E04 – Interview with Denis Boudreau – Part 2

In this part of the discussion with Denis Boudreau, we talk about achievements, frustrations, Artificial Intelligence, and more!


Nicolas: Support for the Accessibility Rules podcast comes from people like you. I really do appreciate your support. Welcome. This is the Accessibility Rules podcast. I’m Nick Steenhout, and I talk with people involved in one way or another with web accessibility. This week we’re continuing our conversation with Denis Boudreau, a senior consultant about accessibility at Deque.

Denis: Hi, again.

Nicolas: Hi again, indeed. I invite you to listen to the first part of the conversation if you haven’t already done so because it was really quite thought provoking. Hi, again, Denis. Shall we continue our discussion?

Denis: Yeah, I’d be delighted to.

Nicolas: Great, thank you. We spoke a lot about what is accessibility UI, UX and working with clients and all that. One of the things I’m curious to know about at this point is what would you say is your greatest achievement in terms of web accessibility?

Denis: Wow. My first thought is to say that I don’t know that I’ve achieved anything yet. I’m not sure. I guess one of the things that I have done that has had a lot of impact in our industry was the idea of breaking down accessibility into roles. That’s something I came up with with a colleague of mine back in 2010, I think, because back then we basically … Sorry, if we refer back to the discussion we had last week, I was talking about the checklist and how people rely on the checklist as if it was a crutch, basically. We were still in that mindset.

When we were teaching different people about accessibility we ended up having, say, designers and developers and QA people in the same room, sometimes project managers, they were all in the same room. We had this one content for everyone, and there was always someone whose eyes were glazing over because it was way over their head or they really weren’t interested or it didn’t feel relevant to them. It became obvious to us at some point that while everything in accessibility is relevant and potentially helpful for someone, not all of that stuff is relevant to a designer or a developer or a QA person.

We came up with this idea, and I think we were among the first ones to do that. I’ve not really found any significant traces before our publication in 2010 about role-based accessibility. Maybe we were instrumental in pushing that idea forward. We came up with that idea that it would be possible to create subsets of the requirements and rules and access criteria and whatnot just so you would focus on certain elements of that standard if you are a designer or a developer. That led to a bunch of things. In my professional career, that opened a lot of doors for me. The main reason why I started working with Deque Systems in 2012 is because of that idea. I guess that would be my biggest accomplishment in a way or achievement.

I always think about the work that I do now pretty much as I compare it to the National Hockey League. I’m Canadian, so hockey is a big thing. I used to play hockey or work in accessibility rather in the minor leagues up until that point. Then when Deque brought me in, that’s when I stepped up to the major leagues, basically, or the National Hockey League. That’s how I look at it. My achievement in that case, if that’s an achievement in any way, would be that that idea opened me the doors to work in accessibility on a more global scale. I used to work on accessibility very locally in Quebec. Then from the moment that Deque brought me in it allowed me to have a much broader or farther reach internationally. That’s something that I’m very grateful for.

Nicolas: That does sound like a pretty big idea that you were able to gel together and push in one direction. I have to say I’m a bit surprised that you haven’t mentioned that fact that you’re the co-author of the accessibility regulations used in the province of Quebec.

Denis: Oh, yeah. That, too.

Nicolas: Yeah, “That, too,” he says. It seems to me to be a pretty massive achievement to have done that. As I was listening to you talking I was thinking, “Well, you’re going away from this concept of checklists and taking it in a more holistic approach, so, perhaps, the idea of standard or actual specifications is more of a checklist approach.” So maybe that’s why you didn’t think of that as your first greatest achievement.

Denis: Maybe. It used to be something that drove me quite a bit. Again, I guess up until maybe 2012 or so. It was great to write a standard for the Quebec government on accessibility. With every passing year that standard became more and more outdated, so I would not consider it an achievement today. It was one back then, but it needs a lot of refinement and updates today to remain relevant, especially now with the new version of the WCAG standard coming up next year, WCAG 2.1.

