This month I attended the first ever CU Tech Connect Event. It was a gathering of the Offices of Information Technology for the 4 campuses of the Colorado University System. Denver, Anschutz, Colorado Springs and Boulder. It was an opportunity for many of us to connect with our counterparts at the other universities and see what we had in common and what we could learn from each other.
I decided this might be the time to preach the accessibility gospel. I prepared what was called a "Lightening Talk" of less than 6 minutes using a slide deck and speaking. I was very nervous about it and wanted to do a great job so that people would actually learn and retain their knowledge. My topic: including Universal Design in the development of our digital environments for students.
In order to appeal to this audience, I knew most of the presenters would find an innovative niche, a technical product or new edgy piece of equipment that they could demonstrate. Some explored methodology dealing with other departments. Others spoke about implementation projects they worked on successfully. I knew I needed to stand out in order to really be heard.
I thought about going through the seven principles of universal design. Were they memorable? I thought not since I had yet to memorize them and I'd been in the business for over 10 years! I considered explaining some of the basic rules of WCAG 2.0 Level AA which guides us in the development of websites, creating the right contrast ratios, using correct hierarchical rules, simplifying language, using intelligently named links and so on and so on and blah blah blah.
Should I just address a small part of the issues like how to follow captioning principles put out by the National Association for the Deaf or why you should consult a subject matter expert when writing alternate text for images? Should I harp on the legal rules and how easily universities can be sued for being out of compliance?
How could I out-tech the techies and shine? The answer was I couldn't.
So I took a risk and ran in the other direction. I took a soft, touchy-feely approach for a bunch of Star Wars fans and gamers. And it worked.
Human Being Soup
My slide deck had no bullet points; barely any text at all. I let single images, one after another fill the entire screen and I spoke of spiritual ideals. The title of my lightening talk was "Human Being Soup." I asked the audience to imagine that when a baby is born a spoonful of magic soup is poured into it and the child gets various characteristics from this soup like perhaps a funny sounding laugh, a tendency to drool during sleep, a preference for salty foods and such. This baby grows into a child and then adulthood and old age, and finally dies at which time the magic soup is extracted from this body and poured back into a giant bowl. This spoonful is spicier, perhaps sweeter or bland or even bitter depending on how the person behaved throughout their lifetime. If they kicked cats, or brought extra garden vegetables to the neighbors or helped out a stranger whose car had broken down or listened to a whining friend in need or abused a waitress. All these behaviors influenced the flavor of the soup. And the clincher was...the spoonful went back into the bowl and the next baby born got a spoonful from that same bowl. Their spoon came from that legacy mixture.
The Mighty and Powerful IT
I went on to talk about how IT people are designers of the digital environments where we all live. Students live their lives in the environments we create. Our development choices and purchases influence the everyday lives of everyone on campus. I talked about our method of design and whether we designed for the average person. If we did that then what about the outliers? Are we ignoring them? I brought up how if one designs for the extreme ends of the bell curve of people, the middle ones are taken care of. "So who are these extreme outliers?" I asked. I pointed to imaginary people in the audience saying "Over there is the older man whose dream it is to get his PhD in philosophy. Over there is the distance learner from Japan whose English skills are less than perfect. Over there is the prodigy 16 year old who doesn't know how to drive yet. And over there and over there and over there are people with disabilities." I hesitated dramatically at this point.
After some easy suggestions about how we can keep people with disabilities in mind when designing and purchasing our digital world I concluded by saying "Let's work together and improve the flavor of the soup."
I asked my colleagues from my own IT department to give me honest critiques and they were all positive...but that is to be expected. I got lots of questions and requests to share the slide deck. I did get unprompted feedback from many other attendees who called the talk "enlightening" and "eye-opening." I got an invitation to speak at CU Boulder at one of their internal tech events. I hope I made a difference in some people's digital environments because of this presentation.