E079 – Interview with Liz Jackson – Part 2

In which Liz Jackson tells us she wishes people viewed accessibility as an opportunity to engage, rather than a legal compliance thing.


Thanks to Twilio for sponsoring the transcript for this episode.

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Nic:    Welcome to the accessibility rules podcast. This is episode 79. I’m Nic Steenhout, and I talk with people involved in one way or another with web accessibility. If you’re interested in accessibility hey, this shows for you.

To get today’s show notes or transcript head out to https://a11yrules.com. Thanks to Twilio for sponsoring the transcript for this episode. Twilio connect the world with the leading platform for voice, SMS, and video at Twilio.com.

In this episode, I’m continuing my conversation with Liz Jackson. Welcome back, Liz.

Liz:    Thanks, again for having me.

Nic:    Thank you.

So, the last show was really great. We talked about quite a few things that are not necessarily the usual topics of this podcast, including disability culture friction and nothing about us without us, so that’s been really powerful stuff.

We finished last week on a great positive thought of “Let’s make this fun.” Let’s flip that a little bit and ask you, Liz… What’s your greatest frustration about accessibility?

Liz:    My greatest frustration with accessibility is I think the fact that people view it as a box to be checked. That there’s a minimum amount that you need to do and that I think is fundamentally lacking in creativity. I’m not saying that that’s what accessibility is. I’m saying that that is the perception of what it is. I think people view it a lot in terms of legal compliance. And I just… I wish we could sort of view it instead as an opportunity to engage.

And I’m going to pause for a second because… you’ll hear why.

Nic:    You were saying we should view accessibility as an opportunity to engage rather than as a compliance thing.

Liz:    Yeah, I think right now the way accessibility is being done is oftentimes at the exclusion of actual disabled people. I oftentimes use the example… I have sort of an obsession with National ADAPT, and so I oftentimes use the example of; Okay, so how did… What happened with that original gang of 19 and bus lifts? And this is really the thing that I saw. So, what happened was, in the early 1970s, right, this is the first time in history that disabled people were actually escaping institutions, right? So out in society, they looked really radical. And they wanted something very radical. The wanted access. They wanted accessibility, and they wanted it in the form of bus lifts on busses. And they went about it in a radical way. They parked their bodies in front of buses and intersections in Denver, and they protested for access. And, at the time society was probably incredibly frightened of these bodies that they hadn’t previously experienced. But, if you look at sort of what happened in the years after what you see is that suddenly people stopped perceiving those bodies as being so radical. They became accustomed to seeing disabled people out in society, so, they became less radical, and their ideas became less radical. People started thinking, “Yeah, access is a human right. Buses should come with bus lifts.” And, ultimately buses did start coming with bus lifts and this idea of buses on buses, it was so potent that in the 90s when the  ADA was written buses were written into the ADA. And, I think for me, it is. It’s very easy to look at this and sort of view it as a success, but I actually see something a little bit different which is that the very moment that bus lifts were written into the ADA, at least it feels to me, that the national adapt and the people who fought so valiantly for it were no longer needed in the thing that they advocated for. And so, I think in this work that we’re doing I wonder how often we are actually inadvertently advocating for our own exclusion by advocating for our own inclusion. And so, for me, the question is how is it that in web access and in these various things that we’re fighting for, how is it that we can sustainably advocate to participate. And so for me, it’s that mantra. It’s design with disability. It’s nothing about us without us. How is it that we can ensure that the things that we fight radically for don’t turn into things that are empathetically done for us?

Nic:    So, I often say that one of my ultimate goals is to do such a good job as to put myself out of a job. So, you know, do enough advocacy and do enough education and do enough work in the accessibility field that this kind of work would not be required anymore. Because, everything would be accessible. Everything would be done with an inclusive mindset which kind of closes the circle, because if you’re starting to think of a culture of inclusion, you have to think about getting people with disabilities involved. So, even if I do manage to put myself out of a job as an accessibility specialist I think that the job will be truly, properly done when even though I may not be an accessibility specialist anymore I would still be included in the discussion and in the design phase, and everything to make sure that people with disabilities are part and parcel with the process. Not just an afterthought, or, not just something we do for them.

Liz:    Yeah, I think… I think that even in this idea of putting… wanting to put yourself out of business… I think there’s a part of me that worries that… are we too in the frame of mind of problems that need to be solved and are we separating culture from access too much? I think I’m someone… I view you as someone who I think is deeply creative and I don’t think for a creative person the work ever stops.

Nic:    Totally.

Liz:    And so for me, the question is, okay, well, say on this very logistical side, yeah you do put yourself out of business. Okay, so then the question becomes “What’s next?”

Nic:    Absolutely. What’s next.

Product design, which you’ve been quite involved with… How can your experience in product design benefit people involved with web accessibility? What lesson could you share from learning about product design that web accessibility people can implement? Think about?

