Léonie Watson (AKA Tink) began using the internet in 1993, turned it into a web design career in 1997, and (despite losing her eyesight along the way) has been enjoying herself thoroughly ever since. Léonie is an accessibility engineer with The Paciello Group (TPG), co-chair of the W3C Web Platform Working Group, and member of the SVG and ARIA working groups.
IA Summit 2016 Keynote
How do you get started creating accessible websites and digital services? Léonie Watson says it’s “Elementary, my dear Watson!”
This text was provided by Communication Access Realtime Translation (CART), and may vary in transcription quality.
Daniel Newman: So without further ado, this is my privilege to introduce the keynote speaker Léonie Watson, she’s been using the Internet since 1993 and became a web designer in 1997. Despite losing her eyesight along the way, she’s still making the web awesome today. She’s working with The Paciello Group. Co‑chair of the W3C platform working group, and please give a warm welcome to Léonie Watson.
[ Applause ]
Léonie Watson: Well, I know I’m pretty much the only thing standing between each of you and the bar this evening. So thank you for being here. I had like to take a little of your time to talk about accessibility. And if you’re thinking now, oh, I could be in the bar having a beer right now, not listening to a talk about accessibility, I’m just going to ask for a little of your time and patience, because I want to try and put accessibility in what I thought will be a different light from the way you’ve maybe seen it before. To do that I’m going to call on some quotes from some of my favorite movies from the past decade, and with a name like mine, where could I start with “Elementary my dear Watson.” That’s how I think about accessibility, and I hope that’s how you’ll think about accessibility too. “Houston, we have a problem.”
Accessibility has a problem, actually. It has a reputation problem. That comes for all sorts of reasons, reasons that people have misunderstandings about accessibility, sometimes accessibility people have not really helped either. So what I had like to do is just take a look at some of those reasons, some of those misconceptions and try to set a few things straight.
Okay. Let’s try that again. Technology, they say don’t work with children and animals, trust me, don’t work with technology, a screen reader and a slide deck. Trust me that’s a problem.
“The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist.”
Some people will sell you that accessibility isn’t really a thing. It doesn’t really matter. You know, disabled people don’t use technology, right? If you can’t see, how can you use a mouse to point at things, if you don’t move, how can you use a touch screen? The truth is that technology is an extraordinary liberator for people with disabilities. I say this as someone who is blind. I work in web standards, so I’m pretty much obsessed by technology, in my day‑to‑day life, it plays an important role. I do my banking, my shopping, I plan my holidays, travel on line, my phone has an app that tells me what paper money I have in my pocket, where here in the U.S. it’s incredibly important, it tells me what color clothes I’m choosing, given the fact that I wear black it’s perhaps not that useful. I have apps for pretty much everything. They tell me what restaurants and ATMs and facilities there are around me, so technology is like this not just for blind people, but for all kinds of technology, it’s incredibly important to them.
“Let’s go to the Winchester, have a pint and wait for all this to blow over.”
People think if they ignore it, it will be okay, it’s only going to affect a small number of people, right? Again, no, I could quote UN statistics at you and tell you that something like 20% of the world’s population have a disability, but actually statistics are one thing, but they’re abstract. Think about you. If you ignore accessibility, the one person you’re really going to take off is your future self. Because much as it pains me to admit it, aging is going to get the better of most of us sooner or later. The cure to aging is not one we want to think about, but in the meantime we are going to have a little bit more eye sight, hard of hearing, maybe our mobility will go a little bit. If we ignore accessibility now, we’re going to discover in our future selves whether we need accessibility very much more selfish reasons, people who come after it might not think bit later. It’s very much a thing for our several as well as people with disabilities.
“I’m sorry, Dave, I’m afraid I can’t do that.”
People say that accessibility isn’t really their responsibility, or their project manager didn’t mention it or the client did the put it into the set of requirements. Sure, project managers and clients all need to think about accessibility, they all have a responsibility to do that. And that’s fair enough. But actually, accessibility is everybody’s responsibility.
