E088 – Interview with Amberley Romo – Part 1

Amberley defines web accessibility as “building for the web in ways that ensure it’s usable by everyone. There aren’t barriers to use for anyone. So, I would say it’s about digital equal access, kind of along the same lines as physical equal access. So, just putting people at the center of building for the web.”


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Nic: Welcome to the Accessibility Rules podcast. This is episode 88. 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.

Nic: 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 Amberley Romo. Thanks for joining me for this conversation around web accessibility, Amberley. How are you?

Amberley: I’m good. Thank you for having me. How are you?

Nic: I’m good. I like to let guests introduce themselves. So, in a brief intro, who is Amberley Romo?

Amberley: Of course. So, I’m a software developer based in Austin, Texas in the U.S. And I’m currently working on the Gatsby team, which is a React based framework for building fast websites and web apps. I touch a lot of different things, but I’m currently aligned with the learning team. Anything to do with the experience of learning about Gatsby, understanding what it is, how to use it. And we cross over a lot with developer relations, which is really fun. So, I get to talk to a lot of people and also the core team. So, in terms of supporting people in the main repo and building documentation as things change. I also recently started recording screencast lessons, so that’s a new medium for me that’s fun. I recently joined the ranks of podcast hosts like yourself. I recently started a podcast with a friend of mine called Fullstack Health.

Nic: What’s it called? Fullstack?

Amberley: It’s called Fullstack Health.

Nic: Fullstack Health. Tell me a little bit more about that.

Amberley: Yeah, it’s about the projects and initiatives, things people are building in the tech health and wellness space, and also the health experiences of tech workers themselves. We’re also trying to, for each longer episode, talk to an actual health professional on a topic that’s adjacent to whatever we were covering in the first interview.

Amberley: So, we found that there’s a lot of fitness twitter in the dev community. And then, there’s also a lot of conversations about mental health and wellness happening and those conversations don’t overlap, don’t tend to, at least a lot. So, we wanted to do something that sort brought the two topics under one roof.

Nic: Awesome. I’ll have to check that out. That sounds very interesting.

Amberley: Yeah, we just started. So, we’ve got our first two episodes under our belt.

Nic: No, I well remember my first two episodes and that was quite a big hill to climb in terms of a learning curve. But before you know it, you’ll be at a hundred episodes and you’ll be a grizzled veteran.

Amberley: The hardest part is scheduling.

Nic: Yes. Yes, indeed. Hey, Amberley, tell us one thing that most people would not know about yourself.

Amberley: So, not accessibility related? Anything?

Nic: Oh, anything that somebody would not know about you.

Amberley: Well, this is kind of random, but one of my grandfathers recently passed, so it’s been on my mind. Something that most people wouldn’t know about me is that I have some really fun family history. On my mother’s side are California pioneers, specifically Santa Cruz, California, back in the 1800’s. And then on my dad’s side, the Spanish side, there’s a Catholic Saint, Santo Toribio Romo, who’s known as the patron saint of immigrants. And then El Sid who’s sort of a Spanish folk hero.

Amberley: So, I don’t personally know a ton of details about them, but both of my grandfathers before they passed were very interested in genealogy. So, they did a lot of research and interesting work.

Nic: I’m sorry to hear about your loss, but I’m also fascinated to hear about your history because I was recently traveling through Wyoming and got a chance to see some of the Oregon trail, and California trail, and Mormon trail, and that was really fascinating history to visit. So, now you tie that up with back to present day and I like that. That’s cool. Thank you.

Amberley: Yeah.

Nic: We’re talking about web accessibility today. How would you define that?

Amberley: So, I would define web accessibility as building for the web in ways that ensure it’s usable by everyone. There aren’t barriers to use for anyone. So, I would say it’s about digital equal access, kind of along the same lines as physical equal access. So, just putting people at the center of building for the web.

Nic: I like that. Putting the people at the center of building for the web. That’s a very nice turn of phrase that I had not heard before.

Nic: You told us a little bit about what you do at Gatsby. How does that roll in with accessibility? Day to day, what do you do accessibility wise?

Amberley: Well, the day to day, I’m on the learning team which is primarily responsible for maintaining the docs and the learning pathways of the different topics around learning Gatsby. So, I would say the primary way is ensuring that those pathways are well thought out, the content is well-written, things are find-able to people. So, a lot in the area of content.

Amberley: And then, also things like when I first joined, there wasn’t a lot of focus on making the examples accessible or the starters. We have starter repos where someone can clone a project and get started. And we’ve put effort into making sure that our examples and our starter code and everything is accessible.

