E23 – Interview with Andrea Skeries – Part 1

I had a most interesting conversation with Andrea Skeries, a front end web developer and designer. Her goal is to spread accessibility like a virus! She also tells us, among other things, that we aren’t going to understand the user experience of our product until we get users with disabilities to do testing.


Nic: Welcome to the Access Ability Rules Podcast. You’re listening to episode 23. This episode has been sponsored by patrons like you. I really do appreciate your support. If you aren’t a patron yet, and want to support the show, please visit patreon.com/steenhout.

I’m Nic Steenhout. I talk with people involved in one way or another with web accessibility. This week I’m speaking with Andrea Skeries. Hi Andrea.

Andrea: Hello. How are you?

Nic: I’m pretty good. Thanks for joining me for this conversation about accessibility. I like to let guests introduce themselves. In a brief elevator pitch style answer, who’s Andrea Skeries?

Andrea: Sure thing. I’m a huge lover of art and technology, and bringing the two together, as a front end web developer and designer. I’m being playing with HTML, since that first Bondi Blue iMac came out, using table layouts, and Angelfire for hosting. I’ve been learning about web accessibility for a little over 10 years. I was among the first group of people to become certified professional, and accessibility core competencies, or CPAC from the IAAP a couple of years ago.

Nic: Congratulations. That’s quite a tough test I understand.

Andrea: Yeah. It was a lot of fun, cause I got to go to CSUN to take it. It was really educational experience.

Nic: Wonderful. Hey, to get wound up into this, tell me one thing that most people would not know about you?

Andrea: Okay. Well, everybody at work knows this about me. They kind of get a kick out of it, but I’ll share it with the internet. I drink … Most people drink a lot of coffee in the mornings. The bigger the cup, the better.

Nic: Yeah.

Andrea: I drink my morning coffee out of a little, tiny espresso cup, and a stir straw, even though I take it black.

Nic: Okay. That’s …

Andrea: I find it helps me limit the caffeine intake. It also helps me get up and move around more often, when I refill it.

Nic: That makes sense.

Andrea: Yeah. Even if I have three or four of these little espresso shots of coffee, it only equals to about a cup. I get to get up and stretch and … It’s something that really important for people that work on the computer eight hours a day.

Nic: Yeah.

Andrea: Is to, you know, rest your eyes every now and then, stretch your hands. Make sure you’re not cramping up or anything like that.

Nic: Yeah. Micro pause is good. We’re talking about web accessibility. There’s about 15 bazillion different definitions. How would you define web accessibility?

Andrea: Well, I think it’s just making sure that everyone can access the fabulousness of the world wide web. Not only today, but well into the future, as we as human beings age, but also as technology advances. It’s really based on web standards and best practices, and thorough user testing.

Nic: Yeah. Yeah. I think that’s a good point that’s not often made. The idea of changing technologies and we have to make sure that we keep an eye out on that. Where does your role fall within the work of web accessibility? You talked a little bit about being a designer and front end dev, and that kind of stuff. But concretely, your day-to-day job. What do you do?

Andrea: My primary work has been in healthcare for quite some time. With healthcare sites, it’s really important to focus on accessibility because there’s a large senior audience, accessing these sites, as well as people who are sick, or injured, in one way or another. Really, the only time people are happy, when they come to the hospital, I think, is when they’re expecting a child.

Nic: Yes. Usually people don’t go to the hospital on voluntary basis.

Andrea: Right.

Nic: Yeah.

Andrea: My goal is just to make sure that these sites are as easy to use as possible, so people can get the care that they need quickly. You know, access to these sites is important, not only for a person’s well-being, but their privacy too. Really, nobody wants to ask for help, filling out a form that’s full of personal, medical information.

Nic: Yeah. I think that’s one thing that people tend to forget it, say if a screen reader user actually can’t interact with form, they need to ask for assistance. Then it becomes a problem of privacy. I remember a friend of mine in Chicago. She was deaf. She had to use her 10 year old daughter as an interpreter, because her doctor refused to provide an interpreter at the time. I just thought it was really not a good mix.

Andrea: Yeah.

Nic: To have your kid explain sometimes difficult medical situations and …

Andrea: Exactly.

Nic: The accessibility on the web for people who are blind and privacy as you pointed out is, quite tricky. How did you become aware of web accessibility and it’s importance?

Andrea: I started learning about it from a co-worker. We were building these healthcare websites together. He was a big advocate for it. He showed all the other designer developers about how to make bullet proof web designs, which is a concept from Dan Cedarholm. Making websites flexible, giving up control to the user, to the users, browser and different technologies that they may be using. That was really intriguing to me, the whole idea of that and progressive enhancement and semantics. I was also kind of introduced at that time, to some videos of how people were using screen readers.

