E72 – Interview with Jen Luker – Part 1

Jen Luker tells us, among other things, that with thoroughness comes confusion – if you’re trying to learn all of WCAG and ARIA at once, you’ll get overwhelmed


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Nic:    Welcome to the Accessibility Rules Podcast. This is episode 71. 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.

This week I’m speaking to Jen Luker. Thanks for joining me for this conversation around web accessibility, Jen.

Jen:    I’m glad to be here.

Nic:    I like to start the show by letting guests introduce themselves. In an elevator-style pitch introduction, whose Jen Luker?

Jen:    Who is Jen Luker? Jen Luker is an engineering manager with Formidable who specializes in accessibility auditing and just making the web better in general. So, I am an avid knitter. I like to say that I knit and then I’m a programmer. Other than that just a nerd like all the rest.

Nic:    I like, like all the rest. Yeah. I’d like at some point during the show to talk a little bit about your talks that tie the relationship between knitting and coding.

Jen:    Yes!

Nic:    I think that could be interesting, however, to get warmed up a little bit… tell us one thing that most people would not know about you.

Jen:    I’m a pretty open book so trying to find something people don’t know about me… I am a huge Space nerd. I was the president of the Students for the Exploration Development of Space, in College.

Nic:    Cool. Very cool. What’s your favorite fact about Space?

Jen:    There’s more minerals, and they’re easier to get to in asteroids on Earth or in the Moon. So if we were to ever get to the point where we are actually mining those asteroids, we could dramatically reduce things like pollution on Earth and still have the materials we need.

Nic:    That’s a nice bit of trivia. But let’s circle back to the main topic of conversation which is web accessibility. It seems like every person I speak to for the podcast has a slightly different variation on that definition. How would you define web accessibility?

Jen:    Web accessibility for me is the ability for everyone to use the web. It doesn’t even have to be similar fashions, it just needs to be that they’re capable of using it and developing their own identity and resources and what-not. And them being able to also interact with it in a way that’s meaningful to both the companies and to the users.

Nic:    Yeah, that’s good. I like the concept you proposed that it’s about not everybody uses the web in the same ways. How do you describe different ways to use the web for people that could be striking for maybe some of my listeners that are less used to those different ways?

Jen:    So, have you ever gone to a website and you are trying to navigate around, but it’s in a foreign language? That makes it very difficult to be able to utilize the website in said way. So sometimes the website ends up being used in conjunction with, like, Google translator or something to that effect. So being able to overlay different types of assistive technology is to be able to utilize the web. Whether it be a translator or a screen reader it really does make a difference. Being able to change the color scheme in order to accommodate for any sort of visual issues they might have, or maybe it’s a cognitive issue, where bright colors cause them issues, so they end up dulling everything. There’s lots of different ways to interact. It’s not just a screen reader and a keyboard which is what people often times think about when they’re talking about accessibility. There’s just so much more than that that’s involved.

Nic:    Yeah, I like that. Thank you. So you say you have a focus in accessibility in your work. How… what does that look like day to day? Do you consult with your teammates? Or do you tell them, “Hey don’t forget about accessibility? “ Or… what does accessibility in your job day to day look like?

Jen:    In my job day-to-day, because of the fact that Formidable is a consultancy, often times it has to deal with working with both my teammates and the client and their teammates to not only educate them on the types of accessibility technology they can utilize to limit the amount of accessibility problems that they run into but also how to test and how to look for those, how to use a screen-reader, how to change the language or the way that they pass people through the funnel from homepage to purchase. To allow for ease of use and to allow for as many people as possible to be able to use their website. So a lot of it is education, and a some of it is auditing.

Nic:    Do you find your clients are quite responsive to your education efforts?

Jen:    Most are. There’s always some push back. Always some, you know, “do we really need to deal with this? We really just need to get it out the door” or “Oh, blind people don’t buy rainbows, so we don’t have to worry about that” and it’s kind of disappointing when I get those responses, and so I do often times, I do push back. In the end, sometimes you just have to pick your battles, go for the things that are easy and try to get through as many of the stuff that they’re willing to do as possible and don’t let myself get hung up on the frustrations of, well this is a roadblock, and we can’t get past it right now.

Nic:    Yeah.

