What I wish I’d known when I got into accessibility – Digital Accessibility Experts Podcast Episode 1

We’re delighted to announce the Digital Accessibility Experts Podcast from Hassell Inclusion!

We often meet people who are desperate to gain knowledge in accessibility. We present to them all the time. We spend much of our time training them. They know that, increasingly, if you don’t know what you’re doing with digital accessibility, you’re missing a key skill you need as a designer, developer, content author, product manager or QA tester. So they’re always looking for places to find out more.

In our team at Hassell Inclusion we’re lucky to have international experts who have over 70 years of accessibility experience between us. We have the people who led the creation of the process and technical standards for accessibility, BS8878 and WCAG 2.1. And we help a diverse range of clients to apply those standards to their work every day of the week.

So we wanted to start opening up some of that well of experience, so people who want to know more about accessibility can benefit.

That’s why we’ve created the Digital Accessibility Experts Podcast.

4 of Hassell Inclusion's team enjoying time together

We’ll be publishing a new podcast every month, sharing insights from our team, and from invited accessibility experts.

We’ve got lots of ideas for what we will cover, but we also want to hear from you on what you’d like our experts to talk about.

Here’s Episode 1, based on a question we get asked all the time: What I wish I’d known when I got into Accessibility.

We hope you enjoy listening to it as much as we enjoyed recording it! And if you’d prefer to read the podcast, rather than listen to it, read the transcript.

What do you think?

We’d love to know your thoughts on this podcast. Please share your comments below.

Want more?

If this has been useful, you might like to sign-up for the Hassell Inclusion newsletter to get more insights like this in your email every month.

Transcript of audio

Jonathan Hassell:  Rarely do people out there get the chance to hear from a panel of brilliant accessibility professionals like yourselves. So we wanted to put this together so that people could get something of the experience that you’ve got. Rob, if you want to start. Who are you and how did you get into accessibility?

Rob Wemyss: I’m Rob Wemyss. I got into accessibility, initially, through front-end development. That’s my background, building digital products. Then I met a senior sponsor, who was very, very, passionate on this subject. I moved into a very small team, a UX team, which was then taking on accessibility as well. I moved through the organisation there, getting more and more passionate about the impact that accessibility can have on large and small organisations.

Jonathan Hassell: Cool, thanks Rob. Yac – who are you and how did you get into this?

Yacoob Woozer: I’m Yacoob Woozer. How did I get into this? Many, many, years ago I used to be in a public-facing role. I’d see lots of members of the public. It was often the case that someone couldn’t read a letter, that someone hadn’t got a website that they could access. After that, I was a systems administrator at a public sector organisation. There were lots of members of staff who couldn’t access certain sites, who didn’t have the potential to get promoted, who couldn’t perform certain tasks. Which I thought was totally unfair. Obviously, I developed my knowledge in that area and looked at ways to help people be included in all those types of activities so everyone had equal footing.

Then I went down the development route, I built websites. I looked at more and more accessible stuff in that area. Then I expanded on that to try to look at complete journeys across clerical, digital, practical, accessibility for all people of all ages, to be inclusive.

Jonathan Hassell: Cool. So it’s all about the people. Graham, how did you get into this?

Graham Armfield: I’m Graham Armfield, I got into it through a financial company I used to work for. I was a web developer. I was helping to build the main flagship websites within this company. I got into it almost by accident. Someone from an agency showed me how a screen reader worked, which was quite a revelation at the time. We’re talking nearly 20 years ago now. Then showed me how you could actually change the underlying code to get it to work with a screen reader. I thought this was fabulous because, for me, the web has always been about enabling people to access information.

My boss at the time saw that I was interested in this. I was starting to pull bits into my work. He made me responsible for making sure that the digital products that we were producing in this department were all accessible after that. I started building up my knowledge from there.

Jonathan Hassell: That’s good. For the record, I’m Jonathan Hassell. How did I get into this? Two things came together. I was editor of standards of guidelines, the least sexy job title in the world. It was my job to try to pull together best practice in the organisation I was working for. One of the things they needed was somebody to look at this new area of accessibility.