Nic: Oh yeah.

Andrea: Which was super interesting. I felt like, for the first time I was making sites for people, instead of just for myself. And then, that really gave my work a sense of purpose, more than just, something that I was doing for fun. It really made every day, I came to work, really special and rewarding.

Nic: You’ve kept going with that since then I guess.

Andrea: Right. Yeah, I just … I mean, we only worked together for a couple of years, and then he moved away. I just took it upon myself to keep learning more about it, and improving my work. I started consulting with some other groups of accessibility professionals to learn how they did things, and about how the different tools that they were using. And so, I’ve just been going ever since.

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

Andrea: Yeah. I mean, as technology has progressed, there’s new things that we’ve had to learn. I mean, back then it was just making sure the semantics were good, having clean code. You know, no validation errors. Now, I feel like, there’s more trickier design elements that we’re adding in. Things like content sliders, and modal windows. There’s always some sort of design trend out there, that we have to either, find a way to make accessible, or try to convince our clients that, “Okay, just because this is a trend, it doesn’t mean that it’s the right thing to do.”

Nic: Yeah.

Andrea: I know quite a few years ago, they used to have these little people that would walk out on screen and talk at you, as soon as you came to a webpage. And then, that of course, had a lot of problems. There was flash, which was kind of a big barrier that we don’t use anymore. I think in some ways, it’s been getting better. It has the ability to get better anyhow.

Nic: Yeah. Yeah. I do think things are evolving, but the fight against the latest fad is definitely something that’s out there. Talking of a fad, if I tell you carousel, what do you say?

Andrea: Don’t do it. I would love to be more creative than that. Try to get away from that. Just come up with some new ways of displaying content that’s maybe even cooler than that.

Nic: I would like to see that. When you do come up with it, please make sure to come back to me and say, “Hey Nic, let’s push that out.”

Andrea: Sure. Will do.

Nic: What barriers did you face, when you started with accessibility? How did you get over those?

Andrea: I think, just understanding how, what I was developing was affecting all these different technologies, cause there’s so many different ones. I think learning from people that actually use the technologies on a daily basis is really helpful.

Nic: Right.

Andrea: I started watching a lot of YouTube videos. There’s amazing, how much information there is out there. People sharing their own experiences, and how they use screen readers on there, how important captions are to people, and just kind of really putting a face to the need, has been really helpful.

Nic: Yeah. Yeah, when you make it human, it’s not longer about the technology, but it’s about the people you’re helping. Quite a bit of motivation there. You described yourself as an artist, designer, front end dev. Where do you see the separation line between accessibility and UI/UX?

Andrea: It really all fits together pretty well I think. The user experience is really just, how well people are able to use your product. I feel like the accessibility part of it is more like, the technical aspect of it. The things that you actually do to your code, what the best practices are. Ultimately, the user experience, you’re not gonna really understand fully, until you get users in there to test your product and see how it works. I think that any nerd, or geeks in general, really love to have someone use their product. I mean, that’s kind of what we do. We really like to create something that a lot of people are gonna use. Being able to actually watch some people use and see how easy it is for them, is a real eye opener.

Nic: I sense a theme here. You spoke earlier about watching videos of people using their assistive technology and now you’re talking about user testing, and making sure that developer understand how that works. I sense a strong theme of taking accessibility and UI/UX back to the people that are affected. Is that something that you push in your day-to-day life, or have your colleagues heard all about it. What are you doing to pass that message around?

Andrea: Yeah. I’ve been … Definitely the people I work with have heard a lot about it from me. Also, in my consulting, I try to have a strong education piece, as to why I do certain things. I’ve also been hosting the Accessibility and User Experience Meetup here in Iowa.

Nic: Okay.

Andrea: Also been at several conferences, giving talks and workshops.

Nic: Yeah, actually I meant to ask you about that. You do speak at a fair few conferences. You talk about accessibility. How have your talks generally been received?

Andrea: People have been very excited and interested in ’em. I always get a lot of laughs. Sometimes, a tear or two. I always have so many people coming up to me afterwards and thanking me for an important topic that either they’ve never thought of before, or people who are into web accessibility also tend to go to those events a lot.

Nic: Yeah.

Andrea: They have a personal reason for caring about it. They are really appreciative as well.

