CSUN 2006 conference report

7 minute read

Last week on behalf of the Mozilla Foundation I attended the California State University, Northridge Center on Disabilities’ 21st Annual International Technology and Persons with Disabilities Conference, better known to all and sundry as the CSUN 2006 conference or just plain CSUN. The CSUN conference is the premier conference for people interested in the topic of software accessibility and assistive technologies in general. This was the first year that the Mozilla project had a formal presence at the conference, and it turned out to be a coming out party for the Mozilla project’s accessibility activities in general and for accessibility support in Firefox in particular. This post provides an in-depth report on our CSUN experience.

Why were we there?

We attended the CSUN conference basically because Aaron Leventhal suggested it to me several months ago, and I thought it sounded like a good idea. More specifically:

  • I thought that accessibility was important, and that promoting accessibility in Mozilla-based products was a good task for the Mozilla Foundation to take on.

  • Although we were already going to have indirect representation at the CSUN conference (in the form of the IBM team that’s been working on Firefox accessibility), I thought it was important for the Mozilla project to have an official presence to show our commitment to making our products accessible.

  • Given the release of Firefox 1.5 with improved accessibility support it was a good time to be at the CSUN conference, as we’d have something concrete to promote.

Our goals for the CSUN conference were as follows:

  • Promote Firefox 1.5 and its accessibility support to both end users with disabilities and organizations supporting those users.

  • Promote new technologies like accessible DHTML to organizations trying to create web sites that implement advanced features (e.g., using AJAX techniques) while still remaining accessible.

  • Initiate dialogues with and get feedback from end users, assistive technology vendors, and other organizations (both for-profit and nonprofit) concerned with accessibility issues.

  • Start building a community of developers working on Mozilla-related accessibility features, especially those implemented using Firefox extensions.

As noted below we achieved all these goals and more.

Who was there?

Our success at the CSUN conference was due to contributions from lots of people. Here’s who did what:

  • The Mozilla Foundation sponsored a booth in the CSUN exhibit area; we were one of over two hundred CSUN exhibitors spread across two hotels.

  • The Mozilla Foundation also sponsored travel expenses for four student volunteers actively working on Firefox accessibility extensions and related topics:

    • Charles Chen (University of Texas). Charles has created CLC-4-TTS and Fire Vox, a JavaScript function library and accompanying Firefox extension to make Firefox a self-voicing browser for people and platforms that don’t have general-purpose screen reader software.

    • Hans Hillen (University of Amsterdam). Hans is working on a Firefox extension to assist with site navigation and related functions, building on his previous NavAccess work.

    • Brian Romanowski (University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign). Brian is part of a team at UIUC creating an accessibility extension for Firefox, for both end users and web developers.

    • Doug Williams (University of North Carolina). Doug is working to improve Firefox support for Braille displays.

The students did booth duty and talked to end users, attended conference sessions, and jump-started some collaborative activities around areas of common interest.

  • I did booth duty and represented the Mozilla Foundation in discussions with other organizations.

  • Mike Beltzner of the Mozilla Corporation did booth duty, represented the Corporation in discussions with other organizations, and was a co-presenter with Aaron Leventhal at one of the conference sessions (see next item).

  • Aaron Leventhal of IBM presented a session Firefox 1.5: Web Browsing Beyond The Status Quo with Mike Beltzner and Glen Gordon of Freedom Scientific (creators of the popular JAWS screen reader). Aaron and Mark Pilgrim of IBM also helped out at the Mozilla Foundation booth; Aaron introduced Mike, the students, and I to key people at various assistive technology (AT) vendors, while Mark got feedback on accessibility-related issues for Firefox 2.

  • Rafael Ebron of the Mozilla Corporation arranged for us to have a good-looking booth display and a nice collection of Mozilla logo items to hand out to attendees. (The Sharpie Mini markers were a particular hit.)

What happened?

In general the CSUN conference was an over-the-top success for the Mozilla project (to quote Aaron Leventhal). Here are some of the highlights of the conference as far as we were concerned:

  • With Firefox 1.5 the Mozilla project has a good accessibility story; Firefox has now reached near-parity with Internet Explorer in terms of its support by the dominant screen readers (JAWS and Window-Eyes) and screen magnifier software (ZoomText). Both end users and organizations interested in assistive technology are noticing this, with people stopping by the booth to tell us how much they loved Firefox (even JAWS users, who historically have had problems using Firefox). The conference session on Firefox 1.5 was incredibly popular, with a standing room only audience and over a hundred people turned away at the door. (Aaron repeated the presentation later for people who missed it the first time.)

  • There’s more and more support for Firefox by vendors of screen reader software, screen magnification software, makers of special-purpose assistive devices, and so on. In some cases Firefox will be included as a core part of their products and devices. (We saw some very interesting Linux-based devices, a break from traditional Windows-centric AT products.)

  • As a result of the accessible DHTML work by Aaron and others at IBM and elsewhere, the Mozilla project and its corporate partners are starting to get a reputation as innovators in this space. Both Victor Tsaran of Yahoo! and Becky Gibson of IBM presented very popular CSUN sessions on DHTML/AJAX accessibility; there’s a groundswell of interest this topic, some coming from surprising places. Accessible DHTML is on track to become a very key technology, with more organizations planning to participate in the W3C Dynamic Web Content Accessibility project working in this area. As Aaron put it, Both Firefox and DHTML accessibility are officially recognized as the future by the community now. … [W]e’re leading the industry to support new web standards which will help the entire web be more accessible.

  • Karen McCall, a well-known accessibility consultant and JAWS user, is the author of a new book on using JAWS 7 with Firefox. Karen told us that she prefers Firefox so much that when she trains government employees to browse the web with JAWS she recommends they ask their IT support staff to have Firefox installed in their systems.

  • We are reaching out to try to build potentially productive relationships with other nonprofit organizations interested in accessibility issues, including the National Federation of the Blind, Benetech, and WebAIM. These organizations are interested in innovations like accessible DHTML, and more generally in the power of the power of the open source development model to support user-driven innovations in the accessibility space.

  • Last but not least, we are starting to build a larger and more vibrant community of Mozilla/Firefox accessibility developers. Having the student volunteers attend the conference and do booth duty was invaluable in terms of promoting future collaboration between them, learning about users’ needs and wants firsthand, and getting more integrated into the overall Mozilla developer community. (In particular, I recall a conversation between Charles Chen, Mike Beltzner, and Mark Pilgrim in which Charles got to find out how Mozilla development really works.)

What happens next

Clearly given the success of our participation in this year’s CSUN conference it’s an easy decision to return next year for the 2007 conference, with a better booth location if possible (for example, next to or near the IBM booth). We’ll almost certainly sponsor volunteers again next year, albeit with some reasonable limit on the number of attendees. We’ve also been discussing a number of other things to improve the experience next year, e.g., having a CD of all software being demonstrated and a single demo laptop with all software installed, having an accessibility hackfest among Mozilla attendees, and so on.

That concludes my conference report. Overall I think that the impact of the Mozilla Foundation’s CSUN- and accessibility-related activities has more than justified the investment that the Foundation has made in them thus far, and I’m looking forward to working with the Mozilla Foundation board of directors to extend our efforts in this area.

P.S. Rich Schwerdtfeger of IBM has another report on the CSUN 2006 conference from an open source perspective.