E53 – Interview with Nic Steenhout – Part 1

In a role reversal, for the first episode of the second year of the show – I’m the one being interviewed 🙂 Léonie Watson was kind enough to chat with me. It was fun to be on the other side of things 🙂


Thanks to Twilio for sponsoring the transcript for this episode.

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Nic:    Welcome to the Accessibility Rules Podcast. This is episode 53. 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 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.

So, this week the roles are reversed. I’m the guest. Yeah. I took the suggestion that the second year of the podcast I should be the one answering the questions I usually ask. So, I asked Léonie Watson to interview me, and she graciously accepted.

Hi Léonie

Léonie:    Hi Nic. It’s great and thank you for the invitation to be the one who gets to reverse the roles on you.

Nic:    Well, thank you for accepting. I think it’s going to be fun. So, well, here I am. I’m anxiously awaiting your grilling. So, shall we do it?

Léonie:     Let’s do it. And let’s make it easy. How about you just introduce yourself to the listeners.

Nic:    Right, so for those of you who don’t know me, I’m Nic. I’m doing web accessibility and I’ve been involved in one way or another with accessibility since the mid-1990’s. I have a background as a disability rights activist. So, before doing web accessibility I was doing physical structure accessibility and accessibility services. Mostly in the United States and New Zealand and so now I work for Knowbility as a web accessibility specialist.

I do a lot of public speaking about, strangely enough, accessibility and consulting, training … that kind of stuff.

Léonie:    Great and you’re very well known to our community and it’s good for those who may not know you to have a little bit of your background. But, I’m going to kick off with the first question and actually ask you …

Can you tell us something about yourself that perhaps none of us out there listening to this podcast will know?

Nic:    Oh, none of you? Oh, that’s … See, I could tell you that I’m actually a chef by trade. It’s what I started my life as when I left school. But some of you may know that, so, that’s not ‘none of you’.

Well, there you go. I actually spent about four years of my life in West Africa.

Léonie:    Wow

Nic:    I was born in Greece and I’m from a Belgium father and a French Canadian mother so I’m a bit of a Heinz 57 mix.

Léonie:    That’s great and really interesting to find that out. Particularly that you started off life as a chef. I think there’s a lot of people in our industry who started off in one career and then found their way into accessibility. Through many different routes. What was it that got you into the web and accessibility?

Nic:    Well I became a wheelchair user in my mid 20’s and I was lucky enough to be spending some time in Chicago and I didn’t have anything to do with myself while I was waiting for my Green card to come through and I decided to volunteer in a centre for dependant living. A non-profit operated for and by people with disabilities. Non-residential. So I became involved there and very soon after I started volunteering there I was able to start working there and I had a colleague- one colleague, Horatio, he was blind and one day he walked into my office, he was really livid. He said, “Nic, you’re dealing with the web, right?” and I said, “Yeah”. He says, “So, why is it I go on a webpage and my screen reader says, “Image, image, image, image, image, image, image, image, image, image” So, I looked at the webpage and this was the time when we didn’t really have CSS to design anything and the designer thought it was a great idea to create designs in Photoshop and slice the menu, that has a very nice font and use that for the menu. So it was totally unusable. So that was my first kind of aha moment about web accessibility. I had been playing with HTML for awhile but I had been doing a lot of physical buildings, built environment accessibility audits.

A couple of weeks later I had a consumer come to me and she said, “Nic, I love the web but I’m having such a hard time because I have ADHD and all the different font sizes, colors, flashing things– I mean, at the time the marquis tag was still in use, which it should’ve been criminal but- she was really struggling. So we sat together and basically we created a user style sheet. A little bit of a CSS Reset kind of thing for her to basically reset everything to manageable sizes and colors that weren’t distracting to her.

