E12 – Interview with Vasilis van Gemert – Part 2

Second part of my interview with Vasilis, in which he tells us that he’s painted his car with a special paint which means his kids can draw on the car! And of course, we speak about accessibility some more.


Nic: Welcome to the Accessibility Rules podcast. You’re listening to episode 11. This episode has been sponsored by patrons like you. I really do appreciate your support. I’m Nic Steenhout, and I talk with people involved in, one way or another, with web accessibility.

This week we’re continuing our conversation with Vasilis van Gemert. You should check out the first part of our conversation if you have not already done so. So, hi again, Vasilis. Shall we continue where we left off last week?

Vasilis: Sure. Yeah. Great talking to you again.

Nic: Yeah. Nice talking.

So let’s start with a personal question. What is one thing that most people would not know about you?

Vasilis: Well, that wouldn’t be that I’m lazy, because most people know that. I don’t know. I have a car where you can draw on, so I painted my car with a chalkboard, blackboard paint, so me and my kids can draw monsters on it.

Nic: That is so cool.

Vasilis: So that’s something that not everybody knows.

Nic: That is so very cool. I think it’s very quirky, and I did not expect that at all. Thank you.

Vasilis: Well, it’s something I always wanted as a kid, but I was not allowed to draw on cars. So I said, my kid is allowed to draw on cars.

Nic: Fantastic. What would you say your greatest achievement is in terms of web accessibility?

Vasilis: That would be the script I told you of in the previous episode, that translates HSL color into human readable text, even though it’s not really finished. It can say things like, “really unsaturated dark yellow,” which doesn’t exist as a color. Dark yellow is nonexistent, it’s not a color. It’s not fine tuned at all, but … I’m not really somebody who has big achievements in accessibility. Maybe locally, some small things. Organizing the event with Leonie Watson was nice. Teaching my students about accessibility, that’s probably the biggest achievement. Things like that.

Nic: I think teaching students about accessibility and having that kind of an impact is a major achievement in one’s career. But that’s me. I like the idea of teaching youth and teaching people about something that is going to have an impact on a wide variety of people.

Vasilis: And maybe the workshop I did this weekend, that we talked about briefly in the last episode. I had four teams working, and three of them worked on a person with a disability, but the last team, they worked on how do we get accessibility into the agenda of senior management. And actually, what they came up with was really, really good. So it’s not really an achievement yet, but once I start investigating and looking at it in more detail, this might turn into something really, really interesting.

Nic: You’ve built the tools to get to something really impactful.

Vasilis: Maybe. It’s actually the people there who came up with the really good ideas. I just gave them the opportunity to think about it, because usually these people, these were not accessibility experts. They were an eclectic mix of designers, of all different kinds of backgrounds. For many of them, it was the first time they ever thought about accessibility. So that was very interesting as well, to take a fresh look at things.

One of the things they came up with, for instance, was not the minimal viable product, which is a very normal way to do software development, or application development, but they said no, let’s turn this into the minimal accessible product. So then you have a tool to discuss things. When is it accessible? When it is acceptable? When can we ship it? I thought that was a very interesting approach, to compare it to other development types or design methods.

They had another one, they came up with a complete manifesto which I don’t remember exactly, but there were ten points, and there were some very, very valid points in there. I’m going to probably [inaudible 00:05:31] this week or next week. That was really interesting.

Nic: I look forward to read that manifesto. I think that could be quite thought-provoking for people.

I assume you have frustrations when it comes to accessibility. What would you say your greatest frustration is in terms of accessibility?

Vasilis: Right now in the Netherlands, my biggest frustration is design agencies who are only looking at novelty, who are only trying to create things that they haven’t seen before, instead of focusing on improving things. And here we have a few award shows, and they nominate these kinds of projects. It’s getting stimulated, people are stimulating each other to do these kind of things. So I try to talk to the people of these award shows, if we could change maybe the criteria so that less novelty but more quality would be nominated, would be awarded, but what I see is that it’s actually really mostly a lack of awareness. People don’t know that something like accessible design does exist, and that it’s even possible. So that’s something else I’m going to investigate, is what would happen if we asked these design agencies. I mean, they’re really fantastic artists. What if we ask them to come up with ideas for somebody who’s blind?

So for instance, this week I’m going to record my own podcast with more of an art agency, and they make all kinds of interactive projects. Large interactive projects. And I asked them, what would one of your projects look like if everybody would be blind, or if everybody is deaf? So we’re gonna talk about that this Thursday in Dutch, unfortunately. You’ll have to use Google Translate to somehow try to translate that.

Nic: I think it would be a bit of a shock to them when you present that question to them. What happens if suddenly your target market is blind?

Vasilis: This agency I’m going to talk to this Thursday, they love the idea. They were really excited and they started working on that immediately. So yeah, I actually think it might be interesting to see what happens if we ask these agencies that … well, maybe they miss Flash. So what would happen if we asked them, try to come up with incredible solutions for somebody who’s blind, or for everybody who’s deaf. Something like that. Definitely on my list of workshops, exclusive design workshops that I’m going to do.

