E66 – Interview with Beth Raduenzel – Part 1

Beth is an accessibility specialist and a UX interaction designer. She was part of an award winning team at United. She compares acceptance of the need for accessibility as the 5 stages of grief.


Nic: Welcome to the A11y Rules Podcast. This is episode 66. 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 Beth Raduenzel. Thanks for joining me, Beth, for this conversation around web accessibility. How are you?

Beth: I’m great. How are you?

Nic: I’m doing good. I’m doing good from gray and rainy Pacific Northwest today, so it’s good. I hear you had a bit of snow in your end in Chicago. Is that right?

Beth: Yeah. It’s snowing right now. It’s beautiful. It looks like I’m inside of a snow globe.

Nic: Oh, that’s cool.

Beth: It’s-

Nic: Yeah.

Beth: … so great to be home and looking out the window.

Nic: It’s fantastic place to be at. First snow is always quite fun. Beth, I like to let guests introduce themselves. In a brief introduction, who’s Beth Raduenzel?

Beth: I am an accessibility specialist, and I am a UX interaction designer. I started with visual design, and I moved into web design, and I moved into user experience, and I found that accessibility was really something that I could grab ahold of, because you’re not only helping people to have a better web experience as far as accessibility is concerned. In some cases, you’re actually allowing people to have a web experience, so it feels really good to have a job where I can help people.

Nic: Yeah. That’s good. Beth, to get started, tell me one thing that most people would not know about you.

Beth: Okay. I think most people would not know that I have attention deficit disorder. It’s something that I did not personally find out until I was in my 30s. Once I realized this, I feel like a lot more things made sense in my life, but even after learning, it’s something that I kept very close and I didn’t want anyone to know, because I was afraid that it would affect how I was perceived, so-

Nic: Did it?

Beth: It hasn’t now. I just started telling people, actually, a couple years ago when I got into a position at a company where I felt that they were very open-minded, and inclusive, and non-judgmental. I felt like I could come out with that, and it wouldn’t be held against me. When I tell people, I usually also add that having ADD, it’s not all bad, actually, because the way that my brain works is different than the way that other people’s brains work, and so I’m oftentimes able to come up with solutions that most people wouldn’t have thought of, because I can make these really odd connections between things that you wouldn’t normally associate.

Nic: Have you found that having ADD has caused barriers for you on the web?

Beth: Yeah. It has, actually. There is one website that I absolutely will not use. It’s Bing.com, be-

Nic: Oh, yeah.

Beth: When it came out, I thought, “Well, I’ll give it a try,” and they have this background with these really interesting pictures, and I’ll see the pictures, I go to this website because I want to look something up. It’s like a Google, if people don’t know what it is, and you go there, and you want to search for something, and I get so distracted by these images. The one time that I can recall, I went there to search for something, and there was an image of people sitting in a natural hot spring in the snow with monkeys. Immediately, I thought, “Where is this? I want to go there. I would like to sit in a hot tub with monkeys.” I had to research this, and after about an hour, I realized I had no idea what I had been searching for, but I was planning a trip to Japan.

Nic: Right. Yeah. I can see that being an issue. Thank you. We’re talking about web accessibility today. How would you define that?

Beth: Web accessibility today. I think web accessibility today is just ensuring that the largest number of people possible have the right and the ability to use the internet. I think most people take it for granted. It’s on our phones. It’s on our watches now, and for a lot of people, apps that most people use on a daily basis are not accessible, so all of these little things that help people through their day that would be extremely helpful for other people, they’re not able to use that. I think that’s a shame, really, in today, in 2018. Everyone should have access to the web and to apps and programs that would help them.

Nic: Yeah. It’s a difficulty that I’ve always found puzzling, that website owners or app developers don’t actually want to reach out to this 20% of people with disabilities. I mean, one-fifth of a potential target market seems to me not insignificant. Yeah.

Beth: Right, and I think if you look at websites that are accessible, you’re not only increasing that 20%, you’re increasing your traffic by the amount of friends and family that those people have, too. If you make your product accessible and people know about it, you’re going to … It’s going to build, the word of this is going to spread, and I think you’re going to get a lot more publicity, probably, than you would initially think that you would.

