E48 – Interview with Laura Kalbag – Part 2

In this second part of my chat with Laura Kalbag, she tells us that there’s no conventional wisdom about accessibility. She also suggests that if we pick an “easy win”, it’ll often be at the detriment of other accessibility needs.


Thanks to Twilio for sponsoring the transcript for this episode.

Make sure you have a look at:

Show notes


Nic: Welcome to the Accessibility Rules Podcast. You’re listening to episode 48. 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. 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 leading platform for voice, SMS, and video at twilio.com.

Nic: And in this episode I’m continuing my conversation with Laura Kalbag. Last show’s was great and if you haven’t listened to it already, I invite you to check it out. So welcome back Laura.

Laura: Thank you for having me. And if people don’t listen back, they won’t know what my favorite word was.

Nic: Oh, that’s a very good thing to mention. We won’t know what the favorite word is. So Laura we finished last week talking around your greatest achievement in terms of web accessibility which was your book and being able to raise awareness. If we’re flipping the question around, what’s your greatest frustration in terms of web accessibility?

Laura: I think my greatest frustration will probably be shared with a lot of people and it’s that it’s hard to know the right thing to do. And that I wish there were magic solutions for everything. But I know so well is that everything ends in a it depends answer. And so when you’re trying to make an interface work for people with a varying range of needs, you really have to come up with the best solution for your particular interface, and your particular product. And that does mean you end up having to shoulder the responsibility for doing the research and doing the work. And that can be frustrating but it’s the same with a lot of … design and development is that we can’t just copy what other people do, and exactly what they do and expect to have the same outcomes.

Laura: I find it really useful particularity Heydon Pickering’s work at the moment, where he’s sort of building these example component’s and modules that you can see how they work and why they work and what’s good about them and I love that. I wish there was more of that but then you’d need a lot more Heydons and a lot more people with that kind of knowledge, which I think is difficult. We need more people to sort of study and increase their skills so that we end up with more Heydons I think.

Nic: Yeah, we should clone Heydon, I wonder what he would think about that. Let’s get some of his DNA and get him cloned around.

Nic: One of the answers that I often give to people that ask me questions about accessibility I think revolves a little bit around what you’re describing. People ask me about alt text or about tabbed interfaces or about any other things, and my answer typically ends up being, well it depends. It depends on your implementation, it depends on your ecosystem, it depends on so many different factors and I think it really comes back down to this point of, there’s no magic solution for everything.

Laura: Yeah, it’s difficult but then I think there are things we can do to get us part of the way there. I think back to when I was first learning about web development and I was looking on Dan Cedarholm’s website. And he used to do this thing where he would talk about a particular design element that he wanted to mark up in html. And people on the site would then debate what would be the best html to use for that particular design element and what are the accessibility implications it, what are the styling implications of it. Because of course back then with would have been probably about nearly 15 years ago, maybe 10 to 15 years ago.

Laura: What are the … like CSS would be so different across browsers so we couldn’t even be sure of that. And I learned so much from those examples because if you could see, sort of two modules that … or components that aren’t exactly the same as what you’re doing but they’re both similar enough. If people are explaining the why behind why they chose a particular sort of element or something like that then you can start putting that knowledge together in order to make informed decisions. So basically I want more people to write about their own site designs and development and say, “Hey, I chose to use this particular heading element in this location because I wanted to create a better hierarchy for screen readers” or something like that. I love write-ups like that. And I think that we could learn a huge amount by understanding the decision making process behind those decisions.

Nic: I would love to see something like that. But doesn’t it create its own set of barriers for developers that want to learn about it if the information is fragmented and then siloed all over the web. You know we have developer one that does his own thing and developer two that does her own thing and suddenly we have half a dozen or six dozen different sites where there’s a little bit of information. How do we end up finding these great jewels of how to perhaps address one issue of accessibility.

Laura: It’s unlikely that we’re going to find one kind of giant accessibility encyclopedia that everyone can reference. I think with a lot of the rest of design development, we do go around and we get these scraps from different sites. And we see that one person does it one way and sort of one person uses grunt and another person uses gulp and another person uses NPM and we have to sort of decide for ourselves what works best for us. And I think the important thing is that people are actually writing about it. But we have to be expected to put in the effort. We do it for other things and we shouldn’t put in less effort because it’s accessibility and because it seems hard.

Laura: Because it really is not more difficult than these other solutions. You’re still making the same kinds of decisions.

