E57 – Interview with Jen Simmons – Part 1

I love what Jen had to say about accessibility! She said, among other things: “accessibility is about the recognition that every human isn’t identical to every other human.”


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Nic:    Welcome to the Accessibility Rules Podcast. You’re listening to episode 57. 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.

This week I’m speaking to Jen Simmons. Hey, thanks for joining me join. See, I fluffed that up. I will start again. Alright, so, this week I’m speaking to Jen Simmons. Thanks for joining me for this conversation around Web Accessibility, Jen.

Jen:    Hello. Thanks for having me.

Nic:    Well, thank you for coming on. I know you’re doing quite a few things. Jen, I like to let guests introduce themselves, so in a brief elevator style introduction … Who is Jen Simmons?

Jen:    So these days I work as a designer and developer advocate for Mozilla which is a company that makes the Firefox browser. And that means I get to travel around, present at conferences. Talk to people, find out what people are struggling with. Keep my eye on the pulse, or my finger on the pulse of the industry. People making websites and then report all that back to Mozilla and tell them, “Hey, this is what people are really going to need. This is what’s coming up next”. So we can be sure to create the right developer tools that are needed, or create the right– put CSS … I focus specifically on CSS. And making a browser, making Firefox. It’s like making any piece of software. There’s a zillion features we want to add and a bazillion bugs we want … need to fix–

Nic:    Yeah

Jen:    –And a limited number of engineers, I help shape what is it that we are going to be focussing on. Just … I help, I chim in and advocate for designers and developers as those decisions are being made.

Nic:    Yeah. Firefox is not a small project that a couple of people are working on in their spare time. I started using Firefox when it was still 0.2 or something like that. Way, way back when. And I really loved it. I was devastated when there was this issue and I think it was 58, 59 that wasn’t working very much with screen readers anymore.

Jen:    Yeah, and I don’t know the details so this is sort of a hand-wavy explanation I should probably go find out the real information so I can say this accurately but I think … my guess about what happened is that the company was pushing so hard to make these massive technical changes to the browser itself under the hood for Firefox 57 that there were a lot of people pulled off a lot of projects and just put on this one effort. Get Firefox Quantum out the door. Get Firefox [crosstalk 03:24] out the door. And so anything that wasn’t- I mean, we broke a lot of stuff. We changed the way the plugins- addons work–

Nic:    Yeah

Jen:    –web extensions … I mean we replaced the entire CSS parsing and rendering engine, right? So there was such huge amounts of technical DAT being paid off … things had been built in the browser really in the Netscape days or like back in Firefox zero point whatever days, that we changed. And so my guess, and it’s just a guess. This is not official information. My guess is that there were just changes that got made that meant that it broke for screen readers. It broke for accessibility. And somewhere someone just said, “look we are going to fix that ASAP but we are going to also ship 57.

Nic:    Yeah

Jen:    And so- and there were people inside the company who were like, “this is not okay” and very, really made sure that as soon as possible, with 58, 59, 60, 61 we get back to where we were because being a browser that is best of class and supporting anybody who is using an assistive device is very important to the mission of Mozilla. So it’s not that Mozilla’s mission changed. Or that our commitment to accessibility changed. It was just this blip that was needed. Maybe needed, maybe you can debate whether it was right or wrong but it was a blip that happened in order to really make these massive changes to the browser to improve the speed and improve [crosstalk 04:45] overall.

Nic:    Mozilla certainly, what’s the word I’m looking for … demonstrated the commitment to accessibility when they implemented the accessibility tree view and web inspector. That’s a massive improvement for those of us that do accessibility day in day out to just nut out what an issue can be.

Jen:    Yeah, so that new accessibility tree inspector– really it’s probably more like a viewer– is the first of a series of ideas and plans that are in place to do better and better around providing accessibility. Like, providing developer tools for folks who care about accessibility. And so that accessibility tree as I understand it is pretty nerdy and pretty much for people who know a tonne about accessibility but it’s a bit of an API that will then support more user friendly normal developers who don’t really know much about accessibility friendly type tools that can be built on top of that tree in the future. So it’s a beginning.

Nic:    It’s a powerful tool Powerful tool. But yeah you do need to know a little bit about accessibility before you start looking at it.

