E29 – Interview with Glenda Sims – Part 1

Glenda Sims is Deque’s lead of Accessibility Methodology Practice and Quality. She has been doing digital accessibility since before 2000, and it’s her passion. She used to say she was the self-appointed accessibility Godess!


Nic: Welcome to the Accessibility Rules Podcast. You’re listening to episode 29. This episode has been sponsored by patrons like you. I really do appreciate your support. If you’re not a patron yet and want to support the 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, I’m speaking with Glenda Sims. Hi Glenda.

Glenda: Hi Nic.

Nic: Thanks for joining me on this show and talking about web accessibility. I like to let guests introduce themselves, so in a brief elevator pitch style introduction, who’s Glenda Sims?

Glenda: If I were in an elevator with you, for sure I would introduce myself as, Hi, I’m Glenda the Good Witch Sims and I used to say I was the self appointed accessibility goddess. I’ve been doing digital accessibility since before 2000 and it’s my passion. I can’t distinguish work from play.

Nic: That’s a good thing to be able to enjoy work as if it’s play isn’t it?

Glenda: It is fantastic yes.

Nic: It sounds a little bit like your job is your lifestyle more than a job.

Glenda: It is and I feel so fortunate to be in a position where I get to do something I love so much and it’s not like I landed this job right out of college, but yes, I’m very, very grateful for what I get to do.

Nic: Why do you love it so much?

Glenda: I think there’s something about the current generation, the millennials that’s really fascinating and that is they don’t want to just work because somebody told them to or just to earn a dollar. More often that not, they want to contribute to something important and meaningful and even though I’m a lot older than millennials I resonate with that. I want to be the same person 24 hours a day and so being able to do something that makes the world a better place, makes me feel good about how I spend my time.

I certainly don’t always spend my time on accessibility, I do have some other hobbies and passions that might not be so beneficial to the world at large, but during my work hours, to not just make money, but to make the world a better place is deeply satisfying.

Nic: Fair enough. Tell me one thing that most people would not know about you.

Glenda: If you have only known me through the digital accessibility culture world, you might not be aware that I grew up on race tracks with sports cars.

Nic: Okay.

Glenda: My father was very, very interested in cars and I was the only child and so I just became his shadow on the racetracks. That technically was my nickname, the Shadow and I, as far back as I can remember, the first car that he had was an 1956 oh no, 1965 356 Porsche Cabriolet ruby red and so I say to people that the reason I’m only 5’4″ is I grew up in the back seat of one of those small cars and it stunted my growth.

Nic: I see. Well that’s a best reason to have a short stature that I’ve heard in long time.

The bulk of our conversation today is about web accessibility and you’ve probably heard millions of different definition of the term, how would you define web accessibility?

Glenda: My definition really comes from Sharron Rush at Knowbility and that is when people regardless of abilities or disabilities can get to and use the same information and functionality. It’s as simple as that.

Nic: Yeah. Simple, yet mission critical.

Glenda: Mission critical and sometimes complex.

Nic: Yeah.

Glenda: Resolve.

Nic: Simple does not mean it’s easy.

Glenda: Mm-hmm (affirmative), absolutely.

Nic: What do you do? Where does your role fall within the world of accessibility?

Glenda: Right now, I have the great privilege of working at Deque and I’m the lead of our Accessibility Methodology Practice and Quality. What’s curious about the field of digital accessibility is while we have international standards, the wonderful W3C, WCAG 2.0 guidelines are an example. While we have these great standards, trying to get consistency and accuracy across accessibility experts has some challenges and so what my role at Deque is to make sure that the 50 plus experts that work at Deque are providing the same consistent, accurate, quality information to all of our clients and I really extend it far beyond just Deque. I’ve also been involved in the International Association of Accessibility Professionals in creating this certification program. I believe deeply in it and I’d be curious to know how you feel about it?

Nic: I have mixed feeling, I have to say.

Glenda: Mm-hmm (affirmative)

Nic: I was quite interested when IAAP first saw the light of day and I do think that a certification is important for the world at large and I think that the IAAP probably has the best chance of becoming that international reference, but until that happens, it’s I guess a bit of a chicken and an egg kind of thing where I’m personally hesitant to sink effort and resources and energies into it because I don’t know where it’s going to go, but of course the flip side to that is that unless we all put in energies and effort and resources into it, it’s not likely to happen.