And to be honest, it doesn’t really need to be in a brief all the time. If we make it something we do every day as a matter have course, then we don’t need a team to say that’s how we’re going to do it any more than we necessarily need to call out good usability.
“Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.”
I could include this quote without thinking of being in Atlanta, but in the brutal truth. Some people just don’t care about accessibility, some people are honest enough to stand up and say that, but in my experience, the reason people say that is not because they don’t care, but because they don’t understand, they don’t know how to do accessibility, they don’t want to admit that. So we’ll kind of tough it out with this attitude.
“Hello, my name is Indigo Montoya. You killed my father, and prepare to die.”
To be perfectly honest, we have bone miserable about accessibility, we’ve been quick to tell everybody you failed, you didn’t meet these check points, you’ll get sued, you’re not doing your job properly, frankly, just go home, because not good enough. On behalf of my profession, I’d like to say I’m sorry we got that wrong, it wasn’t fair of us to do that, we thought we were doing the right thing, but we thought there is a better way, that’s being positive and encouraging you to think about accessibility in the right way. That’s changing for the bet better.
“I’m not bad, I’m just drawn that way.”
That’s pretty much where people are in terms of accessibility, we have really good intentions, we might not be able or know thousand do them, but we want to do things the right way. That’s generally what I’ve come across: The Senate message of Buddhism is not every man for himself: There are a lot of misunderstandings and a lot of things people think or believe about accessibility that really aren’t the case or at least if they were once the case, they really aren’t any further. Let’s have a look.
“Gentlemen, you can’t fight in here, this is the war room.”
We have this idea that there is conflict even with technical development that and accessibility, that’s partly from back in the day whether accessibility was a bit of a conflict, there was a lot of push back from accessibility people, but it’s also true that time and technology, and skills right across all those disciplines have evolved along with the web, so that now, we can bring accessibility into every step of a project development life cycle and do so pretty flawlessly without causing too much friction.
“You’re going to need a bigger boat.”
People tell me that we need more money, more budget to do accessibility or more time. I think this is actually a red herring. What we need is better education. If we could build more accessibility into our projects from the outset, just as a matter of course, because practitioners know about it, creative designers know about it, and developers know about it. Then you remove the need of the external checking, the refactoring, redesigning and correcting, rather than we’re going to need a bigger budget, I think we need to look to education, up scaling everybody across the team so they know more, there are great people out there to learn from, companies and individuals.
“Man who catch fly with chopstick can accomplish anything.”
People think of accessibility as being really difficult. To some extent, that’s a fair assessment. It can be quite complex, it’s a combination of technology and human interactions and sometimes an unfamiliar core of human interaction, but the things is you guys all do really complicated stuff every day. You already know about human computer interaction, all kinds of user interaction, you know about making technologies usable by wide ranges of people with different sets of requirements, those of you into coding know about the complexities of language, browsers and a whole bunch of things, throwing accessibility in on top of that is really accomplishable. It might be difficult at first, but you’re smart people, you really can do this. I once did these things, and trust me you’re smarter than I am.
“Toto, I have a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore.”
People think accessibility is unfamiliar. When we design technologies and interfaces and applications for use on phones, or everybody TVs, we’re in familiar territory, possibly because we use those things ourselves, there’s a chance you didn’t use a screen reader like I do. Screen magnifier that makes everything on the screen enormous, or instead you speak to your computer, but accessibility isn’t as unfamiliar as you think, it’s a lot closer to core usability than you might first understand.
“Badges, we ain’t got no badges, we don’t need no badges.”
People think that accessibility is all about conformance, guidelines and legislation, yep, those things do play a big part, especially, sorry to say, guys, but here in the U.S. your legislation and your performance. But that’s not what accessibility is about. I have a phrase which says to me, accessibility is actually about designing like we give a damn, like we give a damn about things that we’re building because we give a damn about people who are going to be using them, no matter who those people are, we want them to successfully and enjoy belief use the products that we build.
“So what we got here is a failure to communicate.”
In other words, I think we can do better on accessibility, those of us in the profession and everyone else in involved in creating the products people are going to use, this is your last chance, there’s no turning back, we’re going to take the red pill, stay in wonder land and see how deep the accessibility rabbit hole really goes.
