E25 – Interview with Jon Gibbins – Part 1

I’m talking with Jon Gibbins, a developer and designer who took the plunge into accessibility many years ago. Jon suggests that one of the biggest barriers to accessibility is the lack of support in various frameworks.


Nic: Welcome to the accessibility rules podcast. You’re listening to episode 25. I’m Nic Steenhout, and I talk with people involved in one way or another with web accessibility. 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.

This week I’m speaking with Jon Gibbins. Hi Jon, thanks for joining me on this conversation around web accessibility.

Jon: Hi Nic, no problem. And thanks for having me on.

Nic: Wonderful. Yeah, it’s going to be good I think. Look, I like to let guests introduce themselves, so in brief elevator pitch style introduction, who’s Jon Gibbins?

Jon: So I’m Jon Gibbins and I help organizations to make their websites and mobile apps more accessible to people with disabilities.

Nic: Okay.

Jon: In short.

Nic: In short, yes, that’s good. So we’re talking obviously about web accessibility. There’s a lot of ways to define it. How do you define it?

Jon: So I guess making sure that services and products are accessible to the people whatever their ability. I mean for me, it probably sounds a bit cliché these days but it’s just good practice, accessibility is just good design. Good development technique, just good work. But yeah, accessibility is a state where disabled people can consume and participate online, and the disability doesn’t matter at that point. And that’s where I think everyone in our field is trying to get to.

Nic: Yeah. Where there’s no separating factor between someone who has impairments and someone who doesn’t.

Jon: Yeah, exactly. It’s an inclusive society. So if we’re talking about accessibility, I’ve always taken that to mean about people with disabilities, not, and inclusion is about more than that, it doesn’t matter who you are or what background you come from, what abilities you have, you can participate in society. And when we’re talking about digital inclusion, that’s society online. So yeah, but I’ve always taken accessibility to mean people with disabilities.

Nic: Yeah. Tell me one people that most people would not know about you?

Jon: Probably quite a bit that people don’t know about me. I grew up in a guest house. I grew up in a B&B in the southwest of England. Strangers around all the time. Which was weird, I guess, in one respect. But it made me quite a sociable person I suppose. And the regulars were always sort of like extended family. So I guess people probably don’t know that about me.

Nic: That would have been quite a fantastic experience and at the same time quite disquieting I would think, for a kid.

Jon: Yeah, it was weird, sort of living in a very busy house and in a business, essentially. It was weird not having that sort of home, yeah, I don’t feel like I didn’t have home life. It wasn’t like that, but yeah it certainly helped shape me, I think, to become who I am.

Nic: This is the first I have never known anyone who had been raised in a B&B so that’s good. Thank you for that.

Jon: No worries.

Nic: Where does your role fall within the role of web accessibility? You say you work on making websites and apps accessible but what does that look like day to day?

Jon: So primarily the work that I do is in testing or I deliver training a lot these days. My background, I’m definitely more of a developer than a designer. I’ve been a front end and a back end developer. But I’m interested in design, I’m interested in UX. So the work that I do now as an accessibility consultant is primarily in testing accessibility, delivering training to primarily development teams but also on management process and policy. And just general consultancy, helping people fix those accessibility problems once they’ve been identified.

Nic: Tell me more about management process and accessibility.

Jon: Well one of the things I think we all sort of struggle with in our field is the acceptance that accessibility is not just one person’s role. It’s not the accessibility champion’s role. It’s not just the role of a developer who happens to know a bit about accessibility. You know, there are more stakeholders than that, there are more people involved. And I think if, I think the problem that accessibility faces currently is that it’s an organizational issue. And if an organization can embrace accessibility and think about accessibility from the beginning, it’s not just about product development but project managers need to be aware of what accessibility is and think about accessibility, to be able to guide designers and developers and have that as part of the process. So that’s kind of what I go to. I go to companies and typically people come to us wanting developer training, but we want to try and get management on board and to explain what accessibility means, how people with disabilities interact with content online. But things that people can do, the content writing and things like that, that people may not sort of be aware of. That’s kind of how I think about it anyway.

