Many community technology centers in true grassroots fashion are cobbled together from a few hardware and software donations and the vision of local people to improve the lives of their children and neighbors. Founded with little or no actual funding, staffed by volunteers, the large majority of community technology centers began as improvised local projects and may still contain formidable barriers to full participation for users with disabilities. Obstacles may include physical barriers, such as entryways that are difficult to navigate, inaccessible computer workstations, and rows that are too narrow for wheelchairs to pass among stations. In many cases, community technology labs are tucked away in unused corridors or storage areas of public buildings with other purposes, such as recreation halls or senior centers. The physical access needs of people with disabilities were most often not even considered as neighborhood groups scrambled for unused space in which to provide public computers and training.
Physical barriers are often compounded by the fact that assistive technology devices are seldom provided at community technology centers. In the rare cases where such devices are present, assistive technology services may not be marketed to the community, or the staff may not know how to support the use of assistive technology. With limited resources, community technology centers are seriously challenged to understand how to accommodate the needs of users with disabilities.
The Alliance for Technology Access
When it is successfully implemented, technology can radically change the life of someone with a disability providing unprecedented opportunities for participation in the daily education, employment, and routine tasks that most people take for granted. The Alliance for Technology Access (ATA) is another national affiliate group that has done outstanding work. Based in San Rafael, California, the ATA pursues its mission of connecting children and adults with disabilities to technology tools through an array of services that began in 1978 with the establishment of a network of Technology Resource Centers. The Centers provide resources at no cost to children, their parents, and people of all ages with all disabilities to help them learn about assistive technology and identify the right solution for them at different stages in their development. By raising awareness and providing the tools that can lead to increased technology access for people with disabilities, the ATA improves the quality of life and supports the greater independence of millions of children and adults with disabilities.
As people with disabilities become more adept at using technology tools in general and at using technology specifically to make connections to the world that support their independence, it is critical for a democratic society to meet those needs. This must include ensuring that Internet-based information is designed to be accessible. Fortunately, the tools to achieve that are readily available. The key is to raise public awareness of the need and of the overall societal benefit. An illustration of one method that is having good results is found in Austin, Texas.
The Accessibility Internet Rally
Austin is a city that benefited from the tech boom in ways that created local disparities in income and in access to those benefits. While per capita income soared during the 1990s, low-income wages stagnated or actually decreased. The numbers of people living below the federal poverty line increased by over 11,000 in Austin in the years between 1990 and 1999, while the city was experiencing its greatest economic growth in decades [Community Action Network 2001]. There was an influx of technology workers from regions where housing costs had been much greater. The result was that it became increasingly difficult for those who were not directly participating in the tech boom to rent or buy adequate housing.
Because of these and other economic factors, a strong perception of "us and them" developed in Austin. "Us" were seen to be the poor schmucks who lived in pre-tech Austin, and "them" were seen as those tech folks who came from elsewhere to ruin "our" city. Never mind that Michael Dell was a Texas native and a student at the University of Texas (UT) at Austin when he created the little engine that became the Dell Computer Corporation the perception was strong and it held. A look beneath the surface reveals how that perception was developed and why it has so much power.
Neighborhood schools, for example, were startling demonstrations of inequity, and the tech community was largely inactive in addressing the issue, despite the long-range repercussions for the industry. Although there were token gifts to isolated schools, the technology community failed to provide systematic leadership on how to address and minimize inequity. The nonprofit sector was suddenly expected to meet the growing needs of people who were being increasingly squeezed by economic forces. The percentage of homeless persons, of medically uninsured families and children, and of people lacking the basic resources they needed to sustain a normal life was increasing faster than the general population. Churches, homeless shelters, and soup kitchens were extending their limited resources to meet unexpected needs and not always succeeding.
Access to technology and training was seen as essential, but it was very difficult to engage the tech community in a meaningful, sustained effort to deliver that training. In short, while technology businesses were entirely remaking the community and benefiting from incentives funded by local government and UT, they were not perceived to be returning value to the community at large. The high-tech sector was perceived to be in but not of the community.
This was the situation in 1998 when a small group of people came together and made a real difference by creating bonds across the region's various sectors in unexpected ways. Fortunately for the community, there were significant exceptions to the general lack of tech-sector engagement. Steve Guengerich, the CEO of a nonprofit organization that served people with disabilities, was not your typical nonprofit CEO. Steve came from a high-tech background and had helped create a startup company that succeeded. Guengerich chose to take advantage of his good fortune in an exceptional way he explored a number of innovative ways to contribute to his community. His tenure as a nonprofit CEO led him to wonder why it was that, in a town filled with bright, entrepreneurial, high-tech executives, none were on his organization's board of directors, nor were they significantly involved with most of the community organizations he dealt with daily. In brainstorming with staff, associates, and other community leaders about ways to engage the technology sector in community life in a more meaningful way, the Accessibility Internet Rally for Austin (AIR-Austin) was born.
