E05 – Interview with Josh Simmons – Part 1

In this part of the interview, we talk with Josh Simmons, a developer who turned to community management, working to connect and support Open Source communities.


Nicolas: Welcome to the Accessibility Rules podcast. You’re listening to Episode 5. I’m Nic Steenhout and I talk with people involved in one way or another with web accessibility. This episode has been sponsored by patrons like you. I really do appreciate your support. Today I’m speaking with Josh Simmons

Good morning, Josh. Thanks for joining me for this discussion about web accessibility. I like to have guests introduce themselves, so in a brief elevator pitch, who is Josh Simmons?

Josh: First, thank you for having me, it’s nice to be here. I am a longtime web developer, been coding professionally for maybe, going on two decades now. These days I do less development work and more outreach work, as I am on the Google Open Source Outreach Team and I also sit on the Open Source Initiative Board of Directors. A lot of what I do these days is about connecting with open source communities and supporting them, and less direct development.

Nicolas: Quite a switch from your original code jockey work. A lot of people talk about web accessibility and there’s a lot of different variations on the term. How would you define what web accessibility is?

Josh: Sure, I guess there’s the, some standards that are used. I know here in the United States we’ve got Section 508. I think that to me, accessibility means it’s sort of synonymous with universal design. Insofar as, accessibility is building things such that all people can use them. Whether that means people with issues with sight or issues with sound or motor skills or whatever it is, just making sure that the things that we build are usable by everybody.

Nicolas: Yeah, everybody and not just people with disabilities but really, truly everybody. Whether it’s someone who doesn’t have English as a first language or someone who’s trying to read your site on a mobile phone and they’re in bright sun. I like-

Josh: Right.

Nicolas: … I like the aspect of everybody. You’ve been doing a lot of development work. Now you’re doing more community work. Where do you see role following within the work of web accessibility? How do you include that in your work?

Josh: These days since I’m doing more and more outreaching and organizing, I guess what I try to do in terms of accessibility is just make sure that it’s a perspective that I’m representing. Or better yet, just a perspective that I’m amplifying because I’m no expert and I’d rather help the other people who know what they’re doing, like yourself, get that information to the people who are building things, that they can keep accessibility in the mind.

I do things like I will give conference talks and in them, I’ve got one about being a good “open source citizen.” And I talk about prizing codes of conduct, being friendly and welcoming of newbies, and things like that. Then I also mention things like we should be thinking about how to design these things with security in mind from the beginning. We should also keep accessibility in mind from the very beginning, right. Speaking to the ideals of good software development is what I do a lot these days, and so when I do that I try to make sure accessibility’s a part of that.

Nicolas: You’re doing a bit of evangelist work about accessibility basically. Making people aware it’s there and making sure that they think about it. Right?

Josh: Exact.

Nicolas: I think that’s an important role because it’s good to have people like you that are not directly related to the accessibility community, but that are actually being able to poke at people and say, “Hey, don’t forget this very important aspect of our work exists,” so thank you for doing that.

Josh: It’s my pleasure and it’s really the least I can do. I feel like it’s part of good craft, but also I feel there’s a moral imperative here. And so yeah, it’s the least I can do.

Nicolas: Explore that a little bit, moral imperative. Why is there a moral imperative?

Josh: Sure. As technology workers, as people who are building tools and services for other humans, we are … The people that we keep in mind when we build things or the people that we don’t think about when we build things, benefit or suffer at the hands of our design decisions.

If I launch a … If I run a popular web service that a lot of people end up using, but isn’t accessible for the 10% of the population, then I’m in a position where a lot of people have an advantage over that 10% of the population because they’re able to use this tool. It’s a matter of erecting artificial barriers when we create imperfect products that aren’t accessible.

I feel like it’s a matter of equality. I feel like it’s a matter of inclusivity. To not keep accessibility in mind and to design things accessibly is to shut people out and disadvantage them.