Jen:    Yeah, so I mean some ways we’ve promoted it and some ways we haven’t promoted it as much because it’s maybe not a tool that like someone who’s just getting started with understanding accessibility will be able to kind of– I mean, what I would like to see when I’m advocating for is that we have tools that are sort of in the middle of everybody’s flow and are very easy to use in that kind of, can’t help yourself but notice that, “Oh your color contrast is bad or that your keyboard navigation isn’t working or that your separated source order and DOM order, visual order, too much in your layout that you’re making and so that’s going to be an accessibility problem. Like those kinds of things could be surfaced and right in line with all the other tools. So, hopefully, we will get to do some of those other things to … yeah. But there’s still many, so many kinds of tools we could be making.

Nic:    Hey Jen, tell us something that most people would not know about you.

Jen:    Well I, like many people who were building websites in the 90’s am self-taught. I think most people who made websites at the beginning you had to be self-taught because what else were you going to be. But I at the time was working in the arts. Working as an artist, working as a designer theatre designer, doing lighting design, set design, sound projection … I sort of started in set, moved to lighting and then later got really, really into projection design. And also producing a lot of events and making all the graphic design for all of those events. Thousands of postcards and poster, bumper stickers and t-shirts. So I come from that kind of background. The arts and thinking about design and creation. The creation of work from the perspective of an artist so, sometimes I forget that that’s not how everybody else goes at it. But it deeply influences what I do now, even if all I’m doing now is working on websites– or actually these days I don’t even work on websites much anymore. I work on web browsers.

Nic:    How and why did you make that switch?

Jen:    Money. I mean, honestly, it wasn’t as much– because if you– it’s like I could explain my career and say, “Well, I worked in this industry and then I also worked in this industry and this industry” and it sounds like I’ve had … really, I’ve had four, five careers but many of them are concurrent. So I was teaching at a University while I was simultaneously making films. And shortly before that, I was teaching High School aged students, outside the school system while making theatre and before that, I was making theatre while I was working as an arts administrator and that meant I was also the IT department, the webmaster, the accounting department and the graphic design department. Because we are this tiny non-profit and so I did all of those things at the same time.

Nic:    Yeah, I had a similar background. I started as a chef by trade and then I worked in non-profit for a disability-related organization and I was juggling non-profit and being the tech guy and playing with HTML and, you know, “Het my cup holder isn’t working on my computer. How do I fix this?” kind of thing. So I like to hear people that have, obviously not the same but similar kind of journey to accessibility, to the web, to design.

Jen:    And that’s one of the things that I miss or I worry about or I wonder about with so many projects, multi-million dollar projects these days and they have big teams and once you have a big team it makes sense to break out a whole bunch of different jobs and so, one person might focus on one thing and then they work on another multi-million dollar project and they’re the person focussing on that thing again. So you have this whole career where you’re specialising and you’re working on just this one particular little piece of a bigger picture. And it changes the … I don’t know. There’s something about that. There’s something about those of us that know how to, like, “Oh, someone around here has to learn something about getting an audit because we are big enough now that we are required by law to have an annual audit so I guess I’ll go look that up. I guess I’ll go figure that out”.

Nic:    Yeah

Jen:    Oh we need, we need, let’s switch from using a modem to using a network so how, oh an [apple talk?10:37] network how do I learn to make a [apple talk?10:39] network when there’s nothing on the internet because the internet doesn’t exist yet. Like that ability to make things up and that ability to be scrappy and to learn things as you go. Sometimes I see people today feel a little bit like, “Well, I didn’t learn it in school so now I’m applying for this job and am I going to get in trouble or am I lying if I make it sound like I could figure this out. And it’s like, but that’s the whole … being able to figure stuff out is everything. That’s awesome. If you can jump in and not know what you’re doing and figure it out as you go that’s like a really great skill to have.

Nic:    Yeah, the researching skills and [crosstalk 11:16]. I don’t think

Jen:    [crosstalk 11:17]– skills, you know.

Nic:     Yeah, a lot of newbies maybe don’t realize how much experience programmers, developers, designers– how much time is spent looking and searching for answers. I saw a tweet the other day that someone who is a Javascript developer … he said, “I was having problems solving this issue and then I went and I googled it and suddenly I found this article I wrote five years ago and it’s the very same solution”. So it’s funny how that goes.

