E24 – Interview with Andrea Skeries – Part 2

Continuing my talk with Andrea Skeries, who tells us that testing tools might be a way to get developers interested in learning more about accessibility.


Nic: Welcome to the Accessibility Rules podcast. You’re listening to Episode 24. 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 this show, please visit patreon.com/steenhout.

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 Andrea Skeries. Last week’s conversation was really fantastic and you should listen to it, if you haven’t already. Hi again, Andrea. Shall we continue our discussion where we left off?

Andrea: Hey, absolutely.

Nic: Wonderful. What’s your greatest frustration in terms of web accessibility?

Andrea: One frustration I have is a lot of companies want to have really fancy, award-winning sites, and they look to places like the Webby Awards, but they don’t really recognize accessibility on those kind of sites, so I get a lot of push to create “wow,” but if you look at these mainstream sites that are winning the awards, very few of them are actually accessible, so I think the “wow” should really be that everyone can use the site easily.

It’s really not fair when a lot of work goes into creating something that’s accessible and standards compliant and it doesn’t make people sick with a lot of crazy animations or has good contrast, but then these other sites with poor contrast and a lot of other bad practices are being rewarded for it.

Nic: Yeah. Should we maybe try and organize a campaign to hit maybe the Webby Awards and try to see if they can actually start implementing accessibility in their judging criteria?

Andrea: Yeah. If we could have a category that was more mainstream that people could look to, that would be fabulous.

Nic: Okay. Your mission, should you choose to accept it… Yeah. Seriously, I’m saying that as a joke a bit, but I like the idea of raising awareness on … I was speaking with Sina Barham a few weeks ago and he said, “We don’t have an accessibility problem. We have an awareness problem.” Perhaps if we, as a community, can swung the Webby Award people and tell them, “Hey, it’s important,” then maybe we can see change happening.

Andrea: That would be wonderful.

Nic: Yeah. Do you think there’s conventional wisdom about accessibility and if so, what is it? What is that one thing that everyone knows about it?

Andrea: I think everyone knows that it’s necessary or that it’s helpful and that it’s probably difficult to achieve. There’s a lot of conflicting points of view, I guess, on the best way to go about some things, but I think everyone thinks that it is the right thing to do.

Nic: Do they?

Andrea: I think so. I think time probably gets in the way a lot. As developers, we’re always under a time crunch and expected to … Things should be done yesterday and that kind of thing, and it takes a long time to really understand all the guidelines.

I’ve been looking at them for 10 years and I still learn something new every day, so taking the time out from your busy work day to learn about it or even just 15 minutes a day, I think, would be helpful.

Nic: Yeah, I like the idea of continuing education and spending a little bit of time every day to upskill, but I’m thinking developers need to have basic skills. They need to … HTML and CSS and JavaScript. I’ve been proposing that accessibility should be one of those basic skills. What would you say to that?

Andrea: Yeah, absolutely. If we can start teaching it in school, younger, the better because it’s really not hard once you do know the basics. Like you said, it’s not really adding a whole lot. It’s just standards.

A lot of developers want to make sure that they can work on each other’s code easily, right? That’s why these frameworks came about, I feel like, so people could start developing the same way and it would be easy to pick up each other’s work, but if we all built with these standards in mind, it would be super easy. We would all be building the same way, and it would be very easy to read each other’s work.

Nic: Yeah. Yeah. I was talking about the fact that if developers used HTML and CSS properly, a good half of the accessibility issues would disappear or you wouldn’t find divs coded as links and all these shenanigans.

Maybe it’s an uphill battle to help that they learn accessibility as well as HTML because they don’t know HTML, because they use all these frameworks that do it all for them. Do you have any suggestion as to how we could get that fixed?

Andrea: I don’t think it’s too late to learn new ways and to learn the best practices. Awareness and continuing to let people know how easy it is. Really, I try to spread it with kindness. Be understanding.

People just … They don’t realize. It’s very easy to come up against a problem and overcomplicate it. That’s kind of what we do as humans. We tend to overcomplicate things instead of simplify them, so just continuing to point out a simpler solution and also that hey, this simple solution actually benefits people.

Nic: How does it benefit people?

Andrea: Well, I mean, the accessibility aspect of it. Like you said, if you were using a div and trying to program it to act like a button, a simpler solution would to just be to use a button, and then if you could show them the benefits of that, if you could show them how it works with the screen reader so much better and how much easier it is to style, how much actually less markup it takes and might actually make your site run faster, all those kind of things.