Steve met with the chair of the Austin Mayor's Committee for People with Disabilities, another high-tech executive named Rachel Sartin. They invited input from organizations that served the technology needs of underserved populations and the nonprofit community and attracted the enthusiastic cooperation of some remarkable people and groups. Goodwill Industries of Central Texas, under the direction of CEO Jerry Davis, became a partner in the effort to engage the hightech community in addressing the barriers faced by people with disabilities. Sue Beckwith, an employee of the City of Austin and the founder of Austin FreeNet, was an early supporter as well. The AIR coalition brought together the coauthors of this book. Sharron Rush was a development officer at Easter Seals Central Texas and took the lead in organizing and producing the first AIR-Austin. In canvassing the community for others who were working on technology access issues, she met Dr. John Slatin, founder of the Institute for Technology and Learning (ITAL) at UT. John provided expert guidance in Web accessibility issues and recruited Jim Allan, Web master for the Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired and a member of the WAI of the W3C, to help develop program standards.
The number of dedicated community leaders who were willing to contribute to improving technology access continued to grow. Sue Soy worked for the City of Austin History Center, and she and her husband Jack Jordan were instrumental in the founding of the Metropolitan Austin Interactive Network, known as MAIN. Jayne Cravens, founder of the Virtual Volunteering Project and the current director of online volunteer programs for the United Nations, was at UT during that time. She had done pioneering community technology work and was sensitive to the technology access needs of both people with disabilities and the nonprofit sector. It is impossible to overstate the importance of their spirited support.
Brainstorming sessions were built on the idea of community Web raisings held periodically by MAIN. These sessions were day-long tutorials to help nonprofit groups design and build Web sites, which were then hosted for free by MAIN. Since many of the organizers were from organizations that served people with disabilities, they knew how important it was to make accessibility the key element of Web development activities. Elements of the plan came together as Guengerich insisted that, although raising accessibility awareness was the ultimate purpose, a competitive component should be included to appeal to the high-tech mentality. A clearly defined, limited time commitment was essential, as was the inclusion of a broad spectrum of the community. The program that we envisioned would serve a diversity of missions, constituencies, and primary languages to demonstrate that community programs that meet the needs of people with disabilities also serve the greater community, often in unanticipated ways.
As the momentum grew, the community responded. Rudy Rodriquez and Jerry Ollier of Infotec donated their professional training facility to the effort. Goodwill Industries of Central Texas provided logistical and staff support each year. The Goodwill team, led first by Jamie Fraser and recently by Malcomb Gardner and Debbie Danziger, continues to be a full partner in the annual effort to produce AIR in Austin. Phill Jenkins of IBM's Accessibility Center showed up to participate in 1998 and has since become a keystone of the group, serving as a lead trainer and advisor in the activities.
After a couple of months of brainstorming, the group issued a challenge to the high-tech community: "Come join the race to accessibility! Enter the Accessibility Internet Rally for Austin and you can win awards, help your community, gain new skills, and have a great time!"
We recruited teams of three to five Web developers, usually from the same company, and asked them to make several commitments. They would attend a training session in which they would learn about accessible Web design what it meant, why it mattered, and how to do it. We also taught them what to expect from their nonprofit partners. Teams agreed to attend a high-tech happy hour where they would meet the nonprofit group they were paired with. Finally, they made the commitment to attend the eight-hour AIR at the Infotec technology training center.
Nonprofit organizations that served a variety of missions applied for the opportunity to receive professionally designed Web sites. Representatives from these organizations were required to attend training as well, though of a slightly different type. Nonprofit executives were made aware of the fact that accessible Web sites are particularly important for mission-driven organizations. Many of those executives, such as Ana Sisnett of Austin FreeNet, understood the need and were now gratified to find the means to begin to meet the challenges faced by FreeNet clients with disabilities. Nonprofit groups learned to prepare their information for the competition, how to market a nonprofit mission via the Web, and what to expect from their teams. When we brought them together, the results amazed the community.
AIR-Austin has become a highly anticipated annual event. Convincing people to pay a fee to donate services and skills that were in such high demand was not as difficult as might be imagined. We found that many technology workers were eager to engage with the community but lacked the time and opportunity to explore their options. Even in the midst of an economic downturn, we have found that members of the high-tech sector respond generously and enthusiastically when given an opportunity that they understand, in which their time commitments are clearly defined, and in which they can use the skills and tools they value. The competitive element makes it just that much more fun.
