E54 – Interview with Nic Steenhout – Part 2

“It’s a frustration of mine that too often when somebody asks me a question about accessibility, the only answer I can really give if I want to be succinct is, “It depends”.”


Thanks to Twilio for sponsoring the transcript for this episode.

Make sure you have a look at:


The second part of my chat with Léonie, in which she interviews me! “It’s a frustration of mine that too often when somebody asks me a question about accessibility, the only answer I can really give if I want to be succinct is, “It depends”.”


Nic:    Welcome to the Accessibility Rules Podcast. This is episode 54. 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 we are continuing my conversation with Léonie but in this episode as per last week, it’s not me interviewing Léonie. It’s her interviewing me and asking me questions that I normally ask other people.


So, Hey Léonie, thanks for last week and thanks for coming back and I’m entirely yours to interrogate.

Léonie:    Thanks Nic, it’s good to be back. I’m going to dive in with a pretty serious question now, I think.

What are the biggest barriers you’ve experienced in trying to make the web more accessible over the years?

Nic:    It’s this idea that many developers have that you can’t tack on accessibility after the fact. I was invited to be on the Joomla CSS core team when they first started after they fought for Mambo and they asked me on board specifically because I had been making a pain of myself on the Mambo forums always talking about accessibility, and they said, “Hey, Nic. Why don’t you join and we can make it accessible.” And, I lasted about a year because I ended up refactoring all the code to make it accessible and at the end, they said, “Well, maybe we’ll keep it as a third party plugin”. And that was soul destroying. Now, I haven’t looked at Joomla! in nearly 10 years so I don’t know where they’re at. I don’t know if they’ve changed their approach to accessibility but that really was symptomatic of what I find a lot of. And I mention Joomla! because it’s part of my experience. Not because I want to pick on them. The folks involved now are not the same that were involved then. But, we find a lot of that. It’s like, we’re designing this website and at the end, we are going to run quality assurance and test for accessibility. Well, no. You can’t do that. You know, you complain accessibility is expensive and yes, of course it is. Because it takes a lot to refactor code and go in and fix things. It’s like if you were building a house, right? You build it with a narrow door and two front steps in the entrance. It’s going to be very expensive to put in a ramp and widen the door. But if you had put it a level entrance and a wide door to start with your extra costs would have been negligible. I think it’s the same thing on the web.

Léonie:    I tend to agree. What I find really interesting about that mindset, when I encounter it, is that usually, it’s teams that would not apply the same logic to any other part of their development. If they were talking about– last week privacy, security, the technical debt that people can accumulate through the life cycle of a project is enormous, and most good developers and development teams will go out of their way to avoid collecting technical dat. But for some reason with accessibility, somebody somewhere goes, “it’s fine”

Nic:    Yeah, it is fine. No problem. We’ll just, you know, third party plugin after the fact. So, I think that’s probably my biggest frustration in terms of accessibility. There’s a lot of little things that I find annoying, but, this attitude that accessibility can be thought of after the fact, and perhaps in a way it annoys me so much not only because it doesn’t work very well but also because it reflects the attitude of some that people with disabilities don’t really count –It’s ok, we can care about them after the fact. We don’t need to include them– and, sorry, we just want to be part of things.

Léonie:    Yeah, absolutely. And as you mentioned last week there were some great reasons for independence and freedom of thought and action. Being able to do stuff online if you have a disability.

Nic:    Yeah

Léonie:    Yeah, it’s incredibly important. I’m going to have to ask though, tell me about some of the other little things that irritate you.

Nic:    It’s a frustration of mine that too often when somebody asks me a question about accessibility the only answer I can really give if I want to be succinct is, “It depends”. It’s having to keep in mind that depending on the context and the situation the answer about what is accessible and what is less accessible varies and changes. And I am annoyed on the behalf of the people that ask me a question when I have to open up with, “It depends”. Of course, you go in and give more information and you can expand on that and give different solutions but people are wanting black or white and too often we have to give them grey.

Léonie:    Do you think that people want more black or white when it comes to accessibility because they recognize the importance of what they’re trying to do? I mean all answers in technology seem to start with, “It depends” but accessibility is maybe something that needs a little more clarity.

