E02 – Interview with Robert Jolly – Part 2

This is the second part of the interview with Robert Jolly. He talks about his accessibility wins, frustrations and inspirations.


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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.

This week, we’re continuing our conversation about web accessibility with Robert Jolly. I invite you to listen to the first part, if you haven’t already. So, Robert. you’ve been actively doing accessibility now for, what, five or six years, something like that?

Robert: Yeah.

Nicolas: What would you say was your greatest success in terms of accessibility? What was your biggest win?

Robert: Besides meeting you, right? Let’s see. What was my biggest win with accessibility? You know, I don’t know that I can stake claim to a big win, necessarily. Because I think the teams that I’ve worked with before on big projects with accessibility have all played a … The team members and the organization that I’ve worked with and their willingness to address accessibility, they’ve all played big parts in it. So rather than talk about a big win, I’ll talk about maybe a small win that may be bigger because of the ripple effect.

Nicolas: Yeah.

Robert: And that’s … One of my friends or long-time colleagues, he’s an exceptional designer. And he’s been awarded and recognized for his design work for years. We were involved in some projects not too long ago, a couple years ago, where accessibility was a requirement and during the design phase, as I was reviewing designs as both the project manager and the accessibility champion on the team, I was bringing up here are some aspects of accessibility that we need to be thinking about. How can we make this work? And so through those conversations and that work with this designer, he really came around to accessibility more so than when we had first started. It wasn’t that he was resistant to accessibility, but just some of the practices that he had didn’t necessarily consider accessibility to begin with.

And then later on, on projects that I wasn’t involved in directly, he would come to me and say “Look what I did with accessibility here. Look how I did this. Look at these things. Look at this accessible color palette. And then here is how we translated it into the living and breathing style guide.” And I was just blown away. So that was a success for me in that through this ongoing accessibility champion role in these dialogues that I had with team members, I helped level up this one particular team member where he was taking it to other projects and it was part of his core practice moving forward. So knowing the types of clients that he’s working with, that’s a skill set that he has that he can market but that’s also a benefit for these clients that they’re getting that’s baked into his process now. It’s baked into his thinking. I’m kind of infected him with this incurable accessibility and inclusive design virus, if you will. It’s a good thing.

Nicolas: I would say yeah. It’s not a small win, it is a big win, because one convert at a time will get these people to where we really benefit, everybody benefits from that. And it sounds like you made a convert that is going to be able to evangelize about accessibility as well, not just implement it in his own practices. I think you should give yourself a pat on the back, it’s pretty damn good.

Robert: That’s where I see the role of project managers really being able to be that champion, be that shepherd, if you will, for people that are already so talented and so smart. Just reframing the accessibility equation, if you will, into one of how do we innovative around this project requirement? Instead of how do we stifle your creativity or your development approach or whatever it might be, your efficiency. Because accessible solutions are often very efficient and can be wonderfully creative, too. So that’s the part that I think people get hung up on, is not being able to reframe the accessibility requirements into something that’s more of a challenge that they can embrace and say “Oh, I can do something really cool with this requirement. Let’s try to do that.”

That’s where I feel like project managers can do that if they can get away from strict requirements and “You can’t do this, you can’t do that.” Here’s our requirement. How do we solve this? And we leave that problem in the hands of the professional designers and developers on our team to work that out rather than saying “Hey, you did it this way and that’s wrong.” It still happens, but if we can get out in front of that problem earlier on, I think that helps reframe it.

Nicolas: Yeah. What would you say is the number one reason people fail at implementing web accessibility?

Robert: The number one reason why they fail?

Nicolas: Yeah.

Robert: Wow. This could be different for a lot of different people. But in what I see, I think by treating accessibility as something that comes at the end of a process or by just not thinking about it at all, and I think those two go hand in hand, right? Sometimes people are just … are unaware of accessibility at all. And they don’t think about the diversity of their audiences, who may be wanting to use what they’re building, right? So that lack of awareness. I’ll call it ignorance, but that’s one aspect of it.

The other aspect that as a team, you can sometimes fall into the trap of “Well, we’ll deal with that later because we want to focus on these other things and we just don’t want to think about this other hard thing.” Maybe you feel like it’s hard, and you don’t want to think about this thing at the moment. If it’s accessibility, then it gets pushed down further down the road and makes the problems magnify toward the end. And then fixing those problems, especially when you have designs that are already approved and certain code patterns that are in use, makes it much harder to build a robust or even elegant solution to that problem without reworking everything at that point. So then you see these very inelegant hacks that happen to achieve some semblance of accessibility that are half-baked or very brittle or whatever metaphor you want to give it. But it’s just they don’t work as well.

So I know that was two problems, or two reasons, but I think they’re really tied together because it’s about not wanting to deal with it, right? It’s either not knowing about it to deal with it, or not wanting to deal with it until it’s further down the project pipeline.

Nicolas: Yeah. So to avoid that failure, apart from deciding to make sure you deal with it from the get-go, what would be concrete things, concrete actions that people could take to avoid that kind of failure?

Robert: Well, if accessibility isn’t a core skill set or knowledge that’s within your team or your institution that you can tap into, hiring someone to be on the project I think is certainly something that’s concrete that can be done. Following specs and guidelines as you’re going is going to help you avoid a lot of issues. It doesn’t necessarily mean that … It doesn’t guarantee great usability or even great accessible solutions, but it helps you not make the basic mistakes that get made a lot of times. Following HTML per the spec and CSS per the spec and using elements semantically, then also checking against the web content and accessibility guidelines. Using those as you go and then coupling that with usability testing early and often.