Amberley: So, it sort of is more on the learning team, at least, I work with Marcy Sutton formerly of Deque, so we’re trying to inject accessibility-minded thinking where we can across the whole team and especially, obviously in the learning area.

Nic: That’s quite fantastic because it’s one of the things I keep telling people is how are people expected to learn about accessibility if none of the tutorials, and code samples, and examples out there include accessibility. People can’t learn if it’s not there. So, I love to hear that you folks are doing that with Gatsby. It’s good news.

Amberley: Right. And we also have the issue of, and this is just a general learning question, is we’re a react-based framework. So, we always have to balance how much do you delve into teaching react versus teaching Gatsby? The same question I always have in my mind of, do you teach HTML? Do you teach CSS? Do you teach JavaScript? Do you teach accessibility?

Amberley: And I think the opportunity with Gatsby is really interesting because a lot of entry level and early career people are using Gatsby to learn, which I really love. But I want to make it as supportive of an entree as possible. And I did a bootcamp, so I’m very aware of the gaps in all the different learning pathways, especially around accessibility, but also around things like HTML and CSS.

Amberley: So, it’s kind of a balance of how much can we, we can’t teach everything, but we also don’t want to be a part of persisting those gaps. So, I think there’s a lot more we can do, for sure.

Nic: I think it’s a tough act to balance because in theory you shouldn’t have to teach HTML, CSS, and the basics of JavaScript, but in practice, I think too many people that are doing development these days lack those skills. They lack that knowledge. It’s certainly reflected in a lot of the audits I’m doing where basically HTML, CSS is not understood.

Nic: So, I can see where you folks at Gatsby would have a tricky decision ahead of you as to how much of each you cover. Yeah, I know that leadership, especially through Jason is really interested in accessibility, but how’s the shift to more of an accessibility mindset through everything, how easy is that to work on with all of the Gatsby team?

Amberley: So, our team, in general, really wants to do the right thing. And the challenge there is that like any other really small team or sort of early team, we have the challenge of this whole array of priorities that we have to tackle. And so there’s always more on your plate than you can tackle at any one time. So, it’s not a matter of convincing people that it’s important. People take our word for it. They’re, yeah, we’re on board, we get it. But it’s that natural sort of challenge of, as an organization what you focus on.

Amberley: And so I think the cool thing about it is that hiring Marcy, to me, was a big competence indicator that they supported it and they believe that it’s important. And because, at that point, it was just me in the room saying this is important, I think we should do this. But having someone who’s a really strong proven industry voice, that puts someone in the room who will consistently raise challenges and challenge people to to do things differently and do things better. So, having that kind of consistent.

Amberley: I saw this tweet actually from Eric Bailey, I think maybe earlier this week or last week, on the accessible market being a continuum of support and not a binary state. And I think of teams in the same way, where it’s a continuum of a process where you can’t say everyone is 100% on or off accessibility. It’s this continuous process of bringing it up, and working through it, and prioritizing it.

Nic: I cannot do anything but agree with that. It’s a little bit like people telling us, oh, my site is accessible and well yeah, maybe your site is mostly accessible now, but you can always do more. The web is an almost breathing, living thing, so it will change. There’s not a start and end.

Amberley: I see a lot of parallels sometimes with web performance, too. Because all it takes to put a dent in homepage performance is for someone who doesn’t know any better to throw up a giant image that takes forever to download and that puts a dent in your web performance.

Amberley: Same thing, you could have a fully audited, accessible site or page and maybe someone well-meaning goes and adds a feature, adds something that introduces inaccessibility to a formerly accessible page. And then, that’s where the continuum support comes in, where you’re constantly reevaluating and retesting where you are. Because the web is a breathing, living, changing thing.

Nic: I want to take a moment to thank our sponsor Gatsby. Gatsby is a modern website framework that builds performance into every website by leveraging the latest web technologies. Create blazing fast, compelling apps and websites without needing to become a performance expert.

Nic: So, you said you were pretty much the lone voice championing accessibility at Gatsby before Marcy came in. How did you become aware of web accessibility and how important it is?

Amberley: First, I would say that it was through my initial interning experience with a disability nonprofit, but really that made me aware that I became aware of it earlier. Because, actually, when I was growing up, my sister has a genetic disorder called Angelman Syndrome. She’s extremely expressive, but she’s nonverbal. The only word she can say is Mama. She can make the “B” sound, also.

Amberley: But anyway, when I was growing up, her method of communication was my mom would take a bunch of pictures, photographs of things, cut them out, laminate them, and stick Velcro on the back. She’d have baggies of topics, like a baggy for school, and a baggy for food, and different life areas. And she’d carry these Manila folders with Velcro strips pasted in them to stick these picture cards onto to form something she wanted to communicate to someone.

