Glenda speaks of the importance of mentoring “fresh blood” in the accessibility field. She also explains how she gets frustrated by accessibility going forward two steps, and backwards one step.
Nic: Welcome to the A11y Rules Podcast. You’re listening to episode 30. This episode has been sponsored by patrons like you. I really do appreciate your support. If you’re not a patron yet and you 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 we’re continuing our conversation with Glenda Sims. If you haven’t already heard the first part, I really urge you to listen to it because it was really thought-provoking. Glenda, hi.
Glenda: Hi, Nic.
Nic: Shall we continue where we left off?
Glenda: Absolutely. Let’s go.
Nic: All right. You were talking a little bit about implementing guidelines before they became policies at the University of Texas, which seems to me to be a pretty big achievement. What would you say your greatest achievement is in terms web accessibility?
Glenda: Wow. That’s a really important question. A couple of things jump to mind, but I want to ponder for a moment and tell you that I think for me the most important thing to do is to open the door for others to become digital accessibility experts. I was so fortunate in being introduced to John Slatin and Sharron Rush who then opened door after door after door after door for me. It’s my turn to do the same for others. I would say that my most important role is to help others into this field so that they can have as much fun as I am.
Nic: Wonderful. I always thought that training the people who are going to take over from us was something that was really important even when I was a chef and working in the service industry for food and service. I always thought building the new generation was important. I love that you’re seeing that as your greatest accomplishment. I think it’s fantastic.
Glenda: I will say that some of the ways that I do it are … Knowbility has fantastic programs with AccessU and the Accessibility Internet Rally competition. For years now I’ve volunteered for free to teach at AccessU and to work on the Accessibility Internet Rally. That’s two major doors that people come through. The other thing that I love to do is a huge time commitment, but it pays off in joy and that is I will agree to mentor an individual into the field if they show an interest. I can’t handle more than one person at a time. It’s personal time. I’m not doing it for pay. The only requirement is that they have to allow me to introduce them as my accessibility child.
Nic: Fair enough.
Glenda: I have accessibility sons and even grandsons. I have an accessibility daughter right now.
Nic: Wow. That’s making for a very interesting genealogical tree.
Glenda: It is.
Nic: What would you say your greatest frustration is in terms of web accessibility?
Glenda: I would say that when I see accessibility move forward and then backwards. I hate to see us lose ground. I know that life is a dance, so we’re not always going to be moving forward as fast or as constantly as we want, but it’s really heartbreaking when you spend a lot of effort, and you see someone or a group of people get it. You’ve confirmed they’ve created or remediated something and it’s accessible, and you turn around a year to three years later and that same thing has rotted into inaccessibility. It just breaks my heart because that was a lot of energy and dollars, right? Don’t let it slip. That would be one of my frustrations.
Nic: Tying frustration into that, what’s the number one reason most people fail to succeed with web accessibility?
Glenda: I’m going to turn the question around a little bit and I’m going to think about what it is that causes them to succeed and then subtract that. Because one of the areas or particular clients that I worked with where I saw something so amazing was when it was without a doubt accessibility was a priority. It was a requirement. It was a written requirement. All the systems were in place to test, review, monitor. When accessibility bugs were reported by an extra QA group, so it’s not just you testing your own stuff, “Oh, I’m good,” right? We always think we’re good. No.
An external QA group doing the audit and those bugs were reported, if those bugs weren’t fixed within a certain timeframe, you had management jumping up and down on your back. “Why isn’t this one fixed yet? What’s the matter? Why isn’t this one fixed yet,” with the equal level of importance of any other bug that would effect people without disabilities. It was that culture and all the pieces were in place. The training was in place. There were experts available for when things were complex. A person that was newer might not be able to get it right by themselves. What I think the answer is is it actually takes a lot to build an accessibility program and culture.
Unfortunately if that’s not in place, if one of those pieces is missing, if you don’t have leadership support, you’re kind of doing this under the radar, grassroots, you can make progress, but it’s often progress that’s led by one or two or a handful of evangelists. If those evangelists leave, you may lose complete momentum and degrade. If you don’t have a process for monitoring or watching or fixing the bugs, then that’s a real low point if you don’t have the proper training, if you don’t have experts when the questions get tough and gnarly and complex.
The last thing I would say is if you don’t have a pattern library and you’re a big company and you’re hand doing accessibility everywhere, that’s not a good use of resources. I guess those reasons.
Nic: I really believe in this idea of pattern library. We had a discussion last month … No, in November. Gee, time flies. With Accessibility Montreal where we were talking about this idea that pattern libraries are really important and it would be great if there were libraries of pattern libraries out there that everybody could use, and it there was a definite one. I think each pattern libraries is so dependent on the structure of what your organization is doing that they’re not always easy to just plug and play with what you’re building. We need to think in terms of providing examples that are solid.
