E52 – Interview with Eric Meyer – Part 2

Eric says that accessibility “is a foundational principle of the web. Like literally the web is built on accessibility. The original specs don’t necessarily call it that, but that’s an organizing principle of the web. And to try to ignore it or overcome it is a lot like trying to paddle upstream”.


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Nic:    Welcome to the Accessibility Rules Podcast. This is episode 52. Oh my! 52 weeks of podcasting about accessibility.
I’m Nic Steenhout and I talk with people involved in one way or another with web accessibility. If you are interested in accessibility, hey, 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.

In this episode, I’m continuing my conversation with Eric Meyer. Last show was really awesome, we talked a lot about where we’ve been and maybe today we are going to talk a little bit more about where we are going.

Hi Eric, thanks for joining me again.

Eric:     Hello! Thanks for having me back.

Nic:     Yeah, So- We were talking last week about–  your views of accessibility that haven’t really changed in about forming new people and we were talking a little bit about achievement in terms of web accessibility. So let’s flip that question and go down the path of … What have you done that you regret most in terms of web accessibility in your career?

Eric:     Focus {outline: 0} in the first CSS reset. It’s far and away the biggest one.

Nic:     I have to say that I routinely end up swearing at you in my own head when I do accessibility audits. And I see that and I go back to clients and they say, “Oh but but but Eric Meyer did that”. So yeah-

Eric:     Did you show them the comment that I had in here [unintelligible 02:05] coz, right, so– For those who aren’t familiar with the history, I’ll just very quickly sketch it. So I wrote this thing called a CSS Reset. The idea of which was to have all browsers be on a level playing field. By removing margins and font sizing and all that stuff. And the idea was that people would take that reset and then tune it to their own, what I think– what I call Reboot. So normalized .css is actually an example of a reboot style sheet

Nic:     Yeah

Eric:     That’s a modified reset, right. So that instead of just, ”Let’s make all the text look the same, like literally all the same size and weight and everything. Normalize is a reboot in that it says ok let’s make things look nice. Basic but nice. And it has font faces and sizes and a background colour for the body. That’s not– that’s what I thought people would do and it’s what I encouraged them to do with the reset was adapted but people would just take it and slap it in wholesale and then override things. So, anyway. There’s a point in that original reset where I said– so I’ve forgotten exactly, but a:link, a:visited, sorry a:focus {outline:0}, or outline: none. Now there’s a comment right next to it that says, “Remember to set a focus” Set a focus style. But what I was thinking was, well I’m clearing the decks and this needs to– I need to clear the decks here too and then I’ll just remind people to create an outline that fits in with the design they’re creating. Well, people didn’t.

Nic:     People rarely read the manual, right? They just–

Eric:     Yeah, yeah. And I made naive assumptions about how it would get used and a part of it is that the CSS- the original Rest got pasted into the top of the default WordPress theme. And it’s persisted for, I don’t– I’m not sure if they’ve updated to the newer reset since then but it persisted for years. Like, literally 2011 or 2010 or whatever the first– I think 2010 was the first one. And it was just right there. And it actually is a literal paste because it has the URL of the page on my web so I still get emailed to this day on about a monthly basis saying, “Your theme doesn’t work can you help me fix it?” and it’s a theme I’ve never heard of and it’s just because  whoever developed the theme saw this in the default WordPress theme and just kept doing it. Anyway, so in CSS Reset version two, which is a few years old now I set an explicit focus. But I feel badly myself everytime I see it in a style sheet so you’re absolutely warranted in swearing at me. I just–

Nic:     Yeah, yeah but it’s mostly tongue in cheek. It’s– I think that the idea of the CSS reset was  brilliant and my– I guess my moment of enlightenment about accessibility came in three phases, The first time was a colleague who was a screen reader user who was– he came to me and he said “Nic why is it that my screen reader get’s on this page and it says image image image image image image image?” And it was at a time when we had no other ways than using a Photoshop slice of nice looking fonts for menu items so this page was using all images and no alt for the menu and the last part of that enlightenment for me was when a friend of mine with quite severe ADHD could actually not function on the web because of all the different font sizes and colours and I basically wrote for her a– which was a user style sheet that she was able to reset her own stuff.

