E42 – Interview with Margaret Staples – Part 2

In the second part of my discussion with Margaret, she tells us she thinks there are both external and internal factors explaining why people fail to implement accessibility. In a nutshell: Needing buy-in from the leadership, and then people thinking they can figure it all out on their own.


Thanks to Twilio for sponsoring the transcript for this episode.

Make sure you have a look at:


Nic: Welcome to The Accessibility Rules Podcast. You’re listening to episode 42. 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. 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://twilio.com.

In this episode, I’m continuing my conversation with Margaret Staples. Last show was really awesome. You really should check it out if you haven’t already. Hi, Margaret.

Margaret: Hi. How you doin’?

Nic: I’m doing good. Should we get started where we left off last week?

Margaret: Sounds good.

Nic: All right. We were talking about screen readers and making sure we have awareness of accessibility and all these good things. Let’s think about this. We have a coder or a business that is aware of accessibility and they want to make it happen. What do you think the number one reason they would fail at implementing accessibility is?

Margaret: I would say it’s a tossup. There’s the internal factor and the external factor. The external factor being the same reason that someone might “fail” to implement testing, which is that if they require buy-in from a manager or a client and they cannot get that buy-in, then they may be cornered into doing work that they’re not happy with simply because that’s the constraint of their ability to earn money in that moment. There’s certainly a lot of discussion as to whether or not there is an ethical-moral obligation to not work with managers and not work with contract clients that don’t allow you to do work that you can be proud of.

I think that that is a difficult conversation because it’s a conversation about privilege because it’s great when you can only take jobs that will allow you to do work that you’re proud of. I am certainly over-the-moon delighted to be at a point in my career where I can only take jobs that I can be happy about the work that I’m doing in them, but that wasn’t always the way it was. I certainly remember times in my life where I just needed the bills to get paid and I absolutely set up websites that did not have any kind of testing, that I did not even worry about accessibility on because I was being paid the minimum that they could get away with and I was doing the minimum that I could get away with because we all just wanted to be done and have our bills paid and have our website be done and move on with our lives. That is a miserable place to be, but it is also reality.

I think that shaming people for needing to pay bills in the kind of cultural climate that we have is obnoxious, but at the same time, I think it’s important to continue to have conversations about the fact that when you have the freedom in your life to make those choices, it’s important that you do so because every time those of us that can do make those choices, it makes it easier for everybody that can’t to be in a better situation. Because if those of us that have the privilege of saying, “We will only work under these circumstances,” if we say that and we say, “We will only work if we get to test our code. We will only work if we get to take accessibility into accessibility. We will only work if we are not hawking people’s personal data to illicit figures overseas,” if we get to set these standards and we get to make them not just our standards, but standard practice, we are doing a universal good. I think that that is our responsibility for those of us that have the power to do that.

That’s the external reason that someone might fail. The internal reason why someone might fail is I think the assumption that we are problem-solvers and we can just figure it out. Sometimes, you want to solve a problem that you don’t necessarily even know where to start researching. I think it’s really important to own that and go find people that do understand the problem space that you’re attempting to tackle so that you can get at least feedback on where you can start with your own research. If you’ve got the budget, just frickin’ hire an expert.

Nic: Yeah. This question of budget is a tricky one. I was asked at conference once that … I was talking about accessibility and this person was asking, saying, “Well, we want to implement accessibility, but we’re not quite able to sell it to our clients,” and they asked, “How do we do that?” My first instinct was to tell them, “You don’t sell it. You just put it in. You do accessibility despite the client if necessary because you don’t charge extra for security, in theory.”

Margaret: In theory.

Nic: In theory. You wouldn’t say, “Well, I’m going to build you this website for $10,000, but it’s not going to be secure. If you want your website to be secure, I’m going to charge you $15,000.” You shouldn’t do that with accessibility. How do you feel about that? Do you have strong feelings in favor or opposed, considering there’s the reality that everybody, in the end, has to pay bills? What’s your take on that?

Margaret: Fundamentally, I think you’re absolutely right. I think it is unfortunately a matter of whether or not you can get your ask. If you take into account everything that should go into the project to make it a truly good project, that includes security. That includes accessibility. That includes testing. That includes a lot of factors. If you can create a total price for that total package and you can get someone to pay it, then you should and you shouldn’t need to break down every single bit of what’s going to make it an excellent project in order to get that buy-in. If you are, instead, in a situation where someone is attempting to nickel and dime you, then you are in a situation where you are having to justify every single piece of if, I think that is where projects suffer and I also think that that is the kind of client that you walk away from absolutely as soon as you have the ability in your professional life to walk away from them.

Nic: Yeah, there are those difficult clients and some clients will fire you, but sometimes you have to decide to fire the client.