Amberley: That was back in the early-mid nineties and as the sort of digital revolution happened, her communication methods changed really quickly. She had assistive communication devices made by DynaVox for awhile. We could customize what was on the screen, she could press it, and it would verbalize text to speech or really picture to speech.

Amberley: Then the iTouch and later the iPad came out. And that was just a freaking revolution to my family. Because as expensive as the Apple devices were, especially at the time, they were still less expensive by a lot than these dedicated augmentative communication devices. And people were building communication apps for them like Proloquo. She still uses Proloquo on the iPad today. Watching her navigate an iPad, she intuitively interacts with touch devices. It’s amazing.

Amberley: So, that was my first inkling of, okay, tech and hardware design and everything is a game changer. Apple devices aren’t just pretty to look at. Their design was actually changing the game in so many other important ways, particularly in this case around usability. So, she was the reason that I was inspired to seek out interning at an org that served people with intellectual and developmental disabilities or IDD.

Amberley: So, that’s why in college I interned and then later worked part time, and then full time, at the National Office of the Arc, which I don’t know if you’re familiar with, but it’s a nonprofit that advocates for and provide services to people with IDD across the country. So, when I started off there, I wasn’t working in the web area even though I’d been building sites for fun for a long time. Nonprofits don’t have a ton of money to throw around, so the web department was never super robust.

Amberley: But, there was someone who started working there while I was interning or part time interning I think, who was working on the web team and had just a deep personal curiosity and drive for making the web more accessible. He also has a sibling with a disability. He really bootcamped himself and taught himself a bunch on the job.

Amberley: That person is Dave Kennedy who has been at Automatic now for the last three, four, five years. He was the one who really made me aware in terms of web accessibility. And he was actually really my first mentor on the web. He was very encouraging and made me realize that if I wanted to I could build a career building for the web. But, that’s a different conversation. He was the first voice to turn on that light in my head about the importance of web accessibility.

Nic: That’s really interesting. I’d like to circle back a little bit to what you were saying about how the iPad revolutionized communication for your sister and your family. Have you seen or experienced how not only the Apple device is cheaper, but it’s also less scary for people that don’t know your sister to interact with because it’s a device they actually know and are familiar with, as opposed to big clunky DynaVox. Is that something that you’ve experienced?

Amberley: Oh my gosh. It’s so funny that you say that. Yeah, because when she had the DynaVox, it was this assistive device. She was in elementary school or something and it was this big thing that set her apart. Because with my family, she really is bad about, we call them her words, she’s really bad about using her words because she can communicate non-verbally with us super efficiently. But it was more important for her to have it with her all the time at school for people who couldn’t communicate with her like us.

Amberley: And so, back to the point, carrying that sort of set her apart. Then when she started carrying the iTouch, because my parents were pretty early adopters with that, they hopped on that pretty fast, when she started carrying iTouch, and then an iPad mini or whatever it was called, a lot of kids her age didn’t have those devices. It wasn’t like now where 12 year olds have iPhones and stuff. So, she would carry around these Apple devices and all these kids who thought they were awesome but couldn’t have one or weren’t allowed to have one, they were like whoa, she has an iTouch or an iPad, that’s so cool. So yeah, absolutely.

Nic: I’ve heard stories similar to that from other people. So, it’s kind of neat to see that it seems to be a fairly consistent experience from people that were using old tech to moving to new tech. Of course, people today that don’t know anything else aren’t aware of this old tech, which was pretty revolutionary in and of itself. But, it’s a circle of evolution in assistive software, isn’t it?

Amberley: It is. And honestly, sometimes I marvel. I feel really lucky to be born when I was, because the era that I grew up in where it was sort of the very beginning of all of that about to take off and watching her communication methods change over the course of that specific 10 years. Of course I didn’t realize it at the time. You only realize it in hindsight. But looking back on it, that was a really fascinating time for that to happen.

Nic: Has your view of accessibility changed over the last five or 10 years?

Amberley: Not the concept of accessibility, I don’t think. But, the practice of working with accessibility on the web has. Because before I was full time working on the web, it was kind of mystifying to me. It was like, where do you learn this? How do you become a specialist in this? When do you know enough to say yes, I’m an authority on this or whatnot? So, I figured when I got further into my career on the web that would be clearer. And it’s not really. It’s still pretty murky. Along the same lines of, what’s the bar of you must fulfill these requirements to be a web developer? What’s the bar of you must fulfill these requirements to be a credentialed accessibility specialist?

