Usable Websites, Accessible Websites, Assistive Technology – Where Do I Start?


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The title alone of this post should indicate – these topics aren’t easy to define and narrow. It was a challenge working with my co-presenter, Cindy Leonard, from the Bayer Center for Nonprofit Management at Robert Morris University, on our presentation for the Nonprofit Technology Conference titled Usable Websites: How to Keep Visitors Happy and Coming Back for More. We were trying in 90 minutes tie in theories of making usable websites to the principles of accessibility. It was an endeavour that took a lot of creativity and a significant amount of editing of material. In the end, I think we had presented well on usable websites and accessibility standards. What I had questions about afterwards was about assistive technology.

First, I am going to preface this by saying, I’m not an assistive technology expert. I am a techie who has learned to install assistive technology for a computer lab and I try to keep my knowledge up-to-date, but assistive technology is a large category that is probably more convoluted than usability and accessibility of websites. Most of what I do know is how to connect to other resources to provide that helping hand with assistive technology.

The world of assistive technology is broad and it is probably because of the use of the word ‘technology’. One of the best ways I have seen it defined has been by Parents, Let’s Unite for Kids. In their Family Guide to Assistive Technology, they give the definition of assistive technology a whole section. The first paragraph of this section may illustrate my point the best:

Assistive technology devices are mechanical aids which substitute for or enhance the function of some physical or mental ability that is impaired. Assistive technology can be anything homemade, purchased off the shelf, modified, or commercially available which is used to help an individual perform some task of daily living. The term assistive technology encompasses a broad range of devices from “low tech” (e.g., pencil grips, splints, paper stabilizers) to “high tech” (e.g., computers, voice synthesizers, braille readers). These devices include the entire range of supportive tools and equipment from adapted spoons to wheelchairs and computer systems for environmental control.

This isn’t a traditional “tech” issue, which can take all of us who are techie’s for a loop. A challenging loop.

There are a few tips I can offer if you have an issue come up related to assistive technology:

  1. Know that you don’t have to be the expert and find an expert. – Individuals who are assistive technology experts have been in school and in the field for years. They have different kinds of knowledge and even among these experts there are specialities. Some are really good with wheelchairs, others are experts on communication devices, and others are the people to talk to about home adaptations. Be flexible and try to connect with the right expert. Use the Universities and Colleges around you for resources. I am abundantly lucky that in Pittsburgh there are great resources for me to connect with: The Center for Assistive Technology and Human Engineering Research Labs
  2. Look up vendors and ask them questions. – Again, my location helps me because Pittsburgh has been an emerging center for technology and especially assistive technology. We are lucky enough to have corporate headquarters of Dynavox on the South Side of town and MinSpeak just outside of downtown. Sometimes the vendors are the best people to ask for answers.
  3. Be prepared for freeware to have some of the best answers for you. – When doing a computer lab with assistive technology you may find out quickly that you run into license issues that can get very expensive and you can find out that sometimes some assistive technology devices actually don’t want to be on the same computer as other assistive technology devices. It can be frustrating. It brings back the old adage of “try, try, and try again” to mind immediately. But there are lots of freeware solutions out there, one of my favorites being Virtual Magnifying Glass.
  4. Keep it simple.  – Believe it or not, sometimes the solution is already in the operating system, although that is not where we naturally think is our starting point. If you are a Microsoft user you should visit their Microsoft Accessibility website. There are a lot of features that are built into Microsoft that work so much better than previous editions of Microsoft operating systems. There is no reason to start searching for other software or other imput devices until you have tried out what you already have.
  5. You aren’t alone. – There are plenty of people who are like me – we have stumbled across some information about assistive technology, but we aren’t experts at all. However, we may have ideas for others. Just ask and see if your circle of contacts has anything to help you out. Tweet about and see if you get a response. It might just shock you.
  6. It will change. – When it comes to the computing side of assistive technology, clearly we all should realize it will change just as often as a new version of the iPhone is deployed or as often as new Operating Systems are released. It will keep things interesting.

