E58 – Interview with Jen Simmons – Part 2

Jen says that many of the needs for accessibility aren’t that hard to accommodate by developers and designers! I couldn’t agree more.


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Nic:    Welcome to the Accessibility Rules Podcast. You’re listening to episode 58. 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.


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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 Jen Simmons. Last show was really awesome. I loved our conversation and talking about developers responsibility to educate themselves in accessibility and the concept of disabilities. If you haven’t listened to the show yet  I Really recommend it because Jen really prompted thinking in a wonderful way.

So, Jen, thank you and welcome back. So, Jen, we were talking about achievements and, lets flip that around. What’s your greatest frustration about accessibility?

Jen:    My greatest frustration about accessibility … It is the thing we were talking about last episode of sometimes the attitudes that developers can have. Where people just don’t care and they can put their own selfish– I mean, I think it’s selfish– put their own opinions or their own perspectives or their own idea about what’s needed ahead of what millions of people actually need. And I just don’t understand that. It makes me furious.

Nic:    Wow

Jen:    I think I actually lost a job over it once. And I just don’t understand it. I don’t understand how people can be so self-centred, so selfish to just not care. It is ridiculous. It’s ridiculous. And like you said, last episode, everybody at some point is going to die. Some people will die very quickly and with a lot of surprise. So those folks perhaps will never become disabled but like the rest of us. If anything you want to become old and you will slowly lose different kind– your body will change. Things will change for you.

Nic:    How do we change that? I guess it’s difficult to have ideas about that when it’s so hard to fathom why people are so selfish. But, how do we change that?

Jen:    Yeah, I don’t know. I try to do it by simply showing people what they need to do to make their sites accessible. And working it into everything else I’m teaching. I’m teaching CSS Grid and I’m like, ‘Okay, here’s things you need to know about how to write semantic HTML as you’re using CSS Grid”. Because that’s how– to me, that’s the way to approach a project. Like, “Oh, you want to sit down and figure out your layout. Well, first you have to have something to layout. Well, when you do that your markup is important. The way you do your markup is going to affect the ability that you have to do your layout. So let’s look at the markup and consider what’s the best way to do the markup and while we’re doing that we are just going to naturally make accessible markup.

I don’t add ARIA rules in those tutorials but I add all sorts of other kinds of things and consider what else is going on with the markup. But the also just think that in life will teach people. I think as all of us get older you get less arrogant and you become more wise and you meet a wider variety of people and you meet folks with disabilities and you work with them as colleagues and you realize, “Oh, shit”– Oh sorry if I…

Nic:    You can say anything you want.

Jen:    I don’t know if I can say that on your Podcast but– “Oh no!”. But … yeah. I shouldn’t have been doing– I shouldn’t have been thinking that way. I didn’t realise I was, oh gosh I don’t want to be like a certain US politician right now and blowing off an entire community of people I care about.

Nic:    What do you think is the conventional wisdom about accessibility? the one thing that everybody knows about?

Jen:    I don’t know what– I don’t know, I don’t know. But I think the things people– I think when you ask that I– instead my brain jumps to what are the [crosstalk]–

Nic:    That’s fine

Jen:    — misconceptions about accessibility. I think that people … yeah, I think people that– I went to a meeting. I was asked to go and have a meeting in a very famous, very important central tech company that makes lots of software for people who are creative to use. And the team said, “Oh, we’re going to use this such and such Javascript framework” and I had– I’d been learning about it at the time and I immediately thought- accessibility concerns. So I asked them, “What are you doing for accessibility?” Because I expected them to come back and say, “Oh we are doing this, we are using the such and such addon and we’re modifying it in this particular way” because this framework at the time was known for being atrocious for accessibility. So I said, “Well, what are you doing?”, you know? “What are you going to …”. I thought they were going to teach me something in that moment and instead, they said, “Blind people don’t use our software”.

Nic:    Yes.

Jen:    And I was just so dumbfounded I almost didn’t even know how to react. Because here I am in this professional situation, I can’t just jump up and strangle the guy. I have to actually be supportive and say something that’s useful to help nudge them. And I was just like … there’s so many things wrong with that statement.

First of all, accessibility is not only about people who are completely blind–

Nic:    Yeah

Jen:    It is partly about that but it’s also about people who are partially sighted and partially blind. It’s also about people who are–

Nic:    Yeah

Jen:    –who have a wide variety of different kinds of needs. And second of all, I bet you there are people who are 100% blind who would use your software if it were accessible.

Nic:    Yeah

Jen:    Your assumption that your product line is something that people who are blind would not be interested in is completely wrong.

