E19 – Interview with Carie Fisher – Part 1

Talking with Carie Fisher, a developer and accessibility specialist that has been involved with Drupal for many years. Carie thinks that while Drupal has been a bit slow to adapt to an accessibility mindset, the tide has changed.


Nic:                Welcome to the accessibility rules podcast. You’re listening to episode nineteen. 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, I’m speaking with Carie Fisher. Hi Carie.

Carie:              Hi Nicolas.

Nic:                Thanks for joining me for this conversation about web accessibility. I like to let guests introduce themselves first, so in a brief elevator pitch style introduction, who’s Carie Fisher?

Carie:              There are many sides of Carie Fisher, but me in particular, I work with Drupal specifically, and then accessibility. I’ve been making websites professionally since 2005. And just in the past few years, really gotten deeper into the world of accessibility and trying to spearhead that inside the Drupal community.

Nic:                Alright. That sounds like it keeps you quite busy.

Carie:              Definitely. There’s a lot to know besides the normal front end development pieces to it. You also are talking about training other people, documentation, speaking at events, and general being available to help in any way that you can.

Nic:                So to get warmed up a little bit, tell me one thing that most people don’t know about you.

Carie:              I don’t know, I guess I’m kind of an open book. But let’s see. One thing that people don’t know about me is that, well, if you know me well, you know that I’ve got this really weird memory. I hear a song, and then I know the words right away. So there’s certain genres, especially like 90s rap in particular, that you wouldn’t think that I would understand or know or care about, but I definitely know a few things like that. It’s kind of my go-to karaoke genre.

Nic:                So you have an auditory photographic memory.

Carie:              I think so. It’s very strange. I never really looked into it, it’s just kind of a quirky thing that is about me.

Nic:                That’s so cool. We’re talking about web accessibility this morning, and there’s tons of different definitions of accessibility. How would you define web accessibility?

Carie:              I think of web accessibility as making everything on the website available to people of all kinds of disabilities. That could be the extreme things like a screen reader, or other assistive technologies. But it’s also for people who are on the spectrum of, maybe they don’t think that they have a disability, but they have maybe diminished eyesight or hearing, and that they would benefit from accessible components and pieces to your website. I don’t like to think of disabilities in a narrow sense. I like to think of it that we all could benefit from accessible websites.

Nic:                Yeah. I think the concept of temporary impairment and functional limitation is important. You were telling me about, I think I’ve been kept all night up by a puppy and in one way, having a new puppy in the house is a temporary situational impairment. So I think that’s a good way to phrase it and remind people that accessibility is for everyone.

Carie:              That’s very true, and not having enough coffee quite yet also is a temporary disability. I know, was it last summer that you had fractured your arms or your hands and you also had a temporary disability, so it happens to all of us in unforeseen ways and in different ways. So I think we all benefit from having a site being a little bit more friendly to all of us.

Nic:                Yeah. That’s a good way to look at it. Where does your role fall within the work of web accessibility?

Carie:              In what way?

Nic:                What do you do, specifically? You said you were involved with Drupal and you’ve got a new job that started a couple months ago, but what shape does that take day to day?

Carie:              I’m kind of a combination of front end developer and accessibility lead at my new organization, Hook 42. And what I do in that capacity is that front end developer, obviously I’m writing code and I’m taking mockups and designs and I’m building components and websites in an accessible way as possible. And then that’s the one half, and then on the other half is the accessibility lead. I’m working within my organization to train people on how to do things like accessibility audits, or how to design and develop in accessible ways. And education, obviously, and then I try to do a lot of speaking at conferences, and also training in that sense. If people know me in the Drupal community or in the accessibility community and they have a question, and maybe they can come up to me and talk about it. I don’t know all the answers, for sure, but I do know a lot of really smart people like yourself who do have the answers that I don’t have. I like really being part of that community and engaging in that community, both in the Drupal side and the broader accessibility community, and having all of us rely on each other and ask questions and figure things out together.

Nic:                Certainly seems to keep you out of trouble.

Carie:              I don’t know if it keeps me out of trouble, but it definitely occupies my day. And obviously I’m a little bit active on Twitter and Slack channels and things like that when it comes to talking about accessibility. It’s just a real passion of mine, and I don’t really think of it as work. It’s hard when you ask the question, what do you do in a daily way for accessibility? But it’s ever changing and it’s varied, trying different things.