Glenda: It’s very true and it’s something that I have felt for a long time needed to occur and not from a perspective of let’s make it hard to become an accessibility expert, but actually the opposite. For those of us who were lucky enough to learn accessibility in the early days, we certainly didn’t learn it in a school setting for the most part and did we learn it right, or did we learn whatever our mentors taught us, or whatever blog we happened to read and so there’s some misinformation out there, there’s gaps in knowledge and when a new person wants to become an accessibility expert, how do they know what to learn, and so you and I should, offline, maybe hang out, have a little virtual happy hour and I’ll show you the outline of content for the certification program that’s already been published and reviewed and the two exams that are already in place, and the 100’s of people that have already passed certification.

Nic: Yeah, that’d be interesting to to have a look under the hood.

Glenda: Yeah, it’s really neat and so the reason I bring this up is within Deque, I wanted to do certification and then I realized it wasn’t smart for me to just do it for Deque, but to really just contribute to an international certification and what I ended up doing is I did it in two phases.

Phase One was I knew IAAP was getting ready to try to come into being and I knew that certification was just one of the elements that they were going to cover and I thought to myself, “Okay, I’m sitting here at a company with 50 plus accessibility experts. Before I even get into IAAP, what if I created an exam that would help me find out who of my people were on it. They were A plus, versus maybe some of my newer people who still had some gaps in knowledge that we handle through quality control, but what exactly were those gaps in knowledge so I could get them trained and filled.”

Prior to IAAP, I actually created a Deque way exam as a mental practice and my exam is, it’s currently 48 multiple choice questions that are really, really hard. Ask anyone of my employee’s they’ll tell you and when I created the exam it’s nothing that’s dependent on a promotion or anything like that so it’s not scary and it really is just a tool to help employees document their knowledge, or for me to help them find resources to fill in any gaps of knowledge that they have and so far to a person everybody that’s taken my exam has said, “This was beneficial, useful and they like it.”

I did that first.

Nic: Right.

Glenda: Before the certification program, and the certification program taught me that I didn’t know how to write questions.

Nic: That’s quite a skill as well to do that. How did you become aware of accessibility and the importance of accessibility when you started learning? You said there was no resources, no real courses out there when you got into it. How did you become involved?

Glenda: It’s curious. My accessibility background actually goes back to the physical world. My first job straight out of college, I graduated with a degree in human resources and I was working at the University of Texas employment center and one of my best friends, Colleen, was the interviewer that was the primary person to interview people with disabilities. She understood all of the etiquette and she understood the ADA and so she was right next to me and I would hear how she respectfully would offer assistance and make sure that people got reasonable accommodations, and so that physical space, interview employment process was my first exposure to it before I even became a geek.

Then I think that made me already, that foundation of everybody should have equal access was so well set that when I became a programmer further on in my career, I couldn’t imagine creating barriers to prevent the same people that we’d hired or were students at the University from doing what they needed to do independently, and then the big, big turning point for me was I had worked in human resources as a human resource professional. Then I became a programmer and ended up leading the team of HR programmers at the University of Texas at Austin and then I decided, you know what would be really fun is to go work on the central web team for the University of Texas.

I applied for that, got it. Walked in, sat down at my desk, looked around the room and said, “So, this accessibility stuff for people with disabilities, I’m interested in pursuing that.” This was in December of 1999.

Nic: Okay.

Glenda: I said, “I’m interested in pursuing that here in this job.” I’d already been doing it a little bit in my HR job and I said, “Does anybody else here want to do that, or are you okay if I consider that as one of my passions.” And they’re like, “You can do it. That’s great and you need to go meet a professor on campus. His name is Dr. John Slatin and he happens to be blind.”

Nic: Right.

Glenda: And so it’s like the world was just opening doors for me left and right, because for people who may not know John Slatin, he was an English professor at the University of Texas at Austin that went blind and instead of getting cranky about losing his sight, he became an international expert on digital accessibility and helped co-chair with WCAG 2.0 so I was learning at the feet of the master and he ended up being one of my closest, closest friends.

Nic: Yeah, I wish I’d had the opportunity of meeting him. I’m unfortunately never did. It’s a good way to get started into accessibility with such mentors.

Glenda: It was the most amazing introduction because instead of me learning about it as a topic or something that I could apply to people with disabilities, all of a sudden I was working directly with a very important professor who was blind. I couldn’t get it wrong Nic. If I sent John an email and I included an image or I sent him a page and it included an image without Alt text, it wasn’t going to work.

