Damien tells us “Later does not exist in our industry. Don’t push something without accessibility now. Because you will NOT go back and fix it later”
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Nic: Welcome to the A11y Rules Podcast. This is episode 81. I’m Nic Steenhout, and I talked with people involved in one way or another with web accessibility. If you’re interested in accessibility, hey, this show’s for you. To get today’s show notes or transcript, head out to https://a11yrules.com.
Nic: 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: In this episode, I’m continuing my conversation with Damien Senger. Last show was actually quite good. We spoke about different things, including how Damien learned about having ADHD and how that influenced his work in accessibility and how he managed to build an accessibility culture within his organization. Damien, welcome back.
Damien: Thanks for having me again.
Nic: We finished last week talking about your greatest achievement. Let’s look at what’s your greatest frustration in terms of web accessibility?
Damien: I don’t know if I can choose one, but I have two. The first one is, I think … it’s also going better and better every day. It’s the lack of care of people around accessibility. I’m saying this because I worked with a lot of different developers, and I don’t think developers are doing an awful job, but I just have the feeling that more and more in companies, there is a lot of focus on choosing the right framework to find a lot of developers, but not choosing the right framework to help the consumers. One of my frustrations into this is the fact that even if you can convince people that accessibility is important, I sometimes struggle to push accessibility as a requirement. For example, applications offer the choice of a specific framework or this kind of stuff. So this one will be the first.
Damien: The second one is … relating to this one, so that’s why for me they are going together. Even if this one is really going better, it’s the lack of care in a lot of events. So this one for me is going better because more and more conferences are trying to select accessibility as a topic or to look for speakers speaking about accessibility, but it’s a bit like inclusivity. It was a known topic for a lot of time, and in some events, there is still like a lot of resistance, because like it’s only for eight persons.
Damien: I still heard, I think in the last month in a discussion with a developer, this sentence that I found awful all the time, which is, “Why just spending so many time into something made only for five people?” No, no, please no. So that’s the frustrating part, there are still a lack of care most of the time in the community, development community as a whole. Even if you manage to push accessibility as a product decision, it’s really hard to push the fact that accessibility is not only what you produce, but also what you work with. And it’s not only for the consumer, but also for people within the organization.
Nic: That is something that I see change, but sometimes I feel like not fast enough. I think I do share that frustration, that not just developers, but all stakeholders, from designers to site owners to even QA testers that, “Why are we spending this much effort for just a handful of people?” It always boggles me.
Nic: Then I start giving hard statistics to people. The recent change in the U.S. census, that it’s not 1 in 5 person in the U.S. that has a disability anymore, it’s 1 in 4. Nearly 25% of people in the U.S. have a disability. I think that number is probably reflected all over the world.
Damien: Yeah, and for me, that’s also one of the game changers. It’s the fact that … it’s also thanks to including the cognitive disabilities into the census on this topic.
Damien: I’m working a lot with reading impairments these days. It’s a topic I really find amazing, because when you ask someone, “How do you read a text?” for example, you cannot answer that. We don’t know, “How do we read?” It’s like something automatic for our brain, but it’s so much work, in fact. I find it amazing to see the direction of people.
Damien: Like in one of my last meetup participation, where I explained that depending of the census, reading impairment can be up to 20% of the population, depending on how do measure and what are the limits for reading impairment. Once you touch like the 20% of the population, people are like, “Hmm. That’s maybe important in this case,” because 20%, we can look at our neighbors, like our direct neighbors in the room, and we should find at least one person.
Nic: It’s always interesting that some companies, designers, developers are going to be really keen to make their design, their site, their app work in Internet Explorer that still has maybe 4% of the market share of browsers, but they’re going to totally ignore accessibility, which is anywhere between a fifth and a quarter of visitors. That always amuses me.
Damien: Yeah, I agree. I’m smiling, because I had this discussion, including my current company, like a few months ago with the same arguments. But what I found even more funny is … because this one, we can fight against it. We have statistics, and we can show statistics. The one I’m really struggling with most of the time is, “Let’s do this later. Do we really need this? Can we just not push the feature without caring about it and fixing it later? This one is the one I’m always smiling with, because I’m like, “Why?” We all know that later is not existing in our industry. We’re never coming back on features, except if you’re working at booking, Airbnb, Facebook, like really big players. I don’t know a lot of early stage startups, service A startup or service B startup, with time to go back.