“Your ancestors called it magic, you call it science.”
Where I come from, they’re one and the same thing. Accessibility is very much like that. It’s a confluence of usability, design, technology, and of particular people’s requirements for interaction. And it’s really all of these things come together. It doesn’t exist in isolation.
So in the face of overwhelming odds, I’m left with only one option, we’re going to have to science the shit out of this. There are some concrete things you can do to start making things more accessibility and they’re not too complicated.
“First, Clarice, simplicity, keep things as simple as you can.”
That’s a pretty good usability design principle. Yes, it is. A lot of accessibility is pretty much like that. A simple design focused on a key task or set of tasks is likely to be more usable for most people. If you’re autism, or dyslexia or other cognitive disability, may actually be a block to someone using an interface completely, but they’re flip sides of the same count.
Don’t believe everything you hear, Andean half of what you see, think about the fact that people don’t consume content in the same way you do. There’s a good chance you look at a screen to consume content. I don’t look at a screen, I listen to it because I can’t even see the screen. If you’re deaf or hard of hearing, then audio content obviously is going to be difficult. So thinking about text alternatives, descriptions for visual content or captions, subtitles or audio content. People consume things in different ways, and you have to be driving your car and look at the road, then not needing to look at a screen and be able to listen it something and enjoy it just the same is equally valuable.
“Did you just call me old? I really prefer the world experienced.”
I mentioned that age is catching up with all of us sooner or later. That’s very true. Thinking about the fact that people may need a little more time or make things a little easier for people to see. I think the only scientifically-proven usability principle is the larger the target is, the easier it is to acquire.
But it’s very true when you’re aging and your eyesight is going, and maybe mobility isn’t as easy as it used to be, having things to click on large target areas is useful to people, everybody else along the way too.
Computer magnify times 10. People who are partially sighted or have eye sights conditions, that includes the hangover all of you will have tomorrow morning, often means you might need to increased size of text, take glare off the website because it hurts to read it. Think about that in terms of design, are you designing something fluid not to be expand spanned to larger text size, scale without loss of quality? It’s just the default text size is it comfortable for someone to read? Don’t fall by not letting people read it easily.
“If I’m not back in five minutes, just wait longer.”
We all need extra time. Some people are slower. Perhaps someone rings a doorbell or someone calls you on the phone, but think about the amount of time that people need to take to do things.
Some things need to have a sometime restriction for security or other reasons, that’s okay, but give people a chance to extend the session or continue carrying on with their task or save it and come back to it later. Think about the usability leads you into the accessibility.
“If you focus on what you’ve left behind, you’ll never be able to see what’s ahead.”
Think about where your focus is on the page, if you use a mouse, it’s easy. Click on something. If you use a keyboard and you’re sighted, it’s really important to know with your focus is on the page. Less links and buttons light up to make it obvious where you’re focused, it’s a nightmare to try to find out where you’re going to go if you hit the enter key.
“It’s functional, fully mission capable.”
One of the myths I didn’t mention earlier about accessibility is you hear people say, you can’t use Java scripted, it’s really bad for accessibility, it’s not the case and hasn’t been for a long time, providing the Java script you use does things that are accessibility. If you create functionality, it’s a good thing to do for usability and accessibility. Make sure you think about the different ways people will interacts with it, think about maps, voice, touch, and key board, and you’ll be well on your way to have functional interaction and good accessibility.
“How complex is the idea? Simple enough.”
This come back to the first idea keeping things simple, this time in terms of language, don’t complicate it. We humans are pretty lazy, you don’t want to work for stuff. With accessibility it’s exactly the same. If you want people to read and consume your content, language simple, one word per sentence, keep the sentence word numbers down to less than maybe 20, keep contractions to a minimum, all the good things about good clear writing are really good both for everybody and also for accessibility. If you have reading disabilities, dyslexia, cognitive disabilities and so on.
It’s not rocket science, a handful of takeaways that you can try putting into the stuff you start doing on Monday morning when you get back to work or the office.