At the same time my nephew was born, Karl, with spina bifida, so it became a personal thing as well. That combination of, if you like, “How do we get good at this?” But also, “It’s for real people.” That was a great start for me.

We’ve all said something, there, about how we got in and it was… Somebody asked us to do this, or somebody let us do this. Rob. Sponsors, are they important to this happening in organisations?

Rob Wemyss: To me, it was hugely important, having somebody at the right level of seniority who could actually passionately sell what we’re trying to do for our customers from an accessibility point of view. It’s really fantastic to see. So I’ve been lucky to work with people, at the right level of seniority, who have managed to drive change through organisations. Which is fantastic.

Jonathan Hassell: Why do they care? Is it the same? We’ve all worked in different organisations. Yac, you’ve done a lot of public service. I’m guessing public service do accessibility for different reasons than other organisations. Why have you been able to become so good at this, because people have asked you to do it?

Yacoob Woozer: Obviously there’s the obligation for public sector organisations to do this. I think from me, maybe, extolling the virtues of it, people have realised – to go back to what we said before – it’s about people. It makes a real difference. It’s not just about people who have permanent disability. There are people who have temporary disabilities or situational disabilities.

Ultimately, we’re all getting older. We’re all developing bad eyesight, bad joints, take your pick. So it’s not just something we’re doing for other people. We’re doing it for ourselves. If people aren’t addressing this now, when the population gets to a certain age things won’t be accessible, things won’t be addressed. They’ll be this big divide between those who can and cannot.

So, yes, public sector have the duty to do that. I think other people are looking at public sector organisations and saying, “We need to be doing this as well. By doing it, we can sell to more people. It’s the right thing to do. It helps, not only our customers but us as well.”

Jonathan Hassell: We’ve all been doing accessibility for a while now. Anyone been doing it for less than 10 years in the room? No, that’s no, that’s good [laughter]. So we are really that old when it comes to this particular accessibility thing.

So, the question that I think is the interesting thing, especially because there are loads of people out there who are trying to get into accessibility and trying to learn a lot of this stuff.

Graham, we’ll come to you. What’s the big thing in terms of stuff that you really would have wanted to have known then? People out there, if you like, can learn from your experience.

Graham Armfield: Sure. I mentioned earlier that when I discovered how easy it was, to actually change how I coded websites so that they worked better with screen readers, I was immediately excited by that, and started doing that in my own work. And I also explained to my colleagues how to do it as well. They, to a certain extent, started doing that as well.

I was lucky in the financial company that I worked for at that time, they wanted it to happen. I think it was potentially from the legal aspects. They had internet-only products and they didn’t want to get sued, basically. That’s why they were interested. They bought into it. That enabled me and my colleagues to actually get involved in this. I coached other people on how to do it.

I’ve spoken to many developers throughout the years. I’ve presented to developers about how to do this stuff. They get it, they understand. They’re excited by it, some of them very excited by it. I didn’t realise how hard it would be to actually embed it into organisations, because it’s important that you get stakeholders and other people to be interested.

I really didn’t realise – and I’m talking at the beginning of this century in 2001 or 2002, which is when I started – that it would take this long to actually get it to be included into projects as a matter of course.

Jonathan Hassell: So how do we change that? Rob, you do a lot of this at the moment. How do you get people to properly embed this in the way they work, rather than pay lip service to it?

Rob Wemyss: It’s all about everyone understanding their responsibilities with regards to accessibility. It’s not left to the developer to fix at the end of the day. It starts way back with the business analysts coming up with the requirements. It’s baked in there. I’m having conversations with business analysts now who are really keen to do this better.

The project manager has his role to play. The designer has a big role to play. At design stage, you can actually make or break the product’s accessibility by introducing some elements that we’re going to really struggle to make accessible. If we do it this way, and we’ve analysed it, we can make this work for design and for accessibility.