Nic: I like that. One of the things that I’ve been told over and over is that “Oh, god, accessibility … it’s so hard. It’s such a chore” and people aren’t interested and most of these people are actually coders. And I turn around and I tell them “Hey, don’t you love a good coding challenge?” They say “Oh yeah, of course.” And suddenly when I see the penny drop in their face that accessibility really is just another coding challenge, just another design challenge that actually makes their job more fun, this paradigm shift is really fantastic to see.

Nic: So, yeah, accessibility is hard but we shouldn’t stop doing it because it’s hard. We do other things because of they are hard. Because they’re fun.

Laura: I think if those are … It’s kind of sad that people want to code for the sake of coding or design for the sake of designing. It’s like well, you could go just be doing hobby projects in your bedroom. Stuff that’s just for yourself. But when making things for a global audience or for a near global audience, so people is the point of what we’re making and accessibility is a huge part of that and if you don’t enjoy making things for people and sort of making those hard decisions in order to work for those people, then why are you working in web and technology?

Laura: I don’t get it. And I think there’s this kind of strange separation, this idea of making technology as some kind of art in itself, making it to be the most innovative person, build the next big shiny thing, I think this is actually what’s made us end up … we’re a community that maybe doesn’t value accessibility highly enough and unfortunately seems to value a lot of very unethical things and sort of exploitative practices, sort of trying to build things in order just to grab people’s attention and addict them and manipulate. I don’t thing it’s a coincidence that the mindset of coding or designing for the sake of the skill rather for the people you’re actually putting in front of what you produce, it does make a difference.

Nic: It does. Yeah, it’s all about people.

Laura: Yeah, I think that’s why I got into doing the web in the first place. It’s why the web interested me, is this idea that you can reach so many people but also that information becomes accessible to so many people as long as they have an internet connection. And I mean, that’s … it’s a privilege, but is actually a relatively small barrier to entry. And I thought that was incredible.

Nic: Do you think there’s conventional wisdom about accessibility? One thing that everybody knows about?

Laura: No. There’s the easy … It’s funny when you talk to people about what they consider an easy win or the one thing that would make the biggest difference and I think the problem is that when we come up with one of those we end up excluding a lot of people and a lot of particular needs. So for example, if I was to say “Everyone should be putting alternative text on their images.” That’s really great, but that does tend to make accessibility seem very focused on screen readers and that is often to the detriment of people with other needs because we have become … and screen readers are very … they’re a great example and they’re a great way for helping people understand how people can have such a vastly different experience in the form of output. But also, that we think about the amount of other types of content that need to be accessible for people with different needs and I wouldn’t want to exclude them.

Nic: Yeah. It’s this interesting issue that for a very long time what we thought about accessibility pretty much boiled down to screen reader users and people who needed captions on video and there’s such a depth of different needs. And even if we think about screen reader users, well that’s fine but what about my friend Matt who has really dyslexic and he uses a screen reader and he relies on that to actually make sense of the web. He does not use a screen reader at all the same way as someone who’s blind would. So similarly-

Laura: No, that’s exactly the same as my brother Sam. He uses a screen reader. He doesn’t have great eyesight, he wears glasses, but he is by no means low vision and yet he uses a screen reader regularly by actively highlighting the text on the page with the mouse and then getting the screen reader to read chunks of it to him. It’s not at all this whole idea of having to read through all the links on the page or go through the navigation before you get to the content. It’s a very different experience.

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

Laura: Giving up. I think. I think it’s very easy to go “Oh, well I’m struggling with this. I don’t think I’m going to get it right so I’m going to put it off till the next version.” Or “We’ll think about that after release. It’s not a priority for release but it’s one of those things that we could spend time on after the release.” And then of course after the release, another release comes along and it’s not a priority again and so maybe rather than giving up it would be more accurate to say not prioritizing accessibility, not treating it as … What I’d like to see of it’s accessibility being treated as at least equal to performance. Because you know how crazy everyone is about performance. In fact, let me just say that.

Nic: The one I usually say that we should pay attention to is security. If you pay attention to security, you must pay attention to accessibility. Performance I think is another prong to that concept so I’ll … thank you I’m going to start talking about both performance and security when say the importance of accessibility.

Laura: Yeah, I think so and let me just … I want to use a different word than I used earlier because I said people are crazy about performance, but really I don’t want to be using that word. People are … I know they’re … really overly obsessed with performance. That’s a much better way of saying it. Just wanted to catch myself on that.