Nic:    I think that they want black or white because it’s something that’s completely beyond their experience. Their lived experience. They don’t know very much at all and that’s normal to not be aware of the experience of a screen reader user or someone who needs high contrast or someone that uses only a keyboard or any of these variations. It’s normal not to be aware of these experiences because you don’t know anyone that has a disability, you can only build that understanding from theoretical knowledge. So, when you don’t know and even if you want to, you know, you’re there and you want to do the right thing you just don’t know how and you’re afraid of messing up. So having a single straight, single, applicable answer is a lot better for people than giving different scenarios.

Léonie:    And how much of this do you think we still need to fix in terms of educating young designers, developed, UXers…

Nic:    Ooh I so wish accessibility was an integral part of every curriculum out there. One of my frustration 20 years ago was that architects in a four year degree would get maybe four, six hours worth of accessibility tuition and I look at computer science degrees or multimedia design degrees and all that and I don’t even know that they get that much about accessibility and I think that is– it’s one of the basic skill set that developers or designers must have and unless it’s taught in school, unless it’s covered in all these myriads of tutorials online, I think we are still going to end up with people that don’t have the knowledge, don’t have the skills.

Léonie:    Yeah, I agree. And I know Knowbility is involved in Teach Access–

Nic:    Yes

Léonie:    –which is something the Paciello Group is also involved in. Can you suggest whether you think that’s the right sort of approach?

Nic:    I think teach access is definitely a very solid approach. The problem with it is it doesn’t have enough of a reach yet. It’s not known well enough yet, It hasn’t had the impact that it should have and that’s not blaming or making fault with the program itself or the people involved in it. I mean they’re doing a brilliant job but there’s only so much that can be done to be able to reach all the different programs out there. All the nooks and crannies and you know, reach in the States obviously but in Canada and everywhere. India even. We have so many developers coming out of India nowadays that we need to make sure things are reaching out that way as well.

Léonie:    Absolutely. It does seem like a good approach though, trying to get this into the curricula. Of course [crosstalk] schools.

Nic:     It’s got to be in the curricula. Absolutely.

Léonie:    Yeah, I think so. So, looking back, a question now. What’s the best thing, or the thing you look back on with the most affection that you’ve accomplished in your time working in accessibility? What are you most proud of?

Nic:    I can’t think of a single thing that’s, you know, “oh wow, I’m so proud of this”. I haven’t written a book about accessibility and I think there’s a lot of great books out there but it’s something that’s always been in the back of my mind. But 
I, you know, I don’t have any single event like that but I think what I’m most proud of is the general accumulation of all the advocacy and the education that I’ve managed to do and get people to perceive accessibility as something being valuable and worth doing and that they actually go in and do. Over the years, over 20 years I don’t know how many dozens or even hundreds of people I’ve been able to influence but I think that that’s to me what I’m most proud of … is getting people to understand just how important accessibility is and that they can do it too.

Léonie:    I think that that’s a real accomplishment to be proud of. You know if I look back maybe five or six years accessibility was still something that was very much within the accessibility community but now you look at most international conferences for the web … there’s an accessibility feature there. We’ve got all sorts of publications, Smashing magazine, Net magazine, talking and writing about accessibility.

Nic:    In 2014 I was invited to speak at OSCON conference in- I think it was in Portland then, and they had all these themed tables. So they had software architecture table and they had design table and they had security table but they didn’t have an accessibility table and I said, “Hey”, you know, “you really should have an accessibility range table” and they said, “Oh, yeah, yeah we should” and the following day they had handwritten a sign and suddenly there was an accessibility table. And this year I was invited to speak at O’Reilly Fluent and low and behold there was actually planned ahead of time, and accessibility themed table at lunchtime.

Léonie:    Excellent

Nic:    So I’m seeing these kinds of things that are seeping in. I speak at a fairly large number of open source conferences and it’s actually quite rewarding to see that more and more when they list the topics of the things they want to have people pitch talks about, accessibility is more and more one of them, so it’s great.

Léonie:    And do you get a sense that people who create products, whether they’re designers, UXers, interaction people, developers, really want to get accessibility right but sometimes they’re under pressure by perhaps their project managers, their budget, their timelines … to cut some of the corners.