Margaret: As soon as you have that power, your life will become 10 times better as soon as you have the power and start actually firing bad clients. There are definitely clients who do not deserve your work and newsflash, they are the same bad clients that you are always going to end up doing more work than you intended for less money and they’re going to be difficult to get the final payment out of and they’re going to want you to do maintenance work for free. Seriously, there are clients that you should fire as soon as you are capable and I have all the empathy in the world for people that are still in a situation where they are not capable of firing bad clients. I’m so sorry. Up those skills. Get out. Firing those clients is the best thing that will ever happen to you.

Nic: What’s the greatest challenge for the field of accessibility moving forward?

Margaret: Big player buy-ins. A lot of the clients that coders are going to get are really just following the leader and if Facebook doesn’t care and if Twitter doesn’t care and if Google doesn’t care and if Google doesn’t care and if all of the top 25 Silicon Valley unicorn companies don’t care, then it’s a trickle-down effect. I think the most important thing for accessibility, just like the most important thing for testing and security and all of these really important aspects to creating a web that doesn’t suck is getting buy-in from the big players that, whether we like it or not, are setting an example for people that don’t really understand the technology, but are holding the purse strings.

Nic: How do we convince the big outfits, the leaders, to do more about accessibility?

Margaret: Well, I think there are two powerful vectors on that. I think that there are … everybody that works inside these companies I think has a lot more sway than they realize, that the more than they talk about these things and the more that they promote those things internally, the more traction that they will get. I also think that there is a social vector, that all of these people that make these decisions, they’re people, which means that they have conversations and they have experiences that affect and change them. Their friends, speakers at events they attend, people they just have random conversations with have the opportunity to change these people’s perspective and just a little bit of perspective change is often all that is needed in order for a human being, which all of these people are, to make adjustments in how they make decisions that have huge ripple effects.

Nic: I like this concept of the insider that makes a change for the better. I spoke about the accessibility superhero within companies, that they don’t need to be accessibility experts, but they can be that voice that keeps saying and repeating the leitmotiv of, “What about accessibility? Is this going to work for people with disabilities? Are we being inclusive?” And eventually, that’s going to sink in with the companies.

Margaret: Absolutely. You’re also going to find if you are that voice or if you hear somebody else being that voice, then that can multiply. Absolutely, if you hear somebody else saying it, back them up. If you notice somebody buying in to you saying it, build them up because the more people are into the idea, the more traction the ideas have and the more decisions are going to be made that take that information into account. That’s how better things happen.

Nic: It’s the snowball rolling down the hill that becomes a huge, huge avalanche. Avalanche for good, not for destruction in this case.

Margaret: Exactly. People coming together is how change happens. If you want positive change to happen, just sort of push your influence in that direction and support other people that are pushing their influence in that direction and you’re going to get the snowball that you’re lookin’ for.

Nic: What’s your greatest accessibility frustration?

Margaret: Oh.

Nic: Hard to pick one?

Margaret: Yeah. It is hard to pick one. I’m going to go ahead, and this is probably going to sound silly because I’ve already said that it’s probably not the biggest deal, but the saddest thing for me is that the web is more and more focused around pictures and that we are not being awesome about automatically including ways for people that have visual impairments to enjoy that information. I think with … This might sound corny, but one of the big reasons that I want to deep-dive more into machine learning is because I think that it could be a tool for communication a lot more. Currently, it’s mostly used for organizing data and that’s great, but I think that it could provide automatic feedback in a way that could be very inclusive, if that makes sense.

Nic: Yeah, it does make sense. I’ve spoken with a friend of mine, Denis Boudreau, who’s very much into artificial intelligence and he says between AI and machine learning in the next 5 to 10 years, a lot of the pain points we have for accessibility at this point are just going to disappear.

Margaret: I want that to be true. I really, really want that to be true. I think that that could be the highest calling for this technology is making human interaction spaces more inclusive and more accessible. I want to see that future.

Nic: I would like that, too. Unlike some people I’ve spoken to about it, I’m not all doom and gloom that robots are going to take over. I don’t think that’s going to happen, but I’m really hoping that AI machine learning is going to get us to the right point. Of course, I’m a bit skeptical because YouTube brought in automated captions well over 10 years ago and we’re still seeing automated captions that are-

Margaret: Awful?

Nic: Awful. I was going to say hilarious sometimes, but yes, awful is a good descriptor there. I think I guess more input is going to happen, the better the output is going to be, but it’s taking time.

Margaret: Of course.

Nic: It’s not happening overnight.

Margaret: That’s how tech is. It just seems overnight because people don’t pay attention until it’s done, but actually, all of the “overnight successes” in tech are actually things that were built up and developed over many, many years.

Nic: Yeah. It’s an overnight success 15 years in the making.

