This installment of our Accessibility Activists column is an interview with Bryan Garaventa. He is the founder of WhatSock and an Accessibility Fellow at SSB BART Group. Additionally, Garaventa is and a Research Developer for the W3C ARIA Working Group, the Internet Society, and the Royal Society of Arts.
When did you first get started in accessibility?
That’s a bit of a long story. After losing my sight in 1994, that’s when I became affected by the lack of it. When I started high school, it was with a home school instructor through the San Leandro school district, and I would write all my papers like book reports and the like by hand using paper with embossed lines so I could feel where to write. I couldn’t see what I wrote, so I just had to go from memory where I left off and what I wanted to say. That’s all I had to start with. Later, after going to the School for the Blind, more advanced technology made life easier, but unequal access was always an issue with every mainstream class I took at Kennedy High in Fremont. So when I started college in 1999, I found that some of the course materials for my Philosophy class used a CD ROM, and none of the controls were accessible using JAWS. Back then this was version 3 of JAWS, and there was very little in the way of forgiving software. So I read that JAWS had a feature for scripting, and I started trying to learn it in order to make the program a bit more usable, and it mostly worked which was pretty exciting. A couple years later I wanted to go into programming, but the hurdles in doing so then were daunting, so I instead applied for an internship at a company in Redwood City called Napster and started answering canned bug emails. I got bored and while playing with the Napster app I realized that lots of things were inaccessible, like the chat feature amongst other things, so I thought I could use JAWS Scripting to help with that, so I wrote the first JAWS scripts for Napster back in 2001 which made things work better, which were downloadable from the Napster home page. So that’s really where I started down the road to accessibility. Then later I got into web development and other things.
You are the founder of WhatSock (also known as AccDC), a free development resource for those who want to incorporate greater accessibility into their work. Can you tell us a bit about the genesis of this project, and your current goals for it?
Actually WhatSock didn’t start out that way. Back in 2008, I had this brilliant idea, to start a parody dating website, sort of a combination of MySpace and Match.com, but the premise was that you could only upload one sock, complete with real people personalities, hobbies and the like, then the platform would match socks… You see, “WhatSock”, it made sense at the time. Life happened though and I didn’t have time to build it. Then in 2010 I started building AccDC as an experiment to quantify dynamic content rendering processes combined with accessibility, and I needed a place to put it, and I had this domain that I wasn’t doing anything with, so I played around with a motto until I came up with “WhatSock, changing the world one step at a time”, and presto it fit! After that it just evolved into what it is now. My hope is that WhatSock and its materials will eventually act as a neutral worldwide resource for educators, students, and various professionals to utilize and learn from so that Accessibility as a concept becomes an integral part of the mainstream building process for all developers.
WhatSock makes great use of humor and cultural references. For example, your ARIA data grid demo contains names of characters from Terry Pratchett’s Discworld books. Would you encourage other accessibility teachers to try this approach?
Personally I think life is boring without humor, so I think this is a helpful part of any learning process as well. For instance, if something is not engaging, if it’s not interesting, and if you feel nothing when doing it, the whole thing at an emotional level is somewhat of a forgettable experience. Yet if you feel good about what you are learning, and it is interesting and sometimes funny, these concepts take root more effectively in the mind. So yes, I would encourage any instructor to try and engage their audience emotionally as well as intellectually.
You are also part of the W3C ARIA Working Group. What are some of the challenges and rewards you have encountered with international policy creation?
One of the challenges for me was getting used to the scale and timelines involved when working as part of such a large democratic process. Policy making takes a lot of time and effort, and the pace of growth is slow because everything has to pass stringent vetting processes along the way. Having the ability to work with some of the smartest and most talented people in the world is its own reward though, and my present day knowledge is directly related to what I’ve learned from their expertise.
Twenty years from now, what accessibility barriers do you hope technology has solved?
Getting real high-tech, my hope is that it becomes possible one day to interface human thought with computing technologies, so that perception can become an integral part of navigating virtual environments. More likely though, we will see increasing advances in biotechnologies that interface with external devices, likely making it possible for certain disabilities to become easily manageable instead of barriers to success. All we need is a common biocompatible interface and a simple, safe, and reliable method for plugging into it at a physical level, then it will open up worlds of possibilities for all people. The concept of Accessibility would then become a combination of accessible platforms and technologies plus the technologies used by the person to enhance their physical abilities. I anticipate that, as with everything else, the concept of Accessibility will evolve as we all do.