With the evolution of Java script, which we didn’t foresee that at all how Java script would be as ubiquitous as it is now. We could not predict that in 2007 or 2008, for instance. We didn’t expect HML5 to pick up as quickly as it did. All of those things have a tremendous impact on the relevancy of that standard today, the Quebec government standard. While it was a great achievement back that, and, again, while that opened doors for me, clearly, back then, it’s kind of like being proud or your first website and then looking back at it 10 years later. You realize that, yeah, it was cool, but not as much as you thought it was. That’s kind of how I feel about it. It’s like a bitter-sweet feeling that I have with the whole thing.

Nicolas: That’s a very interesting perspective. I wouldn’t have thought about that. Thank you. We spoke a little bit about your greatest achievement. What would you say your greatest frustration is in terms of web accessibility?

Denis: I think it’s very much related to what I said earlier about developing empathy, being understanding and patient with people. I am not a very patient person to begin with. Again, I try to be, so one of my biggest frustrations is probably the fact that people just don’t get it as much as I wish they would. It’s completely mind-boggling to me that after 18 years now, almost 19 years of accessibility standards being out there that so few people know about it or care. Every time that I meet someone who flat out says that they don’t care about accessibility or they don’t care about people with disabilities, it just makes me very angry.

Again, I’m Canadian, I’m polite. I try not to let it show too much. It comes back to this whole idea of being empathetic and understanding where they come from or where that feeling comes from for them. It usually comes from a place where they feel threatened by it. They feel like they would lose control if they gave into accessibility. They would no longer be as good as they currently are or think they are. It’s very daunting for people to try and embrace that whole concept and put it into practice.

Every time that people say something that’s offensive to me because I happen to know people that really need accessibility in order to be self-sufficient. Any time that anyone disregards it, it takes a pretty big dose of love and empathy for me to just keep that discussion and keep trying to, I guess, convert them. A lot of what we do is really like preaching. Sometimes it feels like I’m a missionary going in some remote land trying to convert people to Christianity, except in this case it’s converting them to WCAG. It very much feels the same way where you’re just going and you’re trying to get people to buy into it as well and maybe become as passionate as you are about inclusion.

Nicolas: The frustration really is about attitudes more than things.

Denis: Oh, yeah. Technology, I’m pretty cool with. It gets better, it clearly gets better every single year. We’re getting into really exciting things like artificial intelligence right now, which also hold a lot of promises for accessibility, so all of those things are. Again, not very patient. I wish that everything was here already, but I can see first hand every year how things get better. I can see every year how more developers and designers are buying into this idea. I know that we’re winning this battle. I mean, we may not be winning all the battles, but we are definitely winning the war. It comes down to being patient, and frustration really comes from being patient not always being easy, basically. Yeah, because technology is cool. We’re making great progress. We have great minds, both in the accessibility field and just in technology in general that contribute great ideas and innovation every year. Those things all help us towards our goal, so I’m pretty confident and positive about that part.

Nicolas: Cool. Thank you. You mentioned artificial intelligence, AI. One of the things that I’ve seen quite a bit is the discussions around the ability to create automatic alternate text for images.

Denis: Yes.

Nicolas: I imagine that really is using AI to trigger that. I’ve seen some hilarious examples of automated alternate text. How much do you think AI is ready for prime time at the moment? How long do you think it’ll be before we have reliable use of AI in improving accessibility?

Denis: In order to answer your question we would have to define what reliable actually means because I think that AI, in and of itself, is already there for that. The ability to recognize a cat on a picture, for instance, that’s already there, that’s a given. Facebook came up with that last year or the year before. We already can do that. The problem that we have is data because artificial intelligence, really, when it comes to recognizing images and being able to provide alt text that’s relevant, that’s really about data gathering. Over time, again, as the different AI’s get in contact with more and more pictures of cats, for instance, they’re going to recognize cats in pictures where they’re harder to recognize. Same with dogs, same with pretty much everything. Same with faces from people that you know or just from people that are on a picture.

