E65 – Interview with Marcy Sutton – Part 2

Marcy tells us that her greatest frustration is that for all of the energy that we put into this all the time it feels like we’re stagnant in terms of accessibility actually getting done. And that it’s hard not to get derailed by that.


Nic:    Welcome to the Accessibility Rules Podcast. This is episode 65. 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 continuing my conversation with Marcy Sutton. If you have not listened to last weeks episode it was really fantastic. Marcy was telling us a few things that I think are quite important, including the importance of listening to the developer’s needs. It’s not just about the needs of people with disabilities but in order to serve those needs, we need to make sure developers needs are met. So that was wonderful.

Welcome back, Marcy.

Marcy:    Thanks for having me.

Nic:    Yeah… We finished last week talking about… your greatest achievement in terms of web accessibility and you were talking about the impact you’re having on people that go forth and start implementing accessibility. What would be the flip side to that? What’s your greatest frustration?

Marcy:    I would say my greatest frustration is that for all of the energy that we put into this all the time it feels like we’re stagnant in terms of accessibility actually getting done. And it’s hard not to get derailed by that. I have a blog called accessibility wins, for example, that I haven’t found a good example in ages. And part of that is I think that I took some time off and just needed to step away but also it’s hard not to get distracted by…somebody will be like, “check out this site” and I go look at it and I run Axe on it and it’s full of accessibility problems  that even Axe is finding. The low hanging fruit stuff that’s supposed to be easy. And so I think my greatest challenge is overcoming that and just trying to keep the positive, upbeat, forward momentum going knowing that you put 100% into that and we’re moving the needle at such a slow rate. And sometimes we go backward. And,  yeah, take WordPress for example. I look at the way that projects go sometimes and it’s very… I’d say that the reality of it… we can just be happy and try to put a positive spin on things but when you really look deeply at the reality of it people with disabilities have barriers on the web all the time. So it’s hard not to feel like, I’m doing all of this for what? I mean, I know why. It’s because it gets me out of bed in the morning to move that needle even that tiniest little bit. But when you kind of look, a more pessimistic view of it is that it’s going pretty slowly.

Nic:    Yeah. So how do you keep the positive spin? How do you stay enthusiastic about the work when you’re meeting those moments of frustration?

Marcy:    I just try to think about something else. Like, go take my mind off of it. Go ride my bicycle or go take my dog outside or… just try and get some other energy so when I come back to it I’m refreshed. I look at what other people do in the industry like blog posts that people write that they’re excited about and just try to get jazzed again about new technologies. ‘Cos there’s always new technologies and there’s always accessibility expertise needed. And that seems to electrify me. So. I’m usually reading about something new and I kind of… all of the frustrations sort of just melt away because I’m excited about doing research on some shiny new technology knowing that what you write about it or what you share about it might impact somebody who is reading about that in the future. So I think that we all can contribute our expertise and passion to these new technologies and new design trends and all that kind of stuff. There’s always something new and I think that kind of helps offset the like, stagnant challenges that we are always going to have I think.

Nic:    Yeah. Earlier you spoke about working with Angular a little bit I think you’re doing some work with React right now…and we’re talking about there’s always the shiny new thing coming out. How do we ensure that these frameworks, which sometimes it seems like it’s more about knowing the framework than having basic development skills… How do we make sure these frameworks allow for building accessible interfaces and accessible sites?

Marcy:    Well I think one of the best ways is to make sure their documentation doesn’t have anti-patterns and bad examples in it. So, you know find either filing issues in GitHub against those documentation pieces or pole requests would be even better. I think some frame-work orgs are better and more responsive about emerging that suff than others. The React teams been really great about that. They have a pretty awesome doc on accessibility whereas with the Angular team… I’ll try not to get started with that. So, I think it can be challenging if the the framework just isn’t, like, open to actually doing the work of merging that documentation. Like, in that case…phew, yeah. I’ve really gone around and around and around with that. So, maybe picking a framework that is a bit more responsive to it unless you know, you just really want to pick up that torch and get Angular to care about accessibility that would be awesome. We would all be very fortunate for that. I did that once and then Angular 2 happened and, yeah, it’s in the state it’s in now. Which is a real shame. It was just a little too difficult for me to live throughout that once and then see it repeat and just go, “we didn’t learn anything”. So there’s the docs strategy. I think having examples of where it’s working right is a great strategy no matter what technology you’re using. If you have an example of, you know, even just one tiny piece or like a demo application or something. That’s a good thing to put your energy towards. And then share it. I go back forth with social media and personas and sort of the ego that’s wrapped up in that and where I really can kind of get my own ego out of the way and see it’s value is in sharing information that will help people solve problems later. Like that I think is a worthy reason to get your name out there. Because you can help make a difference. And so I think that creating materials people can benefit from is totally a worthy goal. And every… You know, we all are passionate about different things so if we apply our collective expertise and put those examples out there, you know when then actually trying to offset the lack of accessibility in areas. ‘Cos it’s really easy to gripe about it, it’s better to put up an example that people can learn from.