Amberley: And of course, there are certifications like the IWP certifications. But, in general, I feel that there’s a huge gulf between people who build day to day for the web and people who are accessibility experts.

Nic: Yeah.

Amberley: And then, of course, the results from the WebAIM analysis earlier this year were not competence inspiring on that. We talked a little bit about this earlier. On the one hand, it can be cool that there’s not a standard way to enter this industry. But on the other hand, the fact that there’s not a standard way to enter this industry and the primary ways, like a CS degree, or self-teaching, or being community taught by the internet, or bootcamp don’t prioritize or even include mention of accessibility. My view of accessibility hasn’t changed, I would say, but my view of working with accessibility has not become clearer.

Nic: Oh, yeah. So, would you say that’s a barrier for you to overcome?

Amberley: Yeah, I would say so.

Nic: And I would imagine it’s a fairly similar barrier to other folks that are coming into the web as developers wanting to learn a little bit about accessibility. How would you suggest people go about overcoming that barrier? How do they get over that and get past that? How did you manage to do that for yourself?

Amberley: I sort of have and I sort of haven’t. I think about it a lot and I’m pretty knowledgeable in it, and I particularly know what tools and resources to use to test certain things. But, I would say, the thing that I always tell people to start with, actually, the thing that I would tell people to start with is to start with something like Lighthouse. And there are issues with Lighthouse. It’s not comprehensive and you can game a Lighthouse accessibility score. Manuel Matosevic wrote this great article, how I built the most inaccessible site that got a hundred score on accessibility and Lighthouse.

Amberley: But for people just starting to learn or even a baseline of a working developer, just running Lighthouse or the axe tool and just learn by looking at a violation and figuring out how to fix it. If that was a general practice for people, whether that’s beginners or in the industry practicing developers, just that would make a difference.

Nic: I just don’t know the answer because there’s-

Amberley: Yeah, none of us do.

Nic: I keep asking, hoping that somebody is going to give me the million dollar answer, but I call these fragments of solutions that you’ve given me a bit and other guests have given me this too, and eventually maybe we’ll find something that works.

Amberley: Yeah. And going back to Gatsby, talking about developers who are adopting new technology and stuff. We’re trying to do things like build in linting with the JSX-A11y linter. So, it won’t catch everything, but a developer sees a warning in their terminal, it’s like, oh, what’s that? It’s one way to surface that to someone. So, trying to do things like that, too.

Nic: Yeah. Amberley, what’s your favorite word?

Amberley: My favorite word. Well, in general, I really love words that sound like what they are.

Nic: Give me an example.

Amberley: I don’t have one single favorite word, but words like elegant. The word elegant sounds elegant.

Nic: Okay.

Amberley: But also, two of my favorite words are kerfuffle and foofaraw.

Nic: Okay.

Amberley: They make me laugh every time. And every time I use one of them, especially foofaraw, someone is like foofaraw, and that just makes me smile.

Nic: What’s your greatest achievement in terms of web accessibility?

Amberley: Well, staring at the WebAIM results, it’s hard to think of a greatest achievement. But, I think I would have to say once I became aware of web accessibility, turning on light bulbs in other people’s heads at all of my jobs.

Amberley: For example, I was a technical project manager at an agency after I worked at the nonprofit. And accessibility was hardly ever brought up or mentioned except when there was a CFP or something that was subject to section 508 or something. And even so, people at the agency would say, yeah, accessibility. And I’d say, how exactly are you ensuring that you’re building in compliance? Because I’m not equipped to evaluate that personally. And how are we evaluating that? We still have to write the proposal.

Amberley: But, I kept trying. I kept bringing things up and trying to make myself heard about it. Actually, I asked Dave to come in to do an accessibility workshop afternoon session with all the developers at the agency and same thing at Gatsby. Like I said earlier, when I joined it was like 12, 13 people and it was a small enough group that I could say, hey, this is important, I think we should be investing time and energy into this. So yeah, consistently fighting to make the case in whatever setting, nonprofit, agency, web framework startup.

Nic: Amberley Romo, thank you for chatting with me and we’ll catch up next week and continue this conversation next week.

Amberley: Yeah, nice to talk to you. Talk to you then.

Nic: Thanks for listening.

Nic: Quick reminder, the transcript for this and all of the shows are available on the show’s website at https://a11yrules.com.

Nic: Big shout out to my sponsors and my patrons. Without your support, I could not continue to do the show. Do visit patreon.com/Steenhout if you want to support the ecstasy Accessibility Rules podcast.

Nic: Thank you.