Jonathan Hassell: You said that the BAs really want to do this now, yes? Why? What made the change?

Rob Wemyss: This comes from a meeting I actually had, today, with a BA who seems to have picked up the reigns with this. He’s getting pressure to deliver a lot of stuff, but he’s actually really starting to become passionate about accessibility and actually testing it.

So it comes down to, again, potentially personal interest. You do tend to find, when you start speaking to people, that everybody has, potentially, a story or might know somebody or actually has an impairment themselves. They’re not talking about it straight away, but you do get to find out more about people by having that engagement.

This guy is really taking the bull by the horns, which is fantastic. He’s keen to be part of spreading the information to colleagues and wider as well. It’s coming from the people that are actually doing the job.

Jonathan Hassell: Cool. My story, I remember being… Graham came with me, we were sent over a long way. A big long-haul flight to an organisation. I was doing the project management/business analysts training course we do. I sat down. I asked people around the table, “What do you need to get out of this?” The woman next to me said, “I’m the reason you’re here.” I went, “Okay, that’s cool. So why am I here?”

She said, “We’re now month nine of a three-month project. And we haven’t really gone live yet. The reason for that is that one week from the end of the three-month project this word ‘accessibility’ arrived. We’re creating it for this client, we didn’t know we had to do that. We’ve been trying to learn. We had this audit done and it came back with all these results, we just didn’t know what to do with it. So we fixed loads of things and got it re-audited. We’d fixed some stuff and we’d broken some other stuff for accessibility.”

She was thinking she was going to lose her job. That’s why I was there. So people have different reasons for coming into it, very positive ones but sometimes that pain of having got it wrong.

Anyone like audits? Anyone think that audits are the best thing for accessibility? Yac, you’ve seen millions of these things. You’ve done millions of these things, it feels. Are audits the right way to go?

Yacoob Woozer: For some people, obviously, they need that audit to understand where they are. It’s effectively their baseline. From my experience – I’ve been doing this 15 years give or take – the audit at the end of a project to say, “You’ve got all of this wrong, go off and fix it.” is never the best solution.

The best thing I’ve learned is accessibility is a balancing act. You’ve got to look at it amongst all the other things, cost-effectiveness, resource, time. You’ve got to be there early. You’ve got to be, if you’re working in agile way, there at discovery, there at the first sprint. If you’re working in waterfall, you need to be there at requirements stage. You need to work with people and have those discussions.

Like anything, if you leave it to the last minute and then find something is wrong, there are always going to be problems. It’s just so difficult, then, to retrofit things or go back. It’s, a lot of times, really, really, costly to do that as well. If you can make a decision right at the beginning of a project, a service, an app, and say, “Don’t do A, do B.”  and that makes it more accessible, you’re sorted. If you have to wait to the end and go, “Actually, you should have done that.” People are just going throw their hands in the air and say, “We didn’t know this, now we can’t fix it.”

So get in there early, have those conversations and have a discussion. It’s an ongoing discussion, not just a case of, “Here is an audit, go off and fix it.” Because standards are brilliant, they’re a great starting point but they are ambiguous. I think, between the four of us we could all look at a standard and go, “It means this.” Graham will say it means something different. Rob will say it means something different. So you need that ongoing discussion. Not just a, “Here’s your audit, go off and fix it.”

Jonathan Hassell: Sure. Are people spending too much money on accessibility? That’s an interesting question. Rob, if you want to take it, yes.

Rob Wemyss: I would say they’re spending money, potentially, in the wrong places, rather than spending too much money. You tend to find that, occasionally, somebody will ask for an audit. You put together a proposal. It’s potentially not a huge amount of money to get going, but spending it in the right way is crucial.

More often than not, just blindly auditing your site without a proper plan in place, without some thinking behind it, without some strategy on, “Okay, how are we going to take this forward after we find out, potentially, what’s wrong?” is not the right way to go.

So, yes, I don’t think they’re spending enough money, but they should be spending it in better ways.

