E086 – Interview with Christopher Schmitt – Part 1

Christopher says that for someone who likes Design so much, he didn’t realize how important good color contrast was, and how bad color contrast issues are.


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Nic:    Welcome to the Accessibility Rules Podcast. This is episode 86. 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’s 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.

This week I’m speaking with Christopher Schmitt. Thanks for joining me for this conversation around web accessibility, Christopher. How are ya?

Christopher:    I’m doing great. Thanks for having me. How are you doing?

Nic:    I’m doing good. We’ve been talking a lot on Slack through work and Twitter and all that but it’s good to have a dedicated discussion about accessibility and your background and interest in it.

I like to let guests introduce themselves, so in a brief intro… who is Christopher Schmitt?

Christopher:    I am a designer, developer, author, speaker, event organizer, and beginning the accessibility work. I guess that’s… it’s pretty… there’s a lot around. It’s pretty good.

Nic:    With all that do you have time to sleep?

Christopher:    No… I do not sleep at all, no.

Nic:    You do not sleep (laughing). Right…okay. So, you’re a little bit like a vampire then.

Christopher:    Yes.

Nic:    Yeah. Hey, um… let’s get warmed up. Tell me one thing that most people would not know about you.

Christopher:    I…. What would you think would be interesting… um… I… I don’t know. I’m a semi-secret Disneyphile. I like things about… I guess the parks of Disney. I guess that’s part of it. I like the theme parks and I like… I guess it kind of goes back to my family when my parents… my mom was a math teacher and my dad was a computer engineer. And so… and I had a big family and we lived in Florida so we would go to Disney a lot. And, we would go to Disney in a really strange way in which… I’m not sure how my parents got this… made this happen, but we would sit down the day before we would go to Disney and we would just map out the route of what everyone wanted to do. What all the kids wanted to do. We actually had a mutual understanding of what rides we wanted to do.

Nic:    Right

Christopher:    Then we would just conquer Disney that day and then it’s only later when I would go to see with other friends… they wanted the whole experience, you know? They wanted to go over here and see bands or see all of these side attractions and I’m like, no… it’s not the rides. But anyway… I lived in Orlando for a little bit and I used to go to the parks a lot during that time….

Nic:    Right… yeah. Okay, so… roller coasters… woodies or metals?

Christopher:    I prefer with woodies, personally. But I do like how crazy metals can get. But there’s nothing more nerve-wracking than getting on a wooden roller coaster. I think that’s part of the edge.

Nic:    I’m in favor of wooden roller coasters as well … but anyway.

Hey, we are talking about web accessibility, not coasters… how would you define web accessibility?

Christopher:    That’s a good question. I would probably define it as making… in terms of web, I would define it as making anything you put on the web open to everyone to use.

Nic:    Okay, so… make sure everything on the web is usable by everyone.

Christopher:    Right. Pretty much.

Nic:    Yeah. I like that because it doesn’t limit you to just people with disabilities or to…

Christopher:    No

Nic:    … or to screenreader users or something.

Christopher:    No, I mean like when I first started out in web design it was… I wish I had a really great definition for you… I wish I was just like, “here it is!” But, it’s still a great confusion to me when people separate usability from accessibility or like they define like there’s a difference between great usability and great accessibility. And, I mean there is some distinctions in there where I find that we can talk about how someone moves through a website. And we can talk about that in terms of usability but we just can’t leave behind anyone. And so I think that’s kind of like the narrative and I think that is a part of usability. It’s like yeah, we can get people from point a to point b but if we leave someone behind we are really failing the user experience.

Nic:    How did you become aware of web accessibility and it’s importance? Because you’ve been on the web for a while now. For… you can’t look at the history of the web and not bump into one of the many books you’ve written or conferences you’ve organized so when did you… when did it start twigging about accessibility?

