About twenty years ago, I and a relatively small cast of characters began to follow a listserv from a new group calling itself WebAIM. It filled a void I was experiencing and I’ve been an enthusiastic supporter ever since.
Like most of us at the time, I had come to web design in a backhanded way. In 1995, while teaching in the educational psychology department at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, I was invited to a demonstration of this new thing called a “browser” which would allow you to use a “graphic user interface” (GUI) to interact with internet information. I was immediately hooked and asked the facilitator what language the coding was in explaining that I wanted to create these newfangled things called “web pages.” The facilitator made the mistake of scoffing at me claiming, because I was a lowly psych professor, I couldn’t possibly understand how to do this kind of work. Instead of spitting in his eye, I taught myself HTML (version 1!) and some PERL.
Unbeknownst to the demonstration facilitator, I had been a “junior exploder” as a kid (the word “geek” hadn’t been invented yet), someone who played with Heathkits and shortwave radio, who dreamed of being an electrical engineer. I lasted less than a year in an engineering program before transferring to become a psychology major, but I was there long enough to learn FORTRAN and COBOL and was actually pretty good at it. Later, I would teach myself BASIC and how to use the new so-called “personal computers,” so HTML and PERL were not a huge leap for me.
Within 18 months of the browser demonstration, I was asked to be the “webmaster” at the University of New England and took charge to build the university’s first complete website. But being a social scientist, I quickly recognized that this wonderful world of the web would likely present major challenges to people with disabilities. Indeed, shortly before the browser demonstration incident I had befriended a young blind man, Steve, living in rural upstate NY who was using something called a “screen reader” to interact with his personal computer. Steve tells his own life story about how his screen reader and the internet opened up the world to him with information and communications he had previously no other way of accessing. And, as soon as the GUI became the norm, Steve’s world closed back up.
So when I found WebAIM’s listserv 20 year ago, I found a community of folks (some like Steve) who recognized the importance of accessibility and provided the support and energy needed to fight the good fight. It has been a long, uphill battle, and it is not over yet.
Congratulations to the folks at WebAIM as the celebrate their anniversary. I know they will keep up the good fight too.