E55 – Interview with Becky Gibson – Part 1

In this episode, Becky talks to us about how changes in technology has changed her perception of accessibility. She also tells us how she came to be so passionate about accessibility!


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Nic:    Welcome to the Accessibility Rules Podcast. You’re listening to episode 55. 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 I’m speaking to Becky Gibson.

Thanks for joining me for this conversation around web accessibility Becky.

Becky:    Oh, thanks. I’m thrilled to be here.

Nic:    Cool. Hey, I like to let guests introduce themselves. So in a brief introduction, who is Becky Gibson?

Becky:    Let’s see. Who am I? I am a 55 plus-year-old woman. I live alone with two cats. I haven’t always been alone. And I guess I kind of am a computer geek although less so than I started. I started life with Lotus if people remember that, as a customer support representative and then I moved on to become a programmer. I actually worked on the print subsystem on 1, 2, 3. I’m proud of that. Yes, and then I went on to work on Lotus Notes, which some people will hate me for because a lot of people don’t particularly like Lotus Notes. But it was innovative for its time. And then I eventually got into accessibility about 13, 14 years ago working with Rich Schwerdtfeger, he was starting a new group in emerging technologies and I really enjoyed that because it gave me– it felt like there was more than just business, right,

Nic:    Yeah

Becky:    It was okay when I worked on 1, 2, 3, when it was small and people were using it to record their book production for cows but then it got into business and that’s not what I was about so it gave me more of a reason– it put excitement back in. and I got to do a lot of open source work with that so, yeah.

And let’s see, what do I do for fun … I’m a– I figure skate. Not something I would recommend taking up in your 40’s but I enjoy it. And I like doing outdoorsy kind of stuff and I’m addicted to reading as well–

Nic:    Well, there are worse addictions to that. To have than reading so, yeah.

So I was going to ask you, tell me one thing most people don’t know about you but you gave us a few, from Lotus to figure skating and reading. So, is there anything else you think that our listener might be interested in knowing that you haven’t told us about?

Becky:    Well, I came into computers sort of backwards. I mean, I was always very much a science related, math type person. But back in the late 70’s when I graduated from High School nobody really suggested that I might be interested in computer science or civil engineering, which would’ve been a fit for me. I went to school and my degree is in Natural Resource Management and I have a minor in soil science and an option in land use planning. But, when I graduated from school there weren’t many jobs in that, unlike today. So, I had taken a computer programming course. I had taken Fortran with punch cards. And I loved it. And so, my woman who was to become my sister in law said, “Oh you should learn to program in Cobol and you could work in the computer industry”. Well, I did take a Cobol class and said, “Ew” and I did eventually get into computers … through Lotus. And I got my Masters in Computer Science, but, yeah.

Nic:    Right. So, just to show all roads lead to accessibility eventually, right?

Becky:    That’s right.

Nic:    So we’re talking about web accessibility today, primarily. And there’s a lot of definitions of that term. How would you define Web Accessibility?

Becky:    I define it as the ability of anyone to be able to access resources on the web anywhere at any time. So I think that broadens a little, from just saying that it has to be somebody with a disability. I think it takes into what we in the industry refer to as situational disabilities. You know, when you’re in your car, when you’ve broken your arm. So inclusion is a hot word these days but it definitely is including everybody.

Nic:    There seems to be a movement that, anyway, I’ve been aware of in the last five, six, seven months that some accessibility advocates are getting angry that we’re trying to sell accessibility as something that has side benefits for all kinds of people. Including those that only have situational impairments. How would you answer that kind of critic considering your definition of accessibility, which is quite wide and encompassing?

Becky:    Well, I think– and I think it’s an unfortunate situation that you have to make people empathetic. And one way of doing that is addressing their concerns that– making them aware. And making them aware is ok, listen if you want to listen to your phone in the car then, yeah. That’s– and this is how you do it. And you may have to put in some extra work. And this is– and I can try to stress how important it is for people with disabilities. Again, that’s talking to the person that has the situational disability. I can see where the people with a disability might say you’re marginalizing me by making it something that affects everybody. And in some cases that’s true but it also– I think it broadens the– it provides … I don’t want to say empathy because I don’t want people to come about it because they feel sorry for people with disabilities but I think it makes them recognize it more.