The results of AIR went far beyond what we anticipated. An increased awareness of disability issues led many organizations and individuals to want to continue to work for improved access to tech nology opportunities. AIR created relationships between the technology and the nonprofit sectors that continue to develop and to return community benefits for years.
Hundreds of Web developers have now learned about Web accessibility in a context that is lively and fun and that returns social rewards as well. Most professional developers had simply never thought about accessibility before. Many of them had never considered the possibility that someone who was blind or who had other disabilities might be trying to access information online. Most of them responded with eagerness to master the techniques and to learn to incorporate them into their daily design work. Some took it even further. Encouraged by federal mandates and anticipating the changing requirements of so many Web sites, some companies developed their accessible design skills as a means to distinguish themselves from their competitors and to win business.
We recruited students with disabilities to participate as volunteers and, in cases where they had acquired the necessary level of skills, to join teams. The resulting camaraderie was invaluable, as Web professionals observed that these students were sharp, skilled, and very capable and that their disabilities were irrelevant to their ability to do good work. AIR produced unexpected longer-term results as well. Because of relationships developed during the Rally and the changing perceptions on the part of developers, we were able to subsequently place students with disabilities within some of these companies as summer interns. Without participation in Rally activities, these companies indicated they would not seriously have considered hiring students with disabilities.
The AIR program for raising public awareness of the need for accessibility on the Web has been successfully replicated by local community leaders such as Diane Musha of Productivity Point in Dallas, Texas, and Jon Carmain and Kathy Morris of CCTI in Denver, Colorado. Compumentor is making similar efforts in San Francisco, California. If you are considering this program for your community, be advised that funding the replication effort is a challenge because AIR is entirely unconventional. Although corporate and private foundations often claim they are looking for innovation, it takes an active imagination indeed to envision a grassroots, community development program that looks like a contest. The Mitsubishi Electric America Foundation (MEAF) has that imagination and has supported the Rally since 1999.
Support from MEAF Lays the Foundation
Just a word here about the exceptional vision that MEAF demonstrates. It is not a large foundation, and yet it is focused in its giving and clear about its goals. Its purpose is to empower youth with disabilities through technology. MEAF program officers offer not just funding but also connections to their national volunteer network as well as their experience in measuring results and assessing future potential. Innumerable other groups and individuals have contributed to the success of the AIR program; we invite you to visit http://www.knowbility.org to learn more about them.
By 1999, the success of AIR had created a substantial group of Web professionals who had a better understanding of the issues and the opportunities of including people with disabilities in the information marketplace. Now that they were awake to the challenges, many AIR participants were ready to address them on an ongoing basis. Community leaders perceived the need for a year-round, national effort to promote and facilitate barrier-free information technology, so they founded Knowbility in February 1999. Knowbility produced all subsequent AIR activities and is responsible for bringing the program to other cities throughout the country.
Adapting AIR to Other Settings
The central concept of AIR is to train developers in the basics of accessible design and allow them to demonstrate their skills in a contest. The original model, which included nonprofit organizations as the demonstration sites, had beneficial community development results as well. The model can be easily modified, however, for different purposes. At UT Austin, for example, Dean Robert May of the Red McCombs School of Business listened to our urging to bring the benefits of AIR to the UT campus. Dean May recognized the critical importance of access in a university setting. He recognized that, as more services are delivered online, universities have a particular responsibility to lead by assuring that all services are available to all students. In 2000, Dean May led the other deans in issuing a University Challenge.
The first AIR-UT changed the model from a one-day competition to a three-month contest. College staff developers were provided with accessibility training and resources and were then given several months to incorporate accessible design into their sites. Judges made awards and provided feedback to help ensure that online university resources are accessible to students, faculty, and staff with disabilities. St. Edward's University of Austin, Texas, joined the University Challenge in 2001 after purchasing the Infotec training site. Because the tradition of hosting the AIR program annually is so strong in Austin and St. Edward's is responsive to community needs, that school is now an AIR partner as well.
In October 2000, after just two years of organizing communities around the powerful idea of information technology inclusion, the AIR program was one of two "Recognized Programs" of the prestigious Peter F. Drucker Foundation, which annually recognizes effective nonprofit innovation. AIR has been featured at the National Labor Skills Summit in Washington, DC, as a best practice and praised in a White House press release as an exceptional means to address the digital divide. This community-based effort to maximize the accessibility of the Internet has been recognized as being globally effective and important. The next challenge is to take local success and replicate it throughout the country.