March 3, 2012

CSUN 2012 Recap


It is Saturday morning (afternoon by the time I finish), and I am sitting here thinking about the past 4 days: CSUN 2012. A significant part of me is still simply processing all of the energy and love that CSUN 2012 delivered to my mental In Box, and this blog post is an attempt to capture some of that, get it written down, and share it back. It is likely not comprehensive nor complete, but it’s a start. While I saw some amazing things in the realm of research and innovations, I’m going to focus mostly on softer, but larger thoughts today. They group into the following categories: Themes/Memes, Logistics, “Misc.”, and Personal Highlights.

Themes/Memes

The Tribe

This is a complex issue, and one that I was both challenged on and one that I once-again thought deeply on this week. Via twitter (and prior to the conference) there was at least one mini-thread about “how to join the tribe”, and while at the conference I was told point-blank that a person felt that they were being excluded from “The Tribe”. I was stunned and hurt, as I for one have tried to nurture and fertilize “The Tribe” as a symbol of our community, our village, our spirit. Perhaps knowing the etymology of the phrase might help clarify it.

In many ways, “The Tribe” is linked to twitter. It was accidental of course, but often times that is simply the case. In 2010, Jared Smith (WebAIM), Mike Paciello (TPG) and Henny Swan (then at Opera), set out to repeat the community building process they had put into action the year before, and organized the 2nd (Annual) CSUN TweetUp. As part of the planned evening, a few people were invited to step to the microphone and give a 5 minute talk, loosely grouped around “accessibility” – I mean, we’re at CSUN right? One of those speakers was Wendy Chisolm (a dear friend and inspirational artist/advocate/activist). As is Wendy’s way, she wrote and presented a poem, called “An Ode to Twitter“.

Towards the end of the poem, Wendy wrote:

 Our tribe created the innovations that iPhones and Androids rely on:

  Onscreen keyboards,

  Word prediction,

  Screen magnification,

  Speech recognition.

 What our tribe does today will make tomorrow’s tools more flexible.

…and later the poem finished with:

 This is my ode to twitter.

 My ode to the tribe.

I loved it! Her words resonated with me, and stayed with me (as they do today). To slighly re-phrase Wendy, what we do today will make tomorrow better, and it is something I believe to my core connects us all – the belief that we are all working toward a better day, and that together we will succeed.

Fast forward one year to CSUN 2011: Jared Smith proposed, organized and moderated a panel discussion entitled “Do We Need To Change the Web Accessibility Game Plan?“. I was privileged to be part of that panel, along with Jennison Asuncion (@jennison), Sandy Wassmer (@copious) and Jared. We took our chairs out from behind the table, set them in front of that table, and what happened was we had a Town-Hall style discussion. It was awesome! At one point in the discussion we were talking about how many felt that they were alone, day-after-day, fighting an uphill battle with little to no support, and how demoralizing it was.

[Image: a faux-military badge with the words A 11 y Army on it]For some reason Wendy’s poem popped into my head, and I said something to the effect “We’re a tribe here. We’ve got each others back. I challenge you all to be a little disruptive.” The idea was that while our numbers might feel small, together we can be a force, so keep on “fighting”, because the fight we fight is the right one. The word I used to sum that up could have been anything: village, army, community, movement… Wendy’s poem popped into my head and I used Tribe.

The meme caught on; it had, in the words of Léonie Watson, “capture(d) the CSUN zeitgeist (of) the global accessibility community as a tribe, drawn together by a shared ambition to make the web a truly inclusive place.”

Which brings us to CSUN 2012.

Leading up to this year’s conference, the twitters began to heat up in excitement and anticipation – many of us who have previously attended CSUN were all looking forward to re-connecting in San Diego to be amongst friends, fellow “fighters”, people who shared the understanding of what we are working for, what we want and aspire to. We were as giddy as 7 year-olds weeks before Christmas, and “The Tribe” as a meme resurfaced as part of that excitement. But for some, what “The Tribe” meant in this context was unclear.

