E18 – Interview with Billy Gregory – Part 2

Billy Gregory, who tried being a rock star, and a wrestling star, tells us that one thing people don’t realize about web accessibility is how great the accessibility community is.


Nic: Welcome to the accessibility rules podcast. You’re listening to episode 18.

This episode has been sponsored by patrons like you. 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 Billy Gregory. Definitely check out the first part of our chat, because it was really fascinating.

Anyway, Billy, hi again. Should we continue where we left off last week?

Billy: Sure. You were just about to do a rap all about the VPAT 2.0.

Nic: Was I? I forgot about that. Since you brought it up, Billy, tell me about VPAT 2.0.

Billy: Oh, now you’re throwing me under the bus here. To be honest I’m probably the wrong person to ask. I am hopelessly behind in all of the 508 and VPAT 2.0 stuff. I’m gonna play the Canadian card on this one – being a Canadian, I don’t have to do that.

Nic: Right. But let me ask you a different question, actually, on that topic. You probably have come across businesses that come to you and they say “We had a VPAT done, and somehow we’re being told that our site is not accessible.” How do you suggest businesses deal with issues where they’ve worked with one company, or one expert, and the results they got were not quite as good as they were hoping?

Billy: You know, that’s a really good question. It’s funny ’cause a friend of mine is actually struggling with this right now. They’re working through a, they’re basically confirming another person’s VPAT, and they’re finding a lot wrong. It’s tough. Sometimes I wonder if it’s a lot like web development, where you build a website and you look back at it six months later, you’re like, “I would’ve done so much differently.” On one hand, I’m sympathetic to the fact that sometimes you would’ve done something differently. Sometimes you learn something new about accessibility you didn’t know a few weeks before. But none of that really matters to the client that’s paid for something that they didn’t get.

I do think it’s tough. I think, I guess the short and not at all sarcastic, but it might get … you kind of get what you pay for. So if you’re shopping around and you’re gonna find somebody who’s like “Yeah, I can do that VPAT for you in a day, and I can do it for $200.” You’re gonna get a $200 VPAT that took a day. That’s all there is to it. I think you honestly do get what you pay for, so if you go to … there’s plenty of quality web accessibility professionals in the world. You can probably seek them out on Twitter, or via whatever channel you’re familiar with. They’re not that hard to find. Do a little bit of research before you invest your money with a particular company or person. Look at some of the other work they’ve done. If you can get copies of other like-papered, or VPATs are pretty public. So you could look at some of the work they’ve done, ask them for samples, see what recommendations they have, and do some of this on your own. There’s plenty of people out there, I mean, Twitter is great at complaining about stuff. So all you have to do is go on Twitter and you’ll find … you could probably do enough investigative work on your own just to see who’s who and who does good work.

Nic: I think that’s really … In the end, you work before you commit to something.

Billy: Exactly. It’s no different than any other major purchase you’re gonna buy, and an investment like this is a pretty weighty one, because it does come with some consequences. If you’re investing in a VPAT, you’re doing this to prevent further legal action, or you’re doing this for peace of mind. And if you’re not getting that, you’re almost doing more harm than good. Especially if you’re lying in a VPAT, or what could be defined as lying.

Nic: What’s your favorite word?

Billy: My favorite word. That’s a good one. These days, honestly, and this is gonna sound like pandering, my favorite word is Toronto. I’m kind of riding that huge crest of our conference last month, and we’ve got a camp coming up in November. Last month being September at this point. I’m so stoked on what Toronto has done, and I’m not taking an ounce of credit for any of this. I think we’ve got such a fantastic community that anyone can do the work that our org is doing, we just happen to be the ones that are doing it right now. We’ve got this amazing community that rallies behind all of our, what seem like ridiculous ideas at the time, and they support us and it’s so great. Even the talent we’ve got in this city now is astounding.

So these days, yeah. I think that’d be my favorite word.

Nic: You mentioned Accessibility Toronto, the camp and the conference. I was at the conference, and it was fantastic. It was actually hard to believe it was the first time you guys put together a conference. Tell me a little bit more about what the goals of the conference are, and where you hope to get to in the future with that.

Billy: Our goals for the conference were, and let me just back up. We had our meetups first, or it started with camp. And for us, camp was always our way to bring new people into the community. Camp for us was never really about training, or learning new skills. It was more about sharing ideas and engaging with the community. Foster relationships and bring new people in, introduce them to what we do and the fact that we’re not, again, this scary or unwelcoming community. We’re actually a pretty awesome community once you get to know us. And we want people to be around, other people with disabilities, and engage with people on a human level instead of just via Twitter or email or anything else. So camp for us was always like that.