“Life is like a box of chocolates, you never know what you’re going to get.”
t used to be you thought about windows, and then you had to think about all the software that got loaded on top of it, screen readers, and they were always very separate entities, these days every single platform, touch screen, tablet or desk top comes with an integrated screen reader and screen mag flaw fewer. These days you won’t know whether someone with a disability using an assistive technology is using your product. The safest thing to do is assume that’s pretty much a certain and design everything accordingly.
“So there’s three ways to do things, the right way, the wrong way and the way that I do it.”
You’ll hear a lot of accessibility people tell you this is the answer, there are checkpoints, this is the way to pass that check pointed. It’s all nonsense. There are lots of ways to skin a cat. It’s people we’re talking about. There’s never a history of being one way to do things. Accessibility is no different. There are lots of ways to do the same thing, accessibility. That’s okay. Don’t go looking for absolutes, and perfect answers, think about accessibility in terms of the context of the thing you’re building. It’s not the years, honey, it’s the mileage. Don’t worry if you’ve they’re done accessibility before, don’t worry if you never thought about it before, you don’t have to be an expert to do accessibility, take a deep breath, weighed in and start trying to do something, there’s lots of information on the web, lots of companies that can help you. You’re not on your own, take the first steps.
Those are very challenging observations you made. As you dip your toes into accessibility, don’t be afraid to challenge the perceived wisdom. It’s easy to assume the way you’ve always done things is the right way. But technology evolves rapidly, and the great thing about new people coming into accessibility. You have bright ideas and new perspectives that will give us cause to think about new ways to do things, just because someone who has been doing this for 30 years says X, Y, Z, don’t be afraid to turn around and say, let’s give ABC a whirl. You might be right, and everybody will have moved on a step further.
“I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”
Coming back to the idea that accessibility can live in harm me with UX, design, and creativity. You have to build it in from the beginning of the process. It’s. Just thinking about accessibility and moving on to the next phase, you got to keep talking to it other too. If you have accessibility on your team, talk to the UX people, design people, the tech people, tech people need to talk to the accessibility people, we shouldn’t do this in solos, it’s really important that you blend it into core skills right across the team.
“I told you aim for the target and come in under the radar.”
Stealthy assess. Trust me, no one will ever complain if you sneak in too much accessibility without telling anybody.
It’s great when it’s in there in the project brief, it’s billion when the client says, this is going to be accessible, sneak it in anyway. If you’re a designer and you happen to make things have really good color contrast so people can read it easily, design it that way. If you think about text size, interactions or any of any of other bits and pieces that go into it, think about the different ways people will do things, and sneak it in there anyway. At the end of the day, your project will end up more usable by more people, I’ve yet to find a client or project manager anyway that doesn’t see that as a positive outcome.
“You’re only supposed to blow the bloody doors off. You don’t have to do everything at once.”
It’s okay to do a few bits and pieces. If you go back to work on Monday and change one thing, you’ll have an enormous impact on a hell of a lot of people. If I could get you to do one thing for my selfish perspective, it would be make sure that all useful images have text descriptions, it’s probably the most basic piece of accessibility. If you’re familiar with the guidelines, it’s the first checkpoint. Yet it’s the thing that most often confounds me on the web today. I know there’s an image there. But I can’t tell what’s in it, I can’t tell if it has something useful, useless, interesting, completely random that adds atmosphere. I have no idea. When you think about how many other blind or visually impaired people in the world, making that one difference will affect an extraordinary number of people. And accessibility keeps going like that. For every one little thing you’ll do, you’ll be affecting millions of more people.
Accessibility does not have to be perfect. It doesn’t have to be perfect. We live in this age where we think we have to meet guidelines, checkpoints, if we don’t we’ll get sued. People get sued because they haven’t thought about accessibility at all, when someone raises a turn with them about that is, they do nothing. That’s what gets people sued. If you think about accessibility and trying to do your best, you won’t get perfection, there’s no such thing as perfect technology or a perfect human. So therefore, no such thing as perfect accessibility.
