To highlight Global Awareness Accessibility Day, I had a wonderful panel discussion with four people involved in accessibility: Jillian Fortin, CB Averitt, Nat Tarnoff, and Rian Riedveld
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Nic: You’re listening to The Accessibility Rules Podcast. I’m Nic Steenhout and I talk with people involved one way or another with web accessibility. Today’s a special episode. Today is the 7th Global Accessibility Awareness Day. A transcript for the show is available on the podcast website at 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. http://twilio.com.
Today’s show is a bit different. I have four guests and we’ll have a panel discussion about accessibility. I’ll let them briefly introduce themselves before we dive into the discussion.
Welcome, everyone. I would like to start with you giving a short introduction of yourself, an elevator pitch-style introduction. How about we start with Jillian?
Jillian: Of course start with Jillian. Hi, my name is Jillian Fortin and I am the development and communications director with Knowbility. I have a background in digital project management, interactive marketing, social media, all the fun stuff. I’m really glad to be here.
Nic: Thank you. How about you, CB?
CB: Hey. Good afternoon in seven seconds, everybody. I’m CB Averitt. I am with Deque Systems. It’s a pleasure to be here. I am a senior consultant with them. I do mostly work with dot-com clients. My client right now is a Fortune 50 company and I do a lot of volunteer work with trainings and things like that as well. It’s a pleasure to be here. Thanks for having me.
Nic: Thank you, CB. Rian, how about you?
Rian: Hi. I’m Rian Rietveld. I’m from the Netherlands, so it’s good evening for me. I am a WordPress developer and an accessibility consultant and I work for a WordPress agency. I’m also team leader of the accessibility team for WordPress. There, I do project management and I try to keep everybody happy and informed. If I’m not doing that, I’m working in my garden. That’s it.
Nic: Wonderful. Thank you. That leaves us with Nat. How about you?
Nat: I am a technical consultant with Level Access. I’ve been doing web development and accessibility for about 15 years now and my current client is also a Fortune 50 company. I’m spending a lot of time getting them up to speed to requirements. When I’m not doing anything accessibility-wise, I’m usually playing with synthesizers and records and trying to DJ a little bit.
Nic: Wonderful. Thank you. Here we are. We are five people that have been touching accessibility in one way or another for a while and this is Global Accessibility Awareness Day 2018. Since we’re talking about accessibility awareness, I’d like to give you a quote that Sina Bahram said on my show a while back. He said, “We don’t have an accessibility problem. We have an awareness problem.” Please discuss.
Rian: I agree. Most developers and designers and content writers I meet have no clue how people with a disability use the internet, and they have no idea that’s a different way as they do. They actually don’t know how people use the internet and what’s important for them. If you point it out to the people, they suddenly realize, “Oh. There are things I’m doing wrong. I could do better on that.” That’s kind of “Aha!” awakeness. I meet it a lot, so I agree with the quote.
Nat: I only partially agree. Yeah, we do have an awareness problem that most developers don’t have the awareness of how people are using things and struggle to get the empathy that they need to in order to understand how they’re doing things, but we also come into a problem where unless there’s a financial gain for the company, they’re not going to provide the money in order to actually fix a problem once they’ve been made aware of it. We still have an accessibility problem. Even though the tools are out there to do things and do things well, companies aren’t willing to spend on it.
CB: They might even have the empathy. They could have the empathy, but they just don’t have the money to spend on it. I agree with that, Nat.
Jillian: I absolutely … I will triple agree with that because coming from an agency background, a lot of times, the client may not have the budget to do the fixes or even do it the right way the first time. I feel like a lot of folks are looking for the cheapest way to get to point B or the most budget-friendly of the most budget-efficient. I think that’s a problem, but also, there are organizations out there who may not … Training their internal teams may not be a priority either. They may not be willing to make the investment at the time. I feel like it is partially an awareness problem, but also, it’s a, “Well, is this a priority?” For many, not.
CB: Yeah, I wanted to add that caveat in there, too, because as I stated earlier, my current client right now is a Fortune 50 company. They have the budget. They have the budget. It’s the priority. It’s what they choose to do with that budget and in many times, it’s the bare minimum at best, and that’s only because of their risk level.
Nic: But isn’t that going back to a question of awareness? They’re not really aware of the impact on their possible visitors and the benefit to themselves.
Rian: Yeah, I agree with that because if you explain Google is blind and deaf, then suddenly, they realize, “Okay. If I make my website more accessible, it’s also more accessible for the search engines.” In Europe, it’s also that public service websites and government websites need to be accessible by law. I don’t know exactly how this is in the US, but you actually get fined if you don’t make your website accessible. That will drive to huge costs, and that maybe can be spent beforehand instead of after. Those are the arguments I make.