Nic:                I like that you’re saying it’s a passion. Passion’s important in our work.

Carie:              I think it’s probably the thing that drives a lot of us. I’ve started doing this monthly discussion that started in the Drupal community, with the Birds of a Feather type meeting at a conference, and that kind of spurred it into a virtual meeting that we do monthly called Ally Talks. And even though it started in the Drupal community, it really is for everybody. It’s just talking … you spoke at it.

Nic:                Yep.

Carie:              And it’s basically inviting the guest to come in, an expert, and say “Hey, this is what I’m all about, and these are the things that I consider myself an expert, or at least more than a novice about this topic. I’m here if you wanna ask questions, or let’s start this discussion.” It’s one of those things that … I don’t know what I wanted to say about that, except for it is a passion. I don’t do that for my job, that’s something I just do because I’m interested in those topics, and I wanna know more, and I wanna see how someone like you works with JavaScript and accessibility, for instance, and how to integrate that into my own practice and educate other people on those topics.

Nic:                It’s a little bit like this podcast for me is a labor of love. I’m putting energy and effort and time and money into it because I believe in it, but in the end it’s certainly not part of the job description.

Carie:              True.

Nic:                Listen, I was involved with CMS accessibility a long, long time ago when I first became a Mambo user, and I was moaning and ranting and raving about the need to improve accessibility and then they invited me on board when they fought from Mambo and became Joomla!. They said, “Nic, do you wanna come on board and help us improve accessibility of Joomla!?” And I said, “Yeah, sure!” And I joined in, and I spent about a year and a half trying to make things change. And in the end, things did not really change, and the proof of concept I had written was transformed into, “Well, Nic, actually maybe we should leave accessibility to third party plugins.” And that was a very frustrating experience for me.

And you say you’re working with Drupal, and Drupal has significantly improved accessibility, if I compare today’s version to the versions I was looking at ten years ago. What’s your experience of working with a open-source CMS like Drupal as an accessibility advocate?

Carie:              First of all, I just wanna say I’m sorry that you had that experience in your own personal experience, but I don’t necessarily … I think probably a lot of that was you were ahead of your time, and people maybe didn’t realize. There hadn’t been that awakening yet in the accessibility world and beyond. Of course, we’ve known about accessibility for a while, you even longer than myself, but I think it takes sometimes people a little bit longer to understand the value add to product. In this case, your product is open source, but it’s still product at the end of the day. It’s a web system, a CMS.

I think that Drupal itself has had some similar experiences where maybe people are a little bit slower to adapt, but I feel like the tide is changing. I feel like the momentum has reached a point in the accessibility community that we can’t be ignored anymore, and I think that Drupal has, with the help of people like Mike Gifford and Andrew Macpherson, and other people in the community, really pushed that agenda forward. We’re just starting to see some of the benefits of that. With the latest Drupal 8 release, we’ve had a lot more … if you compare Drupal 7 version versus the Drupal 8 version, there’s a lot of improvements when it comes to Drupal 8 in the world of accessibility. Like more semantic markup, more inline form errors. A lot of different ways that it’s built in to core, versus having to do what you’re saying to do, like third party add-ons, or add this module and then this part will be accessible. Alt tags, for instance, are now coming straight out of core. They’re still not required, but we’re getting there. All it takes now is a setting change, whereas before you had to install a whole new submodule, which a lot of people couldn’t do.

So I think the tide’s changing, I guess is the point, and there’s a lot more momentum and support, community support. Business support, I think that’s one of the big things that’s happened too, is that businesses are starting to see the value in it. They’re allowing and encouraging their staff to do more, and to contribute more to the Drupal community. Even a couple years ago, I don’t think accessibility lead was something that happened a lot in just Drupal-based organizations. Maybe some, maybe a few out there, but it seems like that wasn’t as popular of a title that was there, because they didn’t know that that need existed, or they didn’t have the money to support that kind of position. And now they do.

Nic:                Things are changing for the better, I think. It’s taking a while, but we’re getting there.