Nicolas: Yeah, thank you. When and how did you become aware of the need for accessibility? At what point in your career did it kind of go, “Hey, this exists and it’s important”?

Josh: I think for me, I started learning about it a little bit back in the days when the Semantic Web was all the rage. Where there was talk of using a html markup that had meaning, rather than a div soup, sort to speak.

Nicolas: Yeah.

Josh: And as part of that discussion there was excitement around semantic tags that would make it easier for perhaps like screen readers to understand what the content they were engaging with on in a given page was. Now the Semantic Web is sort of like a … I mean, a person can dream but I think that’s kind of a lost cause at this point.

In that process I did discover the needs around accessibility and it was actually quite, it was a few more years until it was something that was beginning to be incorporated into my own workflow. A lot of my work involved, back in the day involved creating Drupal websites for clients when I was a freelancer. Drupal is CMS that I think does, or at least has the tools and ability to do accessibility well.

Nicolas: Yeah.

Josh: That was something that I appreciated was sort of given when creating those websites. But I’d be honest, I’ve built websites in the last two years even that don’t live up to my own standards. So while it’s been something that’s been on my radar for a while and involves something that I evangelize, it’s something that I still struggle to implement. Which is my own feeling certainly, but just to be perfectly honest, that it’s something I struggle with as well.

Nicolas: Yeah, that’s an interesting aspect of that. Why is it that you’re not able to meet your own desire for your own standards on that front?

Josh: I think part of it is only having a cursory understanding of things and not putting in the time to fully understand things. Here’s the problem, here’s the mistake that I live out, that I also evangelize or warn people about. The attitude that we’re “just sketching out this new website or new web App. This is just a prototype and so accessibility doesn’t matter yet.” That’s such a, it’s a lie. Right? Accessibility matters from square one and it’s easier if you build it in from the beginning.

Nicolas: Yeah.

Josh: But it’s a trap that I fall in to again and again.

Nicolas: Yeah. I think that’s interesting. Do you think there’s enough resources out there for people, developers like you that know it’s important but don’t quite know how to do it, how to implement it?

Josh: I think so. When I have taken the time to look things up, there’s been a wealth of information, so I don’t think it’s for a lack of information. I guess the flipside of this is, I’m also a middling craftsperson, insofar as I will develop and not write tests either, right. There are a few good practices that because development isn’t my primary [inaudible 00:10:17], things that I assume, I was going to say for better or worse but no, it’s definitely for worse, right. These are standard things that I should be doing from the beginning for accessibility, security, testing, but I don’t and it’s just a matter of working against my own biases and baggage of not prioritizing these things.

Nicolas: That’s fair enough. Thanks for that. Let me ask you this, what’s your personal experience of visibility, if any?

Josh: Sure. I guess first of all, I wear glasses. I can’t function without them or my contacts, so I tend to zoom in a lot on websites. Even with my glasses on, it’s just easier if I bump up the font size on a lot of websites. So that’s one experience of accessibility for me.

The flipside is that I’m a person who has ADHD. Not severe, but enough to be debilitating at times. So for me, a website with a clean layout and without lots of bells and whistles and flashing graphics is a website that I can stay with and read and engage with. But there are many websites where I will bounce quickly just because it’s just way too distracting, like it’s, I can’t focus on it.

Nicolas: Yeah. Animate all the things, right?

Josh: Yeah, exactly.

Nicolas: Yeah, thanks for that. How did that experience, the ADHD and then having vision issues, how did that influence your thinking about accessibility?

Josh: The ADHD definitely leads me to produce layouts and designs that are … Like I really value quality information architecture and clean designs with things spaced reasonably. I care about the flow of text and just all little details that make something easy to focus on. Such that, like you can read and not actually be concerned about the structure of the website. You’re not hunting for things because someone has already put the thought into structuring something well, making it easy for the consumer, the reader. ADHD has very much formed my aesthetic and my approach to information architecture more than anything else.