Nic: I love that statement. “Later does not exist in our industry.” I think that’s a really important takeaway.
Damien: And it’s costful. Even if you need to, because … for example, regulations, if you’re working in Norway, for example, with one of the strictest, I think, regulation on accessibility in Europe. If you really need to go back later, it’s costful. It’s so expensive, because in this case, you need to create new stories, you need to go back through all the meetings, all the refinement, all the discussions.
Damien: People don’t realize how expensive it can be when you need to do the whole cycle again, and the fact that sometimes … most of the time, all the accessibility fixes as I’m requesting from my developers, it’s a ten minute job. It’s aria-labels, it’s asking for some IDs linked to specific DOM points to explain the different relations between screen readers. It’s having specific text only for assistive technologies. It’s fixing some copies for cognitive impairments.
Damien: Most of the time, it can be a lot, but it’s not rebuilding a complete feature. I think it happens only once in my life to ask engineers to redevelop entirely new features, and it was because it was the navigation. Yes, if you have your navigation completely fucked up, you need to start again.
Nic: Yeah. This reminds me of an example I like to use. When you build a house and you put in a narrow door and two steps in front of the door, and later on you have to actually remove the steps and change the door so it’s wider for a wheelchair, that will be very costly. But if you build it with a wide door and no step at the entrance to start with, you’re cost increases negligible. So I think it’s what you’re talking about. If you know there’s something to fix with accessibility in your current project, just do it now. Don’t wait until later.
Damien: For me, it’s where it’s really important to get support and to get support from your stakeholders, because it cannot be a one person job. That’s why I’m really grateful for my current company, because I have a lot of support from my manager, which already walked and purchased accessibility even before I started to the different stakeholders. But it cannot be like a one person job. You cannot spend all your time explaining over and over again why you need to do that at one point. It’s not sustainable for yourself.
Nic: Damien, what is the one thing that everybody knows about web accessibility?
Damien: I hope it’s never, never, never not adding alt to an image. An image tag needs to have an alt. Even if it’s an empty one, but it needs to have an alt attribute. I hope that’s the case. Please tell me that it’s the case.
Nic: It’s funny, because I’ve been telling developers about the alt attribute for a very long time now, and the kind of things I was finding 10 or 15 years ago when I do accessibility audit is still the same thing I’m finding about images. Either there’s no alt attribute at all, or the text, the value of the attribute is problematic. So maybe people do know about the alt attribute, but they’re still needing to understand things a little bit better.
Damien: My main issue, and it’s related to the alt attribute in a way, is the fact that they are simplifying so much. The HTML can easily become inaccessible. I’m thinking about the alt attributes for the images, but also something I’m seeing morbe and more, not only from the students I’m teaching to, but also in job applications. When I’m seeing some exercise and assessments, it’s the fact that people now for forms inputs are just using inputs. “It’s a text input? Great. Let’s just use input. Why is there any other attributes? I don’t know, but it’s not useful. We need to have the smallest DOM as possible. Let’s do inputs.” It’s the same. This is not sustainable. We cannot just remove complexity for performance reason. First, because it’s not important. Removing two attributes will not increase the performance of your website.
Nic: I would like to see a time where accessibility is viewed on the same level as the importance of performance and the importance of security. I think that would be really fantastic. If you sell your services as a design outfit or a web developer outfit, you don’t charge extra to build a secure website, and you shouldn’t charge extra to build an accessible website. It should be built into what you do. But maybe it goes back to the point you were making about lack of skills, lack of understanding of basic skill sets, like knowing HTML or knowing CSS.
Damien: Yeah, I think it’s tied to that. I also think that .. and I still stop attacking developers. I will attack designers a bit more. I think designers are really responsible for that, too, because if we care so much about performance, it’s also because not only developers care about it, but designers, because when it’s not loading quickly enough no my super iPhone X, I will shout to the product team. Because I’m a designer, the product team will listen to me. When there is no alt on images or when there is no keyboard support, for example, and no keyboard navigation possible, because the DOM is going in all direction, or because in practice we’ve been doing this a lot, a lot of nodes are removed from the DOM when they are not displayed.
