This past month WebAIM staff had an opportunity to attend CSUN 2012. As always, CSUN was a great opportunity to see what others are doing, share what we’ve been up to, and connect with good friends in the accessibility world. Prior to the conference, the Assistive Technology Industry Association (ATIA) hosted an all-day meeting to discuss the establishment of a society of accessibility professionals. As part of this meeting, I was asked to participate on a panel to discuss whether creating professional certification in accessibility would provide a solution or create a bigger problem in the field. The meeting itself, along with its focus, created quite a lot of discussion beforehand (e.g., Knowbility’s blog being only one of them) and afterward (What does it take to call yourself an accessibility expert? and Is there a need for a professional accessibility society?). We are all better for engaging in substantive discussions that impact accessibility outcomes.
Chicken and Egg Market Dilemma
We are currently in a chicken-and-egg market dilemma with respect to accessibility needs and professional skills. On the one hand we have employers saying that there are insufficient numbers of professionals in accessibility available for them to hire. Employers consider this a failure of training and contend that they should not be penalized for this reality or be required to hire people that simply don’t exist. Thus they don’t “require” accessibility skills upon hiring. Because of this, there is not a market requiring those skills.
On the other hand, there have been attempts to provide the field with training programs that produce accessibility professionals even when it is not apparent that there is a market for them. Many colleges and universities, both in the US and abroad, have created preservice training programs over the years with accessibility as a focal point. The programs are almost impossible to sustain over time as they are viewed as serving a small niche that is not valued (read: “required”) by employers, and have only a few students take advantage of the opportunity.
Thus the cycle continues with employers looking to the outputs of training programs and training programs looking to the needs and requirements of employers.
WebAIM is one of many groups who have had internal discussions for years on the merits and challenges inherent in professional certification. If it were an easy thing to accomplish I think we would have done so long ago. We do believe that the concept of accessibility certification would be a helpful way to ensure quality professional practice in the workforce. With that said, we also feel that there are at least six critical issues that need to be addressed before a professional certification would be valuable within the field. Each issue is briefly summarized below. As you can imagine, for us the devil is in the details.
Issue number one
It is critical that certification is intended for professionals from all sectors. Examples would include those from industry, government, commerce, education, NGO groups, and health care. If certification were to be customized to any small segment, it would lose the importance of broad applicability. Any employer should be able to turn to this certification as proof of skill level, and not skill level customized for the needs of a narrow constituency.
While most would agree with this premise, it comes into play as other issues are addressed, for example, when talking about funding a system of professional certification. While those in industry may have membership fees paid by their employer, such a practice is not allowable in education and most NGO’s. If the membership fee is a couple of hundred dollars a year this may be a non-issue, however, what could be the effect if it were $600 a year or more? I would predict that over time this organization would contain greater numbers of members from industry. If this were to happen what would be the impact to cross-sector applicability over time as the membership demands greater customization to their unique interests?
Issue number two
The certification that results from this effort must be based on an individual’s performance and not on attendance or completion of any training or education experience. While most would agree with this, we must consider plans for how performance-based appraisal would occur. For example, where do these activities take place? It is unlikely that a professional member group would host site-based testing opportunities all across the globe. Moreover the personnel seeking certification would likely expect asynchronous online testing to obtain certification. Yet such testing creates the very context that continues to rock the distance-education world. Namely, e-verification of the person who is taking the test or completing the tasks. To the extent that potential employers require certification – a desired goal to be sure – pressures may exist that could lead to practices antithetical to the verification of individual professional skills.
Issue number three
While we are talking about performance-based testing, there are several issues that affect quality testing as the basis for certification. Let us be clear, if this certification is used as any part of employment decisions, it must be rock solid; we would want it so even if not used in employment. Whatever is developed must contain the highest levels of both internal and external validity. Those not familiar with creating valid, robust testing items probably should not do so. Central to a quality test is a quality-testing standard. Stakeholders representing divergent sectors should create the specific testing standard and individuals with disabilities must be part of this group. Now don’t get me wrong, when I talk about testing standards my starting point is WCAG 2.0, as the international standard. However with that said, exactly what is being tested? What is the scope, depth, and diversity of this performance-based measure?
Here are examples of what I mean: Would we ask an individual to identify accessibility issues, repair an issue given to them, or create content free of issues? Since each of these requires a different level of skill we need to know what we want; With form labels mapping to 6 different success criteria within WCAG 2.0, which is tested? Or is each tested in some redundant fashion? Would we judge the use of ARIA for labeling to be OK if they could have used HTML?
As you can see, a great deal of thought must be brought to the specifics of the testing standards. We cannot afford to be reductionists, stating that we’ll test for WCAG 2.0. It is much more complicated than that.
We also think it vital that these testing standards are continuously developed as our understanding and use of technologies expand over time. Moreover, we feel strongly that any resulting testing specification would be publically available, at no cost. This is important so that preparation for certification could come from many sources, including the ability for an individual to prepare him or herself if they so choose. Public availability of the testing standards would also provide the opportunity for continuous feedback into the system and keep it relevant to the needs of professionals.
Issue number four
We feel that for accessibility certification to be taken seriously it needs to be operated by an existing respected independent professional organization and insured to do so. Any group with suspect motives, or one that springs up just to take on this initiative, would probably not get the needed participation or collaboration from those currently in the field. This group then needs to figure out who is evaluating the tests that come in from those seeking certification. Clearly, the personnel used to judge performance must, themselves, be beyond reproach in the field. Moreover, legal challenges to the operation of testing and certification are likely to follow as they have in just about every other professional certificate; this makes sense in the context of certification as a gate-keeper for some employment opportunities.
Issue number five
Costs need to be reasonable to attain, and maintain, certification. Everyone in this discussion agrees that there should be an initial certification with professional paths that would allow for continuation of certification in regular cycles. In other words, this should not be a one-shot deal. However, I have not heard anyone talk about the costs of doing this – both for the person who receives certification and the group who does the work to offer it. This will be important as cycles of continued certification are defined; for example, if you must pay to recertify every two years versus every five.
Issue number six
Finally, WebAIM believes that this certification process must be a living entity. Technologies and techniques change what it is that a professional does to ensure accessibility. The testing standards and the certification(s) themselves must reflect this fluidity. Failure to create a mechanism for continuous updates, or changes, to certification would be its ultimate death as the certificate would quickly be out of touch with what is needed in the field. With that said, would this require new performance-based testing or evidence of education on the matter, and in what cycles (e.g., 6 months, yearly)? Depending on the profession you choose to look at you’ll see different mechanisms. While many educators retain licensure by working in the field and obtaining continuing education credits, physicians who wish to use new surgical procedures must not only be trained, but undergo a practice-based evaluation. I suspect that some areas of the field are more like educators and others are more like surgeons.
WebAIM will continue to discuss these, and other, issues that pertain to professional certification in web accessibility, as they are important to the field. We invite you to make comments below. It is our hope that over the coming years, each issue will be resolved and we can all begin the work to help establish certification of professional skills in web accessibility.