E06 – Interview with Josh Simmons – Part 2

I continue my conversation with Josh Simmons this week, and we speak about frustrations, conventional wisdom and inspirations.


Nicolas: Welcome to the A11y Rules Podcast. You’re listening to Episode 6. I’m Nic Steenhout and I talk in one way or another with people involved with web accessibility. This episode has been sponsored by patrons like you. I really do appreciate your support.

This week we’re continuing our conversation with Josh Simmons. I do invite you to listen to the first part of the conversation because it was quite thought provoking and interesting. Hi again Josh.

Josh: Hi there!

Nicolas: Shall we continue our discussion where we left off last week?

Josh: Yeah, let’s.

Nicolas: All right! We were talking about achievements in terms of web accessibility and how to get community managers to think about diversity in terms of also including accessibility needs and disability in that continuum. From that, what would you say your greatest frustration is in terms of web accessibility?

Josh: My greatest frustration… I think my greatest frustration would be the under appreciation of the fact that when we build a website for instance with accessibility in mind when we build it correctly, we also tend to build it in such a way that is good for say, search engines, or for different… Ok, I guess what I’m trying to say is that building something with accessibility in mind gets you a whole lot of other good things for free. So doing the right thing in the first place has a lot of extra wonderful consequences and so accessibility… You know in our last conversation I mentioned universal design. And that’s a concept that I’ve only learned of in the last year and a half, but it’s one that has really taken root with me because if we look at accessibility as a feature, then we can always defer it and say “we’re not at that point in the product lifecycle yet, or in the build process”. But if we understand lack of accessibiliyt as a bug, then we understand that we’re not done until accessibility is addressed.

Nicolas: Yeah.

Josh: So it’s flipping it on its head, right? Accessibility is not a feature, lack of accessibility is a bug! And I think it’s the common understanding of accessibility as extra work rather than something that should be part of the process already that I find very frustrating in this community.

Nicolas: I like that. It’s a frustration with accessibility that I haven’t really come across before and I think it’s very refreshing. It also ties in a little bit with Robert Jolly where he was saying accessibility should be part of the definition of done when you’re looking at Agile sprints.

Josh: Yes.

Nicolas: I think it all ties in. That’s fantastic.

Josh: Yeah, I couldn’t agree more with that.

Nicolas: From your perspective as not really an outsider looking in, but as someone who’s not directly involved in eating and sleeping and breathing accessibility day-in, day-out, what would you say your perspective is on the conventional wisdom of web accessibility is?

Josh: Gosh. From where I’m sitting, the conventional understanding of web accessibility is so spotty. I think there are the people out there who understand that something is not done until accessibility has been addressed. And I think that it’s unfortunately a minority, but you move further down the continuum and you have folks who understand that in the US at least you need to meet Section 508 standards in terms of accessibility. Otherwise you’re liable and vulnerable to lawsuits. And then there are the people who just don’t really know that at all and don’t realize that by creating websites and web applications that… That by creating something and putting it out in public there’s a responsibility that we have, especially when we’re doing it for government agencies or for commercial entities or any legal entity there’s a responsibility to put something out there that’s accessible. And so there’s a whole world of technology professionals out there who just not only aren’t on board in terms of the feeling that there’s a moral duty, but that don’t even understand the legal duty. So there’s this continuum of understanding and it’s so frustrating that understanding is so spotty.

Gosh I’m sorry, I may have ranted and even ended off of point there.

Nicolas: No, that’s good, I love you rambling and ranting because you’re taking interesting directions.

Josh: Oh, good, good.

Nicolas: What would you say is the number one reason most people fail to succeed with web accessibility?

Josh: I think… I would say not… With the understanding that most people who are building websites are building them for other people, right? Whether it’s a freelancer agency thing that’s doing it on a client services basis or you’re part of a company internally building something I think the number 1 problem in getting to building accessible website more often is getting the both the people… It’s getting the people that we answer to to understand that it’s critical.