Resources from NP Techie, You’re No Accident!

laptop writer

Image by Combined Media via Flickr

I had the absolute pleasure of meeting a wonderful assortment of Nonprofit Techs at the Nonprofit Technology Conference. To know that Johanna Bates, Tracy Kronzak and Barbara Saidel thought of  me to add to their panel discussion for the NP Techie, You’re No Accident made me feel absolutely honored. But the best thing about that session was that it wasn’t about me helping to present something. It was about those who attended the session – about what they needed to learn, hear, know, and simply network about in a forum with other NP techs.

During that session, we broke into three groups for a while, and then got back at the end. While discussing outcomes it became clear that even though we all thought there was a way to break the larger group up, we all sort of faced the same issues and challenges. As a presenter, I learned so much from that session and I need to thank everyone who attended it.

There were also some resources that I mentioned that I need to share. Some are books and some are websites. I don’t believe any of these resources represent my “secret sauce” that I need to protect. I think all them can apply to all kinds of jobs that are out there. This is just one easy vehicle to share this information. I did not include resources like NTEN‘s website and TechSoup. Some of these I spoke about in the large group, smaller group and even after the session ended until the end of 11NTC.

I have to admit, I added lots of books and resources from the other presenters in this session and from the attendees. It expanded my “Books I Want To Read” on my LinkedIn profile quite dramatically. I have several of them ready to read while I ride the stationary bike so I’ll have enough reading materials for a couple of months to come.


Other Resources

Demystifying the ‘Tech Magic Wand’

Day 255: Magic Wand

Image by amanky via Flickr

Take a moment and think of when that one staff member comes running into your office for support. Their eyes are wide open, they seem to be a bit out of breath from the run to your office, and it is clear that there is a problem. They start explaining the problem to you as you walk with them back to their computer. They have tried everything that you have told them in the past to try. They have logged off and then logged back on. They have then logged off, turned the machine off, waited and then got back onto the network, but nothing is working right. You get to the computer and ask them to logon and – “Poof” – your presence has allowed all the magic to happen and the problem has been fixed without you even touching the keyboard.

This is the Tech Magic Wand.

Our users really believe that we have this tech magic wand. They may even think it is our aura or that we actually have a magic wand sticking in our pocket. And after all of this, the staff person can have a swarm of emotions, probably not all that conducive to liking technology any further. It makes your presence grow in mystic and mythicism. They begin to doubt what they have done and it can actually hinder moving technology forward with the end-user. They may even become more resistant to trying to resolve problems themselves or even revert to old methods. To the extreme, this can become the user that starts the rallying cry to go back to pen and paper.

After reading Switch and hearing Dan Heath speak about the Elephant and the Rider, I do realize that these emotions that the staff members are having are completely Elephant in nature. That Elephant has the strength in telling that staff person that you truly are magical and that they aren’t. So I believe in this instance, you need this staff person to feel that you aren’t magical. This isn’t about appealing to their Rider – they logically know that you haven’t wiggled your fingers and fixed the problem – but the Rider has lost control of the Elephant.

This is where I believe that sharing a story of failure is the key. It probably goes against our desires – no one really wants to admit when they have had bad things happened, but I truly believe that fails are great tools not only for learning, but for also showing others that you haven’t mixed up any magical potion that fixes computers when you are around.

While at the Nonprofit Technology Conference I had one of those moments that the technology got the better of me. Almost a classic #fail. As a tech person, a Tech Director no less, imagine if you were giving a presentation and the laptop you were planning on using would not register the projector? Now we all would probably just go to another laptop. Imagine that the second laptop is communicating with the projector, but the USB drive with the presentation is not being recognized by the second laptop. On top of that, the internet is pretty slow and once the presentation is downloaded via email, there is a protection error in the file and it won’t open up. Now you are the one in need of help – you need someone else’s magic. You – the tech person for your agency – the one who usually performs the magic – needs the assistance of someone else! The horror!

That was me.

But things worked out. The presentation got up and for the most part, except for my nerves being shot and some shuffling of slides in the presentation,I don’t believe this mishap impacted the session. Yet, still now, I admit during those moments, it felt bad.

But it is also good.

Good? How could this be good?