Carie:              I’m hopeful. You see every day, a little bit change. We’re starting to get some bigger names in the accessibility community pushing things that weren’t necessarily in the community before. Some people may think of that as not a good thing, but I think of it as positive in the sense that anybody who is gonna be an advocate for our cause, let them join. And they may not know everything quite yet, or their pieces might not be quite accessible quite yet, but we can help them get there.

Nic:                Let’s do that. So talking about helping people build awareness and helping them get there, how did you become aware of web accessibility and its importance?

Carie:              The funny thing is, is that growing up, I worked a lot with disabled people as a disabled tech, I don’t know, assistant, I don’t know what the actual title was. But when I was in high school and when I was in college, and when I was in grad school, that was what supported me. That was my job, where I’d go and I’d be a disability helper, and help people with their daily activities. Some were very extreme cases, especially on the autism spectrum, where they needed a lot of help. But that’s kind of my background, so that’s kind of what I’ve always been doing.

But then when I finished my degrees, I decided I’m gonna be a website developer, and that’s kind of a long winded way to get there. Took a short break doing genetics for a while, but found myself in developing websites. It was a career shift, in a sense. You had this foundation of how I grew up and the jobs that I had taken in college, in high school, but then you had this other piece of me that’s technology based, and nine to five in an office. And I never really connected the two. To me, they were just separate pieces of myself.

It wasn’t until a few years ago where a mentor I had at Mediacurrent, her name is Mickey Williamson. She was a big driver of accessibility. That was back when the organization and other communities weren’t quite ready for that. But she was still a driving force and had that passion. To me, it was like when I heard her speak, it was a lightbulb moment. And I thought, whoa! I have this piece of me that I’ve always had, and I have this other piece of me that’s new, the website development part. I can merge these together! I can still make a difference for people in a different way. Does that make sense? I had always seen it as separate pieces of myself, and I didn’t realize that I could fuse the two together and become something more. The pieces of the puzzle, right?

Nic:                I bet that was quite an interesting moment, when you had that flash of insight.

Carie:              It kind of was. I’m not trying to exaggerate it, but it felt a little bit like an aha moment, where it was like “I can actually do good with my code, it’s not just about a pay check.” For me, that piece was missing. Of course obviously paying the bills is great, and I’m thankful for that opportunity. But I also felt like there was a piece of me that was a little bit sad that it was always about making a website for a company that sold a product, for instance. To me, that didn’t give me any sort of personal satisfaction, and warm fuzzies. I didn’t feel like I was contributing to the world, but in the world of accessibility, website accessibility, I do feel that. I feel like my voice matters, my small piece matters. Whatever little things that I can do, I’m not a superstar quite yet, but I have the hope that even one small thing that I’ve done on a website will help somebody use the site more efficiently and effectively.

Nic:                Where do you see the separation line between accessibility and user interface, user experience, UI/UX?

Carie:              I think the line, to me there is no line in the sense of that’s the first stepping stone. That’s the first part. Coming from the word of website development, and front end development in particular, there’s only so much you can do with an unaccessible design. I don’t wanna say inaccessible design. I don’t wanna say it’s a bad design, but if you’re shooting for accessibility, the very first part is the UX/UI, and the overall design color schemes, and font choices, and things like that. I think that’s a very important piece of it, because there are a lot of times, again, of frustration as a front end developer, and getting a mockup or a design and saying “This doesn’t work at all. This orange isn’t gonna pass the WCAG guidelines for this.” Or something like that, where if the UX/UI and designer had that knowledge to begin with, or had thought about that or that was part of the requirements for that design, it would’ve made my job a lot easier. I wouldn’t have to always be saying “Hey, what about this?”

And sometimes that can get difficult too, when you’re talking about client branded things. There are some things that are really hard to change, like brand colors.

Nic:                Yeah. Brand colors are a tricky one, but I’ve come across it often enough and I blogged about it (http://incl.ca/when-branding-colours-conflict-with-colour-contrast-requirements/ ), but basically I point out that the web is not like print, and the difference between monitor calibration and all these things very often, it’s not a question of changing the brand colors significantly. You can change the hue by a couple levels and you’ll be able to get proper contrast. Definitely there’s a lot of pushback against these change of colors from the brands, but I’ve actually made that demonstration to a guy fairly high up in a big company, and I brought two different computers with monitors calibrated a little bit differently. I showed them the same brand colors style guide beside the printed one, and the three were basically just about the same, but one was actually meeting contrast and the other wasn’t.

