E64 – Interview with Marcy Sutton – Part 1

Marcy tells us that it’s important for folks in the accessibility community to listen to developers’ needs. She also states that we ought to be more positive, and to stop making people feel bad about accessibility!


Nic:    Welcome to the Accessibility Rules Podcast. This is episode 64. 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.

This week I’m speaking to Marcy Sutton.

Hey, Marcy thanks for joining me in this conversation about web accessibility.

Marcy:    Hey, thanks so much for having me.

Nic:    I like to let guests introduce themselves so in a brief introduction, who is Marcy Sutton?

Marcy:    I am a web developer from Washington State. I work at Deque Systems which is an accessibility company. I work on their services team as a developer advocate spreading the word about accessibility testing primarily to mainstream developers so my passion is trying to get people who are in a position to make a difference start to do the work of actually making web accessibility more common and more awesome. So, yeah, that’s what I do.

Nic:    Yeah. How does one become a developer advocate rather than just developer?

Marcy:    It… for me, it sort of just happened naturally as I got into public speaking. So, I found that there was a huge market for… I mean, there’s so many conferences out there and lots of opportunities to go and talk to the public about any issue that you care about or any technique that you care to talk about. So, over the years I guess I did an okay job that I started getting invited to things and people seemed to want to hear more from me. So gradually I’ve…over the years made it more and more my job and eventually, at DQ I had an opportunity to step into this role as a developer advocate where I’m really trying to do a bit of listening so it’s like inward and outward. So I’m trying to tell people how to make web accessibility happen but also listening to what their needs are and trying to create demos and conference talks that answer common questions and really help people do their jobs better.

Nic:    I like that. That it’s not just about what people with disabilities need but it’s also about the needs of developers out there.

Marcy:    Yeah sort of like being a bridge between. You know. Trying to remind developers that, like, they might have a disability or… you know. It’s like it can affect all of us at any time and… I don’t know if I directly answered your question about becoming a… going from being a developer to a developer advocate. For me, I don’t think I would be a developer advocate if it weren’t for accessibility. Because I was, you know, a generic web developer just doing the job, doing the best I could and once I learned about accessibility everything changed. So, I think for my particular story. Like, I am an advocate because I care about people with disabilities and I really… if it were solved I would have moved on to something else-

Nic:    Yeah

Marcy:    – But we know that it’s not.

Nic:    Yeah, we do know it’s not solved. Not by a long shot. I’d like to explore that a little bit more in a little bit but before going there… tell us something that most people would not know about you.

Marcy:    Gosh. I think lately… I’ve always been pretty outgoing so I probably share a lot of things because I wear my heart on my sleeve all the time but I’d say… I don’t know. Maybe because I present such an optimistic outlook and try to always make the best of it. Something people might not know about me is the hard times. Where I’m really having to dig deep to try and keep that positive spin and it’s not always easy.

Nic:    Yeah. Would you say that in our field of accessibility sometimes there’s a lot of frustration and that makes it more difficult to keep a positive outlook?

Marcy:    Absolutely, yeah. And when I first got into it I felt like a lot of the established accessibility voices were really wagging their finger and really making people feel bad and there’s still an element of that but I get it now, Like, when I started I was like, “why is everyone so negative?” and tried to introduce a different perspective. And now that I’ve been working in the field for… I think six or seven years in accessibility specifically I totally understand the frustration now.

Nic:    Yeah… yeah.

Marcy:    So… yeah. It’s not always easy.

Nic:    No it’s not. We’re talking about web accessibility and there’s many ways to define that. After six or seven years in the field, how would you define web accessibility?

Marcy:    To me it’s all about… I mean it’s really starting with inclusive design to try and create websites and digital products that work for more people including people with disabilities. I think when I got into it I came as a developer and it was sort of like… fix it. Fic it after the fact and after years and years of seeing that really not working I’ve been listening to the folks that say, “shift left and make your design more inclusive and try to make it everybody’s responsibility.” Because developers can’t do it all. Sometimes you’re battling a set of designs that just have accessibility anti patterns built into them, or designed into them. So, I’ve… yeah, to me it’s a holistic practice that involves more than just individual team members. So try to make it… At least I’m trying to make it approachable and really put that positive spin on it even though it is hard and deflating at times but… But because that’s how you bring people on. maybe you don’t highlight the painful points right away but try to highlight the quick wins and the ways that people can stop making progress just by chipping away at it. But I think long-term success for any accessibility initiative It needs to involve your whole team.

