A reflection on my CPACC journey

Let me start by saying, Wow! What a whirlwind this second round of studying felt like. I think it’s because I dedicated only 45 days, rather than 100 days. Do I think I needed 100 days to study for this? Probably not. And yet, 100 days (or at least 70) would have let me spread out the material more. Most days I felt like I was cramming in a lot of information, and spending 2-3 hours each day walking through Deque coursework, Coursera videos and text, IAAP Body of Knowledge sections, and visiting recommended online resources. All the while trying to keep myself organized, stick to my self-imposed schedule, and output what I learned into concise blog posts about each topic covered in the CPACC Body of Knowledge. The exam showed me that I improved my understanding, but I still struggle in some areas.

It will be 4-6 weeks before I receive word of whether I am CPACC certified or not, but the following are my observations and feelings after I sat for the exam.

What I sailed through

WCAG and its POUR principles were, by far, the easiest thing for me to test well in. How could I not? I’d already (over)prepared for the WAS (Web Accessibility Specialist) exam and passed with a very satisfactory score. I wasn’t just trying to earn a certification; I was out to learn as much about web accessibility as I could. And I did. WCAG was a huge part of my learning earlier this year. To add to that, I work with those principles on a daily basis. I evaluate my own web design and development work by asking myself if my organization’s content is perceivable, operable, understandable, and robust for people with disabilities. It’s a part of me now, so I knew going in that I didn’t have to spend much time studying that information. Again, I’m not saying I passed, but the POUR questions on the exam took me the least amount of time to mull over. Thank you, WAS Certification!

Universal design (UD). This one I worried over. The CPACC Content Outline gave me the first clue that these principles and concepts needed my attention and time. Did I want to spend a lot of time on them? Not really. And yet, I heeded the outline’s implications, and took the advice from a few other people who earned their certification already. It didn’t make sense to me at the beginning to be deeply familiar with UD, but by the end I was glad I was. Not only did it help me answer questions about the principles and application of the principles, but it motivated me to ask my own questions about the key differences between accessibility, universal design, and inclusive design. Thank you to everyone who contributed to a conversation on this topic, and verified what I was learning.

An honorable mention:

  • theoretical models of disability: not to say that I aced all of those questions, but I feel like I have a better grasp on these perspectives and have started adjusting my own attitudes and language accordingly (a whispered “thank you” to the person on Twitter that keeps ranting about ableism.. you know who you are, and I’m listening;

Looking back just now, I see that most of my strengths currently reside in the “Accessibility and Universal Design” section of the outline.

What I tripped over

Despite the time I put into learning and the advice I took, I still experienced several dreadful moments during the exam, when I would read a question repeatedly, and cringe, thinking, “I’ve made a mistake! I was not ready for this at all.” As a matter of fact, the first two questions were like that, which was not a good way for me to start the exam. I can’t remember exactly what they were, but I do recall some of the topics I found myself questioning my own answers on several occasions.

Universal design in learning. This one I studied for. I even sketched out my own matrix before realizing there was one online through CAST’s website. I think it was just the text-heavy content that I didn’t memorize. I understand the underlying thinking behind it, but I started doubting if I’d truly incorporated it into my thinking. I’m still certain I couldn’t rattle off most of that information, if it wasn’t presented to me in multiple choice format. Oddly enough, learning about UDL got me thinking a lot of how to teach my co-workers about it since some of them create online coursework and webinars.

Laws. Thanks to the warning of others, I made sure I spent time with this section. However, I still couldn’t quite manage to recall some of the names and details of some of the international laws (I won’t deny I’m American-centric). It’s something I’ll continue to struggle with when someone inquires about other countries and the standards and laws they’re following. On a positive note, knowledge about the UN Declaration of Human Rights, UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, and their impact on legislation will forever stick with me.

Data trends. This one I knew I’d struggle with. Not because of numbers, but more due to my convoluted understanding of what I actually needed to know. How many people have a disability? I got this. You want more details and specifics. Umm… I know the perfect resource to direct you to! But, no, this information is not in my head. If I’m trying to build a case for accessibility, I’d like to be more confident in this area.

Types of disabilities. I thought for sure this was one I’d sail through. And I did with a several of those questions. However, there were a few that made me question my own competency about the people we’re doing this for. I thought I knew a lot about conditions and their causes, but I am now convinced I’m not paying enough attention to the what and why of disabilities. I may have focused too much on their challenges and how to solve them.