Jen:    So trying to get at least as much cover as possible and leaving those really hard points to the end if I have to.

Nic:    Yeah I think that picking your battles is important, but progress, any bit of progress is good.

Jen:    I mean, if you go through and you just add alt tags to your images that’s a huge amount of people that can now comprehend what’s going on in all those images. Every little itty bitty teeny tiny bit helps and makes it so one more person or many many more can use your website. So even if you can’t make it perfect today, and there’s no such thing as perfect, there’s always reaching towards that goal, but even a little step is going to be much better than what you have now.

Nic:     Even printed material, even books are never really finished because otherwise there wouldn’t be all these subsequent publications of the same book. You know, first publication and second publication and it’s not just that a book runs out but there’s updates and stuff, so I think it’s even more important on the web to think of, well actually your site or your project or your app will never truly be finished. You can always improve it. And that involves improving accessibility.

Jen:    Absolutely and with any maintenance, we add testing to make sure that we have regression covered. We add different use cases, so we cover the places that we missed last time. The same thing for accessibility I mean there’s multiple ways of adding the technology to audit it. But then there’s ways of developing relationships with people that use those assistive technologies every day to get repeated occasional audits so that you’re not stuck being the only one looking at it through a screen reader and you’re not familiar with screenreaders. There’s lots of places to cover and the more you can develop those resources, the better off you’re going to be.

Nic:    What brought you to accessibility? How did you become aware of its importance?

Jen:    So I was raised with a nearly completely deaf mother. So I’m a CODA kid.

Nic:    Okay

Jen:    And because of that I’ve watched my mother go through my whole entire life where she had limitations, and we didn’t. Where we were the ones that had to reiterate communications back to her because she couldn’t hear them very well even with hearing aids. And then I also had a terminally ill sister who got progressively worse as she went through her saddeningly short life but by the time she died she was deaf she was blind and she was immobile, so I got to … even going through elementary school I’d get up on stage, and talk to the entire elementary school and her card and how you could still play with her and how you had to make accommodation for her to try to make sure that people understood that she wasn’t scary and she wasn’t weird, she was just a kid and these are kind of the rules in which you can play with her and hang out with her and still relate to her. So, I mean, it’s kind of been a part of my life forever. However, it wasn’t really until React rally 2016 where Marcy Sutton was standing on stage, and she gave this amazing talk that used one of my favorite kids’ games, Where in the world is Carmen Sandiego…

Nic:    Oh yeah.

Jen:    And it was ‘Where in the Stack’ is Carmen Sandiego and it was hilarious, and it was awesome, and it is on Youtube so please go watch it, but it was a way of showing how you can find accessibility problems and where they’re commonly located within a technology stack. At that point, it was just like this magic dawning moment sitting in this theatre going, “you mean there’s people that don’t understand some of these things? This is something that I’m passionate about. This is something that I live” you know, “these are problems that I watch my mother go through every day these are frustrations I run into, and this is a field?” And so essentially the next day I hopped as fast as I could into learning as much as I could about auditing and accessibility and tools to test for it and ways to improve the problems that existed. And that’s kind of what lead to here.

Nic:    Has your view of web accessibility changed since you had that ‘Ah ha!’ moment with Marcy? Or has your experience growing up surrounded by your mom and your sister, pretty much shaped your thinking about accessibility from way back when?

Jen:    I think that I definitely had a vague shape develop as I grew up just watching their frustrations and where they did well and where they didn’t but it was really eye-opening to see the real world effects of how accessibility isn’t limited to people who are deaf or blind or physically disabaled. It does reach into cognitive impairments and temporary disabilities and circumstantial disabilities. Like, trying to navigate while holding a set of twins while they’re sleeping get’s really tricky.

Nic:    Yep

Jen:    That was a fun situation. Watching my child who had to do online homework but her eyes got dilated that night. So seeing that all of these limitations that maybe people run into that maybe don’t last for very long but still actually impact their lives. Hanging out in a really noisy bar and joking about something and wanting to show them the video in which it references. All of these technologies are there and where often times created specifically for people with disabilities, but they end up being super useful to everyone. Who hasn’t put on subtitles occasionally or only read the subtitles in bed?

