To highlight Global Awareness Accessibility Day, I had a wonderful panel discussion with four people involved in accessibility: Courey Elliott, Dennis Lembrée, Shannon Finnegan, and Dan O’Mahony
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Nic: You’re listening to the Accessibility Rules podcast. I’m Nic Steenhout and I talk with people involved in one way or another with web accessibility. This is a special episode. Today is the 8th Global Awareness Accessibility day. The 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. Twilio.com.
Last year GAAD’s special episode was very well received so I’m using the same format. I have 4 guests with me and we will have a panel discussion about … well, accessibility of course. So I’ll let them briefly introduce themselves before we dive into the discussion.
Nic: So, I’m going to pick on Dennis. Why don’t you go first?
Dennis: Sure. Thanks for having me, Nic. My name is Dennis Lembrée. I work as a senior accessibility consultant at Deque Systems, about 3 and a half years now. Before that, I was at eBay and PayPal and I am pretty well known for a blog and a Twitter account called Web Axe and a web-based accessible Twitter app called Easy Chirp.
Nic: Thank you. Shannon, how about you?
Shannon: Hi, yeah. Thank you for having me. I’m Shannon Finnegan. I am an artist and have recently been doing work around web accessibility through a year-long residency that I’m doing at an arts organization in Brooklyn, New York called Eye Beam. That’s an organization that kind of supports artists who are working around the intersection of art and technology.
Nic: Sweet. That’s going to be interesting to hear about. Not a topic we often discuss.
Dennis: Very Cool
Nic: Yeah. So, Dan, all the way from Ireland. Tell us a little bit about you.
Dan: Hi, everybody. Yeah, my name’s Dan O’Mahony and I live in Dublin, Ireland. I work for a charity called Child Vision. I’ve been there for 12 years and I work with accessible documents and creating visual accessible materials for kids who are blind and visually impaired throughout the country of Ireland. In my other life I kind of like to talk about web accessibility and basically assistive technology… things like that. And, I kind of design websites and apps and have great fun with all that too. Um… yeah. That’s me!
Nic: Do you have any time to sleep with all that?
Dan: Do you know, you’d think. I’m always doing something and it’s really enjoyable and I don’t know why I like it so much but I suppose when you find something you really like go and grab it with two hands and keep running with it and you don’t know where it’s going to go.
Nic: Yeah. Thank you. So that leaves us with Courey. How are ya?
Courey: Hi, I’m Courey Elliot and I am a software engineer at Lonely Planet and I do general engineering as well as I participate on our accessibility team.
Nic: Thank you. Right so we’re talking about accessibility especially awareness of web accessibility today and one of the things that I’ve noticed over doing accessibility work for well over 2 decades by now, is that we’re still facing the same basic accessibility-related problems today that we were facing 20 years ago. For example, you know, there’s not a single audit I do that I don’t have to talk about form labels and alt text for images and that kind of stuff. So, why are we still facing those issues do you think?
Courey: I feel like a lot of the time it’s one of those issues of if you don’t need that there’s a lack of awareness that there is a problem. So, I think that a lot of times people just don’t know. It’s just plain ignorance.
Dan: Yeah, I would agree and I think sometimes it’s not that they don’t want… someone doesn’t want to put accessible features onto their website. They’re just not aware of it. And there’s been many occassions where I pull up a website, someone’s website on my phone and I turn on the screen reader just to show them how their website performs and when I’m accessing it in a different way other than the normal visual way and they’re kind of… they say, “Oh, that’s so cool” but it’s kind of like it’s a novelty thing, you know? It’s not seen as… important is not the right word, but it’s not seen as something they would bother too much about I think that sometimes they’re always thinking of their bottom line and how to get something done as quick as they can and get it out. Get their website up and out as quick as they can. And sometimes the whole accessibility part of it is kind of left by the wayside or it’s factored into their usability testing at the last section which just doesn’t work with … by that stage it’s just… you know, it’s just not going to work in that way.
Dennis: Yeah, I totally agree with those points. Another big issue, I think, is education. And, I think that semantic HTML is a huge part of accessibility . At least on the web. And can benefit other areas too. But web accessibility, I mean, semantic HTML as a lot of us knows, is extremely important and unfortunately that slips through the cracks. You know, HTML isn’t given nearly as much attention as it should be in education. And also, not only in schools but like, online too. If you were taking some kind of web development course implements of HTML is often… semantic HTML is often overlooked… yeah.
Dan: Yeah, I read a great quote one time. I don’t know who said it but he said HTML is grey, HTML is boring but it provides a very solid foundation on which to build fantastic products. Once you have it right from the beginning it just grows from there.
Dennis: I think another piece is taking a look at organizations that hire designers and accessibility should definitely be taken into account when hiring and asking what are your qualifications. I think if that’s done more then that would mean more people aware and interested in digital accessibility. And, hiring, you know, folks to do that would just show that this is important to the organization or the company and that’s extremely important. So, job postings hopefully… you see it more now, it’s becoming … with all the lawsuits in the United States there’s much more awareness but fortunately we are starting to see some of that in job listings in asking if you have IAAP certification and things like that so I think that’s going in the right direction.