Organizational management and governance. This was another topic that I questioned myself on. I worried a little about this one because I didn’t get to that material until a few days prior to the exam. Additionally, I hadn’t finished my blog post about that section prior to the exam either, so I didn’t give myself the chance to internalize it well. I spent time changing and re-changing some of my answers about these, too, because the things I (thought) remembered well didn’t match the language that was used in the exam. On a positive note, I was grateful for this section because it gave me affirmation that my organization is on the right track to maturing its accessibility processes.

Reflecting over the areas I was uncertain about, I had already identified these same areas during my study time, and knew they could still trip me up during the exam. Thankfully, multiple choice questions gave me some leeway in identifying what I was familiar enough with. And taking time to review all my answers (maybe more than once), before submitting them, restored some confidence in that I had still learned quite a bit about accessibility. Enough to have (felt like) I answered most of the questions correctly

When my results come, I’ll know for sure how much I understood within the other CPACC Certification Outline sections: “Disabilities, Challenges, and Assistive Technologies” and “Declarations, Standards, Laws, and Management Strategies”.

This is still not the end (for me)

Throughout this process (CPACC, WAS, and even earlier), I’ve felt fortunate that I haven’t yet experienced burnout. Taking a break between certifications was a good choice on my part. Dedicating a lengthy amount of time to study and internalize was a good choice. Choosing to study accessibility with definitive goals to reach was a good choice. Meeting accessibility experts and champions, listening more to things people with disabilities have to say, and pushing along my organization’s progress… these were all unexpected bonuses along my journey.

But hear me when I say, I’m still learning. I’m still taking it all in. I still have stories to hear from people with disabilities. I am still addressing my own ableist thoughts and actions, despite living with my own impairment (disability) all my life. I still want to do better. More. I like being a web designer. I like taking accessibility head-on and making it a part of what I design and build. It’s not a burden or extra for me because I see it as an improvement to my craft. Web design is accessibility. Web design is usability. Web design is inclusive. The web is for everyone. For everyone.

As I say farewell, for now, my hope is that it’s not the end for you either. I’ll be back here when I have some results to share. In the meantime, I have a lot more learning and work to do. Talk to me on Twitter or LinkedIn about your own accessibility journey, learning, and successes (or fails). We’re all in this together. All of us.


A reflection on my 100 Days of A11y

One week ago I sat for IAAP’s (International Association of Accessibility Professionals) Web Accessibility Specialist (WAS) certification exam. After 200+ hours of self-guided study, spanning over 100+ days — through sickness and in health — plus 13 Deque prep courses, I met the exam head-on with optimistic yet nervous energy. Would the studying and coursework be enough to pass? Had I actually learned the core principles and technicalities that would allow me to answer confidently and feel as though I qualify as a specialist?

I can’t say for certain if I passed because it takes 4-6 weeks for me to hear back on the pass or fail result. However, I can say with certainty that all of this was not a total fail. I put in the time to learn in-depth about web accessibility principles, guidelines, and technical specifications. I took several chances to teach others about web accessibility. Additionally, I was inspired to keep advocating for accessibility and continue learning so I can create better experiences for people on the web.

Why did I do it?

This is one of the first questions people ask me after they heard about my desire to take the exam or the 100 days I committed to pursue web accessibility knowledge. To this, my reply was simply, “because I want to learn web accessibility at a greater depth than I what I know now. This exam gives me study materials and a goal post.” To add to that, I’ve learned from my two rounds of 100 Days of Code that I could learn a lot and accomplish much if I’m accountable throughout a 100-day period. That type of commitment forced me to be systematic and pushed me into forward motion.

As a matter of fact, Nicolas Steenhout interviewed me about it on his A11yRules podcast:

  1. E76 – Interview with Amy Carney – Part 1 (26 minutes)
  2. E77 – Interview with Amy Carney – Part 2 (16 minutes)

How did I do it? A timeline.

No journey is complete without some sort of pre-planning and external support. My planning began with garnering support and acquiring permission to spend time on this project with the return on investment being improved accessibility for their sites, as well as sharing the knowledge statewide. On November 28, 2018, I approached my boss about taking the WAS exam with the support of my division behind it. It didn’t take long to get his approval, as well as our director’s approval.