Nic:    Do you think there’s conventional wisdom about accessibility like the one thing that everybody knows about it?

Marcy:    Hmm that’s a good question. Well, I would say no because everybody doesn’t know about accessibility. Like, I guess there’s misconceptions, like, that accessibility is about blind people. Which it is in some ways but it’s so much more than that too. So, I’ve been surprised at the number of encounters I’ve had where someone’s like, “I didn’t even know that was a thing” and I guess that’s where I started too. I didn’t know accessibility was a thing. So, that’s where I’ve said a few times… seeing people recognize the power and impact that they can have just once they learn about accessibility … yeah, I don’t think everybody knows about it up front so it’s hard to say there’s any collective wisdom.

Nic:    Yeah, that’s been my thinking as well but sometimes it seems like everybody knows about alt attribute. But they don’t. And sometimes you think well, everybody knows about keyboard accessibility but looking at the sites that I’ve been auditing for the last 15 years not everybody knows about these things. So, I ‘m pretty much with you that there is no conventional wisdom. There’s probably more myths than common understandings.


Marcy:    I think so, yeah. So, it feels… it feels a little repetitive to always have to say, “you don’t need to put tab index on everything coz screen readers can navigate without it” There’s all of these examples where I end up having to repeat thing just because I’ve seen them come up again and again. So, yeah I think it bears repeating and trying to…like, even if I’ve said it the tenth time it might be the first time someones hearing it so. I’d love to move away from Alt Attributes but that one is so common, and form labels too.

Nic:    Yeah

Marcy:    Form labels is like…ugh, come on. So easy. Easy to fix.

Nic:    What do you think the number one reason is for people to, failing to succeed in implementing web accessibility?

Marcy:    I think they just don’t know. Like, a lot of times I don’t think it’s like a “I know and I don’t care” I think there’s a little bit of that but a lot of times I think it’s just a lack of awareness. So that’s where being that friendly voice to go “Hey it’s really easy to add these form labels” but it’s as I’ve said, we’ve put 100% of our energy towards this and we’re only moving the needle that little tiny bit. So that…yeah, you just have to keep reminding, keep showing people, keep making tools that highlight these problems like, you know, using an extension that can highlight your accessibility fails. Like making it easier for people to uncover those problems on their own I think is a good way to move forward but people are…yeah. There’s always going to be new folks in the industry and I think we just have an awareness problem.

Nic:    Yeah. You’re echoing the same conversations I’ve had with several people including Sina Bahram who really phrased it nicely when he said: “we don’t have an accessibility problem we have an awareness problem”.

Marcy:    Yeah. Exactly.

Nic:    Yeah

Marcy:    So as much as I would like to maybe calm down public speaking and just do my own thing it does a service to people with disabilities to be out there in mainstream conference audiences telling them that they can do it. So it’s… I’ve kept going with it because these opportunities keep coming up and it is fun to go and show people how they can make an impact. I think we are always going to have a need for that, so… as much as I would like to slow that stuff down in the future it’s still moving that needle a little bit each time and it does make a difference.

Nic:    Does the amount of travel you do impact on you personally? In other words is being a… such an outspoken advocate take a toll on you, your personal life and your enthusiasm?

Marcy:    It has at times. I think it’s more than just that. Like, for example in the last six months I got married and I think I was taking on a little too much leading up to that so I’ve been fortunate that I’ve been able to kind of roll that back a little bit and cut down the amount of travel. I have some friends that travel so much more than me and I can’t even imagine how they do it. So, yeah. Definitely. I know I need to take care of myself or else things start to go off the rails ‘coz you can only advocate when you feel good. Like you have…like, why should people listen to me if I’m down in the dumps or something. I’ve tried to be very honest with my coworker’s and my manager that this is too much. Like I’ve learned that ten talks a year is the most that I want to do and that means saying no to a lot of other things.

Nic:     Yeah, I did 23 talks between September 2017 and June 2018 and that really kicked my ass.

Marcy:    Yeah. Ooof.

Nic:    So I slowed down quite a bit since then, yeah.

Marcy:    It’s like it starts being detrimental too. You definitely can’ keep going with that forever. Yeah. I’ve got a few scheduled for next year that I’m really excited about but I’m already having to say no to things.

Nic:    I think I saw a Tweet come through that you’re going to be speaking at An Event Apart?

Marcy:    Yes.