Glenda: I think that is so true. It comes down to where can we do things centrally as a group so that we’re using human effort wisely. I’ve always thought how important it is to balance between what we’re doing in the accessibility world versus what those same people could be doing to move us forward as a society, as human beings reaching our full potential. Accessibility is critical. Don’t get me wrong. It’s oxygen. If we don’t do it efficiently and effectively, didn’t we just steal from the progress of the world? We did. That’s really bad. I am looking for the central solutions.
One of the things I would say that delighted me the most when I switched from edu to dot com, it was a big culture shift going from UT to Deque. At UT, anything that I did I could share because that’s what edu does. Then I went to a dot com and all of a sudden I had to get permission to share. It took me a while to adjust and to realize that there’s space for both. Then to be able to take our leadership along a story path and say, “Yes, we could keep our automated testing rules private IP or we could expose them in GitHub and have everybody work on them and stop having every company try to build them themselves.” It’s like stop it.
Does the image have an alt attribute? I mean like stop it. We all shouldn’t be writing that rule, right? We need one in the center. The aXe-core library to me is a movement. It’s not the pattern library, but it’s the opposite. It’s the testing of it. I don’t know if you had a chance to talk with Wilco Fiers, but one of the things that I believe he’s going to do next … Wilco leads, or is one of the leads, on our aXe-core rules and that’s the automated piece of the rules. Guess where he’s going next? He’s going to the manual rules.
Glenda: If we have that in a central repository that everyone can use instead of us all building it individually, what a huge, huge win for the world.
Nic: That’s a little bit the concept of open source, isn’t it?
Glenda: Yes. Yes.
Nic: I’ve been a proponent of open source for a very, very long time. I believe in it. I spent a lot of my time on open source projects. I love to see that dot coms are actually open sourcing some of their work like what you’re talking about. It’s solid for pushing everybody forward.
Glenda: It is. What’s curious is maintaining the balance of why are we … The company that I work for right now. Why do we choose to be a dot com? Are we doing it to make gads of money or are we doing it because by being a profit-based company we can take on and do some of the bigger things that we couldn’t if we weren’t a for profit? It took me a while to wrap my head around that because I just lived in this edu world where people handed us money and nobody really watched the bottom line, and to distinguish between which IP really is appropriate for us to make a profit on so that we can put it back into something good versus which IP. It’s time to put it central.
I guess right now I’m super thrilled about this notion of us having that shared automated piece in aXe-core. I’m hearing that shared manual piece. Is it possible that we could go to shared pattern libraries? Yes, I think it’s not without reason, but it won’t happen tomorrow.
Nic: No. No. I’m not holding my breath because I might choke before it happens.
Glenda: Yes. Don’t hold your breath, but don’t give up either.
Nic: Jumping from one idea to another, what profession other than your own would you like to attempt?
Glenda: That’s fascinating. I’ve actually have my background in HR. I’ve contemplated that many a time. I am supremely happy with what I’m doing now so much so that I don’t think I’ll ever stop doing this even as a hobby in my old age. There are two other things that truly interest me. One of them is museums. I’m absolutely fascinated by museums of all types. I would like to do work again with museums. I have done technology with museums before and it was glorious. Museums, museums, museums. Art, art, art. If I think of it as a retirement career, I hope to become a docent in a museum, a volunteer in a museum.
The other area that I’m interested in goes all the way back to my psychology degree. There’s something really beautiful and meaningful about grief and crisis counselling. That’s something I have done in a … Not in a professional way, but every time I’ve been there for somebody going through grief or crisis. It’s some of the most meaningful contributions I’ve made. I hold those two careers in case anybody ever gets tired of me in this one.
Nic: I have a hard time seeing anyone getting tired of you and your energy and your enthusiasm.
Glenda: Well, thank you.
Nic: What do you think the greatest challenges for the field of accessibility are for us moving forward?
Glenda: There’s one thing that’s been driving me crazy and that is we need to stop the merry-go-round debates about what is inaccessible and what passes. When experts get together and we could fight for hours, days, weeks, months, years and not come to agreement on something, how do we ever expect anybody achieve this? That’s not cool. I actually have a name for it. I call it accessibility wars. We need to stop it. I actually have thanks to CSUN, the taco place next to the hotel and probably an alcoholic beverage and lunch with Wilco Fiers, I have been inspired to work on a white paper that we’re going to have at CSUN about let’s stop the war.
Nic: Wonderful. I look so much forward to that because it’s been one of my pet peeves as well that we’re saying to people, “Well, accessibility is not that complicated,” but then they ask us question, and our answer typically is, “Well, it depends.”
Glenda: It depends. Right. Right.
Nic: I very much look forward to that presentation about accessibility wars white papers at CSUN. I will be in there haunting you.
Glenda: Yay. I’m looking forward to it.
Nic: Who inspires you?