Hopefully this post helps clarify that. “The Tribe” is an inclusive place: it costs nothing to be part of The Tribe. It simply symbolizes the passion we share, the common goals we aspire to, it serves as a reminder that we are a force that together want to make the world a better place for all. If you are reading this today, you are a member of the Tribe – as all it takes to be a member is to say “I am a member”, that you share those aspirations, those goals, this spirit. Heck, even if you haven’t read this, and never do – if you share these ideals you are a member. Every single person at CSUN 12 is a member of The Tribe. Every single person who read even one tweet with the #CSUN12 hashtag this past week is a member of The Tribe. And even if you have done none of the above, but work towards inclusion and a better world for everyone, including people with disabilities – you are part of this Tribe whether you like it or not. Because whatever it is that brings you to that place automatically makes you a member.

…and sorry, we don’t yet have T-Shirts.

“Somebody Ought-ta…”

[Photo: a collection of 5 shovels I had this conversation a few times this past week. As part of the chat, I suggested that one of the English phrases I hate hearing most is the one that starts out “Somebody Ought-ta…” (“Somebody should…”). I want to know who this mystical/mythical “somebody” is, because for truth it is you and I. When a person starts out with “Somebody Ought-ta…” they fail to realize that the somebody that should actually do whatever “somebody” should be doing is actually them. It is easy to make suggestions, it is harder (but way more valuable) to pick up the shovel and start digging yourself. This is nothing new, but it is important in the context of what we do: We have so much work to do, in the areas of education, research, implementation, remediation, and on and on and on. More work than we have resources for sometimes. So grab a shovel, and dig in.

Two conversations in particular brought this to the fore for me: one was with someone who asked me the status of something in the HTML5 work: I explained where it was (as far as I remembered) and how the person who had taken it to that point had to step away for personal and medical reasons: the status was that it was open and waiting for someone else to pick up the ball and run with it. I asked her if she was interested in resurrecting the work and continuing it forward? I offered to forward links and related work, to provide online introductions to those who had contributed to date (but were pulled off in other directions on more pressing matters), whatever they needed. I hope she considers.

The other conversation was with somebody who has worked, quietly and in the background, on web accessibility issues for over a decade. This person has a wealth of real-world, on the ground experience that has immeasurable value. Recently this person decided they wanted to be more involved, but said to me that they felt intimidated to jump into conversations where folks like Jared Smith, Steve Faulkner, myself and others were contributing. I was floored! What a load of bull feathers. Jared, Steve, myself – the only thing we do is reject that phrase of “Somebody Ought-ta…” and jump in. I am proud and pleased to know both Jared and Steve, and 2 more down-to-earth guys you will never meet: none of us think we have “The Answer(TM)“, we simply believe that sharing what we know, and have learned, is a good thing, the right thing, the useful thing to do.

Here’s the thing: not everyone is comfortable being in the spotlight – I get that. I have no issue making an ass of myself in public, but I can’t expect everyone to share that. But the thing you need to remember is that we are all part of this (see The Tribe, above), and everyone has a unique voice to bring to the table. Contributions on mailing lists, via blogs, via twitter – they all bring value. I encouraged this person to get over this hesitation and encourage them to speak up; bring their real-world experience to the discussion, because it has value and is crucial to our educational goals.

One last final thought I left with this person – if they saw something I suggested on a list (or whatever) and they disagree with me, say so. I love a good debate, and exploring an issue via a mailing list thread has massive value for many people: it’s not even whether one person or the other is “right or wrong” – exposing the ideas and discussion is what is most important, and I hope to have one such conversation/debate with this person some day. That holds true for you to.

Social Contract

[Image: a crowd of people holding an earth globe above them, upon which is written www]This idea came up a couple of times, including at the wonderful “Commonwealth Ladies” sessions (aka “Does Accessibility Have to be Perfect?” that featured Lisa Herrod, Sarah Lewthwaite, Kath Moonan, Henny Swan, and Léonie Watson). It is, I believe, an important part of the questions these women posed, as it is important to understand the roles each player plays in achieving “success” (however that is defined). Put another way, if a web developer does everything in their power to create and deliver the most accessible site they can (including using things like ARIA), and the current crop of browsers are doing useful things with this content, but either AT or the end user is behind in their support of these factors, who is to blame for an “inaccessible” experience. In other words, if we do the best we can, and the end user shows up with IE 6 and a copy of JAWs 9 who’s fault is it that the experience is not “accessible”?