Nic: I think it’s a good approach. I like the fact that people come to you for training or work directly with the developer and you manage to extend reach to everyone, because accessibility really is something that all stakeholders need to be aware of and involved in.

Jon: For sure, yeah. And generally, working in the UK, people are open to that. It’s fairly rare for someone to say why should I do accessibility, how is it my responsibility? But when you explain, and if you can provide context, like one of the reasons I really like working in the mobile sphere is that practically everybody that I go to to do training with has a smart phone in their pocket and you can draw the parallels between using a smart phone and having a disability. And some of the features that are in there. And people just suddenly start to get it. And almost every training session I do starts with talking about empathy and understanding people, and coming at it from that direction. Because that’s how I came at accessibility. And to try and help people connect. People don’t get the mobile thing, everybody’s getting older. And people are living longer, and we’re currently a generation and generation before us and certainly generations after are used to having these technologies and will want to continue to use these technologies.

Nic: Yeah.

Jon: So that’s how I kind of frame my training sessions.

Nic: You said that you came to accessibility through empathy. Can you tell me a little bit more about how you became aware of the importance of web accessibility?

Jon: So I don’t really have a disability myself. I don’t consider myself to be disabled. I wear glasses. And I actually have something called APD, auditory processing disorder, which not a lot of people have heard of it or know what it is, but I liken it to having dyslexia for hearing. So one of the situations that I find is that if I’m in a noisy social environment, like when I was dating my now wife, I would go out with friends in a pub and find it difficult to keep track of conversations. I could talk to the person opposite me but I’d start to shut down in social situations. And that’s really not, that’s not me. So I went and I got my hearing tested. I used to do sound engineering. I looked after my hearing. And actually my hearing is good, it’s just that the signals from my ear to my brain don’t get interpreted well or I get confused by lots of things happening at once. And very often I can focus in on a particular thing and I get distracted by that one thing, and I’ll be listening to something happening outside or the music in the background or something rather than what I’m currently supposed to be thinking about or talking about.

So I don’t really consider myself to be disabled in a sense, but that’s my personal experience of disability, but that has come later on in life. I’m in my late 30s and that’s kind of where things have, sort of from the mid-30s, have started to fall apart, as it were. But actually in terms of disability, it kind of started when I went to university. I studied electronic engineering with music technology. I used to mess about with electronics as a kid. Take my mum’s radio apart or make burglar alarms out of tape recorders. And electronics was always what I wanted to go and do, but it turns out I was rubbish at it and I actually had an interest in music, so I went and did music technology with it. And it was through that connection with music technology that in my final year I did a project, a software project that was working with disabled musicians. And inspired by work with a charity called the Drake Music Project in the UK, and particularly a guy called Tim Anderson, I developed music software that disabled musicians could use to compose and perform electronic music.

Nic: Cool.

Jon: And that was something, music is something that I’m passionate about. Most people have a love of music. And to be able to help people that couldn’t necessarily play traditional musical instruments was something that I felt like I could do, as a techy geek, could really help people to access something that otherwise they wouldn’t be able to do. So that was quite a powerful experience for me.

And as I left uni and went looking for jobs, my idea coming out of university was to develop an accessible browser. I even had a name for it, it was called ABI, which was the accessible browser for the internet. But I soon realized that it wasn’t really a very good idea, because people with disabilities, people that use assistive technologies, are wanting to interact with the operating system, not just one piece of software like a browser. So you know, I soon realized that and went okay, what am I going to do? I didn’t want to be an electronic engineer as such. I didn’t feel like I could make a career as a sound engineer. So I was building websites as a student to make some money and started looking into web accessibility. And I started my own web development business, this was back in 2003. And I joined a little forum called accessfi forum and learned pretty much everything, all the basics of accessibility, or everything I knew about accessibility at the time from people like Patrick Lauke and Tommy Olson, Steve Faulkner, Gez Lemon, people who are members of this forum who do a lot of work with the W3C to develop standards and things like that now.

