Chris is a front-end developer based in Detroit, MI. He tells us, among other things, that learning about accessibility is an ongoing process.
Nic: Welcome to the Accessibility Rules Podcast. This is episode 70. 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 with Chris DeMars. Thanks for joining me for this conversation around web accessibility, Chris. How are ya?
Chris: I’m doing good, Nic. Thanks for having me.
Nic: You’re very welcome. Hey, I like to let guests introduce themselves so in a brief introduction, who is Chris DeMars?
Chris: Oh, who am I? Well, I am a front-end developer. I’m from Detroit, Michigan. I work for a company called Tuft & Needle. I am also a Google developer expert in web technologies, Microsoft MVP in Developer Technologies and I love community, love speaking all around in the world in Web Accessibility and other front end fun stuff.
Nic: That sounds like it’s keeping you busy. Do you speak to a lot of conferences? Or just the occasional one?
Chris: Oh I did 22 events last year. Not including meet-ups so probably 30 talks altogether. Including one workshop. So, yeah. I’ve been around a little bit.
Nic: You have been. How do you find conferences are receiving your talks about accessibility?
Chris: You know, I’ve gotten amazing feedback from both organizers as well as attendees. Because you know you don’t see a whole lot of people submitting accessibility talks to a lot of conferences unless it’s like that type of niche. But I mean, I’ve been at events where I’ve given the only accessibility talk and I’ve been at events where I… there might be 3 or 4 accessibility talks. So it really just kind of matters the area, the region, what kind of speakers are being selected. Stuff like that.
Nic: Let’s circle back around that in a little bit. To get really started tell us one thing that most people would not know about you.
Chris: Lets’ see here. Let’s see…Um, I have a gold tooth. Does that count?
Nic: Sure thing. Most people would not know about that so that’s certainly an interesting bit of trivia.
So we are talking about Web Accessibility, right? How do you define Web Accessibility?
Chris: You know, I get that question a lot. And I kind of talk about it, touch on it a lot in the talks I give. There is a quote out there I think it’s from the W3 and it says “Web Accessibility is for people that can use the web” for people that can use the web. Or for people with disabilities so they can use the Web. And I don’t really like that quote. To me, Web Accessibility is for everyone. Everybody should be able to have an amazing accessible user experience regardless of disability. That’s what-what that means to me. And I always have like a “Why?” behind it which we can go into that later if you want but there’s always a “Why?” in the method behind the madness but it’s definitely for everybody. You know what I mean. That’s… we’ve gotten to a point where people use the Web almost every single day so we have to make it accessible for them.
Nic: Yea. I can’t say that I disagree with you but playing devil’s advocate here… I’ve heard quite a bit of push back from some people with disabilities and some accessibility advocates that this attitude kind of erases the disability experience and the reason for accessibility in the first place. What would you say to that?
Chris: Oh. It’s a tough one. Because I mean, it is an open Web, right? And if..we’re supposed to be making it inclusive. Inclusive means taking everybody into consideration. Regardless of disability. I mean, I say it all the time like not everybody has to have a disability to make it accessible. Specifically for me at the moment I don’t have any type of disability that would hinder me from using the web. But if you were to put some content out there and I didn’t understand what you were saying, or the language or anything like that, automatically I have a disability of understanding what you’re trying to tell me.right? So I might not have some type of physical disability or disability that would hinder me from using that experience but if something stops me from using that experience, at that point in time I have a disability and we’ve got to make sure we stay away from that.
Nic: So you’re, I guess you’re introducing the idea of situational impairment?
Chris: Yeah, I talk about that a lot. And it kind of blows people’s minds when I talk about the 5 main types of disabilities that we encounter out there on the web and the 5th one being temporary impairments. I don’t like calling them disabilities. I like calling them temporary impairments. And when I bring up a broken hand or a broken finger or even a single parent with a newborn jaws drop. They’re like, “Oh Shit, I didn’t think about that. Wow, I’ve been in that situation before but I never put myself in the other person’s shoes even though I’ve worn those shoes.” So it really… I like watching the audience light up when I start talking about that. It’s really fun.
Nic: Where does your role fall within the work of accessibility? Because you don’t do accessibility full time from morning to night. You do mostly development work so how do you implement accessibility in your work?