Nat: In the US, we also have the problem. We do have laws that require government websites and not so much public, but those that are being contracted to government in ways, so insurance company, health insurance and providers of software to the government that have to be accessible, but there’s nobody enforcing that from a government standpoint. It’s only when they end up getting hit with litigation or lose the government as a major client do they actually see the pain in their financial pocket. They end up ignoring it until they’re facing litigation and then once they’re facing litigation, they’re spending more money than they would have needed to in the first place.
CB: Good point. Same experience here as well, but the thing is though, is yeah, you could talk about government laws, but I can guarantee you to some of these companies out there, the litigation risk level is by far more expensive than the fines that I think the government would put on the company. In essence, once they start getting these legal things that are happening to them, they seem to be much more aware at that point of what’s happening and they do go in and fix it. But again, from my experiences, because of the priority, it is, at the bare minimum in many cases. In other words, it’s not about empathy. It’s more so about they’re getting sued, quite honestly. They’re getting sued.
Rian: Yeah, but they’re also losing clients. If you have a web store and someone cannot order by keyboard only, then you’re losing clients and those people tell it around. “Oh, that’s not a good website,” and they’re losing much more clients that way, so that’s for me, also, something I tell them.
CB: Good point.
Rian: Twenty percent of all the people have a better experience when they use an accessible website, so the 20%, if you say it to an SEO expert, “I can raise your clients by 20%,” then that’s a huge amount. I think an argument that I use and that helps, I think.
CB: One more thing I want to add to that, though. It’s not that their websites are inaccessible. Their websites, from the experiences that I have, we make them accessible. They’re not the best experience. I guess they could be losing customers. However, it’s not because their site is … In this case I was talking about earlier, it’s not that their site is inaccessible, but it could be better, definitely.
Nat: I do see a lot of cases where the user can’t complete the primary objective of the site, whether that is purchasing an item from a web store or buying insurance online, or paying a bill online. There is that saying that it isn’t accessible, but there’s also levels. I mean, we have these criteria and guidelines, WCAGs, that we’re working towards as goals, but those still don’t cover everything.
CB: That’s true.
Nic: I think WCAG really is the low-hanging fruits in most cases and as I often explain to people, as a wheelchair user, there’s standards for ramps. A ramp should not be any steeper than going one foot for every 12 feet in length, one in 12. For many people, that’s too steep, but it’s not because it’s too steep that we can say, “Well, it’s not accessible,” because it’s respecting the standards. I think in many ways, WCAG is the same way. We’re defining basics of accessibility, but what about these sites out there that manage to comply with WCAG and have sites that are not really accessible or usable?
Rian: Go ahead.
CB: Yeah, I mean, I guess my question … I’d go back to you, though. Are you saying that they’re just … Because if they comply with WCAG, to me, there’s a certain point of accessibility that they have if they don’t comply with WCAG. Now again, it might not be the best experience. It might not be a fantastic user experience, and like the ramp scenario that you were using, it might be too steep. It might be too steep, but it’s still accessible. I don’t know that I agree with the fact that if you comply with WCAG at the bare minimum, you’re still inaccessible. I don’t know that I would agree with that point.
Nic: That’s not what I said. I said that I think there’s … I have certainly seen sites where if you take WCAG Level A point by point, yeah, they meet these things, but then they end up with a site that’s not actually usable or accessible.
Nat: I think there’s three levels of user experience here that I try to talk about when I’m working with teams that are trying to remediate their sites. There’s functionally accessible, meaning you wrote all the code that it’s going to work right. If someone comes in, it’s probably going to pass WCAG AA. That’s technically accessible. Then there’s functionally accessible because when I come there with assistive technology, not only am I going to get an equivalent experience as a non-assistive technology user, but I’m going to actually be able to go through it without confusion and understand it. It still doesn’t have to be a very usable site. Then we get into really good usability and user experience. That’s just taking it above and beyond. If you don’t have the first two, you can’t have the third.
Rian: Right. What I always say, “You have to tell a story with your HTML. The HTML you have, it has to be meaningful, logical, in the right order, and tell a story what’s on the page and what you can do.” I think that’s the real accessibility if you have just meaningful HTML that tells what’s happening on the page. That’s something that’s a step extra, I think, and it’s very important, especially for screen reader users to understand what’s going on.
CB: Yeah, one of my … Go ahead, Jillian. I’m sorry.