It’s not so much the AI itself, but the deep learning part of artificial intelligence, that’s really the key here because for most pictures today, you can get something pretty good. By pretty good I mean good as in automated captions on YouTube are good in the sense that they’re like 80, 85% accurate. For most people that seems like it’s awesome, but it’s really not enough to be something that you can rely upon. Like, if we talk about captions for a second, you may think that a 90% accuracy rate on captions is pretty good, and most people would agree with that.

But when you look at it the other way and you think that 10% of the words in your captions aren’t accurate, one word out of every 10 words is not accurate. What that means is that someone who relies on the captions every 10 words or so is likely to stop and be confused and stop paying focus or attention to what’s going on because they’re trying to analyze what that actually meant. Every 10 words or so, that’s very frequent, so that’s not good. 90% accuracy is nowhere near good enough.

So, I think at this point it’s pretty much at the same place, where it will recognize some things. It won’t recognize others. That will get better just through more exposure to data. The more data we gather, the more cross-pollinisation that happens between different databases and different systems that have that data, the more they can communicate together, the more they can share that information, the ability to recognize or describe images, for instance, the more reliable it will get. From that aspect, again, it’s a matter of being patient. Most friends that I have that are blind are pretty excited about the fact that images that are not provided with alt text can still be described somewhat. It’s a huge improvement from, say, five years ago, again. Yeah, it definitely is on the way. It needs to get better. It will always improve over time, but, yeah, I think we’re already doing pretty great in that sense. We just have to keep working on it.

Nicolas: Yeah, I like that. One image that popped to mind when you were saying 85% or 90% accuracy, that sounds pretty good for a lot of people, but it’s not quite acceptable at this point yet is I defy anybody to run a website and have their web host say, “Well, we have 85% up time, and that’s acceptable.” I think that they would quickly realize that, “Well, no. It’s good, but it’s not ideal.”

Denis: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, I tend to think that below 99%, 98, 99%, it’s just not good enough. But, again, it will get there. The better the algorithms get, the better AI gets at analyzing the data that we give them, and then spitting that back to us in a format that we can process, the better that gets, the better these systems will be. The easier accessibility will become as a result of that. When we get to the point where you no longer really have to craft in alt text because the system can do that for you, or your captions are reliable enough that you don’t even have to think about captioning your content.

It has a huge impact and it makes a huge difference on the type of work that we’ll need to do. That’s something to look forward to. I have said that a couple of times, I will feel like we’ve accomplished what we set out to do the day that I no longer have a job. When I’m no longer needed when no one needs someone like me to tell them how to make their content accessible, that’s when I’ll feel like I’ve succeeded. By then, hopefully, I’ll be smart enough to have found something else to do. There are other things.

Nicolas: Yeah, I’ve said that often enough, that, my ultimate goal is to put myself out of a job because-

Denis: Right, exactly.

Nicolas: Yeah. What would you say the conventional wisdom about web accessibility?

Denis: You mean from a more general perspective of everyone or from my perspective?

Nicolas: Yeah, from a general perspective from everyone. What’s the conventional wisdom about it?

Denis: People think still today that accessibility is really about people who are blind, so that’s something that we often have to adjust in people’s understandings. There’s a tendency to think that accessibility is a very technical thing as well, while in reality it’s not that technical. Like, people will think that the person who needs to take care of accessibility is your developer or maybe even your QA person. Again, thinking about accessibility from the perspective of different roles, you try to help them understand that everyone has a role to play. Color contrast is a great example of that.

If your only person who pays attention to accessibility is your QA person, and you have a Waterfall process and you only do testing at the very end of your project, and that person finds out that your color contrasts aren’t good for accessibility, it’s a little late to do that. But, if your designer knew about accessibility and chose a color pallet that had sufficient contrast or colors that were sufficiently contrasted, then that problem would never even take place in the first place. There’s conventional wisdom about that too that needs to be cultivated more. Yeah, things like that.

