E40 – Interview with Sharron Rush – Part 2

Continuing my talk with Sharron Rush. She quotes John Slatin who said that creating alt text isn’t a technical thing – it’s an art form.


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Nic: Welcome to the Accessibility Rules podcast. You’re listening to Episode 40. I’m Nic Steenhout, and I talk with people involved one way or another with web accessibility. If you’re interested in accessibility, this show’s 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 show. Twilio: connect the world with the leading platform for voice, SMS and video. http://twilio.com.

Hello, everyone. This week I’m continuing my chat with Sharron Rush. Hi, Sharron.

Sharron: Hi Nic.

Nic: Last week we were talking about achievements and frustrations and all these good things around web accessibility. Let me warm up a bit with a question that’s not directly related to accessibility. If you had to do another job, another professional other than what you’re doing now, what would you like to be doing?

Sharron: Another job. Can it be a fantasy job?

Nic: Of course.

Sharron: I would love to be in a band.

Nic: What would you play?

Sharron: I would sing.

Nic: You would sing? Cool.

Sharron: I would be a chick singer.

Nic: A chick singer, as opposed to just a singer?

Sharron: That’s right.

Nic: What kind of music appeals to you? What would you like to sing?

Sharron: Well, you know I’m a girl of 60s and 70s. I love rock and roll. But as I’ve gotten older, I really like jazz. But boy, you have to really be a great singer to sing jazz so I’m not sure I could pull that off.

Nic: Yeah. I’d like to hear you sing at some point, rock and roll or jazz or whichever.

Sharron: Okay. Well you’re coming to Austin in May I think for AccessU, so we’ll have to go do some karaoke or something.

Nic: I’ll let you sing and I’ll sit back and enjoy the show because I’m … you know how they say music is good for plants? If I were to sing, I think the jungles would die off and become deserts.

Sharron: That’s my fantasy job. The reality is, I’ve been thinking lately that if I had 20 years ago not discovered the need for accessibility advocacy, because I’m getting to the end of my working years at all so these last 20 years have been a culmination of my working life. I was thinking if 20 years ago I had not found accessibility, I probably would have done environmental advocacy because I think the state of the planet …

I have a four-year-old grandson and you think about the state of the world and what we have to look forward to, what that generation has to look forward to. It’s pretty alarming. I probably would have ended up in that. My degree, when I finally went back to school and got a four-year degree after my two-year computer science degree I went back to school in my late thirties and I got a degree in conservation biology-

Nic: Oh, yeah?

Sharron: I think, yeah. That’s probably where I would have headed, if I hadn’t discovered web accessibility.

Nic: Cool. Wow. That’s quite different.

Sharron: Yeah, it’s quite different.

Nic: I mean, I’m trying to wrap my head around from conservation ecology to accessibility and then-

Sharron: And then rock and roll.

Nic: And then rock and roll, yeah. It is quite rock and roll to do that switch. I note that a lot of people in our field are actually coming to it from all kinds of weird and wonderful backgrounds. I was a chef before doing accessibility. You’re an ecologist and singer. There’s all kinds of people that come to this from different paths. I think that really enriches our community and common understanding of accessibility. I think that’s cool.

Sharron: I agree.

Nic: What would you say is the conventional wisdom about accessibility, one thing that everybody knows about it?

Sharron: That images have to have alt text.

Nic: Right. The flip side to that is why is the conventional wisdom about accessibility just plain wrong?

Sharron: That isn’t wrong. All images do have to have alt text but the application, you know I wrote a book about accessibility way back in 2002. My co-author was the late, great, John Slatin. He used to say, “Alt-text can be …” He was blind. I don’t know if you knew John at all, but he was blind and he really cared deeply about alt-text. He talked about it not as a technical provision but as an art form-

Nic: Oh, yeah?

Sharron: That the right alt-text … So you can say the conventional wisdom is that images have to have alt-text but what’s left out of the conventional wisdom is the fact that there is an art to it that is not always immediately evident. Sometimes you have to really understand what are you providing to someone who doesn’t see the screen and the nuance is so important. The difference … Was it Mark Twain or one of those great writers who said, “The right word is the difference between lightening and a lightening bug.”

Nic: Yeah.

Sharron: Yeah. The application of proper alt-text is really something that I think people don’t understand in conventional wisdom.

Nic: That’s cool. I love that quote from John Slatin, that the creation of alt-text is an art form. That’s actually quite profound.

Sharron: I know. What’s funny about John, he wasn’t even a technologist. He was an English professor. His doctoral thesis was on Mary Anne Moore, the poet. He was a poet himself. He came to accessibility, and the web as a person who loved language and art who was losing his vision. He had degenerative eye disease and he was getting more and more blind with every year.

He taught himself a lot about all of this technology in order to be able to use the web to stay in touch with literature. He was like, “I can read through the web. I can stay in touch with the art world and with magazines and journals and all of that.” As the web became less text-based and there were more barriers being produced, it was tremendously frustrating and frightening to john. He became an advocate in the purest sense as someone who understood the importance and felt it as a lifeline. John, he was really an important influence on the way that I think about all of this.