Eric:     Nice

Nic:     So when I saw your thing I thought, “Oh yeah”, I wasn’t too far off because Eric Meyer is doing something like that so that really worked, It’s just one of those unfortunate things that people did not read the comment that you have to fix it before you release it to the wild, so–

Eric:     Yeah, and if I had developed that after I developed a design for real life maybe I would’ve caught it. Well, co-wrote, excuse me I didn’t write design for real life by myself. But maybe I would’ve thought through all of those scenarios and thought to myself, “ Given what I know of programmers how many of them are going to read the comments”. But I just, I didn’t–

Nic:     Yeah, It’s the thing that when we are young we don’t know what we are doing and when we are a bit older we have more wisdom but we can’t go back and fix our mistakes from youth.

What would you say your greatest frustration is in terms of web accessibility?

Eric:     Well, okay, besides the thing we just talked about. Because it does frustrate me that I can’t send an email that ever used the reset and just say “look, fix this”. 
But anyway, that’s what I get for not using a license I guess. My biggest frustration in terms of web accessibility, I think it’s still that– I think it’s the lack of a proper document outline. I know we had the document outline algorithm and then it just– it failed. And so I guess taking half a step back my biggest frustration is Heading levels. Which the document outline algorithm was supposed to fix. And because I– when I’m creating content– like at the beginning of this year I just redesigned my web and I live streamed the whole thing, well almost the entire thing. And there’s a whole section where I’m– I’m just talking aloud to myself about what am I supposed to do about Heading levels? Because on some pages the name of the site should be an h1, but not many. On most of them, something else should be the h1 and then on a blog– on a specific blog post page, like on the individual permalink page for a blog post, the post title should be the h1. But then on the home page where I summar– like I have the most recent ones, those should be h2’s and what am I supposed to do here? And it just it gets– I Mean, I came up with solutions that mostly involve wrapping the post in a PHP function that I pass a parameter saying you should do this or you should do this and it spits out the title as either an h1 or an h2 depending. But then what do I do with the headings inside of the post, if I have subheadings. Like, I almost never write subheadings in my posts specifically because of this because if I make them h3’s on some pages it’s going to go from an h1 to an h3 with no intervening h2 and what the hell am I supposed to do about that;. So that frustrates me immensely, And it frustrates me more that there was a solution and it died. I think.

Nic:     It is quite frustrating and I have to say that this heading levels proper document outline is one of the issues that I encounter a lot doing accessibility audits and I have to explain to people that we have two thirds of screen reader users actually rely on headings not only to understand the structure of a page but to navigate the page itself. So, then we have skipped heading levels or it just doesn’t make sense and suddenly we have visitors trying to understand, well,”Am I missing something? Or is it an error on the site? Or what is it? What’s the problem? Why am I not seeing what I am expecting to see?” So I fully understand your frustration on that front there.

What do you think the number one reason is for people to fail at implementing accessibility for people with disabilities?

Eric:     Well I think the number one reason is just not having any experience either personally or indirectly. They haven’t run their site through a screen reader, they haven’t had a friend who came to them and said, “why am I only hearing image image image image image”. Whatever that reason, they haven’t had those kinds of things. I think– I feel like, let me put it that way, It’s not I think, I feel like that comes back to a lack of teaching that sort of thing in University courses. I’m sure there’s some University courses that covers this beautifully but I feel like a lot of courses, including boot camps those sorts of things, they don’t– they’re not talking about this. From the perspective of, “Hey the web is supposed to be maximally accessible”. Like if you’re not thinking of this first you’re not doing your job right. That’s not what they’re doing. 
The vocational class that I ended up teaching, I talked about last week briefly, that’s why  I took the approach that I did, it sort of came out of all of this. But I think most courses are “Here’s a webpage, here are the tags you need. h1 through h6 are heading levels. Let’s move on”. And not take a minute to talk about, “Hey, this is how these are used and this is why they’re important”. You can pitch it for people’s self-interest by saying, “Google cares about the heading levels”. Whether or not that’s actually true at the moment I’m never sure because Google keeps changing.  You can do that, but when you get down to it really the thing you want to keep stressing is, maximally accessible to the maximum number of people. And that’s not– I feel like that’s not stressed in this training because we keep coming and, if it were, then we wouldn’t keep seeing people saying, “ Here I deployed a one-page site using 16 frameworks and no HTML and it’s awesome”. Right? Because they would’ve taken a different approach to figuring out how to do that. 
I think that– I mean, I think that’s the reason. And for those of you out there who are doing your training and pressing the proper use of these things on your students. Salute, like, 21 cannon salute to you, but, you’re very outnumbered and it probably frustrates the people like that too.