Jillian: Oh. No, no, no. I was just going to add that I really do like that because, I mean, compliance for compliance’s sake doesn’t do anybody any favors. I think that the guidelines are there so that we can design better products. I’ve worked with teams before where the actual functional part of design is often overlooked because they go for the aesthetic. They go for what the client’s going to really, really love, but no. Good design is functional design.
CB: Yeah, one of the things I really like, and I like this idea so much, is I wish we were to a point where we weren’t even referring to WCAG. In other words, as a consultant, we’re not even talking about WCAG. We’re just talking about a great user experience for all on your website. I really wish that that’s where we could be. Now, unfortunately, like we were speaking about earlier, when we have these companies that to do just the best practices, that might cost half a million dollars to them to do best practices things, but I do really wish that we did not even discuss WCAG, we just said, “Let’s make your site usable for everybody in the best way we possibly can.”
Jillian: Right, and also, not just the fact that it’s a more usable product, but it’s going to be a scalable product. It’s a product that can evolve and will require less redoing whenever you decide to add a function or grow the site by 800 pages, whatever it could be. It’s better-
Rian: It’s also more sustainable for the future.
CB: Very true.
Nic: I was asked once at conference not too long ago, “How does a design or developer outfit convince a client to pay extra for implementing accessibility?” My answer was basically to ask them, “Do you get your client to pay extra to implement security? Obviously not, so why would you charge your client extra for implementing accessibility? It should be treated the same way.” How do you think about that kind of approach? Obviously, it’s different from having to remediate a problem, but if we’re starting from a new project, do you think that’s something that could work?
Nat: I’m a big fan of the subversive approach and the subversive approach is if somebody tells you … I was in an internal marketing team and we were told to do a project. We were given a timeline and I said, “Well, okay, this is what it’s going to take to get it done in that timeline,” and it was always going to be accessible. When working for an outside agency and there’s a cost, I always bid it with the accessibility baked into it because it was the right way to do it. To me, it didn’t matter whether or not they knew it was going on. This is the right way to do it, so I was always subversive and put it in there.
Jillian: I absolutely agree. For designers and developers, especially at an agency, I think it behooves dev and design teams to really commit to creating a resource library that will allow them to serve their clients better. I think it’s important to create components that are accessible out of the box and use those as the building blocks for the products that you build later on. Not only are you fortifying your team with better tools to build better products, but I think it’s also a selling point. I think accessibility sold as baked into the project shows the client that you are trying to do the responsible thing and you’re trying to do right by them.
Rian: Yeah, totally agree with that. That’s totally what I think, too. Yep.
CB: Rian’s comment earlier, I think is a very good selling point as well as a whole Google thing because leadership hears that. Leadership hears, “Oh, I’ll be ranked better in search engines?” Bam. That’s just a serious connection there.
Rian: Yeah. At least search engines understand your site better. I think you aren’t charging extra for responsive design and accessibility should also be such a thing. Also, I think it’s just good practice, quality of your work, to make the stuff really work well for every device and then you don’t have to say it’s for accessibility, but you also can say, “Well if you … website later on, maybe in a few years, your website will work.” It’s also sustainability for the future are things I address.
Nic: But code quality, we see so many projects coming out now that they don’t use HTML in any manner that remotely resembles semantic meaning and it’s all kind of messed up, so shouldn’t we question the quality of coding out there as one of the basics of problematic accessibility?
Rian: That’s a political statement.
CB: Absolutely, yeah.
Rian: There are many people that … I think some developers could do better, focus less on, “This is what I can do,” and show off instead of going back to basics. “This must be in order first and after that, I can show off.” Make it work before we can make it nice. I think you can do everything you can, but just make the basic right.
Nat: One of the things that I look at is not how you’re writing the code. I look at, “How is your code rendering?” because that’s ultimately the thing that we have to look at. I don’t care if you use the latest Angular or React and you have all these custom elements in there as long as the browser and the assistive technology are interpreting things the right way. You could have an element in there that … Actually, even HTML is a custom element, but if you put the proper ARIA roles in there to create this little progress bar, good to go. Now, could you have done it in a simpler method with standard HTML? Maybe, but as long as it renders and the accessibility API and the DOM tree all get read the same way, go ahead and use whatever backend you want.
Jillian: I completely agree with that and Nic, to your point about all of the different clunky sites out there, I think let’s talk about how a lot of those sites were probably not built by developers. Let’s talk about how those sites were probably built by folks who signed up for … Am I allowed to say brand names? Signed up for a Wix account or got a free site with GoDaddy. I have clients outside of Knowbility and I worked on a Squarespace site over the weekend and-
Nic: My condolences.
