E35 – Interview with Eric Eggert – Part 1

Eric is a W3C fellow and works at Knowbility. He also teaches accessibility at university. He tells us about his work and the redesign of the WAI site to make things easier to find and understand.


Nic: Welcome to the Accessibility Rules Podcast, you’re listening to Episode 35. I’m Nic Steenhout, and I talk with people involved in one way or another with web accessibility. A transcript for the show is available on the show’s website.

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.

This week, I’m talking to Eric Eggert. Hi, Eric, how are you?

Eric: Hi, Nic, how are you?

Nic: I’m doing good. It’s a wonderful sunny cold day in Montreal. They’re expecting 20 cm of snow this week, so I’m enjoying the no snow on the sidewalk at this point.

Eric: That’s a lot of snow. It’s pretty nice here. Still a bit like end of winter, and it’s clearing up and starting to get into spring. We’re getting a lot more sun then in the last few weeks, and that’s really good.

Nic: Spring’s good. Eric, tell me in a brief nutshell-style introduction who is Eric Eggert.

Eric: That’s something I ask me a lot of times, and basically I think if you want to break it down into the shortest thing I’m educating people about accessibility, and I do that in various ways. One way is through Knowbility, doing assessments for their clients. The other way is being a fellow at W3C, and the education and outreach working group, making sure that we have good developer documentation for accessibility there. The third part of that is teaching students in grads in Austria, in their content strategy course, and teaching them about accessibility and responsive design because they are learners, and that’s awesome to get in there and teaching content strategists about the good accessibility stuff.

Nic: Wonderful. You really are wearing three hats, but three hats of the same color, basically.

Eric: Yeah, that’s a good way to put it.

Nic: To get warmed up, Eric, tell me one thing that most people would not know about you.

Eric: One thing that most people would know about me …

Nic: Would not know about you.

Eric: Not know about me, probably that a few years ago that I had a publication about the British game of snooker. I’m a big snooker fan, and even travel to tournaments. That was all in German, so most people probably don’t know that about me.

Nic: Fantastic. I had no idea that you were interested in snooker. Remind me not to play pool with you when we meet next time.

Eric: I’ve been a better reporter than player all of the time, so it’s probably okay.

Nic: We’re talking about web accessibility. Every time I speak to people, I hear a different definition. I’d be interested to know how do you define web accessibility.

Eric: I think the simplest definition is the best, and that’s making the web accessible for people who have a disability, and disability in the widest sense. If it is a temporary impairment, or just holding children as many people do, or being distracted, it’s basically casting the wide net, but in the core it’s about making the web work for people who need additional accommodations, or who just are better to … I probably should start that sentence again.

Nic: Okay. No problem, so we start again.

Eric: The best definition is making the web accessible for people with disabilities, and in the broadest sense. Impairments are a big part of that, like temporary stuff, or holding children, just making sure that everyone can use the web at all times, that’s the most important thing, I think.

Nic: I’ve seen some controversy on Twitter in the last couple weeks where some people were getting really upset that when there’s talk about accessibility and that it benefits everyone, not just people with disabilities, they’re feeling that forgetting the fact that accessibility really is for people with disability is kind of trying to erase people with disabilities from the equation, and they’re saying we should be going back to a more hard and pure approach of accessibility that just focuses only on people with disabilities. How do you feel about that?

Eric: I can see both approaches. For a long time, when I talked about accessibility, I tried not to use the term accessibility in titles and even on slides. I tried to be more subversive about that because I think accessibility benefits everyone all the time. There are always those two different sides of the same discussion, and I think it’s important to talk about the specific needs for people with disabilities but also make the proposition, the value proposition of accessibility in a broader sense. If you are concentrating only on people with disabilities, and focusing on them, a lot of businesses will say oh, but we talked to our customers, and we only have 3% people with disabilities that we know of, so we don’t have to do as much. Once you say this is only about people with disabilities, you’re quickly getting into that discussion, and I think in the long run that can be more hurting than helping.

Nic: I have to admit, I’m pretty much with you on that. I’m gonna pause just a second in the questions because I’m having an issue, I think, with my recorder, which would be really … Oh, no, that seems to be working.

Let’s keep going. You were saying you were wearing three hats. One was to do auditing work with Nobility, one was to teach students at university, and the third one was you work with the W3C. Which one do you think is the most effective or the most rewarding, which maybe is two different questions for you, but which role is best suited for you?

Eric: I like to teach people so that’s, and I think all three hats that I’m wearing benefit from that, or I get rewards from all three of them. I mean it’s different. The assessment work is very focused teaching, and I see that as a teaching opportunity, because telling someone he’s wrong, or they are wrong, that’s easy to do, but that’s not helping anyone. You want to get into it and you want to explain the issue in detail.