Chris: You know, I was hired… one of the reasons I think I was hired… I like to think I was hired at my new gig was because of the accessibility stuff that I do out there. And my last role at my last company I was at I really advocated for it because it was just an afterthought. Nobody really cared. Until I kind of put my foot down and said, “Hey, listen. These are the things we need to do. These are the steps we need to take so we can avoid issues later down the line.” So I was the first one to actually build in accessibility at one of the projects and got it in front of the business and stakeholders and they finally softened up and were like “Oh yeah, we really need to do this, this is really important”. And I .. I think I did 99% of the accessibility on it and that was the first application that was ever shipped from the company that was fully accessible. So that was a huge win.
Chris: Yeah, that was a huge win for me. A huge win for the company. A huge win for accessibility in general. Currently, right now I’m kind of doing the same thing. I’m working with accessibility working with some of the designers coming up with some documentation around accessibility. Like the conversation you and I had the other night about branching strategies, naming strategies when it comes to documenting accessibility violations … I’m doing that and I finished that documentation so it’s kind of like planting seeds and educating where I can and then filling in those gaps for the other developers, designers, and engineering team that might not be familiar with accessibility on the web.
Nic: How did you become aware of web accessibility and how important it is? How… was there a specific “A-ha!” moment or was it something incremental? What happened?
Chris: It’s a funny story. I love talking about this story. It’s kind of like the reason behind my “Why” but so I started building on the web about 22-23 years ago and back then web accessibility wasn’t a huge deal. We always had our alt attributes in our images…it was like table … building tables for your layout you’ve got to make sure they’re accessible. So we always had that and I never gave it too much forethought or thought about it too much and then a few years ago, probably 2013,2014 I started seeing Marcy giving her talks on YouTube. I’m like “Oh wow, I don’t see anybody else doing this” and she’s talking about web accessibility and users with disabilities and stuff like that… I’m like, “Shit this is like super super important” and she was one of the only people if not the only person out there doing it at the time. And the landscape is still really small. But she set the stage for it. And I was like, Alright I’m going to see if I can find any other videos of her speaking and see if I can get a grasp for this accessibility stuff. A more in-depth grasp I guess. And I just started watching her videos and her and I started BS-ing on Twitter and her and I became friends. She started working at DQ and DQ is here locally, right outside of Detroit. And yeah, it was just her that kind of made me see the importance of it and kind of springboard me into the whole speaking world and then I like to say I like to build accessibility because I’m thinking of my mum a lot. Coz she’s of the baby boomer generation and she wears glasses and she has trouble hearing.. She can’t remember things as well, she has arthritis… so she kind of has all of those, like, 4 out of the 5 main types of disabilities that we look for, right?
Chris: And if I could make an accessible user experience for her at the end of the day…mind you, she doesn’t have a computer, she still has a flip phone but if she were technically savvy… If I could make the experience for her that much better at the end of the day I’ve done my job. And that’s my “Why?”.
Chris: And I say that at every event. Some people they kind of get teared up. Which is cool, you know. We’re there to have fun and share emotion and experience that together, but..and I usually tell people, you know, at the end of this session reflect on your “why” and then maybe you’ll see why accessibility matters. If it’s not you that is experiencing it.
Nic: I like that. I like that… I might steal that from you.
Chris: Go for it, brother.
Nic: Yeah… so you’ve been vaguely aware of accessibility for 15-20 years and about 5 years ago you really got into it. Has your view of accessibility changed much over the last 5 years?
Chris: It has and it hasn’t. Like, if anything it’s gotten better and I’ve been able to notice a lot more out there than I would’ve 5 years ago. Right? Especially when it comes to certain libraries and frameworks that are out there in the JS ecosystem that might not be completely accessible. Or even new stuff that’s coming up like with what Marcy’s doing with Grid and accessibility. That’s super cool. I never thought about that but she’s on that and that’s really cool that she’s doing that. And even in the product space when Xbox launched their… Microsoft launched Xbox pad for users with disabilities to be able to play Xbox. That’s huge.
Chris: I talk about that in some of my talks too. Or even braille machine readers that … there were 6 female engineers from MIT, I think it was MIT, last year or the year before created this really nice, really neat braille machine reader that would read books. It would scan the book and then print out the braille with pins and needles and stuff. That stuff’s cool. And it doesn’t have to be digital accessibility. It’s accessibility none the less. And the more and more you can get wrapped up into that the more cool shit you’re going to see out there.
Nic: There’s a lot of cool shit out there that people don’t realize comes directly from advances for people with disabilities…
Nic: … Siri on iPhone to name one is digital assistance but that really started for helping people with disabilities. Heck even the keyboard, computer keyboard we either love or hate every day, 150 years ago was an implement to help people write faster and better. It’s just interesting the advances of all these neat technologies that fascinate us and how they kind of move into the realm of everyday access that we don’t realize.
