Coming up for AIR: Austin's Accessibility Internet Rally

 Tony Mook and the Austin City Connection team at last fall's AIR-Austin competition.
Tony Mook and the Austin City Connection team at last fall's AIR-Austin competition. (Photo By Rodolfo Ornelas)

Let's say you're visually impaired, but you can still surf the Web because you have software that "reads" the text to you. You come to a page, though, that makes little sense. Perhaps the titles are images rather than text, and though there's code that a Web developer can use to feed the titles to your readerbot, the developer didn't bother -- or didn't know even how to. When this happens, you've been marginalized, cut off from an experience that many people take for granted.

This is a hassle, and it's also a legal problem if the Web site is operated by a business or government entity, because the Americans With Disabilities Act requires that the Web site be accessible in the sense that it's usable by anyone with a physical or cognitive disability.

There are evolving standards for developing accessible Web sites, and Web developers are challenged to know how to incorporate the latest of those standards as part of their jobs. Because of this, Austin's Accessibility Internet Rally has become vital to the Austin Web scene. The rally is a contest in which teams of Web developers build or redevelop Web sites for local nonprofits or artists, incorporating accessibility features into the construction.

AIR events are organized by Knowbility, a nonprofit formed after the first AIR-Austin event in 1998. Knowbility Executive Director Sharron Rush says the group formed in the wake of the amazing response to the first AIR-Austin event in 1998. The need for accessibility expertise really sunk in with the first rally's contestants, as they realized the impact accessible Web sites had on children with disabilities, who needed better access to assistive technology to help them stay on grade level in school.

But it wasn't just for the children. Young people with disabilities needed better access to give them greater options for post-secondary learning, and disabled adults needed access to technology to get and keep jobs. Web technology held great opportunities for people with disabilities, but those opportunities could only be realized if the people who make Web sites became more knowledgeable of assistive technology.

So what does Knowbility do? The group's goal is to increase independent-living options for people with disabilities by improving their access to technology. They do this by spreading the word about accessibility standards and federal requirements and by giving support to schools and community technology organizations in eliminating barriers.

Knowbility helps organize several AIR events a year in Austin, and now in other cities. Last year was the first SXSW-related happening, AIR for Austin Music, where volunteers built accessible, media-rich Web sites for seven Austin-area bands. This year AIR Interactive has been expanded to include other arts organizations, with twice as many projects under way. According to Teresa Ferguson, who's chairing the latest rally, the focus on the arts will call attention to Austin's creativity.

And it's happening right now -- the Web developers meet their new clients a few weeks before SXSW, and the sites they develop are soon submitted to accessibility experts, who judge the work based on how well the developers implement accessibility standards -- and, of course, how well they hold up under the intense schedule.

AIR Interactive will announce winners of the AIR-Interactive for the Arts at Antone's on Monday, March 10, 5-8pm.

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