Jonathan Hassell: In better ways, yes. Graham, one of the things that we’ve done together is we’ve taken the results of those audits and we’ve tried to help people who haven’t got a clue what on Earth we’re talking about.

When you are asked to take what was possibly, I don’t know, an 80 page document that was the result of an audit and help some, mostly, developers through fixing that stuff, what is the best way of doing that?

Graham Armfield: It depends how much time the developers have. I think prioritisation of the issues is key. I think it’s important that you address the more serious errors first, or potentially the ones that can be fixed easiest.

In the past I’ve worked with loads and loads of different projects. I’ve done lots of audits myself, for various companies. In some ways small incremental changes are good because, rather than waiting until you’ve fixed everything and then sticking it live, it’s better to actually fix an issue and put it live. Then gradually work on.

So prioritisation is key. And understanding the impact because that’s not always clear, in audit reports that I’ve seen, the impact on certain user groups is not really brought out.

When I’ve done presentations for developers in the past, it’s been really useful to actually demo assistive technologies to them really. Then they understand what they’re aiming at. If you just say, “Do this, that, and the other,” in a report, and you don’t really understand why you’re doing it. You can easily miss the target and everything. People understanding how screen readers work is quite revelatory, really, I think.

Jonathan Hassell: Yes. So back to my very unsexy job title when I started off. I learned that people don’t like reading documents, that’s what I learned. I wrote so many standards, I’ve now written British standards, international standards. I know that standards don’t really make it happen. They’re a really useful thing, but no one likes reading documents, no one likes reading audit reports. Those demonstrations, that one-to-one work, maybe training, is massively important.

Rob, you work with loads of people. How much time for training do they have? Is it something that they can just fit into their day whenever we want to improve their skills?

Rob Wemyss: Unfortunately not. In my experience, people will block out some time. All of a sudden, there will be five meetings in their diary that pop into their calendar. We tend to find that, if they’re passionate and driven enough to do the training, they need to be strong and block that time out to do it. And continue to do it. It’s not a case of doing one piece of training and then, “I’m done.” It’s continuous, how they engage in the future as well, which is important.

Jonathan Hassell: Yes. Graham, you’ve trained hundreds, thousands. I’ve actually counted, and it’s probably over 500 devs this year I would think. What works? When you’re training people, when you actually get them into the room, their very precious time, what works?

Graham Armfield: I’ve been doing training courses for many, many, many, years. And I’ve revamped the training courses I’ve done many times. Sometimes they can be too… You know, if they’re just too dry then no one is going to listen for more than about 10 minutes or something like that.

It’s about showing people the building blocks of how they can solve solutions. How small changes can make a big impact. I use example websites when I’m doing the training and other presentations. Show them what good looks like and show them what not so good looks like. Then let them see the difference between the two and understand the issues that certain user groups will have with these websites.

Once you’ve got their interest in that way, then they’re much more open to actually taking on board the techniques that I’m telling them.

Jonathan Hassell: So actually in the end it’s all about the experience that people have. Yac, I always think of you thinking about the people behind that accessible or inaccessible site. How do you get across why this is so important and how this is so important to people?

Yacoob Woozer: It’s about putting that personal touch to standards. Standards are great, we’ve talked about that. There is so much though, and if you just give a load of standards to developers, or to people to learn, they don’t understand why they’re doing it.

You need to extoll the virtues of, “Maybe someone with Parkinson’s would struggle to do this because of not being able to use a mouse correctly.” Or, “Someone who is blind isn’t going to be able to see that picture.” It’s putting that personal touch on, making it about people.

A couple of people I’ve spoken to recently, who were having difficulties accessing websites. They’re not interested in the standards, they’re interested in whether they can use it. All the stuff I’ve seen about case law, no one has ever said, “I’m going to take an organisation to court because it doesn’t meet WCAG.” (The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines). It’s about them not being able to use it.