So, a better understanding of who should pay attention to accessibility, and by that I basically mean understanding that everyone should be involved one way or another, is one of those things that accessibility is much more complex than we can think. It’s really not about screen reader users only or blind people only, but really everyone. There’s a lack of understanding about the fact that when you build content for content to be accessibility, everybody actually benefits from it. A simpler, more straightforward, more intuitive, more predictable user experience benefits everyone regardless of the fact that they may have a disability or not. That’s also something that we could cultivate more as and understanding more generally speaking.

Nicolas: Yeah, I like that. What would you say are the greatest challenges for the field of accessibility going forward for the accessibility community, for everyone to succeed at putting ourselves out of a job?

Denis: Hopefully I don’t get into trouble by saying this, but I think what we need the most is to be more inclusive ourselves, more empathetic, more understanding, less dogmatic than we currently are as a community. I still hear or read things online in email discussions or discussion lists or forums or whatnot, Twitter, Facebook, social platforms, whatever, about people that had a very strict perspective on what accessibility should be. They’re pretty close-minded about what success looks like, and that, to me, I think is the worst problem that we have, the biggest problem that we have. We’re very much our own worst enemy in a lot of situations. While we like to think that people are just idiots because they don’t understand what accessibility should be about, and they don’t care, I think in most cases the reason why people feel that way about accessibility is because we do a pretty bad job at advertising it in a positive way. That’s not a new idea. People like me have been saying that for a while now.

Again, it goes back to what I was saying earlier about being empathetic and patient and understanding of where people are and the perspective that they’re in when they’re saying or when they’re pushing back on accessibility. If we were all more a lot more pragmatic about it and we accepted that a little progress is already better than no progress at all, we would all be making a lot more progress, generally speaking, much faster.

Yeah, I think we’re our own worst enemy in a lot of situations just because we want. It comes from a good place. The people that are much more dogmatic about it are usually people that are also very leaning heavily towards checklists. They also usually tend to be the same kind of people. If something is missing on their list, then it’s as if everything was bad to them because as long as it’s not perfect and it’s not good enough, and you just can’t let perfect be the enemy of the good when it comes to something like inclusion on the web.

Nicolas: Yeah, I think it’s something that really resonates with me quite a bit, this concept, because I’ve heard it often enough that, “Hey, we can’t make this website work for everybody that has a really complex disability. This person is paralyzed from the neck down and blind and deaf, and, well, if our site’s not going to work for them, why should we bother about putting any effort towards accessibility?” What I hear from you instead is incremental accessibility, let’s say, push it forward a little bit at the time and make it more and more accessible as we go. I think that’s a much healthier approach to accessibility than all or nothing approach.

Denis: It certainly has a more positive spin to it. I wish that there was more of that. We require, we expect other people to be empathetic towards people with disabilities, but very often we’re not very empathetic towards designers and developers. When I say we, I mean the accessibility community, we lack empathy towards designers and developers as well. We feel it should be their job, they should be doing this, and we just don’t think about how they may feel about how daunting the whole thing might appear to them.

If we did that a little more we’d be more compassionate I think, and our relationship with other fields of expertise in web development would probably be better than it is today. I think I mentioned that last week, I may have, I’m not sure. I tend to not talk about accessibility too much, but talk about inclusive design instead because we haven’t quite ruined that term yet in our community. We’ve definitely ruined accessibility for a lot of people, but when we talk about inclusive design people are still listening to that and, hopefully, we won’t ruin that one by having the same attitude towards other people who build content. We need to be more empathetic to them.