Nic: Yeah. Demonstrating to people the difference of accessibility of sites, with or without accessibility, you think would be a good way to go.

Andrea: Yeah. I’ve seen a lot of before and after examples out there for practice. If you’re practicing with learning how to use a screen reader, you can listen to how it sounds and behaves when it’s built without accessibility in mind versus with, and the difference is quite amazing.

Nic: It is, but doesn’t it take an incredible amount of time and effort to “convert” devs one at a time like that?

Andrea: Yeah. I think that it does. Everything takes time as learning. Like I said, you almost have to learn just a little bit every day. I’ve been going at it for a long time and I still keep learning new things.

One of my favorites quotes is “Live as if you were to die tomorrow and learn as if you were to live forever,” so it takes a long time, yeah, to learn all the different nuances with the code and how it works with different technologies and have it really sink in, but I think it’s really worth it, once it clicks and you decide to take it upon yourself to learn more.

Nic: Yeah. What do you think is the number one reason most people fail to succeed with web accessibility?

Andrea: I think it’s just not setting aside enough time to test your work and refine it and just falling into old, bad habits just because it’s quick for you and you know that it works for you without thinking about how it’s going to work for other people.

Nic: Yeah. Taking the easy way out because that’s how you’ve always done it and [crosstalk 00:09:58] change kind of thing. How can they avoid failure, other than the obvious, putting a little bit more time into it? Are there anything specific that you think that people can do to make sure that they do implement successfully?

Andrea: Well, there have been some automatic tools. They’re getting better. I mean, they’re not perfect, but at least, as a start, if they can at least get people to use those automated tools to catch all the low-hanging fruit and just make sure that their code validates, that’s a pretty quick and easy thing to do.

If we can just start with those little things and then eventually, if it’s something that really interests them, then they can learn about how the different tools work and actually do some testing themselves.

(silence) I don’t think it’s enough, but it’s a start. It’s more than what some people are doing already. There are so many sites that get created on a daily basis from so many different people. A lot of these sites are put up by a one or a two-person team, and they might not have access to the knowledge base that it takes to learn about accessibility. They might not even know about it at all yet.

If they could start picking up some of those automated tools like that and getting a taste of it, fixing some of that easy stuff, and then if they hire people/users to do some testing on their site, then they can see, “Okay, well, I might have my site validate or might technically be passing with this tool, but there are some other things now I can learn about how to make it a better user experience for them.”

Nic: Yeah. I like the idea of using automated testing tool as an introduction to accessibility for people that don’t know it. I think it’s something to explore. What do you think are greatest challenge as a field of web accessibility for us to move forward with? What’s the biggest challenges for us?

Andrea: I think one thing is the guidelines are really long and they take a lot of reading to really sink in. Everyone likes to have checklists, but those get just as long and weary too because if we’re trying to match up all the guidelines to all these checklists, it gets tough.

It’s tough to have someone just say, “Oh, here you go. This is all you need to know. It’s just one document,” so I think you have to actually work with people one-on-one. I’m kind of a really hands-on instructor. I don’t mind doing that, but I know it’s a frustration for many people.

Nic: Yeah. I love speaking one-on-one with people and my frustration doesn’t stem from that, but from the fact that there’s only so many people you can reach that way in so little time that we have. If you weren’t a designer and you weren’t a front end dev, what profession would you like to try?

Andrea: I would probably just paint all day or something fun like that. I don’t know.

Nic: Painting is fun. Yeah. If you depend on it, is it something fun if you can’t make a living on it, though?

Andrea: No. Exactly. Something with art, still, I would be doing. I love art and technology, really, so I can’t really think of anything else I would want to be really doing.

Nic: See, to me, that’s always an interesting question because when I ask that, most people end up answering, just like you did, something that is very, very similar to what you’re doing, and I think that’s fantastic because it shows that you’re doing the right thing.

Andrea: Yeah, you got to do what you love and what interests you.

Nic: Yeah. Is there anyone that inspires you particularly or several people that inspire you?

Andrea: Oh, gosh. Yeah. Really, anybody that works with accessibility and works hard for little recognition to bringing the world wide web to more people. People who put themselves out there and train and talk about their passion.

I don’t really want to name names because I’d leave out so many good people, but I really do enjoy learning what others are doing in the industry and hearing about their frustrations and their successes. I have an accessibility buddy’s list on Twitter that includes more than 400 people that inspire me.

Nic: Wow.

Andrea: You can go out there and take a look at my list.

