The Challenges of Training WCAG 2.0 in South East Asia
Presented at CSUN, March 21, 2009
- Tom Babinszki, Even Grounds, Director
- Larry Campbell, Overbrook International Program Director
- Accessibility training
- Accessible web design
- Accessibility discussion forum
- Quarterly reporting and exchange of experience
Under the sponsorship of the Overbrook-Nippon Network on Educational Technology (ON-NET), we conducted a web accessibility course online during the first half of 2008, and face-to-face in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, in June of 2008. The purpose of the course was to teach blind and visually impaired people about web accessibility, equipping them to work as accessibility consultants and trainers in their own countries. There is still much work that needs to be done in the South East Asian region on accessibility. For example, there is a need for more accessibility trainers, work opportunities, and, of course, accessible web sites. This paper will discuss the process of conducting a WCAG (Web Content Accessibility Guidelines) 2.0 course, including the challenges and lessons learned during the course and its follow-up in order to facilitate further work and share experience with those who are interested in contributing to web accessibility in the South East Asian region.
ON-NET is a regional technology initiative of the International Program of the Overbrook School for the Blind (Philadelphia) and The Nippon Foundation (Tokyo) that was begun in 1998. At that time the use of access technology by blind and low vision persons was either extremely limited or non-existent in Southeast Asia.
The objective of this regional initiative was to develop a Southeast Asian network of individuals and organizations that could work together to promote the appropriate use of access technologies to expand education and employment opportunities for blind persons in the participating countries:
The program operates at both the national and regional levels. At the national level ON-NET works with and through local partner organizations to carry out a wide range of activities that are helping to expand both education and employment opportunities by using access technologies as a powerful tool in that process. At the regional level an advisory committee of stakeholders, the majority of whom are themselves blind, identifies areas that are of common concern to all countries within the network and where implementing activities at a regional level can prove to be more cost effective while simultaneously expanding the exchange of information and knowledge between the participating countries.
Currently, the program is actively involved in Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam. The WCAG 2.0 training program that you will learn more about this morning is one such regional training initiative that addresses a challenge faced by all of the participating countries.
In November 2007, ON-NET hired Even Grounds to conduct a web accessibility course in South East Asia for a group of blind professionals in order to promote web accessibility and employment of people with visual impairment in the region. The course took place in 2008, with nine participants from five South East Asian countries.
Even Grounds, located in Alexandria, Virginia, provides consulting services and solutions that make technology accessible for people with disabilities. The company works with government agencies and corporations to evaluate products for accessibility and assist with the life-cycle development and implementation of solutions. The company also provides accessibility training and helps organizations comply with relevant laws and regulations.
The web accessibility course took place between February and June of 2008. The objective of the course was to learn the Web Accessibility Initiative’s (WAI) Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) version 2.0 in order for participants to evaluate web sites for accessibility, and to receive the foundations for becoming accessibility consultants and trainers.
The first part of the course was conducted online, via Skype. During the course, students were asked to create accessible web pages, research their country’s accessibility legislation, read books, and become familiar with accessibility support which they could find on the internet. The course was conducted for three months, for 1.5 hours a week via Skype, which was used as a conferencing software. This way we were able to communicate regularly, similar to a phone conference conversation. All classes were recorded; thus, students could go back and review the materials easily.
The second half of the course was conducted in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, and hosted by the Malaysian Association for the Blind (MAB). During this face-to-face course, students put their newly acquired knowledge into practice, learned about web testing tools, and conducted real-time web evaluations. In short, students were prepared to handle the work of an accessibility consultant and a web accessibility trainer.
Before conducting the course, we had to make a decision about the course material. We wanted to give students tools which would make them effective accessibility experts. In the end, we decided to introduce the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0. While keeping in mind that there are many different ways of approaching web accessibility, we felt that students would benefit from the ease of finding information on the WCAG, and that it offered the most promise of receiving ongoing support.