Based on that approval, I started Day 1 of my Web Accessibility Specialist journey on November 30, 2018 with the intention to take the exam on April 3, 2019. That plan would allow me four whole months of self-guided study, and address any bumps that may come up along the way. Every single day (except for Christmas Day), I spent 1-2 hours of my time either reading articles, watching videos, delving into documentation, or picking apart accessible code. Each of these were all discovered by using the WAS Body of Knowledge [Word doc] as my guide for topics to explore. Alongside my studying, I took time to journal (blog) each day to keep myself accountable and share with others the discoveries I’d made, hence the very existence of the 100 Days of A11y website you are pulling this article from.

On February 21, 2019, in the midst of my self-guided study, I was awarded a year’s membership to Deque University. This gave me access to all their courses, which included the thirteen courses that would prepare me for the WAS certification exam. Within a few days of enrollment, I started working through the pertinent courses with intention to work through all thirteen in order to fill in any gaps, plus act as review for what I’d already learned.

It wasn’t until February 22, 2019 when I finally finished working through the WAS Body of Knowledge. By that time I’d gotten a good handle on the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG), discovered the Authoring Tools Accessibility Guidelines (ATAG) for the first time, and revisited the Accessible Rich Internet Applications (ARIA) specification and its recommended practices. Additionally, I had the opportunity to try out new code by creating accessible JavaScript components and create an evaluation report about a website’s accessibility.

On March 3, 2019, I began reading A Web for Everyone by Sarah Horton and Whitney Quesenbury. Though this was by my own choice and interest, rather than a recommended read from a list, it greatly benefited me at this point in my journey. The points they really brought home about the people we design for and the experiences we build were perfect timing. Each idea for inclusive design was well-received, thanks to the knowledge about WCAG and people with disabilities that I’d built up prior to entering into their text.

It was on March 10, 2019 that I completed my 100 days of self-guided study for the WAS exam. For the next 5-6 days I took a break from such a time-consuming commitment. That break period allowed me to take advantage of some sunny weather with my family before diving full-force into the Deque courses that still lay ahead.

April 2, 2019, the day before my exam, I finished the final course on Deque that I needed in order to feel more prepared for the WAS exam. It was a long course, but ever-so-necessary, since it reinforced what I needed to know about testing sites for accessibility.

At last, exam day had arrived. On April 3, 2019, I sat for the exam with my designated proctor. In under an hour, I was able to answer all 75 questions, some of which I may have missed. I walked away with much relief, mixed with a sense of affirmation that I had indeed learned something over those last four month. To me, it had all proven to be a success.

What did I take away from all this?

People are the reason

As I mentioned in one of my journal posts, the point of all of this comes down to people. Accessibility is specifically aimed at people with disabilities. Without that core understanding, the resources I tapped into would have been un-relatable and useless. The biggest thing I gained from this was the expansion of my perception. My accessibility mission starts first with understanding who is accessing the web and how they may interact with it. It’s important for me to grasp that we do not all share the same contexts, environments, and experiences. Nor do we all respond the same way to the same website.

Resources are ripe for the Googling

Over two years ago when I was digging around the Internet, trying to figure out were to start on web accessibility with only WCAG in mind, I felt so lost. I think that was partly due to the fact that I found some websites very unfriendly and uninviting. Any time I googled “WCAG” it brought me to the normative documentation or the Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) site. Both made me leave rather quickly.

That being said, I am happy to report that several things have changed since then, and more homegrown contributions have popped up on the web. For one, the WAI website‘s recent redesign is so much more inviting to someone like myself. Additionally, I’ve found a whole community on Twitter that hashtags accessibility (#a11y). Those people led me to personal blogs or other people’s articles and online talks, including Inclusive Design 24 and A11ycasts on YouTube. Later, I was able to join a Slack group centered on dedicated topics of web accessibility. All of these things have been fabulous, informative, and inviting. I am grateful that so many conversations and open knowledge-sharing is happening online that I can partake in or at least lurk around to listen.

Web accessibility is no different than any other part of front-end development. We can’t possibly memorize every single detail. The critical part comes down to building up the right toolbox for ourselves, and bookmarking the resources that we need to consult often.

Don’t re-invent the wheel: use code examples

To fill up that toolbox, look back at the resources that I tapped into, which were also generous in offering up code examples. What’s one thing we designers and developers crave the most when learning accessibility? Code snippets! We want to see how someone else successfully made their component or pattern accessible in real life. I like to play with code and try to build things creatively myself (as do many of us), but I also draw comfort from knowing others have worked on this and found a good solution that provides an equal experience for a wider audience.

