Michelle McQuigge tells us why she can’t do her job without alt text

Michelle McQuigge is a blind reporter with the Canadian Press. Many organizations do press release with images of text on Twitter, making her job impossible. She also wishes designers and developers to know that if you don’t implement accessibility, you’re going to lose big!


Nic: Hi. I’m Nic Steenhout. You’re listening to the Accessibility Rules Soundbite, a series of short podcasts where people with disabilities explain their impairments and what barriers they encounter on the web.

Nic: Today I’m talking to Michelle McQuigge. She’s been a reporter with the Canadian Press for 12 years. She’s a contributor to AMI-audio and is, as she told me, totally blind.

Nic: Hi, Michelle. Thanks for coming on the show.

Michelle: Hi. My pleasure. Thanks for having me.

Nic: Great. So tell us a little bit about your disability.

Michelle: As far as disabilities go, mine is actually quite straightforward. I’m totally blind. I have been since the age of about nine months old. And, as a result, I’ve been using adaptive tech all my life. And have been a JAWS user for, oh, God, since high school. A couple of decades now, at least.

Nic: Right, so you started with JAWS, which is probably why you’re staying with it. Do you have any thought about-

Michelle: For now. I mean, honestly, it’s only a matter of time until I switch to NVDA. It’s also a matter of me finding time to master it and just sort of know what it controls, but I don’t anticipate giving Freedom Scientific any more money in my lifetime.

Nic: Fair enough, yeah. What would you say is your greatest barrier on the web?

Michelle: Definitely I feel that people have yet to master the best way to handle visual media. Whether it’s photos without captions, text that could easily be rendered in text form, but being captured via screenshot instead. Or, websites that don’t embed video in an accessible way. Either they have players that are not easy to find or to control. Or, they have video that is either muted or blasting away as soon as you open the site, and you have no means of controlling that yourself.

Michelle: All things considered, I would just like to have an accessible player that’s easy, where the controls are easy to spot, and easy to manipulate. Ready, right there so that you can decide when, if at all, you wish to view the content. That, however, seems to be a pretty rare commodity and that’s a real struggle. The photos, possibly even more so because that’s something I encounter for work all the time. People will post official statements on their Twitter feed and it’s a friggen image and I can’t read it. You’re not supposed to do that.

Nic: Yeah.

Michelle: To do that. So whether it’s anything from an amusing meme, to actual content that I need to do my job. This is something I encounter daily and it’s very frustrating.

Nic: I’m fascinated that 25 years ago, I was telling people, “If you put an image on the web, use alt text because if it’s informative, it needs to be accessible programmatically.”

Nic: And 25 years later, we’re still encountering the barrier, day in and day out. Do you think there’s an improvement somewhat or is it pretty much the same as what you remember from a decade ago?

Michelle: No, I would definitely say there is improvement. I mean, I myself, honestly hadn’t heard about texting when I first started using the screen readers. This was not on my radar.

Michelle: It’s now not only on my radar, but increasingly on the radars of other people. And there are measures that have been taken. For instance, there’s a setting in Twitter that’s very easy to turn on.

Nic: Yeah.

Michelle: That make it possible for people to add alt text. All they need to do is have higher awareness of that setting. And anytime that I have tweeted out instructions on how to do it, or sort of a plea for people to start adopting this and using alt text, every single time, I’ve had great response and people saying, “I’m happy to do that. I simply didn’t realize it was an option or how easy it was. Or, even that it was something that was necessary.”

Michelle: So I find that once awareness has been raised, people tend to be pretty receptive. And for me, that is absolutely a marker of progress in the past.

Nic: Yeah.

Michelle: Even five years more than 10 or 20.

Nic: Yeah, as long as people are becoming aware, then we’re doing better.

Michelle: I agree. Have you observed progress there?

Nic: Yeah, things are evolving, I think. But at the same time, it just seems like a very frustrating experience. Obviously, if you’re blocked from doing your work because people aren’t using informative alt text, and then it’s a big problem. But as someone who does auditing, I see it happen over, and over, and over again.

Michelle: Absolutely, and one major barrier, the news outlet that I work for, would be more than happy to start alt texting all of our images that we tweet out, but the client that we use has not yet enabled that feature. So while it’s available, say on the native iPhone Twitter client and perhaps some of the other desktop ones, some of the major players-

Nic: Yeah.

Michelle: Have yet to get onboard and that having the capacity there, will make it a lot easier for Joe Twitter User, for instance, to get onboard and do it.

Nic: Yeah, I actually quit my Twitter client of choice for five years because they have repeatedly refused to implement the alt attribute, and I switched to Twitterrific, which works for me. But if it’s a decision at corporate level for you folks, it’s not necessarily that easy to switch.

Michelle: That’s it, and the moment that functionality becomes available, we certainly will use it and hopefully, if that were to happen, if larger companies, major media outlets, and such do start making that option widely available, that may do quite a bit to raise the kind of awareness that we need. Because as I said, I think people are into doing it, they just don’t always have the tools to do it.

Nic: Yeah. If you were to wish designers or developers to remember one thing about accessibility, what would it be?

Michelle: That you’re going to lose out in a big way if you don’t do it. And it really shouldn’t be that hard. There are lots of people out there who are willing to show you what needs to be done if you don’t know. And it really can’t be as complicated as you think it is.

Michelle: Like I said, the expertise is out there, the rewards are there to be reaped for those who actually take the time to learn and do it right. And accessibility for one population generally means benefits for all.

Nic: Yeah.

Michelle: That is, it’s really that simple.

Nic: Yeah.

Michelle: Not profound insight, but that’s all I got.

Nic: I think it’s profound enough, if it can reach out to one or two people, and then they can start spreading the word, as well. I think that’s the important message.

Michelle: Absolutely, and if there’s a business out there that feels a bit at sea with the concept of accessibility, there’s a great deal of knowledge out there, and expertise, and people who are more than happy to assist. These are professionals. They need to be compensated for their time and their expertise.

Michelle: But they’re out there and they’re doing this work, not only because they have the skills, but they believe in it. And believe me, it’s required. It’s very necessary. So please make use of what’s out there. Please do what’s right.

Nic: Wonderful. Michelle, thanks for being on the show and thanks for your tidbits of knowledge.

Michelle: Oh, my pleasure. Thanks very much.

Nic: That’s it for now. Thanks for listening. If you enjoyed this Accessibility Soundbite, please pass the word. Share it wide and large.