Cognitive Accessibility with W3C WAI

— 4 minute read

How time flies! Already 3 weeks into my new role as Cognitive Accessibility Specialist.

Back in August I spotted Shadi's announcement looking for a Cognitive Accessibility Specialist to join the W3C WAI staff. Having been involved with the work of the Cognitive Accessibility and Learning Disabilities Task Force I had become aware of the many complexities in supporting people with these "hidden disabilities" in the W3C Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) and beyond.

The job of clearly describing cognitive preferences and then formulating suitable conformance measurements for WCAG is complex and nuanced. Cognitive requirements are often less easy to relate to than say those for visually impaired people. They commonly vary widely between individuals in both degree and combination. Defining such variable user requirements and mapping them to distinctly measurable technical features is difficult. It is also an immature science with little published research or practical experience available. Despite this, Lisa and the Task Force have done an amazing job and generated several comprehensive documents. But, there is still so much more to do before everyone who uses WCAG to inform their design and development activities will be usefully addressing cognitive preferences.

So I decided to email Shadi and Judy at the WAI, thanking them for the decision to dedicate core staff resource to help support this important work. Strangely, as I typed, I found myself realising I'd love to be "that person". I saw a clear opportunity to widely help improve people's experience of technology, via the standards that are used by companies, governments and others to ensure accessibility of their websites and other user facing technologies. For me, this is a change in approach from developing a cognitive AT product, AlwaysInMind, but possibly more suited to my skills and background.

Long story short, I ended up applying for the post and after various bumps in the road (including the unwelcome uncertainties caused by the looming BREXIT) I have now just finished my 3rd week as part of the W3C WAI team, employed by ERCIM in France. The exact details of my role will emerge in time but in essence I'll be working to improve the coga11y story. This will involve fairly horizontal activity around coga, WCAG, Personalisation and the EU 2020 Easy Reading project of which W3C WAI are consortium members.

My 1st experience was incredible! While the ink was still wet on the contract, I rushed over to the annual W3C TPAC meeting in Lyon, France. In 5 days I managed to meet many of the dedicated folks working on WAI standards and guidelines through their activity in workgroups and taskforces. A handful were old friends, some going back to the time I started serious accessibility work on GNOME, Mozilla Firefox and the IAccessible2 platform API for Windows. Many others, I have met since, either on line or at various conferences. A few I have followed and respected from a distance until getting the chance to meet them at TPAC. Such an inspiring group.

I found myself playing WAI "Bingo" and managed to get a full house of the various accessibility groups; AG, APA, EO, ARIA, Coga, Personalisation, ACT and others. It was a whirlwind of meeting welcoming people while absorbing organisational and procedural details of W3C and WAI. Phew!

The next 2 weeks back home have been and intense but enjoyable period of on-boarding. The usual medley of meeting people, attending working group meetings, learning my way around the intranet, plus installing and configuring tools.

Perhaps most important has been becoming familiar with the relevant publications. There's only around 10 key documents to internalise but considering WCAG is not alone in it's size and density I'm going to be very busy over the next 3 weeks! :)

I'm so happy to be a part of WAI and very much look forward to contributing to the Coga11y support of WCAG and wider.