Nic:    How do you as a developer advocate manage to reach out to… to everyone that’s involved from the designers to the Developers, your primary targets and QA teams and leadership… How… how do you get the message out there beyond the primary audience for your message so everybody can really work together?

Marcy:    I think… I mean whenever I do a talk it like… most often  I’m at mainstream web developer conferences but I try to… like, for whoever’s listening to those talks  I try to provide little nuggets of information and tips and things that they could take back to work. And sometimes that means giving them talking points to try and talk to leadership or how to work more collaboratively with your QA team. So I think there’s opportunities even when you’re talking to developers to try and put a bug in their ear or you know, an idea in their mind  of how to collaborate data because it’s not just technical challenges, we have social challenges at work  of trying to convince people to get on board with accessibility so… I tried to Flippin those little tips that aren’t straight technical things.  and sometimes it’s outside of a conference someone will just reach out on Twitter or in person at a meetup or something  and they’ll be like “ how do I convince our CFO to care about accessibility?”  it’s like “ oh well you can start talking about baby boomers and how they have a lot of disposable income and you’re missing out on sales”  depending on who you’re trying target with your message you can kind of highlights a different strategy for accessibility success.

Nic:    So coming back to becoming aware of with accessibility and its importance how did that happen for you?  here you were one day just a developer doing his thing and suddenly you became aware of web accessibility and… how did that happen for you?

Marcy:    For me, I was working at an agency just doing whatever they assigned me to and at some point, I became assigned on to the Target account. So Target the US retailer who had been sued for accessibility and I didn’t know anything. I didn’t know what Headings were, I didn’t know Symantec mark up that well… it’s… that’s a whole other story which I think you’ve… I saw one of your previous guests which you talked about accessibility education being very important. Yeah, I didn’t learn that and a lot of people don’t. But when I was put on Target everything that I made I was being held accountable for its accessibility and I was pretty new to it but I remember working with team members at Target and them kind of leading me through testing what I had worked on and I was just so into it. I loved the challenges, I loved working with Steve [Saucon?10:11] he worked at Target, he ended up working at DQ for awhile so became co-workers later on which is such a small world. But, for me, it was learning about the impact that I could have on people with disabilities. And that just totally rocked my world. It’s like, this is so cool ‘coz a lot of this stuff that we’re building at agencies… sometimes it’s just fluff work. It’s like a marketing site that lives for three months and then it gets taken down and it’s like… I don’t know… you don’t have a whole lot of pride in it, maybe for that three months it’s like some project for XBox and it’s super cool but you don’t have that lasting… it’s not a product that lives on that you can point to and be like, “I built that” and so being in agency work… that higher purpose ended up completely changing my career and, yeah, I’ve never been able to turn that part of my brain off ever since I learned about it.

Nic:    Once seen you can’t un-see it, right?

Marcy:    Definitely and I made more friends with disabilities and it just really made the work much more significant to me and the cool thing since then is seeing all the lightbulbs go on with other people. Like, I would be like, “Oh I remember when I met them at a conference or whatever and now they’re the next champion” and that just… it continues to make my world go round and I think that’s been one of the more fulfilling… not only helping people with disabilities but seeing other people catch on, has been really awesome.

Nic:    Has your view of accessibility changed over the last six, seven, eight years that you’ve been doing this work?

Marcy:     I think honestly I started off pretty optimistic. That kind of comes in waves. Like, I talked earlier about it being really difficult sometimes because it isn’t perfect and I think… I think I knew it was… it needed attention. The reason I thought accessibility needed my help was that it wasn’t solved. I think I went through a period of maybe being too optimistic where I felt like we could solve a lot of it with development and then I went over the hump and realized, “Oh it is a bigger challenge than just developers can solve”.  Going back to learning more about inclusive design and feeling like we all have roles to play in making it better. But I think, yeah, it’s an ongoing challenge. I’ve heard of some accessibility jokes like, “Its job security” for accessibility to not be working. Honestly, I wish that I could move on to other areas but accessibility needs all of us. We all need to keep reaching out to new developers. Every single project that everyone launches, all day every day, we all need to be reminding people about it. So, I think it’s going to be a lifelong thing at this point just because we’re shipping new products and new websites all the time. And a lot of them aren’t;t accessible.

Nic:    I have joked a few times that one of my long-term goals is to do such a good job that I put myself out of a job.

Marcy:    I think we’d all be fine with that.

Nic:    I just don’t think it’s going to happen- [unintelligible 13:48]

Marcy:    No I don’t either.