Then we had our meetups, which were taking some of the ideas from camp and flushing them out a little bit more. Giving them a little bit more room to breathe, and discuss as a group. So our meetups were always topic based, and we do our share of social meetups as well, where we end up in one location and we spend the evening together chatting and catching up. But we wanted to do something more. We knew that Toronto could support something more training-based, something focused, something that wasn’t just introductory ideas, something that was a little bit, levelling up a little bit.

So we had the idea of doing the conference, because one of our biggest meetups of the year, for whatever reason, always seemed to be right after CSUN. We would do a CSUN recap. Like I said, it was always one of our busier ones. We had a lot of people, lot of great conversation. And we found out that most of it was because people couldn’t afford to go to CSUN. It’s an expensive conference to go to. And this isn’t a knock at CSUN. It’s in the US, it’s a very huge conference, so it’s worth the price. But it’s still seven or eight hundred dollars to get into CSUN, plus accommodation, which San Diego is not an inexpensive place to visit.

So by the end of that, you’re spending $2000, $2500 to go to a conference, and we’re like there’s gotta be a way that we can provide something not on the same scale, but something comparable in Toronto. So that’s when we started thinking, we’ve done these camps, they’re great. We know how to book an accessible event. We know how to get speakers out. Let’s see what we can do.

So we started, actually, about three years ago, talking about conference. We had announced one for 2016, and we realized that we had some organizational changes at the time; my two partners, George Zamfir and Patrick Dunfy, both had children that year. So they had to step back and be dads. Luckily, my kids are one teenager and one that’s turning eleven soon, so they’re a little bit older and they’re not newborns, so I don’t need to be home all the time.

I was able to keep this going. I got a new team, Oskar Westin and a few others, that stepped up and helped it. Oskar and I started forming the conference a couple years back. We realized that we couldn’t do one in 2016. We wouldn’t adhere to our own standards that we had set for ourselves. So we’re like, if we can’t do something that’s quality, I don’t wanna do it. We weren’t worried about getting people out, but we were worried about under-delivering.

So we took the time. We found a great venue in the Telus labs. They gave us that amazing space. And we worked with them and started piecing it together over the course of earlier this year, and then we finally made it happen, which was great.

So for us, the conference was really about provide … that was a really long-winded answer of me just saying that we wanted to do it ’cause we wanted to give someone more digestible, actionable takeaways. We wanted to be training focused.

Nic: So you’re following conference with camp, back to back, just about.

Billy: Yes.

Nic: That’s gotta be tough on the organizing crew.

Billy: Yeah. And if you throw in ID24 in the middle of that too, I’m doing a little bit. We won’t do camp and conference back to back next year. We’re gonna move one of them to a different part of the year. I have a feeling that camp might shift. We’re thinking about maybe targeting a June type date for camp.

The reason we did them back to back this year is because we made a promise to our members that when we did conference, that camp wouldn’t go away. The only real timeframe we could sneak them both in, ’cause we always wanted to the last bit of September for conference, because we just figured that was probably the easiest date to target. Then we realize, oh man. If we have to do camp and conference back to back, we have to do them back to back! So we gave ourselves six weeks or something, which is really tight.

We don’t have the sponsors that we normally have for camp this year. We’re gonna take a hit on this one. But for us, that’s more important than not doing camp. We made a promise that because conference is a paid event, camp is always free. We didn’t wanna make people think that all we’re doing is making people pay for camp, and calling it a conference. It’s very important to us that there are two different events. They both serve unique purposes, and they both fit in our little ecosystem here.

We’re gonna take the hit financially this year. We’re gonna put camp on ourselves, and here we go.

Nic: Well, good luck on that. I think that … well, no I don’t think. I know, I admire your approach and your dedication to the community, which I think translates into your dedication to people and accessibility. So that’s really good.

Billy: Thanks man, yeah. We’re pretty happy. Like I said, this isn’t about the work we do so much, it’s just we’ve got such a great community that allows us to do these things, and supports us. We announced camp four days ago, we announced registration. And we are over 75% full.

Nic: Wow.

Billy: Yeah. So we’ve got almost just shy of 230 something people registered right now.

Nic: Wonderful.

Billy: In four days. So yeah, we’re really happy about the response.

Nic: That tells me that you’re putting great events on, but also that there is no fatigue about having accessibility events in the Toronto community. So that’s really good to hear.

Billy: Yeah, well, we’ll see. Two back to back six week apart might just be the tipping point. Hopefully not. We might just hold off, and maybe throw a big party in December or something. Just to thank everyone for putting up with us.

Nic: Cool. Hey, what do you think is your greatest achievement in terms of web accessibility?