Nic: I actually believe in that, but let me play devil’s advocate and ask you, how do you know this snowball effect exists?

Beth: I guess I’m basing this on my work at United Airlines. As you know, the airlines are under mandate to have their websites and airport kiosks accessible, and when family members and friends who fly with someone who is disabled, they see how much pain these people go through at the airports and trying to book tickets. I think when they know that there’s an airline that goes above and beyond trying to make their services accessible, those friends and family members are going to frequent that airline more because they know that that’s the airline that cares about their friend or their family member who has a disability.

Nic: Yeah. I believe that. I also, in my experience, as a wheelchair user, I know that if I go to a restaurant, it needs to be an accessible restaurant, and if I go to a restaurant, I don’t go to a restaurant alone, so if I go out to dinner with friends, it’s not just my business the restaurant is getting. It’s my friend’s business as well that night, so yeah.

Beth: Absolutely.

Nic: You said you have been working with United, but you’re currently between jobs. Is that correct?

Beth: Yes.

Nic: Yeah.

Nic: I normally ask people, “Where does your role fall within the work of web accessibility,” so where would you like your next role to fall within the work of web accessibility?

Beth: I would love to get into a company that really cares about accessibility from the top down. I think that having accessibility be part of a company’s structure, I think it really makes a difference, because you don’t have to argue with people about making things accessible. When everyone in the company understands accessibility and understands the need for it, it just makes my life easier, because I don’t ever stop pushing for accessibility, but when I hit a wall, it just becomes kind of a fight that it takes a lot of energy out of you. You know what I mean? Always-

Nic: Yeah.

Beth: Always trying to push for something that you know is right, and even when people believe in it, it’s sometimes hard to incorporate.

Nic: How do you get around that when you hit that brick wall, that resistance with teammates or leadership? How do you get around that?

Beth: I usually try to be understanding that if you don’t understand web accessibility, it’s very overwhelming to begin with. There’s so much that they don’t know. I try to break it down and just hit the low-hanging fruit, so if they say, “Well, we don’t have any blind people using our product, because of … ” Let me just say it’s a application for pilots, and you wouldn’t have a blind pilot. You still want to have other types of accessibility.

Now in this example, low vision would not be the case, or colorblindness, because pilots can’t be colorblind, but for other applications, you’re going to have, if you have a male-dominated industry, you’re going to have one in twelve of those men be colorblind, so trying to hit color contrast for low-vision users, for people with aging eyes, and trying to hit, not using color only as a means of communicating information. Then also allowing them to resize the type and just have it keyboard-accessible, I feel, are the easiest ways to kind of get people to dip their toes into accessibility.

Then you have people that come out of the woodwork and say, “Yeah, I can’t always read this, and I have to enlarge the text on my phone,” or, “When I see designs with the light gray text, I just can’t see it,” and all of a sudden, you get people, even young people, that say, “Yeah, I have a problem seeing this,” or, “I’m colorblind.” I’ve had a lot of people disclose invisible disabilities to me, like dyslexia, because they feel comfortable to admit that, “Yeah, this is a problem for me.”

Nic: Yeah. It’s amazing, the number of people that you work with or spend time with every day that do have disabilities that you’re not aware of, so it’s kind of nice that you’ve created an environment around yourself where people feel comfortable enough to open up and disclose those kind of things.

Beth: Yeah. It’s really nice. I just, you get to feel so much closer to people. You don’t always get that closeness at a job, but when you get to know people and understand them as who they are and not just as the worker that they are, it’s really nice.

Nic: Yeah. How did you become aware of web accessibility and how important it was? What got you started?

Beth: Well, it’s a long story, but when I was in high school, I had a boss. My very first job was working at a little coffee and spice shop, and my boss had cerebral palsy. It was very hard for most people to understand him, because it affected his speech, but after a couple weeks of working with him daily, I had no problem of understanding him, but I could see kind of the … What do you call it?