And so that’s kind of how I got into web accessibility. I accidentally fell into it. But when I started doing training as part of my work now, I started looking back over my life and I realized I’ve got connections to disability that I didn’t really think about. And like my mother, when I was about 14, she lost her sight through complications with diabetes. And she used a white cain and eventually a wheelchair, but I kind of didn’t think about that. And I was this geeky kid, I had a little radio, not a radio, an electric alarm clock that when you hit the top of it it told you the time in a very American voice. It spoke the time to you, and I was able to give this thing that was sort of a geeky toy to me, to my mum to help her tell the time. And that was in my early teens. I didn’t really think about that until much later.

Because now my father, he’s 92, he’s always had poor hearing. He’s never had a sense of smell. But in 2013 he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease.

Nic: Sorry to hear that.

Jon: So it’s kind of something that’s happened in my family that I never realized, or I never thought, actually had had an influence on where I ended up in a career. But perhaps it did. Yeah, so that’s kind of where my experience to what my, my journey toward web accessibility came from. And maybe where my empathy for people with disabilities has come from.

Nic: I think it’s very interesting that you relayed that, your experiences as you were growing up with your mom and now with your dad, because a lot people have people with disabilities in their lives without really realizing it. There’s what, an average of one in five person who has disabilities throughout the western world. So it’s really difficult for anyone to not actually know anyone who has a disability. So yeah, that’s kind of cool.

Also, I didn’t realize you were behind the accessify forum. I remember spending quite a bit of time there way back when.

Jon: Yeah, I wouldn’t say I was behind it. A guy called Nigel ran the forum, who was based in Sheffield over here. And I went to university in York, he was just down the road from me. But I think he set up accesfi forum in 2003 and I joined late in 2003. And it was quite a, it was a really good and active community which sadly is no longer online, but it was a really valuable resource, and I became a moderator on there and we always considered ourselves to be a translation service for the W3C documents that were in WCAG and all that, you know. Because new people were interested in doing accessibility but really didn’t kind of understand the documentation. We’re looking at WCAG one way back then. So yeah, accesfi forum was key to pulling me into the accessibility sphere. And yeah. It’s a shame it’s no longer there. There’s a wealth of knowledge on there that we always wanted to try and embody in a wiki or something and it never happened. And it’s probably out of date now. Yeah, it was a good community.

Nic: Jon, what barriers did you or are you now facing in terms of implementing accessibility?

Jon: That’s a good question. I guess one of the biggest things I see when I go to companies and help their development teams with accessibility is they’ve tried to think about accessibility or maybe they’ve taken one of our audits, our reports and we’ve made some recommendations about what to do or what to look into and they’ve attempted to fix things but not really had, sometimes it’s a basic thing that’s missing, just some context about how to implement an accessibility, like exactly how ARIA can be used to supplement the html to make things more accessible. Or to make dynamic content more accessible. Excuse me. So I think when it’s working with teams like that, it’s partly the understanding from the developers.

But if you’re asking about what implementing accessibility, technically, I guess it’s probably still that varying support for some bits of ARIA, where they perhaps behave inconsistently in one browser or another, or that dreaded browser, Internet Explorer, not supporting something and never will support things because they’re, Microsoft are working on edge rather than Internet Explorer. So sometimes there are a few quirks in certain situations or certain browsers that you’re wanting to support, that the nuances of how we want to implement accessibility and unless a framework, javascript framework or something like that handles those nuances for us, this is the reason we have javascript frameworks to handle differences between browsers that haven’t supported standards in exactly the same way. And unless javascript libraries are going to handle those differences, then I think that’s probably one of the biggest barriers to implementing accessibility consistently. That’s kind of how I’ve found it anyway.

Nic: I like that, I’ve never really thought of it in so many words, but browser consistency is definitely some that everyone’s been moaning about for a long time, designers particularly, you know. It was always trying to get things so perfect and Netscape and IE, and things have just moved on from there. But there’s definitely issues that are going on nowadays. Just looking at the new Firefox 57 that basically broke jaws at NVDA, so it’s not happy.