It has given me a tool to humanize me – to show staff members that things like this happen to me too. It shows that even though I might understand technology and work with technology – the machines sometimes get the better of me. This story appeals to their Elephant. It lets them know that they aren’t alone – they can feel that I have experienced the same thing that they have. Some might even feel empathy for what I went through while in front of all those people. It can open up a conversation and it helps to get their Rider pulling on the reigns of those emotional reactions of tech people having magic.

I don’t want to lose all of my magic – I do have tricks for making things work – but in the long run, that isn’t helping me and it isn’t helping them.

Practicing Finding the Elephant and the Rider


“Practice is the best of all instructors” – Publilius Syrus

Last week at the Nonprofit Technology Conference, I got to hear Dan Heath, coauthor of Switch, speak about change. I loved the book Switch and while a lot of what he spoke about was in the book, it was helpful to hear it, to have it repeated in a way that it started to really take root in my head. Now that the NTC is over, I know that I have to continue to practice identifying the Elephant and the Rider in order to be able to get change to happen. Identifying it in other situations, outside of work, is one of the best ways to do this.

My notes from Dan Heath’s plenary made a lot of references to my thoughts about something that I have accomplished in my life. This past fall I celebrated the milestone of losing over 100  pounds of weight. A diet was an example often mentioned, but my notes took it one step forward and that is with my success with using Weight Watchers.  I am going to walk my way through the change that I have been able to be successful in, using the points that Dan Heath identified, to show that we all things in our life that we have made changes but we may not have identified the elephant and the rider.

One of the easiest ways to start impacting change is by some sort of feeling making the Elephant react. The example that was given was how some organizations can use pity to get a donation. My need to lose this weight happened when I felt that embarrassment and shame that occurred while at an amusement park and I couldn’t fit into the ride. I was sitting in the seat as three men tried to push down the harness, even in the larger seat. That feeling was enough to get my elephant to move. I really saw how large I had become. I felt how it felt to hold up everyone else on that roller coaster and then the shame of having to get up and walk away without ever riding the ride.

The path to my change was made easy on many levels. This was because the management team that I worked for knew that health for the employees was important and they offered to bring the Weight Watchers at Work program into the office. It was easy to just walk down the hallway and go to a meeting with other coworkers. During that first time, everyone was working together. There was no one showing up with donuts and pizza. Most of us were all in Weight Watchers and we helped each other. But Weight Watchers at Work couldn’t be sustained forever, and I needed more than a sixteen week program.


I went back to Weight Watchers the following fall with my mother, knowing that I had success with the program before and that I needed to be there. Plus, Weight Watchers had done a lot of things to help my rider. I think they have so many things in place that helps the Rider know that this is the right way to go. Every week you hear success stories. Most meetings start out with “Who is happy?”. The question isn’t “Who lost weight?” – it’s “Who is happy?”. There are some weeks when I was happy when I didn’t gain weight and that got celebrated with stickers and applause.  Celebrating other’s success was just as important as celebrating mine. As my leader would say almost once a meeting, “If you have had a good week, the meeting needs you. If you have had a bad week, you need the meeting.”

Success stories are the bright spots and they are celebrated vibrantly. Not only with the meetings, but with weekly newsletters that includes tips and stories from others who had been where I was. The Weight Watcher magazine features these stories along with the website. It was absolutely not difficult to find the bright spots. But bright spots weren’t just success stories.

One of the tools you start with at Weight Watchers is a tracker. It’s a food tracker. Now this might not seem like a bright spot, but it can be. If you keep your food trackers and you get into a slump, one of the best tools is to go back to the previous tracker for a week that you were successful in losing weight. You can then follow what you had done in previous weeks (repeat your bright spots) or you can look at the differences between the good weeks and bad weeks and see what things you need to adjust slightly.

Losing weight was so difficult for me. It took over five years in total for me to lose that 100 pounds, but Weight Watchers gave me a path. It was written on food that I bought at the stores (the value of points were right there on the frozen meals). There were times when I even wrote the number of points on the boxes of cereal and other foods as they came into the house. Visually, that number represented a path that I had to take. It made it simple and I didn’t have to force my rider, who could easily be tired, to think about what to do. High numbers were hard to swallow and low numbers were items that I wanted to select.

