If you’ve ever been to SXSW, you may have had the good fortune to meet Hugh Forrest, the event director of SXSW-Interactive. Hugh is a real prince of a guy, ever so humble, hard-working and full of heart.

I think part of the magic of SXSWi is Hugh. And this year, Hugh also served as chair of the Knowbility Accessibility Internet Rally (AIR). For many years, Hugh has recognized the importance of accessibility and web standards, making sure these topics have a voice at SXSW. At the AIR Awards ceremony this week I learned how accessibility has personally touched Hugh’s life. I asked Hugh if I could share an excerpt of his speech:

Statistics tell us that 1 in 5 of us will experience some form of disability during our lifetime, either from disease, injury, birth complications or other life event. Indeed, I think everyone in this room can relate some kind of story about how accessibility has made things easier for themselves or a loved one. To that end, let me sidetrack for a few minutes to tell you how this concept has impacted me.

I grew up in Austin — went to Casis Elementary, then O’Henry, then graduated from Austin High. I have two older sisters who also followed the same academic trajectory. My oldest sister now lives in California and we have always had a pretty good relationship. As for the sister who is closer to me in age, we went through a painful period beginning in the mid 1990s. As family issues sometime go, what started off as a relatively minor conflict soon elevated into a larger problem. And, eventually, it became something that was big enough that we weren’t talking to each other any more. Complete silence. This went on for maybe three or four years. My sister made several efforts to reach out to me. But, for whatever reason that seemed appropriate at the time, I rejected these efforts — and the stalemate between us continued.

Finally, one day, some kind of light-bulb turned on in my head and I decided to grow up a little. After so many years of actively avoiding her, I located her phone number and I called. This was a huge step, a step that I’m proud I finally had the courage to make. But, of course, that first step is nothing without a second and a third step to followup with. More specifically . . what do you talk about to someone when you haven’t talked to this person in several years? How do you make small talk when you have done everything possible to avoid all talk for so long? Well . . as it turns out, my sister had been doing some work with John Slatin — work that I knew about through various SXSW-related channels. So . . the first time my sister and I talked again after years of silence . .. much of the conversation was focused on accessibility. She talked about why she thought accessibility was important. I talked about why I though accessibility was good. I talked about the accessibility programming we had done at SXSW and the reasons we had done this. She told me how much she admired the work of Dr. Slatin.

As I recall, there were quite a few awkward silences in the course of that first conversation. But, armed with the always-relevant topic of accessiblity, we made it through. And, we also made it through the next conversation — and the next conversation and the next conversation. That was about three years ago. These days, we talk for about an hour every two weeks. We’ve grown a lot closer and this is a relationship which I value a ton.

Of course, other people in this room probably have much more relevant stories about the power of accessibility. But, I think what I have told you about my relationship with my sister is a telling metaphor. Think about it. Accessibility allows for a basic connection between people who otherwise wouldn’t be able to talk to each other. Accessibility starts a conversation, which is the first step to communication and real understanding and a real relationship. As with me, accessibility can bring together families that have suffered through years of separation. Of equal importance, it can bring together complete strangers in connections that range from the totally mundane to the incredibly profound. In other words, do not ever ever ever underestimate the value of what you are doing with accessibility. You are increasing the possibilities for real communication — and thereby making the world a much better place, one connection and one website at a time. Yes, I think the work you are doing here is absolutely essential in the delicate balance of humanity. For all of what you do . . .thank you, thank you, thank you.

And, likewise, thank you for allowing me to be involved with Air Austin in 2006. I am so proud to be part of an event that pulls together so many creative people who are doing so many good things to make our community so much better.

Hugh took a risk and shared his very personal story…and he is so humble that he doesn’t realize how deeply he touched us and inspired us.

Imagine a web where everyone has access… regardless of their physical or mental ability. This is the vision behind the Accessibility Internet Rally (AIR) a friendly and fun competition that pairs web developers with local non-profits to create accessible websites. Even before the AIR awards ceremony, web developers win by receiving valuable technical accessibility training; Non-Profits win by getting a new and accessible web presence and we all win by moving forward on the path of web access for all.

