OpenAIR: An Accessibility Journey

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The OpenAIR journey began in 1998 in Austin Texas, as the Accessibility Internet Rally or AIR, when technology entrepreneur and community leader Steve Guengerich conceived a web design competition that would:

  1. Raise awareness among technology professionals about the need for accessible websites and software applications
  2. Provide a medium for non-profit agencies to harness the power of the internet and expand their reach
  3. Create meaningful connections between the un-engaged technology sector and the rest of the community

AIR was a lively, high-energy community development program whose purpose was to raise awareness and provide the training and tools to generate local action, promoting IT accessibility.

AIR was the powerful idea of IT inclusion within the context of a fun, friendly “web-raising” competition.

As the developer community created accessible web sites for non-profit groups, they also connected the high-tech sector to the needs of people with disabilities and to the non-profit sector.

Steve’s vision attracted other community leaders to this effort. Among the founding group for the Accessibility Internet Rally were Sharron Rush (co-founding Executive Director of Knowbility), Dr. John Slatin (University of Texas), Jayne Cravens (Online Volunteer Manager of the UN), Ana Sisnett (Austin FreeNet) Rachel Sartin (Chair of Austin Mayor’s Committee for People with Disabilities), Sue Soy (City of Austin), Jamie Frasier (Goodwill Industries), Sue Beckwith (Austin FreeNet) and Jim Allan (Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired). With seed funding from Applied Materials and IBM, AIR officially launched in September 1998. The first Accessibility Internet Rally (AIR-Austin) had 16 participating teams.  Following the success of AIR-Austin, AIR was launched in Denver, Dallas, Houston, Ft. Worth and San Francisco.

Web accessibility starts with you!

The success of AIR-Austin also led to the founding of Knowbility.

The vision of raising awareness about the need for accessible websites and technology was the foundation that led to the creation of AccessWorks, AccessU, ATSTAR and other programs created under the brand and leadership of Knowbility. The popularity of AIR led Knowbility’s governing Board of Directors to think about scale.  They sought to create a global event with far more impact. In 2011, Rich Schwerdtfeger of IBM stepped up to serve as community chair for the AIR program. At Rich’s suggestion, the board decided to suspend offering AIR as a local, onsite contest across cities. Instead the challenge was moved online and AIR became a virtual event encouraging worldwide participation. The program became OpenAIR, a global web accessibility challenge that would further the mission of spreading web accessibility awareness across the globe.

Today, OpenAIR has evolved beyond training web developers to create accessible websites for non-profits.

OpenAIR imparts advanced accessibility skills and knowledge to web developers, creates a challenging atmosphere for participants to enhance these abilities and keeps them engaged with games and networking events. By bringing in a panel of judges who are the best in web accessibility, the competition has been fine-tuned as an incubator of quality websites.  In 2014, the competition was expanded to assign to each OpenAIR team an experienced accessibility mentor. These are leading accessibility experts who guide and encourage teams during the competition, motivating them to incorporate design and testing techniques that might seem unfamiliar.

In its 18th year now, OpenAIR has nurtured the creation of hundreds of accessible community websites. For many arts and non-profit organizations, the AIR site was their first foray onto the web.  OpenAIR is growing and is on its way to becoming an established global event. OpenAIR 2015 is a technology challenge that fosters healthy competitive spirit to do good, and make a difference in the world through knowledge of universal design.

3 thoughts on “OpenAIR: An Accessibility Journey

  1. Thanks for this informative history of how the Air Rally has grown and changed over time. I felt very empowered by the new website that was created for me as a contestant in this contest last year and the knowledge that my team mentor and my team gave me throughout the contest. Being part of the contest opened up a whole new world for me both online and through the Knowbility network.

  2. Thanks for this informative history of how the Air Rally has grown and changed over time. I felt very empowered by the new website that was created for me as a contestant in this contest last year and the knowledge that my team mentor and my team gave me throughout the contest. Being part of the contest opened up a whole new world for me both online and through the Knowbility network.

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