Nic:    Yeah. It’s a position that I understand but I don’t share, that is the fact that we should not sell accessible as- it’s good for everyone. Personally, I think, it’s good for everyone, and that’s how I present it. And it’s something I’ve been using for a very long time. When I was doing physical environments accessibility a lot I pointed out to people, a curb cut is good for a wheelchair user but it’s good for a mom with a pram, it’s good for a delivery guy with a heavy dolly, it’s good for kids on skateboards, it’s good for a lot of people so that’s always been in the back of my mind that it’s more about encompassing society as a whole rather than in a way ghetto’ising people with disabilities.

Becky:    Right. And I think, yeah, it makes people have– understand the issue more and I think you have to understand an issue to really care about it. And I hesitate to bring this up because I don’t like to play the widow game, but I am a widow and until you have something like that, so devastating happen to you, it’s really hard to understand what it’s like for someone. The changes that they go through and it doesn’t have to be a spouse, or whatever, but just a loss like that–

Nic:    Yeah

Becky:    –or just a life-changing event and you … you’re just like, “wow, I didn’t get it” and I think just trying to make more people aware of that just helps in their understanding as people go through their day to day lives. Like, you know, crap. I may break down crying at some point and I’m sorry but I’ve just got to go through it and you’ve got to accept it and let me go through it. Or whatever that may be, that’s what … and I think just raising awareness I think is just so important.

Nic:    Yeah. where does your role fall within the work of web accessibility?

Becky:    Now? Or later?

Nic:    Yes

Becky:     So now I’m working with Knowbility and I’m thrilled with that. I met Sharron right when I started in this industry and she’s been one of my biggest fans nice, which is a wonderful thing. But– and so, a part of I think my work is– I work on trying to– part of my job at knowbility is to help work on training, And I think that … that’s again, that’s making people more aware, helping them to understand. Giving them the tools that they need. And that’s some of what my past has done too as far as my work on ARIA or WCAG.

Nic:    Hold on, your voice is breaking up from the recording.

Becky:    Oh. Sorry. Do you want me to go back?

Nic:    Yeah, if you could. Because, yeah. That’s much better.

Becky:    Okay. So–

Nic:    So, I was asking you–

Becky:    What I do

Nic:    Where does your role fall within the work of Web Accessibility.

Becky:    Right. So I was saying I’m thrilled to be working at Knowbility now. And my primary goal there is to help work on training and again I think that helps me go toward my mission of educating people more and helping to give them the tools that they need to address Web Accessibility and to become more aware. And I’ve done sort of that in the past as well with some of the other work that I’ve done when I was still at IBM.

Nic:    How did you become aware of web Accessibility and its importance? What kind of gelled everything together? Was it meeting Sharron or was it something else?

Becky:    No it was before that. So, I was looking for a new job within IBM. I was just fed up with the work I was doing. And before that, I had worked on a project building Java server pages. So we were adding Java Server support to Lotus Notes. At the time it was still called Lotus. And I was tasked with helping to figure out what we needed for tags, build this library and then build the examples. And part of the IBM at the time– and this was in the early 2000’s– said our– anything that has a unit or interface has to be accessible to people with disabilities. So I had to learn about that. Because Java server pages were web-based, right, you’re building a web page–

Nic:    Yeah

Becky:    –and that’s where I met Rich Schwerdtfeger who was at IBM, who became the Chief Accessibility Officer for IBM Software Group. And he was joining the emerging technologies team to set up a group specifically working on accessibility and taking accessibility further than just compliance. And so when that group started he invited me to join that. And that’s how I got into working on accessibility full time.

Nic:    That’s really neat. Did you … get barriers in your way when you were trying to learn about accessibility and how to implement it and trying to find that information?