These are hard questions, because there are a whole raft of related questions surrounding the cost of some of the AT tools, technical and other restrictions experienced by the end user, whether we target the top, the middle or the bottom of the pile, questions and techniques in the ‘graceful degradation/progressive enhancement’ vein, and more. I was encouraged to see some conversations happening here, and I believe we need to continue talking about – and acting upon – this issue moving forward.

a11ySociety / Certification

There was plenty of discussion around this topic at CSUN this year – way more than I could capture here. There is clearly a need for something, of that there was total agreement. What that is, what it should look like, how it is developed, delivered, evaluated, monitored, controlled, etc. etc. needs to be figured out. What is clear is that there are a lot of voices that need to be included in that discussion, and that we have a lot of work ahead of us. It is also pretty clear that we need to get working on this issue post-haste, as the need is both urgently pressing and huge. As is my way, I stirred the pot a fair bit here, and I look forward to being further involved in these discussions moving forward. There were some interesting short-term ideas discussed with a number of folks, and I sincerely hope that we can continue the momentum. I hope to write a fuller blog post on this topic soon.

Logistics

Microphones in Rooms

[Photo: a microphone on a stand]Many of the sessions I attended evolved to discussions, where the panelists and the audience actually engaged in dialog. I love those types of sessions, as I truly believe that the sharing of ideas is a two-way process. At those sessions this year, I remarked that having an open mic in the audience would have been hugely beneficial to that process: too often the comment heard was “can you repeat the question”. Outside of the fact that simply repeating (or attempting to paraphrase) the question chews up precious minutes, the lack of open mics seems to me a “barrier to inclusion” to the dialog. Kind of incongruous to our mission huh? Hopefully that can be addressed for next year.

Unconference

A few of us got to talking about the idea of perhaps next year looking to see an “Unconference” track as part of the larger CSUN conference. Unconferences are awesome, they are egalitarian, they are inclusive, they are relatively easy to set up, and they often produce some serendipitous wins and unforeseen connections. Personally, I’d like to see something like this towards the end of the conference, as part of the energy of CSUN is the off-track discussions and hallway chats that characterize any large conference. I think it would be awesome to provide a means and forum to gather together and capture those ideas, discuss next steps, and close circles that may have been opened throughout the week. It would also provide an opportunity for those who might have ideas to share but maybe not an hour’s worth of “conference presentation” material – I’m thinking along the lines of a Birds of a Feather type connection: provide the location and some rudimentary support (room, projector, etc.) and see what happens. Perhaps the CSUN organizers will consider the idea – I for one would be happy to offer some volunteer effort to get this of the ground.

Misc.

Longdesc

A couple of times during the week the thorny issue of longdesc came up, mostly in hallway chats; because I’ve been part of that whole can of worms for some time now, people had questions, etc. that they wanted to ask me. While I keep meaning to write a fuller blog post on that issue, the recap of what I was asked and responded is pretty simple:

  • Longdesc with regard to HTML5 (at the W3C) is still unresolved: there is a formal Issue still open and before the Working Group. The next step is in the hands of the 3 Chairs, who have not yet indicated a date that they will surface the Issue.
  • My personal opinion is that if you want to use (or continue using) longdesc today you should: irrespective of what HTML5 ultimately decides, the consuming tools that currently consume longdesc will continue to do so, and due to legacy reasons browsers will continue to do with longdesc tomorrow what they do today (which is essentially nothing anyway); however the attribute as part of the DOM node will be there, and tools that want to do something with that information will do so.
  • Related to the above: *IF* longdesc is obsoleted in HTML5, and you continue to use longdesc, the total net effect is that your pages will not “validate”. While I have long been a staunch advocate for Standards (and compliance to Standards), I’ve also long held that once you know the rules, you also know when you can bend them. From my perspective it is about final outcomes, and I need only point to the integration of ARIA into HTML4/XHTML1 today to illustrate this point: you can author a fully valid (validating) XHTML1 (strict) document and get your “Valid” badge. Add one single ARIA attribute to that same document and it no longer validates. So what? Which would you rather have, a better user-experience for your disabled users, or a validation check-mark? I guess you can guess where I come down.
  • Once ARIA 1.0 clears the W3C Recommendation hurdle and is a full-on ‘standard’, there will be work on an ARIA 1.1 (in fact work here is already underway), and one of the work items is an ARIA equivalent to longdesc. As envisioned, once this new ARIA attribute goes through the procedural path at the W3C, those non-conformant HTML5 documents with longdesc? Do a batch find and replace and you will be good to go.
  • Bottom line: do the right thing, and don’t worry too much about the process – it’s in hand and will eventually shake out.

