Developer Spotlight: Gian Sampson-Wild

Gian Sampson-Wild is an accessibilty expert and one of the speakers at this year's Web Directions conference to held in Sydney this year. Builder AU interviewed Gian via email prior to the commencement of Web Directions to talk about accessibility, how to make it a part of the development process and where to from here.

Gian Sampson-Wild is an accessibilty expert and one of the speakers at this year's Web Directions conference to held in Sydney this week. Gian is currently working for Monash University where she leads the User Interface Design Team and is also a member of the W3C Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) Working Group. Builder AU interviewed Gian via e-mail prior to the commencement of Web Directions to talk about accessibility, how to make it a part of the development process and where to from here.

Builder AU: How do you explain to people what you do?

Gian Sampson-Wild: My stock standard phrase is: I work with mainly Government departments to make sure their Web sites can be used by people with disabilities. If I am talking to someone from the web industry then saying I'm an accessibility specialist usually does the trick. I have just taken a job at Monash University and so now when I explain what I do I say: I run the User Interface Design team at Monash University. My team is responsible for making sure all the Monash University sites (and there are about 150 distinct sites) are both usable and accessible.

What inspired you to enter the field of accessibility?

I think I was the first accessibility specialist who didn't enter the profession because someone close to me had a disability. Back in 1998 the company I was working for, KnowledgeWorks, won a project to build a site for the Vision Australia Foundation. They wanted their clients (vision impaired users) to use their site and I was put on the case. There were no Web Content Accessibility Guidelines then so we did a lot of research and user testing to make sure the site could be used by people who were blind and vision impaired. After that we built the very first Australian accessible web site - Disability Information Victoria (now Disability Online). However KnowledgeWorks was bought by Sausage Software and all that went out the window. When I got retrenched I decided to start up PurpleTop - an accessibility consultancy.

I believe that accessibility is just one of the many best practice requirements of a web site. I am constantly amazed that it is not given the attention it deserves - I suppose that's why I entered and stayed in the accessibility field; because it needed an advocate. And SOCOG said that making their web site would cost $16 million, so I thought maybe I could make a quick buck at the same time (boy was I wrong there!).

How do you see the uptake of accessibility on the Web?

Everyone always says that accessibility is the next big thing. Maybe people nowadays say web standards is the next big thing, but I have noticed that there always seems to be a lot more publicity than uptake. In 2006, seven years after the W3C released the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines, they are still only really used by Government. Compare this to usability - with no formal guidelines, or standards compliance - with no formal coding base, which have been accepted and implemented by major companies, and you can see how little the general web community cares about accessibility.

How do Australian Web sites that you've seen fare in this regard?

I think the SOCOG case did a lot for the accessibility industry in Australia. I do think Australia leads the way in some regards. For example, the Melbourne 2006 Commonwealth Games site (which I worked on for over two years) used style sheets for layout and was completely accessible, whereas the Athens Olympics site had some serious accessibility issues, just like the Sydney Olympics site. Because of the SOCOG case it has been clear to Australian web site owners that the DDA does apply to them. It is only with the recent Target case in America that American web site owners have realised the same thing. That means we have six years more experience convincing stakeholders that accessibility is not just important but a legal requirement. That's why I believe that Australia leads the way, but then I could be biased!

Do you think that the existence of multiple standards has hindered the accessibility cause?

To the contrary, I think the fact that America went their own way with Section 508 made the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines stronger. Often when America gets involved they over-rule other countries and we would not have the internationalisation movement that we have today if America implemented WCAG. However the W3C is bending over backwards to try and get America to accept WCAG 2.0 which unfortunately has become detrimental to the process of developing these guidelines in an open manner.

Some developers may see accessibility as one of those tedious tasks you tack onto the end of a project, what do you say to them?

I say that perhaps they should consider a different job. There are many tasks in web development that could be classed as tedious - coding, for instance! But we accept these tasks as just part of the web development process, and we should do the same with accessibility. Of course accessibility is always going to be a lot more difficult than it needs to be if you just tack it on to the end of a project. Just like usability, it needs to be considered throughout the design process; from when you are choosing a CMS through to when you are writing content.

What sort of tools exist to help developers make their work more accessible?

There are many great tools out there, however not many of them help you test a large site. That's why I built my own automated accessibility testing tool called PurpleCop. There are great, freely available tools that test sites page by page. One of the best ones is WAVE; another is Cynthia Says. Of course a developer's best friend is the FireFox Web Developer Toolbar.

Do you regard Flash as a problem to accessibility?

No - the future of the web is in interaction, and there are some kinds of interaction that cannot be created using (X)HTML. However I believe the web industry needs to learn to walk before it runs, and I think WCAG 2.0 is jumping the gun by saying technologies like Flash are accessible with the accessibility features they currently have.

What sort of future technology do you think could help?

Companies like Adobe, Macromedia and Microsoft have all implemented accessibility features into their ostensibly inaccessible programs in the last several years. This just proves that with the right pressure, even the most intractable companies can make their most inaccessible technologies best practice. The key is in making sure that the pressure on these companies remains. Previously it was the fact that the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines outlawed any technology other than HTML that forced these companies to implement accessibility features. With the WCAG 2.0 baseline theory, technologies have no reason to continue to implement these features.

At what site do you spend most of your spare time on the net?

I tend not to spend my spare time on the net, so when I do it's usually to facilitate something else: like, which is an online database of books that recommends titles based on the latest good book you've read. Otherwise I'm at checking out the bushwalking around Melbourne, and using their route planner to figure out how to get there!