Nic:    Yeah … it is an issue and I speak to a lot of developers that come to me at conferences particularly that say, “Hey Nic, I want to make this happen but I don’t have the money” or I have project managers that say, “Well it wasn’t part of the brief. The client doesn’t want to pay extra for accessibility” and what I tell these people is, “Do it guerilla accessibility. Do it under the hood. Do it despite what your client wants” and I often say, “Well do you charge extra to your client to have a secure site? Or performing site” and they say, “no” … “So why charge extra to your client for an accessible site? Just make it as part and parcel of your services. And it’s not going to take very long for clients to realize, “Hey! you know, if I go to this design firm they are actually going to give me something that’s going to protect me from liability from accessibility lawsuits so I’m going to pick them”. And if you’re the lone developer that doesn’t have the support necessary to make it happen … well if you include it in what you do you have the satisfaction of knowing that you’ve done what you could and chances are the way you’ve written stuff it’s going to make it to final release and you’re going to have made a difference.

Léonie:    Yeah, absolutely.

So if you think about the web as it is today … what do you consider to be your biggest frustration in accessibility terms?

Nic:    It’s funny, I knew this question was coming and I can’t really put my finger on one greatest frustration. Definitely what we spoke about already. A little bit is the fact that accessibility is often thought about at the last minute. There’s … I guess a question of attitudes that I find frustrating. It’s this idea that, “Well, we don’t have anybody with disabilities coming to our website so why should we make it accessible” … that kind of mindset I find very frustrating. But it’s also at the same time very fun and very rewarding to be able to make people who think like that suddenly realize, “Oh well, actually maybe nobody with disabilities comes to our website because it’s not accessible” or “Maybe I don’t know how many people with disabilities actually come to my website”. So, yeah. I think attitudes is probably the most frustrating thing for me.

Léonie:    In what sense?

Nic:    In that sense that accessibility isn’t important. People with disabilities aren’t important. We won’t put priority on accessibility … that kind of mindset is frustrating.

Léonie:    Yeah, it is. Yeah.

Do you think it’s changing? I seem to spend less time these years explaining to people that as a blind person I can and do use technology than I used to perhaps 10 or 20 years ago. Has that changed from your point of view?

Nic:    Yeah I think people are becoming more aware of things like that. But then you’ll also … not also, but you still get people that question. But a mate of mine who was blind, back in Savannah, GA got really frustrated because people asked him, “So, who picks your clothes in the morning?” and he was really frustrated. And I get really frustrated when I go do grocery shopping and people say, “Oh wow. It’s so good that you’re doing grocery shopping”. And I’m thinking, well it’s not because I’m in a wheelchair that I stop needing to eat. And then people are really surprised that I get in a car and drive and I have a mobility assistance dog and people think he’s a guide dog and I’ve been told, “Whoa whoa whoa, you can’t get behind the wheel of a car. You can’t drive, you’re blind”. Yeah, it’s hilarious when you think about it but when it happens it’s just annoying. So yeah people are getting more aware but you still have pockets here and there of things that you think it should be the ABC and you realize that, no, even as basic as it is you’re still having to educate people.

Léonie:    I think it’s one of those difficult things isn’t it. People don’t know what they don’t know so I’ll try to be patient if I think that’s the case.

Nic:    Yes

Léonie:    It’s when you get the deliberately silly questions that I tend to run out of patience. But, you know.

Nic:    It’s also when you’ve been asked a silly question once on your shopping trip … yeah alright. But when it’s the 12th or 13th or 15th time unfortunately sometimes my patience wears short. I’m never rude with people but sometimes I get a little bit more curt.

Léonie:    Yeah. And that’s fair enough. That’s just human nature isn’t it.

Nic:    Yeah, yeah.

Léonie:    So, back on accessibility, again. Is there something, if you could think of one piece of information that you think is … received wisdom in the industry about accessibility. What would you choose?

