In which Damien Senger tells us “Universal design is the answer, more than accessibility. Because people are on a spectrum.”
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Nic: Welcome to the Accessibility Rules Podcast. This is episode 80. 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 show is 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.
Nic: This week I’m speaking to Damien Senger. Thanks for joining me Damien to talk about accessibility. How are you?
Damien: Yeah, I’m fine. Thanks for inviting me.
Nic: I like to let guests introduce themselves so in a brief introduction, who is Damien Senger?
Damien: That’s a good question. I am not sure that I really know myself. I’m a mix between a designer and an HTML/CSS lover, so I’m working mainly as a designer for a company in Amsterdam called Castor EDC, where to be exact I’m Design Systems and Accessibility Lead. So half of my job is making sure that our development team is doing a correct job in what they’re delivering, correct job in the design, like how they implement it but also to a level of accessibility that we’re trained to achieve for our products. Aside of that I’m, like I said an HTML/CSS lover. I love to share my life, so I’m doing conferences, I’m trying to do articles but it’s really hard to find time and, yeah. That’s a bit of me, I’m living in Amsterdam and in Rotterdam, like a bit between both of these two cities so it’s a bit complex, but yeah, that’s me.
Nic: That’s you, wonderful, thank you. We’re talking primarily about web accessibility today. How would you define it?
Damien: Defining accessibility. Ah, that’s quite funny because it’s what I’m trying to do at my job these days. I’m writing an accessibility policy for the company, so trying to define what we want to achieve for that. For me it’s mainly tied to universal design. So, I really believe in the vision with which the web was created, so I think content accessible to everybody regardless of their specific abilities, so for me, accessibility is just being sure that we’re creating experiences that are exactly the same for everybody regardless if they can use a mouse or not. If they have really good attention span or not, or if they’re just really distracted in their environment.
Damien: So yes, I’m really focused on cognitive disabilities. I think it’s maybe one of the most interesting things for me into this part of the job.
Nic: Cognitive disabilities is an area of accessibility that has, until relatively recently, been mostly ignored on web and I’m glad to see more and more of that being discussed and solutions to barriers found, so good to hear you’re finding an interest in it. But why do you think it’s such an interesting part of the field of web accessibility?
Damien: Mainly because for me, it was forgotten by a lot of the community during a long time. As you said, the WCAG only started working on cognitive disabilities a few years ago, and the WCAG version 2, especially version 2.1 was the first one really trying to embrace this topic.
Damien: And for me it’s also really interesting because it’s invisible, so it’s even more difficult to work with it because it’s something that you cannot see at first sight, and also it’s something evolving, evolving a lot. We have a population which is aging. All the web specialists, all the web designers, all the web developers, all the web workers are quite still young in a way and the web is aging with us, but I’m not sure that the way the web is aging is fully prepared to all the different disabilities that we will get in the next years and in the next period of our lives.
Nic: How de we get prepared?
Damien: Yeah, how do we get prepared. I’m not sure that we can really know what our future will be made of, but there’s a lot of things that we can already prepare. Like when we see that all the experiences that we are creating right now in the web industries are based on getting the biggest attention span of people, that we are trying to get all the focus of people on specific action, that we are trained to always be in this mindset where we want to get more, and more, and more energy from people. This is not sustainable and this is one of the issues of cognitive disabilities.
Damien: The way we’re building the web it’s going not only from part of the products that are timed. But for example like something we all love to hate which is sliders, are one of the good example for me, where things where we build and we design in a way which is not inaccessible for key bots and assistive technology but also for our brains, because we were just like, “Okay, when web designed it, I was able to read it. Ten seconds was okay.” But you can never be sure that ten seconds will be okay for everybody, because you can have issues, I’m not an English speaker, like a native English speaker so the difference is something I have to deal with almost every day. But also you don’t know what the person is doing and what are the different cognitive capabilities of someone in front of the computer. So we are making a lot of assumptions that have an impact into the way that we’re [inaudible 00:06:49] the web, which is great for people within their twenties, thirties, forties years old; but maybe not for a population going with users of sixties, seventies, and so on.
Nic: When did you become aware of web accessibility and its importance and how did that happen?
