Accessibility Standards: An interview with Mike Paciello

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  • An edited version of this interview appears in Chapter 4 of A Web for Everyone.

    Photo of MikeMike Paciello has been a leader in promoting information and communication technology accessibility since the 1980s. He helped launch the Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI), was an author on the first version of the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG), and co-led the 2008 rewrite of the Section 508/Section 255 standards.

    He’s also the founder and president of The Paciello Group (TPG), a consultancy working with software companies to make their products accessible, which means he’s also Sarah’s boss.

    We wanted to learn from Mike about the making of accessibility standards, and whether future iterations might be more “user-friendly.”

    An early commitment to people and technology

    Michael Paciello is founder and president of The Paciello Group (TPG), a software consultancy concerned with web and software accessibility. Mike has been closely involved with information and communication technology accessibility since the 1980s and played a lead role in developing accessibility standards for industry and government. He helped launch the Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) within the Worldwide Web Consortium, was an author on the first version of the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG), and co-led the 2008 rewrite of the Section 508/Section 255 standards. From early in his career, Mike saw technology as a powerful enabler, and was compelled to make that potential available to everyone. “I feel an incredible obligation and responsibility to people—particularly, people with disabilities—and to technology.” His commitment is evidenced by his work.

    Mike began his technology career in the stockroom at Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC). At the time, DEC still had a paper-based process for managing stockroom transactions, which was somewhat ironic for a technology company. Curious and industrious by nature, Mike taught himself enough programming to design and build a stockroom inventory database, and he moved the stockroom processes online.

    Beginning to explore accessible electronic documents

    Mike’s talents were quickly recognized, and Mike moved to a new position as technical writer. As part of DEC’s documentation team, Mike was responsible for preparing technical guides for operating systems such as RSX, RT-11, and VMS, and software products written in COBOL, FORTRAN, Basic, and C. In this role, Mike became involved with making electronic documents accessible to blind and low-vision users.

    DEC had a long-standing relationship with the National Braille Press. DEC provided NBP with technical guides, which they converted to braille. This was before Graphical User Interfaces (GUIs), and computer interaction was text based. Text-to-speech was a relatively common and usable interface for blind and low vision users, and there was a demand for braille versions of operating system and software guides. At DEC, Mike volunteered as the liaison with the National Braille Press, and with this task, he began his quest to make information and communication technologies accessible for people with disabilities.

    “The moment I take something on, I want to really understand it and figure out what it’s all about.” What he learned in visiting the braille production facilities at National Braille Press was astounding. To convert the documentation, people retyped the text into a “braille typewriter” of sorts, and the text was then output to braille. Bear in mind that a single page of text equals about three pages of braille. “It would take them a year to produce one book.” The typical DEC documentation usually spanned several volumes and was regularly updated. “I asked, why not convert everything electronically? But they said there was no way to do that.”

    Mike’s interest was piqued. How to make large, complex documents usable and accessible generally, and specifically, how to provide usability to blind and low vision users? Fortunately, his timing was good. Mike started to explore electronic document accessibility right around the birth of the web.

    Markup languages bring meaning to electronic documents

    In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Mike started working with SGML. “I thought, how about we use a markup language on an electronic document, and then a braille translator can read the markup language and produce braille?” He also realized that accessibility for blind and low vision users meant more than braille—that large text and listening to text were also commonly used, and a markup language had the potential of providing accessibility in those contexts as well.

    Others concerned with accessibility were also exploring SGML. “Markup languages such as SGML were starting to become a common denominator for designing electronic documents for the blind and low-vision community.” At the first World Congress on Accessibility in 1991, Mike joined forces with colleagues to create the International Committee for Accessible Document Design (ICADD). This group created the first international specification for accessible electronic documents: ICADD-22. An “annex” to the ISO 12083 standard, it included 22 tags that could be used to map information elements in any document. ICADD-22 was to become an important contribution to the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines and accessibility elements in HTML.

    Accessible electronic documentation helps everyone

    Back at DEC, Mike was getting good support for his efforts. “Digital [DEC] was a fantastic company to work for because they encouraged that kind of emerging technology involvement.” Mike started a new program called the Vision Impaired Information Services. VIIS produced the first mass-produced CD-ROM of electronic documentation, built using SGML and the ICADD-22 standard. The documentation could be read by screen readers, magnified on the screen, and output to braille. He had come full circle, solving the challenge of converting DEC’s technical guides to braille that had set him out on this path.