Nic: Yeah. I was speaking at Pycon Canada yesterday. I was reflecting that the room I was in was not as full as I was hoping it was gonna be. Then, it was not as empty as some of the other rooms for some of the other talks. It’s always interesting to me, to see how as an accessibility speaker in not necessarily accessibility directed conferences, how these talks are received. How can we ensure that accessibility is a topic that’s better covered in general at IT conferences?

Andrea: Hm. I think testing has been something that a lot of developers have been taking an interest lately. Whether it’s able to automate on the testing work, or be able to QA each other’s work. The whole pair programming thing, I think has been kind of taking off lately. If we can frame it in a way of improvements, and show them tools that they can enter into their workflow. A lot of people are doing Agile right now. If we can frame it in that respect, I think it has a lot of interest for people.

Nic: Yeah. It’s gonna be interesting. I got a web accessibility testing workshop accepted. That’s gonna be trying to prove that concept that you just suggested.

Andrea: Excellent.

Nic: Yeah. Going from one topic to another, what’s your favorite word Andrea?

Andrea: I don’t know. Maybe like, onomatopoeia.

Nic: Okay. What is that? I’ve never heard of it.

Andrea: Let me look up the definition on here. Isn’t it a word that it’s sound … It’s kind of like, bang or splash. The word itself sounds like the thing that it is.

Nic: Yes. Yes. All right. Yup.

Andrea: I don’t know. It sounds funny to say. Anyway.

Nic: It does indeed. What’s your greatest achievement in terms of web accessibility?

Andrea: Oh, um. I don’t know. I consider myself to be kind of a small fish in a big pond. Any time I can get other people to be excited about accessibility, and start incorporating the WCAG guidelines into their own work, I think that, that’s a pretty big win. I mean, my goal is to spread accessibility like a virus, right? We wanna get as many people into it as possible. I think that the masses can do more than any one single person can.

Nic: Yup. Accessibility as a virus. I like that. Gonna make note of that, because it’s quite interesting. You heard it first on the Accessibility Rules Podcast. Accessibility is a virus. I think you maybe let yourself short a little bit. I understand you’ve been contributing to W3C, that you’ve worked on Color Contrast Checker, that you’ve done all kinds of other fairly important work. Tell me more about those.

Andrea: Yeah. I created a couple little tools, mainly just for my own benefit. Just to help myself, kind of check things easier. That color contract checker, I liked, because I was able to see the entire page change with the colors. More so than just, a small little swatch and kind of really be able to fine tune the different colors, and make sure that they look good, on the fly. And then, yeah, I also created a little pixel art web app.

Nic: Okay.

Andrea: I think that’s kind of fun, because it’s important to not only make the necessities in life accessible, but also fun things, right? Hobbies are what makes up human, and gives us something to look forward to everyday. I mean, I really love art myself, so I wanted to bring this little joy to people that might have mobility impairments, or that can only use the keyboard by creating a little pixel art creator that would be keyboard friendly.

Nic: How’s that received?

Andrea: I don’t think a whole lot of people know about it. Like I said, I just build these little things. It’s kind of an exercise for myself and a little experiment. I’ve showed several people though. They really enjoyed it. I just don’t know how much people are using it all that often.

Nic: Well, I certainly didn’t know about it. I’ll give it a whirl. That’s the kind of things that’s interesting to me. Going back on this accessibility and UI/UX, you said you were co-organizing a local meetup that is both for accessibility and UI/UX. Is it the same meetup, or two different meetups?

Andrea: No. It’s just the same meetup. I kind of threw all those keywords in there, to help more people find out about it. It also has inclusive design in the title. It’s kind of a long title. I’ve noticed that, when I was researching other meetups for accessibility, a lot of other ones also included all those other keywords in there to try to get a bigger audience. I mean, I welcome anyone to come, even content strategists, content writers, designers, developers, really anyone.

Nic: It’s really the first time I’ve been aware of that approach to accessibility meetups. I like it. It’s one of the trends I’ve noticed, you know, trying to talk about accessibility and user experience and inclusive design. You tend to silo all these things, when they really belong together. I think I might have to speak to the people I work with on the Montreal accessibility meetup. That might be interesting to take that approach.

Andrea: Yeah.

Nic: Andrea, on that note, I think we’re gonna wrap this segment of our conversation for this week. Thank you very much for your ideas. I really love the idea of accessibility as a virus. I think we need to explore that a little bit more.

Andrea: Yup.

Nic: Thanks, and we’ll finish our chat next week.

Andrea: All right. Thank you. It’s been a pleasure.

Nic: Thank you for listening. Until next week, well, that’s all. Before I go, I want to thank my patrons once again. And remember that if you need a hand in sharing your sites accessibility, I’m available. Contact me on my website at incl.ca

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