Weight Watchers isn’t a diet to me, which is probably the biggest identification of a change in my environment. A diet means that I was saying no to things, depriving myself. There are times that I can allow my elephant to have that craving for chocolate and peanut butter, but I have created an environment that puts me back onto the path right after that elephant has been satisfied and gets the rider back into control. This is the way my life is now, it’s not a diet.

Now this has been a simplistic look at one way that I have forced myself to practice identifying the elephant and the rider, but I know that for me to really become an agent of change, especially after I know that I have used the carrot and stick a lot at work, I need the practice. I can’t make the changes that I want to implement without getting really good at this and making it part of the tools that I have in my toolbox. If I don’t know how to use that circular saw, I’ll never get it out – and I believe it is the same with change.

Pros & Cons Returning from #11NTC

A picture of the 'Super Moon' near the Washington Monument.

A picture of the 'Super Moon' near the Washington Monument.

It is hard to believe that I have been to Washington D.C. and back already. In ways, this year’s Nonprofit Technology Conference just flashed before my eyes. In other ways, it feels like it has been weeks since I’ve been to work. There are lots of things, pros and cons, that I face now that I’m back in Pittsburgh.

Pros –

  • Great new nonprofit techie friends – I feel like I met so many more people at this year’s NTC than last year. I felt more comfortable at the event. I look forward to continuing my NTC experience all year round and that I can help my new friends and they can help me.
  • A list of blog posts to write – I have lots of notes from the sessions I took, and I do plan on blogging a lot about it all. I need to process the information and then I want to write about it. I want to get feedback to the thoughts too – because the more I can think about everything, the better person I become. I hope you all will help me with this journey.
  • Awesome memories – I have some new ways to remember never send a nickel in the mail and memories of a once in a lifetime opportunity to see a Super Moon at the Washington Monument. I got to see help recycle technology equipment at the Day of Service and I got to enjoy a 75+ degree sunny day. So many memories and all are good.
  • A new book list – There are some books already in my bag to read (and some to even reread with new ideas in my head). There are some books that need to be bought. Lastly, there are books to share with my staff – all three things are good for all.
  • Resources, resources, resources – I haven’t written the email yet to my vendor about  but by lunch tomorrow, that email will be written. It’s just one of the many new tips and tools that I have gathered some of the projects that have been nagging at me while I’ve been gone. I’m going to use these resources and I realize that I have expanded my network further to get even more suggestions in the future.


  • Work email – (Do I have to indicate why?)
  • The weather forecast – The groundhog got it wrong! I still see dreaded four letter word that starts with the letter s – it’s not fair!
  • Wiz Khalifa’s Black and Yellow is still taking over the radio – I’m all for hometown pride, but I am growing really sick of this song. It’s great for Pittsburgh, but does it truly have to be on the radio every hour?
  • Real World returns – I don’t mean the TV show on MTV, but the real life events that have been going on in the world that I had been able to suspend thinking about while I was gone. While some of my other conference attendees may have been staying up with all the current events, at least for me, I suspended my constant attention to those things to focus on technology. Maybe it’s a bit ironic, but now I have to catch back up, and in ways I wish I didn’t have to catch up on all the bad news. What ever happened to the news covering good news?
  • Back to making my own coffee and no cupcake breaks – I think the cupcakes should be sent to my office. Every day. Not for me – but for my coworkers. It would make them all so much happier and I’ll keep the coffee for myself.

Do you have your own list of pros and cons? Do you want to share any?

My Goals For #11NTC

GoalsLast year was my first time ever attending NTC, and in ways I felt overwhelmed and in other ways I felt like I personally missed out on a lot of opportunities. While I attempted to be prepared for the conference, I let some other things get in the way. While I need to be connected to connect with all the wonderful folks I was going to meet while at NTC, it also still meant I was connected to work. So, before getting the car filled and starting the road trip, I’ve done some research on tips for attending conferences and then knew to set goals.

First, there have already been lots of tweets with specific suggestions for #11NTC, so I’m not going to be sharing those links here. I’ve read them all and I can’t think of many that I don’t agree with (absolutely get to breakfast early!). However, there are lots of great tips available for conferences in general that you might find helpful:

This year, I’m writing out my goals, because I have to in order to make the most out of my trip to #11NTC. Some of these may apply to you (and some of them may even repeat things previously listed on my blog).

