E41 – Interview with Margaret Staples – Part 1

I’m talking with Margaret Staples, a developer evangelist at Twilio, who has been working hard at spreading the message about the importance of accessibility. A self-taught programmer, she says that the resources about accessibility are sometimes difficult to find, being scattered in many places.


Thanks to Twilio for sponsoring the transcript for this episode.

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Nic: Welcome to the Accessibility Rules podcast. You’re listening to episode 41.

I’m Nic Steenhout, and I talk with people involved in one way or another with web accessibility. If you’re interested in accessibility, this show’s for you. Note that the transcript for this show is available on the podcast’s website, at 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 http://twillio.com.

This week I’m speaking with Margaret Staples.

Hi, Margaret. Thanks for joining me for this conversation around web accessibility.

Margaret: Sure. Happy to be here.

Nic: I like to let guests introduce themselves. In a brief elevator style introduction, who’s Margaret Staples?

Margaret: I am just some nerd that’s been making code on the web for like 20 years or so. It kind of came out when I was a curious teenager, and I thought right click view source was just magical. So I’ve been pretty much addicted to putting code on the internet ever since. That’s me.

Oh and also, I am now the developer evangelist for the Seattle area for Twilio, which is an awesome company for all of your communication needs. I’m very good at my job. Thank you.

Nic: That’s wonderful.

So you started coding and lifting the source, and seeing how things worked for a while. I started like that a little bit when I started playing with HTML. It feels like a long, long time ago. And at the same time, it feels like yesterday.

Let’s get warmed up here. Tell me one thing that most people would not know about you Margaret.

Margaret: Oh gosh. I guess people probably don’t mostly know that I was born and raised in Texas, and actually spent every summer growing up on a cattle ranch. That’s probably not common knowledge.

Nic: So you’re a cowgirl, or have a background as a cowgirl.

Margaret: Sure, yeah.

Nic: I did not know you were from Texas. So when we bumped into each other at Longhorn PHP, you were close to home then?

Margaret: Well, it hasn’t been my home in a very, very long time. I’ve actually lived in Washington State for upwards of 15 years now. But yes, I was visiting the homeland, the place of my birth, and I did see some people while I was in Texas that I had not seen in a very, very long time, so it was quite the nostalgic trip for me.

Nic: Fair enough.

So we’re talking about web accessibility right? And it seems every time I speak to someone about web accessibility, they have a different understanding, a different definition of the thing. How would you define web accessibility?

Margaret: I think probably the reason people have such a broad variety of impressions about what it is, is that accessibility isn’t going to be the same thing for everybody. I think web accessibility is all about making the content as easy to access as possible, regardless of the interface. Obviously, some people use screen readers, and how you format the data in the page will determine whether or not it is accessible to a screen reader. But there are also people that have various kinds of color blindness or light blindness, so things like contrast and color choices play into that.

I personally have a really hard time with movement in, like articles that have embedded gifs can be really, really difficult for me, or videos that automatically play in a page. I will do anything to try and scroll the movement off the page, so that I can read the article because it’s really difficult for … I have a little bit of ADD, and so it can be really difficult for me to concentrate on text if there’s something moving in the page.

So it can mean a lot of different things for a lot of different people. I remember when the web was new and awful. All of the colors were wrong, and everything was flashing gifs, and it was just atrocious, and so it was actually really, really easy to make things more accessible just by taking out the “new hotness,” which was almost always just atrocious. And honestly, I think that is probably how my commitment to web accessibility has remained, is every time just inherently suspicious of whatever the new hotness in design is.

Like I remember when … Oh, what was it? What are they called? Carousels. Carousels became the thing in design for however long, however many years ago. I was like, “Okay, I am suspicious of this. I’m going to dig in and find out what you need to do to a carousel in order to make it accessible for people that do not have what is considered standard visual consumption.

And I found out that there’s nothing you can do to a carousel to make it accessible. I was like, “Exactly.” So honestly some of my greatest “contributions” to accessibility have merely been, being suspicious of new hotness and refusing to put things into sites that become obvious with like the very lightest level of research to be huge, horrific barriers to large portions of the population.

