Death in the Social Web

John Slatin is dead. In more than two decades he published numerous articles about making digital information accessible to people with disabilities. As co-chair of the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) Working Group and as founding director of the Institute for Technology and Learning at the University of Texas in Austin he contributed greatly to web accessibility as we know it. Personally I became aware of his works when I learned about captioning videos with the MAGpie software, but I never met him.

A couple of years ago this would have put some distance between us, but who would have thought that information technology would one day close the humane gap, too? His death touched me, for several reasons. Just two weeks ago I had the chance to meet Sharron Rush and Glenda Sims, who worked with John, and what’s more, he was their friend. At an accessibility award ceremony of Knowbility I was able to get a fair impression how much the accessibility community means to the people in Austin and how much they cherish their friends. Being a friend of Sharron and Glenda he must have been a very special person.

Also in the social web death is no longer distant. I wasn’t aware that this is a direction I’m not only exposed to, but that my computer screen, the bringer of information, also brings emotions at unexpected moments. People around the world were blogging about John Slatin’s forthcoming death, and there is a very intimate portrayal of his last moments on his own blog. But it is the second time that this happens to me. In September 2006 the science fiction author John M. Ford died. Until then I only knew a few of his novels and one of the funniest role-playing adventures ever, the award-winning Yellow Clearance Black Box Blues. But then I learned what a person he was. Why people loved him. That he was always accessible, always funny, always kind. He made an impact. He touched people’s life.

In my former career as an Emergency Medical Technician I have seen various facets of death. I’ve seen the grim reaper, but I also know why before the discovery of antibiotics pneumonia was also known as “the friend of old men.” Death can be very peaceful, a welcome friend, and I’m not afraid of it. I don’t believe in an afterlife, but I love the response John M. Ford’s spouse gave to a question once asked at a convention: “how many angels can dance on the head of a pin?” She replied: “I’m pretty sure it’s too difficult to get an accurate count at the moment because they keep laughing at something Mike says, and then a bunch of them fall off.” I do believe that people live on through their deeds, by the impact they had, by the people whose life they touched. They live on as long as there’s someone who remembers them. John Slatin — and John “Mike” Ford — will be remembered, for a very long time.

Get involved

The John Slatin Fund Accessibility Project matches accessibility experts with companies that would like a brief review of their site for accessibility. In return, the site owner is asked to contribute a minimum of $500 to The John Slatin Fund. The John Slatin Fund was established to help John’s beloved Anna offset the medical expenses incurred during John’s long illness. The goal of this project is to raise $25,000 for that purpose. Furthermore there’s an option to donate directly to John’s family via Paypal.

3 Responses to ‘Death in the Social Web’

  1. Matt B

    Here’s John’s obit in the Austin-American statesman.

    John was interested in collaborative learning — how students can help each other learn in a classroom. The first time he set up a classroom computer lab, which I think was in the mid- or late-80s, he was struck by how the technology could change how people learn. I don’t remember the particulars, but network technology affords different types of interactions among learners.

    By then John was legally blind, but he still had central vision. In the late-90s I think he could still see enough to use a computer without a screenreader, but he had already started to learn braille and screenreaders (esp Jaws). By 2000 he was using Jaws a lot.

    This led John to accessibility and usability, and we owe him a lot for his work.

  2. goodwitch

    Martin, you are right. This wonderful web can give us the opportunity to connect with people on a very deep level. The more we have in common and the more we know about each other, the stronger the ties. In the past, it was hard to influence people who didn’t have direct physical contact with you. But you have shown here, that the death of a man you never met… touched you.

    Thank you for sharing these thoughts. You brought a smile to my heart. Indeed, John’s legacy lives on.

  3. Martin Kliehm

    You brought a smile to my heart.

    Wonderful. That’s what I intended. ;)