E47 – Interview with Laura Kalbag – Part 1

Today, I’m speaking with Laura Kalbag, a designer and author who focuses on accessibility. She says we shouldn’t ignore accessibility just because it can be hard.


Thanks to Twilio for sponsoring the transcript for this episode.

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Show notes


Nic: Welcome to the a11y Rules podcast. You’re listening to episode 47. I’m Nic Steenhout and I talk with people involved in one way or another with web accessibility.  If you are interested in accessibility, this show’s for you. To get today’s show notes or transcript head out to 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 Twilio.com.

Nic: This week I’m speaking to Laura Laura Kalbag. Thanks for joining me Laura for this conversation around web accessibility. How are you?

Laura: I’m good, thanks. Thank you for having me.

Nic: Thank you. I like to let guests introduce themselves. So, in a brief elevator pitch style introduction, who’s Laura Kalbag?

Laura: I’m a designer and I guess you could say front-end developer. I work as part of a tiny little two-person organization called Indie where we build technology for social justice. I am also the author of the book from a Book Apart called Accessibility For Everyone.

Nic: That sounds like you’ve done quite a bit already. How is the book doing? Are you getting good feedback? Are you getting good sales on that?

Laura: Yeah, I’ve had really good feedback. It’s a small independent publishing company so you’re not going to get huge sales but I think it’s been selling really well. And really the important thing for me was that the kinds of people who wanted to buy books about responsive web design and performance and typography might end up buying a book about accessibility and learning about accessibility and inclusive design for the first time. That’s the most important thing for me.

Nic: Yes, spreading the word’s fantastic. Let’s get warmed up a little bit. Let’s start with, tell me something that most people would not know about yourself.

Laura: Hmm, that people wouldn’t know. That’s a tricky one. Actually maybe I guess if people know me from the web community and the things I do around designing accessibility they may not know that actually I spend most of my time working on projects to protect people’s privacy. One of the things I spend a lot of my time doing is working on a blocker that blocks trackers, called Better Blocker, which means I spend a lot of time looking at other people’s websites and seeing how they’re tracking the people who visit their sites and trying to stop the trackers without stopping the experience of browsing those sites. So I’m a bit of a privacy person in that way.  I very much see it connected to the rest of my work with the idea that I want build technology and encourage other people to build technology that respects human rights and respects people’s experience on the web.

Nic: I like that. It is one of the things that I encounter a lot. I am trying to increase my privacy and cover my tracks a little bit on the web. Not that I have anything to hide, really, I just don’t like people following me everywhere I go.

Laura: We very rarely think that we have anything to hide but the things that we do today that we might consider completely fine might be considered illegal in the future depending on the kinds of governments we end up with. I mean for now a person in most western countries could probably feel okay with maybe being out about being gay or queer on the web. But if you look at some of the governments that are getting in around the world and being queer or gay is potentially very dangerous in a lot of countries. And so it’s these kind of things that we need to think about and safeguard about in the future, is how do we make sure that everyone is protected by default. We have the ability to choose exactly what we want to share and exactly what we want to keep to ourselves and we don’t have those decisions made for us by big corporations who collect as much information about us as possible and sell it on or pass it on to governments and things like that.

Nic: Yeah. That’s a good point. So we’re talking about accessibility, right? And everybody I talk to on this podcast and outside in the community seems to have a different understanding of what accessibility is. It’s mostly the same thing from one person to the other, but there’s always a bit of a variation. How would you define web accessibility?

Laura: I define web accessibility as making the web available to as many people as possible, regardless of accessibility, particularly, disabilities, but various needs associated with accessibility. But I like to also think of that as being framed as part of inclusive design, which is making the web available to as many people as possible in the fairest way possible.

Nic: Yeah. I was just going to ask you how does your definition differ from universal design and inclusive design, but I think you just answered that by saying it’s really part and parcel of the same thing, right?

Laura: Yeah, absolutely.  I think that with the language that we use, I like to think of when I’m talking about web accessibility as it being akin to, perhaps, the accessibility of buildings.   And so when you talk about the accessibility of a building you’re often talking about how people can, their physical needs are addressed in that space. And so I think that that can translate quite well on to the web but then you have to think in addition to people’s cognitive needs and things like that, as well.

Nic: Yeah. It’s one of the things when I was doing more building accessibility trainings, it’s very easy to understand that a building needs a ramp for me as a wheelchair user, but there’s all kinds of things to consider for my friends who are blind. If you have a loud echo-y room they’re having a lot of difficulty orienting in the building. So I think it’s the same thing with web accessibility. We have some obvious things screen reader users and some less obvious things like people with cognitive impairments. We all have to consider that.

Laura: Yeah, there’s a huge range of things that affect us in the environment around us. When we’re talking about inclusivity that could be a huge variety of things even when it comes down to things like internet connection. Where do you live? What can you afford? That can be a form of accessibility. But I think it’s particularly important that it is often people with disabilities who are locked out the most when we don’t design things inclusively, and that’s why I think that we should still try to keep a focus that inside of the realm of inclusive design.