Becky:    I definitely got tired of hearing that you need to put Alt text on images. So when I would go to do training sessions or, you know, “labels on forms, you need alt text on images”, and some of that basic stuff. And I swore to myself that I would never keep telling people that and I still do to this day. And I apologize when I do it. I said, “I know a lot of you have heard this but I still see those mistakes– same mistakes being made over and over again” so I do include that when I talk to people. But yeah, I found it hard to find out the more difficult stuff. Like how do you do this? And at the time, I mean, there was still … WCAG was still in effect and you weren’t– you were supposed to run without Javascript. So that made it a little bit different. And that’s why– one of the reasons why I was put on the web content accessibility guidelines 2.0 working group, was to show people that you could make accessible Javascript.

Nic:    Right. Yeah, and as we know now, it’s really– we can even use Javascript to make things more accessible.

Becky:    That’s right.

Nic:    Yeah… Has your view of accessibility changed over the last 10, 15 years?

Becky:    I don’t– I guess I think about it more with the idea of mobile. Certainly, it has changed. It has brought about more of that understanding of it’s more … I get the situational stuff now. Right. Before I didn’t necessarily think about that. You didn’t have a phone in your– you didn’t have a computer in your pocket that you might want to use when it’s bright outside or when it– so I think that has made me broaden my idea of accessibility and broaden the fact that there are situational uses. Also the fact of how much more it can do for people with disabilities so people that need to work from home can do that and if the internet and the web tools are accessible then that helps people gain more access to work. And so I think I’ve become more aware of what accessibility can do and the benefits it has and I think that’s because of the technology change.

Nic:    So the change in technology made you more aware of the extent of the importance of accessibility?

Becky:    Yeah, maybe not more aware of but just …yeah maybe I guess so. More conscious. More understanding how much it can impact– the impact it can have. The increasing impact.

Nic:    Right. That’s interesting the– as you know I speak to a lot of people for this podcast and I ask that question and you’re the first person to really bring that aspect of it so I like that.

Becky:    Oh good. I’m glad I can be unique in some way.

Nic:    Oh, Becky. I know you. You are unique alright.

Becky:    Yeah probably too much sometimes.

Nic:    So you mentioned you were part of the working group that gifted us WCAG 2.0. Tell me a little bit more about that work. How did you get involved with the working group? What led to us getting this set of guidelines that was round as is for 10 years before we even got another layer with 2.1.

Becky:    So, I mean, again with Schwedtfeger who was very active in the WC3 with IBM. IBM was very active and I was at IBM most of my– pretty much all of my career except for a very few years at the beginning. I started at Lotus, went to IBM and so he was very much– he– Rich was very much the father of ARIA. Accessible Rich Internet Applications. And he and Aaron Ramunthel sort of worked together bringing that forward. So in order to be able to use ARIA you certainly had to be able to use Javascript. And so he said, “Becky. You know Javascript and so we need people on the WCAG working group who understand Javascript and can explain the techniques and examples and explain to people that it isn’t this awful, evil thing. That it can be made accessible.” And so that’s sort of how I got put there. And it was a learning curve but I had good help. Andy who was from IBM was on the group. So she helped me along to get settled in. They found out I could take notes really well so I ended up being scribe way too often. And it was interesting. It was sort of my first experience with some of these large groups and of course, WCAG is very large … is a big group. And there’s a lot of diverse opinions. But I think we really did try to take into account everyone’s– you know, we let everyone speak. There are a few people that might disagree with that but we tried to let everyone speak if they were reasonable. And you know, John Slatin was on the group and he was amazing and the perspectives he brought and the editing skills and just the patience. So … and that’s where I focussed. I mean I focussed mainly on the guidelines and techniques that were around. Javascript will say, “Yes, we can do this” and it isn’t as terribly evil.

Nic:    Yeah. Is there something you wish had been included in WCAG 2.0 that they didn’t?

