E39 – Interview with Sharron Rush – Part 1

This week, I’m speaking with Sharron Rush, the founder and Director of Knowbility. She’s particularly proud of having raised awareness about accessibility over the last 2+ decades. And she wishes the accessibility community approached accessibility less from a compliance perspective and more from a human perspective.


Thanks to Twilio for sponsoring the transcript for this episode.

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Nic: Welcome to the A11y Rules podcast. You’re listening to episode 39. I’m Nic Steenhout, and I talk to people involved in one way or another with web accessibility. If you’re interested in accessibility, this show is for you. Note that a transcript for this show is available on the podcast’s website: https://a11yrules.com.

And thanks to Twilio for sponsoring the transcript for this episode.

Twilio: Connect the world with the leading platform for voice, SMS, and video at Twilio.com.

This week I’m speaking with Sharron Rush.

Hi, Sharron. Thanks for joining me on the podcast to talk about web accessibility.

Sharron: Thanks, Nic. It’s a pleasure to be here.

Nic: Cool.

Hey, I like to let guests introduce themselves. So in a brief, elevator pitch style introduction, who’s Sharron Rush?

Sharron: I’m the executive director of a non-profit organization based in Austin Texas. It’s called Knowbility, we spell it with a K. We’ve been advocating, teaching, and really tried to encourage people to care about accessibility since 1999.

Nic: Cool. That’s a good long period of time to actually push accessibility on the web. That’s pretty impressive.

Let me ask you, to get started. Tell me one thing that most people would not know about you.

Sharron: One thing that most people would not know about me is that I lived for five years in a hippie commune in Colorado.

Nic: Hah, I did not know that about you, but for some reason that does not surprise me, Sharron. Wonderful.

Was it a good experience?

Sharron: It was a good experience.

It was a good experience to have in my past. I was glad I did it, but I was glad that I moved on from there too.

Nic: Has it influenced how you think about the work we do in accessibility?

Sharron: I think probably most of our … A five year experience like that is bound to have probably pervasive and profound influence on the way you continue in your life. I think the idea of cooperation and collaboration, and that idea that you are dedicated to when you live in a situation like that is definitely something that has continued to guide me.

It’s hard for me to kind of distinguish between that and the fact that I grew up in a family of eight children too, I think.

Nic: Yeah, fair enough.

So obviously the main topic of the podcast is web accessibility, and every person I speak to seems to have a slightly different take on that. How would you define web accessibility, Sharron?

Sharron: Oh, I think it’s pretty straight forward. Web accessibility means that people of all abilities can get the same information and perform the same functions on the web or web applications.

Nic: Yeah, it can be quite straight forward like that. There’s always some flourishes that people add, but I like your definition, quite simple and straight to the point.

Sharron: Well because I think what happens often is that we get lost in the weeds of 508, or WCAG, WCAG 2, WCAG 1, level whatever. But essentially, I think in order to be most effective, we have to keep sight of the fact that we’re talking about people. We’re talking about people’s access to the central tool of our time really: communications, commerce, education, employment. And so when we talk about accessibility, we are really talking about a civil right that people have to access those functions in a modern society.

I think we could all continue to sweat the details, or look at, parse all the ways that you can measure accessibility. But I think unless you keep the people first in mind, you can kind of get lost.

Nic: Yeah, I see that.

So you said you were the director of Knowbility. What does that mean on a day to day interaction with web accessibility for you? How do you include that in your work?

Sharron: Well, you know it’s interesting because when we started, we were so small. It was me and one other person when we started Knowbility. At that point, I was also the chief technical officer, and I did a lot of the kind of community collaborations, and program building, including building services for clients to help people understand. I did trainings. I did all of that.

As the organization has grown, my role has changed to one of more strategic organizational support. But I keep my daily interest in accessibility and the technical aspects of it quite lively by participating on the education and outreach working group at the web accessibility initiative of the W3C. So I co-chair that group, and in that role I continue to have very close association, learning opportunity, teaching opportunity around emerging standards and the interpretation of those standards.

At Knowbility we do, do quiet work and training, and so I continue to do that, but it’s not the bulk of my day to day work, which is what I think you were asking me about. “What is your day to day?” It’s a lot more strategic now, and less technical than it used to be.

Nic: That’s fair enough. I guess I just wanted to get a feel for how dirty do you get your hands with accessibility directly. But I think this approach of strategic planning, and working at a system level with the W3C is mission critical as opposed to everybody can learn to do an accessibility audit, just about. But doing the strategic work is quite important, and not everybody can do that.

I guess your long experience in the field has allowed you to get that long range view, hasn’t it?