Billy: Jeez. I won’t take credit for the camps or conferences, because that’s a team, but I’m definitely proud of the role that I’ve played in that. But the thing that I think I’m most proud of, honestly, is the Viking and Lumberjack stuff. I think Karl and I really made a lot of people think one way or another, whether it be good or bad, differently about accessibility. I think we’ve shown that there is room for levity and humor, and just a couple of guys causing trouble. I can’t think of another conference talk ever, in the history of accessibility or even just conference talks in general.

Karl and I made a trailer for our CSUN talk last year. And then we entered the room to entrance music, like professional wrestlers. And people were cool with that. They were like, yeah, okay, of course, that’s exactly what Viking and Lumberjack would do. So I love the fact that we’ve been able to change a few people’s opinions on what our community is about. Now, that’s not to say that we don’t have our share of haters. There are people who despise Viking and Lumberjack, that think we’re making a mockery of accessibility. Whatever. There’s people that don’t like everything, and that’s cool. There’s room for them too.

And you know, I’m not saying we’re everybody’s cup of tea. We’re definitely two very polarizing personalities that are, when you put us together, we can be obnoxious at times. But I think there are people that can see that these are, they’re extensions of our personalities, but they’re also characters we play. I always tell people, I’m not really that mean. I just play a jerk on YouTube.

Oh, go ahead. Sorry.

Nic: No, I was just gonna say, here’s a challenge for you Billy. Tell me one thing about accessibility that I don’t know about.

Billy: That you don’t know about. Oh boy. Hmm. Jeez.

Nic: Or let me rephrase that a little bit. Tell me one thing about accessibility that you think most people don’t know about.

Billy: One thing, okay. Jeez, I think I’ve used up all of my standard go-tos, where I like to say it’s about access to, not access for. I talked about all that. One thing that you know that I don’t think a lot of people know is, how great … I’m gonna give you two, and I’m gonna give you the more philosophical version, and then the more monetary-based one. We’ll start with the nicer one.

I don’t think people realize how great our community is, how open we are, how many new friends you can make. Honestly, some of my best friends in the world right now, I made through this community. I’ve made some great contacts. I’ve opened up so many other parts of my life, because of where I am right now. Like I said, the thing I’m probably most proud of in accessibility is the Viking and Lumberjack, but that also allowed me, because I came from a performing background, playing music for many years, it allowed me to keep that creative outlet that I didn’t have anymore in my professional career. So that alone, I don’t think people realize how great a job and a community accessibility really is, and the amount of more people that I was able to meet and have access to that I probably wouldn’t have met otherwise.

Now, the other side of that. I have not been fired from at least two different jobs I can think of, because of the fact that I was the only person on staff that knew accessibility. So if you wanna look at it from just, I joked about job security, I think in our last episode. I mean it. It’s a great way of self-preservation. Adrian Roselli has a fantastic talk called Selfish Accessibility, and look it up. He’s done it a few times. It’s a great talk. I’m sure you could find a recording of it somewhere online. But it’s true, everything he says in that is true. He talks about building a fair future self. I talked about accessibility, the first talk I ever did was how accessibility made me a better developer. But it also saved my ass a few times.

I’ve watched colleagues who were probably a lot better than me as developers be let go because I was the only one that knew about the ins and outs of accessibility. So it’s a great tool to have in your toolbox. Whether you wanna look at it as “I’m doing the right thing,” or “I’m doing the right thing for me,” both will come in handy.

Nic: That’s a fantastic perspective that, at this point, nobody else mentioned. But I really like that. Thanks, Billy. That’s quite thought-provoking. What’s your greatest frustration in terms of web accessibility?

Billy: I think my greatest frustration, I could answer this one without even pausing. My greatest frustration is the amount of errors I see consistently that are the same errors every time. We talked about structure and getting your accessibility for free. I think that is my greatest frustration, is that there are probably three things, and again, this is not an original idea, but there are three things that if we fixed consistently online, we could probably not waste so much time and be able to tackle some of the bigger, more pressing issues with accessibility.

And those three things would be semantic code, if we just used better HTML, we paid more attention to focus management, and visible focus, for that matter, and we focused more on keyboard interaction. If we supported those three things, I would bet, I’m not gonna use exact metrics here, but I’m gonna say probably a good 75 to 90% of our issues with accessibility would go away, if we just paid attention to those.

And then we can focus on tackling some of the bigger stuff, because there’s so much cool accessibility related stuff that’s just around the corner that … we’re still arguing about alt-text, for crying out loud. It’s almost 2018. We’re still debating that. We got VR just dangling in front of us. Let’s get on some of that cool stuff.

