Sitting at my gate returning home from Accessibility Camp Toronto and remembering some of the great conversations I had. The Friday before camp, Billy Gregory and I did a presentation on accessibility at Hacker You, a company that provides web developer training in Toronto. Billy actually does these sort of lunch and learn sessions at Hacker You pretty frequently, which is awesome. But there’s two problems: Most other computer schools don’t discuss accessibility at all. But even a one-time, optional, lunch and learn isn’t enough. Schools that provide web developer training that don’t cover accessibility as an integral part of all curriculum are doing a disservice to their students and to their students’ eventual employers.
To be clear, it isn’t just computer schools failing their students, but MOOCs, book publishers, tutorial sites, conferences, and bootcamps. About 3 years ago, a Baltimore area group got together to create a several-week long training program for high school students, organized in teams. The students would be focused on learning-while-doing and the end result was that the team with the best end project would win some sort of prize. I reached out to the group and offered to train and mentor each team in accessibility. The response I received was lukewarm, at best, and ultimately got zero traction with the organizers. Apparently giving away expert knowledge and guidance in accessibility still couldn’t get this group to give a shit.
The problem this creates is actually bigger than accessibility. The first lesson that any web developer should learn is that their markup is nothing more than a polite request to the browser. Specifically, they need to know that markup results in the creation of objects. Those objects have methods and properties available to them which form the basis of how the end user interacts with the website they’ve designed. Not understanding how the DOM impacts user interaction is the root cause of most accessibility errors. This should be regarded as core knowledge that all developers must have if they plan on excelling in their craft. That is, unless your school’s goal is to churn out mediocre developers.
This may sound super critical, but developers who have this type of thing – how controls work, why each control exists, what they mean, and how the DOM works – is what will allow them to be better in the long run. This is especially true when it comes to emerging technologies like Web Components. Teaching them to think in this way will provide foundational knowledge no matter what UI frameworks they eventually wind up using.
Finally, the job market they wind up entering is very likely to require accessibility knowledge in the future. If they develop websites or web-based applications in the province of Ontario, Canada, their work will need to meet WCAG Level AA:
Designated public sector organizations and large organizations shall make their internet websites and web content conform with the World Wide Web Consortium Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG)2.0, initially at Level A and increasing to Level AA.
If they develop websites or web-based applications for state and local government agencies in the US, their work will be required to be accessible under the ADA.
If they develop websites or web-based applications for higher education institutions, it is well-known among those in higher ed that the DOJ is actively inquiring into the level of accessibility by higher education institutions’ e-learning systems and websites and there have been some resultant lawsuits.
If they develop websites or web-based applications for providers of Advanced Communications Services (ACS) such as cable, television, or media companies (including gaming), their work will be required to comply with CVAA.
If they develop websites or web-based applications for the US Federal Government, their work must comply with Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act.
If they develop websites or web-based applications for private sector organizations, their work may expose their employers to significant legal risk.. The number of legal cases continues to grow and action in this area shows no sign of slowing down among large organizations.
Not including accessibility from the beginning is implicit consent to incurring technical debt. Untrained students have no choice, really, other than to continually increase this technical debt out of sheer ignorance.
Computer training that includes accessibility can boast market differentiation
Given the above, those who provide accessibility as part of their core curriculum can differentiate themselves by boasting that their graduates are better prepared to ensure that their work product will be more compliant and more universally usable.
While Hacker You should be applauded for their regular lunch-and-learns, I think that all computer schools should include accessibility embedded in core curriculum. It will create an alumni population better prepared to create interfaces that are universally usable. Their alumni will be differentiated by their ability to consider the user’s needs. After all, if you’re not developing for the user, who are you developing for?