Nic: Cool.

Vasilis: So I’m trying to, I used to be very frustrated as a principal front-end developer, before I switched to teaching. I used to be very frustrated, but now I’m trying to turn this frustration more into action, and try to get these people to participate in the accessibility program.

Nic: That’s a very healthy approach to things.

What would you say is the number one reason people fail to implement accessibility?

Vasilis: I think the number one is awareness. So if you don’t know it exists, there’s no way you’re gonna implement it. That’s absolutely the biggest problem. Then, there’s a few of them. One of them is thinking that it’s something that development should fix, not considering it to be a design problem but considering it to be a development problem. Later on in the process, that’s a very big problem. You get only duct-tape solutions with that.

And then I think, of course, it’s management. It’s hard to sell. There’s no direct financial gain from … well, it’s not that clear, the financial gain from implementing accessibility. And maybe there is, but maybe there’s also a lack of good examples.

Nic: I think there is definitely financial gain from implementing accessibility, it’s just not measurable. There’s no metrics to say, “We’ve had 17 blind users and three deaf users, and one keyboard sided-only user that purchased x amount of products.” We don’t have that kind of information. Building that business case is difficult for people.

Vasilis: But then even if you leave out the individual blind people or deaf people, other people with disabilities, you could of course create a business case from saying, if we build a website inclusively, it’s much more robust. It’s not gonna fall over that hard. We’re going to have fewer costs in the future. Things like that might work. But then, what I think is that we don’t have enough good examples of websites that are built robust, to show that it really works. We don’t have the cases yet. I think. I’m not sure. Maybe they are out there, but I don’t know. I haven’t seen too many of them.

Nic: I’ve noticed that a lot of the time, when people give examples of accessible sites, it ends up being sites for organizations that actually do accessibility day in and day out. I would really like to see a pool of examples of, maybe airlines, maybe newspapers. That would be so nice to have newspapers that are actually accessible. Carmakers. All these big companies that actually, probably have money, have the resources to make something really exciting happen. I would like to be able to build a pool of that, but it’s hard to [crosstalk 00:12:51]

Vasilis: There are some examples. There is this website, don’t remember the name of it. We have to look it up. There is this website with a list of examples of accessible websites, accessible patterns. Of course, Heydon Pickering has this website with patterns that goes in deep, but that’s more of a how-to. Another thing that he created that I think is fantastic is this drum machine, have you ever seen this?

Nic: No, I haven’t.

Vasilis: Heydon Pickering’s Beat. It’s incredible. Fully accessible. Fully metric drum machine, I think. It’s fantastic. And that’s really one of the first examples where I think this is an exciting user experience. This is one of the things that can become exciting for people who are blind, as a user experience.

Nic: I will have to look that up.

Vasilis: And it might even work for somebody who is deaf. Not really sure, but it’s fantastic. I’m going to send you a link. [crosstalk 00:14:03] the show notes.

Nic: Thank you. And I’ll make sure to add that to the transcript.

Vasilis: Yeah. And I think we should have things like that, more experimenting with accessible design, because we’ve never done that. It’s always that we look at a visual interaction pattern, and then try to translate that into something that’s spoken by a screen reader, instead of studying how would we want to interact with the screen reader, and look at it from the other way around.

Nic: Yeah.

Vasilis: I think we really need some research there.

Nic: Do you think that’s probably a big challenge for the field of accessibility going forward? Needing more research, or would there be another challenge that’s really blocking the field going forward?

Vasilis: I think there is a challenge and an opportunity in investigating, in trying to figure out how we can make delightful user experiences that are not visual. And of course, there’s a lot of work being done right now in different fields. Look at things like Siri and other things like that, they are trying to … it’s a different approach to spoken interfaces. But maybe, because we’re now, there’s so much research being done over there, maybe it might get up to a more exciting level. I’m not sure.

Nic: I think research really is key. We need to understand what’s happening, and as you say, we need to flip things on their head, to make sure that we’re not trying to retrofit accessibility, not even in terms of starting to think about our designs. “We’re gonna make this, this way. And how do we make it work for people with disabilities?” We really have to include that from the get-go.

Vasilis: Yeah, and I think there are many examples from the real world where that worked out really well, where we’re very happy with the results that we use every day. Lowered curbs, for instance. I mean they’re not just good for people with wheelchairs. They were invented for people with wheelchairs, but I use them. I don’t need them. But if I don’t have to step down, I always use a lowered curb. My students use them when they have crates of beer stacked onto their skateboards. It’s good for everybody. But, it started out with the problem probably for one person, and they lowered their own curb.

Nic: One of the conference talks I’ve given several times is the evolution of assistive technology into everyday products. So looking at things that were invented first for people with disabilities, and how these seep into everyday life, and often how these then go back to being adapted for people with disabilities. For example, the keyboard was first invented in the 1880s for people who were deaf to be able to write as fast. And now it evolved into what we used, there were about 16 major iterations. And from there, now we have one-handed keyboard for people that are amputees.

