E01 – Interview with Robert Jolly – Part 1

This is the first part of my chat with Robert Jolly. Robert talks about his definition of accessibility, his personal experience with disability and how it influenced his thinking about accessibility.


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Nicolas: Welcome! This is the A11y Rules Podcast. I’m Nic Steenhout and I talk with people involved in one way or another with web accessibility.

Nicolas: Today we’re talking to Robert Jolly and I could go on and do a long introduction, that may or may not be right. But I think I’m going to start by asking Robert to tell us in elevator pitch who Robert is, what Robert does, and what makes you tick.

Robert: Okay. I am a father, and I have two boys that are five and two. Or, just about to turn five and two this weekend. And so that’s the main definition of me. In terms of professional life, I am a senior web accessibility strategist at Knowbility. Knowbility is a non-profit, 501c3 non-profit based out of Austin, Texas. I live in Northern Colorado with my wife and kids. I am interested in accessibility, obviously. I’m interested in inclusive design and how we can, as web professionals, up our game and build accessibility and inclusive design into our practices.

Nicolas: Cool. Thank you. I love your approach of defining yourself as a parent before any professional. I think that’s really healthy. So you said that you’re into web accessibility and you said obviously, so maybe we can talk about that a little bit later. I guess my first question for you would be how do you define accessibility? Because there’s a lot of people that use different definition of what is or isn’t web accessibility. So what is it for you?

Robert: Wow. Okay. That’s a great question, ’cause I spend the majority of my working days really thinking about accessibility and accessibility problems and how to overcome them, but I guess accessibility is a lack of barriers, really, in its essence to me. So that’s … Accessibility can be much more than that. And when I’m putting on my work hat, often accessibility is finding the barriers and then describing them and helping clients and colleagues understand how to remove those barriers or how to design and develop without inadvertently putting barriers into place. So I guess in its essence, it’s absence of barriers.

Nicolas: Fantastic.

Robert: In any kind of environment, right? Physical, digital, even VR is an area where I’m interested in exploring accessibility.

Nicolas: Cool. Okay. So you said obviously. What’s so obvious about that?

Robert: As far as me being interested in accessibility?

Nicolas: Yeah.

Robert: That was really a follow on to my job title, because accessibility is in my job title. But accessibility means a few … It has some deep meaning to me for a couple of reasons. One was that for a long time, I worked with an organization that really promoted web standards. And part of that, the promise of web standards and building sites and applications correctly using standards means that accessibility is largely baked in. And so accessibility was near and dear to my heart even before I became an accessibility professional, if I can use that term.

And then something happened with me where I had a medical event, and it was after I had turned 40. My wife and I were expecting our first child. I woke up one night and it was an incredible, worst headache I’d ever had in my life, and I took some ibuprofen for it. That didn’t help. Went to the ER, they diagnosed me with a headache after they determined that I wasn’t having a brain bleed. They casually mentioned to me that I should go see my general practitioner doctor, my family doctor, and maybe he’d want to have an MRI taken of my brain. I went and did that and come to find out I actually had a stroke.

Nicolas: Wow.

Robert: Then a subsequent visit to the neurologist a week later determined the cause of the stroke, which was a torn artery in the back of my neck, my vertebral artery. So for a while, it really hurt to really do anything. I was in a lot of pain, didn’t know if it was going to last forever. It didn’t, but for weeks I was kind of in this recovery mode where I was on the couch a lot, in bed a lot. If I tried to use the computer, it was very small doses of using the computer or even watching the TV or anything having to do with bright light because headaches were occurring for a number of weeks.

So at that point, accessibility really dawned on me as something that … Hey, this is something that’s important for everyone. Not just for people who have disabilities right now, but for anyone who may join that group at any time, because anybody can. That’s something that gets mentioned in conference talks I attend sometimes, where I think people say, what is it, the disability community is the only minority group that anyone can join at any time. Or something like that. That’s how the saying goes. So that personal event really threw me headlong into the world of accessibility, just because I’ve been involved in web design and development for a long time, and that was just a natural place for me to go at that point. To go deep into that area.

Nicolas: Right. I find it interesting you say accessibility is for everyone. I happen to share that belief. We tend to hear more about accessibility in terms of people who have vision impairments. Obviously, your pretty traumatic experience of having an impairment was not a vision-related thing specifically, so how did your personal experience with disability influence your thinking about accessibility in general?

Robert: Let me peel that apart a little bit. The first thing you mentioned was accessibility being looked at often as people with vision impairments, like people with blindness or low vision, right? So that’s something that I still encounter today with clients and with colleagues in the industry, that’s the first thing that people think of when they think of accessibility. Because I guess the web is such a highly visual medium. And with my personal experience with the stroke and the pain and the altering of how I was able to use the web for those weeks after the stroke, that really gave me a first-hand look at just how different the perspectives can be. With people with disabilities.