Damien: When I … it’s a mixed answer. I think I started to really truly learn about accessibility when I was working still in France for a web agency called Alsacreations. They had web accessibility expert within the team, and they really cared about doing good quality work compliant with all the standards. So that was one of my first professional experience not as a freelancer, so that was a good way to start working with accessibility. When I really changed my mindset from accessibility is part of the job and really important but as important to doing a lot of different stuff in design, when I really started to focus a lot on accessibility was when I more and more issues with pronouns related to the fact that I am ADHD, and as a lot of people with ADHD when kind of somewhere in the spectrum between ADHD and autism, I was like yeah so maybe it’s not me, maybe it’s the way that we are building not only the web but product, and the society is not good enough to include everybody. Being someone in this field with a way to change the way the web is built was for me a good way to push myself working the accessibility field.
Nic: Obviously it has had an impact. But what kind of things can you tell us about this impact of discovering that while you maybe your impairment, your disability, how did that influence your perception of web accessibility specifically?
Damien: That influenced it in the way that I was mad. Seriously, I was mad because I worked for this agency which was really great but what I discovered when I was working with them is that all web accessibility concerns were mainly on the usability, like using specific assistive technologies, using keyboard, and using specific short cuts, and what was based on the hardware and the software, but not always on how do we build in a way that it’s inclusive for everybody. This focus on, that we can see in the first version of the WCAG, this focus mainly on the technology and not the way that we are building, the way that we are designing, and the way that we are trained to understand how people are using not only just the tools that they are using was something important for me. The fact that cognitive disabilities were not part of the early versions of specification was something where I was like, “Okay, there is maybe something I can do to help and have better accessibility for people with cognitive disabilities.”
Nic: What do you think of the current efforts to include cognitive accessibility, cognitive disabilities and accessibility in the guidelines? Do you think it’s enough or not enough or going in right direction or not?
Damien: I think it’s going in a really good direction. I really appreciate to see all the user interviews. For example made by the web accessibility initiatives to understand for people with autism, for people with ADHD, for people after having a stroke for example.
Damien: I really find interesting to not only the fact that they’ve done this work but also the fact they published all of these user interviews, all of the conclusions. So for me it’s going in a really good way, but still we can continue to go forward because right now I really like the way WCAG is evolving on this going more and more into the patterns of litigation, going more and more into usability concern and issues to fix. I just think that we can still continue in this direction. For example the fact that there is not a clear point on when do we need to communicate the time needed to actually complete form, or the fact that we don’t need to communicate, like there is one point on the triple A, I think on communicating the difficulty of some tasks. The fact that we don’t have more work and more identification on what do we need to do on the level A, level AA, and level AAA in this direction is still inefficient. It’s still not sufficient access for me, but it’s going in a really good direction.
Nic: I’ve spoken to a couple that didn’t think it was quite enough but while I acknowledged that I’m thinking that it’s better that than nothing and there is quite a bit of effort happening so it makes me happy to see that we’re slowly starting to think in terms of inclusion for all conditions, well inclusions for people that have different conditions because it’s not just about screen reader.
Damien: Yeah, I fully agree. It’s really nice to see the support. And every time … Working for screen readers is really important. In my daily life, like when I’m working for customer, I say that most of the recommendation doing, giving to engineers are based on how can we improve the navigation and the experience for users of assistive technologies.
Damien: Firstly for screen readers so working with screen readers for me it’s still really important it’s just that I really hoping that a lot of people and more and more people, and not the expert because I think that most of the experts are already got this in their mind, but I feel that the designers, the developers are a bit of where our accessibility can get this information that’s accessibly is not only for people with vision impairments. It’s not only working for braille platform and screen readers. It’s also working for someone who just got a stroke.
Damien: Especially for me , like what isn’t trusting and an argument which is always difficult to use in a way because I don’t like going in this direction but still working quite well for me is like most of the people where for example the autism spectrum or people with after a stroke they will be more … how can I say that, they will be more inclined to use still a computer to communicate with the rest of the world. So to be consumers because that’s sometimes one of the only options for them to be able to buy something. Because they can create so many short cuts and their family can, after a stroke for example, create so many short cuts, so many way to help them to actually … easy, medium, and complex tasks that like if you remove from your consumer all the people with cognitive disabilities, it’s like starting to be a lot of people removed from your potential market.
Damien: So like that’s an argument always, like difficult to use but ultimately that’s the only one working at the moment, but working continues. But, yeah so that’s something that I really want people to understand, it’s not only. [crosstalk 00:15:46]
Nic: I like this statement you made that the argument may not be a great one but it’s the only to use. It reminds me of this, the economy where, well not the economy, this difference of opinion between people that say, on one hand we shouldn’t talk about accessibility is good for everyone, we shouldn’t say that color contrast, good contrast is good for people with low vision but it’s also good for people that don’t have a disability that want to interact with their website on the phone. There’s this going back and forth, I’m a long term disability rights activist and I believe that we should use all the arguments at our disposal and if it helps people without disabilities to understand that, yeah you know making these changes, improving accessibility will actually improve usability for everyone. I think that’s a great, great way to look at it.