Jillian: Oh, let me tell you. It was a bottle of wine project, meaning I sat down with a bottle of wine and was done when it was done. It’s crazy because these folks have no idea what they’re doing. They’re picking their font. They’re clicking. They’re moving boxes around, so should it really be their responsibility? No. This is a call for the makers of these platforms to ensure that the tools they give people who may not know better will work. It’s easy for the end user, who doesn’t know anything about code, and so I think the burden of the responsibility is the creator’s of the tools, 100%.
Rian: Yeah, this counts also for WordPress. We try and make WordPress as accessible as possible, but everybody can write a theme for WordPress and they can make it so accessible or inaccessible as possible. It’s very hard to find real accessible themes for WordPress, so we add the bundle themes with WordPress and they are WCAG 2AA accessible, but all the other themes that people write, well, they can do whatever they want. That’s up to the theme developers.
CB: On Nic’s point, though, from my experiences in some cases, I could have the best … Just a genius, a brilliant developer that just does incredible Java and doesn’t know basic HTML, literally does not know basic HTML and that becomes challenging sometimes. Like when I’ll say, “Go fix this,” they’ll go fix it in some kind of backend code because they don’t really understand the whole HTML aspect of it. That’s a problem when it comes to accessibility.
Nic: Yeah, absolutely. We have just a few minutes left. I’d like to pose a question as to how do we convince people that accessibility’s a priority? We’ve spoke a little bit about legal risks and business advantages, but when the wheels hit the ground, what specific argument can we suggest to our friends and advocates to use to convince companies to make accessibility happen?
CB: My thoughts on that is two-fold. The first one is empathy. Definitely empathy, but again, going back to some of these large companies, you really got to sell them on the fact of, “How is it going to benefit you?” Things like Rian was talking about with, “Your customer base will increase. Your sales will increase.” I would love for everybody just to go, “Empathy’s all we need. That’s all we need.”
Rian: No, that’s never going to work. No.
CB: It’s not going to work. I would love that. I mean, that’s the way I feel like life should be, but unfortunately, it’s just not like that when we have people that are dealing with budgets and leadership and things like that. There’s two aspects. Empathy, definitely, but then also, “How can it benefit them? In what way can accessibility benefit them?”
Rian: Financially, yeah. There are benefits.
Nat: I think that’s good at the company level, but when you get down to the team or developer level, it takes a little bit different especially if teams have not been mandated. I tend to pull out of pockets the situational disability-type scenario. What happens if you are a single parent deprived of sleep and you’re trying to fill out your taxes and you’re baby’s crying. All of a sudden, you have to leave and take care of it for 15 minutes, or you broke your arm, or you lost your glasses and these things. I think that’s, at a developer level, the fastest way to build empathy and they start to get a hang of, “Oh. I didn’t really think about that. Well, how would I go about solving that problem, then?” I start from the ground up on that because I’m not talking to the people up in the top of the C-level towers.
CB: But I tell you how I feel about that one, though, is … And every time I go into a company, one of my first questions is, “Do you have leadership buy-in?” Because even if you have a developer that really wants to do go, they want to do this great code and they’re on board, they’re on board, if they don’t have leadership buy-in on it, they don’t get the bandwidth to make things like that happen.
Nic: Jillian, any thoughts on that?
Rian: Yeah, that’s important.
Jillian: Yeah, I have a ton. Where do I begin? To that point, I think that developers will sometimes find themselves in that situation where they’re like, “I want to do the right thing, but I don’t have the resources. I don’t have the time. I’m not given enough of a runway to make these things happen. My team’s not trained,” and so that’s why we do have to go back and we have to really emphasize to leadership, “These are the financial gains that you can expect or estimate.” Also, I know this sounds really crazy, but this has worked before, being accessible and doing the right thing is a marketing strategy. The company will look better in the public eye for doing the right thing. I don’t think it’s necessarily a bad thing to make that point because it will sometimes resonate with leadership. “Oh, okay, well”-
CB: That’s true.
Nic: Doesn’t that come down to corporate social responsibility?
Nat: It does.
Jillian: It does.
CB: It does.
Nat: It definitely does.
CB: It does.
Nat: In fact, my client, due to a legal situation had to put forth several years ago the effort to make everything accessible and remediate and now, going into this year, the focus on being able to provide services to everybody regardless of the situation is their company motto. It does jive into that social responsibility, but there’s always a point where you need to start it.
CB: True. Good point.
Jillian: Exactly, and I mean, I think in today’s society, a lot of people are starting to use corporate good or social corporate responsibility as a buzzword. You’ll hear that a lot more now than you did before. I think if there’s a time to strike while the iron’s hot, it’s now. Companies need to, as the kids say, “Stay woke.”