Nicolas: Yeah. I’ve been thinking about the difference between accessibility and inclusion and to me it really comes down to this concept. We’re wanting to make content available to everyone regardless of disability on any device that they may use, and that’s really is inclusion. You’ve said it’s for everyone, not just for people who are blind or deaf. It’s true, it’s for people who don’t have English as a first language. It’s for people that may have two broken wrists. It’s for a pregnant mother. It’s for a kid on the bus that is trying to access content on their mobile phone. It really is about inclusiveness and making sure content is available for everyone.

Denis: Yeah, which is really why I really, really like to use personas in the work that I do, in training, for instance. Designers, UX designers, UI designers, people work on the creative aspect of web design often use personas themselves, but the personas don’t really have any characteristics that relate to disabilities when they do. I often do exercises like these in workshops where we’ll work on personas together. I’m with a group of designers, we’ll work on personas. Then we’ll define an experience based on the persona that we have. Maybe a young professional mid-thirties male, for instance. We’ll design something for that person, and then I’ll have the designers talk about how and why they would create a specific user experience for that type of user. I let them talk and I let them go as deep as they want to on the topic. Then I ask them, “But what if that same guy, for instance, had dyslexia? Would that change our perspective here?”

Then we look at the design that we created together and then we realize, “Oh, yeah. All of those things would be a problem now.” Like, content density is way too high or you have huge walls of text or we’re using really long sentences or very large paragraphs. Then we start redefining the interface based on the fact that someone might have dyslexia and that we want to make content easier for people to read. That’s definitely something that design can act upon. Just by adding that little twist to the persona there the design is tremendously impacted. Then we wrap up an exercise like that by saying, “Now that you compare both versions of our UI, would you say that the second one is easier to read in general?” People usually always agree that it’s better.

While you may be designing with people and disabilities in mind, more often than not what you end up creating also benefits everyone else who doesn’t have that same disability. I’m not dyslexic, but if you give me four or five pages of content with huge paragraphs and big walls of text I’m much less likely to read it than if you had given me shorter paragraphs with subheading, headings subheadings, to really break it down smaller ideas. Everybody benefits from that. Yeah, accessible design is really just good, inclusive design. When we look at it that way a lot of those things that we do will benefit everyone if we pay attention to them, not just people with disabilities.

Nicolas: Yeah, that’s cool. Let me finish with one last question for you, and we’ll see where that takes us. Who inspires you?

Denis: Wow. A lot of people inspire me. I look up to a lot of people in this field. I don’t know who I should name because I’m afraid to forget anyone. Let’s start with people that have been the most influential in, say, the past five years or so. Glenda Sims, which is my colleague at Deque Systems, is definitely the first one on that list. Al Waters was another one who has had a lot of influence on how I’ve grown as an accessibility specialist. CB Averitt is another one, he’s a colleague of mine, a really good friend of mind. He has a very different perspective on a lot of things. He comes from a developer background, I come from more of a design background, so he often pulls me back and helps me look at things in a different way. These three are definitely people that have had a big impact on me.

Derek Featherstone is another one. I worked with Simply Accessible for about a year two years ago. I learned a lot from him, so, yeah, those folks definitely have had an influence on my. Someone that more locally, my first mentor, Jean-Marie D’amour, who was another one. He’s the one who introduced me to accessibility, so in a way I basically owe him everything that I have because if it wasn’t for him I probably would not have lasted because he was the one who helped me make sense of everything 17, well, maybe not 17, maybe more like 15 years ago. If I had to name only a few, those would definitely be at the top of my list.

Nicolas: Wonderful. Good names, very good names. Thank you Denis.

Denis: Thank you.

Nicolas: Thanks again for taking the time to talk with me today, and, of course, thanks to everyone who are listening in on our conversation.

Denis: Thank you for having me. It was great.

Nicolas: Great. Thanks, Denis.

Denis: Thank you. Talk to you later.

Nicolas: Bye.

Denis: Bye, bye.

Nicolas: Is your website accessible? Contact me through my website at incl.ca if you want my help to figure it out.