Nic: Yeah. You’re a front-end developer and author who’s written about accessibility. Where does your role fall within the web accessibility spectrum, day to day. How do you implement accessibility? Is it something you do full time, day in, day out or is it something that is added on to your role? How does that work in your life, in your work life?

Laura: I see accessibility as my approach and my mindset, how I address all of my work. I would not be considered an expert by any means in the accessibility space on the web. I’m probably nearer to being the fairly average designer developer. However, ever since I’ve known about accessibility I’ve seen that as a very important thing to affect everything that I am doing. It affects the way that I think about things. It affects the way I design things. I do a lot of writing. It affects the way I write things because I want to write in the most accessible manner and the most inclusive manner possible.  And so I don’t see it as a thing that can be added on to part of my role. I see it as the way that I approach everything that I do.

Nic: I like that. I really like that.

Laura: Well, I think it’s once we start learning about things we can become more intune to how we see the world. And we can recognize the places where more care needs to be given. I think it’s about trying to continually learn more about what people’s needs are and put those into our lenses so that we can better examine the world around us.

Nic: How did you become aware of the importance of web accessibility?

Laura: Anyone who’s read my book will know that my brother has Cerebral Palsy. Funny enough, I never thought about the connection between my caring about accessibility and him until I started writing the book and I started asking other people what makes them care? And a lot of people said well it’s because they themselves have a particular need or they have family members or friends who have a particular need. I think it was listening to Dale Cruse on Jen Simmons podcast, saying that he thinks a lot of accessibility professionals as they get older, start to recognize accessibility more.

Laura: And then I started to think about, why do I care so much about it? And it’s well, because I’ve grown up with someone who has needed a lot of help in a lot of different areas. Whilst to me he’s only two, three years younger than me, so really he’s been a part of my life for as long as I can remember. He’s always needed help with mobility and reading and things like that. That was just how I treated my brother. My sisters have other needs even though they are not disabled, but they have ways that I would do things with them. And there’s ways that I do things with my brother. And so it was just part of my life, but I think it did give me that insight into how the world is very much built for those of us who do not have accessibility needs and very much disables those who do.

Nic: Yeah. It is funny how a lot of people who care about accessibility, either themselves have a disability or know close family or friends that do. When I discovered the web, for about a year or two I was blissfully unaware of accessibility and I was already a wheelchair user then so I cared about buildings and restaurants and all that stuff. And suddenly my colleague and friend came in, he’s blind, and he says, ‘Nic, what’s this about images all over the place on the web?” And suddenly it was like this huge Ah-ha moment that my lift experience in the built environment really transposed to the web. So thank you for sharing that about your brother and how that basically was part of your growing up, caring and understanding about accessibility.

Laura: Yeah, and when we got to writing the book I sat down with Sam and we actually talked in depth about how he uses the web. Nic, as I knew a lot about how when we were walking places, the way that we would walk. I knew about how when we were in restaurants the way we would read a menu and order food and things like that. But I hadn’t actually sat down and watched him use the web before, because it’s quite a personal experience. And it so it was a real revelation. We talked for about three hours just about all the things that really annoy him and all the things that he finds are really useful. That was eye opening to me because I’d had the mindset that made me care about it, but I didn’t necessarily have the detail that would tell me about what he really needed specifically to him.

Nic: Yeah. Obviously you’ve been around accessibility for a while even before web accessibility. Has your view of what accessibility is changed over the last 10 years, 15 years?

Laura: Yes, absolutely. I think I was very lucky when I started out learning web development. I was learning from people who really cared about web accessibility. So very early I learned about things like html and alt text and things like that, but what I really didn’t understand was necessarily how that fitted into a wider social and progressive movement. I think as time has moved on, politics have moved on, as I’ve grown up and have become more aware of the world around me, I start to understand how inclusivity affects so many things.

Laura: It could be from the language that you use about a person’s gender. That could be the difference between inclusive or exclusive. It could be about making a website easy to use for someone who has fine motor control difficulties. It could be about considering a design for someone who is neuro diverse. And so I think as I come to learn more about the world around me I’ve really broadened my idea of what accessibility is beyond it just being writing good html and CSS and putting captions on images and things like that.

Nic: Yeah, accessibility as a whole rather than individual things that exist in a vacuum, right?

Laura: Yeah, I think that that makes it a very easy way to approach it because a lot of it is embracing the unknown. And this is where I think it has similarities with responsive web design and the way that we have to really, many of us, go from a perspective of designing static mock ups for a particular 600 pixel, 800 pixel or 1024 pixel width and then developing that so that it worked exactly like that. When we had all these new devices come on the scene and Ethan Marcotte was introducing this idea of making things responsive, making things flow between view ports, we’ve really had to let go of a lot of that static, fixed way of thinking about things. I think that accessibility is to some degree the same thing. It’s forgetting about the way in which you, specifically use the web yourself and the inputs and outputs that you use, and opening your mind to all of these unknown possibilities for how other people use the web, too.