Glenda: Who doesn’t inspire me? I have a handful of people that I consider my accessibility muses. The list is not short. This is not an inclusive list that I’m giving you because I literally get inspiration, Nic, from almost everyone. It doesn’t matter if they’re brand new to the field or if they’re just wanting to get in or they’re the grandmaster, they’re Yoda of accessibility. Some of the people that have inspired me the most, you’ll always hear me say John Slatin. You’ll always hear me say Sharron Rush. Then there’s a group of people right around that.
Then if we drop down into my peers, Denis Boudreau is that person that asks those thought-provoking questions. Pushes me. Makes me think different. I love that about him. Elle Waters. Thinking inside, outside, upside down. I have always taken great inspiration from her. When I’m lucky enough to spend an all nighter with Elle and Denis because we can’t go to sleep because we have to brainstorm the next big idea, yeah, those are some of … If I had to limit it to four people first to mind, those would be them.
Nic: Thank you. I’ve already spoken to Denis for the podcast. I’m hoping to get some time out of Sharron for the podcast.
Glenda: Oh yes.
Nic: I will be needing to reach out to Elle and see if she’s interested in participating.
Glenda: I will tell you don’t miss Wilco Fiers.
Nic: Okay. Thank you.
Glenda: I could go on, but we’ll do that off recording.
Nic: Fair enough.
Glenda: Because it’d be a hundred names.
Nic: If I understand correctly, you do a fair bit of project management. What would you recommend to project managers that are interested in implementing accessibility in their projects?
Glenda: Two things that I would say. First is I believe Robert Jolly has a talk about this. I need to track down the name of that talk and see if it’s available just out there or if it’s something you’d have to attend, but I would recommend because I have high regard for Robert Jolly and how he thinks accessibility from a PM perspective. The other thing that I think would be really valuable and this will come as no surprise is the IAAP Certification is a wonderful way for PMs to get that core foundation understanding of accessibility. I recommend that as part of the process. The third thing is just the common sense. Accessibility needs to be in the beginning of the project.
It has to be a known requirement, written. It has to be clear how it’s going to be tested. There should be a testing plan that’s designed before design even begins so that you know what success looks like. The designers and the developers must be given the proper training and tools, and when possible pattern libraries so that they get it right the first time. This saves so much cost and money. Make sure that that QA actually has … That it’s a separate QA group. You should not edit your own work. You should not test your own work. You’re always going to miss your own mistakes.
We need to have that process there, and to not get caught in dare I say perfection or testing every single thing. Be smart. Be efficient and effective. Think of it like an audit so that we don’t get caught up in, “It’s too expensive to test.” No, it’s not. If you’ve written garbage inaccessible code and I go randomly pick some pages that are representative, I’m going to catch you. Be smart about that and use automation as much as possible. Don’t forget about rot. Accessibility has to be part of maintenance too. Shifting it as far left as you possibly can. It’s common sense. That’s closely to the way we handle security.
Nic: I actually have talked about accessibility and security. We hear more and more about accessibility and we hear more and more about security. We rarely hear about both together. I like your comparison of we have to think about accessibility the way we think about security.
Glenda: One of the things that I did … Actually there were two things that I did at UT that were highly part of my success. Counting John Slaton as my foundation because I couldn’t have done it without him. When I connected to the security division at IT at UT, they would give me a heads up because nothing would go out without security. Almost nothing would go out without security or security would catch it. They’d smell it. They’d find it. If they could see that accessibility had not been picked up on it either, they would tell me. It was like having eyes on the back of my head when I had the security guys watching for things that had skipped accessibility.
Then the second thing that I did is I had an ADA equal opportunity officer that had put it as one of her responsibilities to make sure that we were ADA compliant with meeting 508 and WCAG. Getting that high level support. I just throw those things in there because when you said security, I was like security and a vice president that cares about accessibility are like so powerful.
Nic: One last question for you.
Glenda: You bet.
Nic: What is the one single thing people should remember about accessibility?
Glenda: That accessibility when done right makes for a better experience for all human beings. Universal design principle is something you and I have not discussed. I bet many of your other interviewees have discussed it. If someone’s doing accessibility and they feel it’s a waste of time, it’s not going to benefit anyone but this handful of people with disabilities, that it’s ruining their design, then you know what they need to do? They need to take 10 giant steps backwards and find out a better solution that makes the whole product better for all. Is it a little bit harder to do that? Yeah. Is it worth it? You bet. Let’s make accessibility create better design.
Nic: Thank you.
Glenda: You bet.
Nic: Glenda, it’s been a pleasure talking with you. As usual, I leave these A11y Rules Podcast chats with tons of ideas and new ways to look at things. It’s one of the reasons I so enjoy doing this podcast. Thank you for being a willing participant. For everyone out there, thank you for listening.
Glenda: Thank you, Nic, for interviewing me and for the contribution you do through this podcast. It is wonderful.
Nic: Thank you. Until next week, well, that’s all. Before I go, I want to thank my patrons once again. Remember that if you need a hand ensuring your site’s accessibility, I’m available. Contact me on my website at incl.ca.