E087 – Interview with Christopher Schmitt – Part 2

Christopher says it’s unfortunate that people become mindful about accessibility only/mostly through lawsuits.


Thanks to Twilio for sponsoring the transcript for this episode.

Make sure you have a look at:


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 is part two of my conversation with Christopher Schmitt. Welcome back, Christopher.

Christopher:     Hey, thanks for having me back.

Nic:    It’s… It was good. Last week was really good. For those of you out there coming in that haven’t listened to the show, I really encourage you to check it out. We spoke about embracing native HTML elements and spoke about color contrast and how learning about accessibility is making a difference for people, and it’s pretty much the same thing as usability.

So, anyway Christopher we finished on a positive note last time. We spoke about how you were the first person to build unlisted links. I thought that was kind of…

Christopher:    No, I wasn’t the first person. I was the first person to use it publicly, so I’m pretty sure someone else used it the same way before I did, but … [cross talk 0 1:37]

Nic:    If it’s not written down anywhere it hasn’t happened. So, you’re the first. What’s your greatest frustration in terms of web accessibility?

Christopher:    I guess that it … we talked about the last episode that it’s only become hotter now, I hate to use the term hotter but more people are interested now and I feel like my frustration with it was that … you know, I talked to Matt May about his book that he wrote, people weren’t really into it, right… so, back in the day, I think it was maybe 7 years ago now, or maybe longer when his book about accessibility came out. And, I feel like it’s such an important topic and that people just don’t give it the importance that it needs to be, in terms of a project. From starting from day 1 of developing a project, make sure it’s accessible. And, I guess also the frustration is that it’s only through lawsuits that people are being mindful, right? I think you might share this with me. You want people to just be more mindful because it’s the right thing to do. Not because they’re scared or for fear.

Nic:    Yeah, I …. Would dearly love if people came to accessibility from a position of ‘we want to do things right and do the right thing and that happened that way… but, it seems that 95% of people out there are reactive to either an awareness of a legal requirement or being outright sued, and that’s just sad I think.

Christopher:    It’s understandable too. I understand it and am upset by it too, It’s just people are busy, but at the same time if we build it right… want to do it right, want to build it right, just… want to build it right, you know. I’m sure that’s not a great thing. Build it right, build it right, build it right.

Nic:    But, it remains true. Do you think there’s conventional wisdom about accessibility? You know, something that everyone knows about it?

Christopher:    Well, people know about Alt tags but they seem to mess those up pretty well. Is that what you’re asking about? Like, alt tags. Is that what you’re asking about?

Nic:    Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah… I mean. I’m asking for your impression of what people know about accessibility. If there’s anyone thing. So, you’re talking about Alt attribute and I think that’s a good point.

Christopher:    Right, but it’s amazing how even something so simple as an Alt attribute can be misused. So we find people using Alt attributes on decorative images. We find people using Alt tags to repeat the text that happens before or after. Tags in HTML which I find is just funny.

Nic:    Yeah

Christopher:    And, people just put whole books in Alt tags sometimes. They put whole paragraphs in there. But, something so simple can lead to a whole bunch of problems with Alt text so it’s kind of a good example of what’s easy and what’s also a complex problem of accessibility

Nic:    I’m always amused. Alt attribute came in I think around 1995 so that’s nearly 15 years now…

Christopher:    No, that’s more, that’s like 24…

Nic:    25 years…

Christopher:    24-25

Nic:    Nearly 25 years. One would think it would be really basic knowledge to know how and when to use the Alt attribute properly and yet every single audit we run we have at least a handful of issues around images.

Christopher:    Yeah

Nic:    So, people know about it but they don’t know about it. And, I would love to know, how do we get that fixed. I know I keep asking that. You and other people keep saying, “I don’t know”. How do we fix it? I don’t know. But, I would love to find something because it seems like such basic, basic fix to make a big difference.

Christopher:    Yeah, well there’s also that there’s … I even point to it sometimes with our client work, is that Alt attribute, Alt text decision tree.

Nic:    Yeah

Christopher:    Even that decision tree I felt could be, as a designer, probably build better. Something we could take a look at as a reference for our clients. Even that, I read through that and I was like… it’s even tougher to read because I don’t know when to break off sometimes. You know? So, yeah, it’s kind of a complex thing and if you’re just… as a developer, there to make the verbs work… therefor the verbs and spend maybe .0001 of your time on accessibility and you just happen to know about Alt tags… I mean, you just kind of put them in there without having to figure it out. So, yeah. And, you know, I think the other thing about accessibility is I never knew about… I knew about the statistics about, you know, you can do automated testing that it only gets a small portion of potential bugs out there. And, that’s so true. I mean, we had a client, they passed almost every accessibility test that was automated but then we started doing the non-automated testing…. screen reader, resizing, just really poking prodding. portion of the test and it fell apart. Just a house of cards in terms of people being able to use it. So, yeah. And, that’s the one thing I think I’ve learned a lot. Like, how much you don’t catch with automated and how much people rely on automated testing when automated testing can only do so far.