Nic: Yeah. I appreciate that Laura. I don’t know if you’re aware of my newest, latest project, which is the ableist jar. It’s at ableist.is and it’s a little bit like a swear jar where people using ableist language go in and put $1 or $5 or what not to kind of gently remind themselves that we shouldn’t use ableist language so I’m really appreciative that you caught yourself.

Laura: Well, I think I should go put my dollar in the jar. I think I’ve seen you tweet about that and I think it’s a lovely way of encouraging people to really think about it. Because we slip up. We all do. We’re all learning and our language is evolving but I think it’s important when we slip up to correct ourselves and to do so in a public manner so that we can say to other people “Hey, you might use that word very casually in your speech as well and hey maybe we can find a better replacement for it.”

Nic: Yeah. Most of the time we use words and we don’t necessarily understand the impact of these words and why they’re important and obviously we don’t mean anything bad but when the people on the other hand hear words they can really hurt or annoy or frustrate. One of the expression that frustrates me really very much is wheelchair bound. People use that and they don’t understand the impact of that and I … years ago I got fed up and I got my wife to tie me up in my wheelchair with big thick ropes and took a photo of that and posted it and suddenly people started to understand “Oh well, maybe that’s not exactly the right expression I should use.” And the beauty of language is that we have so many great alternatives.

Nic: You use the word crazy and then you said “Well, maybe obsessed is better” and there’s always going to be five or six different alternatives to the word that are as good if not better in terms of representing what we want to say.

Laura: Yeah, or that’s … and it’s what I was saying about being inclusive is more than the code we write or the things we design. It is trying to integrate these things into our mindset. It is saying “Look, I make mistakes.” We all make mistakes. I’ve developed things that were not very well developed before for accessibility. In fact today, this morning, I saw a really great example that Heydon Pickering tweeted about not using a second heading. So say you have a title on a page and you use an H1 for that and then as a sub-title lots of people would perhaps use and H2 and as Heydon points out, that’s not the correct way of doing it because a heading is supposed to introduce a new section and you’re not going to suddenly introduce a new section after that H1.

Laura: And I tweeted it saying “I used to do this until Heydon taught me not to.” Which I did until not that long ago, maybe a couple of years ago. And that’s the thing, we do things the wrong way and the best thing we can do in order to improve the web and improve our relationships with society is to be able to go “Hey, I did things wrong and now I’m going to try to do things better.” Just being able to admit that you do something wrong I think is incredibly powerful.

Nic: Yeah. Totally agreed. See, the thing is some people will have … will be ignorant of things and I don’t mean ignorant in a pejorative way but in the fact that we don’t actually know what we don’t know. And that’s okay. What we want to do though is make sure that once we start being … learning and increasing awareness about particular things suddenly we change how we code, we change our behavior. So, we improve things. We improve ourselves and the world around us.

Laura: Yeah, I think it’s important to be forgiving of each other particularly when we’re learning and to always make you first … if you’re going to criticize maybe that someone is doing something that’s bad for accessibility, to be kind in your criticism first. Show them what your expectations are and to reinforce that and by all means, later down the line if they’re still doing that wrong and they have shown that they don’t care then yeah, call them out. Tell them about it. Like say that “This isn’t cool. I did tell you.” But first of all we do have to sort of give people a little nudge in the right direction because as you said we don’t all come out of the womb knowing exactly how to do everything. We have to learn sometime.

Nic: Yeah. What do you think the greatest challenges for the field of web accessibilities are going forward?

Laura: I think the biggest challenge is awareness and trying to help people understand now to care. I really do believe that if we were … if we had greater awareness of accessibility we could start moving a lot of the introductory conversations along. If more people were writing about it and writing about how they’re trying to do accessibility and inclusivity I think that more people would learn about it and get on board. And then we could move beyond always having to answer the questions of why is it worth it, what is the business case for it, and all of these tedious arguments that I think a lot of us are very tired of making. And actually start talking about how we can not just make things accessible and available to people but make things really great for people. Make things a really great experience.

Nic: How do you teach people to care?