Jon: No. We had a client come to us last week with, they were trying to implement, I think it was if memory serves, it was error messages on a dynamic form, dynamic error messages. And we suggested that the error message was connected using aria describe by. And their argument for not using that and using roll equals alert instead was that aria describe by had poor support on mobile. As far as I’m aware, the support on mobile’s been fairly good for a few years now. It may be some particular versions of Android, for example, doesn’t support things, or there’s some bug or something. So they were using roll equals alert, and I said my roll equals alert doesn’t behave very well in Internet Explorer, or at all. So you have to supplement that with aria live. So you know, people are trying to implement accessibility but finding still that there are some barriers with these things. So my go to is to say, use html for as much as you possibly can and then supplement that with aria. Because at the end of the day, that’s how you’re going to get the best legacy support.

Nic: Isn’t that coming down to that old progressive enhancement idea that came out 10, 15 years ago?

Jon: Oh for sure. It’s always been the case. And html has been built with accessibility in mind. So if you build using good html, then the need for things like aria becomes lessened. So you know, for example, I had a client that hadn’t put headings using H1H2H3 into their page, so I said okay, well change that span to an H1 or an H2 and that’s it, fixed. And they went the problem is, if we change that, we don’t actually have access to the CSS. Don’t ask me why, I don’t know. But they couldn’t change the CSS to be able to, or if they changed that html element, they would have to go through and check 100 or 200 other pages to make sure that that was, that it was all consistent and all worked because of this one change that is, you know, deleting four characters and typing in two new ones. So the fix was actually in the end to use aria, to use roll equals heading and aria level. And that’s how they fixed things.

But it brings to that point that we keep coming to in web accessibility over the last few years, that thinking about accessibility earlier on or using proper html goes a long way to making something accessible. And makes accessibility cheaper and easier to do. It’s just about knowing the tools and using those tools in the right way.

Nic: Yeah. You’d mentioned thinking about accessibility makes accessibility cheaper. Talk to me a little bit about the costs of accessibility, about how can we convince business owners that accessibility doesn’t have to be expensive?

Jon: So that’s just one example that I’ve come up against recently, where something that as a developer, something that I know is really simple to do, like a line of code or changing a few characters of html code to improve accessibility, may not be after the fact, it’s too late to fix those things. So something that should be a two or three second job, even, or less than a minute if you’re doing, if you’re changing something and testing it, suddenly becomes days worth of work because you have to go and review other things that the impact, snowball effect, is huge with some of these things. So I think there’s that side of it, but there’s also things like people don’t necessarily fully understand things like how to provide alternatives to multimedia.

So those AAA WCAG issues that are adding sign language interpretation, or even the level A, double A of adding captions and audio descriptions, these are sort of unknowns that people go okay, I don’t know how to do that, I’m going to have to employ somebody who is an expert in that area to add those audio descriptions or do a voice over or make these things accessible. And those kinds of services, when you start to work with accessibility services, rather than creating html content that works with assisted technologies, those things can be more expensive. But they don’t have to be, and there is software, free software out there, and automated software that can at least help with that and auto captioning on YouTube, things like that, that can be leveraged to make accessibility cheaper. It’s just about knowing or understanding the issues involved. And what tools are available that you can make use of to make it cheaper and easier.

And probably the best thing to do is to raise awareness of those things, because if you leave accessibility to be a system testing stage or acceptance testing stage, then it’s often too late. So yeah, I think people in our field widely accept that as being a massive problem with accessibility. But if you’re thinking about accessibility as part of product development, it’s much more likely to make it into production at an acceptable level at a lower amount, for a lesser cost. And yeah, it’s for me, as a developer, accessibility has always been a bit like security or writing documentation. We don’t write an application, an eCommerce application and think about the security of it at the end. We don’t do that. And accessibility is no different.

Nic: Looking at the news in the last few months, it looks like some companies think about accessibility once they’ve been breached.

Jon: Yeah, or security once they’ve been breached.

Nic: That’s right, yeah.

Well that’s it for this week’s episode. Thank you for listening. And until next week, well, that’s all. But 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.