The other day, I ran into my son’s preschool teachers having lunch at a fast food restaurant. It had been a while since I had seen them, and they asked me how my son was doing. I was able to tell them that he was doing well and what school he was going to. The encounter would sound mundane enough but it was a little different, as these were special education preschool teachers and it had been several years since either of him had seen him. It made me realize that it had been about 10 years since we had started the journey of having him become part of the special education program in our school district, and how far he’s come since these ladies had been trying to help him communicate (my son couldn’t talk, unlike now) and socialize with other children. We wouldn’t find out for another six years that my son was on the autism spectrum, because he had functioned at such a high level for years. April is recognized as Autism Awareness Month. It brings to the forefront, most of all in my mind, communications issues that autistic people often have. There are those who are non-verbal yet have everyday thoughts in their heads, but those thoughts can’t come out without the assistance of technology. A great example of that is Carly Fleischmann, who is an autistic young woman who’s been able to write about being a non-verbal autistic young adult through her blog and her book. There are also autistic writers and speakers who can vocalize without any problem and are able to explain how autistic minds work with images and sound as well as words, like Temple Grandin.  Reading about the perspectives of autistic people provides a very different view of a world that requires all senses in order to process information. It got me to thinking about what technical communicators do that’s related not only to autism awareness, but for all special abilities. Naturally, my thoughts drifted to the topic of accessibility, which addresses many needs for those who need extra help with obtaining the content that we write. You might know about steps you can take in making a website’s layout accessibility-friendly, but do you always do it? I admit, I’m not usually on top of this as much as I should be. In my mind, accessibility isn’t limited to adding proper labeling and metadata so that objects like images can be understood. It also has to do with content strategy and how we actually write that makes the difference. Is the content structured in a way that it easily allows for logical interpretation? How is the text written? Is plain, standardized language used? While it might not be used for translation into another spoken language or machine language, it could be used for a machine that reads text for those who have sight issues, so again interpretation is an important component. These are challenges that technical writers are more capable of handling than most writers, and we should be up for those challenges more often. If you are new to the idea of integrating accessibility into your content—or need a refresher—there are definitely opportunities to learn or refresh your memory. At the STC Summit next month, there are several presentations that will be given that look to be great. Sharron Rush has two presentations on the topic. She will be talking about how to integrate accessibility from the start of projects in the presentation she’ll be giving on Monday morning, and providing basic accessibility tools and techniques on Tuesday. Matt May will be presenting, “Articulating and Advocating for Accessibility” on Tuesday morning. Lisa Meloncon will also be presenting on Tuesday on, “Improving Accessibility of Information in Online Environments.” Outside of the Summit, if you ever have the chance to attend a webinar or seminar by Char James-Tanny, who presented at last year’s STC Summit on the topic of accessibility, do it. I attended that STC Summit presentation last year and can verify that she’s an excellent speaker on the subject. So as Autism Awareness Month continues, ask yourself … are there ways that I can improve what I’m doing to make it not only more accessibly to autistic people, but to ALL people? If you have any suggestions or ideas of how technical communicators can help improve accessibility, please share them in the comments below. See you next month at the STC Summit! If you see me, be sure to say hello!
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