An Interview with OpenAIR – Web Accessibility Rally

An illustration of OpenAIR superheroes, six in total around a globe


On Wednesday, September 13th, we interviewed Jayne Cravens, long-time OpenAIR advocate who is now the Non-Profit Organizer and Recruiter and CB Averitt, an experienced mentor with the program. OpenAIR is a global web accessibility challenge that pairs participating teams of web developers and designers with registered non-profits looking to create or improve their website. We met with the organizer and long-time mentor of the event to get a better idea of its history and why volunteers, mentors, and nonprofits should get involved.

Before We Get Started, Here are Some Important Dates

  • Nonprofits must pay the $100 registration fee to Knowbility by February 8th, 2018.
  • Team members or individuals are now able to register!! This should be done before the kickoff on February 8th, 2018
  • Mentors should sign up before the team kickoff on February 8th, 2018
  • Judges or mentors should sign up before the OpenAIR Kick-Off by February 8th, 2018.

The Interview – OpenAIR’s Volunteer and Nonprofit Program

Deque Systems: First off, Jayne, I would love to hear more about your background and how you got involved in OpenAIR and what your role is now.

Jayne Cravens: Sure! I used to live in Austin, Texas and I was directing the virtual volunteering project at the University of Texas. I was at a conference and someone was talking about digital inclusion and they never once mentioned people with disabilities. So, of course, my hand shot up and my mouth shot off. It was something that I cared about and awakened to in another conference, and this was in the early 90s. Afterwards, a woman came up to me and said “I would love to talk to you!” and her name was Sharon Rush.

When she started the AIR event it was entirely onsite and in a series of training rooms in a donated space. For those first three years, I was that person running from room to room handing out food and telling teams how many minutes they had to go before the competition was over. Then I left Austin and went to work for the United Nations and was gone for eight years and came back in 2009. I had followed the AIR event online, it is so fantastic that now I’m back as the non-profit liaison for an entirely online event and it is great to come back full circle. I get to take the energy and excitement that we had at the onsite event and put that back into the event now that it is entirely online.

Deque: Could you tell us more about why people usually attend?

JC: The teams and client organizations have very different motivations in participating.

The nonprofits, charities, schools, and NGOs look at this as a better opportunity to get a better website. They know the teams are very talented people and can deliver amazing results.

By contrast, the teams are driven by two things.

One, the idea of applying and learning accessibility as a marketable skill really drive a lot of people to participate. The second is the competitive nature of the event, these teams really, really want to win.

A lot of the teams make t-shirts for themselves.  Back in the early days, there was an all women’s team that made Charlie’s Angel shirts. When you look at the pictures from past events you can really see the team spirit.

At the end of the day, when teams and organizations walk away they take this back to their organizations. I have heard in the past and had teams say we are looking at our own websites and encouraging our clients to have accessible websites now. I hear the nonprofits say, we really started to think about who we are leaving out in our whole organization. Each group comes in wanting one thing, and they get that, but both sets of groups walk away with a very changed mindset. And that’s what we need, we need people who bring up accessibility and are constant advocates.

Deque: How people can get involved in volunteering and why they should do that in an online setting?

JC: For the teams, it is always easy to volunteer, we always have a great turnout for volunteers. In fact, the online volunteering is an easy sell, they love how they don’t have to get on a plane or drive across town to volunteer. They could all be in their own offices doing this, but I hear that they all still get together in a room in the traditional Hackathon style. These teams know each other and they are very good at team building and from that, they are very successful.

Deque: How much time do the volunteers and nonprofits put into this event?

JC: The volunteer teams much have at least two face-to-face meetings with their “client” after the kick-off, meet with their team weekly, do their share of assignments over the six-week period, and attend at least one training session of their choice.

This commitment, in the end, will yield accessibility training worth over $4,000 and amazing networking opportunities.

For the client organizations, we estimate it will take a representative from your organization 12-40 hours to prepare for the design period with your team, which will begin in February. The person designated as the primary OpenAIR contact from the organization will participate in two 60-minute webinars. Lastly, the organization’s primary OpenAIR contact must promptly reply to emails and phone calls from both Knowbility and their team.

But from this simple commitment, they will receive a low-cost, completely redesigned, and accessible website. This new website will allow the client organizations to reach a wider audience and save money on hiring designers and accessibility consultants.

Interview with CB Averitt – OpenAIR’s Mentorship Program

Deque Systems: Why don’t you tell me how you got involved and this mentorship program?

CB Averitt: Well, I’ve been doing this for three years. The first year and this year, I was and now am a co-chair. The requirements for a mentor is that they should have expert knowledge of accessibility. They should be senior consultants who know how to go in and successfully create an accessibility program. At that point, it depends on the team you are assigned to. The teams are all over the world. First, you coordinate with time zones and make sure you can meet at times that work well for everyone. For example, a professional development team gets assigned to a nonprofit. The mentor is then assigned to the developer team to teach them accessibility.

Sometimes teams already know accessibility and then the mentor would just fine tune things. Sometimes developer teams know zero about accessibility, they could be a college class that is led by a professor.

A lot of the mentors don’t work for an accessibility company, but they are very knowledgeable in the field. The goal is to pair up with a team to make an accessible website and to gain the education around accessibility.

Deque: What are the requirements and time commitment for mentors?

CB: Mentors must be able to contact their team lead 48 hours after the October 11th kick-off. It’s the mentor’s responsibility to create a schedule of work sessions for the teams. They should probably meet with the team at least once a week for the first two weeks, after that they should meet twice a week for the next two weeks. In a sense, they are there for organizational and educational support. They will also report the progress to the OpenAIR chair and perform regular assessments of the team.

Deque: Do you have any fond personal experiences from when you were a mentor?

CB: I was directly a mentor with a student team my first year, they were a very active team, very smart and most importantly to me they have a general interest in accessibility. We met twice a week and the questions they asked were amazing, young people that age are sponges. There were about ten students and I would share my screen often and turn on assistive technology and show them what it meant to have a proper heading structure. They in turn downloaded and installed popular accessibility tools and assistive technologies and got quite proficient with them. At one point I didn’t really have to tell them what to do, they came up with ideas themselves on how to fix accessibility issues.

When you start having others get passionate about what you’re passionate about, that’s where the feel-good moments.  I really have no doubt that many of them will always keep accessibility in mind in the future. By including others we are making the world better and I highly recommend people get involved as mentors.

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