Nic: Shannon, you had a point you wanted to make?
Shannon: Yeah, I think… You know, I work across digital accessibility and physical accessibility and I think one of the big issues that I see is really around a failure of imagination and a failure to recognize disabled people as kind of part of our communities and part of… and not only as kind of people who might be receiving information but also as creators and thinkers and leaders and I think as we see more disabled people entering into design roles and if we can kind of shift some of these pipeline issues around that then I think that will really help.
Nic: Is that a little bit the concept of nothing about us without us?
Shannon: Yeah. I mean, I think… yeah. Absolutely. I mean, I think it’s in terms of… yeah, that just having disabled people in the room is always going to be the best option in terms of approaching accessibility. We are the experts about what we need and how we engage with different systems and so the more that I think disabled people can be involved in the creation process, that’s going to be really beneficial.
Shannon: I think it’s important to note though that the onus should not be exclusively on the disabled to educate and further that. That should be a universal. We should be involved but that should not be, you know, “disabled people want access so you should make access.
Courey: Yeah. I think it’s really different to have this kind of expectation that someone whose disabled is going to be able… is always going to kind of push for accessibility and that they will understand all types of accessibility. And, I think that’s really different than, you know, specifically hiring someone for their expertise and kind of working with someone in that way.
Nic: So we are talking about 3 possible solutions to increase awareness. We’ve mentioned getting more people with disabilities involved. We are talking about including accessibility in the general education whether its as computer science degrees or it’s just tutorials online and online boot camps. Um, the question I have for you is…I read just today actually that last year there were over 2500 lawsuits for accessibility in the United States. Do you believe lawsuits will help resolve that? Help improve the general awareness about accessibility and actually change things?
Dan: Unfortunately, yes. Accessibility hasn’t… digital accessibility hadn’t really taken off until… at least in the United States… until all these lawsuits started happening and, as unfortunate as it sounds that’s the reality. These large companies, you know, profits is… you know. Money and profits is the goal of a large corporation so if we can avoid bad PR and avoid lawsuits etc then that benefits them so it’s in their advantage to make their product accessible. Now hopefully in that process, a lot of companies and a lot of organizations will learn that, hey, this accessibility thing is pretty cool and really helps usability and all these other things. So, in the long run hopefully, that will happen and so we’ll see.
Dennis: It’s kind of like the ground up. The designers… if they’re educated in accessibility they’ll motivate the middle managers and hopefully the CEO at some stage to kind of take into account that this is a really cool thing. That you’re increasing it for everybody. You’re increasing usability for everybody by designing a product that’s usable by everybody. Which is going to impact your bottom line. I was going to say in terms of… I kind of follow what’s going on on the other side of the pond in terms of all the lawsuits and stuff. It’s slightly different over here in Europe.
Dennis: Slightly. As in, I haven’t seen as many lawsuits going on. I haven’t read about as many. We just passed the European Accessibility Act just passed I think a couple of days ago. So this is kind of like an EU wide part and that’s giving organizations, sorry it’s giving goverments I think public bodies 6 years to get into line, for want of a better phrase and have everything conforming to WCAG 2.1 version AA or whatever. I’d say that’s the standard that’s going to hit but that going… I don’t know how that’s going because each country has their own national laws while the EU law is superior to every other national law, it’s going to take a long time to get it into place so, I mean, the more that people like us and anybody that has any sort of interest in this kind of areas, to post it from the ground up, it’s just going to benefit. And, then in terms of the European Union, if you look at Ireland… I was saying to people, Ireland is very immature when it comes to accessibility, unfortunately. But, you know.
Dan: Yeah, laws…
Nic: … thank you…
Dan: … I think laws can definitely help but, enforcing those laws is a whole ‘nother thing. So, Nic, I don’t know if you have any input about the AODA in Ontario what happened or didn’t happen with that. Or look at sections 508 in the United States, or 504… yeah. So those, it’s hard. It takes a lot of energy and resources to actually enforce.
Dennis: That’s a loaded question.
Dennis: … or just wander around and figure out what happened or where I’m at and what’s the content now.
Nic: Courey, as a developer with Lonely Planet and you’ve done some backend stuff, you’re doing frontend stuff… how do you feel about all that?
Courey: I would agree. I have used ARIA as a way to work around that. I think that that’s definitely a challenge and I think that it’s one that’s hard to teach people. If you have not used a screen reader before the reason ‘why’ sometimes doesn’t make a lot of sense. You can explain the concept but until you actually walk somebody through a website using a screen reader it’s hard to understand how those changes can be disorienting. And so I think part of the suggestion that I have is to have those tools available and take the time to teach your average developers how to use those tools so that they can go, “Oh, wow, this is terrible. This doesn’t make any sense at all” and find ways to work around it. Like, equip them with the ability to do it instead of having to go back and say, “Oh, this isn’t accessible. You need to do x,y, and z.” So, in the end, you have more people that are aware and when they move on to other jobs they have the ability to, you know, teach other people how to use those tools and how to hone those skills to figure out exactly what needs to be done and why.