  1. Disconnect as much as possible from the office – Last year I was lacking staff, this year, I am leaving behind a huge customized database project and a new building renovation/new data center project. I could easily be dragged into those details while I’m at #11NTC. This almost derailed my entire conference experience last year to the point that I may even block my work email from my phone and strictly use my personal email and Twitter only.
  2. Talk to those sitting near me – I have to admit, I struggle with networking at times and NTC is probably more about networking than the actual sessions. I met several great people last year, some that I still have regular contact with even now. However, I should have come back with a lot more. I’m not shy in writing text, but in a room of strangers, I can tend to stay in the back (unless, I am there to be in the role of someone – so knowing that I’m speaking in two panels will help with this tendency).  This might be simply because last year was my first year. This is my second year. So I’m going to meet even more people than before.
  3. See Washington D.C. – I live what most consider a comfortable 6 hour drive from Washington D.C., but I’ll admit it – I have never been to D.C.! My parents drove thru it once on the way back from Williamsburg, Virginia but I was young and my only memory is my dad being stuck driving around a circle multiple times and not being able to get out of the circle. Clearly, I want to see something more of D.C.  One of the highlights for me last year was Saturday night, a group of us had dinner at Georgia Aquarium where I got to see a Beluga Whale and have a Manta Ray swim over my head while in the safety of a glass tunnel. I must have at least one picture of a D.C. landmark.
  4. Get Some Untraditional Exercise – I am a Weight Watcher and conferences are sometimes the worse situation for me to be in to try to stay on track. But I’m armed this year. It started with some good fortune, D.C. is in driving distances so I am able to bring along some staples to help out those late night cravings and help out in those afternoon lulls where the Ice Cream and Cookie Carts start singing to me. I’ll be bringing lots of my favorite bottled water flavors (Lifewater is among my favs!), Fibre One 90 Calorie Bars, and bananas. The other item in my arsenal against the “Three Pound Conference Gain” will be my FitBit. If I don’t have the steps in for the day, I have to force myself to do something, even if that means taking the stairs down a couple of floors. Yes, the Hilton has a gym, but seriously, I have to work in the walking another way. You won’t be seeing me in that gym.
  5. Document – Other than some pictures and post-conference posts, it might be hard to have proof that I went to #10NTC. Yes, I have an autographic copy of Managing Technology to Meet Your Mission, but is that true proof I was there? I’m going to attempt to blog while attending and I even plan on turning my camera over to others to prove that I was there. It may even be a challenge to decide what I’m going to narrow down to document – and I welcome that challenge.
  6. Make Goals about what my ‘next steps’ are for when I get home about what I learned – The office will be on my mind as I start the road trip back home. It will start to become a louder call the closer and closer I get home. If I don’t have three goals of what I want to do with what I learned while at #11NTC, I’ll fail at any follow-up. Those goals need to be established before I get into the car at the Hilton on Sunday morning.

If anyone has suggestions and tips to help make my goals easier, I’m ready to read them!

Are You Using the Carrot and the Stick too often?

Carrot or the StickThis year I have been hearing a lot about Simon Sinek’s book “Start With Why” and I wasn’t sure how I could apply anything to the technology department that I lead. I have concrete projects that have to get done and it isn’t really about why they get done, they just need to get done. But after starting the book and after seeing a video of Sinek on I have a lot to think about and I actually stopped reading the book to process just the first part, “A World That Doesn’t Start With Why”.

The first section of the book hit home a huge reality to me: I rely upon the Carrot and the Stick to get technology related tasks done by staff in all departments.

If you don’t know what the Carrot and the Stick represent, its pretty simple. The Carrot is an award for a behavior. Sinek gives an example this as being the huge cash back incentives that some US automotive companies were giving to buyers. The Stick can often be identified as fear. Sinek gives many examples of this, one being the anti-drug campaign in the 80’s with the egg and the frying pan.