Damien: Yeah, I fully agree with this because for me the fact that we forgot for a long, a lot of time like community disabilities, for a lot of them it’s important.
Damien: For me, universal design, it’s the answer more than accessibility because also on the cognitive side of disabilities, a lot of them are spectrums. Because of this idea of spectrum, you’re already in this way of inclusive design. That’s why I really love the inclusive design for work made by Microsoft. Like this idea of, you have life long impairments, temporary impairments, and situational impairments.
Damien: Yes, unfortuantley I don’t like the fact that some people will only listen if it’s because they could be concerned. But at the same time that’s true, by working for life long impairments you’re improving the life of everybody regardless of their specific abilities, regardless of their environment and context. As an LGBTQ activist I really like this argument because you cannot make assumptions on the environment of people. Every time we are trained to make assumption on the environment of people we are marginalizing people. So for me universal design is the answer for that.
Damien: Focusing on that is also a good way to explain that we need to not track users using assistive technologies. I’m saying this because I read this morning, I think, an article, or no a tweet on this question, the fact that now we could have a way on iOS to track users with assistive technologies. For me that is one of the issue related to not thinking about universal design. If we are not in this idea of we can improve the life of everybody at the same time we will again be in the mindset of providing experiences for people and providing experience for all of the others.
Nic: Yeah. Separate and not equal.
Damien: Yes, we know this is true of the web. We know that every time we are trained to create something separate, like it’s made by companies where with like specific goals most of the time, commercial goals. [inaudible 00:19:32] two different platforms, two different content if it’s for like the same purpose it’s not working.
Nic: Damien, did you face barriers or difficulty when you were trying to learn about accessibility and if you did how did you get over that?
Damien: Yeah, I think I faced some difficulties but not really into finding the resources, because that’s for me one of the really really incredible stuff about accessibility. If you’re speaking english you can you find a lot of content, a lot of opinions, and let’s face it right now the way WCAG is also a wonderful source of information. Especially like the fact that there is indication how you can implement specific success critierias. So finding the information is maybe not for me the most difficult, but what I was troubled with at the beginning and especially when I was working as a freelancer was more finding how to convince people and how to convince people when they’re wrong.
Damien: And, I still don’t have a good answer for that.
Nic: Yeah, I wish I had an answer for that as well because maybe our lives would be easier. But, yeah. What’s your favorite word?
Damien: My favorite … word, my favorite word that’s a really interesting question. I don’t know. Um, like the only thing coming in my mind right now it’s inclusivity because I’m talking all the time about inclusivity. But, I find it silly as an answer. But, yeah I would say inclusivity.
Nic: It’s a good word. It truly is a good word. Let’s wrap this section of the show with asking you what’s your greatest achievement in terms of web accessibility. What’s the thing that makes you the most proud?
Damien: Oh. I think it’s in my current position. The fact that, it’s not like an achievement visible for the customer that we have at Castor but it’s more the fact that I was able to evolve in a position where like I can focus on accessibility. The company was already aware of accessibly and the need for accessibility. We are working in the health industry so that was a bit more easier, but the fact that at one point the company trusts me to make this job to have this commitment and to accept that, a really important amount of my time when I was not employed at the beginning for that is a reason for now for accessibility.
Damien: It’s maybe, yeah, something I’m really proud of because it shows that even if I don’t have any certification or if I learned this on my own, like first I have an impact and people are trusting me for the accessibility on this. Also because it shows that I managed to convince them especially because we are in the health industry and we have a platform which can be used by patients, it’s really important that we need to focus right now even if it was not right at the binning the priority of the company. So, yeah, I would say my current achievement.
Nic: I think that’s a good thing to be proud of to have managed to influence an entire company that provides healthcare information on web application, I think that’s mission critical that these apps be accessible because, well, not everybody who is sick has a disability but a lot people who are sick and needing health information have accessibility needs. So, well done. Thank you.
Damien: Thank you.
Nic: So, Damien, I will say thank you and we’re going to call this today and we’ll reconvene next week.
Damien: Yes. Thank you for your time.
Nic: Thanks for listening. Quick reminder the transcript for this and all other shows are available on the shows website at https://a11yrules.com . Big shout out to my sponsors and my patrons without your supports I could not continue to do the show. Do visit patreon.com/steenhout if you want to support the accessibility rules podcast. Thank you.