Nic:    Do you think automated testing has a place still? Considering it only catches maybe what,  35% of stuff?

Christopher:    Oh yeah, absolutely. I mean it’s very important to…I mean, if we could you know… yeah, definitely. I think it’s… if we were able to catch at least one thing that’s made the website better I think that’s better than nothing. Right? And I mean, if we can… there’s accessibility tests like you can use… there’s accessibility linters out there, you know if you set up correctly with your deploy settings that you can’t merge your code or upload it until you’ve fixed your accessibility settings or accessibility errors then that’s awesome. That’s great. Because it’s like, oh no, this is an issue. But then you get… sometimes you get false positives. Sometimes it’s not an accessibility issue but the tester tells you it is.

Nic:    What do you think the number 1 reason is for people to fail at implementing accessibility?

Christopher:    I just..just not knowing. That’s why I think I go back to… like I mentioned last episode, was I would rather have people… you know, that would be a cool thing to do for HTML Day 1 boot camps, right? Just crack open a screen-reader and just say built a page and then just… and as they go through boot camp read the screen reader on their web pages and if they lose accessibility they have to go back and figure it out… how to get the screen reader to announce the content.

Nic:    I love that.

Christopher:    [cross talk 10:00]

Nic:    How do we connect with people who organize boot camp and make that happen?

Christopher:    I think we do a blog post about it and we shame them into reading the blog post or something. That’s how you do it.

Nic:    Alright, well I guess I know what you’re writing this week.

Christopher:    Oh man. Ding it. All right, yeah. That would be totally awesome, yeah. I think I can reach out to a few boot camps and see if they want to give it a try.

Nic:    That… I actually really like the idea because one of my pet peeves is I think boot camps, computer science programs and pretty much anywhere that actually teaches web development… if they integrated more accessibility into the curriculum as an integral part of the program, I think we would not find ourselves in the dire situation we are in now. So I like the idea of writing something to address that directly to the boot camp operators and challenge them.

Christopher:    Yeah, because if you think about it, the angle I’ll take with the blog post would be that we test websites in various browsers and to just think of the screen reader as a different browser. Just another browser to test it.

Nic:    Yeah

Christopher:    And I think that’s one of the things I’ve learned, in the last 6 months or so is that it’s …it’s not like Chrome versus Firefox, it’s a different thing but it’s still the web, it’s still the content and we are still sharing one and zeros going out there and so we just have another tool.

Nic:    I used to say Google is the largest screenreader on the web. Because basically, it’s a robot, it can only access things that are available programmatically. Just like a screen reader.

Christopher:    Yeah, I mean, but, this idea like we talked about before… what would happen if Google decided to stop new things for a year and just focus on accessibility . From making sure that the ads that they sell are accessible, to making sure their clients know that their ads need to be accessible, to using plain language in their documentation… I mean, how many times have we tried… ow many times have I looked up Google spreadsheets information and I can’t understand what type of… and I love spreadsheets by the way… I’m trying to do something really cool in a spreadsheet and I’m reading the documentation and I have no idea what it means. And it’s almost like an advantage for great documentation, Gatsby or React or something like that, or Vue has some really great documentation that they pride themselves on. It’s like, hey you can use our framework because our documentation is awesome.

Nic:    Yeah

Christopher:    And that would be great, just to … and then of course, then Google focussing on the browser, right? And form controls. Like, how many times have we, like, knocked a client down for a date picker? Right? It’s just… I can just hear your voice now when you come across a date picker. It’s just like… it’s almost this, like, that is not going to happen. This is not going to happen. That is not going to work. And like, you can see, without having to interact with it, it’s just like, oh yeah this is going to be a problem right here.

Nic:    Yeah

Christopher:    So just make a native day picker. Do input equals, or type equals date. It’s not going to blow up in your face. It’s going to be great.

Nic:    Yeah

Christopher:    So I got… I’m working on a blog post about it I just haven’t got all my ideas down yet so I’ve gotta figure that out.

Nic:    That’s fair enough. I look forward to reading that.

Christopher:    I’ll probably ask for your input on that too.

Nic:    Okay, I can do that. $2500 per word

Christopher:    Ah, thank goodness, that’s cheap.

Nic:    Yeah, cheaper the price… Hey, what’s the greatest challenge for the field of accessibility moving forward, do you think?

Christopher:    Just education outreach, right? Educational outreach. It’s just, I guess we have to go to where the educators are, so. And, making sure… I think we talked to Dave Rupert and Chris Coyier and Dave is just a great champion of accessibility and I get that impression talking to him about that. But, even he gets frustrated and I think part of our conversation was kind of like a pep talk for Dave.

Nic:    Yeah

Christopher:    And, I just feel like it’s so hard because there’s …. This leads to another issue that I have with accessibility is that 1) there’s no single source of truth for accessibility because some things are subjective in terms of how you interpret it. But then you have design patterns and like, okay date picker boom, here I go with this and maybe you go to accessible date picker dot com and you just write a long post about how to make it work, but also…one thing I learned by being here and surrounded by accessibility experts on this team is that everyone, people can have various … there can be different approaches to accessibility or different schools of thoughts about a solution to an accessibility problem. And they’re all right. Right? And that is going to be confusing for somebody that wants to do the right thing but they don’t know what would be the best thing. When one blog post says one thing and a book says another thing. So it’s kind of like, you know. So, that’s … I think it’s fun and exciting but it’s also really challenging if a company is under lawsuit and they’re trying to get things done. Right? So it’s kind of maddening. Right?