This year’s AIR Austin event was announced by none other than our chair, Hugh Forrest (who also happens to be the groovy event director of SXSW). Hugh realized the value of accessibility long before it was cool. By making sure this topic has a prominent place at the SXSW Interactive event, he has already influenced hundreds of web developers around the world.

At the AIR Press Conference, Hugh inspired me with these words:

Barrier-free information access is becoming not simply the goal, but the norm. And the web continues to become a much better place as a result.

The ripple effect of the AIR competition is profound as developers continue to use their new skills again and again in their daily work, explained Sharron Rush, Executive Director of Knowbility. This event creates long-term benefits while giving participants an opportunity to connect with Austin web developers and non-profits in a profound and meaningful way.

Events like AIR really keep Austin healthy, creative and strong. Do you believe the web is for everyone? Are you ready to improve the availability of accessible information technology? Join us by participating in AIR-Austin. Kick-off is October 3rd. Rally Day is October 21st.

Let the Race Begin!

Any one considering going to SXSW Interactive in Austin March 9-13, 2007? It is the most amazing web conference on the planet. I think of it as a great BIG IDEA conference. When explaining to others how to get the most out of SXSWi I have been known to say:

“SXSW is about the people. Go to the panels, go to the parties, introduce yourself to the person next to you. Seek out new people. Find out what treasures are overflowing in the brains all around you. Talk about your passions and then listen. I mean really LISTEN. Suspend judgement. Truly try on the perspective of the brilliant human being sitting next to you. Then let the magic potion of ideas, words and reality transform your thinking and open your eyes to new possibilities.”

And if you are planning to go…head to the sxsw panel picker and vote for the panels you’d most want to hear. This is democracy in action people!

Deadline for voting on Panels (round 1) is September 8th.

What is it about SXSW Interactive? It is just a conference after all. But honestly, it is unlike any other conference I attend. It is simultaneously visionary and insane, brilliant and ridiculous, inspiring and intoxicating. And it dawned on me that whoever named this conference nailed it. The whole point is to interact with each other. To share your wildest dreams, ask preposterous questions, make and renew scintillating friendships.

Highlights of my experience this year include: realizing that the person that just climbed into my van was Veerle (and that she is as nice as her web site is beautiful), reconnecting with my out-o-town friends Andrea, Featherstone, Hicks, Rob, finally meeting Faruk and Anton in person and making so many new friends…like Alun, Geert and Ms. Jen, just to name a few.

But I think the single most important aspect of my experience started when David Nunez handed me a sheet of orange smiley face stickers on SxSW eve. David started tagging people with these stickers at SXSWi 2005. His intent? To encourage people to be open and friendly and interact with people you don’t know. So, I spent the rest of this year tagging everyone I could find with orange smiley faces. And I was thrilled with the response. From the uber famous to the quietly brilliant…my sticker offer was met with enthusiasm.

David’s created a delightful guide to tell if you have not had the full SxSWi experience:

* You find yourself back in your hotel room for the rest of the night right after the last panel of the day.
* You haven’t shaken hands with people who look and act nothing like you
* You haven’t had dinner with complete strangers.
* You’ve stuck only to your clique of people that you see daily back at your hometown.
* You haven’t attended the EFF / EFF-Austin / Creative Commons Party on Monday night (free drinks! free food! live music! delicious food! (I should know, I’m responsible for getting it))
* You left Austin without fifty business cards of new contacts you expect to email at some point soon.
* You left Austin without the intention of calling 3 new contacts to meet up within 2 weeks of getting home
* You haven’t crashed every clique you see
* You aren’t smiling and smiling BIG
* You are talking more than listening,
* You haven’t had a conversation or at least said “hi” to me, David Nunez.
* You don’t have an orange, happy face sticker on your badge.

Hmmmm, I happen to have a few smiley face stickers left. Wonder how they will go over at my next conference stop in Albuquerque, at Museums and the Web?!?!

Some of the most creative minds in the world will be in Austin for SXSW Interactive. I jokingly refer to this event as spring break for geeks. Time to open our minds wide to new ideas and connect in person rather than just virtually. This event is really about the people and the ideas sketched out on cocktail napkins. Sure, the sessions are fantastic…but this isn’t the time to just sit back and absorb the wisdom of the greats. Last year, some of my richest conversations were after midnight in a bar, over a quiet late night coffee and sitting in the hallway between sessions.