Nic: Did you encounter barriers as you were learning about accessibility when you were getting into that? And if you did, how did you get over those barriers?

Laura: I think the greatest barrier I found is not knowing if I’m doing something right or wrong, maybe not having the exposure to the people with the particular needs that I’m trying to address. I think a lot of what I was doing early on was doing something and just hoping for the best, hoping that it’s the right thing, and not really knowing much or being able to back it up. Because it’s difficult to test. It’s difficult to be able to test with the people with the range of different needs. It’s difficult if you work for a small organization to be able to find budget for that or find people for that especially depending on where you live.

Laura: I think a lot of how I try to overcome that is by trying to be more open to and actively spending time listening to people who have different accessibility needs on social media, on the web, reading blogs, reading forums. Mostly being a very silent observer and just trying to take in as much as I can and learn as much I can about a variety of people’s needs to get an understanding of how I might be able to solve those problems better.

Nic: Other than doing user testing with people with disabilities how do you get feedback to make sure that what you’re doing is the right thing, actually works for people? And when I say you, I don’t necessarily mean you, Laura. I’m talking about a general you.

Laura: Well, I think that even if you can’t get people in the room I think that you can often find people to test on line for you, especially if you want to test a very particular thing. And you can ask how it works for someone, which difficulties they come across and which they don’t. Of course you can ask the people who really know what they’re talking about. So often I’ll hit up some friends and ask them what their opinions are and what known issues they’ve come across. But really, nothing beats asking people who have a variety of needs about how they can interact with your site or your product and saying how you can make it better for them.

Nic: Yeah. What’s your favorite word, Laura?

Laura: My favorite word. Well that’s tricky. It’s not a thing I tend to think about. It depends if I’m trying to, I don’t know, if I’m in a particular mood or a word that makes me sound clever.

Nic: Fair enough.

Laura: I mean, when you said it the first thing that came to my head was just fluffy. That’s just because that makes me think of my dog who’s on my mind a lot at the moment, and one of the things I like about him. But that’s not a particular intellectual response.

Nic: No, but it’s a good response. The first response is usually right there. It’s important. And maybe if I were to ask you that question a month from now the first thing that comes to your mind would be different. But today, it’s fluffy and it’s good. It’s a good word.

Laura: I feel like I should have probably said something like, I don’t know, freedom or democracy. But let’s face it, you can’t be that person all the time.

Nic: No, no, you can’t. My dog is very fluffy as well and I totally happen to love this fluffy word of yours today. What’s your greatest achievement in terms of web accessibility.

Laura: It would definitely be writing a book to help raise awareness about web accessibility. I think that I’m a pretty average designer developer. I see things in a particular way. I’m very unlikely to create anything that would be technically groundbreaking. But what I really wanted to do was try to build a bridge from the more mainstream community to the accessibility experts, the people that we can really learn so much about, without those experts having to continually make the same arguments again and again about why is it necessary, why are we bothering with accessibility. So the experts can really focus on that detail and the stuff they really know about and really pushing the conversation much further along. Whereas I can give my hand getting the introductory stuff in and getting people interested in it in the first place.

Nic: Yeah. Spreading awareness is so important. I was talking to Sina Bahram. I don’t know if you know Sina?

Laura: Oh yes, I do know him.

Nic: Yeah. He was a guest last year on the podcast and he said, “We don’t have an accessibility problem. We have an awareness problem.” So when we have methods to reach out to developers, whether it’s through a book like you’ve done or conference speaking or ways to reach out to more than one person at a time, I think it’s very important that we take them. And I was so glad to see your book come out on A Book Apart, because it’s going to reach a very important segment of the developing world. And when I say developing world, I mean people who code not the geography of the world.

Laura: Yes, it’s actually quite a US and UK English centric book at the moment, and in fact it’s very much centric to people who can consume paperbacks or e-books at the moment, although I’m currently working on the audio book version of it too, which will hopefully have some use to people, or at least be a good supplemental for it. But I think that’s why I didn’t necessarily want to write a book. I didn’t have writing a book in mind. It could have come out a lot sooner, as well, but life tends to get in the way. When A Book Apart asked me if I’d like to write a book and specifically about accessibility, I jumped at the chance because I wanted an A Book Apart Book on accessibility to exist because that is a big audience, people who know what they’re doing and care about doing the right thing.

Laura: And I think that as you said, and as Sina said, it is awareness that is the problem. Very few people when you introduce them to the idea of accessibility would go, “Oh, I don’t care.” The majority of people as soon as you tell them they’re interested and they want to know how they can make their sites and their technology better. So it’s just about trying to introduce it to that audience.

Nic: Yeah. I think this is a good note to wrap up for this week, Laura. Thank you so much for coming on the show and I look really much forward to continuing our conversation.

Laura: Thank you for having me. I’m looking forward to it, too.

Nic: 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.