Nic:    Yeah

Jen:    That I think has really changed shape in my mind over the last few years is watching as implementing things that we consider accessibility features which I would really love to think of more as accessibility bugs and watching that actually affect a much wider audience than you would ever think of.

Nic:    I often say accessibility is good for everyone and I sometimes get pushed back because I’m accused of forgetting the primary reason for accessibility which is making things more usable for people with disabilities and as an individual with a disability myself I can never forget that, but I think it’s important to realize that… yeah, it is good for everyone, and we do have control over the impact we have on not just the 20 or 25% of people with disabilities that are around but for everybody. Situational impairments and all of that kind of stuff.

Jen:    One of my favorite quotes is… and I don’t remember the quote exactly, and I will find it for you for later but it essentially says that, yes ramps do help those who are in wheelchairs be able to get to the sidewalk or up to a building that usually has stairs, but it also helps the parents with the stroller, or it helps the delivery guy with a bunch of packages, or it helps the person on the bike. It helps a lot of different people, and though they may not necessarily have a physical impairment that requires a wheelchair and a ramp as their only access point, it’s still dramatically useful for a wide amount of people. Just because you may be focussing specifically on certain portions of your website for those with disabilities it doesn’t change the effect that it has on everyone. It’s not just, you’re helping the 25%. You’re helping a lot more than that.

Nic:     Did you encounter any barriers as you went about learning about accessibility when you were learning about auditing and all these things? Was there anything that you found difficult to get the information you needed?

Jen:    I’m not sure it was necessarily difficult per se but, it was difficult to understand. The world of ARIA. The website itself is very very thorough, and unfortunately with that thoroughness also comes confusion. There’s a lot of overlapping, there’s a lot of use cases, there’s a lot of possibilities, there’s a lot of should I – Shouldn’t I, how do I actually work with these rules … and, I heard one person at some point say that it’s difficult on purpose because you’re meant to avoid using them. The first rule of ARIA is never use ARIA, right? So …

Nic:    Yeah

Jen:    But at the same time I think that sometimes you don’t get the opportunity of revamping your entire website to go back to a similar, more HTML based structure. And you need to use the rules as a stop-gap, even until you get to the point where you can revamp it. Or, perhaps you are head to head with a designer product team and they really want a feature and there’s no amount of arguing and fighting is going to change the fact that this is the feature that’s going to be implemented. The ARIA rules go forth to help smooth over the rough edges that would otherwise be caused by that feature. They’re there for a reason. They’re there because they’re useful. We may not want to use them as often as we can but it would be nice to make that a little bit clearer and a little bit more simple to understand when and why you’d want to use those. In the cases that you need to use them.

Nic:    Yeah.

Jen:    Another thing is there’s so many… the basics of accessibility. Websites, and talks that trying to dig in, and understand that there’s more than just screen readers, and keyboard navigation. There’s just not a whole lot of easy to find resources when it comes to anything deeper. Like, what are the different cognitive types that you’re dealing with and how are they conflicting and contrasting, and how do you solve for both when they literally are exact opposites as far as the recommendations they give you, and the fact that internationalization is, in fact, an accessibility feature. Or how do you phrase things in a way that makes them more accessible than others? How do you have a lot of words for people that need a lot of words, and hardly any words for people that don’t need words and just want to get to the end. There’s all these conflicting things, and trying to suss out a lot of that deeper information seems to be … there’s just so much less of it. It would be nice to see more resources there too, and when I say it would be nice …  part of that is that I need to step up and do a little bit more in that field to try and make it more accessible to understand accessibility and it’s something I’m working on as well, but one person does not change the world. It takes all of us.

Nic:    Yeah. It’s a lot of work for one person alone. So let’s circle back a little bit about knitting and coding.

Jen:    Yes

Nic:    I know it’s not exactly accessibility but I think it’s a intriguing concept so tell me a little bit more about the relationship between those 2 items.