I think one of the ways in which we’re probably in a better place now then we were in the past when it comes to conversations about web accessibility, is I think big producers are starting to get on board with the fact that there’s a huge portion of the population around the globe that do not and can not access the most beautiful cutting edge hardware, and they are only going to be able to access your content on a 10 year old smart phone. I think that fact is actually getting a foot in the door on accessibility conversations that weren’t there before, and I’m very happy about that because everybody just designing for the nicest, elitist, MacBook Pro that their designer happens to have, is not actually going to create a web that anyone else can use.

Nic: And throw in to that, that most design firms are on gigabit internet, and a large majority of people can’t even get five megabit per second, so it makes for a … yeah.

I think it goes down to the difference between working towards accessibility and working towards an inclusive web. I personally, obviously I believe in accessibility, but I really try to push for inclusion for everyone, so it’s usable by everybody.

Margaret: Yeah, I think it can be part of the same very rich, important conversation.

Nic: Obviously as an evangelist for Twilio, you don’t work day in day out with web accessibility. How or where do you push for or implement accessibility in your work?

Margaret: Well, I mean obviously with my personal projects it’s not difficult, because I say, “Hey, me. Can we think about accessibility here?” And I say, “Yes, me. I think that’s a great idea.”

When it comes to, since I’m not contracting anymore, the conversations that I’m having with companies around accessibility are either: I am interacting with individual developers at events or online, and I’m more than happy to talk about what it is, and why it’s valuable. And then I also, because of my position in Twilio, get to be a bug in the ear of the different production teams. So I get to say things like, “Hey, how accessible are our docks?” Or, “How accessible is our console? Is anybody thinking about that?”

And I have been … I haven’t even been at Twilio a year now, and I will say that I have been delighted that I’ve never gotten pushback on those questions. In fact, I have always gotten very clear answers like, “So and so is in charge of that.” And, “Yes, that is a big concern, and that is an active project, and that is getting resources, and time, and attention.” I’m like, “Awesome.” Because that’s certainly not always been the way those conversations have gone.

Nic: Yeah. That’s a good way to have these conversations where people are open and receptive, and are actually not hesitant about putting some resources into it.

Margaret: Yeah, it’s really nice that, that perspective I think … I hope is growing. I hope it’s not just isolated to my company, but it seems like more people are willing to at least have the conversation. That’s the vital step one.

Nic: Margaret, what’s your personal experience with disability?

Margaret: Well, I mentioned the ADD. But probably the most endless nightmare of accessibility issues that I have is actually around physical access because I was in a car accident when I was 18, and my spine was destroyed and reassembled with modern technology. I am bionic now, but it’s not good tech. It’s kind of crappy tech. I am definitely in need of upgrades. And so I have very limited mobility. I deal with chronic pain, which also effects of course mobility and access, and I use a walker in order to get around. So physical spaces present more of an issue for me when it comes to accessibility than web spaces. I actually live most of my life on the web because the ways in which I am disabled interfere less with that than they do with meat space.

Nic: Yeah.

So it’s probably obvious, but I would imagine that your disability had an influence on how you think about accessibility. Can you tell us a little bit about how that impacted your thinking around accessibility, whether in meat space, as you said, or around the web?

Margaret: Sure. It’s all part of the same human experience. The fact that I have this deteriorating physical condition has made me very sensitive and aware of the limitation of how we design spaces online and offline.

So while I have very specific access needs, that doesn’t mean that the newfound attention that I have because of my situation is limited to that narrow band of accessibility as it relates to me. I’ve actually become very attached to communities of disabled people because it’s a lot easier to communicate the difficulties and strategies for overcoming those difficulties with people that understand, even if their understanding is coming from a different specific place. And so I have developed a lot of empathy and passion for fighting for accessibility for people that have vision impairment, auditory impairment, physical impairments because we are quite literally on the same boat. And once you are on that boat, you realize how incredibly insufficient the efforts towards accessibility and inclusion are when it comes to how basically everything is designed in society.

Nic: Yeah. Yeah, I think you got it spot on.

As a self-taught programmer learning about accessibility, what kind of barriers did you encounter in that area of learning, and how did you overcome them? Or maybe what kind of advice would you want to give to coders that are working on this accessibility journey?

Margaret: There’s so much of the information available now that wasn’t available when I was first looking for it, or at least was not easy to surface when I was first looking for it. So all I can tell you is what worked for me, which is definitely not going to be what works for everybody. But what works for me is I am a learn by doing kind of person. So every time I … Like I mentioned, I would just do research on the hotness, specifically from the perspective of, how do I make this accessible? And if the answer is, you can’t, I would simply not bother with that new hotness.