But just keep trying to do it. It’s worth its weight in gold. I’ve contacted owners to talk about accessibility problems, and haven’t had a response, that makes me cross. I’ve contacted other companies and they say, ma’am we’re really sorry, do you mind talking on to our web guys, and here is our accessibility person, if you will explain the problem, we’ll do what we can to make it better. That’s the difference in terms of being sued and not being sued.
So I guess it comes down to a simple choice, get busy living or busy dying. Don’t be afraid to try stuff. The web was new 20 years ago, accessibility itself was new 15 years ago also, and everybody just had to try stuff and see if it worked and test it with audiences to see if it did work in practice. Again if you’ve got new ideas or if you think some of the old ideas aren’t working well, come up with new things, test them, let’s see if we can change stuff, don’t be afraid to try things or make mistakes, mistakes can be correct. Especially these days, we can pull back and change things once we learn they don’t work very easily now.
So these things beg the question. Don’t be afraid to ask. There’s a thriving accessibility community out there. There are email lists, web accessibility interest group mailing lists. Free to join. If you use IRC, there’s a channel, they plug in and connect with each other. The A11Y Slackers. Eleven characters between A and Y of accessibility.
The product of Twitter and not wanting to get a 13 character word boo a tweet. Generally a lot of people love helping out. If you have questions, ask, or ping on Twitter.
It doesn’t matter. You will find someone that will point you to a blog post or training course or be willing to help you work through it and find the solution you’re looking for.
“I’ll have what she’s having.”
You have the most extraordinary power in your hands. If you all start thinking about accessibility, sooner or later your colleagues are going to wonder what it is you know that they don’t know. And that’s a powerful effect. I do work with the UK government, and from the very early days of a very small team of about 15 or so people, we made accessibility one of the core design principles for the govern UK website, as we brought on developers and researchers, we kept up that culture we’re going to make things accessible. That rubbed off on everybody in the team. That culture still exists. Simply because a small group of people said it was important enough and everybody followed afterwards and took that same attitude. If they think it’s worth doing, we do too. That’s the way it spread. You have the capacity to do that in your team’s environments too.
“Oh, my gosh, look at that fluffy. It’s so fluffy I’m going to die.”
This is how I think about accessibility. This is how I think about it. This is how I think about technology, yet I can’t separate the two. I love accessibility, because I like figuring out how to get things to work for more people. I like solving puzzles and working with other people to do it. I think you share the same attitude towards accessibility.
“So seize the day. Make yourselves extraordinary.” More important, it’s make your technology extraordinary. If you do that, you’ll make one hell of a difference. Thank you.
[ Applause ]
Daniel: We have about 10 minutes for questions. If anyone has a question, raise your hand, I will run to you.
Audience Member: Thank you for making your talk really accessibility for non-experts. I heard that I should be aware of screen readers, screen magnifiers, keyboard navigation, what are the other technologies.
Léonie: Did you mention speech recognition? That’s one of the key technologies for someone using voice commands to access technology. If you can cover those four things, they cover the assistive technology, and physical interaction aspects of accessibility. The other key areas people with cognitive disabilities, people on the autistic spectrum, people with dysplasia, and having different teas, that probably covers the worst of it, and people who are deaf and hard of hearing, of course.
Audience Member: Okay. Thank you.
Audience Member: I do consulting and clients don’t always—when I put accessibility testing into the proposal, clients sometimes balk at that, and the best argument I can give for why it is valuable. How do I convince them?
Léonie: The business case is the more people that use the thing you’re building, the better that product is going to be in terms of success. The other thing I’d suggest is if you’re putting accessibility testing in as its own independent thing, it may be worth taking a slightly different approach. Rather than having a round of usability testing targeted at accessibility, include one or two people with disabilities in every round of other usability testing that you’re doing so it ceases to become a prominent line item, but you’re still incorporating a number of people with disabilities in your standard testing. And also getting them to think about it in terms of if you look at any group example, there’s going to be a chance that you have someone there with a disability anyway. People in wheelchairs, people who are blind are obvious to spot. People who have dyslexia, color blind, have RSI, you might be not aware that they have disabilities. Sneak it in sideways and see if it makes it easier for your clients.