Laura: I guess different things for different people. I think … I have two very distinct sides on this. Especially when I’m giving talks. And sometimes I’ll work from the encouraging and sort of saying to people, if they do not have any accessibility needs well think about how you might do in the future. And everyone sort of starts to have difficulties with mobility and eyesight and hearing, and memory and things like that as they age. And so really if you don’t care about it you’re not caring about your future self if you want to be, sort of more selfish about it. But then there is the other side of me that goes, don’t be so selfish. And has no patience and actually has to say to people, look you have to care. Because otherwise you are not fit for your job. Because your job is making technology for people and if you do not care about people, then you are clearly not doing your job very well. And I tend to, depending upon the audience, come down on one side or another. Depending on whether the people are new to accessibility.

Laura: I will give so much time and effort and explanations to people who are new. People who have no idea, particularly people who just starting out on the web. But for people who have heard about accessibility and have chosen not to care about it, I’m going to save my breath on them. Although I will tell them exactly what I think of them and their approaches. Because actually sometimes the most effective thing to do is to call people out. And is to say you should be ashamed of yourselves because you are being discriminatory. And if you look in other areas like, there’s discrimination in a lot of places against a lot of different marginalized groups. And the only way we’re going to stop it is by pointing out the behavior in the first place. And I think by if you know about accessibility needs and you choose to not care about it, then I think you are being discriminatory. I went from nice to mean very quickly there didn’t I?

Nic: Absolutely. Well you know that’s funny because I approach things in similar way where if I see a problem or, whether it’s an accessibility barrier or a behavior or something I will signal it and be nice about it and then maybe on the third or fourth or fifth time I need to actually tell the same person about this problem, I increase the pressure. At one point it’s going to be “Well, actually you know I’ve spoken to your company for a year about making sure the platform is accessible and I’m going to get somebody to sue you next.” Which is not something I like to do and I actually haven’t done it very much because in general I get much more response along the lines of, “Hey you know what, I hadn’t considered that. That’s really important and let me fix it.” But sometimes you just hit your head against a brick wall, and then yeah you go from nice to mean and hopefully it has an effect because you have to reach people in some way somehow don’t you?

Laura: Yeah, well I’ve recently given a talk where I’ve been talking about the reasons why we decide to design inclusively. And I refer to it as being like that old metaphor of driving a donkey and whether you’re riding on a cart with a donkey walking along and whether you’re dangling a carrot in front of that donkey’s face in order to reward it at the end of the trip and to drive it on or whether you are hitting the donkey with a stick in order to force it to go forward. Because it doesn’t want to be hit by a stick. And a lot of the reasons we have for promoting inclusive design accessibility things like good accessibility is good usability. It benefits a very broad audience. That would be an example of a carrot. And threatening to sue someone, that would be the example of the sick. And really the conclusion of my talk is that well, no one’s here to give out carrots and sticks. Like why should you be rewarded for just being a baseline decent human being? Just thinking about others in society.

Laura: If we were all closed off and selfish and didn’t think about trying to raise everyone in society to an equal level, then I mean well you’ve seen lots of films about sort of post-apocalyptic scenarios. That’s the kind of thing we’d be looking at and so it’s actually just part of being a baseline decent human. You shouldn’t be expecting reward for doing something, you should just do it.

Nic: Yeah, let’s just do it. That’s a good tag line. I think Nike has found that already but let’s borrow from them. And yeah, lest just do it accessibility. Laura, if you weren’t a designer, coder accessibility geek what profession other than your own would you like to attempt?

Laura: When I was younger, I always wanted to be a teacher. And so I think I would probably end up being a teacher.

Nic: But aren’t you a teacher now, just not in a traditional classroom setting?

Laura: Yes, to some degree I think. Sometimes I question how much reach or value I can have sitting behind a computer. You always wonder when you’re posting things on social media. Am I just wasting my time? Is this valuable? When I’m writing a blog post that I’m putting so many hours into. Is this going to help? Or is this just kind of going off into the internet archives? I think it would be amazing to … it’s amazing to be able to sort of help people shake themselves. I think that that would be a very cool thing to do. But then also I just, I love other people, I love young people, I love kids. Maybe it’s just I want to hang out with kids.

Nic: Yeah, fair enough. One last question for you, and then I’ll let you go. What’s the one thing people should remember about accessibility?

Laura: That accessibility is about people. It’s short, but I think it’s the most important thing.

Nic: Yeah, it’s short, it’s to the point. It really is quite important. So on that note, accessibility is about people. Thank you so much Laura for being a good sport and answering my questions and even the ones that surprised you a little bit.

Laura: Thank you, this has been a really wonderful conversation.

Nic: Thank you for this. 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.