One consideration we had to take into account was that, at the time of the course, the official version of the WCAG was 1.0. The WCAG 2.0 was on the way and expected to be the official recommendation in the relatively near future; however, we needed to make a decision before anything was official. Weighing that risk, along with the possibility that students would not be able to implement their knowledge immediately in settings where WCAG 1.0 was expected, we decided it would be most beneficial to use the WCAG 2.0, which did, in fact, become official within a half year after the course was completed.
Another reason for teaching WCAG was because some of the participating countries did not have an official accessibility standard or recommendation. The only exception was the Philippines, where a simplified version of the WCAG is used. We are expecting that in countries where an accessibility standard is not implemented, course participants will be part of the working group which will develop or recommend the accessibility standards.
After the decision was made on the course materials, an application form was sent out to ON-NET member organizations, asking them to pass it along to professionals who satisfy the minimum requirements. The two major requirements were knowledge of web design and a working level of English. Also, the applicants’ organizations had two requirements: to contribute $200 to the course expenses, and to commit to using the knowledge of the course participants. This way we were able to get a serious commitment from participants and ensure that the knowledge obtained during the course would be used in the future.
Approximately 15 applications were submitted, and all 10 qualifying participants were selected to participate in the course. Applicants who did not qualify did not have enough web design experience. During the online course, one participant needed to drop out due to personal reasons and unforeseen circumstances. The rest of the qualifying applicants have completed the course with excellent results.
The fact that only 15 participants applied is not an indication of the lack of interest in the region. The course was advertised only to organizations which are part of ON-NET. Also, the participation criteria were very demanding. Following a review of the 15 applications received, we determined that 10 met our criteria; this was precisely the number of participants we were prepared to accept.
Because of the fact that, in the South East Asian Region, fewer people with visual impairment have a working knowledge of web design and development, we had to require that participants excel in these areas, because starting to teach web design would have taken much more time. Primarily, people who were not selected lacked web design experience.
While we took it into consideration that the participants’ first language is not English, and we adjusted materials accordingly, including the application form, we had to expect that people have a good working knowledge of the English language. As part of the application process, we tested if people could explain their motives for applying to the course, and whether they could understand moderately difficult technical texts. Each person who passed the written application process had to go through an informational phone interview, during which we tested their comprehension of everyday and technical English.
Another part of the application process was that all people had to be sponsored by their ON-NET member organization, which had to contribute a symbolic amount to the course, as well as acknowledge in writing that the participants’ knowledge would be used within the organization.
As a final result, 10 people were selected: 2 from Indonesia, 3 from Malaysia, 3 from the Philippines, 1 from Thailand, and 1 from Vietnam. Aside from one participant who had to drop out because of personal reasons, all participants were able to finish the course successfully.
While a big emphasis was placed on selecting participants who are fluent in English, we constantly faced cultural and language barriers.
WCAG and its supporting documentations are relatively complex, highly technical, and difficult to understand, especially if one’s first language is not English. Part of the course had to be devoted to simplifying concepts and explaining guidelines in plain English more extensively than in a similar course with native English speakers. When the course was conducted, the draft WCAG 2.0 had not been translated into the participants’ native languages, which would have made the documents more understandable. In a future course, such translations should be integrated.
The online class was conducted with Skype, a conferencing software. The internet connection was frequently interrupted, which also made understanding more difficult. This was not because of a poor software choice; rather, it was a result of the quality of the internet connection people in the participants’ countries have to face on a regular basis. However, recording all classes and discussions during the first part of the course helped understanding the material. During the face-to-face course, barriers to understanding were much less significant.
While all participants had a working knowledge of English, they definitely had very different language skills, a gap which had to be overcome. Part of the solution was to spend time with the participants individually between the online sessions. It appeared that written communication was much more effective.
In the future, when there will be enough accessibility trainers in the area, it will be possible and desirable to organize courses locally, in local languages.
For the duration of the course, a web site was set up to provide a course outline and to foster communication and scheduling.
The course outline contained a brief overview of WCAG 2.0 with numerous examples, which proved to be extremely useful. Due to the complexity of WCAG, on occasion, participants relied solely on the outline. While, in general, the purpose of the outline was to promote understanding, it was important that students understood WCAG 2.0 in its entirety.
