Running themes from Scotland’s first accessibility conference

Accessibility Scotland notebook

A couple of weeks ago I attended Accessibility Scotland, billed as the first dedicated accessibility conference in Scotland.

Attending this was an obvious choice for me. I am always preaching about accessibility during the writing for the web sessions I conduct at work. So Accessibility Scotland would be a good way to meet like-minded people and learn about recent developments.

Also, it is difficult to imagine a cooler venue than Edinburgh’s Summerhall.

But best of all, this accessibility conference had a very accessible price. It cost only £25 for a day long event with an excellent and varied selection of speakers. So really I had every reason to go.

Here are some of the key themes of the event.

Tools don’t need to be expensive

Yes, accessibility testing can be difficult. But a number of speakers highlighted some low-cost tools that we can all use to enhance accessibility without breaking the bank.

Vicki Galt from the University of Edinburgh mentioned the WebAIM contrast checker tool, which can be used specifically to check the WCAG 2.0 compliance of colour contrast ratios. User Vision’s Gayle Whittaker praised the WAVE browser extension, which analyses webpages for possible accessibility issues.

Mark Palmer recommended using Google Hangouts to conduct remote testing sessions.

Meanwhile, Jim Byrne did a whole talk about keeping a WordPress website accessible. Jim highlighted a handful of WordPress plugins, such as WP Accessibility, that can help ensure your theme is kept accessible.

But most cheering of all was Michelle Young describing how voice software has transformed in recent years. She described NVDA — a free screen reader — as the best thing ever to have happened to voice software.

Michelle’s talk was about bridging the visibility employment gap. She explained that in the workplace, all a visually impaired person needs to do is install NVDA and they can do almost everything they need to.

Michelle had her laptop stolen in the morning, so she had to deliver her presentation without slides. Nevertheless she gave a very impressive, funny, informative and engaging talk. And it was yet another example that you don’t need expensive tools to get the job done.

The document object model is like a hot tub

No, really. At least, it is according to SSB Bart Group’s Alistair Garrison.

HTML is the water. CSS is the filter in the pump. JavaScript is the bubble generator. The user and the browser are sitting in the tub. And the water spilt on the floor is what could be in the DOM but isn’t displayed on the page.

The point he was making was that nowadays the DOM is extensive and complex. Checking the DOM state once (such as on initial pageload) is ineffective. So accessibility testing tools need to be able to track the DOM throughout the process.

Accessibility needs to be embedded from the beginning

Many of the event’s speakers stressed how important it is that work on accessibility begins as early as possible. The point was made by Mark Palmer (whose talk I write about more below) and Michelle Young.

It was also a major focus of Gayle Whittaker’s talk. I was impressed with this session, which outlined a framework for how to carry out an accessibility project. The presentation centred around a case study of a project to improve accessibility for a financial services firm.

Not only did this talk provide some great advice on how to carry out an accessibility project, it also served to highlight how some people are still making really basic errors. One of the examples raised was text in an image. Some of us still have a lot of work to do.

Dinosaurs don’t bite

Michiel Bijl from the Paciello Group delivered a rather technical talk in a dinosaur onesie.

I missed the story about the dinosaur onesie. Perhaps he felt like it would take the edge off what might sound to some like a scary topic. But that wasn’t needed. His talk about the ARIA Authoring Practices Guide was entertaining and informative.

The lesson is that the ARIA Authoring Practices Guide is here to help us and answer any questions about ARIA. So there’s no need to be scared of it.

Nobody is an expert — not even the users

Jim Byrne began his talk by saying that perfect accessibility is impossible. There are over 6,000 languages in the world. And those people do not all have the same understanding of those languages. On top of that, there are thousands of impairments. So there are too many variables to be an expert in it all.

In the first talk of the day, Mark Palmer made the point that even the users themselves are experts. This point was underlined in the final session, where Michelle Young said: “I’m not an expert on blind people. I’m an expert on me.”

Always be learning

Working in digital is exciting because it’s fast-paced. But it does mean you have to be on top of your game and learning all the time.

This was underlined in Mark Palmer’s talk about ten key takeaways from his ten years working in accessibility. Many of the themes I have mentioned above were touched on during Mark’s talk.

The first of his takeaways was “I thought we’d have that fixed by now”. We expect technological progress to ultimately solve all our problems. But because everything is changing all the time, we are constantly faced with new challenges.

He also reminded us that everybody may need accessibility features one day. He gave the example of someone falling off their bike and breaking their arm. Who would ever do that?

It was later noted during Gayle Whittaker’s session that accessibility is becoming a bigger issue in society due to the ageing population.

As Mark went through each of his ten lessons, I was beginning to think about how it all told us how important it is to keep on learning. And then came his tenth lesson: “never stop learning”.

Having said that, Michelle Young was full of praise for recent advances in the accessibility of banking. She said that ten years ago you couldn’t bank. You couldn’t use the ATM, and the websites were not accessible. That is now a much improved situation.

She also explained how useful Google Maps is for letting her know when to get off the bus. She now no longer has to rely on the bus driver letting her know when to get off. That is just as well because it sounds like many bus drivers have been less than helpful to her!


Overall, I was very impressed with Accessibility Scotland. For such an accessible price, the quality was very high and with a diverse range of speakers. Thanks to everyone involved in organising it, and I hope to attend any future Accessibility Scotland events.

See also Claire Brotherton’s recap of the Accessibility Scotland event.

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