So Chris, did you find any barriers when you were starting to look at implementing accessibility or learning about it?
Chris: Oh, the learning part is… We are always learning, right? And especially if you’re going through all of the documentation that’s out there there’s always new things in there, there’s always things you’re discovering. Even recently with things I’ve been doing for work, there’s certain things I didn’t know or success criteria. I didn’t know you could have multiple success criteria for a single role ID or anything like that so… and I learned that from you because we were talking about that last week or whatever. So, yeah, there’s always stuff to learn and there’s always going to be issues trying to get imple- like, people to back you on implementation. I mean, even developers. Developers you work with, some of them might be like, you know what, we’re not really going to care about that right now, it’s not important. And it gets even worse the higher up you go up the chain. And I fought tooth and nail at my last gig to have them care about accessibility. I got up in front of 400 plus people in IT and said “listen this is what we do as a UI team. This stuff matters” and once I started putting my foot down and kind of giving them the finger and building it in and showing them that, “hey, this is the first application we’ve built and I don’t think any of our competitors have something that’s fully accessible either so this just kind of puts us at the top of the food chain” they were like, “Oh, wow yeah that’s pretty good and we won’t face possible lawsuits because things are looking really good and, yeah, this stuff matters”. But it’s definitely hard to get that up the food chain and get it prioritized. Because it’s never the first priority. Same with performance.
Nic: Yeah, see I’ve said this before often enough that there’s 3 prongs to a project that really should be built in from the get-go. One is performance one is security and the third one is accessibility and these things, if they don’t happen they are difficult to implement later on.
Chris: I say the same thing. I always say that. Especially the security thing. You don’t wait ‘til the end of the project to bake in security. You don’t. It’s the same with accessibility. I have a quote, I always say it and it’s “accessibility is not a requirement it’s a must”. It is your job as a web worker to care and make these things happen, implement these things for everybody because if not what are you doing.
Nic: Do you have any suggestions that you’ve tried and tested that actually works to help developers or stakeholders at ay level care more about accessibility?
Chris: Yeah, I kind of throw… I like to go and nip it in the bud right away and I always throw out the lawsuit thing. Because that gets peoples ears perked up. Whether they like to hear it or not. That’s me. I don’t bullshit. I’m not going to beat around the bush about it. I’ll tell you flat out. You could experience a lawsuit. It may or may not have happened if it did happen none of us are going to know. Their discretion, they’re going to keep it behind closed doors. But it’s always a possibility and if you want to avoid that, then we need to do A, B and C and here’s why. And kind of throw out some statistics. There’s a couple different charts I use from different law firms. From federal website lawsuits around the country… case studies, the stuff with Target and [Redrew Fin? 17:05] and Winn Dixie even Financial Tech. Fin-Tech…just because you work for … at a Fin-Tech company does not protect you from a federal website lawsuit. Accessibility lawsuit. Bank of America got hit pretty hard. Once you start throwing that at whatever industry you’re at they start to listen, like, “Oh, shit. We are in this industry too. We aren’t protected”. So once you have the proof you can kind of start to get that buy-in.
Nic: On the other hand using the threat of lawsuits, doesn’t that cause an issue where people start thinking of accessibility as compliance only and what is the minimum effort I can put in to avoid the lawsuit rather than thinking about what can we do to make this product work for as many people as possible regardless of abilities or disabilities.
Chris: Yeah, it could definitely go both ways and I think you really have to pick your battles and because I try and pick all the battles. And I try to win them all but it really boils down to who you’re talking to as well. Like, if I were to go up to somebody in legal and compliance and be like, “Hey, you could get a lawsuit”, well the first thing they’re going to hear is “We’re going to get a lawsuit, we’re not in compliance, we need to do the minimal we have to do to make sure our ass is covered when it comes to legal and compliance”. Not that the user can use it. Right? But if say you go to a direct lead or somebody like that or even like a team member and you do come up with the lawsuit stuff but you also say “Hey, look at the bigger picture though. What is our user base? We don’t know if our users have a disability. We have people that are working on this application that have disabilities so if 20% of the people in house have it, have a disability 20% of the people outside of here are going to have some kind of disability”, right? And if you can kind of pinpoint the demographic to the application that you’re building it makes perfect sense. The company I left, a lot of our client base was of an aging population. So right there is my argument. I don’t have to say lawsuit, I can say aging population. Boom. Okay, well we need to make this work for our aging population as well as the thousands of other people that touch this application on a daily basis.