Nicolas: Off the top of your head, can you think of a website that’s really great from that perspective for you and a website that kind of sucks from this perspective?

Josh: I bet I can. Gosh. For instance, I pull up three search engines.

Nicolas: Yep.

Josh: I just pulled up Google, Yahoo and Bing, and I guess Yahoo is, they’re using someone else’s search; I don’t know if that really counts. I go to the Yahoo home page where my goal would be to search, and there’s a giant ad, there’s top Trending Now topics, there’s this news of various types like plastered everywhere. Just a lot of things like pulling on my attention, where really all I’m trying to do is search.

Nicolas: Right.

Josh: Bing is quite a bit better. The search bar is really the focus, it’s got this lovely photo in the background, but it has some news at the bottom that it’s trying to get me to read which is a little distracting, but not so bad. Clearly I’m a bit biased, I do work for Google, but the Google search page is pretty much same as it’s ever been, a logo and a search bar, which is helpful for a person like me.

Nicolas: Yeah, I think that regardless of whether or not you work at Google, it’s hard to argue with the fact that they have managed to make a really straight forward and simple search page layout, so that’s cool.

Given that you don’t necessarily do accessibility yourself in your primary job duties but you have been aware of it for a while, what would you say your greatest achievement is in terms of web accessibility? Have you had any success at … You manage to evangelize to somebody or make people change or anything else?

Josh: I don’t know that I’ve had a terribly great [inaudible 00:15:09] in this regard. It’s something that I advocate often. But I think one of the most tangible things for me is that, a couple of years in the past now actually, when you, when we were at OSCON when I was Community Manager for O’Reilly Media in OSCON, when you pointed out that we had all these lunch tables, these topic tables covering security and various languages, we had even added a LGBT, plus and allies table. We didn’t have an accessibility table for people who shared an interest in that to get together. That was a serious omission that you pointed out as an attendee and speaker at OSCON, which I really appreciated.

Nicolas: Hmm

Josh: Happily we were able to pretty quickly get an accessibility table put together, and sure enough you weren’t the only one there. There were quite few people who took advantage of it, right.

Nicolas: Yeah.

Josh: People care about this and appreciated the opportunity to connect with each other around that topic. I think that’s the most tangible win for me yet, but I would like to think that I can do a lot more in terms of getting people to incorporate accessibility, universal design, in to their craft.

Nicolas: Yeah, I have to say I remember that experience vividly. I was quite impressed at how quickly you guys turned around and actually made it happen, rather than to say, “Oh well, you know. It’s a good idea, but we’ll see what we can do next year.” That was really appreciated and I know that the other people that joined me at that table also enjoyed the ability.

From my perspective, the other aspect of that is that it was one way to very quietly build awareness around that, because it’s an important topic. Therefore, there was a table there about accessibility, just like there was a table about security, about all these other important topics. It really raised the image of accessibility, if you want. I certainly would not belittle this achievement on your end. I think it was, as you say, quite tangible and important.

Josh: Well, thank you. It’s definitely credit to the team for responding quickly, once you provided us that feedback.

Nicolas: I’m going to point out an achievement of yours that you haven’t really spoken about, but I think that from what I’m seeing, the conferences that you’re organizing now are actually a lot better than many of the other conferences I’ve seen about putting the idea of accessibility right at the forefront of even the call for proposals. I think that’s a very important aspect. We want to raise awareness of accessibility and putting it right there is quite an achievement to make these things, to make people’s awareness and perception of accessibility change. I think you should not belittle your own achievements in terms of pushing for accessibility.

Josh: Well, thank you. One of the things that I learned in the course of Community Managing for O’Reilly Media was a crash course in building inclusive spaces and events. I think what I’ve learned, I mean I’m saying this as yes, I’m a queer man with ADHD, but I’m also cis-gender, white, male.

