Sharron Rush is the award-winning co-founder and Executive Director of Knowbility, a nonprofit advocacy, consulting, and training company based in Austin, Texas. Since 1998, Sharron has been a leader in raising awareness and skills around the issue of access to technology for people with disabilities. In 2002, she published a seminal text on digital accessibility co-authored with Dr. John Slatin. Maximum Accessibility: Making Your Website More Usable for Everyone was one of the first guides to web accessibility for developers and designers.

Sharron's work at Knowbility includes policy review, performance analysis, technical consultation, and training development for private and public companies, government agencies, and schools. Her technical expertise, understanding of the barriers faced by people with disabilities, and strong communication and training skills have contributed to her leadership position in the field.

In 2007, she was asked to participate as an Invited Expert at the W3C, developing and applying global accessibility standards for their Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI). In 2014, she became co-chair of the Education and Outreach Working Group at WAI where she continues to serve. Collaboration in service to digital equity is one of Sharron's core values and she welcomes opportunities to join and support initiatives such as Teach Access, the mentoring opportunities managed by Accessible Community, and other community efforts.

Sharron's Accessibility Origin Story

We chatted with Sharron to learn about her background and her work with Knowbility.

Q: Tell us about your background in this field.

In the mid-1990s, I was working for Easter Seals Central Texas charged with developing employment opportunities for people with disabilities. I had a background in ancient languages — COBOL, FORTRAN, Assembly, and such — but was no longer working as a programmer.

As the web emerged, HTML was great fun to work with and I took to it happily. Austin was being reimagined as a tech hub and it seemed like opportunities should be abundant for people with disabilities in this field. However, as I looked further into it, the barriers inherent in tech design created obstacles to employment that were entirely unnecessary. It seemed that these startups while crying for talent, were locking themselves out of access to bright eager minds by creating inaccessible systems.

There was a unique confluence of business, municipal, and academic resources in Austin at that time that made digital accessibility conversations spark. Soon after, I met Dr. John Slatin who had started the Institute for Technology and Learning that was to become the Accessibility Institute at UT. A student of his was Simon Fleischmann-Shostak, an accomplished researcher on the topic.

As well, Jim Thatcher had invented the first screen reader at IBM and was continuing to pioneer accessibility testing tools like Home Page Reader at their Austin-based research center. Meanwhile, Jim Allan led a statewide effort through his work at the Texas School for the Blind to spread the word about the need for accessible web design, and Ana Sisnett, the Executive Director of the Austin FreeNet, actively supported digital accessibility as part of the city's efforts to address what was known as the digital divide.

All these dedicated, knowledgeable people were in Austin, Texas as I was trying to make headway with tech employers to provide jobs for my constituents. A local entrepreneur, Steve Guengerich told me that if we wanted the attention of the tech sector, we needed to do something competitive. With the help and support of those I mentioned and many more, we brainstormed a website competition that would be won by the most accessible web site. Here's a look at the first outreach webpage from 1999

Q: Why was digital accessibility so important to you?

It was clear even then that technology access was an onramp to opportunities in scholarship, employment, and creative endeavors of all kinds. People with disabilities want what all people do — the chance to participate and succeed in the modern world. Technology access is a civil right and that right has been recognized and codified in the twenty-plus years since. The global pandemic brought that fact into clear focus and my hope is that inclusive design thinking can finally become an integrated practice of good design of all systems.

Nonprofit Knowbility's Mission Then and Now

Q: What was your mission when you started Knowbility? How has it changed over time?

Knowbility was incorporated a couple of years after the first Accessibility Internet Rally (AIR) competition as a permanent home for the program. Our mission statement was: "Knowbility supports the independence of children and adults with disabilities by promoting the use and improving the availability of accessible information technology." That's not very plain language, is it?

Our current mission statement is: "Knowbility's mission is to create an inclusive digital world for people with disabilities." The fact is I did not expect to be doing this work after 20 years. I honestly expected that as the tech sector became aware of the inherent design barriers, it would be to their advantage to make inclusive websites, applications, and systems. I remain surprised that accessibility was not immediately embraced at scale by the tech sector. I thought our "innovators" were smarter than that.

It has taken seriously hard work by people with disabilities and their allies to bring digital accessibility issues to the forefront. A multi-faceted approach launched efforts that have made a real difference. Consider the resources developed and made freely available at the W3C Web Accessibility Initiative; numerous legal actions, global advocacy and legislative initiatives, corporate diversity and inclusion programs and more.

Q: Has there been enough progress?

Not enough, no but due to these combined efforts, I think that we may have turned a corner in the last few years. I'm hoping it's not one that leads to another dead end or labyrinth. Our approach has changed over time. We remain collaborative to our core and support all of the efforts I listed. We like to say at Knowbility that we are small but mighty.

In addition to the community programs like AIR and the K12 Access Toolkit, Knowbility now offers accessibility training and consulting services. I think we are widely trusted because as a nonprofit we are not here to keep companies tied to our services but rather to educate product teams so that accessibility is baked in. Our goal is that those we serve will be empowered to independently create and maintain digital products and systems that seamlessly serve people with disabilities in an equitable way.