Nic:    Yeah

Jen:    And of course they weren’t– these were not people who were making business decisions or strategic decisions about the future of the company or the target markets or where they were going …these were developers who made a decision to just blow it off and not care.

Nic:    Yeah

Jen:    And I– So, one of the misconceptions … I think the misconceptions are not quite understanding how– what it means to talk about people with disabilities.  I mean, all the kinds of variations of disabilities that people might have. Or all the variations of needs that people might have. Or how a lot of the needs a developer or designer can accommodate are not that hard to accommodate. There are some simple things that can be done to make sites usable by far bigger groups of people. I also think that people think that people with disabilities just aren’t important, they don’t care. There’s like, this tiny market. There’s this old idea that there are people who are severely disabled and they’re off in some home in the corner and not part of society and there’s hardly any of them and who cares and they’re not online because they’re not that bright … and it’s just like the most horrible, stereotypical stupid idea of what it means to be a person with a disability. And I don’t know. I guess people need more … they just need a chance to grow up and live a life in a bigger world where there are plenty of people with disabilities running around having all sorts of awesome careers, contributing just like everybody else in society. Like that old idea is some nightmare out of the 60’s or something.

Nic:    Yeah

Jen:    And creating software that doesn’t work makes it worse. And I think anybody that makes a product and puts it out in the public has a moral obligation to do a good job with that. In all sorts of different ways.

Nic:    I think doing a … yeah, doing a good job. Making it work for everyone is important and I wish accessibility became part of the definition of done. In a lot more projects.

Jen:    Yeah. There are people so obsessed with Internet Explorer it’s like there are way more people who have some kind of mild to moderate need that you’re not meeting when it comes to making it work for a person with a disability–

Nic:    Yeah

Jen:    Than there are people using Internet Explorer.

Nic:    Yeah, how many people use Internet Explorer is less than a percent, right?

Jen:    Well there’s millions of people using Internet Explorer. It’s not like that’s not something to be considered, Definitely, it does need to be considered but there are more people with disabilities than there are people using Internet Explorer, so, like, are we talking about money? Are we talking about numbers? Every metric that might make you worry about Internet Explorer should make you worry about people with disabilities. At least two or three times as much.

Nic:    Yeah. What do you think is the number one reason most people fail to succeed with implementing accessibility?

Jen:    I think it’s ignorance and knowing how to. And I have to say this is a thing where actually I sometimes get really frustrated with folks in the disability community who are advocating for the web. Or maybe I should say in the web accessibility community because I do think that there’s– like, I’ve been to meetings, I went to TPAC which is the … so there’s this working group that defines new CSS and there’s an HTML working group and there’s other working groups and TPAC is kind of the working conference where all the working groups get together. Who invent all the new web stuff. And there’s a … I don’t know the name of it. I want to say a disability working group but that’s probably not the name of it. There’s like a accessibility working group? Or …

Nic:    Well, there’s several working groups. There’s mostly the people working on WCAG and ARIA as the WAI people. Web Accessibility Initiative. There’s several working groups.

Jen:    Yeah, And so there was a group of folks that came over from the accessibility working groups to the CSS working group to kind of talk to us because of course, new CSS needs to be accessible. And one of the things that was frustrating was it was almost like the folks in the disa– accessibility working groups were … it’s almost like they thought that the number one problem. Like the number one hindrance to things being accessible is desire to make them accessible. So that the solution that was needed was to educate the CSS working group on the importance of accessibility. And, that was very frustrating to me because I was– it was almost insulting. It’s like this we care and we are experts on this. And there’s a complexity here we can talk about and you could help us and we could all get together and we could figure out this complexity together. But you’re not even willing to have a complicated conversation because you’re so convinced that the basic conversation is the conversation that’s needed. And that was frustrating to me. So I definitely, and you and I have talked about it in this podcast … there are definitely people who don’t care, who aren’t motivated, who are ignorant, who are bias, who are prejudiced. Just straight up horrible thinking. They’re stuck in a horrible way of thinking.

But, there are many, many, many, many people who care very, very deeply. And perhaps very personally. It may be very personal to them, or maybe it isn’t personal to them but they still care … who just don’t know how to make a website accessible.

Nic:    Yeah

Jen:    And it’s not a simple thing and it’s not an on, off thing. It’s not like one thing that needs to be done. There are hundreds and hundreds of things that can be done. And you don’t have to do them all. You could just do one, or you could just do 12, or you could just do 100 and that’s going to help tremendously. But of course there are many, many, many other’s, I don’t know if accessibility is ever finished. I’m not sure that a site … Is any site ever finished?