Thank you to anyone who has unabashedly shared what they’ve learned and how they made it work. Your HTML, CSS, and JavaScript are much appreciated.

Also, I should mention ARIA as being relevant to my code endeavors and improvements, since I was forced to learn much of it during my self-guided study and Deque courses. It was the kick in the pants I needed to dig deeper into it’s documentation suite and get to know it’s full use and purpose. ARIA can still feel a bit complicated, but at least I understand it so much more than I did four months ago.

Testing and evaluation are a necessary skill

Not only have people offered up their code snippets, but some dedicated individuals have also presented what they’ve found when testing on specific platforms and user agents (browsers) with various assistive technology. This is truly the step forward that I think people like myself have been missing out on.

Studying for the WAS exam really pushed me forward in this area. It’s a skill, and it’s an important one. As someone who is deeply invested in providing a good user experience (for everyone), I was lacking in full understanding of how to test the sites I was building or maintaining. The WAVE toolbar and other automated tests were just not enough. The WAS Body of Knowledge not only made clear that I needed a fuller understanding of testing tools, but also that I needed evaluation methodologies, which I was completely clueless about beforehand. Thanks to their suggested list of various testing tools and techniques and WCAG-EM, I feel a lot better equipped to scrutinize each experience I’m providing to the public. It’s become part of my own workflow in design and development now.

I can’t turn back

It’s too late for me. I’ve swallowed the red pill and now I can’t go back to living in blissful ignorance and the illusion that everyone can easily use the sites I make. No longer can I be happy with un-semantic HTML elements, poor CSS design choices, and it-works-with-my-mouse JavaScript. To make matters worse, I may be alienating myself because I can’t help but bring it up and point out current problems. My Twitter feed is a prime example of my web accessibility knowledge and opinions running over a once placid profile. If that’s too overwhelming, you could ask my co-workers about me, but you’re bound to hear the word “accessibility” in that conversation.

What exactly is a Web Accessibility Specialist, again?

The WAS Body of Knowledge says that to be considered a Web Accessibility Specialist, one must understand how to:

  1. create accessible content, using WCAG, ARIA, and ATAG,
  2. identify accessibility issues, utilizing manual and testing tools, and
  3. remediate accessibility issues by offering evaluation and reports.

But what about assumptions we make when deeming who is an expert and who is not? For instance:

  • Can she recite any WCAG success criteria by number when quizzed?
    Maybe, if she spends every day evaluating with those success criteria.
  • Does she have every ARIA pattern memorized, ready to compare on examination of another’s source code?
    It’s possible. A few people are code geniuses.
  • Are all screen reader keystrokes memorized and performed fluidly by this alleged specialist?
    Doubtful, but some native screen reader users might be apt at this.
  • Will her site evaluation and report say the same thing another specialist’s report says?
    Unlikely, but miracles do happen.

Is a certification necessary? Maybe so or maybe no. In short, I think that IAAP is on the right track. There are a lot of things to understand, know, and consider in order for someone to be valuable as an accessibility consultant. It heavily depends on the direction a person is going with this certification. Consultant work for web accessibility is very important work, and it requires someone who is serious and committed to that subject matter. Certification is just one way to show that commitment.

So, what about the rest of us who just want to be better web designers and developers? Is there value in learning all these things with or without the certification? Yes! Becoming better at those three things (creation, identification, remediation) will make you better at your craft. It already has made me better at mine.

What’s next?

Perhaps I did (or didn’t) pass the exam. When the results come back, I will be excited if I did pass, and disappointed if I did not. But all is not lost. I accomplished what I set out to do, which was to become more knowledgeable about the why and the how of web accessibility.

On that note, I want to reiterate that it doesn’t end here for me. There is still so much I haven’t explored, tests that I haven’t run myself, and fixes on personal and business sites that I haven’t corrected yet. And if that weren’t enough, I plan on sitting for the Certified Professional in Accessibility Core Competencies (CPACC) certification exam this Fall so that I can earn credential as a Certified Professional in Web Accessibility (CPWA).

In the meantime, I have a lot of work to do. Find me on Twitter, LinkedIn, or Github if you are interested in or want to talk web accessibility.