Nic: I think one of the things, and maybe it was Denis Boudreau that alluded to that when I spoke to him, but it’s this idea that … or maybe it was Mark Palmer. Anyway, doesn’t matter who, but it was this idea that with all these new technologies coming in, if we don’t start thinking about accessibility at the building blocks, at the start of these technologies, we’re going to find ourselves in a position where we’re gonna be playing catch up with that, as we’re playing catch up now. How do you feel about that?

Billy: I think that’s brilliant. I think you’re absolutely right. We’re gonna have this backlog of issues, really. I think that’s a perfect way of putting it, because we’ve got this, we’re still arguing about the fundamentals; the easy stuff, we’re still arguing about. And then we’ve got so much advanced stuff building up behind it, that yeah, we’re never gonna get through this if we don’t get everybody on board with the easy stuff.

Nic: What would you say the number one reason most people fail to succeed with accessibility is?

Billy: Do you mean sites, or particular individuals?

Nic: Either or.

Billy: Okay. This is gonna be an unfair generalization, so I’m gonna just put that out there ahead of time. But I think we find a lot of developers, when they start using frameworks, they start seeing all the cool stuff they can do with frameworks and JavaScript and all that, when you start saying “Okay, that looks great, you’ve got some amazing transitions, I love the way your single page app behaves. Now, is it accessible?” That’s where you start seeing people being like “I don’t care about that,” because it’s gonna take, I just built all this stuff, now you’re telling me I gotta go back and fix it, and it’s gotta work this particular way. I think that’s where we see people dropping off. That’s the biggest issue.

Nic: So you’re saying they’re dropping off because it’s too much work to implement after the fact?

Billy: Maybe not even after the fact. There’s some stuff that even when they’re planning on it, it just takes that extra little bit of time that they’re just not willing to spend. They don’t see the immediate return on investment, maybe they don’t have any friends with disabilities. Maybe it was never taught properly to them in school. And we start seeing people making those mistakes, and getting fed up and annoyed and dropping off there.

Nic: What’s the solution to that? How can they avoid that kind of failure?

Billy: I think they need to be taught properly. I think there’s not enough focus on accessible, and not even … let’s remove the word “accessibility” from this at all. There’s not enough explanation as to why semantic code and semantics and keyboards and focus management, there’s not enough talk about why that’s important when they’re being taught this stuff. Most of the time, they’re being taught, we’re gonna do this and then this thing opens. They don’t really explain how users are gonna interact with that. There’s not enough attention brought to why it’s important that it behave a certain way.

I don’t think most young developers are ever even taught about things like the ARIA 1.1, or any of the documents. I know that every time I mention any kind of, something around ARIA design patterns, or keyboard interaction, I just see developers’ faces go blank. I think those are important documents, and if they were just taught that way from the beginning, it would be a lot easier for them to embrace it.

Nic: I remember being completely taken aback when I did a presentation, JavaScript, don’t turn off that … no, accessibility, don’t turn off that JavaScript just yet. I presented that, first time in Minneapolis last year. And a guy came up to me afterwards, and he says “Look, I’ve been doing JavaScript development, just about only that since the year 2000, and I had never heard about ARIA.”

Billy: Jeez.

Nic: Yeah, you know, you burst out laughing but you have to wonder, where are these people’s heads at? How can you be so narrowly focused on one thing that you actually don’t see everything that’s moving around what you’re doing? It’s really puzzling.

Billy: Yeah. Again, I don’t wanna unfairly blame the developer. If they didn’t know that these things existed, and they didn’t know that … there’s a lot of people who don’t even realize that screw meters are a thing. I’m sure you hear it all the time, working in accessibility, when you mention what you do for a living and people are like “Blind people can use computers?” We hear that all the time, right?

We always think of the web as this inherently visual experience, and when we start introducing things like screen readers, or even just other forms of assistive technologies, people’s minds are blown away. My parents, still, are fascinated; they think I’m some kind of wizard for being able to do what I do, and it’s like no. It’s just really common sense and caring.

Nic: Sina Bahram said to me, we don’t have an accessibility problem; we have an awareness problem. Comment on that.

Billy: First of all, I look forward to the day when Sina is running the world, and I salute my new overlord. He’s honestly one of the smarter dudes I know.

But I kind of agree with that. I think the accessibility stuff, it’s not like there’s this whole new set of accessibility HTML you have to learn. You’re just learning web development, you’re just doing it differently. So I think it’s right. I think if we can make people more aware of the solutions that are out there and the problems they’re causing for themselves, a lot of those problems will go away. So yeah, I definitely agree with Sina’s point there. And I’ll also agree with, I think it was Karl’s was the first person that I heard say, you don’t have basically an accessibility issue; you have a quality issue when you’re so closed, inaccessible. I think that’s true too. If your site’s not usable to some people, then it’s only partially good. I think it’s true.