Aside from the course web page, participants were required to read articles on the Internet and participate in mailing lists. This allowed them to develop the skills to find useful information after the course, and become part of the accessibility community. One of the most useful homework assignments was to research accessibility-related mailing lists. The findings of the whole class were compiled onto a mailing list database, which they are now able to subscribe to and use.
During the online course, Skype conferencing software, which can only handle ten connections at a time, was used to conduct the classes. When all connections are used, it places a heavy load on the host computer. Also, participants often had very slow and unstable internet connections. For a one-and-a-half-hour long session, we had to spend at least two hours online to allow for connection issues and allow people to reconnect. In addition, we had to designate one person every time to monitor if all participants were still present. When students started sharing computers, communication somewhat improved.
During the face-to-face course, all students had their own computer with an internet connection to work on. As part of many assignments, they were required to review and evaluate random web pages. One day before the course, during the computer room setup, it turned out that the internet connection was so slow that it could have been challenging for one person to complete the assignments, let alone for nine sharing the same connection. The night before the course, the assignments had to be totally rewritten to accommodate the speed of connection and allow people to have the same learning experience.
The course was concluded by designing a one year plan to put the acquired knowledge into practice and to spread the word about accessibility. Participants made commitments to contribute in their own countries and organizations. The follow-up program was divided into four major areas:
All participating countries committed to host accessibility training programs in their own organizations. These programs were conducted in many different forms. In Indonesia, for example, accessibility was incorporated into the general web development courses. In Malaysia, Thailand and Vietnam, accessibility courses were conducted shortly after the training, and in the Philippines accessibility training was incorporated into the following three years’ training plans.
Accessible web design
All participating organizations have committed to ensuring that their web sites are accessible for people with any kind of disabilities. As a sample of this work, and in gratitude to the Malaysian Association for the Blind for hosting the face-to-face training, the last class assignment was to create an accessibility report of the MAB web site, which was submitted to the web developers on the last day of the course. Up to now, all participating organizations have made their web sites accessible.
Accessibility discussion forum
During the course, we used a private mailing list to facilitate discussions, which turned out to be a great success. At the end of the course, we decided to create another list, this time public, to continue the exchange of information and to invite other people into our accessibility discussion. While anybody is welcome to join, we have primarily promoted this mailing list in the participating countries.
Quarterly reporting and exchange of experience
For a year after the conclusion of the course, we have been holding a discussion similar to our online classes to monitor how participants progress in their own organizations. This allows participants to exchange their experience and ask any questions they have. This is also a time to review any accessibility issues which were not covered during the course.
One of the original goals of the course was to provide students with a tool which could lead to potential employment in their own countries. While they were definitely able to promote the importance of web accessibility, we are still far from having all students employed as accessibility consultants or trainers. While they currently teach accessibility in their own organizations, the need for web accessibility evaluation has not evolved everywhere.
While it will surely take more time to bring greater attention to the issue of web-accessibility, we view this course as one step forward in this process. It is interesting to note that in Malaysia, where the face-to-face course was conducted, the training received wide-ranging publicity. Some Malaysian government agencies have already expressed a greater interest in making their web sites accessible. With more and more countries ratifying the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, there are some hopeful signs on the horizon both in terms of the issue of accessibility as well as expanded employment opportunities in the open market.
Another hope of the course was to enable students to advise their governments on accessibility standards and legislation. Unfortunately, there is little we can do, not having access to local legislative bodies. Some of the participating countries still are not planning to legislate accessibility.
The web accessibility course was certainly a great success. While we will not see any groundbreaking and immediate results, it was definitely a worthwhile long-term investment. It is very likely that accessibility will move forward because of the participants’ promotion, and they will be able to contribute to web accessibility in their countries much more when it becomes a national issue.
During the course, we have faced several challenges and difficulties, but on the whole, we have been able to overcome all of them.
We hope that this paper was able to provide a set of lessons learned to those who feel they want to contribute to web accessibility in South East Asia.