Nic: Hold on, Eric. Eric, I’m very, very sorry. We’re gonna have to start again from the start because my recording was only recording one side of the conversation.

Eric: Was it your side?

Nic: Yeah.

Eric: That’s fine. I have a recording of my side of the conversation.

Nic: Fantastic. Aha, you’re brilliant. Okay. I interrupted you, rudely, but you were talking about loving teaching, and all three roles allow you to do that, right?

Eric: Right. All three roles allow me to teach people in various levels, and I think that’s important. When I’m doing assessments for Nobility, I need to explain the issues very well so people can apply the knowledge and learn from it, and not do the same issues, create the same issues over and over again. Which is easy to do if you only get a solution back, and you put that in, and you don’t understand why this is better than what you had before, you don’t have learning in fact.

If I look at my content strategy students, they are not doing development work, and so they are looking at some issues in a totally different way. From them, I always get a very honest and direct feedback, and I love that.

Then at W3C, it’s a publication, the EO Resources, they are read and publicized on so many different levels, and with so many people that it’s just important to have really good stuff there, and that’s why I love doing that, because I know that the reach is much broader than doing assessments where you’re working with relatively small development teams, or talking to twenty or several students in a classroom. That’s all different levels, and I wouldn’t want to miss any one of those sides, really.

Nic: You say the resources on the W3C have a broad reach, but I’ve heard criticism that they’re not all that useful or that most people don’t know about them. How do you respond to that, and then if there is some truth to the criticism how do we rectify that? Because it is a really wonderful bank of resource.

Eric: Yeah. The big issue is that it’s hard to find the good content that is there on the WAI side, and WAI stands for Web Accessibility Initiative, which is basically of W3C doing all the accessibility stuff. You know, that’s true. I often resort to using Google to find what I want, and yeah, and that’s just how it is, and we’re working on a redesign right now, and depending on when this podcast gets published there will be a new way to using the site and finding the resources, and I think that will help.

For the content, a lot of stuff that I have done, and I can only speak for my resources when I have been Editor, they have been really complicated at times, and we’re trying to do better. On the other hand, W3C wants to have to cover a lot of stakeholders, and because of that broad reach we need to cover a lot of more bases, I think, than the average blog or the average publication needs to.

Sometimes it’s just too detailed, and if you find something and you don’t understand it, or it’s just too complicated, make sure to go on Get Up. All of our resources are on Get Up these days, and comment or just write an email. There is an editor’s email address on every page, so we’re happy to address concerns or just comments all the time, and that’s really important for us.

Nic: I think that’s probably one aspect of the WAI resources that people probably don’t really know, is that it’s okay to reach out to the people listed at the bottom of the page, and that’s what they’re there for, to help give a bit more guidance.

Eric: Right. Even more so, we have the education and outreach working group, which is responsible for most of the publications there. If you want to contribute, and you’ve got good ideas, we’re happy to integrate you into that group. It’s usually a lot of work to work with the working group on those resources because there are so many different views, and we need to cover a broad range.

It can be quite daunting, getting all that feedback in the group, but if you have small stuff, yeah, feel free to drop us a note, or hit us at conferences and just tell us what you want or what you’re missing. Because I’m pretty sure there’s a lot of content that we could provide that would be suitable to WAI, and we have no idea that this is something that the industry needs. On the other side, we don’t want to cover everything in detail because there are good publications out there that also do a lot of good stuff. We don’t want to step on anyone’s toes, and walk a fine line of what we do and what we can explain better or more in depth than other publications out there.

Nic: How did you become aware of web accessibility and its importance?

Eric: Basically it started when I’ve been to school and I discovered the web mainly as a venue to upload stuff I programmed back in the day, with a lovely German programming language called…, which nobody probably knows. It’s basically been like an interface to Delphi. It was like programming language that was then translated to Delphi, and then you could do stuff on Windows with it. It was pretty nice. I started doing programs, and then I wanted to upload them to the internet so people could actually find and use them. That’s when I got into doing stuff online, and I pretty quickly stumbled upon A List Apart, and that web standards movement, and accessibility was always a part of that, and so I was aware of accessibility as the basic principle of the web.

When I moved to Vienna in 2006, there was suddenly a big accessibility community, and I stumbled into that community because it was a new city and I organized a gathering called Web Montag, which is translated as Web Monday, so we met on Mondays once a month, and accessibility people came to the Web Mondays and I went to the accessibility events, and then I got more and more involved in accessibility over time.

Nic: To the point of being a massive contributor on the W3C. It’s a good journey into accessibility.

Eric: Yeah. Basically my first contact point with the W3C was Shadi Abou-Zahra, who lives in Vienna, and who attended the Web Montag, and basically the first thing we did was carry him down the steps into the inaccessible venue because it was the venue I had by just putting up a Tweet, and saying hey, I want to organize a Web Monday, and does anybody have a location, and we had one, but it was in a cellar location. In the end, they installed an elevator so the place could be accessible, but it started there, carrying him down the stairs, because he’s a wheelchair user. That was my first contact with W3C.