Nic: There’s a lot of good people saying good things, and I’m loving talking to people through the podcast, because I’m hearing all these fantastic quotes that I hadn’t heard before. Thanks for that.

Billy: No problem.

Nic: What’s the greatest challenge for our field moving forward?

Billy: I think our greatest challenge, I think we touched on it already. I think our greatest challenge is, we’ve got this backlog of issues. I don’t wanna say issues, but problems or concerns. We’ve just got this backlog of accessibility related bickering going on in our past that we haven’t fixed yet. And the web is changing. It’s evolving all the time. Now we’ve finally got more people talking about accessible gaming, and VR’s getting huge. So what are we gonna do for that? ‘Cause we can see some of the ways that virtual reality can help people. We hear people talking all the time about how VR’s gonna help people with cognitive issues, or you could help people with dementia, or Alzheimer’s, relive their youth and unlock pieces of themselves that might’ve been buried within their affliction.

There’s ways we can use VR, it doesn’t have to be just visual. There’s tons of stuff we could do with the other senses involved in that, to emerge other disabilities and involve everyone. We’ve got all these really cool things just on the horizon that we’re gonna be playing catch up, again, like you said, if we don’t get on top of that now.

Nic: We do need to get on top of that. Billy, what profession, what job other than your own would you like to attempt?

Billy: Well, I tried rock star. That didn’t work out well. I did try professional wrestler, and that worked out even worse. Jeez, I don’t know. I was just saying this the other night. I think if I was to switch gears later in life, I like the idea of helping people. I love that. So I would probably, maybe get into working with the homeless if I was to switch gears. I’m not sure what, or how, but I think I’ve learned how great it is to give back to a community over the years, and I think that’s probably one community that could use a little more help. So if I had to switch gears, I think that’s where I would end up.

Nic: So definitely, you’re a helping soul. You like accessibility, and you’re thinking about helping people that are …

Billy: I never would’ve thought that, but I guess I am.

Nic: Who inspires you?

Billy: Jeez. Almost everyone I know. I think it’s important to keep yourself surrounded by people that drive and motivate you. I’m really lucky that I have the job that I have, and that I work with the people I do. Up until recently, I worked directly for Mike Paciello. You can’t ask for a better guy to work for. Mike has been an amazing friend and mentor. And then you’ve got other people, I’m really lucky that some of my closest friends in the world right now are all in my industry, like Leonie Watson … [cough] excuse me. Bug flew in my mouth.

Nic: Whoops. You alright?

Billy: Yeah. Alright there. Yeah, it’ll happen there. Okay. There’s a lot of dust being kicked up, because there’s a condo being built right behind my house. So it’s kind of a … yeah. You can save this one for the blooper show.

Nic: Yeah, I might do that.

Billy: The year-end recap. Listen to these assholes! Okay, no. So I’m really lucky that a lot of the people I work with, I can count as close friends, because I’ve got Adrian Roselli, Leonie Watson, Henny Swan. Ian Pouncey and I are good buddies. Steve Faulkner, these are all people that I count as friends, as well as colleagues. So it’s really great that I can draw inspiration from them. Because it’s not that they don’t just inspire me, but they’re also a good ear to complain to, and help get me back on track. That’s why I think conferences like CSUN and hopefully, sooner than later, A11YTO conf. That we serve as resets. We go there, and it’s not just about learning. It’s about recharging, and getting back into the community, and realizing you’re not alone, and the troubles that you’re having, other people are having. That stuff’s important, you know?

Nic: Yeah. Quite. So talking of important, let me ask you one last question and then I’ll let you go, sir. What’s the one thing people should remember about accessibility?

Billy: I touched on this in the first episode. I think people need to remember that accessibility is simply about access and information and being able to participate. It’s about everyone having the same opportunities to do the same things. For me, accessibility means that one of the three people I mentioned as working heavily with A11YTO is Johnny Taylor. Johnny needs email and text and things like that to be able to articulate all of his thoughts. He’s vital to our organization. He does so much in terms of helping drive sponsorship, and organization, and he updates our website, and technology is very important to Johnny.

So for me, I want people to realize that it’s not just about letting somebody use your website. It’s about allowing somebody to contribute, and the ideas that are locked inside them.

Nic: Yeah. Fantastic. Great way to end the show. Billy, thank you so much for your time and your enthusiasm. And to everyone out there, thanks for listening. Until next week, that’s all folks.

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.