And the last bit, so it kind of like happened in three events in the space of about a month. My deaf services coordinator at the time came into the office and asked me to help her setting up her printer because the instructions with her printer came on a video on a CD Rom. And of course, there were no captions for the CD, so that really was like I, you know pushed into the deep end of the cold water pool to say, “Hey! You care about accessibility but you haven’t really thought about web accessibility and 20 something– 25 years later, here I am.

Léonie:    And of course, the accessibility and digital on the web, people were thinking about it but it certainly wasn’t a commonplace thing if you’re talking mid 90’s, it took another four or five years before we got the first set of web content accessibility guidelines

Nic:    Yeah

Léonie:    Was it something you thought you could change, influence, improve? Is that what appealed to you?

Nic:    I think what appealed to me was really this feeling that for me accessibility is important. I like to have everybody be able to participate and access. Whether it’s access to information, entertainment, services, whichever and I really care about that as a whole and I thought that there was so much to be done because on the web really there’s no reason to have barriers so I was thinking, well, it’s difficult for me to go to the grocery store and it’s difficult for Horatio to go to the grocery store but if Peapod is online, a grocery shopping service is online, why can’t we make it accessibility so it’s actually easier for everybody to do that.

So it wasn’t so much in terms of changing the world, but trying to pass a message a little bit at a time. Doing– being an evangelist … advocate about accessibility.

Léonie:    And do you think the message is getting out there? Is it working?

Nic:    Sometimes it feels like it’s one step forward and two steps back. It’s been two decades that we are advocating and we are saying, “look, you’ve got to deal with the alt attribute on the images. You have got to do something about that.” And I would’ve hoped– if I placed myself back 20 years I would’ve hoped that this was not a message that we would still have to put through. I would have hoped that a senior VP of user experience would actually understand how a screen reader handles images. How resizing text is important. How color contrast– and I’m sorry if your branding is so poor that it’s got not contrast but it’s not just about people with low vision, it’s about you on your phone outside in full sun. All these things, I would’ve thought we would’ve been further along and been able to actually focus on really complex, juicy accessibility issues like tabbed interface or what not.

Léonie:    Yeah I think that’s right. I remember in the earlier days of my experience accessibility we had great hopes that as the population aged as those of us who were younger then moved into more senior positions within companies and as we aged there would be more natural understanding of some of the challenges out there and I think that’s happening to a certain extent but– What do you think?

Nic:    It is happening, there’s been a flurry of lawsuits in the United States in the last 18 months or so and I’m not particularly fond of making change through lawsuits but sometimes it’s what raises awareness of the issues, you know, people saying, “Oh, well, so and so is getting sued. Maybe I’m going to get sued, I need to have a look”. But more and more I actually interact with clients that obviously they’re interested in making sure they don’t have any liability but they approach it more and more from a corporate social responsibility approach. They want to do the right thing and they want to do the right thing right. Which to me is always refreshing when that happens. To go beyond the standards, beyond the guideline and make sure things are actually working for clients, visitors, people actually using their apps or systems.

Léonie:    And that’s when it moves from being something that has to be done into something that’s done because you want your product to be the best that it can be.

Nic:    Yeah

Léonie:    People put time and money into choosing the best fabrics, or the right materials .. you know, the right platforms and technologies for all sorts of things. I really think, and I’m sure you’ll agree, that’s where accessibility needs to be. It’s part of making a really damn good product.

Nic:    Yeah. It certainly is. For a long time people were not really conscious about the need for security and obviously there’s more and more consciousness about security. Performance is a massive aspect about developing apps and websites and I think that we have to have accessibility considered in the same way as security and performance, right from the start of the project and just weave it in so tightly that it’s just part of what we do.

Léonie:    Absolutely. Couldn’t agree more.

So, in your introduction at the start, you mentioned that you spent some time as an accessibility activist.

Nic:    Yeah

Léonie:    What sort of thing does that involve? What did it involve?