Nic: Yeah.

Glenda: The very next thing that happened, I think that was the most significant is John said, “I really want to introduce you to Sharron Rush.” And he opened those doors to me and the moment he opened the door for Sharron Rush, it’s very I think telling about the community of accessibility, at least the way I’ve experienced it, is that it can be incredibly welcoming and so between John and Sharron, I was given a seat at the table to learn from some of the best in the business and living in Austin didn’t hurt either.

Nic: Yeah, yeah. You’ve been doing accessibility for near on 20 years now.

Glenda: Yes.

Nic: Has your view of accessibility changed over the last two decades?

Glenda: You know, when I first started I was in an EDU setting and it was just so foundational that you need to give students and faculty and staff equal access. I never questioned it, but it definitely was a grassroots effort and I will admit that I started with a very strong focus on visual disabilities, and let’s even be more specific, on blind.

My mentor was blind and John was such an amazing human being. He didn’t limit his thought patterns to blind, but that was my first focus and remember how long ago this was, right? Jaws was the only screen reader. You couldn’t use screen readers on Macs. Smartphones didn’t exist. This was a long, long time ago.

Nic: Gee you’re old.

Glenda: I know. I know, but I act like a four year old so it balances back out.

Nic: Okay.

Glenda: What was interesting about my journey is that I had this very strong understanding and empathy for what it was like to be blind and then I watched my progression where I would think I understood what it was like to be deaf, until I hung out with a deaf professor pretty far into my career. I went to a deaf conference where I was one of the few people that didn’t know sign language and I was the one with the disability because I didn’t know sign language and so I watch my evolution of truly understanding, or having a better understanding of the different types of disability, and I would say that it goes like this for me personally, blind, I understood best first and then I think I understood deafness next and I didn’t really understand motor until I started to have some personal relationships.

I understood it conceptually, but just that deeper understanding of the problems for motor that you think you can do by, “Oh, put your mouse in a drawer. Don’t use your mouse pad.” Okay well it’s a little bit more than that and the one that scared me from the very, very beginning was cognitive. Now, what’s surprising about that is my degree in addition to an HR degree, I have a degree in psychology, so why should cognitive scare me, right?

Nic: Yeah.

Glenda: Cognitives cool, but I was overwhelmed with the thought of how am I supposed to help somebody with a cognitive disability? I don’t understand. If you’re blind and you can’t see, then I have all these techniques and tools that I understand. If you’re deaf, then I understand the need for captioning or sign language, but when it came to cognitive, I just … I was frightened by it and so for me, I guess it was maybe two or three years ago, when the cognitive task force really was doing wonderful work at the W3C and I heard Lisa Seeman speak about where they were starting that I finally got over my fear and dove in. The evolution personally for me was along those lines and I’ll be so bold to suggest that I actually think our field has evolved in a similar way. The things that we needed to do for people that were blind were so obvious, so technically doable and if you didn’t do them they were a locked door.

Nic: Yeah.

Glenda: A lot of those got documented in the standard first.

Nic: Do you think maybe part of the reason also comes down to the fact that the squeaky wheel gets the grease and that the blind community has a very long history of advocating for their needs?

Glenda: I definitely think that that had a part to do with it, but I like to take 10 steps backwards and also think that for people that are blind, until we did certain things, there was no way they could use it independently.

Nic: Yeah.

Glenda: I do think you’ve got a point though, because the same could be said for captions and while captions were included in the standards for a long time, I saw them on television, but they weren’t super common on the web in my early days, so I think it’s a combination of actual need, bonafide, we need this to be independent, and appropriate advocacy so that the need is so clear that you can’t deny it.

Nic: Yeah. Yeah. I think that’s really important. We’re working in a field of accessibility but I think at the same time we have some responsibility to be advocates as well.

Glenda: Absolutely. There’s one group that I didn’t mention and I would be remiss to say that I was slow to really understand the needs for people with low vision, which is actually pretty dang ironic because while I don’t technically have an official disability, my vision is very, very bad. I believe that one of my eyes without correction is 21,250.

Nic: Okay.

Glenda: Okay so if I’m standing on a football field with you and you look down the football field and see something at the other end, that’s what things look to me like when they’re 20 feet away.

Nic: Right.