Rian: I’d like to add one more thing about-
Rian: The developers not being able to write proper HTML. I think there is a lack of attention at schools and education in universities. I don’t know how it’s done in the US, but in the Netherlands, accessibility isn’t taught at the schools, the developer schools. It’s totally blank, so there’s a lot to win if we can make it happen. That on the schools, accessibility for developers is also a part of the program, that will be a huge help because then all the new developers that come from schools actually knows what they’re doing. Now, they have to be taught over and over again by the companies. They have to be in-line trained and that’s costly for the companies, but if they already have that skill, that will make a huge difference.
Jillian: I cannot agree with that more. I really, really, really can’t. With our OpenAIR program at Knowbility, we had the opportunity to work with 16 university teams. I want to give credit to their professors for making it a requirement for the semester. It’s part of their final grade to build an accessible website for an NPO. I had the opportunity to visit a few of the teams. They’re local here in Houston and I was like, “What you’re doing now doesn’t just satisfy a requirement. What it does is it gives you the skillset that a lot of employers are looking for, so it makes you, as a candidate for a job, a lot more appealing than the guy who”-
CB: Good point.
Jillian: “Doesn’t have these skills. Not only that, but not only does it make you more marketable, but it also puts you in a position where you could potentially get a higher salary because you have the additional skills.”
CB: Very true.
Jillian: There’s a lot to be gained from having these skills, not just the good feelings of knowing that you did something right or the pride you get from building a superior product, but it’s your own marketability. It’s your own
CB: That was a shameless plug from Jillian on OpenAIR if y’all missed that.
Nic: That was a wonderful plug.
Jillian: I mean, I said…
Nic: Right. We’ve reached our half-hour of show and I would like to wrap things up by asking each and every one of you a one- or two-sentence statement that you would like people at large to remember about accessibility.
Rian: Who’s starting?
Nic: You are. There you go.
Rian: I want to say, “Look at yourself. Maybe you’re very young and everything works. Your eyes, your ears, everything works. When you get older, things break, so if you start thinking about accessibility, start thinking about you in the future, so also take care for yourself.”
Nic: Thank you. CB?
CB: Sure. I can go next. I want to hit on Jillian’s point because this is huge, especially for the young people out there. You’re marketable. I mean, you’re way more marketable when you have these kind of skills in your tool shed. I would highly encourage people to learn accessibility just for that reason alone.
Nic: Wonderful. Thank you. Nat?
Nat: I think the thing that I’ve been hitting the most over the last couple years is accessibility is not just about the blind. It is not just about making your thing work on a screen reader. There’s a whole spectrum of disabilities and even WCAG, if you hit it a AAA level in 2.0, still doesn’t cover all the disabilities you’re going to be able to encounter, so you need to see that as a base and keep working past it.
Nic: Thank you. And Jillian?
Jillian: I want to borrow a quote from this year’s keynote at AccessU, which is coming up here shortly in a few weeks in Austin, Texas.
CB: Another plug.
Jillian: Stop it. No, and you’ll see why I’m saying this. It’s a fantastic quote from Liz Jackson, who is the founder of the Inclusive Collective. She says that, “When you design for disability, you design for everyone.” How many of us here can say that we don’t appreciate the extra space in the bathroom stall or the ramp if we’ve sprained our ankle? We all benefit when you do the right thing, so why not do it from the jump? It’s everyone’s responsibility, not just the developers, not just the designers, not the CEO, but the project manager. What support can you provide your devs? Salesperson, how can you, before the contract, tell your clients that it is a priority and that they want it? It’s everybody’s responsibility, so that is-
CB: Good point.
Jillian: Where I leave that.
Nic: Wonderful. Hey, thank you, everyone. This has been wonderful. I wish we could just keep talking and talking and talking, because it’s just-
Jillian: I know. Me too.
Nic: It’s just wonderful. Thanks for being such great guests on the show and we’ll-
Rian: Thank you for having us.
Jillian: Thank you.
CB: Yeah, thank you. It’s been a pleasure.
Nic: We’ll see maybe if we can redo it at some point later.
Jillian: Yeah. I’m definitely down.
Nic: Thanks, everyone.
Nat: Sounds good.
CB: Thank you.
Rian: Thank you.
Nat: Thank you.
Nic: Thank you for listening. If you enjoyed the show, please do tell your friends about it. You can get the transcript for this and all other shows at https://a11yrules.com. Thanks once again to Twilio for supporting the transcript for this episode.