Nic:     When I was doing physical building accessibility way back when, one of the things that had really surprised me was that folks who are studying architecture are given about four-hour tuition about accessibility over their four-year course. And I think perhaps a lot of computer science degrees these days are doing the equivalent. This teach access which is trying to change things but overall I think that the amount of tuition in formal computer science degrees is really limited. And we do have boot camps here and there and introduction web design that stuff that mentions it but I think you’re right. We need to take the time to actually explain to people what it is and why it’s important,

Eric:     Yeah and you know, these days if it’s not on Youtube the kids probably won’t see it.

Nic:    That’s a little silly!

Eric:     It is a little bit but I also have kids. And to flip it around Jen Simmons has gotten enormous traction with her Layout Land series when it comes to layout. She talks about accessibility. And it’s certainly woven into everything Jen does because Jen gets it. I’ve been talking with her over the year and she’s just like …it’s amazing how many people are seeing this. It’s really made a huge difference. She’s reaching more people via YouTube than she ever has via MDN or any other written source.
So, you know, maybe there needs to be that, you know, The Wacky Web Accessibility channel or something. 
I’m sorry that sounds like I’m making fun of Jen’s channel which I’m totally not. I’m just sort of thinking of the–

Nic:     Absolutely

Eric:     “Let’s do a ‘Let’s Play’ of accessibility!” Because that’s what kids watch.

Nic:     Well, it’s like we need gimmicks now to get– to catch people’s attention.

Eric:     I know, we get oursel– we get it into, like, [indecipherable 16:20] stuff on news sites.

Nic:     What do you think the greatest challenge is for the field of accessibility moving forward? In five years, 10 years …

Eric:     I think it’s still going to be education. It’s going to be the same challenge it’s been since the web started. It’s education, communication. Passing this on, like getting it out to the most people. That’s always been the challenge. I mean, I’ve seen this as a conference speaker and organizer that the accessibility talk usually suffers a ratings penalty from the audience. It’s a very, very rare accessibility speaker that can overcome that. On a five-point scale it’s probably at least a half a point and possibly a full point knocked off what the rating otherwise should be. Just because of the topic, and you know, people– I think probably correctly, for the most part, people are afraid they’re not doing it right. And then they don’t want to be reminded. And there can be exceptions. I’ve seen fantastic accessibility presentations. But I saw a fantastic accessibility presentation- oh god it’s been almost 10 years ago now that Derek Featherstone did, where he did a cold open. And it’s not the accessibility component, it’s just the way that he did his talk. He literally started in medias res, he started in the middle of a scenario.

Nic:    Yeah

Eric:    It was amazing. I still think of that talk and I still think of the chills I got when I understood what he was doing and saying and like, what the situation he was describing was. I literally got goosebumps up and down my arms. As I got it. And I think of that actually, sometimes I’ve done my own talk sort of in that way and it’s always effective. And it was a fantastic talk. It had so much in it. And I got to see the ratings later and they were– it was just– there’s no way the ratings should have been that low. Not that he scored terribly. It’s just– I was like, there’s no way that this is correct. This suffered the accessibility penalty. And you know, as conference organizers, unless you’re doing a literal accessibility conference .. then that’s a whole different thing.

Nic:    Yeah, well that’s quite different.


I was lucky enough to actually do a couple of keynotes for PHP, you know, Sunshine PHP in Florida and Midwest PHP. So I did the closing keynote at Midwest in Minneapolis this year-

Eric:     Nice

Nic:    -and it really was really well received but I think that some conferences are starting to actually see more and more people talking about accessibility in a way that’s not so much, “Oh, you’re doing it wrong” but on more of a … “Let’s go forward together and let’s make it happen properly”.

Eric:     Yeah certainly, yeah

Nic:     And I think that perhaps that’s going away. But certainly I get what you’re saying about people– if it’s accessibility people are hesitant. They don’t just– won’t show up to a stream, or-

Eric:    Yeah, a little bit defensive. Subconsciously so … I think. Sometimes.