Nic:    No

Jen:    Does any site ever have no bugs?

Nic:    No

Jen:    So, It’s making it accessible or inclusive for as many people as possible is part of that. Where you kind of never get really as far as you want to. You never really get it “right”. You can only just make it better. But they’re huge wins right off the bat. Any technical project there’s huge technical wins right off the bat so if your HTML is working and your Javascript doesn’t have a bug and your Javascript doesn’t block the downloading of the HTML then you have a web page.

There’s a series of things that make a website run and so there’s a series of things that can make a website accessible. And I think that there is– I think that we need more information in the world. I think we need more teaching in the world about the things that could be done.

Nic:    Yeah

Jen:    I think a lot of web developers have never heard of WCAG, I think there’s lots of people that don’t realise right off the bat how much– how far that we get down the road of being accessible if they could just use a button or a link instead of a span and use a semantic HTML and … I don’t know. Think about source order and, oh, you’re 80% there already, you haven’t even done anything special and you’re already 80%. So, that’s what I– It’s like–it’s just information, information. And I wish that more folks in the accessibility communities would write that information. Especially some of the stuff that is more masterful, it is more complex, that is in-depth debates or information about how to use ARIA rules and why and when. In-depth information about the experience of using a screen reader. In-depth information about how to get tabbing working on a out of the box computer so that you can test, everybody can test tabbing on their own computer.

Nic:    Playing devil’s advocate I think that many people in the disability community and in the web accessibility community would say that all that information is out there. But I think that the problem is it’s all fragmented. It’s a little bit here a little bit there and finding that information is difficult.

Jen:    Yeah, and I now work pretty much full time as a teacher and I could say, “All of the information about CSS Grid is out there, all you need is just to read the spec, but if I really want people to understand CSS Grid then there’s a whole art to–

Nic:    Yeah

Jen:    –breaking it down and explaining it bit by bit and knowing how hard it is to take time in a day to learn something. And me being away to say, “Okay I can– I’m going– I know what you’re struggling with most. I’m going to start there and fix that for you by teaching you this one thing. I’m going to take all this complexity and I’m going to make it as simple as possible and give that to you”. And I’m not saying that people with disabilities have the job of teaching the world how to make accessible websites. I do not believe that.  It’s more like people who want to teach accessibility … well, there’s a lot that could be done–

Nic:    Yeah

Jen:    –to teach it. Because there’s– I don’t know if the quality of the teaching is as high as the quality of the teaching around. CSS for example.

Nic:    Do you think that’s the greatest challenge for the field of accessibility going forward? Or is there something else that we’re facing that maybe we don’t know about?

Jen:    I don’t know what the greatest challenge is going forward. I mean, yeah, teaching people things so that they– it becomes easier and easier is one. I think there is this battle happening right now on the web where there’s a group of people that see the web the way that we’ve been seeing it for many years which is, you deliver an HTML page and maybe it’s got CSS and maybe some Javascript and it runs in a browser and it can do all kinds of things and those things might be some sort of reading experience, it might be some sort of video watching experience, it might be some sort of interactive experience that could get labeled as an app but in any case that’s what you’re doing. You’re delivering this layered experience. HTML, CSS and Javascript. And then there’s this other world of people who have showed up in the last, especially the last five years. I think a lot of them came over from Flash Actionscript and I think a lot of them have come over from Java and there’s a lot of computer science oriented people. People with CS degrees perhaps who think of programming, they think of writing code for the web as engineering. I’m not a front-end developer, I’m not a developer, I’m an engineer.

Nic:    Yeah

Jen:    Who see the web as a simple delivery mechanism for an application. For a package of software. And they want that package of software to work the way that other packages of software works which is, “Oh, I’m making an android app it requires Android 6.4 and higher” Or “I’m creating an iOS app”, “I’m creating a Macintosh app. My Macintosh app only works on OS 10 point whatever number and higher. It doesn’t work on system seven. It doesn’t work on Mac OS 10.1”. And so they sort of say, “Of course you– it requires chrome, it requires having this level of browser support. It requires having this kind of input device or this kind of output device. So if you don’t have a mouse and you can’t see the screen then whatever”. It’s the same thing as having an old phone, or an old Mac. A Mac SE can’t run Photoshop 16, so, whatever, like that’s not a problem.

But it’s like, no, that’s not what– So there’s this, I don’t know. It seems like there’s this collision of philosophy and that’s where you start getting people who don’t want to write HTML, CSS and Javascript. They want to open up a Javascript framework and use it the way that they would use other application software writing frameworks, like, whatever … XCode or whatever and they want to like … there’s only one way to write the software, there’s only one way the software will run and then they’re done with it.