Christopher:    I’m not really sure when it really happened. I just know that… I guess when you learn about the alt tag and what it’s importance was for. So I guess that’s from the beginning of the web. I guess. And I guess that’s when Netscape brought in images to the web and then we had… I’m not sure when alt tags became a thing. So, yeah. That’s when I knew about it.

Nic:    Yeah.

Christopher:    So… I’m an old person. Is basically what you’re trying to say. Nic, I appreciate that.

Nic:    Nah… Nah. No. We’re both, in terms of the web I think we’re both ancient but that’s alright. We at least know how to write HTML and CSS, right?

Christopher:    So, yeah. I mean… To answer your question, I feel like ever since I’ve known about it I’ve tried to incorporate it, accessibility into my work, into my books. And so, like, you know with what I mentioned earlier in one of the editions of my CSS Cookbook I wrote a chapter about HTML and that was… and how to write semantically. And so that… and so…and the goal of that chapter was to… was kind of multi-folded. The purpose of that one was if you don’t write clean HTML your CSS is going to be harder to write in order to apply the CSS roles to and, or, maintain. Right? So…

Nic:    Yeah.

Christopher:    Also, if you actually write with semantic and native HTML elements you’re going to make your site accessible. And so that’s… I just feel that that was part of it. Like you just want to rely on that. And, there was a period of time when, you know, beginning out with the web that I really disliked using innovational elements because I designed… I actually have a design degree.

Nic:    Right

Christopher:    I have an Arts degree actually so I have an Arts degree with an emphasis on design and so there was a period of time when I was like, it’s all about design and trying to break through this craft of this limited nature of the web. And, you know, HTML tables were laid out and that was a great idea. He says sarcastically… but…and so, it’s been a part of what it is. It hasn’t been a main focus in my career until now but it’s always been there and we always try to… my partner and I, when we did conferences we always make sure we’d have some accessibility in there or we would do online conferences that were just focussed on accessibility. So it’s always been part of it. It’s just … I just feel like it’s … now, I don’t know how you feel about it but I feel like now accessibility is a hotter topic and concern than it has been.

Nic:    Yeah I do think [cross talk 08:24] it’s becoming something that people are paying more attention to. Maybe because there are so many lawsuits and complaints about it. But I also think that there’s a large crowd of organizations that don’t even know what it means. I mean, I had a conversation with somebody at a conference a few months ago and when I said I’m an accessibility expert they kind of went, “Well, yeah, our sites are accessible. You know. You can get it on mobile, you can get it on desktop….” Not exactly what I meant.

Christopher:    You’re accessing it, you’re not making it accessible.

Nic:    Yeah

Christopher:    Yeah

Nic:    You started doing full-time accessibility work a few months ago. How has your view changed looking at accessibility now compared to what you were thinking about 5 years or maybe 10 years ago?

Christopher:    There’s just a lot of unknowns. There’s a lot I didn’t know about accessibility. And, I would have conversations with Glenda whose a friend of mine, Glenda Simms and every once in a while if I had a question here or there. But, I felt like when I would talk to her I would feel like I would just get a little bit of insight into what’s going on and so now that I’ve come here to work I realized, like, wow. There’s just a lot of bad code out there and there’s a lot of work that needs to be done in order to fix it. And, personally, for me just one color contrast I didn’t realize how pervasive of an issue that is. You can see that in WebAIM’s One Million project and as someone who went to school and got an art degree, and likes design and color is really important to me… it’s just I feel like that was really shocking how bad it was on the web, in terms of color contrast issues. Also, how people use screenreaders is kind of new. I still feel like I know… I wish I knew what I know now before I joined up. Because I feel like that just opened my world up a lot more in terms of the issues that we have to deal with and people have to deal with in terms of… I mean, people who use screen readers are a very forgiving bunch because there are just a lot of bad websites out there…

Nic:    Yeah

Christopher:    … and if you just meet them halfway in terms of creating a site I think they’ll be able to use your site a lot more but I wish I knew more about screen readers and how they worked before that.