Nic: He was your mentor in a way?

Sharron: Yeah. He definitely was. Although I think we were kind of colleagues, because we were learning about it together at the same time from different backgrounds. He was at the University of Texas and he ran the institute of technology and learning. He’s the one that got me involved with the W3C because he joined WCAG and became chair of the group that developed WCAG 2, he kept telling me I needed to be part of it and I said “Standards work. That doesn’t really interest me at all, John.” He’s the one who suggested the education and outreach working group and of course I’ve loved all the work I’ve gotten to do there, the colleagues and …

Nic: Yeah. What do you think the number one reason is for most people to fail in succeeding with accessibility?

Sharron: You mean people who are trying to do it but get it wrong?

Nic: Yup.

Sharron: The number one reason. You know, Nic, I’m not really good at ranking things. People even ask me my favorite color and it’s like, “Well, it depends on what day it is.”

Nic: All right. So give us a few.

Sharron: The most important one I think, reasons that people feel, again I think is because they don’t think about the end user enough. They focus on the checklists or the standard itself or meeting this technical requirement without thinking about … I know the answer to this question but I’m going to ask you anyway, have you ever seen a website that was technically conformant to the standards but a miserable experience for the user?

Nic: Yes. Of course.

Sharron: Well, that i think is the number one problem is that you have people who approach it from that technical specifications stand point and they miss the user and leave the user out of the equation. You end up with something that is maybe compliant, but not very usable.

Nic: Yeah, so that ties back to your frustration about compliance versus user experience and accessibility of the person. Avoiding in failure in that term, how do you achieve that? Because obviously it’s changing a mindset. It’s shifting that paradigm from compliance to a user first experience. How does a company or a developer that thinks more in terms of compliance, how do they shift that thinking?

Sharron: Honestly, I don’t think it’s that complicated because if you include … Most companies now are doing some level of usability testing before they launch. If you include people with disabilities in your usability testing all along the way, as you do your wire frames, as you do your planning, that whenever you have any kind of external review or usability test or focus groups or what do people want and what kind of experience do people want, that sort of information gather, make sure you have people with disabilities in those groups.

They comprise, what is it, some close to 20% of the population. A big amount of the market share. Why would you not want to include that group in all your polling and customer satisfaction and your usability testing. I think the more that you include people with disabilities, the more you understand their user experience, the more you can avoid that kind of technically compliant but miserable user experience outcome. It’s not any more expensive or difficult to make sure you include people with disabilities in that.

Nic: Yeah. This question of cost is one I’d like to touch back in a minute, but what I’m hearing you say actually if I can paraphrase you is that ideally, we’d work on inclusion rather than merely accessibility, right?

Sharron: Yes.

Nic: That’s something I’ve been trying to quote-on-quote sell to developers out there, that we really ought to forget about accessibility. We should think in terms of inclusive design. The idea of getting people with disabilities involved at all stages of a project is really the ultimate inclusion is to make sure that people participate and give their feedback to improve the experience to everyone.

Sharron: Yeah. Get really radical and hire some people with disabilities on your development team.

Nic: Yeah, absolutely. Let’s go back to this question of cost. You say it doesn’t really cost a lot to involve people with disabilities in user testing and yet we have a lot of companies that say, “Oh, it costs so much to do accessibility. What do you say to that? How do you counter that argument? How do you convince people that it’s actually not that much more expensive to do accessibility?

Sharron: I think the cost benefit ratio has yet to be quantified in a way that people can point to and say … Honestly at the educational outreach and working group right now, the work that I’m focused on is to articulate a clear business case that balances the … Because it’s not that it doesn’t cost anything, it’s that the return on that investment is tremendous. In some ways, it’s really hard to tease out what of this is accessibility and what of this is usability to be able to separate and say, “We got this much pay off from our accessibility work.”

The case itself in my mind is very straightforward. You can get companies to verify that, but they usually don’t want to do it publicly-

Nic: Yeah.

Sharron: Because they’re afraid it’s going to put them in a position of liability. It’s very hard to get case studies to point to. But there are some that are public. I think 3Play  media has some on their website, some nice case studies that show return on investment. The truth is when you include accessibility as an integrated part of your planning, when it’s folded in from the beginning it’s so much more cost effective. It’s also more elegantly executed.

Here in Austin, we have an old courthouse. They had to go back and retrofit it for ADA and it’s got these external ramps that wrap halfway around the building in order to have the slope be correct. External railings that don’t go with the décor of the building and it’s clumsy. It works but it was clumsy and expensive and it’s an eyesore. On the other hand, we built a city hall where the plaza comes in gradually. There’s some shallow steps on one part. There’s a nice sloping … The whole elegance of the facade is lovely. It’s a very nice building. The accommodations for wheelchairs and blind people, the wider doors, all of that is just seamlessly integrated into the building. It’s part of the design and it’s lovely. It’s beautiful. You go inside and you’re comfortable and you can move around.

