E49 – Interview with Bri Norton – Part 1


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Nic: Welcome to the A11y Rules podcast. You’re listening to episode 49. I’m Nic Steenhout, and I talk with people involved in one way or another with web accessibility. If you’re interested in accessibility, hey, this show’s for you. To get today’s show notes or a 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 http://twilio.com.

Nic: Before I talk to my next guest I have to say I’m quite excited to tell you there’s A11y Rules branded products now available. There’s t-shirts, hoodies, hats, mugs and more. Check out the Accessibility store at https://a11y.store.

Nic: This week I’m speaking with Bri Norton. Thanks for joining me with this conversation about accessibility, Bri.

Bri: It’s great to be on the line with you.

Nic: Great. I like to have guests introduce themselves, so in a brief introduction who is Bri Norton?

Bri: Okay. I’m Australian. I live in Canberra, the capital of Australia. I’ve been involved in the internet itself for quite a few years. Ever since someone said, “Please go find out what this internet thing is.” I’ve been hooked. Accessibility’s been a strong part of that, especially over the last, over a decade I would say.

Nic: Just to get warmed up a little bit, tell me one thing that most people would not know about you.

Bri: Okay. They usually find out quite quickly though, if they don’t already know, is that I’m a vegetarian with vegan tendencies. For moral reasons, I don’t like to eat animals.

Nic: That’s fair enough. Do you find you’re having trouble keeping to your diet when you travel?

Bri: Actually, no. I think it’s a growth area. People are becoming more aware of the benefits of this kind of lifestyle and there’s a lot of options out there now. It’s not like it was 10 years ago where there weren’t. There’s amazing things you can do. I even make my own vegan schnitzels.

Nic: Vegan schnitzels. That’s something that would be interesting to try. What’s the base you use? Is it eggplant or something else?

Bri: It’s seitan, so not good if you’re gluten intolerant.

Nic: Right. Fair enough. We’re talking about web accessibility. It seems like every time I talk to somebody new, there’s a slight variation in the definition of web accessibility. How would you define it?

Bri: I ask a lot of these questions too in presentations that I make. It’s one of the first questions I ask, what does web accessibility mean to you? You’re right, there are a lot of different answers to that. I think mine is more around access for everyone, no matter their circumstances or environment. Just making sure that there’s, whatever I’m helping to build digitally or anything in that kind of space in my current role, that we consider everyone that will need to access that service or product.

Nic: What is your current role?

Bri: I’m currently at the digital transformation agency, the Australian hall of government. I’m their Director of Accessibility and Inclusivity. I am their capability lead. I get called on by a variety of different products and services that have been built there to put my input into. I have a couple of other people on my team who are experts, as well. It’s also around strategy. Advice to all parts of Australian government, local and state, on how we can really embed accessibility a little bit more easily and educate people around it.

Nic: Do you do actual coding for accessibility at all, or it’s more an advisory role? I guess another way to ask that is, how much actual web accessibility work do you do nowadays?

Bri: I still use the screen reader that I use, NVDA. I still do some testing myself. My background is a software engineer, so I do understand how code works. I think there’s a lot more around the WCAG that I’ve done, obviously testing on before. I do bring that to that role as well, but I think there’s a lot more around the inclusive design principles now when you’re talking about accessibility at an earlier stage, what kind of things can you bring to that, bring to play.

Bri: The DTA Digital Transformation Agency has a digital service standard. Number nine criteria of that standard is make it accessible, so it’s a very important part of that standard. We have a certain process we follow that we are trying to build in the Australian government, which is the service design and delivery process. I’m trying to actually encourage the education of accessibility earlier on in that process.

Nic: If I were to tell you to compare and contrast accessibility against inclusive design, what would you say? If you’re thinking about a Venn diagram, what’s the intersection of those two?

Bri: That’s a really good question. I think it’s more around knowing the conformance things around accessibility, compared to those situation and environment changes in those circumstances. I think the accessibility is something that need to consider all the time. Inclusive design principles come to play when there’s a difference of situation and maybe there’s a time where you’ve hurt your hand, it’s temporary but you still need to think about accessibility all the time. Inclusivity around maybe, those different types of environments or circumstances.

Nic: Do you think maybe accessibility is more about compliance with the standards, whereas inclusive design is more about thinking about making things more usable by everyone all the time?

Bri: Definitely, yeah. Although accessibility in itself, and people use the term a11y as well now. I’m spending a lot of time trying to explain what a11y is. Whereas when I just say accessibility, people tend to kind of get an idea of what that means. There is a genuine knowledge of the people I work with that it’s for everyone but some people do still think that it’s that WCAG conformance or compliance.

Nic: How did you become aware of web accessibility and the importance it plays on the web?

Bri: I’ve been, obviously involved in the web for a while. I first became aware quite a few years ago. I went to a conference as part of my web publisher role, I guess. I presented there, demonstrated navigating a site using a screen reader. I was just completely shocked at how bad it was for them. I said, “We’ve got to do better.” We’ve got to do better, especially in government. This is something, people don’t have a choice to go anywhere else. They have to use some of our services, we have to do better.