Jen:    I did the exact same thing. I put out a bunch of tweets about … and I really believe this, that if you’re writing code the majority of what you’re doing is writing code that doesn’t work. And looking up what’s– searching on the internet to figure out what to do and being able to figure out why it doesn’t work. Because the moment it actually does work, you’re done. And you’re off to the next thing. Right? If the code works there’s nothing … you’re not going to sit there and look at it for three hours. You– the whole point is that you write code, it doesn’t work, you figure out why it doesn’t work. It still doesn’t work, you figure out why it still doesn’t work. It still doesn’t work, you figure out why … like the third thing that’s wrong with it and you keep doing that until you’ve figured it out.

And I do think that, yeah there’s something about newbies it feels like they feel like they’re doing something wrong. Or like, “Oh it doesn’t work. It should’ve worked the moment I put the code on the page” it’s like not really. It’s not actually what– computer science is all about debugging and about being really good at debugging.

Nic:    Yeah

Jen:    Yeah and I couldn’t– I was playing around and I was vaguely remembering that somewhere in CSS there was a particular way that you could have an outline of the edge of a letter but I had no idea how to do it. And in my head, I thought, “Gosh, I’ve been meaning to learn this and I’ve never learned it. I should finally look this up” and so I searched on an internet search engine and boom an article that I wrote like 18 months ago. On my own blog.

Nic:    Yeah … yeah.

Jen:    And there was an example that I had demoed. Like a demo I had built and an example of code and I just copied the code right out of it and pieced it into my new one, and it was like, “Oh I guess I did do this once before”.

Nic:    How would you define Web Accessibility?

Jen:    To me, accessibility is about the recognition that every human isn’t identical to every other human. That– like sometimes I think about it this way … if– we have this idea of their being parallel universes, right? This quantum physics pop culture version where “oh there’s parallel universes and things are slightly different” so let’s imagine a parallel universe where humans have four arms and four hands instead of two and in that world if you were the one person with two hands instead of having four hands … it would be really weird because everything about that world will have been designed assuming that humans have four hands. So the way kitchens are set up, the way computers work, the way that everything is set up. It’s like, people have four hands and there you are a person with two hands. And that’s not the only way to see disability but it’s one way to see disability. That there’s just far more variation in human beings than what “normal” defines. And so this idea that, well, you’re supposed to use two hands on your keyboard, you’re supposed to use a mouse, you’re supposed to be able to see the whole screen … that’s like, assuming that everybody has four hands in this parallel universe. And, why? Like there’s no … there’s no reason for that and so to me, making websites considering accessibility is about understanding that not everybody has two hands. Many people just have one. Not everybody can use a keyboard, not everybody can use a mouse. Like, not everybody’s bodies are made the same way and that’s just considering– I’m just talking about physical things. But of course, accessibility is much more than a physical variation on a human body.

Nic:    Yeah

Jen:    But to me, it really is about– this other thing, in the 20th century especially there was this urge in human culture to define the right way to be. Really it’s the last 500 years. It’s colonialism, it’s racism it’s like– this size head, this circumference head is the proper size and this other person has a different sized head and they’re therefore inferior. Like there were whole wars were waged on these ideas of superior and inferior kinds of people. And I feel like as software developers today we don’t have to build with those kinds of ideas. That there’s inferior and superior kinds of people. We can resist that. Whatever it is in humanity. And we can say, “No. I’m making something for a crowd. For millions of people, thousands of people and I’m going to consider the crowd. I’m not just going to consider myself. Or my friends. Or what I’m used to or what I like”.

Nic:    How do we get past these prejudices that we don’t even realize we have? That have been ingrained from very early childhood. One of the statistics that has really hit me quite badly is in 2008 there was this survey done that showed that 52% of Americans would rather be dead than disable. And that’s a very profound perception of disability. How do we change that perception? That thinking in people who are coding and developing without even realizing they have these kinds of feelings that impacts and colors the way they do things.