I think when we look at training and standards, what we’ve got to do is be practical and say, “People aren’t going to take all of this in at once. We’ve got to, maybe, try to teach them half a dozen, five or six, things that they can take away and they can practice.” Then if they get into it, like you’re talking about, passionately, people can then learn more and more and more.

Jonathan Hassell: What we’ve been talking about so far, a lot of the time, has been where an organisation that we’ve been working with is creating it themselves. One of the other real challenges is when the organisation isn’t actually doing the work, when they’ve contracted it out to a third party or maybe even third parties. Rob, I wanted to bring you in on this one because this was one of the first things I think we talked about a long time ago. You had some sort of project where you had loads of different stakeholders. Trying to get all of those people working together to create something in accessibility seemed like a pretty daunting task.

Rob Wemyss: Yes. It’s really interesting for me. I’ve dealt with a lot of helping business integrate third party product. They don’t want to develop it. They want to buy something off the shelf and change it and brand it as their own.

If it’s done properly and, at procurement stage, it’s built into the contract that we’re going to deliver accessibility, great. There is no ambiguity there.

What tends to happen is that we get to a certain point, potentially an audit, with a lot of issues there. And the third party might say, “Okay, well actually we can’t fix any of this.” Or, “We can, but there’s going to be a huge cost associated with it.” Which then becomes a very awkward conversation.

In the very best case, I’ve had the actual third party vendor turn around and say, “Yes, we are going to fix this. And we’re going to fix it in our core product. That means that all our other clients are basically going to get accessibility baked into the core product for free.” To me, that’s where I find this fantastic.

Building accessibility into the core of a product, so everyone else can benefit with that, is pretty much the reason I continue to do this. It makes me really, really, happy when I can actually influence that much wider than one individual product.

Jonathan Hassell: That’s impact, that really is. Graham, I think that’s why you do what you do in WordPress as well, is to have that impact, yes?

Graham Armfield: Yes. I’ve been involved with WordPress for quite a few years. I picked it up as a tool to build websites for myself and for other clients a few years ago. It’s really flexible. You can actually build a website for an organisation really easily.

But I quickly found that there were quite a lot of accessibility issues, especially in the admin areas and a lot of the themes and templates that are available weren’t very accessible. I became a member of the WordPress Accessibility Team for some time, to actually help improve the issues.

There are millions and millions of websites that use WordPress out there. If you’re improving the experience of the admin area within the WordPress core product then you’re going to help a lot of people. Even just one small change, numerically, it can be helping a load of different people. That’s really what has fired me up to get involved in that, small changes here can affect massive populations really. So that’s been quite… It kept me going on that one really.

There is resistance. The same as we’ve talked about with other organisations, there are people within WordPress who get it and who want to do it. But there are also people who pay lip service to it really, and don’t really take it seriously. One day, hopefully, that barrier will fall. You do what you can, fight the battles.

Jonathan Hassell: Absolutely! We met over WordPress effectively. The first version of the Hassell Inclusion website still is on WordPress. I wanted to know what small businesses did when they wanted a website. That seemed to be the thing.

We’re still, I think, on the way to try to get accessibility baked in to the sorts of themes and plug-ins and all of those sorts of things out there.

I guess it’s the other side of that third party components thing. Which is that once you’ve got it right there even if you don’t even think about accessibility at all, even if you don’t even understand the word, if you’ve chosen something which is accessible to build everything on then you’re halfway there already. It doesn’t mean that just because you’re using an accessible theme, or whatever, in WordPress, game over, you’ve got everything sorted, you can go off to the beach. But it does mean that somebody who doesn’t even care gets the right thing. I think that’s what you’re talking about.

And that, for me, is the sort of opportunity which is there, especially with some of the large clients that we work with. If we get it right there, it pervades lots of other places. You can have a big impact.

Yac, one of the places you want to have more of an impact, I think, is the educational community who don’t quite get accessibility the way you want yet.

Yacoob Woozer: Definitely. We already know there is a divide between those who can access things and those who can’t. Unfortunately, a lot of things I’ve seen, it seems to be getting worse.