Nic:    Yeah

Jen:    It’s like, but, yeah. That’s not what the web is. The whole point of the web is that it’s– it works on every computer, every browser, every device, every input device, every output device simultaneously. Every speed of network connection simultaneously …

Nic:    Best viewed in Netscape, right?

Jen:    Yeah, and I think it’s a challenge. I think it’s a challenge for the web as a whole. It worries me about the health of the web that there are just so many people who feel like, if it runs on my machine it runs. And it’s done. If it works with my setup, on my computer then it works for everybody. It’s done. And the first victims to that kind of thinking are anybody who is using their computer differently than that dude in the chair and that’s a problem. That’s a problem.

Nic:    Yeah. It’s a big problem. Jen, you’ve done a few things. You were talking last week about working in Art and Theatre and doing some work in non-profit and now you’re doing geeky stuff. Is there a profession other than what you’ve done that you’d like to try your hand at if you weren’t doing what you’re doing.

Jen:    Yeah, that is funny to admit this on a podcast but if I suddenly could do any career and not be in the web I would like to make a television show. And I think about it. I think about, could I write a script for a tv show? Could I make it happen? And there’s part of me that thinks that’s crazy. Like, everybody has a tv show in their back pocket. And, like, you know, nobody gets a chance to do it and you’re too old for one and you’re not going to be one of those people. But then part of me thinks, well maybe I should really be taking steps in that direction and just see what happens, maybe.

Nic:    So you’d like to get involved with script writing? Or producing? Or what part of making a tv show? Because it takes a big team for making shows.

Jen:    And it’s not that I want to work in Film and Television. I decided a long time ago I wasn’t that– the culture of that world wasn’t going to be a good match for me. But– and also I missed the window. I chose to do theatre when I could’ve– should’ve chosen to do film. And then I was too old. But it’s more that I have ideas for a show and I’d love to see that show exist. And probably my role in that would be to write it. To write a show. And then collaborate with people that have the experience that I never got. Directing and running a show. And I’d want it– I mean, ideally, I’d be– I’d have some say so I wouldn’t just be the scriptwriter. But I would be one of the executive producers or something, or something … But, yeah it’s less about wishing I was in film and television and more about wanting to see certain stories and having– there’s certain stories that have been refusing to be quiet and they’re inside of me for 20 years. I think actually now more than ever those … those- that perspective would be viable and helpful to the culture of the whole … But I’m not unaware of what an insane– like, climbing Mount Everest that would be to try and do that. Which is why I haven’t really tried.

Nic:    Yeah, fair enough. Hey, last question and then I let you go. What’s the one thing people should remember about accessibility?

Jen:    I think that the web would be so much better if everybody could just know that it’s the right thing to do and it’s not that hard.

Nic:    Yeah

Jen:    You can take steps to learn a little bit at a time. A little bit at a time. How to make websites more accessible. And It’s just super important. Like, it matters.

Nic:    Yeah… yeah. It matters to people with disabilities now, people with functional impairments and it matters to the coder who might actually find themselves when they’re in their late 40’s early 50’s, they have to squint a bit and lean into the monitor to be able to read the website they created a few years ago.

Jen:    Yeah. It’s interesting to me. I know so many web developers who have disabilities. Who are very well known. And yet I don’t think those people know they’re disabled in one way or another. And it’s sort of not important. Like, it’s kind of not. In many times we don’t know a whole lot about each others personal lives anyway but, like, a lot of the folks that I had on my show years ago, The Web Ahead, probably a third of the people who were guests on that show have one kind of disability or another. We never talked about them on the show because it wasn’t really the point of the show but the– it’s just so common and I think people don’t understand … I mean, not everybody with a disability needs any kind of accommodation to use a computer but plenty of folks did and it was just kind of, part of their life. Like, “Oh yeah, I use this thing and not that thing” and “I use the computer this way and not that way”.

Nic:    Jen, thank you so much for sharing your thoughts and having some quite thought-provoking ideas that I hope people listening will take notice of. That it’s their job to stop being ignorant about things that they don’t know about.

Jen:    Yeah, and I do think it’s very possible. Anybody listening, probably everybody listening who makes a website or codes it or design it or whatever, wishes they knew a little bit more. And I do think we can. We can all just go and learn a little bit more.

Nic:    Yeah. Wonderful. Jen, thank you very much and I’ll catch you on the twitters.

Jen:    See you there.

Nic:    Cheers, thank you.

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