Jen:    Yeah, I think it is about awareness and about educating yourself and I think there’s somewhere where we have to make a decision to care and to educate ourselves because there’s a good chance that the world you grew up in didn’t give you a lot of information about the larger world and … If anything the internet makes it more possible than ever to get to know people outside of your immediate neighbourhood. Get to know people in other countries, get to know people and their experiences all across a wide variety of the world and use the internet to do that. And then I think it’s about awareness. I think it’s about noticing your own– and being willing to notice your own stupidity. Like, I catch myself thinking stupid things inside my head and no one knows I’ve thought them, I haven’t acted on them yet. But they jump into my head and over the last three years, honestly, 2016 … I’ve noticed far uglier ideas jumping into my head. About people with disabilities, about people based on their race, about people based on their ethnicity, their nationality, their religion. Like these are not idea’s that belong to me, I don’t believe them, but they jump into my head. And I could easily start to believe them and attach myself to them and think they’re apart of me and think that they’re something that’s important.

And I think that we, I mean all of us have grown up with all kinds of bias, racism and everything else. And sexism and I think it’s about being okay with admitting to yourself, “Gosh I really am doing this. There, look, I did it again. I interrupted another woman in a meeting as a guy” or “I thought this stupid thing as a person being stupid” and then interrupting it and saying, “Well I want to do better. Next time I’m going to try to catch myself before I do the thing and I’m going to change”. And I think with disability, for those of us that have the opportunity to make websites or make other kinds of products or software or whatever it is you’re making … to think about, “Yeah, I don’t know anything about keyboard navigation. I keep hearing about it but I haven’t actually taken the time to learn about it. So let me take some time to really go figure out. I have this weakness, everybody talks about it. I act like I know something about it but actually, I don’t know how to make a– I hit tab on my keyboard and it doesn’t do anything. What do I need to go learn and just chip away bit by bit by bit, on our ignorance or on our … I think some ugly ideas. Ugly ideas are contagious and right now there’s some very ugly idea’s going around about people with disabilities and I’m thinking that … I think those ideas can be contagious, and we just kind of end up with this attitude, “Well, we’ll do it later”, “Oh we don’t really have time for that”, “Oh, we don’t have any blind people using our software” … it’s like, “Stop. Stop.” Be willing to be the person to take a stand at work and be willing to be the person who admits inside yourself that secretly maybe you’re not where you wish you were, and you’re going to be okay with that. Because being okay with that is the first step to changing that.

Nic:    I really like this idea that you’re suggesting that the onus is on the individual to go out and educate themselves rather than waiting for people to raise their awareness for them. So we all have to take some responsibility to improve ourselves.

Jen:    Yeah, I think that maybe it goes back to that idea of being scrappy and being, “Hey I need to learn accounting and I don’t really want to but somebody around here needs to know something about it so I’m going to step up and do something about it. Like, we all should be learning constantly. Our medium, the web, is such a baby still at 25, 30 years old that there’s so much changing, we have to keep up. And understanding some of the choices. And also I think sometimes it makes it easier because there are so many options and so many choices and if you just immediately eliminate everything that’s not accessibility then you narrow down the field and then you can pick one … you pick a framework or something. Just don’t pick a framework that’s inaccessible. Get yourself a framework that is accessible that values accessibility. You actually– it’s easier because you don’t have to worry about shopping around for all of them. You just shop around for the ones that are going to work accessibly. Make your job easier because you’re not adding a bunch of technical DAT right off the bat. You’re not going to be fighting your tool the whole time.

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

Jen:    It’s definitely matured in that I’ve learned and learned and learned many things I didn’t know before. I think that my idea of a disability has changed a lot.

Nic:    How?

Jen:    Because these days I see it as such a blurry gradient where I think– So, I live in the United States and there’s government programs for people with disabilities to get financial assistance so there’s a way in which I think people… “Are you disabled? Are you not disabled? Well have you signed up for that– does the government consider you a disabled person?” or “Has a doctor diagnosed you with something official?”, “Do you have an official label?” But, I think that there are many people with disabilities who are not in a government programme or officially registered. Or whatever, I’m making this up but whatever it is … they’ve not been diagnosed with something. Perhaps they’re going to doctors desperately trying to get diagnosed and no one is figuring out what is going on, But there’s just so many … myself, I don’t consider myself a person with a disability but there are days when I consider myself a person with a disability. And there are days when I avail myself of the kinds of things that are available to people with disabilities. There are days when I get on an airplane and they’re like, “Oh, anyone needs extra time?” and I’m like, “Me!”. I have travelled with a massive migraine. It’s awful and I am in those situations where I have a migraine, I’m disabled. I can’t figure out the world, I can’t move through things well. And I think that any of us who– I don’t know, maybe in your 20’s you’re like, “Yay, look at me, I’m awesome” but at some point in your life, you don’t feel awesome. You are ill. You are injured or something. So, I don’t know. It’s like the 20 something bro whose being a pain in the ass about his code and refusing to hear in his code review that he’s made his stuff inaccessible. It’s like, just wait until you break an arm and you need to use a tab instead of a mouse. Just wait.