So basically every time I’ve had a project, I just research how to make different pieces of it accessible, and that entirely depends on it occurring to me that there is an accessibility issue with whatever feature, so that’s a limitation for sure. But I just researched based on what I’m trying to do, how to do it in the most accessible way possible. And that’s how I have learned.

But these days, there are published standards for web accessibility that you can read through. That I have read through. That certainly light my brain up when it comes to how I’m going to think about identifying accessibility issues in the future. So just doing that sort of high level reading, I think will prepare you for in the future when you’re tackling specific projects to identify which pieces are likely to be accessibility issues, and then you can deep dive on researching those specific pieces of your project. If you are like me, a learn by doing kind of person.

Nic: So basically you start with an awareness that there might be an issue, and then do some general reading as a background, and then you can go back and research more specific issues?

Margaret: Totally. And be prepared to ditch your fantasy of what an implementation is going to look like. Because your implementation is beautiful and perfect on your machine, but does not work for a large enough portion of your target audience, it’s trash. Throw it away. Try something else. Honestly, plain text on … Like a plain black text on a white background is very accessible. You don’t need all the bells and whistles. You don’t need everything to be shiny and moving, and take the highest possible upload and download speeds in order to operate. All of that is bonus. Start with the bare bones of what you actually want to be delivering, and only add onto that things that aren’t going to alienate bit portions of your audience. That’s my viewpoint.

Nic: I think there’s a name for that. I think that name’s been around for a long time, and people forgot about it. It’s called progressive enhancement, right?

Margaret: Yeah, absolutely. Start with what’s actually necessary, and that should be your bare minimum. Your minimum viable product is text on a page, and just grow from there without leaving anybody behind, and you’ll be doing great.

Nic: Yeah.

Do you think it’s the responsibility of people with disabilities to pave the way for other people with disabilities, or to be advocates, or to be the big mouths that yells about accessibility problems?

Margaret: That’s a complicated question. I mean, yes and no.

Responsibility, in my personal philosophy responsibility and power are the same thing. So you have exactly as much responsibility as you have power to do something about it. And the fact of the matter is those of us with disabilities have an insight into that experience, and I think do have a responsibility to share that insight, up to a point. But at the same time, like it’s not your job to bankrupt your emotional and energy resources banging your head into a wall.

Like I say, I bring these thoughts and ideas to people who are receptive, and I choose to be around people who are receptive because I do not wish to waste my life convincing someone who has no interest in being convinced. So I definitely do not think that all of the responsibility is on people with disabilities because all of the power is not held by people with disabilities, and responsibility and power are the same thing.

So you only have as much responsibility as you have power to do anything about it.

Nic: I like that. I’ve never thought about it that way. That’s pretty good. Thank you.

Margaret: You’re welcome.

Nic: What do you say your greatest achievement is in terms of web accessibility?

Margaret: Oh gosh. Honestly, I think the thing that I feel proudest of when it comes to accessibility work has always been lifting the voices of others. I don’t consider myself an expert on anything, but I do consider myself responsible for sharing what insights I have. So every time I can promote someone, give them a platform, expand the reach of their ideas and their perspective when they have something of value to offer that I don’t have. I consider that to be probably my best work.

And I mean there’s also the fact that I am willing to have open and engaged conversations with the people in my life about these issues, and I definitely think that there is value in that. I definitely feel that I have helped people expand their perspective. And that, I do think that is my responsibility as a human being that participates in these communities. But really I think what I’m proudest of is every chance I get to lift up somebody else’s voice who has more experience, who has more knowledge, who has a better, more powerful perspective. If I can extend them any kind of platform at all, I consider that a big win.

Nic: I think it’s such an important job to do that, to help others spread their message.

There’s several different moving parts in the accessibility world, and we have people at the coal face doing audits, and we have people doing strategic consultation, and we have all these people. But I think one big area that is lacking is the lack of awareness. You pointed out earlier, you start with an awareness that there’s an issue, and you go from there. And evangelists like you that are spreading that message is so important.

Margaret: Yeah, it’s really difficult to solve a problem when you don’t know that there is a problem. So yeah, it’s an important step for sure.

Nic: What’s the one thing that you think everybody knows about web accessibility? What we could call conventional wisdom.

Margaret: Conventional wisdom about web accessibility.