Carie:              It’s true. And we’re lucky with nowadays, we have things like the style guide, the living style guide, where you can say this isn’t, like you said, a print document. This isn’t set in stone forever. You adjust just a tiny bit here, and you meet the requirements, and it looks exactly the same or pretty close to it, and most people won’t even notice the difference. So yeah, we are lucky that we’re in that kind of world. Plus we have tons of fun tools, like I like to do the color contrast checker. It shows right on the screen in these giant big circles that “Hey, you passed!” And it’s green if you passed, it’s red if you failed. And it drives the point home that you can adjust a tiny bit and pass, or you can completely fail if it’s just a tiny bit over here. So I think people like to see that, and that’s the point, is in their heads, they can’t conceptualize it. But if they can see it in a visceral physical way, then they understand it better.

Nic:                If it’s changeable, it’s tangible, it’s easier to grasp. Carie, what’s your favorite word?

Carie:              What’s your favorite word, Nicolas?

Nic:                Inclusivity.

Carie:              That’s a good one.

Nic:                I like that because it just represents who I am and what I’ve been doing for as long as I remember, even when I was a kid.

Carie:              I like that too, man. It sounds bad, but I really can’t spell the word “accessibility,” and that’s why I like that – I can’t even say it – numerogram? Or whatever it is, where it’s A11Y. But I know a lot of other people also don’t like that, because it’s confusing other people. So I can’t win, basically.

Nic:                I think that the word “accessibility” is one of the least accessible words out there.

Carie:              I think so too!

Nic:                I have a problem pronouncing it. I never say it right. In French I can say accessibilité, without a problem. But when I come to actually say accessibility, in English, it’s definitely a tongue tripper. So I’m not surprised that people like you might have a problem writing it down.

Carie:              Yeah, we spoke earlier about how I’m good about memorizing things that are connected with music, but spelling is not my forte. It’s one of the things that I’m the least good at, so obviously with grammar checkers and spell checkers, it’s become a lot easier. But we all have the things that we’re good at, and we all have our limitations. It’s just one of mine.

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

Carie:              I have to say that I’m not done yet, but I think that one of the things that I’m most proud of this pat year is the accessibility style guide. A11Y-style-guide. It’s on Github, and Scott O’Hara was one of the first people. I didn’t know him before I created that Github repo, but he came on pretty early on, and helped me get that going and become a little bit more robust.

Since then, obviously there’s been a lot of other style guides that’ve come out, and I’ve found style guides that’ve existed before that. But at the moment, when I first created it, it was out of necessity. If you’re going back to talking about front end development, a lot of people in my company at the time wanted to know more about building accessible components, and they wanted to know, they would ping me and they would say “Hey, can you check this code, or how do I write this?” And it got to the point where I said “Instead of just going through and doing it for you, I could do a style guide of our own, and you can look at that and reference it.” Because obviously I’m not online all the time. I do sleep, or try to sleep when the puppy’s not keeping me awake.

So I thought of it as more of a reference guide for internal use, but then a few other people thought this is also a good reference, and took it and ran with it, or did whatever they did with it, or used it as a guide. I was shocked that more than one person actually started and liked it. I’m happy for all the tiny little stars, but to me it’s not why it was made. It was made out of necessity and for internal education purposes. I’m glad other people had use out of it, though.

Nic:                It’s wonderful when you do something for your own self and it has applicability for other people, and it’s useful. It’s very motivating, I think.

Carie:              I think so, yeah. I had other Github repos that nobody’s looked at or used, so it’s nice when a few people do use it and contribute back. We’ve had other people contribute other than just Scott over the year, but we’re getting close to the birthday of it. Should be interesting.

But like I said, a lot of other people have done more of their own style guides since then, and have kind of taken that on. So at this point, I’m very proud of that, but I’m always looking for the next opportunity and the next thing to do. Not quite sure what that is yet.

Nic:                Onwards and forwards.

Carie:              Yeah, why not? Keep blazing through.

Nic:                Yeah, Carie. On that note, I think we’re going to wrap this segment for this week. Thank you for your fantastic conversation, and your answers to my question. We’ll finish our chat next week.

Carie:              Thank you.

Nic:                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.