Nic:    Oh, well, this was mid-1990’s. In the United States, there was a lot of issues with people with disabilities being forced in nursing homes rather than living in their own homes just because they could not afford modifications of the apartment for accessibility or they couldn’t afford a personal care attendant when they needed it, or, any number of reasons. So we had at the time, something like 21% of people living in nursing homes were below the age of 40 just because they had a disability–

Léonie:    Wow

Nic:    -And, yeah, it’s mind-boggling. And of course, people were just really, what’s the word I’m looking for … they were in the dumps about that. Obviously. So we were working to establish programs to deinstitutionalize people. So make sure that those people that wanted to go back and live in the community could. So make sure that the money that was assigned to them did not go straight to the nursing home but was given to them to handle and manage how they want. So instead of costing, maybe $100,000 to keep someone in a nursing home, they could be spending maybe $35- $40,000 for them to live in their own homes in the community with the same level of support. So, a lot of that advocacy involved talking to legislatures … which was more advocacy than lobbying it was really doing education and once the legislatures met with us then we were able to explain the issues, but often also the legislatures would not want to meet us and then we would do protests. And so we would gather in front of their buildings, call the press and make the message heard. So that was one kind of advocacy.

I’ve had some real fun participating in actions organized by adapt, a disability rights group in the US and then– it’s very powerful when you’re one of 3,4, 500 people with disabilities all protesting. It’s a very empowering feeling to know that– yeah, that’s that. And of course, there’s more mild things like doing training, doing presentations to whether it’s a hospital or city council about what accessibility is and why it’s important and how they can do small things to impact greatly some people.

Léonie:    And it must be great to look back on the more active activism– that is if I can phrase it that way, With a sense of accomplishment because things have changed.

How do you see your role now within accessibility?

Nic:    I’m certainly a lot more tamed than I was in my younger, foolisher days. I, you know, there’s still space for a bit more in your face activism but I’m approaching things in the more– in a less confrontational manner, nowadays. I think that you approach people first with the assumption that if they’re not implementing accessibility it’s not because they don’t want to but that they just don’t know about it. They’re lacking that awareness of things. And from there you take steps to educate and then you start tightening the screws when nothing changes. Maybe you’ve seen that on Twitter but I’ve been on a campaign to try to make Patreon accessible, it is horrible from an accessibility perspective and it’s the only platform of it’s kind. I actually have my podcast on Patreon and it really hurts me that it’s not accessible to a lot of people that are in interested in the podcast and can’t participate in one way or another so, I’ve been working with them ,or trying to work with them, for more than a year now and the more I try to get them to change things the less they respond so I’m ready to see some stronger activity than, “Hey, you should do this because it’s the right thing and it’s not that difficult”  so, yeah, I think today I approach things less confrontationally and more in the spirit of education and working together.

Léonie:    Yeah, makes sense. I think it’s also about choosing the right approach for the moment, isn’t it?

Nic:    Yeah. Yeah, yeah it definitely is the right approach for the moment and the approach can change over time with the circumstances and the context.

Léonie:    I remembered being asked to– about this, years ago and actually saying the one thing that will drive me to my lawyer is not necessarily finding that something’s inaccessible in the first place–

Nic:    Yeah

Léonie:    — but it’s the getting the wrong reaction when I report the problem.

Nic:    That’s exactly right. Yes.

Léonie:    Yes, absolutely. So, clearly, you’ve had a great career in accessibility taking you through many different roles.

What do you think you would have done in life if you hadn’t have fallen into accessibility? Would you have carried on as a chef or chosen a different path do you think?

Nic:    I very likely would’ve remained as a chef. It’s interesting because looking backwards I think professional cooking is a sport for young people who work extremely long hours in a stressful environment. You work evenings, you work weekends, you work all the holidays and it’s a very physically and mentally tough career. It doesn’t pay very much unless you become really top of your game and you’re a celebrity chef just about.  But it’s so rewarding. It allows you to express your creative interests. It’s just really cool and I still cook but it’s not the same to cook at home for two or maybe five, six, seven people and know that you are going be feeding 200 people in an hour. It’s not the same thing, and I really love that. So, chances I would still be cooking nowadays, yeah.