Sharron: I think definitely my perspective has changed over the years from just looking at the code and solving this particular problem, whether it’s even in training, or in service to a client, or whatever. Whatever the technical challenge was. I think my perspective has probably changed to a longer view. But it’s pretty hard to resist getting in there and solving those code problems. I mean, it really is because those are fun.

Well, to go back another millennium. When I left the hippie commune and decided I’m going to join the modern world, I went to our local community college, and I got a two year degree in computer programming. I learned to program in Fortran, and Cobol, and all the things that they were using back in the stone ages when I was that young.

And so I have this love of code, and the love of how it’s supposed to work, and the logic of it. So I’m always drawn to that. And even though I tried to work as a programmer, it just never quite took hold for me. It was too … I think because I only had an associate’s degree, I got a job that was boring. Repairing old code, that was what my job was, and I just hated it, so I left. And I went to work at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston in their catering department. The first thing I did was computerize their inventory records.

So it was like I just brought that skill with me wherever I went. And so it’s really hard. No matter how much I get away from having to do the day to day code review, or audits, or whatever, it’s really hard for me to get completely away from it. It’s one of those things that I appreciate so much when it’s done well. When coding is done properly, and cleanly … Just the potential for all the things that it …

So through the years, I worked in restaurants. I worked in all kinds of different service industries, the music world, all kinds of things. I would bring those skills and ways to use technology to make the systems better.

So then when I went to work for Easter Seals in the mid ’90s, I of course did the same kind of thing. I started computerizing things for the social workers, and showing them how to use this for their caseloads. And then I started … In Austin, we had, our town was transformed by technology. Our city was completely remade by the tech sector when they moved in here. All these new jobs were created. New companies were created. And I’m working at a rehabilitation organization that was trying really hard to get jobs for marginalized people. And I’m thinking, “Wow! Bingo! This is it. This is the way people with disabilities could get employment. This is awesome. This is great. This is a terrific opportunity.”

And then I started coming up against, “No, you can’t use that. Oh, that system. You can’t work on that system. Oh, you can’t use a mouse. You can’t do that job. You can’t see. You can’t do that job.” And I was just like horrified. Like here is this great opportunity to level the playing field finally, and we’re missing the boat.

So I started talking to people in Austin, entrepreneurs and people who were working in technology and said, “Hey, do you realize that you’re building these walls?” And most of them didn’t. They didn’t … It was like, “What? Blind people use the web? What?” But when they knew it. When they realized that they were building walls, they were kind of horrified too. They were like, “Oh my gosh. Well, we didn’t want to do this and lock people out.” So that’s how we started the Accessibility Internet Rally, which was like I said, a hackathon. We would challenge the tech sector and say, “Okay, let’s see who can build a website that is usable by people with disabilities. And we’re going to teach you.”

We developed a few quick classes. Taught people the basics. And we got people from these entrepreneurial startup companies, but we also got teams from IBM and some of the big dogs in town who kind of saw it as an opportunity for their staff to be involved in community activities doing something that they … It’s like don’t ask a computer nerd to go build a house for humanity … What is that?

Nic: Habitat for Humanity.

Sharron: Habitat, yeah. Don’t ask me to go build a house because I’m terrible at it. But if you ask me to build an accessible website, that’s something I can do for the community, and I can feel like I’m really doing something.

So we tried to make it as fun as possible, and I think inviting people into accessibility in that way, as a design challenge, is just so much more appealing than holding over them, “Do this or I’m going to take you to court.”

Nic: Yeah.

One of the things I hear a lot of geeks say is, “Oh god, accessibility is such a chore and blah, blah, blah.” I flip it around for them. I say to them, “You’re a coder. You like a coding challenge, don’t you?” And most of them will say, “Yeah, of course.” And I say, “Well, think about accessibility as just that. It’s a coding challenge.” And suddenly it’s like a light goes on in their eyes, and they can go, “Oh … ”

Sharron: Yeah, that’s exactly right.

Nic: Sharron, what would you say your greatest achievement is in terms of web accessibility?

Sharron: Oh my gosh, I don’t know. I think probably for me it’s been increasing awareness. Through these competitions, through making accessibility something that’s challenging and fun, I think that’s probably been my greatest achievement. That I’ve helped many people understand and get excited by the prospect of creating accessible websites and applications.

Nic: Yeah, that’s so important, building that awareness.

I was talking with Sina Bahram, last year. He said, “We don’t have an accessibility problem. We have an awareness problem.” I think it really lights the issues in an interesting way. So I’m glad to see you say you’ve built so much awareness. That’s kind of cool.

Flip side to that. What’s your greatest frustration in terms of web accessibility?