Glenda: I’m just, my eyes are terrible and I’m right at the edge of being able to even have them corrected because my glasses are getting so fat and so you would think I would understand the needs of low vision a little bit better than I did, but I don’t know if you’re familiar with Dr. Wayne Dick from California State University.

Nic: Yeah, yeah.

Glenda: He’s a brilliant expert in the field who also happens to have low vision and there were a number of things that he said, and I heard for years, but I didn’t truly understand the problem and the needs. In the last year and half, I volunteered for the low vision task force at the W3C.

Nic: Yup.

Glenda: And Glenda learned her lessons finally.

Nic: You learn lessons by exposure. I think that’s an important aspect that we tend to forget as a wheelchair user myself, I notice that a lot of people don’t pay attention to physical accessibility until they’ve been around me for a little bit.

Glenda: Yes.

Nic: It’s important to … I guess it’s a lesson for developers that are interested in building their accessibility skills is to try to find ways to get contact with people that have accessibility needs.

Glenda: It’s not until you really test it with real people that you know you passed. Very much what you said, and I think that me having that exposure did make a difference. Working on a university campus was such a treasure as well, because whenever I needed people with a certain disability type, I could get them, easy. All I had to do was either call Dr. John Slatin’s office where he had an accessibility research institute, and he already knew people that would be willing to work with me on usability studies, or I could call our Services for Student’s with Disabilities and say, “Can you put out a voluntary call to the students and see if any of them would like to come help me with usability testing and I’ll provide free pizza.” And so pizza and soda and maybe a gift card and I would get everything that I needed every single time so that face to face exposure. That moment of, “Oh, I thought this would work, but it really didn’t.” Yeah. That’s an important one.

Nic: Did you face any barriers when you got started into accessibility? Or are you facing barriers now when you’re trying to implement accessibility?

Glenda: I would say that I am a rebel at heart. I’m a grassroots kind of person and there were some barriers and challenges, but I felt like I had enough people that … and I was on the right side of what needed to be done that I never let those things slow me down. I’ll give you an example. It wasn’t obvious at the University of Texas when I started that accessibility was a legal requirement. It was obvious that it should be done, but the question of must it be done was not crystal clear and so John Slatin and I and some other wonderful human beings sat down to draft a policy for the University of Texas back in the early 2000’s and it was rejected as a policy because it wasn’t, they said, a legal requirement. We’re like, “How can you say that?”

Instead of backing off, what we did is we established it, not as a policy, but as a guideline.

Nic: Right.

Glenda: Then we started a competition on campus for webmasters at UT to submit parts of their website to see who was the most accessible and hand out awards. This may sound really familiar to you because it was Sharron Rush who helped me do the competition. We called it, it was Open Air or Accessibility Internet Rally for University, and so what we did is we built the knowledge base, we built the guidelines and then the moment it became obvious that it was legal requirement, it was so sweet as the compliance folks at UT turned to us and said, “You know that guideline you’ve written? Can we see it and turn it into a policy?” And John and I are like, “Yes, we’d be delighted.”

Nic: Yeah. I bet you were.

Glenda: Persistence pays off and just because people in a leadership role don’t get it, doesn’t mean that you can’t make significant, significant progress.

Nic: Yeah.

Glenda: But it can feel like you’re rolling a giant boulder uphill if you don’t connect in with a community. I think community is really important and also picking my battles. I’m not going to bang my head against the wall. If there’s a door that shut right now, for example, in Deque, if there’s a client, or a potential client that is absolutely arms crossed, refusing to believe that this needs to be done. Okay, well we could talk to them until their blue in the face, but they’re not ready yet and there are thousands of other potential clients out there that are like, “I get it, I want to do it. I want to do it now.”

Okay so should I bang my head against the person who’s in the stubborn pose or shall I let them decide when they want to come knock on my door? I pick who to work with and my doors open.

Nic: Yeah.

Glenda: But let’s spend our energy in positive productive ways with people that are ready to do it. Yeah, there are some challenges, but nothing we can’t overcome with persistence.

Nic: Wonderful. Hey Glenda on that note, I think we’re going to wrap up this segment of our conversation.

Glenda: Cool.

Nic: Thank you so much for this. You’ve thrown much things to ponder and think about so that’s really good. We’ll finish our chat next week.

Glenda: Sounds great.

Nic: Thanks for joining.

Glenda: All right. Take care. Bye bye.

Nic: 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.