E60 – Interview with Adrienne McDonnell

Adrienne McDonnell is a front end developer at Elsevier. She says that knowing how to navigate a site with the keyboard is a fundational skill that all developers should know. She also reflects on the fact that all the accessibility specifications are very dense and can be overwhelming for people new to accessibility.


Thanks to Twilio for sponsoring the transcript for this episode.

Make sure you have a look at:


Nic:    Welcome to the Accessibility Rules Podcast. You’re listening to episode 60. 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.

Nic:    So today I’m speaking with Adrienne McDonnell and I think she’s quite new to the field of accessibility so it’s exciting to have the perspective of someone who hasn’t been doing this for quite a long time.

Adrienne thanks for joining us.

Adrienne:    Yeah, absolutely.

Nic:    Right. I like to let guests introduce themselves. So, can you tell us in a brief introduction… who’s, Adrienne McDonnell?

Adrienne:    Sure. Hi everyone, I’m Adrienne. I’m from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and I’m a self-taught developer right now I’m working as a software engineer at Elsevier. I started out with front-end design… or development, excuse me and that was… just about three years ago. So, I’m relatively new in my career as a developer as a whole. And started teaching myself about accessibility a year and a half ago.

Nic:    Right. Okay, so to get warmed up a little bit tell us something that most people would not know about you.

Adrienne:    Let’s see… well outside of web development I also am an artist so I… right now I’m focussing on tapestry weaving and bead weaving.

Nic:    Tapestry and Bead… that’s amazing. I love fiber arts. I started playing a little bit with… needle felting of wool and obviously it’s not quite as fine work as tapestry but it’s quite a bit of fun.

So you said you’re working at Elsevier what kind of accessibility do you manage to put in your work there?

Adrienne:    Well, I… so I started this position just this past March, and I was brought on right after they had done an accessibility audit on the product that I work on.

Nic:    Okay.

Adrienne:    Which was great timing for me because I became the main developer that was working on fixing the defects that had been found within the audit.

Nic:    Right

Adrienne:    So that… that has been a focus of, you know, the last seven months or so that I’ve been working here and… which has been great for me to kind of become the accessibility advocate for our team and just, you know, also just to get a deeper learning for myself.

Nic:    Yeah. So… what put you onto accessibility? I mean was it just that you were in place and they had just finished an audit and they say, “Hey. Tag, you’re it” or did you have an interest in that before? How did it happen?

Adrienne:    Well, I… I did have an interest in it before. You know, in my first position as a front-end developer… I… I didn’t have… any knowledge of accessibility or developing for accessibility and as a self-taught developer it was not something that ever came up, you know, in kind of, guides to learning front-end development. And so when I got into that first position and realized that there was this whole very important piece of development that I didn’t know… I was kind of horrified that that wasn’t part of, you know, the foundational learning that people like me are getting when you’re teaching yourself. And, you know, often in the agency world accessibility requirements would come… you know that would be kind of tacked on to the end of a project and we would be scrambling to make sure that we hit, you know, all the right check marks. And it just… I mean I suppose for me it’s just, it was so clear how important this was. And frustrating that it wasn’t being given a higher priority and so that was kind of my initial spark to teach myself so that it could just become part of my normal workflow instead of something I was squeezing in at the end.

Nic:    I think that’s one of the issues that most of the self-taught developers encounter is the fact that most of the places that you go to learn coding… regardless of which language or flavor of a framework … they just don’t talk about accessibility and they don’t have examples that have accessible code.

Adrienne:    Yes, exactly.

Nic:    What kind of barriers… yeah. What kind of barriers, apart from the fact the information wasn’t just there in what you were coming across… What kind of barriers did you find? What did you do to actually teach yourself accessibility considering that you hadn’t encountered it and now suddenly you were faced with fixing all these issues?

Adrienne:    I think that the… the biggest barrier for me… you know, when I was teaching myself front-end development there were so many resources and it was very easy to be guided on a path. And for accessibility, it didn’t feel that way. There were, you know, the actual specifications that I could go and see but they felt so dense. And, so specific that as a new learner it could very quickly feel overwhelming. And there wasn’t kind of a… “Here’s…” you know, “here’s a fun game of [hide? 06:53] way to learn about accessibility “or “Heres… here’s where to start” you know. Like, here’s a nice, you know, a little bit that you can chew off. And get that down and then go from there. And so what I ended up doing, it was really just based on whatever product I was doing. You know, if there was a form involved then that’s kind of what I focussed on. Or, you know, for every website we build we had some kind of main navigation that needed to be keyboard accessible so that became one of kind of the first components that I, you know, figured out that patterns for. So it really just started becoming this piecemeal as needed rather than “Here are the foundations and here’s how to build on them”.

Nic:    Right. From what I hear you’re thinking of accessibility as being something that must be in your toolbox and your set of skills as a developer. Just like you have to know HTML and Javascript. Have you found that your colleagues or other developers have that kind of understanding of accessibility or is it something that as someone who’s brought into the importance of it did you have to fight a little bit and advocate about that?