Nic: Yeah, that’s fair enough.
What’s your favorite word?
Chris: Ooooh. Can I say it on here?
Nic: Throwing you a bit of a curveball here. Sure
Chris: Coz it, you know, Matt Damon… there was an interview with James Lipton, an Actor’s Chair or whatever it was and he always asks his guests “What’s your favorite word?” and Matt Damon said “Fuck” and James Lipton wanted to know why and he pretty much said because it can be used so many different ways. You can use it in anger, like “Fuck you”. You can use it in happiness like “Fuck yeah” or you can… it can be a bridge between words like “You’ve got to fucking be kidding me”. Right? There’s so many different uses of the word it’s just great. It’s a great word to use and I love it. It’s my favorite one.
Nic: Alright, well… I congratulate you, Chris. You are the first one to use a somewhat off-color word as a favorite word so this is a first.
Chris: Go figure
Nic: It’s good fun.
Chris: I don’t think anybody will go above me.[crosstalk]
Nic: [crosstalk] …first.
Nic: What’s your greatest achievement in terms of web accessibility? Is it managing to make that app ship being fully accessible or do you think you did something else that you’re really proud of? Or more proud of?
Chris: It’ll be a handful of things but definitely I would say that number one is that… and like. When people interview me or I’ve had interviews for jobs and they ask “What’s the one best thing you’ve done at your current company or previous company or whatever the case may be” that’s my go-to. I made this application accessible when nobody gave a shit about it and nobody cared because it wasn’t a priority and I did it anyway. And they saw the value of that and they started moving forward with all the other applications to make sure that they were accessible. That right there would probably be my biggest accomplishment in accessibility . The other ones, all the conferences that I speak at that’s always a win. I spoke for the first time in front of 600 plus people in London last year on accessibility that was huge. I’ve never been in a situation like that. A lot of the accessibility work and talks I’ve given that are… that kind of helped fuel me getting closer and closer to becoming a GDE, becoming a Microsoft MVP… that had a lot to do with it too. I mean, everywhere I look around there’s big wins but shipping the application and being the first accessible application out of the company was a really, really big one.
Nic: It is big and you should be proud of that.
I’m curious. How do people react when you speak about that? When you’re talking about “I did it despite people not buying into it. Despite people not being interested”. What’s normally the reaction of the people you are speaking with? Particularly if they’re potential employers?
Chris: Oh, I mean, it was always… they always gave me the look of “yeah, okay, we’ll worry about it at some point”. Like the current company I’m at right now, it’s definitely priority and everybody knows it and everybody does the best that they can to make it work. And that’s cool that they care enough where security performance and accessibility are the top priorities of those applications. It’s good to be working in a company that sees that value. But in other companies that I’ve worked at I’ve always gotten, not everybody but I’ve gotten the eye roll or like “Okay, yeah we will put up a backlog” and “it’s not priority we need to get this shipped in the next 2 months and we have to build it from the ground up” blah blah blah… those are the kinds of reactions I’ve gotten. But if you’re already there building out the stuff and you know what to do, just do it. You’re already there. And if you don’t know what you’re doing, ask. It’s that simple. Especially if you’re a salaried employee. I can see if you were an hourly employy and you were spending more hours, overtime hours or whatever building in accessibility… okay I get it. If that’s the.. The budget isn’t baking in that for you but if you’re a salaried employee you’re getting paid the same amount of money regardless if you work 20, 30,40 50 hours a week. Just do the shit while you’re there. It’s harder to retrofit accessibility. That’s why it matters so much to bake it in from the beginning.
Nic: Yeah. There’s somebody in the accessibility community that used a really good example or analogy and she was saying “accessibility is a little bit like the blueberry in a blueberry muffin. Once the muffin is baked you can’t put the blueberries in there. So you really have to make sure that you bake it in right from the get-go. And I always thought that was a great image.
Chris: I like that. I might have to steal that. I’ll have to find out who it was and steal it because I dig that a lot. I like blueberry muffins too. I’m not a huge sweets or baked goods eater but, man, I can mash on some blueberry muffins.
Nic: That’s the first thing I learned to cook when I was a kid. Blueberry muffin out of a box.
Chris: Oooh can you teach me? Oh, wait if it’s in a box the directions are on it.
Nic: Yes. RTFM, Chris. On that jolly note, I think we are going to wrap up for this week and thank you so much for coming on and I look forward to continuing our discussion next week.
Chris: Alright, sounds good, Nic. Thanks for having me again.
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!