When I was a freelancer, ┬áif I didn’t care about something, or make it a point to tell the client that their website needed to be accessible, or have responsive design, or whatever it was, if I didn’t make a point of caring about that and telling the client about that, then they wouldn’t pay me to spend the time on that in the first place, right? If I’m not advocating for it and the client isn’t asking for it, then it’s not going to happen. I think the number one barrier is really is making sure that the people who are asking for websites to be build understand what their obligations are and what the right thing to do is as well.

Nicolas: Yeah. What would you say to the client who you approach them and you say “Hey, you know, we’re going to build you this website. It’s important that the site is accessible”, and they turn around and they say “I don’t care about accessibility, and I don’t want to spend time or money or resources or effort into it”. What would you say to them?

Josh: Well, first I would have to decide whether or not I need… I need to let them know that maybe we should talk about the morals obligations before talking about the business case. But practically speaking, I imagine that I would say “look, building something that’s accessible means that your customers can stay loyal to you over the course of their lifetime even as their life circumstances change”. Building something that’s accessible means that the code is more readable and useful for search engines so you’re going to rank better in search result pages. There are all these things that building for accessibility does that create far more value than is invested in upfront. So if you just do it right the first time, not only are you being good to people and creating loyal customers, but you’re also getting these nice perks like “hey guess what? My website is going to rank all right in search engines”. I think that’s what I would do. I would want to lead with the philosophy of universal design and say this is the craft and this is a thing that we’re not done until it has this and if you aren’t on board with that argument, then here’s the bottom line argument. The why it’s going to be good for your business for me to take care of these things now.

Nicolas: I think that’s a solid argument, but it’s not been my experience that it actually works 100% of the time. There’s quite a few people that decide that they don’t care, they don’t want to know, and “I’ll do something about it when I get sued”. Which unfortunately, eventually they do and then it can be a bit costly.

Josh: Right. I know that one thing… As I reflect on my days working in client services and as a freelancer, one of the mistakes I made was not being selective about my clients. I ended up working on projects that weren’t interesting to me that maybe weren’t morally aligned with my own philosophy. I worked with clients who maybe weren’t paying me enough but I was like… “Well it’s something, it’s better than nothing”. So I wasn’t in the habit of saying no enough to clients. And I think there are a lot of reasons why people who build websites, web developers, should say no more often. One thing that I’m seeing… There’s a need as a developer to say “no, look, I’m only going to build a website if it has these in there, if it has accessibility addressed. You can go try to find somebody else if you don’t want to pay for that”. I feel like that’s a mistake I made a lot, something I could have done differently, is be insistent and not take a client who doesn’t think that.

And a parallel that’s just come to mind is we’re living in this time where developers, software developers, web developers are building things that have serious impact on people’s lives. For instance there’s a lot of talk about developers refusing to collect information that they don’t need. Because if you’re collecting information and there’s a data breach, then… You know? I guess the point I’m getting at is there’s a need for craftspeople for web developers and software developers to be more assertive in demanding that we’re building things that adhere to the principles of universal design, and aren’t going to harm people. These websites and applications aren’t going to be build without us. So if more of us can take a stand on that, we’re in a position of power there really.

Nicolas: So you’d go as far as saying that lack of accessibility on a site actually harms people?

Josh: Oh absolutely.

Nicolas: Elaborate on that.

Josh: For instance the obvious example might be “Is there a service provider that plays a critical role in people’s lives?” Whether that’s a communication tool or a search engine or something like that, these things are utilities and if we are if those utilities aren’t usable by everyone, then there’s a real harm in terms of inequality of access to information, inequality to communicate with each other. Put it this way we have all these systemic biases, these systemic issues. Creating a tool that is not accessible only serves to amplify these systemic issues.

Nicolas: Thank you. What would you say the greatest challenge is for the field of accessibility moving forward?