Sharron: Right now my greatest frustration is the way that we’ve moved so far over into the compliance and scare tactics.

I see people that I respect in the field who advertise in this way of, “We can protect you from those evil lawsuits.” And the scaring of … And there’s no doubt that the legal effort has been important, and has also helped raise awareness. But when you emphasize that, the legal dangers or whatever, “Don’t get sued. Hire us to help you,” or whatever. That just seems to me to bring people to this work with the wrong attitude because then they’re going to do the minimum they can get away with. They’ll try to get some kind of mark, or certification, or something, and then forget about it.

Whereas, if it’s approached from the point of view of, you have a product or a service, and you want as many people as possible to know about it and to be able to use it, and you think about it again from that people first. There are how many millions of people with disabilities in the world? In the US alone they say it’s … I don’t know, it’s something like a billion dollar market or a trillion dollar market, and 200 billion of that is discretionary spending that is controlled by people with disabilities.

Well, if you approach it to people from that attractive marketing, design aspect, understanding of usability has really increased. People know you want to make your products delightful. You want to make it an enjoyable experience. Well, it’s been proven over, and over, and over again that when you design for the margins of accessibility, you’re including … You’re making it a better experience for everybody. And the fact that we kind of emphasize this legal compliance. That aspect of it to me is really, really disappointing and really frustrating because I think accessibility can be a really fun kind of adventure, because you learn more and more about how people think, how they interact with technology, what they’re looking for in an online experience. And as you include people with disabilities in that equation, you learn more about all of your users, and it’s just such a great opportunity. And instead to narrow it down to this, “Let’s do the minimum we can to be compliant with,” whatever the standard is that you’ve decided you have to do, is just … It makes me … It’s beyond frustration. It’s sorrowful to me.

Nic: Yeah.

Playing devil’s advocate here. I’ve actually spoken to three CEOs of fairly large tech companies in the last six weeks or so. And the discussion was more or less me saying, “Hey, your website, your apps, your product really should be accessible because all the arguments you just raised.” And the response was more or less, “Oh, wow. I had no idea. That’s fascinating. It sounds really important. But, you know, we have other priorities right now.” And when there’s that, “We have other priorities right now,” isn’t the threat of a lawsuit an expedient method to actually reach a point where we have a more accessible web?

Sharron: Yeah, I think it is.

That’s why … I mean there are different legal strategies, right? There’s that threat of a lawsuit. I just read one here lately where someone was suing … Target was sued for six, they had to pay six million dollars. Well, for Target that’s not a whole lot of money, but still. Their brand was pretty tarnished at that time. They’ve done a lot to bring it back, but I think the combination of the lawsuit and the damage to the brand is like when Amazon was sued. But there’s a lot of backsliding that occurs. So I think the technique of structured negotiation, where you don’t take them to court and make a big thing and say, “We want to get a lot of money from you,” or anything.

But you kind of take a more gradual approach where you say, “Look, I have this many people with disabilities who’ve tried to use your product or service, and we don’t want to sue you, but we want you to understand that this is important, and it’s a priority.” And that tends to make people feel a little … I mean in a way I guess you could say that’s blackmail too, right? Because you’re saying, “We will sue you if you don’t do this.” But somehow I think it’s easier for the companies.

So if one of those CEOs you were talking to said, “Well, it’s just not a priority right now.” And you said, “Well, if you had a lawsuit, would it become a priority?” And they would probably say, “It would become more of a priority.” So maybe structured negotiation is the medium between that.” Because what they do with structured negotiation is they don’t sue you, they don’t get damages, but you as a company will commit to a plan of integrating accessibility into your processes going forward, and you make certain commitments.

Well, I’m not a lawyer, so I don’t know exactly how it works. But I think the essence is that it’s then overseen by the court. That you can come back and say, “Look, we’ve met these milestones. Now we’ve made our public facing websites accessible by this date.” And you have to define what accessible means, so you do have to come up with the strategic definitions in order to meet it.

I mean there’s no doubt that some combination of the two strategies is good. I guess my regret is that we seem to be so heavily reliant now on the stick of legal repercussions, rather than really making those carrots look big and juicy.

Nic: Yeah, I would have to agree with that.

I think this a good point to end our conversation this week. Let’s say goodbye for now, and we’ll get together again in a little bit. Thanks, Sharron.

Sharron: That sounds great. Thank you, Nic. It was a pleasure.

Nic: Thanks.

Sharron: Bye.

Nic: Bye.

And thank you for listening. If you enjoyed the show, please do tell your friends about it.

You can get the transcript for this and all other shows at A11yrules.com. And thanks once again to Twilio for supporting the transcript for this episode.