Nic: That’s a good list. 400 people. It’s easy to forget that there are a lot of people that are doing accessibility out there, day in, day out, where we end up really thinking about the couple of dozen people we know and interact with, but yeah, there’s a lot of people out there.

I guess it’s one of the things with this podcast that I like. I get to meet and talk with people that either normally, peripherally, like you or people I have never spoken with before, so that’s really cool for me.

Andrea: Yeah. It’s a fabulous idea, and I really appreciate that you practice what you preach with it too by offering the transcripts that go along with all the podcasts. That’s really cool.

Nic: It would be really hypocritical of me to offer podcasts without transcripts, I think. I do believe in inclusion and accessibility and all that good stuff, so yeah, thank you for pointing out that I do practice what I preach.

Andrea: Right. That’s a great thing about it is being able to lead by example and showing others how fun it is to make something that’s inclusive and how rewarding it can be. I think that really helps spread the contagiousness of accessibility around.

Nic: We’re back with that idea of virus.

Andrea: Yeah. I guess another thing I like to do is relate accessibility best practices back to the interest of the developers I’m working with. For instance, I know a lot of developers, like me included, really love to play video games, and PlayStation is my favorite, so on a console like that, you have a controller and that’s your input device, so that access your keyboard.

When you’re sitting there and you’re looking up at the screen, you’re moving through your menu items and things like that on your favorite game, you can notice right away where you are on the page, and that’s thanks to visual focus, so something like that, that’s lacking on many sites these days.

If you show a developer how fun that is and how you can interact with a page so much easier and how important it is, try playing a game without knowing what you’re pointing at, it’s impossible, so I think adding in that interactivity is what makes a website really fun to play with.

Nic: That’s a fantastic analogy and I might have to steal that from you at some point. If there is one thing people should remember about accessibility, what would it be?

Andrea: Well, it’s a rewarding challenge.

Nic: How so?

Andrea: It’s challenging to get right, but when you see someone using your site that couldn’t before, after you’ve seen how your work has improved, it’s really rewarding to be able to offer people the chance to use the internet and even yourself.

If you think of it, of course, all developers love the internet. They love technology and we’re all going to age, so if you can imagine a world where you’re older and technology keeps exponentially getting more and more ubiquitous and changing rapidly, if you don’t keep up with that, are you still going to be able to use the technology, and are you going to have to learn new ways every time? If we create user interfaces that are easy to use, then it’s going to be easy for yourself to continue to use this stuff well into the future.

Nic: I like that you’re talking about that. I’ll let you go on because strangely enough, in my talk yesterday, I was talking to people about the fact that so many dev view encounter say to you in a somewhat negative way that accessibility is such a chore, and I’m trying to flip it on their head because I tell them, “Well, you like a coding challenge, don’t you?” Most of them say, “Yeah,” so I say, “Well, think about accessibility in that way. Accessibility is just a coding challenge, and you’re adding the aspect of “Well, it’s not just a challenge. It’s a rewarding challenge once you’ve solved it,”” so it really builds that picture in a fantastic way.

Yeah. It’s great when you talk with people and you see that your thinking is not isolated. We’ve never really spoken together apart from interacting on Twitter a little bit, yet I’m finding echoes of how I think in what you’re saying, so thank you for that. Yeah.

Andrea: Absolutely. Yeah, it all goes back to having the standards and we all code the same, right?

Nic: Yup.

Andrea: That’s really what people want is to have a common ground with each other.

Nic: Yeah, but when you say, “We all code the same,” don’t you think that might rub people the wrong way and that might lead them to say, “Hey, how about my creativity? How about my uniqueness?”?

Andrea: They’re still different. I guess the designs are going to always look different, but just the general structure. There’s always different ways to solve problems, but if we can look at each other’s code and just understand it and have it make sense and not question each other and be all like, “Why did you do that” or “Why is this working that way,” if we just all understand it, I think it makes things a lot easier.

Nic: Yeah. I would even take your suggestion one step further and I would say, if you can’t look at your codes two weeks later or two months later and understand what you were doing, perhaps you’re not doing it right.

Andrea: Right. Yeah.

Nic: Yeah. Andrea, on that note, thank you so much for taking the time to talk with me today. I love the interaction. I love what you suggested and you brought up several new things for me to ponder, so that was really enjoyable. Thank you for that.

Andrea: Cool. Yeah. No, it’s been a pleasure chatting with you.

Nic: Great. For my listeners, thank you for listening and until next week, that’s all folks, but before I go, I want to thank my patrons once again and remember that if you need a hand in ensuring your site’s accessibility, I’m available. Contact me on my website at incl.ca.

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