W4A Accessibility Hackathon Sparks Awareness among Developers and Improvements to Key Tools

This year’s expanded 2-day Accessibility Hackathon at the Web for All (W4A) Conference in San Francisco was bigger and better than ever. PEAT hosted the event in partnership with the DIAGRAM Center, a federally funded Benetech Global Literacy Initiative, and sponsorship from Microsoft. The event advanced workplace inclusion for people with disabilities by enhancing workplace tools with an accessibility mindset.

Our goal for this event was to improve the accessibility of web-based programming and design tools such as Jupyter Notebooks. One of the most common challenges that both employers and developers regularly emphasize to PEAT is the difficulty of identifying development frameworks with ready-made accessibility features. This situation results in large-scale barriers because even the most motivated leaders and companies often find it hard to secure the time, funding, and knowledge to build accessibility solutions from scratch.

The Accessibility Hackathon helped bridge that gap by bringing developers, individuals with disabilities, and accessibility advocates together to work on tangible solutions face-to-face. As our past hackathons have demonstrated, collaboration from diverse backgrounds pays big dividends when it comes to accessibility. The 50 participants included front- and back-end developers, experts in user interface and user experience, technical accessibility experts, and many others. Experience levels varied widely as participants had a three-way split between individuals who reported “a lot,” “some,” or none/not very much” experience with accessibility issues.

From left to right: Charles la Pierre, Technical Lead for Born Accessible and the DIAGRAM Center, Microsoft Senior Accessibility Architect Mary Bellard, and LightHouse Executive Director/CEO Bryan Bashin

The collaboration among this diverse group kindled tremendous synergy and interest in accessibility issues for participants. For some developers, it was their first exposure to using a screen reader, which sparked eye-opening revelations. Following the event, 92% of participants reported that their engagement in this hackathon meant they were now more likely to incorporate accessibility best practices into future work. Additionally, 79% shared they were “very likely” to participate in a similar event in the future, and the remaining 21% of participants indicated that their future participation was “likely.”

The hackathon culminated by propelling several tangible accessibility improvements to web-based programming and design tools that people depend on daily, in both the workplace and everyday life. These improvements included:

New screen reader capabilities in JupyterLab, a document-sharing platform that develops Jupyter Notebooks, which are especially popular in the growing field of data science. Notebooks support dozens of programming languages, narrative text, mathematical equations, visualizations, interactive controls, and other rich output.

Additions and improvements to The DIAGRAM Center’s Accessible Code Repository (Accessible Interactives).

Accessible Extended Image Descriptions, an interface with Accessible Rich Internet Applications (ARIA) web standards that allow users to produce extended descriptions that can be toggled on and off and repositioned.

A proposal for new rules for testing links, link text, headings, widgets, and other elements in HTML to ensure adherence to ARIA standards and enable screen readers to verbalize and interact with webpages.

For a full recap of the event and the impact of the resulting projects, check out Benetech’s blog: A Different Kind of Hackathon: Making the Web Accessible to All.

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