Nic: I really like this idea of equipping devs with the tools to understand ‘why’ accessibility. I think that’s very powerful rather than just say, “Hey… you can’t do this” or, “fix this that way”
Dennis: Yeah. Linters will definitely help unit testing. There are tools to do all that definitely all helps. But again, going back to, you know, the fundamentals, I mean, if developers knew the fundamentals of HTML the fundamentals of semantic mark up then we wouldn’t have the problem in the first place.
Nic: Fantastic, thank you. So, let’s pivot a bit and talk about one last general topic before we wrap up. And, I’m going to ask this in 2 different ways because we have technical folks and not so technical folks on the chat but I think the issues are important. So, if you could change only one thing about the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines, what would it be, and that’s approaching it from a really technical perspective. The other aspect would be, as an individual with a disability what aspect of accessibility requirements are not working for people with disabilities, in your opinion? Without necessarily getting technical.
Dan: I would love … I think ARIA details this as a technical thing in their Web Accessibility Content Guidelines, I would love if that was more… if people knew more about that. That that was pushed forward. I think there’s so much power in that. That one specific section of the Web Accessibility Content Guidelines, for…
Dan: … complex images and graphs and stuff that you can actually, you don’t have to use alt text, you can actually describe something in a really detailed fashion for someone who can’t see it. And, I think that’s really powerful and I would love to see more. I’d love to see people talking about it more instead of seeing the same… and maybe talking about it in “accessible ways” so people who may not be technical could understand it. I think it’s a great one. It’s one that I’m having fun with.
Nic: Thank you, Dan. Shannon, what do you think?
Shannon: I think… one thing that I think about a lot is just this compliance-oriented mindset that I think a lot of people are in round accessibility and how that leads to a kind of checklist mentality instead of approaching accessibility in a really creative and generous way. So the… and a project that I’ve been working on is about alt text and I think what’s been interesting to me is that because of social media I think most people who use Twitter or Facebook or Instagram have the opportunity to be describing their images but don’t necessarily know that or know how to do that. And, it’s been interesting as I research that, there’s been some guidelines around… I mean, that alt text is really important and then also some guidelines around actually how to approach writing it. But, I think coming from an arts background and thinking about a museums website where a lot of the images are artwork it becomes really complicated and interesting to think about how to translate the visual information into text. And so, that’s been something I’ve been really interested in recently is kind of how we can approach describing images in more kind of creative ways.
Nic: Yeah, that’s cool. Dennis?
Dennis: Two big things come to mind that I think a lot of people would say and it’s much easier said than done but, the first things are like, make WCAG simpler. Easier to read and simpler. And I… yeah. I mean… I agree with that, yeah, obviously. But I mean, I don’t know if… I mean, what I think the bigger problem is you have to know how to read the guidelines and what are the different… Because the actual WCAG guidelines are very short it’s just all the supporting documentation and the cross-linking and everything. It gets much longer and much more complicated. So if someone was to understand how all that works and, you know… then I think it would be easier to comprehend that. The other thing not as many people say but bothers me more and more is the levels. The A, AA, AAA levels in WCAG, because I’m often confused as to why they’re set that way. Sometimes they don’t make as much sense as other times but I think, from what I know, both of those issues will be addressed in the next big version of WCAG that’s being worked on at the W3C right now. I don’t know what-what it’s going to be called. Silver is the code name for the project. WCAG 3 or something but I know those 2 issues are definitely going to be addressed.
Nic: Cool. Courey, what do you think? Do you have any wishes to change in WCAG?
Courey: So my… I have 2 things that I would really love and I think one of those is fairly general. I wish that web accessibility was something that was just a given. Just like if somebody is building a brand new building they’re going to be like, “Oh, we’ve got to put a ramp in here and an elevator to go up to this floor.” I would hope that someday soon that accessibility will be very similar to that in that if you are building or changing a website it would just be a thing that you would consider. ANd, that project managers and developers alike will all have the awareness of the importance and the factors necessary to make it accessible to everybody. And, kind of in keeping with that, I also wish that the tooling around testing websites was more accessible to people that don’t use that very often. I find it very difficult to find the time to teach somebody to use the tools appropriately. I mean, it’s a big learning curve. So I think that if we had some sort of developer tool that made that more accessible… I know that a lot of the developer tools like Firefox, in particular, I really love the things that they’ve done recently to kind of surface accessibility alone in their developer tools. So I think that as we create more tooling that makes it… that ironically makes it more accessible for the people that don’t have disabilities and don’t know how to navigate with a disability, the easier it will be to teach people how to be aware and how to program for those things.
Nic: Yeah. Thank you for that. Thanks, everyone. That’s been a really, really fun conversation. So, thanks for that.
Nic: Yeah I’ll just wrap up by thanking the audience for listening. If you enjoyed the show do tell your friends about it and let’s continue the conversation on Twitter because there’s a lot to unpack here I think. A reminder that you can get the transcript for this and all other shows at A11yrules.com and of course thanks again to our sponsor, Twilio for supporting the transcript for this episode.