E44 – Interview with Val Head – Part 2

Val explains how one of her frustrations is that accessibility is a difficult topic to bring up or discuss. She ads that “Accessibility isn’t a weird little pet project – it has real impact on real people”.


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Nic: Welcome to the A11y Rules Podcast. You’re listening to Episode 44. 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. Twilio: connect the world with the leading platform for voice, SMS, and video. http://Twilio.com

In this episode, I’m continuing my conversation with Val Head. Thanks for jumping back in, Val.

Val: Great to be back!

Nic: For the listeners, last show was really awesome. Do check it out if you haven’t already. If you have, you’re ready to go straight into part two of the interview with Val Head.

Let’s start Val, with one that’s really positive. What’s your greatest achievement, in terms of accessibility? The thing that you’re most proud of.

Val: I feel like mine maybe isn’t as good as some more expert accessibility people. But I was really happy with the discussions that came out, and the awareness that came out of an article I wrote for A List Apart not so long ago, all around motion sensitivity. Kind of introducing people to this idea of vestibular disorders and how the design choices we make can affect them or help not trigger things. I was pretty proud of that one.

Nic: What kind of responses did you get?

Val: A lot of designers who just weren’t aware at all that this was a thing. A lot of people didn’t realize that if you make this super-parallax-y site, or this side-scrolling site, or other similar really large motions that could cause people actual, physical pain. No one making a parallax site wants to hurt people, and it just wasn’t a thing that they even realized was an issue. I think awareness is the first step, right? You’re not going to be able to design better things if you don’t know what impact your work has. I think that was a great starting place for folks.

Nic: Yeah, that is rather cool. First, be aware there’s an issue and then you change your practices and edit your code or your design.

So flip side to that: what’s your greatest frustration in terms of accessibility?

Val: My greatest frustration I think is how it’s still a difficult topic to bring up; or a topic that has to be brought up. You’re never going to have to force the discussion of typography in a design discussion; that’s just going to come up. You’re never going to have to force the topic of color coming up. But it seems like accessibility is still a thing; we have to be like, “Oh hey, wait a minute. What about accessibility?” And in a way, that’s kind of disappointing that we’ve been talking about it for so long and it’s clearly so important but yet sometimes it’s still an effort to even get people to talk about it.

Nic: How do we change that?

Val: I think a little bit of what we were talking about last week: I think this more positive approach to accessibility I’ve been seeing of, “Hey, let’s fix this together” is a great way to change that. I think the more positive the conversation is around accessibility the more likely people will be willing to have that conversation again. If your conversations around accessibility are all about telling your teammate how bad they are for forgetting to think about tab order, then the next time you bring up accessibility they’re already gonna be on the defensive and they’re not gonna want to engage. They’re probably just gonna try to get you to stop talking about it. But if it’s more positive, especially talking about the impact it can have, I think that’s where you can really get people to think seriously about accessibility or to take it seriously. That it’s not some weird little pet project that you have, but that it actually impacts real people at the end of our project or at the end of our product release. That it can be a really great way to get people on board, is bring it to the real users and the people we design for; then that’s a really different conversation.

Nic: I love the idea of accessibility isn’t a pet project, because I’ve been accused of “Hey Nic, this is your pet peeve: accessibility.” Yeah, it is, but it’s not.

Val: You are not the only person in that boat. I know there’s other people who feel that same thing. That everyone’s like, “Oh, that’s just the thing Nic cares about, and we’ll just do this to appease him.” Helping people realize-

Nic: “We’ll do it to shut him up, because he’s just going to go on and on and on about it.”

Val: “If we don’t put these alt tags on here, then he’s just never gonna stop.”

Nic: What would you say the conventional wisdom about accessibility is? The thing that everyone knows about accessibility.

Val: I think that putting alt tags and stuff on images is one thing that everyone knows. I like to think everyone knows that, but I definitely run into websites where there is no alt text on images that should totally have them, and I’m like “Oh, I thought we all knew this!”

Nic: How’s this conventional wisdom wrong? Is there anything wrong about alt text?

