Why I do what I do: challenge, community, equity

As many readers already know, I work primarily in the web accessibility field. After being inspired by Personal Story: Pratik Patel's Passion for Knowledge, I thought I'd share about why I do what I do.

I primarily contribute my time and skills to three communities: Drupal, the Fluid Project, and the HTML Accessibility Task Force of the W3C.


I realized from a young age that I thrived on challenge and challenging others. I find that I am happiest and most productive if there is a degree of challenge, technical or social, in the work that I do. This has contributed to my Socratic teaching style, which was recently referred to as "incendiary". Although the characterization was an exaggeration, it is not completely inaccurate. When presenting to groups I feel like I have failed if the participants leave the session not thinking about what they've learned, but simply knowing what they've learned.

A story that I often tell that emphasizes my disdain for wrote memorization in education comes from my experience in grade seven science class. In a unit on conservation the teacher asked: "What takes less water, a shower or a bath?". One of the students in the class answered, the answer I forget, and the teacher told the student that she was correct. I then challenged the teacher, explaining as well as I was able in grade seven, that there was not enough information available for anyone to provide a valid answer to the question. After grappling with the teacher over the specifics of the problem, to no avail, I was informed that I was incorrect, because the correct answer was in the textbook.

Many people try to sell accessibility as something simple, something that doesn't have any affect on the total cost of a project. As much as I wish these two statements were true, they quite simply are not. Technical challenges abound when attempting to make an information system accessible to all persons, including those with disabilities. The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.0 (WCAG 2.0) can take us a long way to ensuring that a web based information system is accessible. There are, however, many complexities that simply memorizing and applying these guidelines do not address. As Matt May recently wrote: "I think that if you consider accessibility as just one of a set of challenges (along with i18n, mobile devices and use cases, etc), then you're much further along the way to helping users than by focusing on status and on the letter of the law. It's the difference between being a tradesperson and being a pro". Matt's comment was in response to Mike Gifford's article WCAG 2.0 AAA - A Journey Not a Destination, but I believe that it is applicable here as well. WCAG 2.0 is a set of guidelines, that's all. They are important and useful guidelines, but not all accessibility barriers are adequately addressed, and for these situations the web requires pros.


I * LOVE * community. I was fortunate to spend several years in the tiny town of St. Stephen, New Brunswick, and to attend a private university where class sizes were often under 20. While studying in New Brunswick I took the opportunity to read opinions from authors over the ages about community. In short, I believe that humans are meant to participate in community. We are designed to seek heterogeneity (which in itself isn't necessarily a good thing). Our need for community, balanced with an appreciation of the value that can be brought by those who are different from ourselves, is what fuels our sense of self, while at the same time allows us to be a meaningful part of something larger than our self.

None of the three technical communities to which I belong are simply factories of beings with the appropriate skills to deliver a product. Each community is comprised of passionate caring people who invest them selves into the product, the production process, and the lives of others within the community. As with all communities, this can lead to grumpy days (weeks or months) where people's feelings get hurt. I find it incredibly frustrating when decisions are made within these communities that I disagree with, it makes me grumpy (nothing that a dozen samosas can't solve). But, I wouldn't have it any other way. The fact that my feelings get hurt, and that I sometimes hurt the feelings of others, means that we actually care enough about what we are doing to be hurt. This is essential for me to be an effective and efficient worker, even if during the most stressful times my diet may suffer :)


I considered putting this section of the article first, but without challenge and community I wouldn't have the necessary drive and energy to work toward greater equity. Truth be told, as a blind user and consumer of information technology I have a greater stake than some others in ensuring that the information systems that I may potentially use are accessible. More importantly, I truely believe that "all persons have equal value". I do not believe that all persons have equal ability. Since the assignment of individual ability is completely arbitrary, I do not believe that a person's abilities reflect on their value to society.

I can not make the world a completely equitable place for all persons. There are many who suffer needlessly in ways that are far worse than not having access to online poker, a dating site, or to commenting on a popular blog or news site. Contributing my arbitrary skills toward making the web a more inclusive and equitable ecosystem for all who have access to it, so that we can all communicate and participate in life together, is one of the ways in which I can contribute to society as a whole.