By Ather Sharif
As I boarded the plane back to Seattle with my University of Washington classmates, I came to an important realization. During the past week of indelible conversations and uplifting activities, our thoughts about accessibility had shifted. Thanks to the Teach Access Study Away program, we had reframed our view of accessibility as a core root component of products when developing solutions, rather than an afterthought.
In its second year, the Study Away program in partnership with PEAT was yet again instrumental in bringing together a diverse group of higher education students from participating institutions and bridging the skills gap needed to build accessible technologies for the future. Participants included California State University Northridge, Indiana University–Purdue University Indianapolis, Michigan State University, Olin College of Engineering, University of Colorado Boulder, University of Southern California, and University of Washington.
As part of the program, we visited the amazing campuses of Walmart, Google, Verizon Media, LinkedIn, Apple, and Facebook, (with additional programming from Microsoft and Intuit) and learned about the state-of-the-art initiatives and technological solutions in the field of accessibility. In addition to the tours, presentations, demos, and swag, we really enjoyed and appreciated the opportunity to speak and connect directly with industry partners. They gave us tremendous insight into the state of the field as well as the work processes and the job market.
One of the defining elements of this program was the accessibility challenge. We were divided into smaller groups of interinstitutional teams to work on an accessibility-related project, which we presented on the last day of the program. The projects included solutions addressing important topics such as color blindness, short-term memory loss, emotional interpretability in messages for screen reader users, accessibility awareness campaigns, accessible gaming, and real-time route planning for people with mobility impairments. Each group was supervised by a faculty member with guidance from industry partners.
The most useful, usable, and accessible solutions are often the result of a broader awareness of varying abilities and backgrounds. By increasing the participation of people with disabilities in such programs and maximizing their interaction with folks without disabilities, the Study Away program broadened the participants’ awareness around best practices to build universally designed solutions. We formed teams where each member brings a unique skill set and perspective to the table, and personally, I learned tremendously by working closely with designers, experience architects, and UX researchers. These skills and knowledge have already started to refine my research projects as a grad student at the University of Washington.
As recognized in PEAT’s Think Tank annual meetings and Teach Access’ organizational objectives, the key to a better future for accessible technologies is to incorporate accessibility into higher education. Improving the state of accessible technologies and their wider deployment across organizations would directly advance employment opportunities, specifically for people with disabilities. The Study Away program makes a huge leap forward in making that happen. Reading about the past year’s program inspired me, being a part of this year’s program motivated me, and the future iterations of this program excite me. We are certainly on our way to a better, more accessible future.
Ather Sharif is a Ph.D. student at the University of Washington studying Human-Computer Interaction. Ather also serves as a software engineer at Comcast and as the founder and researcher at EvoXLabs. He is passionate about researching web accessibility and developing tools to make web a more accessible place.