Liz:    When there does seem to be a product that’s framed around creating accessor a product that’s inclusive of disabled people, when it’s put out into the world it’s oftentimes framed through the lens of empathy. And, I think that there are other ways that we can perceive the works in this space. We don’t always have to view disability through this empathetic lens. And, so, I actually have been spending the last couple of years pursuing my own product. More… it’s a little bit less about the product, and it’s a little bit more about a statement of why… what this work can sound like in terms of tone. And, so the story behind the product is… a couple of years ago I was at South by Southwest, and there were some major accessibility problems. And, it ended up leading me to get into this contentious back and forth with the head of South by Southwest, this guy named [Hugh Forest? 08:27]. And, in one of the phone calls, I basically told him I was going to create a product that was going to basically shed light on the accessibility issues of South by, and to my surprise he was really supportive of it. I had some people who were supportive all along, and I ended up going back to South by this year with an app. It’s really my answer to craptions. So a craption is basically those pesky errors that happen in automated captions. I call it thisten, so it’s basically ‘this’ and ‘listen,’ for me, I sort of see it as the physical act of listening. And, you know, I think this is one of the conversations we’ve been having about the product. Typically when somebody looks at this product, they’re going to say, okay, well this is definitely something that benefits somebody who is hard of hearing or deaf. But, I’m saying no. We’ve got to flip this. This is a product that can not succeed without a massive untapped pool of deaf and hard of hearing talent. And, I think to myself – okay, so then people are going to frame this product as something that solves a problem. And what is the problem that it solves? Well, traditionally I think that society would say this solves the problem, almost, of deaf people. But, that for me is not the problem. For me, the problem is this solves the problem of conferences and events failing to take into account accessibility. And so, I think, every step of the way I’m trying to shift the way our objects and our products are positioned in society and I’m just trying to make sure people fully understand what is it that we are actually solving for. I’m not solving for a deaf person. If I did, I’m sure a deaf person would tell me to go F myself. They don’t need me. What I’m solving for is a fundamental, societal problematic lack of access in some of the most influential spaces in the world.

Nic:    What do you think the number one reason is that most people fail to take accessibility into account or fail to succeed with implementing accessibility?

Liz:    This has really been a passion point for me. And, it’s one of the reasons why now I’m trying really hard too. In design schools wherever there is a class that teaches accessibility, I’m also trying to implement a disabilities course work alongside it. Because I think people are learning the ‘how’ without the ‘why’ and it’s… I think there is a fundamental lack of understanding there in what it does, what it does in the long run, what it does in the short term, who it impacts and how it shifts our lives in small but very profound ways. And, it’s learning about why do we think about the way we do about x or y. And, I think this is the thing. It’s like I love disability. This is the passion of my life, and I think… I look at design, and I see… a designer might, at a very young age, realize ‘I have a knack for this,’ but they don’t think that they can just design. They know ‘okay, I’ve got a knack for this. I’ve got to go to school. I’ve got to educate myself,’ and then they usually encounter me as they’re continuing their education in a conference or educational setting. This is a life-long commitment, and yet these are the very people who they sort of turn to disability, and they think they just know. And, I think they think they know because they’ve been taught to feel a certain way about it, whether it’s inspirational or empathetic or whatever the case may be. Whatever these sort of societal narratives are. And so, for me, it’s about, well, how do we as disabled people how do we intervene in that sort of expectation of ‘we just know?’ How do we intervene and say, ‘No, disability is a creative process.’ It is something that you can be passionate about, you can love, and you can commit to. And, you can have ongoing education, and I think the majority of designers don’t even know disability studies exist as a field. And so, for me, if you can teach people that this is not just a portfolio or a brand enhancer but rather this is something you can endeavor in and be passionate about and delight in… I think we would have a much easier time. And, I think the thing that sells it short is this frame that we’ve historically done of just framing something as: simple problem, simple solution. If we could break away from that and delve into the complexity, I think people would get really wrapped up in it.

Nic:    There’s been a lot on Twitter, quite a few threads on unpopular tech opinions. Would you have an unpopular accessibility/disability opinion to share? Something maybe controversial or something that you think you really believe in but other people might not necessarily agree with.

Liz:    Yeah. Oh, do I have one or do you say you have one?

Nic:    No, do you have one?

Liz:     I suppose I think my thinking about wanting to incorporate disability studies into the accessibility conversation. I think… I don’t think it’s unpopular in that people don’t like it. I think more often than not people feel very drawn to it and can almost sort of… sort of… once its…I’m unable to articulate it, they feel a bit of relief. Like, yeah, I think that’s sort of the missing piece. But I think it is unpopular in the fact that we didn’t previously consider it. And, so, maybe it’s something that just needs to gain a little bit of traction. But, I suppose I fundamentally believe that if I do my… perform the role that I set out to do, which is incorporating a culture into the work that you’re doing. I fundamentally believe that I will make your work easier for you to do.  And, so, for me, I think even though I’m not tech savvy, I can barely find my way through the internet. The thing that I’m trying to show is a commitment to a handful of people. And, so, who are those people? I think those people are allies. People who are doing this work that makes the internet accessible. I think I’m also trying to amplify the work of academics, the people who are building the theory and doing the work that has long existed inside of paywalls, how is it that we can bring that out into the mainstream? And, so, if I say sort of I’m trying to honor the friction of my disability I also feel like I’m trying to honor all of those who came before me and have been doing this work much longer than I have, and who are much more adept at doing the physical things that I just don’t have the capabilities of doing. I think if anything I like to look and see all of our roles in this and figure out, ‘how is it that I can take a little of the burden from this person so they can thrive better?’ Because that’s what… I think the allies have been doing, that’s what the academics have been doing for me and for others as well. And so it’s like, “Okay, how do we sort of complete this circle?”