I think at this point probably everybody knows that a picture that does not include any information about what’s in the picture, is in accessible. I’m pretty sure that’s common knowledge.

Nic: Yeah. It’s funny. I was speaking with somebody else just yesterday. I asked the same question, and got the same answer, so that was quite fascinating to get that.

So flipping that question around. Why do you think that common knowledge is just plain wrong?

Margaret: Why do I think that it’s wrong?

Nic: Or do you think that is not necessarily the best thing to know about accessibility?

Margaret: Oh. Well, I don’t necessarily think it’s the best thing to know about accessibility. I think it’s an easy thing to know about accessibility, and I think that’s probably why it’s common knowledge. It’s because it’s very easy to understand, “Oh, I would not have any data if I could not see this picture.” That is a very easy way to get into the mindset of somebody who experiences something in a different way. You just close your eyes, and the picture is gone, and now you know nothing about it.

But I don’t think that’s necessarily the most useful thing to know about accessibility. And honestly, I’m probably not the person to ask what the most useful thing to know about web accessibility is. But I would venture to guess that it’s understanding how screen readers work because there are all sorts of ways in which you could just confuse the ever-living crap out of a screen reader because it’s not a human being. It is just a program, and so basically you need to consider that part of your audience is a program, and not a human being that can meet you more than half way. And make the pieces of the page that program is looking for sensible.

Nic: Yeah.

Margaret: I have absolutely listened to recordings of screen readers that are attempting to read webpages that nobody who made it had ever heard of a screen reader before, and it’s awful because you get things like … You’ll get like titles and advertisement text and all sorts of weird stuff just like thrown in. And the text on the page is broken up strangely because it’s broken up strangely on the page, and you’ve given no indicators, because there are indicators that you can give to screen readers as to when to read what, and whether or which.

And if you don’t know that, and you’ve setup the formatting of the text badly, and you haven’t given any cues to the screen reader, then you’re basically just punishing terribly anyone that is attempting to use a screen reader on your page, which is not just blind people. People like to throw out statistics on the size of the population that you’re serving with these things, and it’s like anytime I am at a place when they do all of these accessibility things for me and my walker, that doesn’t just help me. And it doesn’t just help other people with walkers. It helps anybody that’s like sprained an ankle, or has bummed knee, or has any of a myriad of invisible accessibility issues.

Nic: Or just pushing a baby in a stroller.

Margaret: Exactly, pushing a baby in a stroller, or juggling three year olds, or any of a variety of life things that can make “normal” more challenging. And that’s the same thing with the screen readers. It is definitely more than just blind people that are using screen readers.

There are … I still remember. When I was contracting, I would occasionally do work for locals at the small town that I was in, because I was the computer human in the entire town. I still remember going over to this one elderly woman’s house because she needed somebody to fix her computer. It was like how she interacted with the outside world, including her kids, and grandkids, and all this stuff. And it was busted, and I needed to go to hour house and get it, fix it, and bring it back.

Her setup was kind of amazing because she was losing vision, but she still had enough vision to do everything that she needed to do. But she had like strapped … She had this gigantic magnifying glass strapped over her entire monitor. Like you know the ladies that do needlepoint. They have the lamp that is also … Only she had one the entire side of the screen, like strapped on there. And she was also using a screen reader. She used the giant magnifying glass for pictures and stuff. But for the most part, she just had her computer talk to her, and that was how she interacted with it.

She wasn’t blind, but it just helped. And that’s just true in so many different situations. Where just because the percentage of the population that has this one specific disability that you’re thinking about is small, doesn’t mean that accommodating them won’t accommodate a much larger portion of the population than you are imagining.

Nic: Yeah.

Another group of people that aren’t the typical screen reader users are a whole bunch of people with dyslexia who can’t really make sense of the written word, just use screen readers to associate, to be able to read the content, so that’s another non-traditional-

Margaret: Absolutely, and completely valid. And yes, they could technically read your page without the screen reader. But it’s, basically if you’re not designing for the screen reader, you’re giving them two painful options for interacting with your site.

Nic: Yeah.

Hey, fantastic. Let’s call it a show for now, and reconvene, and talk a little bit more next time.

Margaret: Sounds good.

Nic: Thanks, Margaret. 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 https://a11yrules.com.

And thanks once again to Twilio for supporting the transcript for this episode.