalked on Twitter for a short time by that Patrick Lauke bloke, before having a really good long chat to him later on.
The first keynote was a round up of the importance of accessibility in the EU by Linda Mauperon. It was appropriate, certainly setting tone of the day.
She talked about how e-inclusion is very challenging but rewarding, how the economic crisis makes digital inclusion even more vital, and how in the last year 51% of european citizens accessed the net at least once a week, which is 250 million. We've reached over half of the population, so this will include a lot of people with disabilities.
Accessible web applications
Accessibility and mobile
The second panel was all about mobile accessibility. First up was Dominique Hazaël-Massieux (Activity Lead, W3C Mobile Web Initiative) talking about how the W3C has drafted a set of documents showing the relationship between Mobile Web Best Practices (MWBP) and Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) — there is a lot of overlap there. Our very own Miss Swan then had her chance to talk about a variety of mobile accessibility issues, including similarities between browsing on a desktop with low-vision and small screens on a mobile, issues around mobility and navigation on a desktop and mobile, and the benefits of mobile browsing for people with disabilities. Henny then went on to further clarify the cross over by talking about solutions for improved browsing for both groups such as geolocation, personalisation, customisation and media queries. Thomas Caspers rounded off the individual talks by playing devil's advocate. He disagreed with a few of Henny's points, saying that it is really hard to provide a single (one web) solution with alternative content for some applications.
The main example was maps - content needs to be changed for both the visual content AND any alternative content. Does the user want to get from A to B, or find the nearest bank, or get contour information, or political information? You can say so much about a map that you need to provide just the relevant stuff for that user, otherwise there is so much of it that it becomes useless. Henny's response was that better personalisation and customisation is needed, something that is a benefit for all users regardless of ability, disability or whether they are on a desktop or mobile.
Good panel, but I thought some of Thomas' points were slightly off. Why can't you have a toilet that works for disabled people and non disabled people, male and female? This was one example he cited, of how universal design can sometimes fail.
At this point I had a huge conversation outside with Patrick Lauke and a few others about web standards education initiatives, mobile web development, and more besides. I met Martyn Cooper from the Open University who was rather interesting. Apparently they have web standards modules, so I'm going to find out more about exactly what they've got, and see if the web standards curriculum/WaSP InterAct will be useful to them.
Lunch was tasty, but odd - we had the world's tiniest pizzas. Lars and I also met our co-panelists, Dr Carlos Velasco and Hartmut Wöhlbier - they are great people, and I had a good feeling at this point. We went through some potential topics of conversation, and learnt a bit more about one another.
Accessible Rich Internet applications
The talk before ours — this was also a really interesting talk. Steve Faulkner went through how ARIA works, giving a nice overview. Niqui gave a really interesting insight into making Flash application accessible, which I really enjoyed. She highlighted the issues browsers have with Flash keyboard accessibility — we will have to get someone looking into this. Marco Zehe rounded things off with a — slightly sales pitch-ish — look at Firefox ARIA support, which was interesting but went on far too long.
I think Martin was getting rather frustrated by the talk timings at this point ;-)
My panel - Web standards and accessibility in higher education
I was feeling rather more nervous than usual before our talk, but I ploughed on regardless. I think I did fairly well in delivering a quick synopsis of the current issues with teaching web design and development in higher education, and Opera's efforts to try and make things better - the University tours and the Opera Web Standards Curriculum.
I was amused by being told to slow down early on in my presentation — too much coffee I think ;-)
Lars then added a few more points on top of mine, and showed off the WaSP Interact project.
At the end of the session, Carlos talked about the educational initiatives they have been putting together at the Fraunhofer institute, such as EU 4 All — it is worth checking out.
We answered a few questions from Hartmut about how we would position our courses in a university infrastructure (answer — the different modules can be restructured into courses aimed at designers or programmers; they could potentially exist inside multiple different faculties), and whether we are planning on providing other forms of media such as short instructional videos (answer — yes, when time and resources allow).
I think it was a success overall. I missed the last two talks before my head was absolutely overflowing with information already, and I felt a bit frazzled after delivering my panel. I also talked to many attendees in the coffee area, including industry people who are excited to check out our material, and French and German students who want Opera to visit their universities to try to improve things on their courses. A couple of guys said they thought our panel was one of the best of the day, which was great.
After having a really silly conversation with Henny, Steve, Jon and Patrick, we made our way to the evening meeting place. We then decided to go somewhere else for food because the evening meeting place had a bit of an arty farty menu, and we wanted steak. We then made our way back and talked the evening away. I went to bed before everyone else in my group because they were all sticking around the next day, and I had to be up at 7.30 to go to the airport.
I am writing this while on a train to Birmingham, to go and play a gig with my band, the mighty Conquest of Steel. I will be able to see my family again tomorrow, which will be nice. It is times like these that I get the Extreme lyric "Stop the world, I wanna get off" echoing through my head, but nevertheless, great conference, and great weekend ahead!