Vasilis: The same is with the cassette tape, right? They were invented for audio books.

Nic: Yeah. So there’s all these things. The Segway started life as the iBot wheelchair, which actually was a power wheelchair that was raising itself on two wheels so people could be at eye level. And the guy went …

Vasilis: [crosstalk 00:18:10] anymore.

Nic: [crosstalk 00:18:10] that. He didn’t make any money. So he started doing a Segway. And now the Segway’s being used by amputees and war veterans that need a mobility device. It’s really kind of cool how it goes around in circles.

Vasilis: I think we could use some more of this way of doing, not inclusive design research, but specific design research for specific cases. I think this is a little bit of a taboo on the web, because on the web we make things that work for everybody. It’s a fantastic goal, and I’m absolutely behind it, but I really think that we need some more research first before we can say that we’re even close.

Nic: If you aren’t coding and teaching coding and design in accessibility, what profession would you like to do?

Vasilis: Hah! I’d like to be a pensioner, to be honest. I really don’t like working that much. I would probably … yeah. Pensioner, that’s actually my ambition, to not have to work. I don’t like work. And then I would be an artist. But not really a successful artist, but somebody who just makes stuff for themselves. That’s definitely what I would be doing.

Nic: What kind of stuff do you wanna make? Painting, music, different media, sculptures?

Vasilis: Could be anything. Probably not sculpture, I’m very bad at sculpture. I studied sculpture and I was really, really bad at it. But the things that I made with my computer, the color things I talked about. That’s actually an ongoing project. I don’t work on that anymore that much, but I told you that I’m lazy, and these things generate works of art each and every day. So every day there’s ten works of art being generated. Every day ten new books are actually generated. So I’m probably the person with most books on my name. I have over, I’m almost at 10,000 books now. All different books with different colors, different shapes in them.

Nic: Wow. Is that being lazy, or is that being efficient, though?

Vasilis: No, it’s laziness. I really don’t care about efficiency. This is laziness, absolutely.

Nic: Vasilis, who inspires you?

Vasilis: Who inspires me? Well, on different levels, different people inspire me. That’s really hard to say. Never thought about that question, to be honest.

Nic: Fair enough.

Vasilis: Nope, don’t really have anybody that comes to mind.

Nic: Nobody specific jumps to mind.

Vasilis: Well, there are some people, let’s say Jeremy Keith is somebody who really, really inspired me while working on the web, with his idea … well, not his ideas, but his fearless defense of progressive enhancement, which is something I really, really like. Haydon Pickering, definitely somebody who inspires me. Leoni Watson, absolutely inspiring. That’s on the web. Then there’s all these other artists and designers and … I think it’s mostly artists who, maybe it’s the people who flip things around and then look at it from another angle that inspire me, and come up with good solutions then. Not just flipping around for flipping around.

Nic: That’s interesting because it really echoes what you were talking about earlier in terms of, we need to do that about accessibility. So you’re inspired by people that do what you feel needs to happen for accessibility going forwards. That’s quite coherent of you. Quite good.

Vasilis: Yeah, there’s one. It’s a book that inspired me recently. Design Meets Disability, by Graham Pullin. You know it?

Nic: I have heard of it. I’ve never had a chance to put my hands on it.

Vasilis: Some of the ideas that it talked about today, about adding personality to designing for disability, is definitely, they come from his book. He says, for instance, what … so twenty years ago, if you had glasses, that was not nice. It was not nice to need glasses, and people would bug you, kids would bug you. But then, something happened, and glasses became fashionable, so fashion designers started to work with these things. And now, they’re actually an item that you can, well, you can have several glasses for different occasions. Which adds to the personality, which actually improves life. And people buy glasses without needing them, right? It’s a fashion statement. So that’s a very interesting approach, I think.

And he also talked about, what he says is that designing for disability often is an engineering thing. We’re happy when it works. It works, we’re done. And he says no, it works, and now we have to start designing it. Now we have to add the layer of the personality of the person who has to use it, but also the personality of the designer to it. It’s a really, really interesting book. It’s really different way of looking at it. So that’s absolutely an inspiration.

Nic: I will have to look that book up. It sounds great.

Vasilis: Really good.

Nic: Let me finish our chat with asking you, what’s the one thing people should remember about accessibility? If there’s only one thing they should remember about it, what would it be?

Vasilis: It can be done, so there’s no reason not to do it. I guess that’s the one reason. And then it’s not even that hard to do most of it, so there’s really no reason not to do it.

Nic: It can be done, so let’s do it. Yeah. I like that.

So Vasilis, thanks again for talking with me and giving some of your time to this chat. I thought it was most excellent, and hopefully you enjoyed it as much as I did.

Vasilis: Thank you very much for having me. I really enjoyed it.

Nic: Wonderful. And everyone out there, thanks for listening. And until next week, that’s all.

Before I go, I want to thank my patrons once again. And remember that if you need a hand ensuring your site’s accessibility, I’m available. Contact me on my website at incl.ca.

Leave a Reply