Bri: A few years later, I was then a web manager for a government agency. I worked with AGIMO at that stage, which was our Australian Government Information Management Office. They had instigated the web accessibility national transition strategy for all public websites to start being WCAG 2.0, I think at that stage 1.0 compliance and now also up to 2.0 as part of their digital service standard. It’s integrated into that digital service standard now.

Bri: I was involved in that government agency to educate, talk to apps areas and website people about the process of how we were going to do that. I think in doing that, I started testing a lot more for the sites to make sure that they did meet the transition strategy. As part of doing that, I met a lot more people who use assisted technologies. I really wanted to start to advocate a bit more. I then went overseas for three years and worked for the DC government. Then I came back and I picked up the conference convener for OZeWAI, which is the Australian annual accessibility conference.

Nic: It’s funny how, when we start talking and meeting people that actually have accessibility barriers on the web and things become much more personal and tangible, that we can ramp it up. It’s like, “Oh yeah. I understand accessibility’s important,” and then I talk to Joe, who needs to use a screen reader or Julia who is a keyboard only user. Suddenly we realize, oh my god, we have to make it work for them.

Bri: I totally agree. I think one of the things that I’m trying to do a lot more of is around building that empathy for people. It’s not about feeling sorry for them, it’s about understanding how they do their everyday, they live their everyday lives. How they work. One of the big things that’s quite important to me at the moment in my role at the DTA is to work at how we can get more people into the workforce in that area.

Bri: To do that, we need to make sure that we’ve got goods and services for them to use. We’ve got space for them, we have a diverse and an inclusive culture so that people can work there. My role covers a lot of those things, and one of the big things I’m working on with our ICT procurement is building in the assessment for accessibility of the types of goods and services that we purchase within the government so everyone can use them.

Nic: That’s good. In Australia nearly 20 years ago now, there was probably one of the first law suits about web accessibility with the Olympic games website.

Bri: Yes. Yes, they say that’s what started WCAG 2.0. Had you heard that one?

Nic: Right. I had not heard that. No, but I wouldn’t be surprised. It’s really not a case that is all that known about in North America. I wonder, what do you think was the impact of the Olympic website? Sydney 2000 Olympic website lawsuit on the state of accessibility in Australia at this point?

Bri: Well, I think the facts themselves, we have a disability and discrimination act. That’s what, I think that they referred to in that case. One of my peers over here in Australia who works at the ANU, was seen as the technical expert at the time and had to go into that case, so maybe I’ll put you in touch with him at some stage.

Nic: That’d be great.

Bri: He did talk about it. He said it was quite interesting because there was no one else to call on in Australia about what this means, and he was the closest thing to the expert. He teaches HTML at ANU or ICT in technology there. I think it changed a lot. We do have a act that’s referenced for a reason.

Bri: We don’t mandate the conformance WCAG 2.0 as such. We don’t enforce it. We do, sorry. We mandate it but we don’t enforce it, but the idea that that act is there means that you may want to be careful about how you just ignore some of these things that were put in our standards.

Nic: Has your view of accessibility changed over the last 10 years or 15 years?

Bri: Yes. I’m much more aware of new tech and how it can impact and progress in education we make around accessibility and awareness. People still want the latest new shiny things. They’ll jump and do it without even considering accessibility at the front of their mind, so it’s trying to get them to think about that, you think of what’s coming up now with the AI, augmented reality, all those kinds of things. We still need to consider how they’re going to be accessible for everyone to access.

Nic: Where do you see accessibility going with augmented reality? What can we use it for?

Bri: I obviously saw a few things at CSUN with the discussions there of where it could go. I think there’s some ways that people can experience different things that they don’t usually experience, especially if they’re confined to homes and things like that. I think that’s got some potential, but we do need to consider that, as we start using this let’s start thinking about making sure that it is a fit for everyone.

Bri: I think in the gaming industry they’re thinking about that, designing it so much easier if they put the captions on for people rather than having to do it afterwards. That people are getting more into that game or they’re playing it with their headphones on, on a train or something like that. There’s relevance for all these kind of technologies to consider the importance of accessibility ’cause it’s gonna benefit everyone.

Nic: I like the idea of using augmented reality to give experiences to people that are stuck at home for whatever reason, whether it’s severe agoraphobia or a lack of accessibility or anything like that. That intersection of making sure the systems are accessible becomes incredibly important.

Bri: I think it is, yeah. Definitely. One of the areas, I was at Click for Australia project at one stage and there was talk about kids who are sick and can’t make it to school very often. That kind of technology would be such a benefit. They could still interact and be a part of the school life if the rest of the class is also involved. There’s some real benefits there, but it should be considered carefully to make sure it’s available for everyone. There’s some real benefits I think, to be had in all this new technology. Otherwise we wouldn’t be doing it, I guess.

Nic: It’s not just a fun shiny new technology. It’s got power forward.

Bri: Yes.