Nic:     Yeah

Eric:    And yeah, I mean, absolutely the, “You’re doing it wrong and you suck and this is why” is not going to fly. But even the, “Here’s how to make this better” … I think– you might be right that there’s a shift happening there. I think to some extent the term inclusive design seems to be picking up some currency. I know it’s been around for a while. But it seems to be more of a thing at the moment. And hopefully permanently but people are more interested in inclusive design which, can mean being cognizant cultural differences. And it can mean that sort of thing. But it can also mean just what we would think of as regular old accessibility, where you can say things like, “Hey when you make your text small, then you’re increasingly aging user population- where if we are lucky we are all aging- are going to have more and more problems with that so don’t make your text super tiny”. Bear in mind that we are all temporarily abled as–

Nic:    Yeah

Eric:    -I can’t remember who I heard say that the first time but I’ve heard that before. Those of us who are lucky enough to be fully abled are only temporarily so …

Nic:     Yeah

Eric:    Just to think about that. So being like, being able to sort of put accessibility under this larger umbrella of inclusivity, it does seem to be paying off somewhat for accessibility in terms of greater acceptance and not having sort of that prickly defensive reaction from the audience, “Oh an accessibility talk. I’m going to hear how I’m a terrible person and I slam the door in the faces of people who need my help”. Right? It’s, instead its .. I think maybe it’s becoming more of a, “I don’t know what I don’t know. Hopefully, this talk will tell me”.

Nic:    Yeah. It’s one of actually I don’t know what I don’t know. The– one opening I use a lot in my presentations is I have a photo of myself and my wheelchair wearing my wraparound sunglasses with my mobility assistance dog beside me. And I tell the story about how one day I was going down the sidewalk and there was two ladies on the patio– outside patio, and one said to the other, “Oh my god isn’t it sad. He’s blind and in a wheelchair”. I kind of stopped and turned around and say, “yeah yeah but, I’m not deaf”.

I used to have to help me people realize by telling this anecdote most people don’t know that not all service dogs are guide dogs. And it’s ok not to know and you have to go down a journey of discovery about a whole world that you don’t know but once you go down that path then you can never forget it so it’s ok to start from a point of view where you don’t realise things. But never stop learning,

Eric:    Yep, never stop learning, that’s pretty much the “zeroeth” rule of our industry. If you’re going to do it right never stop learning.

Nic:    Yeah.

Eric, I have one last question for you. Well, I have several more but we only have a limited amount of time.


What would you say the one thing people should remember about web accessibility?

Eric:    It is a foundational principle of the web. Like literally the web is built on accessibility. The original specs don’t necessarily call it that, but that’s an organizing principle of the web. And to try to ignore it or overcome it is a lot like trying to paddle upstream. Or worse, you know to use a tool in a way that it wasn’t intended. It’s like trying to use a screwdriver as a hammer. Or as- in this case, trying to use your screwdriver as a miter saw. You know you– I hesitate to say things like, “You’re doing it wrong” but, you know, if you get in a car and you see R and assume that means really fast and therefore never take it out of reverse. You know you’re kind of doing it wrong. It’s a fascinating way to go about things. But not really recommended. Right? And so … along with access to information is an organizing principle and that’s what accessibility is and so to– like I say, to try to ignore it to overcome it is you’re literally trying to work against the grain of the medium. You know? It’s not a good idea, you’re going to have a bad time. And more to the point, your users are going to have a bad time. That’s really the problem. Jeremy Keith says, “anytime someone has to be inconvenienced, if its the user or it’s me … it’s my job to make it me”. I’m paraphrasing Jeremy, he says it much more elegantly and in a much posher accent than I possess. Everything sounds smarter in British. Excuse me, Scottish British. Anyway, it’s the inconvenience needs to go on the developer. That’s the job. That’s what we are here for, is to make it easier for the people who use our stuff. And accessibility is a fundamental part of that. You may as well try to make web pages without HTML elements as far as I’m concerned.

Nic:    Wonderful. Eric, I really appreciate your time, your thoughts and the discussion. I had fun.

Eric:     I had a great time too. Thank you so much.

Nic:    So thank you, folks, out there. Thanks for listening and we will wrap this up for now. Thank you.

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 yourselves some neat accessibility branded swag at a11ystore.

Catch you next time!