Nic:    Yeah

Christopher:    And then, I know a lot of programmers who use keyboards for navigating the web, you know? They don’t want to use the mouse for whatever and they think they know how they’re making their sites keyboard accessible but still just tabbing and going through the motions. You know, there’s a method of making sites keyboard accessible and they kind of miss that with like, focus order, reading order…so that’s something too…

Nic:    Yeah

Christopher:    And so that’s to lead into what I’m worried about next, is… Not that I worry about to the point I don’t sleep, I worry about is CSS Grid and flex order. You actually change the order of the content to make really funky designs, which, as a designer, I really love a lot but then I worry about accessibility and what that goes into. So that’s kind of…. Yeah, so there’s a lot of things I worry about.

Nic:    Yeah

Christopher:     I know about… I know a lot more than that but I’m not sure that answers your question, Nic. So, there you go.

Nic:    Place yourself in the shoes of the Christopher that you… that you were, say, 6 months or a year ago that knew a little bit about accessibility, that knew about alt attributes and that kind of stuff and, what advice would you give yourself now in terms of, you know, what should you be doing to learn about accessibility? What should you be paying more attention to? How would a developer that is vaguely aware of these things, how would you say they should go about improving awareness?

Christopher:    I think cold turkey, just try to navigate sites with a screen reader. And, you know, if you ever use a Mac you can just use voice over with Safari and make sure you use Safari. Just try a screen reader. If you just can’t do it then that should lead you… if you can’t actually navigate your site that should lead you to more issues and how to make it. Because I feel like… I mean, that just… I just… if you can make it work with a screen reader I think you’re golden. But, I think… also, I think just embrace native HTML. It’s a lot more… I feel like a lot of people just bypass HTML altogether and that’s… you know, I felt that way before I started in Knowbility but now I just… it’s like… yeah, you need to be using some native HTML. That’s for lists, headings, heading structure, basically, anything that was important in 1990s would go on that. In terms of semantic. I used to make a joke, it was like, “Hey, if you want me to show you how to build accessible…” oh, man. I forget what the joke was but it was just like if you want to build a … the joke now is, if you want to build an accessible website, here let me give you this web design book from the 1990s. Because I feel like…

Nic:    Yeah

Christopher:    Just like, I think Jeffrey Zeldman’s book about building semantic, probably like his blue beanie book is probably still valid…

Nic:    Yeah

Christopher:    …for the most part. So… and I’m pretty sure I wrote an HTML book back in the day that was accessible, so…yeah, so I think… but back to the point, it’s mostly about semantic, structures, making sure… I think that the tricky, that a lot of people get stuck on also is this rush to build this web, this phone app experience in browsers and trying to shoehorn where the web has never been. Right? Which is, the web is a great document sharing experience. It’s opened eCommerce, it’s made Amazon, Amazon… it’s done great things for everyone. It’s opened amazing doors. But, you know, just to try and get this great experience on your phone and shoehorn it into the website you’re going to have to make compromises and those compromises you might leave out people.

Nic:    Yeah

Christopher:    And, yeah. So….

Nic:    So… do you think maybe the frameworks out there, Angular, React, View… you name it… do you think those have a responsibility towards the fact that a lot of developers don’t understand the basic of semantic HTML and you end up with tag soup?

Christopher:    Well, I mean, it’s like, are you as good as your tool? Or are you at the mercy of your tool in order to develop? I mean, you can build a really great website with a framework and I think I threw frameworks underneath the bus but I just feel like… you know… there’s this meme that went around and I lost it but it’s like there’s this person looking at staircase and the steps you need to take in order to become a Javascript developer….HTML, CSS, Javascript and then it was just up there….React. Right? And so the next step is… the first step the person takes is going to the React step on the stairs which is 7 stairs up. And there’s just this mad rush to get to… people to learn to code with the framework of your choice and so they bypass the basic understanding of that.

