SJU Graduate Student a Leader in Web Accessibility Awareness

Friday, April 10, 2015

by Jeffrey Martin '04, '05 (M.A.)

When he began writing code for websites, Ather Sharif gave little thought to accessible design. Like many young developers, he never considered the value of creating a site that would work for every person who visited it, including those with physical or mental limitations.

But after he was injured in a car accident in 2013, Sharif, now quadriplegic, began to interact with more people with disabilities. And he realized how poor the web experience is for some of the users in that community.

In response, the SJU graduate student, who is working towards a master’s degree in computer science, founded EvoXLabs, a group of volunteer web accessibility experts that is part web firm, part advocacy group. The team develops free tools and websites for nonprofits in the Philadelphia area who can’t afford to hire a company to review their sites for accessibility issues.

“Web accessibility is nothing different or extra from traditional web standards,” Sharif explains. “But when people try to develop with shortcuts, they ignore the standards, and create non-accessible sites. And it’s much harder — and more expensive — to go back and fix a website that’s hundreds or thousands of pages than it is to do it right in the first place.”

To help raise awareness of the need for properly designed websites, Sharif and his team have organized evoHaX, a three-day hackathon competition that begins on Friday, April 17, as part of Philly Tech Week.

During the competition, which will be held over three days for a total of 24 hours, six teams representing local universities will be paired with a random subject matter expert — someone with a visual or hearing impairment, or cognitive or physical limitations — and will develop a web solution that addresses that issue. The teams will be made up of graduate and undergraduate students from Saint Joseph's, Drexel University, La Salle University, West Chester University, Swarthmore College and Philadelphia University.

Sharif says that the competition was designed specifically with college students in mind.

“We wanted to focus on new, young developers, encouraging them to appreciate the need for accessible design, so that they start using it from the beginning.” he says.

evoHaX is one of six events that received partial funding through a grant from Philly Tech Week organizers. The annual celebration of technology and innovation will feature approximately 200 events. The funding helped secure a space for the hackathon and will go towards feeding the participants and inviting guest speakers to inspire them as they work.

“Philly Tech Week is a huge event,” Sharif says. “Last year, 125,000 people attended. Getting approved to be a part of the week — not to mention being awarded a grant — is a very big deal.”

evoHax will be held at Benjamin's Desk, a coworking space at 1701 Walnut Street in Philadelphia, on Friday, April 17, from 6 to 10:30 p.m., Saturday, April 18, from 10 a.m. to 11:30 p.m., and Sunday, April 19, from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.

Sharif will continue his advocacy beyond Philly Tech Week. As one of three people worldwide to earn the 2015 IBM People With Disabilities Award, he will travel to the Web for All Conference this May in Florence, Italy. He was also one of 12 North American recipients of a $10,000 Google Lime Scholarship, which will fund part of his tuition at Saint Joseph’s and allow him to visit the tech giant’s campus for four days in June.

“When I’m in California, I’ll be touring the Google campus and sitting in on workshops,” Sharif explains. “But I also hope to sit with some of their developers and express my concerns. The web needs to be a more accessible place. It matters.”

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