Nic:    — and you touched on it a little bit earlier. This concept of needing accessibility to be front and center with all the education about web building out there whether it’s formal classes or just tutorials or boot camps or whatever it is. They need to have accessibility front and center because until that happens I don’t think we stand a chance of managing this goal of putting ourselves out of a job.

Marcy:     Another angle that’s coming to mind for me is…”yes we need to educate our peers and our colleagues in the industry but I think even just general user expectations.  a lot of people I know don’t quite realize what that missing when it comes to keyboard support for example. not being able to Tab through a webpage and do everything you need to do… I think if more people realize that they should be able to do that maybe that’s taking product feedback to sites that they use like, “ hey I can’t do this without a mouse”. So that’s been interesting, not only advocating within our industry but with friends and family Shaking their eyes open, figuratively.  to what they should be expecting from all these online services that they use all the time.  so I think that ’s maybe another way that we can… I don’t know,  by making accessibility front and center it helps really everyone. Including education our users and our customers.

Nic:    You’re talking about uses giving feedback to site owners… how do you feel about pushing responsibility on people with disabilities that come to a site and they can’t use it to actually give feedback?

Marcy:     Quickly I agree but I think the direction you’re going with this, is that its sort of an unfair burden. I meant even in general, like, beyond people with disabilities. Just everyone… if… people with… I mean,  across the board being able to know that accessibility features would help.  it’s like we don’t even know what we don’t know as consumers.  I just wish it was more of a norm so people would demand it without having to have a disability to realize it. Not sure if I’m articulating that perfectly. I guess I just wish that it was more common to the point where we could be debating more detailed things instead of just missing the basic of basics.

Nic:     yeah the basic, like …you know… 25 years after I started with accessibility I’m still telling people about alt attribute.

Marcy:    –alt text–

Nic:    —  it’s just.. Yeah, where’s the brick wall so I can bang my head against it sometimes.

Marcy:    Yeah

Nic:    Did you find any barriers when you were learning about accessibility? And if you did, how did you get over that?

Marcy:     I’d say the barriers when I got started were that the tooling for debugging was not very good. Developer tools alone were new ten years ago. That wasn’t even a thing ten years ago. So, I would say the lack of tools when I got into it was sort of a barrier. The way I got around it was by talking to people and just asking them. Talking to Targets QA team with blind folks on it, “Hey, does this work for you?” and I think that in a way is another barrier. If you aren’t connected to people or they don’t have time to give you feedback… we were in a client, partner situation so it was… we had time allocated for that. But if I hadn’t had that feedback on my work early I think it wouldv’e been much more difficult to become as passionate about it.

So I think the tooling’s gotten a lot better and that’s opening the doorway for a lot of people who might not necessarily know about accessibility or care about it until these fancy developer tools come along and then they’re like, “ooh I can treat this like a technical challenge” and then they get hooked on it and they start going, “oh its more than just technical” and that can snowball into creating new accessibility champions. So, its been nice to see that happen and continue to happen.

Nic:    talking of tools, you’re quite involved with the… DQ’s automatic testing tool called Axe. Tell us a little bit about that work and where you think it’s making a difference.

Marcy:    Yeah, so… I work on the Axe team. I was on the actual product team for a while and now I’m…I’ve transitioned into this role of developer advocate so I do work with the product still. It is an open source and free tool. We have enterprise stuff that’s built on top of that so I’m kind of wearing many hats currently. But the reason I went to work at DQ was because I was using Axe every day and I still use it in my work to run an audit on a webpage, try and get an accessibility health check for the things that can be automated because we can’t actually automate all of accessibility testing but we can really catch those things like alt text or empty buttons or… A lot of low hanging fruit, so to speak, for accessibility can be detected automatically so I thought it would be cool to go work on that. And two and a half years later… I’m still working on it but in a slightly different fashion.

Yeah, it’s been really challenging and cool getting to work on that full time was awesome. I think where it’s challenging is the limits of what we can even do in a web browser. It’s really challenging, it’s sort of maddening sometimes…like, “why can’t we do that” and it’s usually because ‘reasons’.

Nic:     Yeah. I hate those reasons.

Marcy:    Yeah so you have to try and message to people like, “you still have to tab through the web page and see if you can operate it and reach everything with a keyboard alone”. So I try to talk about the other steps that you need to take to actually test a web page for accessibility so that you don’t think that a browser extension is going to do it all for you because they just can’t.

Nic:    Yeah

Marcy:    So using a variety of tools, of which there are very many. And it’s so much better than it used to be.