I put together a boot camp once and it wasn’t my Bootcamp, the way I would’ve run it but we only had one day dedicated to HTML. And so… which was crazy, right? HTML is great, right? It’s so easy to understand. Pick up everyone, everyone’s having a great time. Day 2 is CSS and everyone’s having a great time until they introduced HTML form elements and styling those HTML form elements. And then also, HTML form elements are really tricky if you’re just learning HTML the day before. They’re not like anything easy to understand. I remember when I learned them it was one of the hardest things to understand the concept of. Radio buttons versus checkboxes, right? Like, what are you talking about…

Nic:    Yeah

Christopher:    Why can I select only one radio button but like, checkboxes, I don’t understand… oh, that’s what… and then labels, and fieldsets and that semantic stuff. Yeah, so we just… I think people just don’t value how great HTML is and then how much work a browser can save developers by using native HTML elements. So … and there’s this big rush for people to learn JavaScript, and I don’t blame them. You know, it’s… you know, a verb is exciting. I think of HTML and CSS and JavaScript as like nouns for your HTML, adjectives are your CSS and verbs is your JavaScript and verbs are exciting. They’re the exciting part that gets things done. And so, you know, nouns are… just sit around the house.

Nic:    How do we get people enthused about HTML then?

Christopher:    My flippant answer would be lawsuits. But uh…I don’t know if you can. I just think… I love the web and everything about it so I think HTML is pretty awesome. HTML 5 now is… seems like the working group submerged with HTML 5 I guess. They should go with something that’s going to be more rapid development, HTML 5. Someday it will help things more, but I think… I don’t know. It’s just … I don’t know the answer to that Nic. I wish I did. I mean, if you have answers let me know.

Nic:    I keep asking everybody I can ask because I don’t know the answer and, nobody seems to know but somewhere the answer must exist I think. I hope.

Christopher:    I think it’s just the most amazing thing. You can create a page with HTML and just upload it to the internet and then have it, the chance that it’s read by someone across the country. Or across the world even…

Nic:    Yeah

Christopher:    …is amazing to me. What shocks me and scares me a little bit is people think Facebook is the internet. And that’s what is kind of scary to me a little bit more. So…

Nic:    Well, is that very different from people used to think that AOL was the internet?

Christopher:    Um, a little bit. Yeah. I think it’s a little bit different. I mean, just the sheer number of people tracking your information compared to then and now. I think that’s a … I mean, it’s a … grown-up internet now and some of it’s not good.

Nic:    Teenager, if not fully grown-up anyway.

Christopher:    Yeah

Nic:    You’ve not done specific accessibility work for a very long time but what would you say your greatest achievement in terms of accessibility is?

Christopher:    I was one of the first people who put a list of links in an unorganized list. I was one of the first people to do that and actually, I can… I’m so old … that’s how things are. So, that pattern I think is … I don’t know if people know this or not but this set pattern is 25 years ago, so…

Nic:    That is awesome. I did not know that. So when I tell Clients that they really need to put list items into an actual list that’s because you started doing that.

Christopher:     Yeah, I was one of the first people who started doing that. I actually showed it to a couple of people and, it’s actually written up in an old Listener article where I think Paul Newhouse, like, he actually wrote it up and was like, “Hey, this is how you should do unordered lists” and so I showed it to him and also showed it to Porter, who showed it to Eric Meyer… so, yeah. So… that’s my minor claim to fame. But I think it’s fun in terms of when clients come back and they actually make changes that we recommend and it makes the site more accessible. I think that’s always awesome. I think it shows that things are working on a scale. I think it’s… I think it’s pretty awesome.

Nic:    Yeah

Christopher:    Hopefully we will be able to do it more. Bigger scale, in terms of outreach and whatever that, means… blogging or speaking or whatever that means. So…

Nic:    On that note, Christopher I think we will call it a day. Call it a week and thank you for coming on and sharing with us, and we will talk to you next week.

Christopher:    Yeah, cool. Sounds great. Thanks so much for having me.

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.