I could see the discrimination, and as a 15-year-old, it was so painful to watch, because people would come into the store, and it was a small shop in a small town, and they would say, “Can I speak to the owner?” I’d say, “Yes. This is the owner, and his name is Chris,” and introduce him. He would say, “Hi, can I help you,” or, “How can I help you,” and they would just look back at me and say, “Is there someone else I can talk to?” It was like unbelievable. I mean, right in front of him. It just, it was so hurtful.

Knowing that, and then getting into user experience, I had a job where I was designing behavioral mental health programs for vets returning with PTSD, getting to see how much that it was helping people that were so depressed and in these shells that they couldn’t leave their home. We were bringing this behavior modification program to them online, and getting to see how much this was helping people, it really made me want to get away from marketing and just do things to help people instead of trying to sell people things. I think that was kind of the start, and then when I learned about web accessibility, it was like I couldn’t stop learning about it, because I was like, “There’s so many people that you can help,” and I thought it was-

Nic: Go down that rabbit hole and never come up, right?

Beth: Yeah, and the learning how to use, like learning how to use VoiceOver and other screen reader programs, I was just amazed, because I think a lot of people aren’t aware of a screen reader at all. They just assume that if you can’t see, then you can’t use a computer, and that’s so wrong, but learning how it works is just amazing, and seeing people use it for the first time was, it just blew my mind, because they have it so fast that it doesn’t even sound like words, but they can fully understand it, and it’s just, it’s like this talent, and it’s beautiful.

Nic: Yeah. It’s quite a skillset, too, to develop to be able to listen to a screen reader as fast as some folks have it. I vividly remember a demonstration by Sina Bahram, and it was amazing. That was … I had not really interacted with proficient screen reader users until then, and it was quite eye-opening, if you’ve run into-

Beth: Yeah-

Nic: … into them.

Beth: … I think it’s one of those things where you just, you remember that first time that you saw it, and it’s just, I think it’s life-changing. I remember we had a woman named Pat Pound. She was part of our accessibility panel at United, and she came in, and she showed us how she uses her iPhone. I was just blown away. I couldn’t believe how much she was doing, and then I couldn’t believe, at the time, how inaccessible that the app was. That was like, it kind of lit a fire in me to make that work for her.

Nic: Yeah. Has your view of accessibility changed over the years since you came down that path?

Beth: I don’t think my view of it has changed, but I think my attitude towards other people not being as into it as I am has changed. I kind of … I jokingly call myself the accessibility enforcer on Twitter, because that was me at United, and at my last job, just anything that anyone said, if I could see a problem with accessibility, I’m going to call it out, and I’m going to say, “This is not accessible. We need to change this.”

It’s funny how people go through kind of the five stages of grief when they first learn about accessibility. There’s the denial and the anger of they don’t want to have to do this, because they’ve been doing their job a certain way their whole life, and now they have to change it. Then there’s the bargaining of, “Well, can’t we just do it this way?” Then they seem to get depressed when they realize that I’m not going to let this go, and then there’s finally the acceptance. Seeing people go through that and come on board and seeing other people jump up and say, “This isn’t accessible,” is just so awesome for me, seeing the person who was like the thorn in my side a year ago becoming my ally is so great.

Nic: Yeah. It’s good to build champions, and for every champion you build, you know that’s going to have a ripple effect.

Beth: Yes, it does.

Nic: What barriers did you face when you were looking at learning and implementing accessibility, apart from attitudinal barriers, which we’ve mentioned a few times? Did you find anything that was blocking you?

Beth: I’m thinking. At first, I didn’t know there was web, there was standard, there was … Like keyboard navigability was something new to me, and I didn’t realize there was standard key commands, so just being able to make something work with the keyboard doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s working properly with the keyboard. That was something where I think I spun my wheels a little bit, making something work and then realizing those keys are already assigned to other jobs, and having to start over. At first, I was on a PC, and I was not aware of what the standard screen readers were, so I just kind of started looking on my own, and I found one. I guess it was really off the wall. Nobody had heard of it, so I had been using something that I guess was not very well used, but that was okay. It’s good, I think, to just do your own research and kind of learn what’s out there, and then learn from the experts of what else is out there, and then you can see the difference and you can see how much better it is.

Nic: Learning about non-standard approaches allowed you to better deal with the standards. Is that what you’re saying?