So I did know already about people with motor disabilities, needing to maybe not be able to use a mouse very well, needing to use an alternative input device or just a keyboard only. But I hadn’t really thought too much in terms of accessibility for people with, say, chronic pain. Or people with cognitive disorders. So that experience for me opened my eyes or changed my perspective a bit, and widened my knowledge around what accessibility is, who benefits from accessible design and development overall, and that it’s not a narrow group. It’s a really diverse group of people.

Nicolas: So it really brought home the idea that accessibility really impacts everyone more than people with specific impairment or specific disability, right?

Robert: Absolutely. Absolutely. And I’ve learned a lot from a blog post that I posted after my stroke. I have a personal blog at IAmJolly.com, and I rarely post on there, but I posted about my experience, and described how I was diagnosed and what my recovery was like a few weeks in, and then a couple months out from there. I’ve since turned that blog … Because there were so many positive responses and interactions with people worldwide around the medical event that I had and the shared problems that these people had had too, when they were looking for information, like “I just had a vertebral artery dissection and a stroke, what do I do now?” My blog came up in their search results, apparently. So I ended up turning that into a different site just dedicated to vertebral artery dissection and stroke and recovery from that.

So I still see comments from people … It’s not every day, but it’s multiple times per week, people are coming onto this site and commenting, after reading my story and then reading stories that other people have posted, where the condition that I had that they also have, has led them to have chronic pain or numbness and different disabilities, really, as a result of this medical event that they’ve had. Some people recover fully, some people don’t. People are all over the spectrum in terms of their age and their ability to use a computer in the first place. So even just posting about my experience and then allowing the community at large to interact and share their experiences has taught me about accessibility and about how people have different needs.

Nicolas: Right.

Robert: And given me opportunities to share that with other people as well, and clients and colleagues, to say “Have you thought of this perspective?” Or that perspective? And build a little more empathy into our practices as digital practitioners. As developers and designers.

Nicolas: That’s got to be quite rewarding, to have that kind of interaction with people from all over the world based on one post you wrote just to update people, and just see the response that keeps on going. That’s really cool.

Robert: Yeah, I’d love to do more with that site. Maybe this is a good time to do that.

Nicolas: So why don’t you? Where would you like to take that?

Robert: Since it was originally just a blog post, it’s really just a bit of information that I posted and then a bunch of comments that people have posted. It’s not a full-functioning member community or message board, even. It could start out as just maybe a message board, where people can start their own threads and help each other out. Because right now, it’s just a series of comments. It’s very active, it has over 500 different comments or maybe a thousand comments, and I just keep them open, because people are really finding value in these interactions. And people find it. Every few weeks, someone new posts about their story. Like, “I am four days out from my vertebral artery dissection and stroke” or two weeks out or whatever it is. They are looking for information, they’re asking questions, asking if anybody has experienced this symptom or that. I’d really love to turn it into more of an active community that people feel like they can share their stories and help each other out on even more so than just my original blog post that people find.

Nicolas: What you’re talking about, really, I think comes down to the ability of people to do peer counselling and that there’s quite a strong value in peer counselling. Am I correct with that?

Robert: Yeah, I think so. There’s no replacement for bonafide professional medical care, but at the same time, people are looking for other people who have experienced something similar and then, okay, here, I’m maybe in pain right now but these people recovered and so might I. Or “my doctor said I can go back to exercising regularly, but I’m scared to. What are your experiences?” And then people can help each other out that way. But yeah, definitely I would say peer counseling. But not a replacement for professional care.

Nicolas: Yeah, I don’t think you want to do away with medical care, but there’s definitely a strong value to being able to share with the experience with someone who’s been there before. In that context, where do you see the value of peer counseling in the accessibility community, whether it’s for accessibility professionals or it’s for individuals that need accessibility to function on the web, and how would you say that that is best place? How can it happen? Is it happening, even?

Robert: I do feel like some of that is happening on both … I’m gonna say both sides of that equation. Say designers and developers need to learn about accessibility and need to bake that into their practice, need to be aware and have empathy. And then people with disabilities also have some peer to peer resources that they can tap into, especially within community organizations. But I don’t know that much about the disability community in terms of how cohesive people within different disabilities groups are. Is there a: here’s accessibility training for people with disabilities and we don’t just focus on people who are blind, or we don’t just focus on people who have motor impairments, or we don’t … You know, we kind of cover the gamut. We cover a wide spectrum. I don’t know that that necessarily exists. If it does, I’m just not aware of it and that may be something that’s out there.