Nic:    How do we? Indeed. My… one of the thinking I have around accessibility itself and one of my frustration is that so many designers and web designers and web developers today don’t even know that it exists let alone know about alt text, and I’ve only been advocating for alt text since the mid 1990s. So, it’s not a new topic for me and yet kids coming out of a computer science course should know the basics. They don’t even know the basics exist in terms of accessibility, and I want to see that topic taught in computer science and design and development courses, boot camps… I want at least some people to have a basic understanding. And, in some ways it seems like what you’re talking about doing is post-graduate work rather than entry level, 101, 100 level courses. So, I’m not sure how to reconcile what you’re talking about,which I think is mission critical, but also, make sure that people at least have a basic understanding and awareness of.

Liz:    Yeah, I think… and I think maybe I might see this in a different way, I think … it’s so easy to get caught up in language in disability, I think… and there’s really 2 specific places I see this where I feel very protective of the language and that is the word mobility and the word accessibility. If you look at the word mobility, for me it means wheelchairs and access and all those different things but I sort of feel like now the word mobility is evolving to sort of mean autonomous vehicles and this other thing that exists outside of disability, and so as this word is being brought in to mean so much more and so many more things suddenly the things that I think it fundamentally means to me become a small piece of that. And so, say you want to teach the basics of accessibility as initial course work in… maybe even in high school or in a first-year design school. The thing that I find myself fearful of is that I feel like the word accessibility has become… because it has become this sort of trendy, increasingly trendy word, I feel like it’s broadening to mean so many things that even to sort of teach the basics of accessibility I worry that’s going to sort of be taken away. Does that make sense?

Nic:     Yes. That makes sense. So how do we… how do we teach these topics that are mission critical if we want an accessible web? A web usable by all regardless of disability, without diluting the word accessibility?

Liz:    And that’s… I think that’s the thing that I’m really grappling with right now. ‘Coz it’s not just mobility, it’s not just accessibility there’s other words too, they’re just not coming to mind at the moment. But, I think, I remember at some point in my work I think, “Well, what is disability?” Disability fundamentally is the absence of a trend, and I remember I wanted to create this thing called the absence of trend report where we sort of just report on things that exist. Like, regardless of trend. I think I do find myself a little bit fearful that if accessibility does become a trend then that means there’s an end to it. And, then people are going to lose interest and then they’ll kind of fall into another space. And so, for me, there’s this way in which I want to just sort of pull back and be like, no, this is… this exists regardless of whatever feelings we may be putting on to it, whatever momentum and whatever CEO is spousing it’s virtues. It exists regardless of that. And, so, how do we take ownership of it and say… I don’t want to say it’s small because it’s big, it’s everything, but there’s basics. There are fundamentals that the people who are spousing their virtues probably don’t even know. And I think I find that scary and I want to figure out how do we protect it.

Nic:    Certainly something to think about. I’m grappling with that as well. So, hopefully, you’ll wake up one morning and go “Ah ha! I have the answer” and [crosstalk 22:03] able to share that.

Liz:    Yeah, I hope so. I think it’s important. You know, it’s not something I take lightly. And I can’t imagine you take lightly either.

Nic:    No, no I don’t. Liz, let’s wrap this up with a final question for you. What’s the one thing people should remember about accessibility? Let’s focus that specifically. What should people remember about web accessibility?

Liz:    For me, the one thing that people should know about web accessibility is it’s a learning process. We may not realize that we need it until we need it. We may not we realize that it’s there until our failure has left somebody out. We may start to hear the word and not necessarily know what it means and it’s okay to not know and it’s okay to have been naive. But, once you know and once you are aware that this is something that exists it is something that I believe we have a responsibility to better understand. Especially if we’re creating things that go out into the world. And so, for me, I… if your design process is a learning process, if everything that you do is built upon everything you’ve done before then I hope that you will treat web accessibility the same way. I’m no better or worse than the next person. My initial website, seven years ago, was wildly inaccessible and yet now it has become a predominant focus of my work. And the same can be for you and you can feel really empowered in it.

Nic:    Thank you, Liz. That was a really good thought to finish on.

Liz:    Thank you.

Nic:    Liz Jackson, thank you and go out there and continue doing the good work you’re doing. Thank you for that.

Liz:    You too. You too. You’re doing some pretty profound stuff and I’m honored to be on your podcast.

Nic:    Thank you.

Liz:    Thank you.

Nic:    Thanks for listening. Quick reminder, the transcript for this and all other shows are available on the show’s website at https://a11yrules.com Big shoutout to my sponsors and my patrons. Without your support, I couldn’t not continue to do the show. Do visit patreon.com/steenhout if you want to support the accessibility rules podcast. Thank you.