Jen:    As far as accessibility slant I think that it actually… there’s an interesting story there in that there are programs that teach women to knit because they don’t have access to computers as easily as they otherwise would have. And the concept between a knitting pattern and programming are almost identical. They’re all … ‘do while’ and ‘for each’ and if you have this do this, else, do that. There’s just a lot of the basic concepts that you need to understand for programming and, when to use them and how to use them built into the structure of knitting. With that being said the two in a language and knitting in a language is just syntax differences at that point. So knitting could actually be used as a computer simulator or programming simulator in a similar fashion that pilots learn in a simulator before you put them into a real plane.  Being able to develop those thought processes before giving them code to learn with, and it makes learning …

Nic:    That’s fascinating

Jen:    .. coding much easier. And I think again that’s how I was able to pick up coding so quickly, is because I picked up knitting just before that and I had been crocheting since I was a kid and the patterns are very similar but with knitting there’s a knit stitch, there’s a purl stitch and there’s a yard over, and it’s very much like binary but your 1’s and your 0’s are your spaces so I learned how to knit and a year later I learned, a lot deeper coding languages beyond HTML and it really jived well with that. Made them click and then going beyond that into some more of the relationships between knitting and programming there’s actually a lot of historical connotations that go with the two. For instance, in World War 1 there were women that would knit codes into their sweaters and they give their sweater to their son or ship it off to their son, and in fact, it was military positions of the enemy and where they were located to let them know what was going on as far as that goes. And everyone thought it’s a sweater, no big deal, right? It’s not like it’s a security breach except it really, really was, how cool is that!

Nic:    That’s really cool.

Jen:    Some very very early cryptography is actually associated with knitting and cryptography is actually what led to some of the computing that we do. Some of the computers that were very first built in a way that we would recognize them was to break military codes. That’s an awesome thing, and then if you go to weaving, less than knitting there’s some jacquard looms, in 1855 I believe were some of the first loom cards came out… And the thing about weaving is that you have patterns in your fabric that you’re weaving one row at a time, right? So you have your rafting you’re weaving your row one row at a time, and if the yarns were up then the yarn you’re putting through goes underneath it and if they’re down it goes on top of it, and you can make these really complex patterns. I mean you could create scenery, if you like, based on how this works, so they decided instead of trying to have to do it by memory they set up a system of cards that every time your pressed the pedal it would move the card one space further and then it would know based on needles that would go up through holes in these cards, grab a yarn and pull it down, or not allowing the spaces to be created. These cards were patterns. They were programs that would make these patterns in the yarn or in the fabric itself.

Nic:    Yeah

Jen:     What’s great about these cards is, punch cards used for computing are directly related to those jacquard loom cards. There are holes in blocks of wood that are 80 characters long. 80 characters on punch cards. They were 80 holes wide on the Jacquard loom so you had multiple cards wide, and multiple cards long. There could be thousands of cards to solve a single pattern in fabric. There could be thousands of cards long to just tell a computer to do something. Punch cards literally came from the idea of Jacquard looms making fabric.

Nic:    Sweet. I learned something. That’s really fascinating, thank you.

We’re reaching the end of our first half hour. I was wondering if you could tell us what your greatest achievement is in terms of web accessibility?

Jen:    My greatest achievement in web accessibility has probably been a recent project that I worked on where I figured out multiple layers of, at least technologically, testing for accessibility which meant that on the developer side we used a linter to catch as many problems as we could while we were coding. And then once we were done with that it would test each of the components itself, themselves, using rough data to verify that the accessibility features would be covered given the right amount of data, and then once the pages themselves were converted into static pages with real data we went through and tested again to make sure that it still complied before launching that.

Nic:    That’s cool

Jen:     We ended up having three different layers to verify all the way through that we were covering accessibility features. So that was pretty cool to be able to cover all of the technological bases before it hit live.

Nic:    Yeah

Jen:    And after that, there’s always so much more to do but it was a very accomplished moment to have a company that was so onboard with accessibility that they were perfectly happy to make sure that every step of the way we were covering our bases.

Nic:    That’s very neat. Very neat. Is this something that’s reproducible by other companies? Something you have out there as a resource? Or was it really just internal to that company?

Jen:    For this company it was internal. I’m likely going to write a blog post on it to try and share what we did there. I’ll give you the link when it’s finished.

Nic:    That would be great. I would really love to hear about that.

So, hey Jen. Thank you for this chat. So everybody, Jen Luker who shared some great stuff about accessibility and coding and knitting. Thank you.

Jen:    My pleasure

Nic:    Catch you next week.

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!