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Friend or Foe? Accessibility, Technology, and People

Abstract -- Technology and accessibility can be great collaborators or great antagonists. When they are collaborators, with accessibility/usability considered and incorporated in all stages of the development process, people of all abilities benefit. When technology and accessibility are antagonistic, accessibility must play catch-up and retrofit ill-conceived or ill-constructed products. This applies to every phase of engineering, not just computers and the web (although computers and the web are increasingly becoming integrated in almost all products).

An example of the antagonistic relationship between technology and accessibility is the new "smart appliances", which are becoming ubiquitous. Such appliances have no analog dials and include features such as total digital readout and soft-touch membrane keypads. These "smart" devices present great accessibility and usability barriers to individuals who are blind or have vision problems (many of which are related to age). Among the problems with such devices is that they generally do not speak for themselves, they often are unable to interface with assistive tools that could speak for them, and font sizes that do not scale and may be on the panel farthest away from the user.

This panel will include four Austin experts in the area of accessibility: Jim Allan, Sharron Rush, Michael Squillace, and Thea Eaton. The panelists encourage attendees to bring their questions, thoughts, and concerns for what they hope will be a highly interactive session!


Jim Allan is the Webmaster at the Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired, a worldwide hub for information on teaching students who are blind or visually impaired. He is a participant in the World Wide Web Consortium's-Web Accessibility Initiative (W3C - WAI), and is the current Chair of the User Agent Working Group that developed browser accessibility guidelines. Jim has worked in the fields of special education, visual impairment, assistive technology, and accessible information access for more than 25 years.
Sharron Rush is co-founder and Executive Director of Knowbility, a nonprofit organization with the mission to support the independence of people with disabilities by promoting the use and improving the availability of accessible information technolog. Knowbility's award-winning AIR program has trained more web professionals in accessible design than any other program. She co-wrote the book Maximum Accessibility with Dr John Slatin of the University of Texas and annually assembles the best minds in web accessibility to deliver training conferences that teach and define interactive accessibility from the basics to the bleeding edge.
Michael Squillace is a staff software engineer and team lead for the IBM Human Ability and Accessibility Center, which offers consulting to and development tools for other IBM organizations and the IT industry at large regarding accessible products and services. Mike has a B.S. in Computer Sciences from the University of Texas and a Ph.D in Philosophy from Michigan State University. He holds a number of patents and has written several articles regarding Java technology and accessible software. Mike is also a pianist/vocalist, which brought him to Austin in 1998.
Thea Eaton: After working as Art Director for Anaxos Press, a publishing and multi-media company in Austin, TX, Thea started Snert, a Flash Animation Studio that focuses on accessible children's edutainment. Thea graduated from the University of Texas with a BA in Computer Sciences and is currently working on a degree in Advanced Character Animation. Thea has worked with Flash and children's multimedia for over 6 years. She is studying new and innovative ways to make Flash 508 compliant through self-voicing features for children K-6.