Nic: That’s a memorable first contact. How has your view of accessibility changed in the last ten years, or since you started getting really involved with it?

Eric: My personal view I don’t think has changed much, which is a bit of a shame really because I think from my point of view I see accessibility, I try to see accessibility in a way that other people see accessibility, so I often try to think about how is accessibility viewed by others, and I think it’s still viewed as something that is additional to other web techniques, and different, and on another level. I think that’s a bit of a shame. We should really strive to be more integrated in the greater web community, because when you do accessibility from the start it’s just much easier, and you don’t run into walls, or you have to redo whole structures because you didn’t think about accessibility in the first place, and then it’s required.

From my point of view, I see accessibility mentioned much more if it is in conference talks, or just in random web articles, and reading web articles and the word web accessibility is there as in consideration. People might not go in depth with it, or really figure out what it is, or really have all the considerations in those articles [inaudible 00:20:07], but they say oh, there is an accessibility angle to this as well, and even if they don’t explain it or don’t have a solution necessarily the thought of accessibility is, I think, much broader than a few years before.

Nic: You think there’s more awareness.

Eric: Yes, I think so. When you walk through cities, and you see blind people using iPhones, that gives many a better insight of that. This is the thing, people are using technology even if they are blind or if they have other disabilities, and I think that visibility hasn’t been there just a few years back. I think it’s really great that that awareness is better now. I don’t think it’s particularly great, but I think we’re getting there.

Nic: I would have to agree with that assessment. Eric, did you face any barriers when you started learning about accessibility, or are you facing barriers now when you’re trying to implement accessibility?

Eric: Yeah. It’s the same discussion that we always had. It’s always this pulling and pushing, and trying to do the minimum to make stuff accessible. I get often asked do we really need to do that, is this really the easy solution instead of the best solution. A lot of people seem to be very reluctant to just do what’s the best for the users, even if it’s effecting only a small percentage of those users.

Yeah, it’s always a struggle, but I don’t think it’s particularly different with any web technology or any web project. You will always have priorities and people pushing to not take up the budget with stuff they don’t feel is necessary, and that’s not only effecting accessibility, it’s also effecting design as well. Let’s take the stock icons, and not use the really tailored icons or photography or stuff like that, yeah, I think there are issues.

I think that that’s also improving, and I’m pretty positive about how accessibility is viewed more in the US than in Europe, unfortunately, but it’s something where just the legislative system in the US is much more helping the cause than it is currently in Europe. That’s supposed to change.

Nic: It’s supposed to change, yeah. I’ve heard on and off that accessibility regulation in Europe, particularly in Germany, in your neck of the wood, were really solid, but from what I’m hearing from you now is that it’s not quite a strong as it is in the United States. What’s the big difference, where are the pros and cons on each side?

Eric: The big difference, I have a bit more intimate experience in Germany and in Austria, where I lived for a long time. Those are vastly different. You can’t say that’s the European thing. In Germany, for example, only public services need to be accessible at all, like private companies don’t have any obligation to be accessible. Theoretically, there’s like anti-discrimination stuff going on, but nobody has the right to sue individual companies, so they have to go to their accessibility or visibility organizations. If you’re blind, and you feel you’re discriminated, you have to go to your blind organization, your national organization for the blind, and talk to them and they would theoretically have to sue a company or get into action. You personally don’t have the right to do that.

That creates a barrier, and many people are just not aware that it’s a thing, that you can even do that. Even then, the obligation is not really there. That’s probably a lot of wiggle room. In Austria, in contrast, individuals have the right to go to court even and basically when they encounter an accessibility issue on a website or in real life, they can go to a mediator and basically both sides get onto one table and they discuss the issue and hopefully find a solution that is acceptable to both of them. Only if this mediation is interrupted or doesn’t go anywhere, then they are going to court and sue each other. This is not happening often. I think that’s a sweet solution, compared to the US where everyone can sue everyone, and it’s a bit extreme, but that’s European viewpoint. It’s just different.

It seems to work in the US, as far as I can see. A lot of people want to implement accessibility because they’re afraid of getting to court. Then on the other side, I think accessibility shouldn’t be something you’re doing because you’re afraid and want to get out of the way of a possible lawsuit.

Nic: I like that. On that note, Eric, I think we’re going to wrap this week’s show, so thank you for your great discussion, and we’ll finish our chat next week.

Eric: Thank you for having me.

Nic: But before I go, I want to thank my patrons once again, and remember that if you need a hand in sharing your site’s accessibility, I’m available. Contact me on my website on INCL.ca.