The Power of the Accessibility Internet Rally

Q: What is the Accessibility Internet Rally, and how does it align with Knowbility’s goals?

The Accessibility Internet Rally — or AIR as we call it — is essentially our origin story. It is an annual web design competition. The challenge is for teams of web professionals to take on the task of creating or redesigning an accessible website for a nonprofit organization or an artist. Teams and nonprofit groups receive basic training, are assigned to work with an experienced mentor, and are paired up for the 6-week challenge.

Sites are judged by accessibility experts and the AIR Judging Form is published so it is an open book test in a way. AIR was a hackathon before that word was common. Participation in AIR has made strong advocates of hundreds of people through the years. We hear from many of them who have gone on to careers in accessibility based on their AIR experience. Several now lead programs in major tech companies or have otherwise integrated accessibility services into their own businesses.

In service to a mission of spreading the word and developing accessibility skill sets, I think the practical experience and community interaction that the AIR program delivers are powerful and effective. It introduces accessibility as a design challenge. The related learning and knowledge application become a joyful creative exercise rather than an obligation to meet legal mandates. The difference in understanding accessibility as inclusive design rather than compliance is motivating and engaging. The tech makers embrace the concept more readily and with a more open mind and spirit.

The Value of an Accessibility Training and Conference

Q: How does AccessU fit into Knowbility’s mission and what are your goals for this year’s conference?

After two years of an all-virtual conference, we will be back again at the lovely St. Edward's campus in Austin in May with a robust virtual option for those who can't yet travel. Started in 2004, AccessU was renamed in honor of Dr. John Slatin in 2010, after his untimely death in 2009.

A teacher and leader absolutely dedicated to ensuring that technologists understood why accessibility is a critically important goal, John was equally dedicated to giving tech professionals the practical skills and tools they need to meet that goal. So, John Slatin AccessU is a training conference that occurs every year in May.

We want you to leave with newly acquired or improved skills and meaningful connections to a growing network of practitioners to support you. We teach classes at all levels and across several tracks to support people wherever they are and whatever their role in digital accessibility. As COVID made remote participation necessary for work, school, and social and civic activities, digital accessibility has become the new normal. The stakes have never been higher.

Community is so important to the effort for digital inclusion and our community is eager to get back together. But planning for a conference in this environment is among the hardest things we have ever done. People are conflicted about gathering, travel budgets are locked, and people are generally concerned with new COVID variants and all the unknowns. So, this year our goal is definitely to provide a safe place and meaningful way for people to be physically together while teaching and learning.

Q: Anything especially different this year?

To make the remote experience as vibrant and connected as possible, we will post some pre-recorded classes in advance, allowing people to watch them at their own convenient time. Then during the week of AccessU, we will schedule live Q&A with instructors. This is a unique way to offer the classes as far as we know but one that we hope will meet the learning needs of participants whatever their circumstances. 

AccessU is known as one of the best ways to really improve accessibility skills and knowledge — it is our promise to attendees. We offer continuing education credits for International Association of Accessibility Professionals (IAAP) credential maintenance. People expect robust learning outcomes and our goal this year is to deliver on that promise.

Q: What impact can a thoughtful accessibility training program have on an organization and the way it does business?

A huge impact! Baked in accessibility has proven to provide benefits far beyond the obvious one of protection against legal risk. Several years ago, I was the editor of a revision to the W3C Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) publication of The Business Case for Digital Accessibility.

The research I did for that resource demonstrates that accessibility integrated into product development drives innovation, enhances brand identity, and extends the market reach of digital products. Training is needed across all roles to establish and maintain the digital accessibility commitment that provides those benefits.

Q: As accessibility becomes more of a priority for organizations across industries, what is one thing you want people to know about the practice?

Accessibility is the new normal and can no longer be ignored or postponed — it's time to get started and get serious about implementing a true accessibility practice. Digital accessibility is not a one-off — it is a stated commitment.

To be effective, that commitment must be reflected in policy, processes, training, usability research, and product development life cycles. The commitment to accessibility must be explicit and understood across the company from management to onboarding of new staff.

On a Personal Note …

Q: What do you enjoy doing in your spare time?

I have always loved to travel and I miss that a lot. My last trip was to Northern Italy and that was too many years ago. I am looking forward to the world opening up again. I am a great cook (she says modestly) and enjoy cooking and social occasions with family and friends. I read voraciously and volunteer for political causes I believe in (I am pretty concerned about the state of our democracy — people's right to vote should be sacred!).

I have an 8-year-old grandson Abe Rush who is a delight to ride bikes, play games, and hang out with. He loves to read too and it's been great to revisit some of my favorites from my own and my son's childhood as well as discovering new ones like the Magic Tree House series. We are currently reading Rolling Warrior, Judy Heumann's biography written for youngsters. I garden which is pretty easy to do in Central Texas and try to remember to exercise beyond just walking around the neighborhood — that's an aspiration though, not really something I can claim to enjoy doing regularly.