I can definitely speak on the design and development community side of things. There is a growing interest and awareness of accessibility, which I find comforting and encouraging. Overall, like I see this at conferences, there are often accessibility focus speakers, there are people who are primarily designers or developers that don’t consider themselves accessibility professionals or even experts talking about accessibility and giving accessibility talks, which is great to see.

I think there can be a lot more that’s done within the education space for designers and developers. So for young designers and developers, how do we make accessibility and empathy and inclusion a core part of everyone’s design and development education experience? Whether that’s taking informal online classes through providers like Treehouse or Udacity or any number of the online programs, Lynda.com, for instance. If accessibility was a core component of these tracks that people take, would that help?

Also in universities, there are some programs, I think, that are out there that are fantastic. That have accessibility baked into their programs. And then other colleges and universities have no mention of it anywhere. So, you know, how do we grow that as a core requirements for designers and developers? And how do we then champion that in the actual work that we’re doing? Right? As a project manager on many web design and development projects, I have found that project managers are kind of key to making that happen. If we can do this in the real world. Like, this is your real world experience. You have to know accessibility, and guess what? As a project manager, I’m going to make sure you understand the requirements and you understand the things that you can do early on to build accessibility into your practice.

That’s something that I’m keen on doing through talks and workshops and just working with teams, is to say okay, I can champion accessibility as a project manager even though I’m not a hardcore developer or a hardcore designer. I know enough about accessibility and I have enough empathy for people with disabilities but also for my team to bring these worlds together and say here’s how we can elevate our work and use accessibility requirements and inclusive design principles to bring out innovation in the team.

That, I think, I wish that would be widespread. I wish project managers could take up the cause of accessibility worldwide and that be one of the core things that they do besides task mastering. Which project managers do very well, but I think they could also do very well at championing and leading accessibility within their teams and therefore the industry as a whole. I’m not saying they’re the only people who can do that, but I think they’re uniquely well-positioned for that. Because the project manager sees every aspect of the design and development process through a product or a project, right? They touch it all, through all the phases.

Nicolas: Yeah.

Robert: I really feel like that is a key that we could use to unlock that goal.

Nicolas: So that’s definitely an important challenge for accessibility, making sure that project managers or product owners in an agile environment are aware of accessibility and become champions of accessibility. How do we make that happen?

Robert: We have to treat accessibility like other requirements that are now baked into projects. So just like we’re treating responsive or mobile development. That used to be something that was an additional thing, when it first came out. And now it’s pretty much a given for most projects. At least for the web. Web applications and websites, responsive is almost a given. In very few cases do you find someone doing separate work. And they usually have a good reason for doing a separate desktop and mobile experience. But accessibility is treated as a separate thing, even though it can be a very core requirement for many organizations. So we have the comparing it to responsive or even security, or performance. These are things that are non-negotiable now with projects, that the people work on or products that they’re working on. So accessibility, if we can treat it as one of those core elements, those core aspects that needs to be something that the team is well-versed in and aware of, then people will seek out the training. They’ll seek out good solutions to problems, and they’ll come up with really creative examples to show other people. And that’s really where I see us making that happen.

There’s been this whole, at least in the U.S., the Department of Justice has gotten involved in cases for accessibility and now it seems like maybe they’re stepped back from some of the rule-making. I saw an article this morning about that, where the ADA rule-making for, say, state and local government internet and electronic applications has been put in an inactive status. But what that has done as well, or what we’ve seen, is that the lack of this oversight and instructions and governance over this area has fueled a ton of speculation and lawsuits in the industry, and that the lower courts are actually having to figure it out and make these decisions. So what we’ve seen is that no website or web application is immune from accessibility related litigation.

And so with that speculative environment, it makes accessibility even more important to bake into your project because of those risks. Just because the Department of Justice and the federal government has decided to step back from making a decision or saying “Hey, you need to do this”, that doesn’t mean that it’s wild west times again on the internet in terms of accessibility.

Nicolas: I think there’s a pretty big misunderstanding there about just putting the website requirement on the inactive list. It’s not actually saying that the ADA is not saying that you must have an accessible website. No, what it’s saying is you still have to have an accessible website but we’re not going to tell you who has to have an accessible website and how to do it. So it’s really the how to that’s being put on the back burner rather than you must do that. Yeah, so I do think that the risk is actually increased and with the burden of all these to go into case lock from the courts, it’s going to really complicate life for a lot of people.

Robert: Yeah.

Nicolas: This gets us to the end of the first part of the interview with Robert Jolly. I hope you appreciated his insights. Next week, we continue our conversation with Robert and we’ll talk about his accessibility successes, his thoughts on why people fail at implementing accessibility and how that could be fixed.

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