Nic:    Yeah, I do think that’s challenging for people out there. That there’s no single place to look things up, there’s no single library that makes everything happen. But, of course, you can’t have a single thing because everybody has their own perspective and you know, you build a fantastic date picker and somebody comes along and says “Oh, well, yeah, but…” and then they go and make changes and suddenly you end up with 6 different date pickers and then you have 18 and it’s like rabbits replicating.

Christopher:    Right, right. So…yeah, that’s the beautiful and terrible thing about the web. They all do their own thing, so. Yeah. It’s kind of crazy that way, so.

Nic:    If you weren’t working on the web, if you weren’t, you know, having a background in design is there a profession you’d like to have? Other than web and design and stuff.

Christopher:    Ah man, it took me forever to realize… like, I grew up in Alaska so I grew up in a family where my dad was a engineer parameter and my mom was a math teacher. I didn’t know there was such a thing as design until high school. So, I….once I found there was design I was …I want design. I love everything about design and what needs it then. As I was going through college I was going through print design. The web happened so that kind of dates me a little bit… So  for me the thing is something else would probably be, like, I’m just thinking Disney engineering would be awesome.

Nic:    Oh yeah?

Christopher:    I just know..I like the concept of… you know… I like going to Disney like I said I’m a Disneyfile a little bit. I just, I love how they try and make an experience happen and I think that goes into my background as a…putting on conferences. And, I think, Chris Coyier, I didn’t mention this but he, in a previous podcast you talked about one of our conferences before but you had a guest talk about one of our conferences and they talk about the ambiance that was in the conference we put on. And so…and this person he…and it’s a 5-year-old conference now…but he still holds it as high standard because of all those little touches we put into it and we sweated a lot of details. And, so we… that’s one of the things that I … when putting on conferences I think about … especially my partner, we had people in a room – what were they seeing, how long are they going to stay there, are there going to be food, what type of food will they need, what are they looking at, what’s in their area we can put them in, showcase their talent, make sure it’s talent city, how can we leverage the city. So, it’s really like…it’s putting on a show I guess, or something, that I like. I sweat bullets, sweat the details about that so… something in that line.

So, I like comic books too, but I don’t, I guess…I used to collect them but I don’t really collect them anymore but I like comic books, storytelling, Scott McCloud is one of my heroes and I was happy to have him speak at one of our conferences several years ago. So, I’m a big Scott McCloud fan and so… yeah.

Nic:    How do we, or how do you, or should we even look at this passion you have with creating a great experience for people and how does that ties into accessibility ?

Christopher:    Well, that’s… we are sweating a lot of details to make it… to make events open to as many people as possible. You know, that goes from food allergies, people who have food allergies, make sure that they’re served food that doesn’t kill them. That’s always great, you don’t want anyone dying on your…

Nic:    Ah, yes.

Christopher:    …at your event. Because that’s ah…

Nic:    Ideally we don’t want people dying, yes.

Christopher:    Yeah, that’s a downer. So, and just making sure of things, people can physically enter the building, physically get from point A to point B… that’s just one of the things we sweat and so, thankfully with buildings it’s pretty…sometimes they’re better sometimes they’re not. Sometimes we would have… we had a venue, an event, on the Queen Mary in LA …

Nic:    Nice

Christopher:    …and it’s a beautiful boat, people thought we were actually going on a cruise but it’s moored in concrete so it’s not going anywhere, but it’s not the best accessible building, right? So, it’s technically a hotel now. But, it was built in the 1920’s or something like that…

Nic:    Yeah

Christopher:     It’s not very wheelchair friendly so we had some issues with that. So we tried to work around that the best we can work with that. So, with venues and conferences, I hope this answers your question but I feel like once you know the venue then you work a way to make it accessible. Right? So it’s… then you sweat the bullets to the details. The details pile up. But, yeah. That’s how I approach it.

Nic:    It is a hard question. I like asking hard questions. Shows your metal, Christopher.

Let’s finish this with one last question. What would be the one thing people should remember about web accessibility?

Christopher:    Start now.

Nic:    Start now. I like that.

Christopher:     I mean, because like… you want to start now because if you start now then it’s a lot easier to… it iterates and updates down the road and maybe you won’t have to do al those changes down the road that you have to do. So, and just… yeah. Just start now.

Nic:    I like that. Start now. Doesn’t matter where you’re at in your process. Start now. Fantastic.

Christopher Schmitt, thank you for being a guest on the Accessibility Rules podcast, it’s been great talking to you and I look forward to working with you some more.

Christopher:     Likewise. Thanks for having me on the show, Nic.

Nic:    You’re welcome

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.