Nic:    That is so exciting

Marcy:    Pigs have flown. I never ever thought that would happen, so I’m pretty floored over that one.Yeah. That’s such a huge deal to me. I’ve been doing public speaking for four or five years now and that was one…that was the elusive one or two that  I was like, “that would be cool but…” like, I think I even wrote about getting into speaking. I have a blog post on my site called  Writing winning abstracts and part of it is about when you’re getting into speaking having realistic expectations about where you might go speak and I’m like, “everyone’s going to go speak at An Event Apart ‘cos I wasn’t in that category when I wrote it and then that ended up happening. So, yeah, I’m really honored by that and try to do right by the people with disabilities that I advocate for so I’m pretty excited that the talk that I’m doing there I’m debuting it at CSUN in front of my, you know, favorite folks in the world I absolutely love that going to be in person with people in the accessibility industry every year so to get to share that talk with them first I think gives me an opportunity to get realistic feedback from the people it would affect the most.

Nic:    What was your greatest eye-opening moment in working with people with disabilities in terms of accessibility? You know, was there a user testing session that you saw that really marked you? Or…?

Marcy:    Yeah, I would say it’s been more like feedback from people with disabilities. Either product feedback or I remember there being a blog post from, I think it was Simply Accessible, on the user experience testing they’d done around tab switchers and how, like, it totally went against the conventional pattern that we’d all been advocating for and those sorts of pieces of feedback are definitely the most intriguing because sometimes you have to really check your own assumptions and your own conventions and ask is this the best user experience? And so that’s why often I’m always saying, “make sure you test with real users with disabilities” because we think we know best and often times we don’t. So, yeah, my own sort of like…opinions about what works best for users I think being realistic about web accessibility means sometimes checking that privilege and asking real users not relying on your own expertise.

Nic:    Yeah. What do you think the greatest challenge is for our field moving forward in the next five or ten years?

Marcy:     I think trying to move that needle more than a trickle. Trying to have a bigger impact. I think we have to hit it from many different angles including with education. Part of me is tempted to go get a teaching job or something but…selfishly I would rather work on developing user interfaces but we have so many different angles that were missing the opportunity to talk about accessibility and I think where people are learning, in boot camps and universities those are all, or at least very few of those actually cover web accessibility . So I think we can try and fill those gaps by, go do a talk at your local boot camp. Code Fellows has asked me to come down there a few times. Writing tutorials and creating content that people who are just getting started can use. I think what’s frustrating is that we’ve all been at this for years and so you’ll get somebody come in whose like, “this is what we need” and “I’m going to create Javascript accessibility courses” and it’s like, “those exist already”. We’ve all done it and like, maybe point to those first. So I think there’s a tendency to want to reinvent the wheel when a lot of really smart people have spent time and energy creating a lot of content so I think it’s worth looking at what’s out there first and maybe point people in that direction. But, with new technologies and new ways of developing I think there’s definitely opportunities to create new content and try to hook people that way.

Nic:    Yeah. So put yourself in an ideal world where we’ve solved the accessibility problem and you don’t have to do this anymore. What profession other than accessibility would you like to do?

Marcy:    Gosh, well if money were no object I’d probably go be like some sort of outdoor recreation counselor, professional athlete or something just because that’s how I regain a lot of my energy. But we’re not in that real world, ah, not in that ideal world. Where technology is one of the few professions where you can earn a decent amount of living to live. With income inequality and rising housing costs, I feel extremely lucky that I pivoted into web development from photography which, I don’t know if you’ve noticed but newspapers are not employing photographers anymore.

Nic:    Yeah I did notice. They’re not employing [unintelligible 20:09] either, so…

Marcy:    Yeah. So I try to balance all of that. Doing good in an industry that pays very well is very satisfying so I just try to keep a positive look on it and just appreciate what  I have because in the grand scheme of things feeling pretty fortunate.

Nic:    Yeah

Marcy:    And to be able to actually make a difference in peoples lives, like, some of the stories that have stuck with me the longest are the ones from Laney Feingold book Structured negotiation which she talks about a blind person having to give away their ATM PIN and getting defrauded. I just read another story about that the other day. About a blind woman and her boyfriend at Walmart who got defrauded at the checkout counter. Those experiences that I hear about are…like, you can make such an impact if you’re working on a web application where it could be the difference between somebody wit ha disability having independence and security. So I think there’s a lot wrapped up in that that it’s cool, it’s challenging I think there’s lots of opportunities where we can actually make peoples lives better so that’s a very worthwhile endeavor.

Nic:    Marcy lets finish on one last thought. One last question for you. What is the one thing people should remember about web accessibility?

Marcy:     I would say the best advice that I can give is just to take it day by day and do what you can and that means, like, I don’t know…having realistic expectations wit what you can actually accomplish in a sprint or in a, before a deadline. And just do the best you can and recognize that it might not ever be perfect but if you can chip away at it each sprint or each whatever block of time that you get. Everything that you do for accessibility is so appreciated. It’s like, no more forgetting Alt Text or Form Labels. You can do the easy stuff and make a big impact.

Nic:    Yeah…yeah.

Marcy, thank you for your time. Thank you for your thoughts and great conversation.

Marcy:    Thanks so much for having me Nic. I really appreciate getting to come and chat with you finally.

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!