#A11YBerlin meetup series kicked off with two great talks

The newly established Accessibility Meetup Berlin, a spin-off of sorts from Joschi Kuphal’s annual Accessibility Club events in November, had a great start in January, featuring speakers looking at the topic from two different angles.

Utilising the web to improve real-world a11y

In the first talk, “Wheelmap.org – Mapping the accessibility of places with the help of people and technology”, Svenja Heinecke and Sebastian Felix Zappe showcased civic tech project wheelmap.org harnessing the power of the community and web technology to improve accessibility in the real world.

Svenja Heinecke and Sebastian Felix Zappe on stage
Image caption: Svenja Heinecke and Sebastian Felix Zappe presenting their work on wheelmap.org.

Starting out from the real-world problems of lacking information on the accessibility features of places like cafes and stores, they created a platform for volunteers to gather such data. As it soon turned out that other NGOs around the globe had built similar systems, they created accessibility.cloud – a service that pulls in the accessibility meta data of physical places from various sources (and everybody can add their own) and make them available through an open API to build upon.

Today, their Wheelmap shows not only their own, but also the data from other volunteer networks, and even commercial sources such as HereMaps or real-time elevator disruption info from Deutsche Bahn’s train stations. A further addition to their portfolio is a web app that assists organisers of Mapathons with data collection.

Slide showing a data format built on top of physical abilities such as "limited sight"
Image caption: One of the many lessons learned and shared: don’t segment users by their physical abilities (“this cafe is wheelchair-accessible”), but instead store the absolute variables of a place (“the door is 90cm wide”) for universal applicability.

It was impressive to listen to the story of how a small idea (conceived by various minds around the globe simultaneously, as it would turn out) can, with community involvement and the right “open technology mindset”, turn into something like this. Standardizing a format for collecting accessibility information for sure was not easy – but it triggered valuable learnings to share, such as my favourite statement when Sebastian Felix explained how storing accessibility features only makes sense when the actual phyisical variables are collected, not the suitability of a place for certain disabilities.

Looking at the everyday pitfalls of web a11y

After a short break, Stefan Judis‘ “Decrease your conversion – common ways to lock people out” was like a blizzard of aspects to consider when building websites, garnished with a broad array of the latest tools to assist with that. It was divided into three parts:

Stefan Judis on stage
Image caption: Stefan Judis presenting a fast-paced potpourri of variables that can have a negative impact on website accessibility.

In the web performance part, the presentation was built around the angle of “cost”, virtually assumed by calculating how much a German prepaid user would have to pay per GB/month and then showing how various site improvements (Stefan used both a real-world example and his own site for illustration) can “drop those costs”; ultimately, of course, this is not only about transaction costs, but also about connection speeds in rural areas and – not to be neglected – conversion optimisation (especially when seeking for arguments to convince a project manager why these efforts are worthwhile).

Next, the talk took a dive into inclusive design, making the case through the topics of colour blindness and motion sickness – again introducing a range of useful tools and a few tricks to overcome some issues.

The final part, dedicated to accessibility, then discussed questions of semantics, CSS, and creating accessible UI elements like modal windows. The talk culminated in the statement how a11y should not be done because it is a good thing to do, but because it is what web developers get paid for; a vivid discussion about the difficulties to spread that conviction beyond the a11y webdev community followed.

Slide: You're most likely locking people out that 1. can't turn on sound, 2. sit in the sun light, 3. can't pay full attention
Image caption: One of many slides highlighting the mantra that a11y is not about “the disabled” but about everybody – question is: how can we get this thinking beyond the a11y webdev community?

The talk was peppered with references to sources that highlight how these issues are not about “making sites for blind people” (I have long been collecting empirics to support my argumentation when teaching usability/a11y, and there again were a few in there I hadn’t seen before) and showcased a few valuable tools. Often, online slide decks are not very useful without hearing the talk, but I believe taking a look at Stefan’s slides could be worthwhile for everybody.

Next meetup in March

This was a very successful kick-off to the new accessibility meetup in town. The atmosphere was very friendly and open – and once somebody opened a window, even the indoor temperature became more pleasant ;) – and the organisers had obviously taken great care to provide an interesting evening to the crowd, which I would estimate to have been around 50-60 people.

The next #A11YBerlin meetup is scheduled for Tuesday, March 20 – if you are in Berlin, you too should drop by! The organizers are also looking for talk proposals, if you have something to say.

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