Damien: Designers don’t care, and product managers don’t know that they have to care about. So it’s not only, for me, an issue with the skill sets of people building the solution, but it’s also because nobody else care. For everything else, accessibility … oh, for performance, or just for the UX, and the way that the design would be displayed in the end, there is enough people to shout when it’s not working.
Nic: What do you think the number one reason is for most people failing to implement accessibility?
Damien: In my opinion, it’s because people believe that it’s complex. There is always this image that accessibility is obscure, it’s complex, it’s a lot of rules. Yes, it’s a lot of rules, but it’s not this complex. If you’re doing a semantic HTML, have off this job is already done. If you want a good UX with a good readability for your design with color contrast and a great heading hierarchy, again, 20% of the job is done. In the end, if you care about your product and if you want to do something which is not revolutionary, but which is functional, it will work. So I really believe that the reason why is just because people don’t know and they think that it’s too complex.
Nic: How can we make it appear more simple or less complex or more approachable? What can we, in the industry specifically, do to help people get over that sense of, “Oh, it’s too difficult”?
Damien: That’s a really good question. I’m not sure I have the answer, but I think that talking about, what you’re doing with this podcast, is already a good way to show that. Just adding a way to show that there is a lot of people who can help you. There is an open community. There’s a lot of people on Twitter, a lot of articles. There is a lot of resources. So just maybe being more public sometimes.
Damien: have the tendency to think … at least, I’m thinking a lot that our community sometimes is … which is great, but is focusing a lot on some details and some implementation details. Sometimes, I think we just … like when people are asking questions on specific ways to implement accessibility on their project, I think we just forgot to answer something which can be quite interesting and quite important. It’s, “Do it.” It will not be perfect, because you will never be 100% accessible to everybody. Just do it. If it’s not perfect, it’s okay. It’s better than not doing it. I really believe that sometimes we forget to say that to people. But just don’t do this with ARIA. No ARIA is better than bad ARIA. But aside of that, doing a bit and imperfect accessibility is better than no accessibility.
Damien: For me, there is another part which is more difficult to this answer, which is … but it’s complicated, and I’m not sure that people want to hear that, but it’s something that I discussed about in a conference like a few days ago. We don’t want to see ourselves impaired. We don’t want to see ourselves in this kind of position. And because we don’t want to see ourselves with disabilities, we are lacking empathy. I would love people to understand that they don’t need to see themselves in position with impairments. They don’t need to try to understand how is my life with ADHD and being on the spectrum to just fix what could be needed to have a better accessibility for cognitive disabilities.
Nic: I think that’s a very profound thought, the fear of facing your own fragility as a barrier to implementing accessibility. That’s something I’m going to have to think about some more. Thank you for that thought, Damien. That’s good.
Damien: Thank you.
Nic: What would you say the greatest challenges for the field of web accessibility are to move forward?
Damien: I think that one of the things that we need to fix once and for all is the discussion around accessibility versus inclusive design. I would love the community to compensate and say, “We don’t care.” We’re just fixing our solutions, we’re fixing our products and our project for people to use it, everybody, regardless of specific abilities or environmental situations. If the whole community could move forward in this direction without spending more time discussing is it toxic or not. I think it could be better for everybody and it could be also a good way to bring on board more designers, more developers, and more product managers.
Nic: Hey, let’s finish with one last question for you. What is the one thing people should remember about web accessibility?
Damien: That it’s fun. That it’s really fun. I think that people, and especially like Castor, where I’m working, I think they cannot imagine how fun it is to work with this. Yes, of course, there is guidelines that you need to follow and success criterion It can be boring sometimes to read this and to check it. But aside of that, it’s fun, like discovering new ways to use a computer. It’s incredible. Thanks to that, and thanks to the fact that I was interested in the possibility, I’ve learned how to use a screen reader, and now the screen reader is helping me with my dyslexia. I found ways to finally read and understand text again, really long ones thanks to that. Accessibility is fun. If you want to spend a bit of energy to learn more about it, if you want to spend a bit of time to discover it a bit more, you will maybe discover ways for you to improve your relation with your computer thanks to accessibility. In one word, accessibility is fun.
Nic: Accessibility is fun. Damien Senger, thank you so much for your participation and your willingness to answer all my questions.
Damien: Thanks for inviting me. That was really, really nice to discuss with 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 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 A11y Rules Podcast.