To help get you in that playful, creative mind space…I’d like to suggest some authentically austin adventures to take with your fellow geeks.

  • Toy Joy – the craziest toy store in Austin…it is a sensory overload just walking in the door.
  • Tower Tour – take a view from high a top the UT Tower
  • Zilker Botanical Gardens – a paradise within stones throw of downtown, I especially love the Oriental Garden area. So peaceful.
  • Bats – what can I say, here in Austin we are a bit batty about our bats. We have a large colony of Mexican Freetail Bats that hang out under the Congress Street Bridge. Bat Hot Line: 512-416-5700 (Category 3636) for the latest flight times.
  • Hula Hut – A deck over looking the lake, margaritas and salmon tacos…need I say more? or…head next door to Mozart’s for coffee and dessert. Yum!
  • Texas State History Museum – wander the exhibits, catch an iMax movie or just pose under the giant texas star. Your sure to find the perfect Texas gift to take home to the kids in the amazing store.

So my advice to you is to play hard at SXSW and remember that sleep is optional.

Are you a lean, mean design machine? Do you long for the opportunity to design web sites the way you know they should be: accessible, usable and standards complaint? Does your organization care more about cheap, fast results rather than quality code? Then it is high time for a web wrestling smack down in SXSW style! Liz Danzico, Giorgio Brajnik, Bob Regan, Steve Guengerich and I are ready to wrestle your web demons to the ground.

While we perfect our best wrestling moves and eye the underbelly (source code) of our opponents, we want to challenge you to throw websites into the ring. Perhaps you know a site that could rip all other sites to shreds. Or maybe, you know of a site that is so bloated and lazy that it is just askin’ for my best wrestling move, the flying corkscrew clothesline.

So, don’t be shy, shout out the URL of a site that fits our profile of Good or Wicked. And then stand back and see which sites we choose to put through the gauntlet of accessibility, usability, information architecture and standards compliance.

Accessible, Usable, Semantic, Standards Compliant, Elegant
Brick Wall, Confusing, Bloated, Invalid, Ugly

Come on…get up and fight…you shivering junkyard!

Take a step back in time to 10am Sunday, March 13, 2005. You are in Austin, Texas attending SXSW – Interactive. You’re still feeling the effects of partying into the wee hours of the morning, but you’ve dragged yourself over to the convention center to see what James Craig, Derek Featherstone, Ian Lloyd and Glenda Sims have to say about Accessibility: Why Can’t We All Just Get Along?.

So curl up, turn the volume up and browse to our Transcript Plus…and listen to the MP3 of our session. Read the transcript. And enjoy the well crafted design (thanks James).

And don’t forget to register for SXSW-2006. I’ve got a few new places I’m dyin’ to show ya!

SXSW-Interactive is about thinking outside the box. My brain is exploding with new ideas and perspectives.

Before SXSW-I

  1. I thought I didn’t have time for blogs.
  2. I believed the philosophy of the web “empowering people with information and the ability to do things themselves” was my best angle for evangelizing web accessibility.
  3. I thought SXSW was about the panels.
  4. I saw Flash as the future engine for many interactive apps.

After SXSW-I

  1. I realize that blogs have the ability to allow us to get a glimpse into each others perspectives and help us think creatively and freely share and build on each others ideas. Today as I look at a non-blog web site…I think “broadcast”, one-way, and “one size fits all”. And if you know anything about me…I most definitely crave interactivity.
  2. I believe a critical angle to making the web more accessible is to think about it from a business model. What is the ROI for the client to have an accessible web site? Thanks to Andy Clarke for helping me see this reality. But don’t worry, I won’t ever stop evangelizing the philosophy.
  3. I know that SXSW is about the people. Go to the panels, go to the parties, introduce yourself to the person next to you. Seek out new people. Find out what treasures are overflowing in the brains all around you. Talk about your passions and then listen. I mean really LISTEN. Suspend judgement. Truly try on the perspective of the brilliant human being sitting next to you. Then let the magic potion of ideas, words and reality transform your thinking and open your eyes to new possibilities.
  4. Okay…so I was right about Flash.

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