I was riding the recumbent bicycle and I almost dropped the book as I identified my actions according to what I was reading (a bad ah-ha! moment). I use the Carrot and the Stick almost all the time. Some have even say that I’ve master the art of manipulation because most staff don’t want to do the things that are right for the network.

My example started out simple. I wasn’t in a position of power when our Exchange server was slowing down because of huge accounts. Some staff had over 1GB of email in Exchange. Back then, Exchange was really only able to hold about 16GB of email so that represented a significant chunk of the available space in Exchange and the ramifications of having to expand Exchange included lots of dollar signs. After several emails asking for staff to maintain their Outlook accounts, I was stuck. I needed immediate results and the buy-in to my requests were being done by the staff who had the smallest email accounts. It was suggested to me that there needed to be some sort of reward for doing what was needed. 

Viola! Clean Up Your Outlook and Qualify for a Prize!  The staff member who makes the largest percentage change in their email account will win a $50 Gas Card and you had one week to clean. Immediate action was taken and the space that was critically needed started to appear as if I had waved a magic wand. That first contest there wasn’t a staff member who didn’t at least delete half of their items in Outlook and there were so many that reached the 90% decrease in size that I was walking on the high of success. It had worked!

But in less than a year, the agency had grown and acquired more staff which in turn meant Exchange was slowing down because of large accounts. There was no hesitation this time.  It was time for another contest!  The qualifications were adjusted after some complaints of the previous criteria and instead of one person being the possible winner, the percentage of decrease got you a predetermined amount of tickets for a drawing towards the $50 Gas Card. And to sweeten the pot, there were five additional “grab bag” prizes.  The contest went off without a hitch, but in less than six months, I was right back to planning the next contest and the realization that this cycle was just going to continue and become more frequent.

It was time for the Stick. The fear of the impact to the whole agency having problems with email wasn’t a factor. It only really mattered if the individual had problems with email. That was when I was approved to put on email quotas (i.e. if your mailbox is 500MB, you won’t be able to send or receive email). Almost immediately I had a list of staff that were qualified for larger mailbox sizes. So there were 75% of the staff that couldn’t get beyond 500MB but 25% could go up to 1GB. That worked for a bit until I got notification that there was about 10% of the 25% that shouldn’t have quotas at all. Then it was that the penalty was too stiff and negatively impacted voicemail so I was only allowed to block a staff member from sending email if they exceed their quota, but they can continue to receive email. Clearly, this Stick wasn’t working.

When I had a change in my boss and my position, one of the first things that we did was put an end to the “Outlook Contest”.  Our belief is that as an employee it is your responsibility to maintain email properly.  But the damage of the “Outlook Contest” would live on. Existing Staff, still to this day, hoard email to purge “when you have that contest again”.  New staff hear from the existing staff about the contest too.  I have even heard some staff say that like it when they exceed their email quota because then they can’t respond to email but they still get email – that it’s a bonus.

Oh-oh!   This was not what was intended.

At the beginning I got the effect that I needed: immediate action. Yet, I never followed up with why it was vital for staff to do this activity. The focus wasn’t on how all of the staff share the available space on Exchange and that one person’s large mailbox can negatively impact the entire agency and never once was the negative fiscal ramifications of having to increase Exchange’s capabilities were discussed. That critical dialog was omitted for immediate results.

It is a touchy situation to be in and now leaves me wondering how can I get out of it.  Sadly, the “Outlook Contest” hasn’t been the only type of contest that I’ve had to run to get things done for the wellbeing of the network.

I know that to shift away from the Carrot and the Stick is not going to be easy, especially for my technology department. Staff often complain that we talk geek but often our reasons for certain things are not very technical. They can be based off of fiscal decisions or regulations given to us by governmental agencies. Those things aren’t technical, but because the messenger is from the technology department, it’s geek.

I have to admit, I’m taking a break from the book after reading about the Golden Circle. I think I need to identify all of the ways that I have used the Carrot and Stick. Then I have to identify what is the true message that needs to get out there to staff.  Manipulation is easy, but inspiring is going to be hard.

So has anyone else used the Carrot and the Stick too often? Have you stopped using it? How have you shifted the focus? Or worse, anyone found out that they can’t stop using the Carrot and the Stick?

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