Nic:    It’s funny you mention that because there’s a this expression in the disability community that everybody is only temporarily able-bodied because at some point in their  life something is going to happen and even me, as a wheelchair user I know about accessibility of course, but a couple of years ago I actually managed to end up with both my thumbs broken at the same time. And, yeah, the learning curve was steep. It was temporary but you have these things and had to adapt and it’s always a massive learning experience. I think that perhaps for a lot of people it’s not necessarily about having a condition as much as facing disabling situations. It’s not because I use a wheelchair that I have a disability. It’s because there’s a flight of steps I can’t go up.

What’s your greatest achievement in terms of accessibility Jen?

Jen:    I hope that I’m able in the work that I’m doing as I teach people about CSS and HTML to make it easier– to make it not so scary, to make people realise … I mean, it’s interesting thinking about what does it mean to have a disability or not. I think of this big gradient. Well, what does it mean to have an accessible website or not. I think of this big gradient. There’s always a little bit of something that any of us can do to make our sites more … I mean, it is about inclusivity but I think it goes beyond inclusivity to specifically something that’s going to work with people who have specific needs. And I hope I’m able to show people, “Hey, if you just use semantic HTML instead of using Divs and Spans for everything. You’re going to get halfway there”. And that’s not hard at all. Like, you could learn HTML in two days. Come on. You don’t be … like, don’t be like that. The way some people are. Complaining about it, really being selfish. I think sometimes people are really very selfish in that they don’t want to bother or something. Perhaps it’s just scary to them? I don’t know. So, I don’t know.

Nic:    I tweeted a couple of days ago about …basically a rant that that don’t use a Div, use a button. And I had a couple of people that got back to me and said, “Hey, is Semantic web still a thing?”.

Jen:    Yes. It is!

Nic:    And, it most definitely is and when I encounter these kinds of things I just want to bang my head against a wall but of course, that’s not very productive so we go back to building awareness and education.

Jen:    Yeah, I– it’s just ignorance and arrogance. It’s this awful mix of ignorance and arrogance. And I think it usually goes with a high dose of that nerd version of being a sexist bro. Of just like, “I’m so cool and important and I know what I’m doing and I don’t have to learn anything and like…” But, no, actually, what’s happened is you’re using a framework. The framework is set up to use Divs spans. And you’ve no idea what to do about that. You literally have no idea and that feeling makes you very scared. And you feel very vulnerable. And you feel like you might be really stupid or something. And you’re not stupid. You just haven’t had a chance to do it yet. And it’s not a personal defect on your part. It’s just that this is something that’s super important and you should try to learn something about. Have some humility and be willing to grow and change and go find out how you might be able to use this framework and make it semantic and change what you’re doing. Or maybe it’s not even a framework. Maybe you’re just writing some little thing and you’re just taking the shortcut and you don’t have to take that shortcut you can actually do higher quality …

I remember when people really took pride in the craftsmanship of their work and I– to me, that’s the opposite of that kind of arrogant bro thing. It’s like, being willing to just make something look really beautiful that someone who’s built a table … underneath the table, the part that nobody actually really looks at is also really beautiful and the joints. Where the legs attach to the top are gorgeous, just for the sake of being gorgeous. And that kind of pride in code. That kind of pride in … and of course, you can’t make it perfect because you’ve got to ship and there’s always something wrong with it, right. So there’s– it’s another gradient but like, at some point you can stand back and say, “I’m really proud of that code. I did a good job with that code” and part of that is using semantic HTML and elements that are going to work under any condition.

Nic:    Yeah. Jen, thank you so much for joining me about … with this podcast and talking about accessibility and the web and peoples skills and all that. It’s been great and we’ll catch you next week.

Jen:    Thanks for having me.

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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