Impressions from AHEAD 2006

I spent last week in sunny San Diego at the Association of Higher Education and Disability (AHEAD) conference, which was comprised of over 1,200 professionals who serve students with disabilities in postsecondary education. Although San Diego was unseasonably warm, the weather was still beautiful. Here is a picture from the balcony of my sixth-story hotel room.

Below are just a couple of the interesting experiences I had at AHEAD 2006.

"508 Doesn’t Apply to Us"

One of the first people I talked to at AHEAD reminded me just how far we have to go in helping people understand the importance of web accessibility. In this case, it was a representative for a company that provides services for the Deaf. I was very interested in their services and spent a few minutes talking to them.

After one of the people at the booth pointed out that their clients included agencies of the federal government, I asked her if she knew whether or not her site adhered to Section 508. She said that they do not and that they didnít need to worry about Section 508 because they were not part of a federal government agency. When I tried to explain that they might want to consider Section 508 as a minimal standard for accessibility, especially as a vendor to the US federal government, she made it clear that she was done talking about Section 508 and courteously ended the conversation. This is not the first time I have seen people become uncomfortable with questions regarding Section 508, nor is it the first time I have encountered companies that seem to only be concerned with accessibility for the specific group of people with disabilities that they serve.

I hope companies that provide services to people with disabilities will eventually see the responsibility they have to set an example with a web presence that is accessible to all users. Even if a company is not required to adhere to Section 508, it is a step in the right direction.

Word is Still King

Probably the two best-attended workshops that I sat in on both discussed how to create accessible documents in Microsoft Word. Both the presenters did an excellent job of pointing out the importance of starting with accessible, well-structured Word documents if you are to create accessible HTML or PDF.

This was one of the few times I have been on the receiving side of such training. It was eye-opening to watch people’s screens as they followed the presenter’s instructions. As I watched I noticed that there were very few people who were familiar with even basic accessibility techniques in Word, such as using styles to create true headings. This was a room full of intelligent, able professionals involved in serving students with disabilities in higher education and almost none of them knew how to make a Word document accessible.

Now obviously, a beginner’s workshop on creating accessible Word is not the most objective place to gather data, but the fact that the sessions were so well attended despite the fact that accessibility in Microsoft Office has changed little in 6 years makes it clear that there are still many people in need of such training.

These two workshops reinforced conclusions I drew long ago:

  • Microsoft Word is still, for better or worse, the king of content creation tools. It’s the starting point for all kinds of documents, including this blog entry. Teaching people how to improve the accessibility of Word documents is an important part of creating more accessible web content.
  • As I mentioned above, many people are still unfamiliar with even the most basic accessibility features in Word. Some of these people are unaware that there are ways to increase the accessibility of a Word document, the rest are unsure how to do it.
  • Although it is possible to greatly increase the accessibility of Word documents, it is still a confusing process, requiring the understanding of many features in Word.

So what can be done to encourage more people to create accessible documents? Here are just a few ideas:

  • We still need to do a better job of training non-technical users to create accessible Word documents.
  • Some of the resources that exist, including the resources on this site, probably need to be less technical.
  • Although it has come a long way, Microsoft Word can make great improvements in encouraging users to create accessible documents. This is especially true for Office for Mac, which has severely limited accessibility features. These are some ways in which accessibility could be improved:
    • Prompt users to include accessibility at the moment the content is added. This could include a box for adding alt text at the time an image is inserted or an option to convert the first row of a table into headers.
    • Include support for more advanced accessibility features, such as row headers for tables.
    • Allow for cleaner output to other formats, especially HTML. This has been partially implemented with the option to save as Filtered HTML.

While attending AHEAD, I was constantly reminded that web accessibility is just part of a larger goal of empowering people with disabilities. One of the best ways to accomplish this is to offer equal access to education. It was wonderful to spend time with so many people who share this goal.


  1. john brandt

    I am not the least bit surprised by your notation of the popularity of a workshop on making accessible Word documents. I get asked that question all the time and had thought about developing a workshop on this subject myself.

    My experience has been that most Word users use about 10% of the features that are built into the application and are happy to know those basics. Unfortunately, of the remaining features most are very rarely used. Heck, when was the last time you entered a footnote, or needed to build an index? With infrequent use comes the effect of easily forgetting.

    MS could easily build in some macros that looked at each document created and help the user learn to use the style elements (e.g., Heading 1, 2, etc.) and prompt for the accessibility features when entering objects and images. And, if they could create a way to more easily produce clean text that can be easily pasted into other applications, like blogs or HTML authoring programs, that would be a step in the right direction. I understand the new 2007 version of Office has made some great improvements in this direction. We’ll see.