Nic:    I remember the first accessibility checker that was out there Bobby. It was quite painful at times but it helped getting those low hanging fruits for a lot of things and I’m seeing the evolution of tools like Axe or Tenon or you know… yeah. Those two are really the big ones there’s Site Improve out there… I still think that, as you say, it’s good for low hanging fruits for trying to avoid the tedium of trying to double check all the ID’s on a page and that kind of stuff. But there’s–

Marcy:    –looking for miss spelled attributes with your own cognition…

Nic:    — yes!–

Marcy:    — can be really hard.

Nic:    Yeah. Day to day what do you do with accessibility so you’re doing obviously a lot of accessibility but you mentioned you are doing audits. Do you do a lot of that? Do you do development? How does a day shape for you outside of doing public speaking at conferences?

Marcy:    Well its recently changed. I used to be 50% product engineering and 50% evangelism which included public speaking, doing writing and now I have transitioned onto our services team so it’s still a jumble of a bunch of different things. I’m supporting our technical writing folks with their documentation. Supporting the product team to make sure that when somebody on Slack or on Twitter is having an issue or having a question that it’s getting to the right people. I do… still do some writing and I’m going to be doing some public speaking next year but this week since I came back from sabbatical I’ve been doing research for my talks next year.

Nic:    Oh yeah?

Marcy:    Yeah.. learning about CSS Grid. That’s my current topic. And so I’m taking these new shiny, cutting-edge CSS techniques and applying my accessibility lens on that and I’m in my research phase right now which is… go read about it. Jot down anything that stands out to me, something I need to look at further and then go inspect it and see if it does what we expected. For example, there was a while where you put display list, or sorry, display table cell on a list it would change the role of that list. Which is not what you want. Super unexpected. So, I’m looking at Grid. I verify it at least in the browsers. It’s not supported everywhere but display grid does not change the role of an element so that’s good news. And sometimes it’s just going and double checking that it doesn’t do some problem that I’ve seen before. And they got it right, it works fine. But nobody else seems to be depending on what I’m researching sometimes no ones looking at that. It’ll all, I guess by… this talk I’ll be doing at CSUN which is coming up in March. So by then I will have done more research and compile a whole talks worth of interesting accessibility tidbits.

Nic:    Right.

Marcy:    I’m sort of in a building phase right now which is a really nice place to be because I have some leeway to do research and experimentation to try and be looking forward. Because in product roles you’re always working on the next bug and always trying to get a release out the door and there’s no room for experimentation. So that’s been pretty awesome.

Nic:    That can be frustrating. I’m glad you have some time up your sleeve to be able to do that fun stuff.

Let’s finish this episode on a positive note and… tell us, what do you think your greatest achievement is in web accessibility?

Marcy:     Oh man. The one that comes to mind is what I already mentioned. Seeing the accessibility champions. Seeing those lightbulbs go on and then knowing that it’s a ripple effect. So every person that you reach… seeing how they’re impacting their own projects and then creating other accessibility champions. I think that’s probably the most tangible way that I’ve observed seeing that impact because at some point I switched from being a web developer who builds interfaces to… then I went on to the angular team and I was working at the framework level. And then I went to the tools area. So, I haven’t built a website that users with disabilities would be interacting with, to actually impact their lives. Like, it’s harder for… much harder for me to measure that level of impact on users with disabilities. So the impact that I can see is the people who were mainstream developers who are now working 100% in accessibility. Like, they’ve heard about it from me.

Nic:    Yeah, that’s got to be a nice feeling.

Marcy:    It’s really cool to see how passionate people are and so that’s…yeah. It’s pretty cool looking back on it and there’s much smaller…like, you think of every article you write or every podcast you record is reaching somebody. Even if it’s just tiny little pieces of each thing. I mean that adds up to be such a big impact and honestly, I don’t know how long I’m going to keep doing that. I really want to get back into building user interfaces. Because I miss that very dearly. So I think my public speaking arc… I like it, but I would like to turn this direction around and eventually get back into building interfaces. It’s been cool to watch…I would like to get back into having a more direct impact on users with disabilities by building accessible interfaces. So, that’s where I’d like to go.

Nic:    Returning to more doing rather than teaching.

Marcy:    Yeah exactly. So, yeah. The users of what I’ve been developing have been web developers. Which is great. I’ve really enjoyed it but, yeah, maybe the things will change. We will see.

Nic:    Well, Marcy, thank you for taking the time to talk with me this week and we will catch up next week.

Marcy:    Thank you so much.

Nic:    Thank you.

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!