I attended a Web Accessibility Workshop and Wikipedia Edit-a-thon on October 22nd hosted by Silvia Gutiérrez De la Torre (College of Mexico) and J. Matthew Huculak (UVic). This session was a great overview for those who are wanting to learn more about how to make their content more accessible for the web and why accessibility’s inclusion in technology and on the web is so important for us all, even if you do not have any disabilities. In addition to folks wanting to support the web’s level of accessibility, this workshop would also be of interest to those who are working with studying textual data on the internet and people getting started with basic web development. I personally chose to attend this workshop because I have a background in teaching VoiceOver for a major tech company for some years and first hand can attest to it’s miracles and frustrations for users.
The session started from the ground up in regards to defining what accessibility might mean when it comes to technological terms and devices, which I’ve come to learn is now referred to as “access technology” and also in defining the audiences that require this type of development in tools. A lot of the focus for this workshop in particular is for those whom experience visual challenges, namely those who use screen reader technologies to view websites and also researchers of any kind. Alongside receiving a general overview of the different types of screen reader technologies that are available and defining their uses and limitations, for example, Apple’s VoiceOver and Microsoft Narrator – both can magically read your computers screen back to you with a simple key stroke, with that we also learned that there is much room for improvement in what text exactly is actually read back to you and the value in having the content of the web be more coherently organized from an even broader perspective than just the accessibility world.
Over the years, we have all seen the web develop into this magical place of information exchange and while it’s important for all beings to be able to access and understand what is on their computers web browser for their countless benefits, the issue of accessibility on the web spans far greater than just reading a news site back to you, it’s now become more about keeping up with adding well-done and legible descriptive text on images, maps, diagrams, pie charts, videos and spreadsheets and data visualizations of many kinds, which certainly makes this conversation reach into academia’s presence on the world wide web. This makes alt-text or alt-attributes now very important for students just like you and I, of course even more so those who might be blind or students with dyslexia that require the entirety of their school text books to be verbally spoken out loud to them via a screenreader so that they can learn from an illustrated example. A huge take away from this workshop for me personally was that adding alt-attritutes to images is also extremely important for researchers who need to study text descriptions of images and datasets on places like Wikipedia and other research sites, making it doubly important for archival purposes and all throughout academia. Alt-text has the ability to validate a scientific image of a pie chart’s purpose on a scholarly publication, even more, to a blind researcher of student who comes across the article.
In order to understand the roots of the issue, we were brought back to the beginning of the internet’s time and took a look at the ‘Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) Overview’ brought to us by the W3 School, a free resource which is also helpful for those wanting to learn HTML, CSS and more. As a former technical trainer with experience using screen reading technology, I was not surprised to see such a calling for better alt-text descriptions on tables, pie charts, maps, venn diagrams, chemistry and digital images, as in my experience we were lucky if you could use the screen reader to find any alt-text at all and it is just only recently that VoiceOver describes what is in a digital image. It was also mentioned that alt-text may be added by artificial intelligence in computing, but in the presentation we were shown they shared some examples of artificially generated alt-text that were very poorly done, thus making this type of work require human intervention and gives me hope that maybe I can get myself a job doing this somewhere.
The other part of this workshop was a Wikipedia Edit-a-Thon, which we would not have been able to participate in unless we were experienced in writing these types of alt-text descriptions. I did decide to skip out on this portion of the session, but to further our learning independently, we were provided with several resources, including the “Image Description Guidelines” by the Diagram Center, which is essentially an incredible guide fulled with examples of appropriate descriptions for alt-text. In my personal opinion, having this alone was worth attending the workshop in the first place as it even includes advise on how to format and layout objects on the web in a way and also how to tone your wording appropriately for any given audience.
Accessibility happens to be a great passion of mine for so many years so I was very glad to see this integrated into our digital humanities workshop offerings and loved that so many people are interested in improving the web’s usability for screen readers and researchers. The photo of me above is of myself teaching VoiceOver for a major tech company. I have complied the resources that were provided below from this workshop.