Margaret: Exactly, and I think that’s fine. I think it’s mostly important that people invest their time and energy in this technology with a useful vision of where they’re headed. I think that, especially right now, too often the resources, including the human resources that are put into this technology, are dedicated to it because they are assigned it by somebody that is looking specifically for more advertising dollars or more actionable personal data or in some way, a bottom line that has nothing to do with human prosperity. I think that that is very sad and I think that that is skewing technological development in a way that is less than helpful to humans. I would very much like to see more technology efforts refocused with this idea that technology should serve human prosperity rather than just some arbitrary bottom line. I think that would be very useful.

Nic: Now, let’s talk a little bit about Twilio.

Margaret: Okay.

Nic: Twilio, if I understand correctly, is more of an under the hood-

Margaret: Yes.

Nic: Kind of engine rather than front end, where people actually have to implement accessibility. Are there anything in the APIs that actually really allow people to push more accessibility in their end product when they’re using Twilio, or how does that work?

Margaret: Well, as you mentioned, since we mostly do APIs, it is mostly up to the developers that are implementing their project on top of our technology to determine what level of accessibility they’re going to invest in, but there are absolutely things that are built in to facilitate that. For the chat interactions, there’s a part of the little API package that you get is place where you can add in text information about non-text-rich media you were sending along with the package. It’s built in. You just have to use it if you want to use it, but since there is very little hand-holding to it, it’s just the API and what you build on top of it. A lot of it really is up to the individual developers that are using it to determine what level of accessibility they are going to put into that implementation.

Nic: Is there maybe space for Twilio to be more proactive in terms of telling people using the platform, “Hey, we have all these APIs here and it really would behoove you to use them and make your interfaces more accessible”?

Margaret: I’m going to say yes and I’m going to say that’s probably always going to be true. I mean, Twilio is philosophically oriented around this idea of communication being this really important thing that humans do, and I’m on board with that. There’s always going to be space. I know that the DOCS are trying to think about accessibility more. I know that the console developers are trying to think about accessibility more and we’ve got all of these channels. We’ve got the blog and we’ve got our quick-start guides and we’ve got all of this stuff. We’re always trying to promote best practices and so, yes, absolutely. The more that we can hit on accessibility standards in our mentions of best practices, the better we’re going to be serving our community and that’s definitely something that we’re looking at. I will drop a bug in your ear about the fact that we do invite external humans to write up blog posts for our blog and if you wanted to add your voice and your experience on the value of accessibility to our platform, that we would welcome that.

Nic: Fantastic. Let’s do it.

Margaret: Awesome.

Nic: Let’s do it. Thank you. If you weren’t a geek, if you weren’t doing the work you do, what profession would you like to attempt?

Margaret: Oh, geez. Before my spine was destroyed in a car accident when I was 18, I actually had always kind of been planning, since I was a very, very small child, to start a nonprofit organization that adopted “unwanted” children and raised and educated them in facilities and with systems that I had been designing since I was six years old, which is when I found out that my original plan for a profession, which was colony spaceship designer was not going to be an option for me. I misunderstood the time scope on Star Trek. I realized that it was set in the future. I just didn’t realize it was set so very far in the future. I thought it was maybe 100 years off, so originally, I was like, “Colony spaceship designer, this is my calling.”

Once I figured out that that was not going to be an option, I very much reoriented my focus on figuring out why we were all living in the past by my standards. I decided that it was because we were not raising and educating our children, and so human beings were having to spend a huge chunk of their adult life just playing catch-up on all of these skills and overcoming all of this crap that they had accidentally taken on in a completely unguided and unhelpful childhood. That was my focus until my spine was destroyed. I guess if I magically did not get to be a geek, but also magically was physically capable of doing things that weren’t on a computer, that I would probably go back to that whole building schools and adopting children thing.

Nic: That sounds actually fun. What strikes me here is that in describing what you have thought about doing and what you are doing now and what you have done in the past and all these things, what it comes down to is you want to improve and change the world.

Margaret: Well, people. I think the world was here before us and the world will probably be here after us and I probably do not have standards by which I can judge whether it is better or worse, but as far as people go, that I have a much firmer grasp on better or worse. And yes, I have kind of always wanted to lend my influence to pushing humans in the direction that I think of as being more prosperous and happy and awesome.

Nic: That’s cool.

Margaret: I dig it. It works for me.

Nic: One last question for you today. What’s the one thing you think people should remember about accessibility?

Margaret: That it’s for everybody. Just because you don’t need any help right this second doesn’t mean you never will because you are everyone that you will ever be and you care about everyone that you have or ever will love. In that giant mass of humanity, there are definitely people, maybe you, maybe someone that you love, that are going to need accessibility to be thought about before they get to that place, so just go ahead and do it now.

Nic: Fantastic. Margaret, thank you so much for being a good sport and coming on the show and I’ll be in touch with you about writing a blog for Twilio.

Margaret: Awesome. I look forward to it. Thanks for having me on.

Nic: Thank you, 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. Thanks once again to Twilio for supporting the transcript for this episode.