It doesn’t have to be formal, expensive usability testing but finding people with disabilities and asking for their help and paying for their time, just like you would any other usability study, even if it’s informal, is going to give your team so many good concrete examples of where you can improve the user experience, improve the accessibility for everyone. So those are the concrete examples that I typically try to recommend to people. Get the training if you need it for your team, but if you’re still waiting to grow your team’s internal skill set, hire someone. Or an organization if you’re a larger company, dealing with large projects, hire a team to help you with your accessibility process. That’s … It will be really helpful.

Nicolas: Cool, thank you. You mentioned usability testing. One of the comments I hear often from different projects or businesses is “Oh, yeah, we had our site tested by a blind guy and he says there’s no problem.” Does that work as far as usability testing? Is it sufficient? If not, why not? What are the pitfalls of approaching usability testing or even accessibility testing as a whole that way?

Robert: Well, it’s one person. If it’s a blind guy, or a blind gal, tested my site or my web application, I would say it’s better than nothing. It’s going to depend on that particular person, on what their skill set is as well, and how well-versed they are in using assistive technologies. Are all of your users going to be that well-versed? And then what about everyone else with disabilities that aren’t blind? How do you account for that? And that’s a big question mark.

I do like the idea of starting somewhere and even if that somewhere is one blind person testing your site, I’d say that’s better than no one with disabilities testing your site. But I wouldn’t say it’s enough to say “This is accessible.” You know? You just can’t, right? And even if you test it with 50 people with all different types of disabilities, you’re going to get great coverage, but can you say it’s accessible to every single person that will try to use it? Who knows? Maybe, maybe not. But your odds are much greater if you’re trying to be as diverse and inclusive as possible.

One of the things that teams can do is hire inclusively and hire diversely as well. So hire people with disabilities of all types. Hire people of all ethnicities and backgrounds and skin colors and genders. That is something that is going to help you build that empathy from within, naturally, as well. An organization that’s doing that right now, and is really good at promoting it as well, is Microsoft. They have done, I think, an admiral job of building their teams with inclusivity in mind. And so they’re really taking it to heart. And they’re claiming great benefits in terms of their process and their outcomes by having a diverse set of employees that are working on all aspects of Microsoft operations and products. With that as an example, I would say you can gain a lot by doing that. If you are a shop that you look around the room and look around your offices and check out the diversity and see how are we doing on that regard? Chances are, there’s room for improvement. There’s room for more people to weigh in internally from their own perspectives if you have this inclusiveness built into your team.

Nicolas: Yeah. I like that. So in very few sentences, what would you answer to someone who tells you “I can’t do accessibility because it costs too much?”

Robert: You’re wrong and it would cost a lot more to address litigation and eventually fixes that you’d have to make if you ignore accessibility. That’s the end to that answer, but I want to explain it a little bit.

Nicolas: Okay.

Robert: I don’t think that selling accessibility on fear is necessarily the way to go, but at the same time, you have to temper people’s resistance to it with some reality. And let them know, especially if they’re in a market, and almost all of the industry segments or markets have been affected by accessibility litigation as of late and within the last couple of years. Just thinking about what are your risks and is it worth it?

And how much is it, really, to bake in accessibility to your process? It might cost a little bit more in time and money to get ramped up and up to speed in the beginning, but toward the end, after a couple of projects are under your belt, sure, there’s still more to learn but you’ve got this core knowledge that is not gonna go away, especially if you codify it. Even if you have attrition with employees, if everyone is brought into this process, it’s not just one employee that’s holding the accessibility knowledge or the accessibility ball and they’re gonna take it with them if they leave, but it’s something that’s shared across the organization.

I would just tell people: No, you’re wrong. It isn’t too costly. It’s too costly to ignore it. And so then just reframing the argument around, yes, accessibility, if it’s a new thing for your team, you might spend a little bit more time and money doing things accessibly. But once you have that learning and it’s baked into your process, it costs no more. There is no additional cost.

Nicolas: Yeah. I like that. Who inspires you?

Robert: Who inspires me? So I’ve got a few people that I really look up to professionally and in the accessibility industry. Sharon Rush is one of those people who inspires me. She just has this presence that she knows about accessibility, she teaches and promotes it in a way that I think … She’s at this level that, because of her years of experience, that really inspires me to continue. And then there are some people that are involved in the W3C organization, they’re with-member organization that are members of the W3C. So one of them is a colleague I work with at Knowbility but he’s also half-time at W3C, Eric Yager. And then Denis Boudreau also really inspires me a lot on that end of things.

And then I would say in terms of web development in general, I love reading stuff from Jen Simmons and Rachel Andrew and Val Head. They’re all doing interesting things with … Jen Simmons and Rachel Andrew, they do a lot within CSS. And applying, say, CSS grids and education the public about those. And then Val Head talks about web animation, which is interesting and amazing in and of itself. But they all also embrace accessibility at its core in everything that they do, yet they don’t consider themselves accessibility experts or accessibility professionals like that’s their primary role. They just promote their passions for CSS and web animation and share their knowledge openly. They write newsletters, they have posts and tutorials that are out there, they speak at conferences, they’re constantly giving away knowledge to the industry in a way that I think is inspiring and admirable, certainly for me.

So those are some people that inspire me.

Nicolas: Thank you. That’s good, good names.

Nicolas: Robert, thank you very much for your time and your fantastic answers and maybe we’ll have a follow-up to that in a few months. We’ll see where things take us. Thanks again for talking with us.

Robert: Thanks, Nick. That’s great. Bye.

Nicolas: Cheers. And that’s it for our conversation with Robert for now. Next week, we speak with Amy Hasbrouck, a disability rights advocate who has low vision. And she will tell us a little bit about her experiences on the web.

Is your website accessible? Contact me through http://incl.ca if you want my help to figure it out.