2nd Annual Accessibility Camp DC

Last October was the first ever Accessibility Camp DC. I learned a lot from the talks last year and had my eyes opened by how the blind navigate the web. This year, on October 9th, I took what I learned and gave a presentation of my own.

Titled “Building An Accessible Site from the Ground Up” my talk was about making a website accessible from a developers point of view. The audience’s reaction was positive and there were many good questions raised.

Local PHP developers Andrew Nacin (core contributor to WordPress.org) and Aaron Jorbin (Clearspring Technologies) sat in on my talk. The two were adding accessibility-related patches to WordPress while I was presenting. This is why I love the WordPress community! Afterwards I got to talk with them about WordPress geekiness even though I saw them a couple of weeks ago at WordPress Mid-Atlantic. They even introduced me to another DC-area hacker, Greg Linch, who is passionate about journalism and education.

Lunch was sponsored by Adobe and delicious. While people were munching on sandwiches, Jennison Asuncion demonstrated screen-reading software JAWS and how it works with websites. Like last year, there were many people who were just flabbergasted by what they saw. It’s one thing to read about accessibility issues online, it’s another to see it live, in-person.

After lunch I saw a demonstration of FireEyes, a Firebug plugin, to uncover accessibility issues from Karl Groves.  The neat thing about the free plugin is, it will detect problems on AJAX events that load new data onto the page without refreshing page.

I also sat in on a talk about adding ARIA live regions to help screenreaders announce dynamic changes on the page such as using AJAX. These techniques are simple to implement and seeing someone demonstrate their advantages really motivates me to incorporate them into my projects.

Mark Barlet from AbleGamers.com was there all day showing off videos games that are accessible. These games run on modern hardware like the Xbox 360 but have special modifications so people with disabilities could be competitive. One game was an audio only game where you’re a monster trying to eat victims that fall into your pit. There are no graphics, mainly because the game designer isn’t a graphic designers. Instead you listen to audible clues about where your next victim is and when you are close enough you press a button to eat them. The game works really well with stereo headphones to help you orient yourself. Other things on display were a racing game that you can control with your face and a sip and puff tube attached to a controller to control a character on-screen.  If you’re into accessible gaming controllers, check out episode 1 of the Ben Heck Show on Revision 3.

After the conference a bunch of us headed to Capital City Brewing Company for some food and continued geeky conversation. There were a lot of people from out-of-town and it was good to get to know them. I met Elle Waters from Louisville, Kentucky; Pratik Patel from New York; and Cliff Tyllick from Austin, Texas. It was a great end to a great day of accessibility.

Other Coverage of Accessibility Camp DC 2010

Inspiring TED Talks

One of the best things about a 45 minute commute each way by train is you can watch some TED videos for inspiration. Here are some of my favorite talks from the series.
Temple Grandin: The world needs all kinds of minds
Temple makes the case that there is a little autism in all of us. Its what makes great minds and needs to be celebrated.


Jill Bolte Taylor’s stroke of insight
What happens when a brain scientist experiences the very thing she has been studying? Jill talks about her experience during a massive stroke which she knows all about.


David Blaine: How I held my breath for 17 min
David goes into detail about the great lengths he took pushing his body to the limit of oxygen deprivation.


Lewis Pugh swims the North Pole
This guy is tough. To help spread awareness to global warming, Lewis swam in the icey waters of the North Pole in nothing but a speedo.


Kevin Kelly tells technology’s epic story
Kevin explains how technology evolves like a cell or a meme.


Hans Rosling: Asia’s rise — how and when
Hans has a thick Sweedish accent that you would expect from a great mind. Here he predicts the exact day when India and China will outstrip the US as the economic powerhouse of the world. I marked the date in my Google Calendar.


Willard Wigan: Hold your breath for micro-sculpture
Willard makes incredibly detailed sculptures out of single grains of sand. His patience for his work, which can be inhaled without thinking , is really mind blowing.

BarCampDC 3 Recap

This past Saturday, November 14th, a hundred DC tech enthusiasts gathered at the Martin Luther King Library to create their own conference. Topics were suggested by participants and the group at large determined the schedule. It was a BarCamp at it’s best!

The final schedule as picked by the particpants at BarCamp DC

Large crowd at BarCamp DC 3

This year’s BarCamp had a few twists. The word ‘Twitter’ was banned and anyone violating that rule had to pay a dollar to the Twitter swear jar which was donated to charity. The other rule was no PowerPoint slides which was an effort to promote group discussions and participation over lectures.

I got to catch up with former co-workers from USNews as well as other DC tech-heads I met at other local events. The entire event including lunch was free of charge thanks to the generous sponsors who helped make BarCampDC possible. The pizza was quite good.

Typical techie BarCamp food: PIZZA!

Some of the talks I went to included:

Russell Heimlich and John Chen during the How To Play Tetris talk at BarCamp DC 3.

How To Play Tetris led by John Chen. John didn’t actually think anyone was interested in his talk but we had a good-size group talking about video game politics, strategies for Tetris, and the fact that there are Tetris pros making US$100k per year in Korea. The key takeaway was being good at Tetris takes practice, practice, and more practice. And after you’ve practiced some more, you wake up one day and realize you’re good at Tetris.

An Introduction to the Android Platform Gyuri Grell and Zvi Band led an introduction to the Android mobile OS platform. The talk was a little over my head as it was mostly about Java, which I know nothing about. The source code for Meetro DC, the DC Metro app demoed, can be found on GitHub for anyone to poke around and play with. I did enjoy seeing from a high level how Android apps work and shedding some light on the magic running behind the scenes. I’m really excited to see where Android goes in the future.

The most thought-provoking talk I sat in was Generalist vs. Specialist led by Kelly Gifford. It was such an open-ended topic that spurred a healthy debate. From my point of view you are both a generalist and specialist depending on what level you are comparing to. For example, in your company you might be the only “web person”, making you a specialist but with so many different hats to wear in a sole-developer position, you have to do many different things making you a generalist. Like most anything in life, nothing is cut and dry black and white but a lot of gray areas.

Ryan McGrath is in a unique situation at his job at Webs.com.  He is in charge of Improving the Performance of the Frontend for millions of sites hosted there.  Crufty code, too much JavaScript, and a less-than-ideal backend issue are some of the problems plaguing his pursuit for excellence. An engineer from Clearspring, which distributes billions of page views of widgets all across the web,  was in the room and provided some great insight into tuning performance for large-scale sites. They talked about some geeky stuff like serving images as base64 strings instead of binary data which can yield some performance gains. I was pretty much lost after that.

The final talk of the day was about TemlarPHP, a cascading template framework built with PHP. It separates presentation from content to create websites that are easy to maintain and standards complaint with the need for a database. It was created by Shawn Brown and looked like a lighter alternative compared to the other feature-packed, and somewhat bloated, web frameworks out there.

Russell Heimlich discussing frontend tips at BarCamp DC

Like the past two DC BarCamps, I gave a talk. The topic was HTML/CSS/JavaScript Tips & Tricks which I have picked up over the past few years and thought were worth sharing. I felt it was one of my best presentations as my talking points came to me naturally with code details to back up what I was saying. I was stoked to see so many people show up to hear what I had to say as well as contribute a few points of their own. Shaun Farrell managed to capture video from a part of my talk.

So as you can see there was a lot going on. There were so many other presentations I wanted to see and people I wanted to meet and chat with but there just wasn’t enough time. A big thanks goes out to the organizers (@jfc3 , @thorpus, @corbett3000, @farrelley, @patricktimony & all the others) that helped put on another great DC tech event.

Other BarCamp DC Resources