Captioning/Accessible Video

I saw a few interesting developments in this space, as well as had the opportunity to cover the topic briefly in the W3C panel I was on Friday. While I sadly missed the session “The Descriptive Video Exchange: The Technology and Implications of Crowd-Sourced Description” presented by Josh Miele from Smith-Kettlewell, I look forward to seeing it at the event he has schedule for later this month. Contact Josh for more details.

I also had a lovely lunch with a colleague working in the academic space, who is grappling with getting accessible videos onto her campus. After going through the process with her, and outlining the Stanford system we built a while back, I pointed her to 3PlayMedia, and the services they offer. As I walked through all that 3Play can offer, both she and my JPMC colleague’s jaw kept hitting the table. If you’ve not checked them out, you should – what they are doing and offering is awesome, and exactly what (at least) the academic space needs.

Some Personal Highlights

TweetUp

[Photo: 4 images of John with Leonie Watson, Wendy Chisholm and Mike Paciello]A hugely fun and well attended Social event at CSUN, it is exactly the type of community building event I love to see. A huge shout-out to Jared, Mike, Henny, and of course the generous and gracious sponsors of this year’s TweetUp. I am also personally pleased to hear from Mike Paciello that a little idea I suggested for this year will likely come to fruition next year. It’s too early to say more than that right now, but once again Mike, let me know if I can assist.

Impromptu Town-Hall

Already covered in this post is the Certification “Issue”. As part of the evolution of that discussion, and recognizing the need to have some grass-roots involvement in the dialog, Rob Sinclair of Microsoft quickly arranged an impromptu Town-Hall meeting Wednesday evening. Because it was impromptu and unforeseen before 10:00 AM Wednesday morning, many people never even heard about it until after the fact, but for the dozen or so people that did hear and attend it was a fruitful discussion. More importantly (at least to me) was the fact that at least Rob heard my concerns (and the echos of those concerns elsewhere) and quickly addressed them as best he could. A tip of the hat to you Rob for being a mensch, of reacting on your feet, and of organizing the Town-Hall. For whatever it’s worth, I appreciated it, and it was a pleasure to both meet you and discuss the issues with you. I look forward to continued dialog.

Meeting my boss work colleague in person for the first time

OK, this one is purely personal. Many of you know that I recently changed jobs, but what you likely don’t know is that I interviewed for the position via telephone, and that prior to last Tuesday I had not met my boss team manager in person. We corrected that this week, and I thoroughly enjoyed getting to know him not only as a work colleague but also as “just a guy” who shares the same passion for this as I do, and I left San Diego not only better knowing my manager, but with a new friend. It’s just one more piece of the awesomeness that my new position brought to me.

Kobe-dogs

[Photo - a Kobe-dog]Ya, ’nuff said. I think I’ve had enough all-beef hotdogs this week to last me until next year. But I look forward to having Kobe-dogs again next year at CSUN 2013, of seeing you all again in 12 months time, and of celebrating what it is we do, because we need to celebrate, even if only once a year. See you in San Diego next year!

  1. #1 by Henny on March 9, 2012 - 4:21 am

    John – what an exhaustive and excellent write up. Interesting to see what you pulled out of CSUN too.

    I should stick my hand up and confess that I'm one of the people who discussed with you my discomfort at using 'tribe'. While I feel part of the 'tribe', and did even last year when I was not at CSUN and the phrase trickled out over Twitter, I felt in the last few months that it took on a more exclusive tone.

    My fears were confirmed with a handful of people asking over Twitter how they become part of the 'tribe'. Something that left me feeling a little broken hearted. I appreciate you reaching out to one of those and clarifying that all you need to be part of it is the ‘passion’ as well as this post which gives context and meaning.

    I get it, I truly do but despite this I'm opting to avoid using the word. The accessibility community is my family, absolutely, it's where I recharge my batteries and learn but I don't want anyone else out there to think I'm different, especially when my work day-to-day is consciously not within our community but outside it.

    Again thanks for the post John. I love that you have taken this on.

    • #2 by John on March 9, 2012 - 9:36 am

      I was hurt too when that happened, as it is so antithisis of what it should represent.

      Memes take on their own lives, and the Tribe tag grew organically – not much can be done about that except to try and explain its origin and hope that it rights itself. In the end, it's not so much what we call ourselves, but what we do with and for the community we represent. Can we all just get a group-hug going on?

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