Léonie:    It sounds like we can probably draw some parallels between the two careers. I think there’s a lot about accessibility that’s rewarding, incredibly difficult, time-consuming …

Nic:    Yeah, yeah. I– you know one of the things that I joke about once in a while is that being a chef taught me about an agile mindset before agile was a thing in computers because it’s being able to pivot and plan and all these things. So, in many ways cooking taught me transferable skills that I’m actually using today.

Léonie:    that makes sense actually. It’s actually a lot to do with, as you say, pivoting, thinking on your feet. But also the importance of planning, timing and balances and ratios … all of those kinds of things.

Nic:    Yeah and letting your teams actually decide how they’re going to get to where they need to get.

Léonie:    Oh, that’s a good point. That’s probably a whole talk and a blog post if not a podcast in there somewhere.

Nic:    It might be, yeah, it might be.

Léonie:    So, do you now, at your point in your career and your life … what does web accessibility mean to you at the moment?

Nic:    It means building systems that are usable without frustration for everybody. Regardless of their level of ability. So it’s really about making sure that obviously people with disabilities, all disabilities are able to use a site or an app but it’s also about inclusion and making sure that everybody has the same access. I don’t care if somebody is, has a cognitive disability and needs language that’s easier to understand or maybe pictograms or if somebody is a speaker of a language so English is their third language and they actually are benefiting from simpler language or pictograms … those two for me are just about as important as one another. Obviously, accessibility is primarily to make sure that people with disabilities can access content but I think that we can’t just focus on that because the impact of what we do goes well beyond the 20 percent or so of people with disabilities that are in our society.

Léonie:    Yeah, absolutely. And– Do you think that part of that is because the word accessible has been around for a long long time but of course, in the past couple of decades it’s become more strictly defined as making something available to someone with a disability and we have legal definitions for those things. Do you think there’s a need for us to return to the more expansive definition of the word accessible that does include people who have disabilities but also, as you say, people with language difficulties, people who are busy in sunlight and can’t see the screen properly … all of those things?

Nic:    I think we have to look at the context again. In a legal context, I think it’s very important to define that accessibility is for people with disabilities. Whether we’re in a litigious society like the United States or different societies, whether it’s the UK, New Zealand, Australia, Germany, Canada. Regardless of where you are you have to have that legal definition because let’s face it. We are still in a world context where a lot of things don’t happen unless it’s mandated by a legislation.

But when we’re talking, education, evangelizing about accessibility I think it’s really important to address the side benefits of making things accessible for people with disabilities. If only for the organization’s leadership that actually realize suddenly, “Hey, if I make this accessible for people with disabilities I’m making life easier for everybody else and chances are clients are going to pick us because it’s easier to use than our competitor.”

Léonie:    Has your own, sort of, definition of accessibility changed over the years do you think?

Nic:    Not really. It’s long been about his concept that we want to make things work for everyone. I vividly remember going to talk to a city council in Illinois one day and I said, “Look, yes the American with Disabilities Act says you have to put in curb cuts, and curb cuts are not just about people using wheelchairs.  They’re also about parents pushing prams. They’re about the delivery guy with the heavy dolly that he needs to get on to the sidewalk. They’re about kids on skateboards, they’re about a whole variety of people that go beyond just people with disabilities”. And I think that understanding has just kept on flowing for me. From those days to web accessibility today.

Léonie:    Makes sense

Nic:    Hey, sorry, it’s about half an hour in should we wrap up for this week and resume next week?

Léonie:    That sounds good for me.

Nic:    Alright, well. Folks, thanks for listening to me answer the questions and Léonie thank you for asking me those questions and let’s resume that next week.

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 a11y.store.

Catch you next time!