Nic:    I don’t think … I think the question has two different answers depending on context. If we’re talking about within the Web Accessibility community or if we’re talking about general knowledge of anybody that is in web development I think that the answers would be different. I think within the accessibility community itself the message that I see more and more and more is really about including accessibility from the start of any project. And this concept that it’s about everybody. From the general context, I think the general wisdom is that accessibility is difficult. Now I don’t think they’re right. I don’t think accessibility is difficult but I think that’s the perception out there that is universal. That it’s difficult and it’s expensive. And we have to change that attitude because it’s neither difficult nor expensive if you do it right.

Léonie:    Yeah I think you’re right. And do you think that that attitude is … any reason … the reason that people often fail with accessibility? Or something else a more common cause?

Nic:     I think people fail to implement Web Accessibility because they’re afraid of not doing it right. And they prefer to not do anything rather than implement a few things that might make a difference. I think people are not even trying because they’re thinking, “Well, I can’t make that website work for a person that’s blind, deaf and paralyzed from the neck down. You know, immediately jump to the edge case when in fact we could get maybe the little hanging fruits. We may be able to get 60 or 70 or even 80 percent with accessibility with a minimum effort. So, yeah I think people are afraid of doing the wrong thing and just don’t do it.

Léonie:    I think you’re absolutely right. Perfect sometimes the enemy of good as they say.

Nic:    Yes.

Léonie:    So, I don’t think we have too much longer now. So a question. Looking forward now. What do you think the greatest challenge we face as a profession, a community will be?

Nic:    Adapting to new technologies. We’re having more and more different inputs. So, you know, we have Alexa and Siri and voice input and I think that as a community, people working in Web Accessibility has to get used to working in different ways. And we have to adapt our mindset to that. We have to look at how artificial intelligence can actually help with accessibility and how we’re going to have to pivot to keep doing the work we want to do and improve accessibility for everyone. Keeping in mind these new technologies.

Léonie:    Do you think there’s– you mentioned AI– Do you think there’s a tendency, perhaps in the industry at large but certainly with accessibility, that we’re rushing towards AI as a solution to all our problems in accessibility?

Nic:    Maybe. I personally like to think of AI as one more possible tool in the toolbox of making things work. But I think there’s also a lot of risk to give up our responsibility to accessibility entirely unto AI. Or it’s not ready for prime time and it might never be. In a way, Google captions– not Google captions, YouTube captions, on the web, automated captions is an early form of AI and they’ve been doing these automated captions for 10 years or so and still more craptions than captions. So maybe it will get better with time but I don’t think we should be relying entirely on that. But at the same time, we shouldn’t just ignore this new technology because it’s not ready yet. We have to do the work to get it ready. It’s a bit of both I think.

Léonie:    And I think with accessibility it’s interesting. You know, artificial intelligence is certainly intelligent by the standards of the technology and being artificial but it’s a long way between artificially intelligent and artificially human. And accessibility is so much about being human.

Nic:    Yeah, it’s about people. Accessibility is definitely about people. Yeah.

Léonie:    It is.  Okay. One very quick curveball question now. What’s your favourite word?

Nic:    Bugger

Léonie:    Excellent. That is possibly the best answer to that question.

Nic:    I– My favourite word varies from day to day but I really quite like the word bugger. It’s– I know it is perceived very differently depending on where you are. And my listeners in the U.S might have a wildly different reaction, but I learned that word when I lived in New Zealand for 10 years and it’s used as a swear word, as an exclamation, as a– oh, it’s just great and .. yeah.

Léonie:    Very much like it is in British English–

Nic:    Yes

Léonie:     –so I approve wholeheartedly.

A last question then just because I do think we need to wrap up now. If you could leave everybody with one thought or one piece of advice about accessibility, what would that be?

Nic:    Accessibility is about people. Accessibility is about the people that use your website, your apps. Accessibility is about the people that designs your websites and apps and code it and it’s also about you. Maybe not the you of today but maybe the future you or people you know. So, it’s really … it’s a technical challenge to reach human solutions.

Léonie:    Yeah. that’s actually a great thought to leave people with. Thank you Nic and thank you very much for letting me come in and ask you all these questions.

Nic:    Thank you for being candid and asking me these questions and making them your own. So I had a lot of fun to be in the seat of the person being interviewed. So thank you so much.

Léonie:    You’re welcome.

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.
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Catch you next time!