Q&A With Sharron Rush, Executive Director, Knowbility

Sharron Rush is the award-winning co-founder and Executive Director of Knowbility, nonprofit advocacy, consulting, and training company based in Austin, Texas. Since 1998, Sharron has been a leader in raising awareness and skills around the issue of access to technology for people with disabilities.

How did you get your start in accessibility?

In the mid-1990s, I worked as a program development officer at Easter Seals of Central Texas. An important issue was job acquisition and training for people with disabilities of all kinds. Our town of Austin, Texas was being transformed into a tech hub and I continually came up against barriers inherent in how the websites and applications were designed.

To raise awareness of the issue among the tech community, I was advised by an entrepreneur I knew to “make the issue competitive, tech people thrive on competition.” There was a dawning realization of what was called the “digital divide” focused mostly on people marginalized by poverty, lack of access to education, and race. Disability was rarely considered in those discussions.

So I worked with other disability advocates, digital divide activists, the tech sector, the Virtual Volunteering Project at the University of Texas, and local government initiatives to create a community collaboration focused on tech access for people with disabilities. We called it the Accessibility Internet Rally (AIR) and it was essentially a webraising competition.

Recruiting web development teams from local startups and established tech firms like IBM, we trained them to understand how design choices could create barriers of use for people with disabilities. Most importantly we gave them skills to avoid those barriers and design with accessibility in mind. They used their new skills to design a website for a local nonprofit organization — many of whom had never had a website at all.

The sites were judged by Simon Fleischmann-Shostak a renowned disability researcher. Simon was supported in the important judging role by Jim Thatcher of IBM, Jim Allan of the Texas School for the Blind, and Dr. John Slatin of the University of Texas. These three remained guiding lights of the competition as it grew and came to be known as the Judge Brothers. 

It soon became clear that that the issue was larger than could be addressed by an annual competition and we decided to create a nonprofit organization focused on the issue of tech access for people of all abilities. Knowbility was founded in February of 1999 and has continued to hold the annual AIR competition while building additional programs to provide tech equity to millions of people with disabilities all over the world.

An important element of AIR and other subsequent Knowbility programs is that it engages web creators in the issue of accessibility with an approach that emphasizes creativity and innovation. We try to build a community around the powerful idea that as you craft tech solutions that work for people across a wide range of abilities you anticipate problems and solve them proactively.

Good design is born accessible and does not need to be retrofitted. Study after study has demonstrated that as inclusive design thinking is integrated into digital products, the ROI includes brand enhancement, customer loyalty, market growth, innovation, and of course minimized legal risk.

For more than fifteen years, Knowbility has hosted AccessU, a conference dedicated to providing expert accessibility training for those in the digital communication field. How will 2021’s conference adapt to the challenges brought forth by COVID-19? 

John Slatin AccessU was named for Dr. John Slatin, a blind professor of English who was a founding member of our community and sadly passed away in 2008. We have traditionally held the conference on the lovely campus of St. Edward’s University.

AccessU is unique among accessibility conferences in that it is focused specifically on skills training. Sessions are 90 minutes to 180 minutes long and our attendees expect to acquire or expand their accessibility skills. It is meant to be very practical for product managers, innovators, developers, designers, and UX professionals.

In March of 2020 when we realized that it would not be possible to gather in person, we made a quick pivot and held our conference online. We had to change some things significantly. For example, we had only four tracks instead of the usual 10 tracks and we reduced the time per session, expecting that people might be distracted online and not have the focus for sessions of 90 minutes or longer.

We used Zoom as it was the most accessible platform that we discovered in our research. Several online conference platforms may reference accessibility but we found little true understanding. We still haven’t found an online conferencing platform that meets accessibility requirements for both attendees and administrators. So we will probably use Zoom again in 2021.

Sharron Rush, Executive Director of Knowbility stands before a podium, speaking to a room of people.

Community is really important at Knowbility. We engage with and listen to our community very attentively so two-way communication is important to us. We had good results by enhancing the Zoom sessions with a Slack installation that allowed us to simulate the hallway conversations that are such an important part of the conference experience. Keynote talks, social events, and game night rounded out the Virtual AccessU experience in 2020. 

We will apply some of the lessons we learned and in 2021 we expect to produce a set of parallel training tracks to help practitioners meet current challenges. As XR and AI emerge into the mainstream and society has a clear need to solve challenges of effective remote interactions, we want AccessU to be even more useful and applicable for our community.

Think for a moment about all the things we are doing online during the pandemic. Many of us work remotely, attend virtual classrooms, use conferencing platforms to socialize, go shopping virtually, and participate in online civic activities. This has put accessibility front and center.

It is a shame it took a global pandemic to put the issue in perspective but now there is no way to get around the fact that access to digital technologies must be understood to be a basic human right in the 21st century. The AccessU sessions will reflect on that reality and provide tools to ensure that right is upheld.

What is an accessibility barrier you would like to see solved? 

I would like to see new and emerging tools and technologies that are born accessible — usable on both the front end and the back end so that people with disabilities can be online producers as well as consumers. A fundamental issue is the persistent inaccessibility of the administrative interfaces of so many technologies.

Most interactive applications — from online learning platforms to web frameworks to social networks to fundraising applications, and the list goes on — do not make possible an administrative role for a disabled person. And I use the term deliberately here because fully capable people are disabled by inaccessible technology.

Even in cases where some attention has been paid to the accessibility of the user interface, the administrative tools omit accessibility as a requirement. As a consequence, users of assistive technology can’t interact in a productive way. It is a shocking affront to the talents of millions of people. 

Awareness of the critical need for accessibility has grown exponentially in the last several years however, boosted by institutional commitments to diversity and inclusion and now seriously accelerated by the need for accessibility during the pandemic.

As the dust settles after this huge disruption, my hope is that the accessibility insight that we gained does not fade away into the background again but remains an essential part of design thinking as we build future technologies.     

I would like to see new and emerging tools and technologies that are born accessible - usable on both the front end and the back end so that people with disabilities can be online producers as well as consumers.

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