Nic: Bri, did you face barriers when you started learning about accessibility or implementing accessibility? If you did, how did you get over them?

Bri: I think mainly because there’s that lack of education and empathy. I think earlier on in the time around the web transition strategy was a lot more of, oh, we have to do this. Now I try and build that empathy a little bit more by talking about situations where it’s useful or I’m probably trying a little bit more of, “Hey, can you test this for me?” Rather than, “Can you go ahead and do this because we have to?”

Bri: There was a little bit more of that, trying to get people on board and bring them along because they want to rather than forcing them to. I think the barriers that we’ve made, we’ve set as a society. I think a lot of that needs to be how we view each other and how we see each other as a society. That has to change as well.

Nic: How do we view each other and how do we change?

Bri: Yes. Again just, I don’t know. Connecting. Networking more with people from quite a diverse range of backgrounds. There’s a big push here in the Australian government to do a lot more of the understanding our users, and it means that everyone on all products or services that are being developed need to understand those users.

Bri: There’s options here to, and opportunities for these people that are developing these products and services to really understand what their users are like. I think that’s one of the ways they can do it. They just start putting those connections and understanding of how people use technology, how they use their products and services, and how it’s a benefit for them so let’s try and do it right.

Nic: I like that idea, that developers would gain and become better developers by understanding their users. How would you suggest a developer that listens to this podcast, how should they go about getting to know their users?

Bri: As part of the DTA’s service design and delivery process and the digital service standard is to set up a multi-disciplinary team with the right people, the right roles involved, the right skills. Having a front end or a back end developer is part of that team. One of the suggestions, if you go to the DTA.gov.au website we have guides up there.

Bri: It actually says that everyone on that team should at least observe or meet with a user for two hours every couple of weeks. There’s the idea that it’s not just the user researcher that goes out to meet users, it’s everyone in the team. Then why they’re building something, not just what they’re building.

Nic: Two hours every two weeks, that’s a good amount of time. I guess I could imagine some for-profit companies rather than governments or non-profit, that might perceive that as a waste of developer time. What would be the argument to compensate that?

Bri: I think by just knowing why they need to build. Actually I do need to check that it’s not two hours every six weeks. I might need to check that, but I think the reasoning is that once they learn a little bit more the why they’re building something, they’re more likely to build it right. That’s less cost down the track if they build it wrong and they have to redevelop something, that means that everyone on the team is aware of what they’re building in the right direction and the right way.

Bri: There’s the idea of bringing everyone along for the ride and having that common understanding of what they’re building and why, means that it will be more for the user and not for individual people themselves. “I’ll just code it this way.” “Oh, I’ll just need to code it that way because I think that’s more relevant for why I’m building this thing.”

Nic: I like the idea that a small investment in developer time now will yield strong savings later down the road, whether it’s because it won’t have to be recorded or maybe it’s going to avoid a lawsuit or maybe it’s just gonna be generally better for everyone.

Bri: I think in previous years, we’ve all seen where they have built something and they, “Oh, let’s get it accessibility tested,” and it doesn’t conform. It doesn’t meet it. It doesn’t work. Then they have to start from scratch. I’ve been to many presentations now where everyone says, that’s a huge cost and people don’t want to pay it. Yet, when they put it out there and if it doesn’t work no one’s gonna use it, so how is this a return on investment? We need to take it back to the start and make sure you’re building it right and for the right people.

Nic: Hey, one last question for this segment of the conversation. Bri, what’s your favorite word?

Bri: I’m going towards empathy. I’m using it a lot now. The idea of explaining to people who don’t understand accessibility that it’s not about feeling sorry for people, but it’s the awareness that we need to be inclusive. We need to understand other points of view. I think empathy’s really good.

Bri: I’ve been doing a lot of workshops lately around empathy mapping and you really notice the difference in people when they start to think about feelings and influences. What might this person be thinking? Rather than, “Oh, what’s that solution I’m building?” It really gives people a different focus. I really like that word. I really like empathy.

Nic: How does a developer develop empathy?

Bri: Again, I think it comes back to seeing their users. Seeing who they’re building their thing for and why. Why is it important? For government services it’s, like I said, there’s not usually a choice so we need to build it right. We need to build it for them in a way that they can access it easily or they can download easily, or they can find the information easily. It’s not about your code and how cuddly you are.

Bri: It’s about, are we doing all of that for the user that really needs to get to that information? ‘Cause they can’t really go anywhere else. I think having those developers and designers and everyone on that team, anything executive level. Management, just understanding that these are our users and this is what we’re building it for is really important.

Nic: Thank you for that. Bri, I think we’re gonna call it a show for this time. Thank you so much for being on.

Bri: You’re very welcome. I’ve really enjoyed it. Thanks, Nic.

Nic: Everyone out there, thank you for listening to the show. I hope you enjoyed it, and if you do, please do tell your friends about it. You can get the transcript for this and all other shows at https://a11yrules.com. And a quick reminder, you can get yourself some neat Accessibility Rules branded swag at https://a11y.store. Catch you next time.