The inner workings of WAI: an interview with Shadi Abou-Zahra

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To kick off the new year, it is an absolute pleasure and privilege to present this interview with Shadi Abou-Zahra, a person who is uniquely placed to provide a personal insight into the inner workings of the W3C’s Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI). For those who may not have heard of Shadi, he is based in Vienna, Austria and is extremely dedicated to supporting the online access needs of people with disabilities through his work in WAI.

His roles include Activity Lead of the WAI International Program Office, Scientific Coordinator of the WAI-ACT Project (IST 287725), Chair of the Evaluation and Repair Tools Working Group (ERT WG), Staff Contact for the Research and Development Working Group (RDWG)and Participant in the Education and Outreach Working Group (EOWG). Despite his extremely busy schedule, he kindly took some time out to discuss his thoughts on WAI, the year ahead, the impact of uncertain economic times on accessibility and how people can get involved. 

Scott: What first sparked your interest in the online needs of people with disabilities?

Shadi: During my computer science studies I became the student council representative of students with disabilities where I learned a lot about other disabilities and about the opportunities that computers offer. Actually, one of my first student projects was to help write a software tool for a fellow student with motor impairments. Later I learned about online accessibility as the internet started to spread.

Scott: How did you come to join the W3C, and more specifically WAI?

Shadi: My career was increasingly moving away from traditional software to web development as the Web continued to evolve and grow. From this I learned about W3C and web standards. Then, in a previous job at a UN organisation I had the opportunity to weave in my earlier background in accessibility and to follow the – back then new – W3C/WAI Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 1.0. From this I learned more about WAI and started to become more actively involved in some of its work.

Scott: Since joining in 2003, your role in WAI has become extensive, covering education and outreach, research and development and evaluation portfolios.  How do you manage to keep across so many different areas?

Shadi: Web accessibility is a broad discipline with many exciting facets. It includes raising awareness on the importance of web accessibility, explaining the background, and providing guidance for everyone involved, such as developers, researchers, decision makers, and users. I enjoy these broad facets that web accessibility has to offer and the challenge of keeping up with the rapid progress in this field.

Scott: How do people working on non-WAI standards such as HTML5 keep up with, and incorporate, the work that WAI's doing?

Shadi: WAI invests significant resources in coordination with W3C groups to ensure that W3C specifications provide the necessary accessibility support. This includes internal processes and mechanisms as well as a working group – Protocols and Formats Working Group (PFWG)– primarily devoted to reviewing W3C specifications for accessibility. For HTML5 a subgroup of PFWG – HTML Accessibility Task Force– was created to maintain an active dialog and exchange with the W3C HTML Working Group.

Scott: In recent years WCAG 2.0 has become the definitive web accessibility standard across many policy and legislative frameworks. In the world of debt crises and austerity measures, are you concerned that the momentum for web accessibility in government may stop or slow down?

Shadi: Unfortunately, cutting back on social measures is a frequent reaction during economic downturns, even though it is particularly important to do the opposite. People with disabilities often belong to the socially most vulnerable and disadvantaged groups of society, making cut-backs during economical downturns a double hardship. On the other hand, investing in web accessibility has economic benefits for governments and the society as a whole. It provides opportunities for people with disabilities to get education, employment, and to manage their daily lives on their own rather than to depend on help.

Scott: Do you think WCAG's high profile makes it difficult to highlight some of other important work in WAI?

Shadi: While some people may overlook that WAI works on many areas, the prominence of Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) is often a useful tool to shed light on some of these areas. For example, we repeatedly explain that the Authoring Tool Accessibility Guidelines (ATAG)is essential to achieving and maintaining website accessibility, and that the User Agent Accessibility Guidelines (UAAG)is essential to ensuring quality and reliability of the software and assistive technology used by the users, and which the developers need to design for.

Scott: The European Commission-funded Cooperation Framework for Guidance on Advanced Technologies, Evaluation Methodologies, and Research Agenda Setting to Support eAccessibility (WAI-ACT) looks like a great initiative. Could you share a bit about your vision, involvement and how the collaborative effort between WGs such as Education & Outreach (EOWG) and Research & Development (RDWG) works?

Shadi: The European Commission-funded WAI-ACT Project follows a series of prior WAI-led projects and is an excellent opportunity to develop key resources currently needed by a broad set of audiences. The project will develop guidance materials on web accessibility for developers and evaluators, and it will contribute to a coordinated research agenda on eAccessibility. All the work will be carried out through the W3C Process in WAI working groups, and the project will build on and extend these existing WAI mechanisms for multi-stakeholder participation to increase open participation throughout the project. More information about the WAI-ACT Project is available online.

Scott: Many people with disabilities have indicated that web accessibility is a constant battle. Do you think technologies such as HTML5, Accessible Rich Internet Applications (WAI-ARIA) and new evaluation techniques will make web accessibility more commonplace in the work practices of web developers?

Shadi: Technology continues to evolve, and it continues to provide new opportunities but also challenges for people with disabilities. Continued effort by W3C/WAI and other institutions is essential to address these challenges early in the process, as is currently being done with HTML5. But it is also equally important to continue raising awareness on web accessibility and educating everyone involved in the process about current concepts and techniques. Much progress has been made on raising awareness during the past years even though implementation seems to be still lagging behind this development.

Scott: It sounds like you work very hard. What do you like to do outside of work?

Shadi: Relax and try not to think of work. Family and friends are very important to me and I enjoy spending time with them. I also regularly do physical exercise to compensate for sitting in front of the computer and I play hobby-league wheelchair rugby which is also known as murderball. That really helps get my mind off work and reenergized.

Scott: If people or organisations want to get involved in the work that WAI does, how can they get involved?

Shadi: There are several ways for anyone to get involved with WAI. Everyone is welcome to use, translate, share, distribute, and promote WAI resources. We regularly also ask for review of current drafts of educational and technical resources by the community, and we highly appreciate feedback on these calls for review. We also welcome comments and feedback on a regular basis, including suggestions for accessibility techniques. WAI is also open for active participation within WAI working groups, to help develop these resources. More information about how to get involved with WAI is available online.

Scott: Shadi, thank you very much for your time. If you are interested in hearing Shadi talk about his work with WAI in person, he will be presenting at the 27th Annual CSUN International Technology and Persons with Disabilities Conferencein San Diego, California on Web Accessibility Community Collaborationand Website Evaluation and Testing with WCAG 2. I’ll also be at CSUN this year, looking forward to talking about Social Media Access: A Practical Approach. If you’re attending, please come along and say hello.

That’s it for a very special W3C column.  Thanks again to Shadi for the interview and we’ll look at more accessibility-related standards and technologies next month. 

Dr Scott Hollier represents Media Access Australia on the W3C Advisory Committee and publishes the W3C Column monthly.

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Tags: ATAG, WCAG, Web