Val: I don’t think so. I think in general, there’s definitely some nuances to it; how to write good alt text, and which images may or may not actually need it. But I think as a whole, it’s a very positive effort. I think if designers are putting them in there, even if they maybe aren’t perfect alt text, and maybe they put some alt text on an image that doesn’t actually need alt text. But I think just making that effort is still gonna have a positive impact in some way, even if you don’t execute it perfectly.

Nic: Yeah. I think that’s the thing we forget about, is alt text is not black-and-white issue; there’s other things going on. But you have to do it. You have to just put in the time to do it.

Val: Yeah, that was a really eye-opening thing about me … Sorry, for me! About alt text. I just thought it was like a checkbox of “Yes, add in”. And along the way, I read more articles about it and I was like, “Oh, hey, this is kind of an art form to do it well.” Had no idea.

Nic: Yeah, I just was spoken to Sharron Rush last week and she basically said that. Alt text is an art form, it’s not a science.

Val: That’s also kind of what makes it interesting though, right? If it’s just a checkbox of “Ugh, have to add alt text.” But if it’s like “Ooo!”, it almost becomes like a design problem, when you have this, when it’s more of an art than a science. You’re like, “Oh, what would be, what words would we write to most appropriately represent this image for someone who can’t see it?” That becomes a design problem as opposed to a checklist of “Alright, I put some words in there.” I think that makes it more appealing to work on too.

Nic: Don’t we all like a challenge?

Val: I think so! I like challenges. I think most people do.

Nic: I think that if a lot of the designers and developers started thinking in terms of accessibility of just that: it’s another challenge. How do we make this design rock but be accessible? How do we make this code do what we want it to be and be accessible? If we think about that in terms of a challenge rather than “Oh my God it’s such a chore.” I think people might have a lot of fun with it, with accessibility.

Val: Oh there’s definitely room there for … Do some innovative things around it, or just make it a little bit different or a little bit better than you did last time. It can be a very positive challenge if you frame it in the right way, for sure.

Nic: Why do you think people fail to implement accessibility? Whether designers, or developers.

Val: I think it’s a tie between assuming accessibility is hard, and I think that kind of stems from thinking you have to do it all or nothing, like there’s no little bits to do. I think it’s a tie between that and then assuming it’s someone else’s job. Especially if you’re on a larger team, you’re just like “Oh I don’t have to worry about that, I’m sure someone else is.” And maybe you don’t know who that someone else is, but you just assume someone else down the line is taking care of it. I think those are both pretty big reasons people just either ignore it entirely or just don’t do it well.

Nic: So how could they avoid failure?

Val: I think in that first one, I feel like you need to realize that doing a small thing here and there is still doing accessibility. It’s not an all-or-nothing thing. We were just talking about alt text; you could do alt text on your images and nothing else and it’s still one step better than what you would have had without even those alt things. And then maybe in the next time around, you’d try some tab order stuff. All those low-hanging fruit things. I think the hard part there is getting people to realize that. Because I feel like people who have internalized this assumption that accessibility is really hard avoid accessibility articles or discussions or talks. Reaching them might be the hardest part.

For the other one, I think that if you are on a team and you’re assuming that accessibility is someone else’s job … If you’re listening to this right now and you’re sure that accessibility is someone else’s job, maybe double check that assumption. Ask that person, or ask your team who’s thinking about accessibility. If the answer’s no one, then maybe that’s a place to start. Find the someone to spearhead that thinking and that starting-to-talk-about-it.

Nic: Is it possible maybe that corporate cultures where people work means they don’t feel empowered to bring it up, to implement it, to do something about it?

Val: I think definitely. I’m sure that you’ve noticed this too: in different jobs I’ve had the team dynamic can be so different, and sometimes you have these team leads or these bosses that have to always be right. If you brought up something to them, if you were like, “Hey Boss-that-always-needs-to-be-right, have you thought about accessibility?” And they never have, they would be like, “No, it’s dumb.” They’re just gonna shut it down. I think there’s so many variations of that dynamic; you feel like you just can’t even bring up a thing to your team or to your boss because it’s just not a place you have that power. I think those sort of team dynamics are really awful for so many reasons, but change is something that’s gonna be really hard in those situations.