Beth: I think it gave me, yeah, a better appreciation, because people’s first reaction to having to use, I’m just going to say, a screen reader, is, “Oh, my gosh. This is so hard. This must be awful to have to use this every day,” but when you use something that’s really awful, and then go to something that’s more widely accepted as kind of the standard, you see how much better it is, and you can appreciate everything that that software has done to make the best out of the situation.

Nic: That’s a good point. I like that. Never really considered it like that, but thank you.

Beth: You’re welcome.

Nic: Beth, what’s your favorite word?

Beth: My favorite word?

Nic: Yeah.

Beth: Oh, boy. I don’t know if I have a favorite word. I read a word years ago, and it used the word “gossamer,” and I had to look it up, and I thought that that was a really cool word, and I guess, since it’s been about 10 years since I’ve read that book, and it sticks in my head, maybe I would go with that.

Nic: Yeah. That’s fair. See, I don’t have a favorite word. I think my favorite word, if you were to ask me from one time to another, it would be different, so I like that there’s something that stuck with you for a decade. That’s cool, and it is a great word.

Beth: Yeah. I like learning new words, and words that are really descriptive, that explain so much about … You can visualize from the one word, because it’s so descriptive, and I think a while back, I read … What is that book called? Jane … Is it called Jane Austen? Yeah, and it’s a really old book, over 100 years I believe, and the language that they used back then is so beautiful. I had to look up every third or fourth word, because there were so many words that I had never heard before, or had heard but I didn’t quite understand. After learning all of these definitions, it’s just amazing how much more well-spoken people were back then with less education. They might go to school only until eighth grade, but they had so much more control of the English language than I think we do now, because now everyone is into shortening words and giving abbreviations to everything. I think you lose a lot of the descriptiveness of words when you do that.

Nic: Isn’t that part of the evolution of language, though?

Beth: I guess it is. I think, yeah, everything is going faster, and everybody wants to be more efficient, and more efficient, even, in their speaking, but I think there’s a difference in the quality. If you look at modern art and you look at Renaissance art, the level of detail is missing in the modern art, and it can be beautiful, but it’s beautiful in its simplicity. I think I like the more complicated detail.

Nic: But simplicity is not always easy, though, is it?

Beth: No. Definitely not. Not, and probably from a designer … No. It’s not. When someone says, “We need to make this easier,” that is great, and I understand it, but making it happen can be quite challenging sometimes.

Nic: Yeah. Beth, I understand you won a fairly significant award in terms of accessibility recently. Was that your greatest achievement in terms of accessibility, or was there something else?

Beth: Well, I think there should be an asterisk behind that. I personally … Are you speaking of the Access Award?

Nic: Yeah.

Beth: I personally did not win the Access Award. My work at United, as part of a very small team working on making United accessible, United won the award, but I like to take part of the credit for that.

Nic: Fair enough. Yeah. My apology for confusing the details-

Beth: That’s okay.

Nic: … there.

Beth: That’s okay, but it was amazing, and I think … I kind of mentioned earlier that I’m the accessibility enforcer, and everyone I’ve worked with, there comes a point when they say, “Beth, you need to pick your battles.” Because I’m so, I guess, I lean towards that perfectionist-type personality, I tend to pick everything, and so when I was working on united.com, I just, I don’t like to let things slip through the cracks, so I feel like we really went above and beyond in not just making their website accessible, but making it a good experience for everyone. I think that the American Foundation for the Blind saw that, and it stood out to them as we didn’t just do the minimum to get by. We tried to really make this a great experience.

Nic: Yeah. I like that, because so many people I talk to, it’s, “What’s the minimum amount of work I need to do to comply?” I end up telling them, “You’re missing the point. WCAG Level A is not a target. It’s a minimum.”

Beth: Yes. Absolutely.

Nic: Yeah. Beth, I think we’re going to wrap it up for this week. Thank you so much for your thought and conversation. I really enjoyed this, and hopefully you have a great week, and we talk again soon.

Beth: All right. 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. You can get the transcript for this and all of the shows at https://a11yrules.com. A quick reminder, you can get yourself some neat Accessibility Rules branded swag at https://a11y.store. Catch you next time.