Daniel: I see a question in the back. I’m running with the microphone.
Audience Member: One of the things we’ve learned is that making accessible tools, making them accessible increases usability rates, success rates for users. That’s anecdotal. I wonder if you could speak to the usability of and the rates and improvements of incorporating accessibility.
Léonie: In terms of transaction services?
Audience Member: Yes.
Léonie: The case I mentioned briefly is almost exclusively foremost transaction. We’ve done a lot of usability testing with all sorts of people, including people with disabilities. We’ve found that if you—under a fairly basic set of—if you follow a basic set of requirements, you can make things just as usable. For example, making sure each field is labeled, that label is properly associated with the field in the code so screen readers pick it up. Error handling is really important. Make it very clear to people what formatted information they’re expected to enter something in. Make it very visually apparent, but also apparent to the code level when someone has caused an error. Presenting an error summary is quite useful. You’ve got six fields and five of them have errors.
A few simple things like that. You could really make a difference.
In some very, very unscientific testing we’ve done at TBG, because a bunch of us got into an argument about it, we put together what we call a completely accessible form. We set a sighted person against a screen reader user to see who could complete it first. The screen reader person beat the sighted person hands down.
Audience Member: I have a question about recruiting for user testing. What’s the best method for recruiting people with disabilities?
Léonie: This is probably one of the biggest challenges. I know all sorts of companies struggle with this. Developing good relationships with organizations that represent people with disabilities, organizations for people who are blind, partially sighted, deaf or hard of hearing is one very good way.
If you do work with people who recruit, test participants on a general level, you have a really good relationship with them, it’s sometimes possible to train them up and so they’re asking the right questions to get in recruitment that way, but it can be really tricky. Someone in the audience has loads of experience doing that kind of stuff, a good person to talk to on that one.
Daniel: Two more questions.
Audience Member: Thank you for this presentation. I’ve sort of been retrofitting my company’s websites with usability tags, and one thing I’ve come across that has been sort of frustrating is different screen readers work differently. The ARIA tags, and the images and things of that nature, when I was reading about it, it said that the difference screen readers handle the text differently—I was wondering if there was a resource you could point me towards, how to balance those disparities between screen readers.
Léonie: The general recommendation is use HTML ARIA according to the way it’s specified. Everything else on that point is the browser and assistive technology, which is a hard line to draw. If we start fixing X for Y screen reader and A for B screen magnifier, we’ll end up down the rabbit hole and not in a good way. If you know which technologies your audience is using, then you can make judgment calls, but for the most part, stick to the standards, and try to do them as you get them. There’s a project that my colleague and I are working on which is to document how screen readers work. It’s a labor of love. I’ll tweet a link out when I get back to my computer on the conference hash tag. I would say it’s a bit like browsing compatibility. Don’t worry too much. The question to ask yourself is can a person using either of those screen readers accomplish the task they need to. The information they get might be slightly different or worded in a different way, but if they can accomplish the task they came to the product to do, that’s a tick in the box.
Audience Member: You touched a little bit on this early in your talk. Could you talk a little bit more about some of the successes and some of the future promises that you see, some of the things that we can see that we as a technology community in general are moving forward and doing good stuff?
Léonie: Yes. On the technology level, there are some pretty interesting things. There’s a web speech, API, which lets you create speech input and output for web applications. It has interesting use cases for accessibility I think. The vibration, bringing tactile feedback to browser based web applications, I think it has interesting interaction. Experience possibilities for accessibility as well as everything else. I think AI, and just across the board speak interaction with technology. We know that is pretty huge at the moment. Google is putting I don’t know how much money into that. Microsoft has announced intelligence APIs are doing recognition and conversational transactions, that kind of stuff. I think that’s what Charles is speaking about tomorrow. I encourage you to go to his talk. That’s going to in this area.
Daniel: Thank you so much. Léonie will be around to answer any questions you have.
Léonie: I will. Thank you very much.
[ Applause ]
Daniel: Please enjoy dinner, and we will see you tonight at game night and Karaoke.