    Interestingly, the VIIS CD-ROM also became popular in the sighted community. DEC’s standard documentation was available in a propriety format that could only be read using their Bookreader software. Since the VIIS documentation was built using SGML, an open, nonproprietary format, people soon realized they could read the guides using their preferred software. Sales for the VIIS documentation went up and began to adversely impact sales for DEC’s Bookreader version—another instance of design for disabilities benefitting everyone.

    A pioneer for web accessibility

    In 1995, Mike launched WebABLE, the first website dedicated to web accessibility for people with disabilities. The Worldwide Web Consortium had started up in 1994, and Mike got involved, creating the accessibility web pages for the W3C. He and other accessibility colleagues started an informal W3C working group called the Web Accessibility Project, focused on integrating accessibility into HTML. “The groundwork we started back then, in 1994 and 1995, ultimately became what most people know as the first Web Content Accessibility Guidelines.” They used the ICADD-22 specification and several documents including the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Trace Center and WGBH’s National Center for Accessible Media (NCAM) web accessibility guidelines as the basis for extending HTML for accessibility. Since HTML derives from SGML, key elements were in the standard. However, none was connected to accessibility. “The alt attribute didn’t come out until later versions of HTML.”

    In 1995, Jim Miller and Tim Berners-Lee at the W3C asked Mike to help create a more formal and extensive accessibility effort within the W3C. “The conversation went something like, ‘We’ve been contacted by the federal government and asked to consider creating a formalized program in the W3C to deal with accessibility and disabilities. We would like you to do it. Are you interested?’” Mike, Jim Miller, and Daniel Dardailler of the W3C designed the program and named it the Web Accessibility Initiative, or WAI. In April of 1997, the initiative was announced at the Worldwide Web Conference in Santa Clara, California. By this time, Mike had been asked to direct the Yuri Rubinsky Insight Foundation (YRIF). Yuri Rubinsky, a well-respected advocate of SGML and accessibility, had been a close colleague and a key collaborator on ICADD-22 and the Web Accessibility Project. With WAI designed and launched, Mike continued his work with W3C on HTML specifications and the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines as Executive Director of the Yuri Rubinsky Insight Foundation.

    During the next years, Mike was involved with several accessibility initiatives, including the Section 508 working group in 1998, his own WebABLE site and consultancy, and the first book on web accessibility, Web Accessibility for People with Disabilities, published in 2000. In 2002, Mike launched The Paciello Group (TPG), a business specializing in web and software accessibility. He could see the lines blurring between the web and software and wanted to improve accessibility for both. “I was convinced that eventually everything on the desktop was going to move to the web—imagine that.”

    Helping set standards for web accessibility

    In 2006, the Access Board asked Mike to co-chair a new Section 508/Section 255 Advisory Committee. He and Jim Tobias led the effort to create a series of recommended guidelines that encompassed both Section 255, or the Disabled Persons’ Telecommunications Access, and Section 508. They also broadened involvement in the process to include international participation. The committee was composed of 41 organizations, from disability groups and technology companies, and included participants from Canada, Europe, Asia, and Australia.

    They took a different approach with the new guidelines. “We turned it from a product-based standard into a characteristic-based standard, so it would be completely platform neutral.” In addition, they broadened the guidelines to include themes from usability and interoperability, and to address concerns of other disabilities, including issues around cognition. The group benefited from the work on version two of the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines. They were able to incorporate WCAG standards in areas of Section 508 that pertain to the web. In April 2008, the group presented the new, improved Section 508 to the Access Board. As of this writing (in 2013), the new rules are (still) working their way through the federal rule-making process.

    From Mike’s perspective, the current process of creating technology and legal standards is flawed. “It takes years for the formalization and acceptance of standards.” He advocates a rolling process, where elements can be added and changed more readily to keep the standards viable. But Mike is hopeful about the potential impact of the new Section 508. Awareness about accessibility is at an all-time high, as is government recognition of the need for accessibility standards. Mike predicts that once the Section 508 standards become law, they will be used as “the model for all other major government mandates worldwide.”

    One Response to “Accessibility Standards: An interview with Mike Paciello”

    1. […] and I co-authored the book, and it features interviews with two other TPGers: our founder, Mike Paciello, and one of our Distinguished Accessibility Engineers, Steve […]