It’s a lovely space for everyone and it’s exactly correlated, I think, to the way that you can build web experiences. If you think about it from the start, you create this rather seamless experience that works for a much broader … It’s hard to say works for everyone, but it works for many more people and the experience is easier for everyone. It improves user experience, and so in that sense, it’s very hard to separate out how much of this is accessibility work, how much of it is usability work, how much of it is just plain common sense of making a great experience that we are all trying to do on the web. To get that one-on-one, “This is what accessibility costs from the beginning if you integrate it in.” The costs are so tiny and integrated with the cost of the whole project-

Nic: Yeah.

Sharron: That it’s hard to separate it.

Nic: Yeah. It’s really this issue of retrofitting you end up running a lot more cost and ending up with a strange looking project, whereas if you build it from the start, your increased costs are minimal and your return on income is going to be there, whether or not you’re able to directly measure it.

Sharron: It is. It’s really interesting. Recently, we’ve had to look at a situation where the company was under some pressure and so in order to not have to go back and rebuild their entire website, they said, “Oh, we’re going to put an accessible homepage and an accessible menu.” Because they had one of those big panel kind of menus where if you’d mouse over it the whole thing would explode up and you’d have all these sub choices. Sometimes you’d even have an application in there where you’d enter a zip code and find a store, something like that.

So they said “Well we can’t really fix that for accessibility so we’re just going to make a homepage that is the accessible homepage. They put all the links so that it’s the first thing that you get to is the screen reader and you’d get to your accessible homepage. Well, the problem them is from the accessible homepage you link into some other thing and you’re left with this menu that you can’t use. The idea that you can have this separate accessible interface is ludicrous  on the web. The web just doesn’t work that way.

Nic: Yeah.

Sharron: So I think some of those solutions that people think they can come up with, they just end up tripping themselves up. Now they’ve expended all this time and effort creating this separate pathway when you probably would’ve been better served to have just said, “Okay. We go back and we do this again in a way that is inclusive for everybody.” I love your idea, we’re talking about inclusion now instead of accessibility. The idea of diversity and inclusion is one that people like Forbes and Fortune, big time capitalist advocates have said, “When you create a workforce or a customer base that is inclusive and diverse, you get better products.”

Nic: Yeah.

Sharron: You’re more able to appeal to a wider customer base.

Nic: Yeah. What are the greatest challenges for our field moving forward? Five years on, ten years on, what challenges do we have that are slowing us down getting where we want to be?

Sharron: I think a lot of these problems could be solved if accessibility education … There’s that teach access movement that Larry Goldberg is leading to try to integrate accessibility thinking into the curriculum of computer science programs and I think that if we, instead of thinking as accessibility as a separate thing, if we find a way … The challenge is to integrate accessibility thinking into design thinking, into all the considerations that you make for any project, any website and to have it so fully integrated that you no longer have to think about accessibility. If you do code right, you’re doing it accessibly. In order to that, I think you’d have to integrate that accessibility thinking into the way that people are education from high school. I guess now they’re teaching code in the elementary schools.

Nic: Yeah.

Sharron: From those little code camps all the way through. The challenge for our field is to get that kind of thinking into those educational programs so that as people learn about building anything for the web, they learn that it has to be accessible. That’s just part of it. That’s part of the deal. In order for your code to validate, in order for you to … And I think browser manufacturers also need to really step up in terms of supporting accessibility features.

Nic: Yeah.

Sharron: It’s always patchwork and then developers are left with, “I have to do this for this browser and that for that browser. This doesn’t happen over here, so I have to have this other patch in order to make it work properly over there.” I think that’s another challenge.

Nic: Yeah.

Sharron: We could keep talking about challenges…

Nic: Yeah. I love the idea of reaching out at the earliest level in any programming education. 25 years ago, I learned that the typical architect over the course of four, five, six years of studies receives about four hours of tuition on accessibility. I think the same situation is happening with computer science. There’s just not enough and it’s too little too late. I really like the idea of including that from the start. Yeah, if we build awareness at that level suddenly it’s probably not going to be so difficult anymore.

Sharron: That would be my hope, yeah.

Nic: Yeah. So Sharron, to wrap things up, what would you like people to remember about web accessibility? Just parting words to think about.

Sharron: That web accessibility is something that, whoever you are, whatever you do, whatever your ability, web accessibility is something that you will need at some point in your life.

Nic: Wonderful. Thank you.

Sharron: Thank you.

Nic: Sharron, you’ve been great. Thanks for being on the show and I’ll catch you in Austin in a few weeks.

Sharron: I can’t wait to see you. It will be great. We’re going to have a good time.

Nic: Cheers.

Sharron: Bye.

Nic: And thank you for listening. If you enjoyed the show, please do tell your friends about it. You can get a transcript for this and all others shows at https://a11yrules.com. Thanks once again to Twilio for supporting the transcript for this episode.