Adrienne:    I… I mean, I’m happy to say that my team here really does recognize the value of it. And it has become a large priority within our sphere to, you know, get the audits done and continually make our products better. So that… that I’ve been very happy with. You know, if it were up to me I think we would all take some time off and do some training so that everyone’s kind of on the same page… we have the same baseline of skills and knowledge about it. But that will probably not happen, but I’m… you know, I’m satisfied being the person who’s always raising their hand and saying, “and accessibility “you know, [crosstalk 09:16] accessibility you have to think about those requirements. And, you know, we are always doing code reviews for each other so I hope that just through that I’m getting people to think about it more.

Nic:    Yeah being the squeaky wheel that keeps mentioning accessibility I think will um… is often the only way to remind people about the importance of making things work for people with disabilities.

Adrienne:    Yes

Nic:    What was the thing that most surprised you in learning about accessibility? You know, an item that you thought, “Oh! Well I never thought about that and that’s quite surprising” or maybe code or solution or the way people with disabilities work.

Adrienne:    I mean, I think… I think there were a lot of surprises just in that as someone who doesn’t use any assistive technology, I was just totally clueless about it. You know, I had never heard of a screen reader before starting to read about accessibility and… so I think part of the surprise for me was just… like … not knowing and then as soon as I read about these types of assistive technology it was like, “Oh. Duh” this is… of course, this makes so much sense. Or even navigating with the keyboard. I mean it’s so simple. I mean, it’s so foundational and it makes so much sense but I just had never thought about it and I guess that was the biggest surprise and one of the biggest lessons for me right at the beginning.

Nic:    Right. Yeah, it’s often how sometimes the smallest things that are so important but you don’t really think about it until you start doing it. Like keyboard navigation, so… yeah…

Adrienne:    Yeah. And in a way…

Nic:    … What…

Adrienne:    … you know, it’s great that giving other people those very foundational insights can be a huge shift in mindset. And so… that is exciting to me. Just kind of bringing that to my coworkers. You know, giving them a short… you know, showing them what a screen reader is like and what it actually sounds like to use one and how that would impact the way they’re developing.

Nic:    What is your colleague’s reaction when you show them how a screen reader work and how they should modify their code and their work?

Adrienne:    I think that it’s been excitement. You know, that… it’s… there are simple fixes and it just is a matter of being able to actually test what you’re doing so that you’re… you know, making sure that the changes you’re doing are actually having the result that you’re expecting.

Nic:    Yeah

Adrienne:    So I think that… yeah… giving people this knowledge, it’s generally exciting. Like these are all people who want to be doing… you know, creating the best product for the most people that they can. And they’re all people who love to learn new things so…

Nic:    Yeah.

Adrienne:    They’re the right audience.

Nic:    Yeah… yeah, that’s cool. Where would you like the field of accessibility going in the next five or ten years?

Adrienne:    I think… I mean, I think the biggest thing … for me, given my past experiences, I would just love for it to be more mainstream. I would love for, you know, the front-end development foundational programmes… you know, if it’s Udacity or Treehouse or any of those, just to have accessibility as a part of what they’re teaching. That it would just be a requirement for being a confident, you know, web developer to have… you know, to be making accessible websites. I think that’s the biggest thing for me.

Nic:    Yeah. I would tend to agree with that but let me ask you the question I’ve been asking myself for a long time… How do we make that happen? How do we make accessibility mainstream so everybody gets to a point where it’s just part and parcel of their skillset?

Adrienne:    That is a big question. I, you know… I don’t know. I mean I mean I think that having people continue to write about it is huge. I know here in Philadelphia Mikey Ilagan who is also apart of, you know, the Slack group where you and I met, he did kind of a series of articles about accessibility through Technical Philly and I found that to be so powerful just to see the topic of accessibility over and over again over a month through this very popular newsletter and so I think that’s part of it. Just continuing to talk about it and kind of forcing the issue of like, this is… no, this is important and we all need to be thinking about it. As far as getting it, you know, on some of those larger platforms that is obviously a tougher one. It’s not quite as local but hopefully if we just…I don’t know. We tweeted them?

Nic:    Yeah

Adrienne:    I’m not sure, you know, exactly what would kind of move the needle there.

Nic:    Yeah. Hey Adrienne, if you were to leave people with one thing they should remember about accessibility what would it be?

Adrienne:    Hmm

Nic:    Yeah, the one thing

Adrienne:    The one thing…I think that whether or not you use assistive technology, it’s up to all of us to make accessible websites and products and that… yeah, we all have a responsibility to create the best products that we can. That the most people can use.

Nic:    Yeah. It is up to all of us. And it takes all of us to get there.

Adrienne:    Yeah.

Nic:    Yeah. Adrienne, thank you so much for your willingness to submit yourself to my questions. I had a lot of fun and you’re the first new accessibility developer I have on my podcast and I think it’s a fantastic perspective to be able to share that. So for about a year, I’ve spoken to people that have been doing this for ten, fifteen, twenty years and you get this perspective but I think it’s important to hear about the people that are going to replace us when we grow old and feeble and we retire, so thank you for that. Much appreciated.

Adrienne:    Well thank you so much. It was great talking to you.

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.
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 rules branded swag at https://a11y.store


Catch you next time!