Josh: I think the greatest challenge is… You know, speaking as somebody who doesn’t live it and breathe it on a daily basis I think the greatest challenge might be to be seen as something that isn’t just a nice to have. Making that leap. If there are all these people learning to do software and app development in bootcamps and schools through tutorials, it’s important that accessibility is in the curriculum and it’s pitched as something that’s necessary. Increasingly we’re seeing more and more data breaches over the last 5 or 7 years, people are starting to understand that security isn’t just a nice to have, right?

Nicolas: Right.

Josh: And I think that’s the leap that we need to make with accessibility. It’s be seen as necessary because until then it’s just people de-prioritize it and… It’s just that there’s this inertia we’re trying to overcome I feel as an industry.

Nicolas: I agree with you that getting people to realize how critical accessibility is is a huge challenge.

Josh: Yeah, absolutely.

Nicolas: Changing tack a little bit, let me ask you: What are you curious about right now? What tickles your fancy in your spare time, if you have spare time, that you think “hey, I wanna learn more about this”?

Josh: I’ve been spending in what spare time I do have has been spend on learning the Python programming language. I spent years and years working in PHP and doing a little C# and other things, but mostly PHP and in that time when I was really doing a lot of development because I didn’t say no to enough clients, I built the same brochure-ware website again and again and I wasn’t… Well, put it this way, I spent nearly two decades doing development and my skill levels are nowhere near what they should be for somebody who spent two decades doing development, and that’s because I was doing the same thing over and over again and not learning a whole lot. What I’ve been doing lately when I can is learning Python. First because it turns our my partner is big in the Python community and I’ve been dragged along to Pycons, which has been wonderful I should say but then I started to see how the Python community was a little different. A project I had a while back was doing a survey and research of web technology communities around different languages and frameworks and the Python community is exemplary in terms of being welcoming and friendly and inclusive from the top down in the community, even the creator of the language. He’ll go on stage and be wearing a Pyladies t-shirt. It’s very clear that inclusion is valued from the top down in this community. I’ve both been really enjoying the language and I could certainly gush about why the language itself is fun to work with but it’s just so enjoyable to be learning technology in context of a community that is so welcoming. It’s kind of a breath of fresh air. It’s been a lot of fun.

Nicolas: Cool. It does sound quite fun and refreshing.

Josh: I recommend it.

Nicolas: Who inspires you?

Josh: Oh gosh. I am struggling to pick a single individual. I am inspired by people who have had to overcome so much to get into the craft of web development and software development. And stay in the industry and fend for themselves and recognize that while I’ve had my own personal challenges in my life I’m a white man and that’s definitely life in easy mode in many respects. Getting in this industry was easy. I had access to things. People always took me seriously because I look like their stereotype of a nerd or a geek who works with computers. Things have always been not… No one has challenged my presence in this community, my existence in this community and I am just honored to be working alongside so many women, so many non-men, so many binary people, people with disabilities, people of color, who not only are more skilled than I am but have also have developed such incredible wisdom and character as they’ve had to deal with such bullshit this industry throws at them. It’s incredible I admire these people so much and I’ve been learning a lot from them.

Nicolas: I think that’s a good point. There’s a lot of people that are really determined to stay in the industry despite a whole bunch of barriers that are thrown in their way.

Josh: Absolutely.

Nicolas: Let me wrap it up by asking you who else do you think I should talk to or interview in the context of this A11y Rules Podcast?

Josh: Have you spoken with Charles Kravetz?

Nicolas: Not yet, no. But I’ll put him on my list!

Josh: Highly recommended. He’s good people. His certainly been a leader in the community and the talk that I saw him give at Scale a couple years back was just incredible.

Nicolas: Wonderful! Thank you.

Josh: Thank you so much.

Nicolas: So Josh thanks again for taking the time to talk with me today. Thanks to everyone to listening to our conversation. We’ll catch you around on Twitter or perhaps at a conference at some time in the future.

Josh: Sounds good, I’ll see you online.

Nicolas: Thanks Josh.

Josh: Thanks Nic.

Nicolas: 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 ensuring your site’s accessibility, I’m available. Contact me on my website on http://incl.ca