There’s a lot that I’ve been learning late in my life about inclusivity and intersectionality.  What I learned through that experience is just that accessibility, people with disabilities both temporary and permanent, are an important access of identity. If we can talk about yes, we need to get more support women in technology so that the gender ratio is more reasonable. Yes, we want the racial, ethnic representation in the industry that we see in the world around us. We also want to see that kind of representation in terms of people with disabilities.

If we’re not running events that are accessible, that would make it a first order of priority as a topic that’s valued and as attendees that are valued, then we’re just not going to see that in the industry and that would be a shame. Because when we build things perhaps with the best of intentions, but if we don’t, if we’ve got a monoculture building things and there are all manner of issues that are not being considered when we’re creating. It’s important and thank you for pointing it out. It’s something that I want more conferences to take very seriously.

Nicolas: Yeah. As I’m listening to you talk about diversity and all the aspect of a diversity that we tend to hear about normally, is gender, is race, is sexual orientation. But very often we don’t hear about accessibility as an aspect of diversity. As a Community Manager who actually is thinking about that that way, what would be your suggestions or recommendations to prompt other people in similar roles as you to start thinking about visibility as an aspect of diversity?

Josh: I think … What I have found, I guess it was a bit of a turning point for me in terms, so that for me in my experience, there’s been learning about accessibility in the first place. There’s been receiving my ADHD diagnosis and having increasingly worse vision, such that I, myself, need more and more assisted technology or well designed technology so that I’ve got skin in the game as well.

Then there’s realizing, and I think this is Charlie Kravetz. He gave a presentation at SOCAL Linux Expo maybe a couple years ago, 2015 I think. He made a point of saying that basically every single human on this planet is going to need accessible technology at some point, right. Whether that’s the inevitable degeneration of our eyes or an accident where someone’s in a collision and loses a limb. Whatever it is, everyone is going to have a need for accessible technology eventually. That is 100% of people that accessibility matters to, whether they know it or not, right.

Nicolas: Yeah.

Josh: If we talk about … I hate couching these things from a… in a business perspective, right, because there’s a moral imperative here and that should be a good enough argument. But I want to acknowledge that if I’m building a product and I’m not building it with a swath of the population in mind, such that I can only ever get 50% of the market or 90% of the market, there are 10% of people that can never even use my service or product, well, that actually hurts the bottom line, right.

Nicolas: Yeah.

Josh: We shouldn’t need to argue based on money and good business sense for these things. But it is, I think recognizing that 100% of people need accessible technology eventually was a turning point for me-

Nicolas: Yeah.

Josh: … in terms and … Okay, so sorry. That was my long-winded way of getting around to saying I think that is the point. The 100% of people needing it eventually is what I want to communicate to other community organizers to help them understand why it’s so important to elevate people with disabilities and accessibility in terms of building inclusive communities.

Nicolas: Yeah, well I think that’s a really strong perspective to be thinking about. It’s funny, you say everybody at some point will have a disability, whether it’s permanent or temporary. I, myself use Wilshire but last year I found myself even more impaired because I broke both my wrists and suddenly it was a situation where I had to rethink my way of doing things quite significantly. Even just typing on keyboard was tricky.

I think your perspective of let people know that these kind of things can happen to you at any time and as you age, it may become more tricky for you to use the web, I think might actually be an argument to get people to say, “Hey, well, yeah. Maybe this is indeed important.”

Josh: Yeah. Yeah, that’s the hope.

Nicolas: That’s the hope. Listen, Josh, on that note, I think we’re going to wrap this segment of our chat for this week. Thanks for your fantastic, candid answers to my questions and I’m looking forward to finishing our chat next week.

Josh: Excellent, looking forward to it. Thank you so much.

Nicolas: Thank you.

Thank you for listening and until next week, that’s all. Before I go I want to thank my patrons once again, and remember that if you need a hand in training yourselves accessibility, I’m available. Contact me on my website at incl.ca.

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