Nic: It’s one that I’ve been struggling with. How do we change that mindset at cultural level within organizations?

Val: Things like that definitely have to be a cultural change. If your boss’s boss cares about accessibility, even your boss that always has to be right and is kind of mean is suddenly gonna care about accessibility. It’s funny how that happens. It’s a really weird cultural phenomenon.

Nic: Strange that.

Val: Accessibility happens on so many fronts, right? There’s the higher level discussion of why it’s important, and then there’s the actual doing it. There’s so many places to touch accessibility and help promote its existence.

Nic: What you think the challenges for our field, for accessibility? What are our challenges over the next five years, ten years, 15 years?

Val: I think it’s gonna be pretty similar to the challenges that just design in general is gonna encounter in the next few years. All of these up-and-coming technologies: things like artificial intelligence, that’s kind of the spine of it in a way. And different ways of interacting with software and computers, like V-R and A-R, and voice interfaces. All of these things change the stakes a little bit. All the rules about web accessibility when we have the web in a browser on our screen, some of those are gonna still be fold over or go over into V-R and A-R interactions. There’s still a screen there, but it’s a very different type of interaction, and there’s gonna be different considerations.

I think a lot of these also open up some really interesting ways that are gonna kind of level the playing field for both abled and disabled users. I’ve been reading a couple articles recently about how voice interfaces change things for someone with vision impairment who has never been able to use screens because they just can’t see them. Suddenly these voice U-Is, they can do all of the same things on computers as the rest of us. That’s huge. This different way of interfacing with these machines can change who can use it. When we know someone is needing some sort of assistance in some way.

Nic: I have mixed feelings about this. I’m feeling both hopeful and a bit skeptical, because when the Web really got started everyone was saying “Oh, it’s really gonna level the playing field. People with disabilities are gonna be able to do all these things.” By and large, it’s been true but at the same time it’s caused issues. It’s much easier for someone who’s blind to go shopping on their favorite online grocery shopping and get product descriptions and find the products online than it is to try to orient themselves in the physical store, but that presumes that the online grocery store is built in a way that’s actually accessible to them.

Val: I think it’s definitely a case of these different nuances of giving people the flexibility to use whatever we make in the way that’s going to be easiest and most beneficial for them. We can’t make that decision for them. Giving people options, they can figure out which one is gonna work the best for them.

Nic: It’s tricky. I don’t think there’s any one-size-fits-all answer. Whether its API or building awareness. We need people to have that level of awareness to be able to make sure the skeleton, the structure is there.

Val: There’s gonna be some really interesting challenges, I think coming up in this near future.

Nic: If you weren’t a designer Val, what would you like to do? What profession other than the one you’re doing now would you like to do?

Val: For a long time I thought I was gonna be a photographer, so maybe I’d be doing that. If I never found this, if I never found the Web, which is really the thing that dragged me into design back in the day, I might’ve been some sort of photographer. Though photography is fun, but I think design might be more fun. Sorry photographer friends.

Nic: I am not taking offense at that.

Val: I think I made the right choice, is what I’m saying.

Nic: Cool. Let’s finish this by asking you if you had one parting thought about accessibility, what’s the one thing people should remember about web accessibility?

Val: I’ll give you the one thing that I also remind myself about accessibility all the time. It’s not an all-or-nothing thing. A little effort just to make the next thing you design just a little bit better in terms of accessibility is still a big step forward, and it’s gonna have a positive impact on someone. Even if you’re not doing every little thing you’ve ever read about accessibility, doing what you can and just doing little steps at a time is an absolutely great way of getting it done.

Nic: Fantastic, thank you!

Val: Thanks a lot!

Nic: Val, you have been great. Thanks for being on the show, and I look forward to talking to you some more.

Val: Yeah, thanks for having me.

Nic: Cheers.

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.