Becky:    Hmm, I don’t know. I actually left the group before it actually. I didn’t get to see it all the way through finalization which was a little bit frustrating, but … I guess one of the things that barely made it into 2.1 is some of the color contrast things because I think those are easy ways to make things accessible and the fact that it’s only text and not icons and some of those things, but … no, I don’t have a good answer for that so I should probably stop rambling.

Nic:    and that’s fair enough. That’s fair enough. In terms of color contrast one of my frustrations is these companies that are saying, “Well, you know, my brand guidelines” and I want to say. “Yeah well your branding is fine but if you have white text against a light orange … maybe that’s your brand but man your brand sucks”. So, yeah I was glad to see some of the color contrast come in through 2.1 but I wanted more strict man, more strict.

Becky:    Right

Nic:    Yeah. What’s your favorite word?

Becky:    Oh I didn’t think about that one.

Nic:    Haha! I like to throw a curveball once in a while.

Becky:    Enthusiasm. That’ll be my favourite word today.

Nic:    Enthusiasm. Why?

Becky:    just because it has potential. It is like there’s so much hidden potential in that word. You rush into something … sometimes you’ll make a mistake, sometimes you’ll run in to and discover something that you never thought that you would discover. Just because you went in with sort of an open mind. Enthusiastic, just jump right in.

Nic:    Yeah. Let’s finish this segment for this week with a positive question. Positive vibration. What’s your greatest achievement in terms of Web Accessibility?

Becky:    I think my work on ARIA and the Dojo toolkit was probably one of my greatest achievements. Hopefully, I will have more. I have– in another year or two I’ll have another, bigger one, to say. But, that was really hard, we had people– I mean, in the beginning, we started as dynamic HTML accessibility. People were like, “No, you’re ruining things. You’ve got to get rid of Javascript”. In the beginning a lot of people– there were a lot of people that really were against it. And there still are people that are against it. And I see that. It is somewhat of a Band-Aid but it was a necessary one. But, you know, we also realised we had to prove it would work. So IBM wanted a toolkit that was accessible so they funded myself and other colleagues to work on making the Dojo open source toolkit accessible. And Dojo sort of not as popular as it was back then. Times have changed. But at the time it was the first Javascript toolkit that had a fully accessible widget set.

Nic:    Wow

Becky:    And so that, to me, that was an accomplish– that’s how I met Sharron because that’s what I was– Sharron Rush at Knowbility. That’s when I was talking about dynamic HTML accessibility at CSUN where it had a name. And so I was really honoured to be able to work on that. And I remember how interesting it was when I heard other people talking about ARIA. I was like, wow it really is a thing now. It’s not just the three of us, Aaron, Rich and I that are talking about it. It’s really a thing, it’s really happening. And so I think that for me was the biggest thing.

Nic:    Well I think it’s certainly a big achievement that has had a big impact on people. Still has an impact on people. I mean, I speak about ARIA all the time.

Hey, who came up with the first rule of ARIA. You know, don’t use ARIA if you can help it?

Becky:    I’m not sure it was us. It was funny that one of the times that I heard somebody talk about ARIA they were talking about how people would just put it in and expect the things to just work. And I was like, “What do you mean. You’ve got to put in all the Javascript behind it” and, so that’s not really answering your question, but, that’s when I started hearing that too. The first rule of ARIA is don’t use it. I won’t say that we didn’t think that. It was like, look if you need– if you’re making a select, use a select. You don’t have to make a fancy one. If you’re using a button, use a button. I mean, I still tell people that. And you look at some of the toolkits and it’s like, “oh you want a button. You use this anchor link and then you stick a role on it”. And I’m like, “Why” but yeah. So I don’t know where that– who came up with that. But I’m not sure it was the three of us. We might, we probably said it but not that cleverly.

Nic:    Right. Yeah fair enough.

Hey, Becky. Thank you for this great conversation. Let’s wrap it up and reconvene next week.

Becky:    Okay, that sounds great.

Nic:    Alright

Becky:    Thank you

Nic:    Thank you.

Folks out there, thank you for listening and don’t miss part two which will be made available 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!