I’ve got two young children. A lot of their homework is online now. The sites that give that homework out aren’t accessible. I know for a fact that there are some of my daughter’s friends and my son’s friends who just can’t access that material. They’re not getting the same thing that other people are getting. To me, that’s totally unfair. It should be the same across the board.

I’ve contacted some of these organisations. You get a lot of, “Well it’s complicated.” Jonathan and I, obviously, we look at a lot of up and coming things. There is someone who can control a Formula One racing car, or Formula Three, with their mind and race around a track. You show that to these organisations and go, “Well if they can do that, surely you can make your flash player or your homework diary accessible.”

Ultimately, accessibility is quite easy. It’s just about making some important decisions at an early stage. It’s about thinking wider than just standards, it’s about incorporating people and looking at different ways of doing things.

If we can get it right at that school level, and teach people, then hopefully as those people become developers, content designers, so on and so forth, it will be better going forward… We hope, anyway.

Jonathan Hassell: That’s the idea. Certainly for me, one of the reasons that I love accessibility is because, for me, it’s a much better challenge than anything else. It’s so much cooler. Some of the projects that I’ve worked on have just been incredible.

I was doing some stuff with blind kids who were learning how to move safely. They had these awful exercises that they had to learn how to use to have ideas about personal space… If you dropped your keys, how to bend down to get them without bumping your head on the way because you don’t know that there is a table there.

The kids were saying, “These exercises are just so boring. We feel so different. This is not fun.” And we’d come up with some audio games where you played the games with your ears. If they couldn’t see, they could hear the game. And they could control it, in the project we did, using these exercises. Bending down and picking up keys is not fun, Temple Run is. None of them had been able to play that game, because it was not accessible to them. So we said, “Okay. If we do you a blind version of Temple Run, but to play it you’re going to need to learn how to do this bending down properly, would that be okay?” They were like, “Yeah.”

It’s that sort of stuff where the challenge is. That wasn’t like any other project that I’ve ever worked on. The challenges are different for different people. Rob, you’re more into the organisational challenges. Graham, you geek out on component libraries and things like that. Tell us something about what it is that makes some of those best projects that you’ve worked on interesting for you.

Graham Armfield:  In the early 2000s, after I’d got into accessibility, I was involved in a huge rebranding exercise for the company I was working for. We were building the flagship website. It was a team of people, but it fell to me to keep the accessibility train going.

We got the designs for all these components from the design agency that we were working with. We actually created, from these pictures, these components that would sit in a website. The idea was to help the business to actually publish their own pages, rather than waiting for us web developers to do it all for them.

Each component, like a product box if you will, on the page had bits of information about it. They would fill in the bits of information. My role there was to make sure that these components, when they were filled in correctly, resulted in completely accessible components sitting on the page that the financial company’s customers would actually see, or potential customers.

That was really amazing. Because it was all done upfront, at the design stage, we solved massive problems later. There was very little to do later on in the project, in terms of with an audit or whatever and all the testing and everything like that, because we’d solved it all upfront. Doing it that way, we saved the organisation a lot of money.

That was really an amazing way of working. We were all invested in this, and everything like that. That was one of the most exciting projects I’ve ever worked on.

Yacoob Woozeer: I think really challenging things that get you to push past boundaries that you’ve had- I’ve worked with an arts organisation, trying to make galleries and their website accessible.

A lot of people would just say, “There is no way you can do that. It’s just not possible. If someone can’t see, they can’t appreciate that.” What you do is then think, it’s a cliché but think outside the box and go, “Well, let’s not look at the picture. What is the artist trying to portray? How can we give that through other stimuli? Can we have touch, can we have sound, can we have smell even?”

You’ve got people now, who would never visit a gallery before, actually going to these galleries and saying, “Actually, this is accessible for me. Maybe I can’t see it, but it’s accessible in a completely different way.” Through doing that – not only have I pushed myself but working with developers, content designers, ergonomists – we’ve all challenged ourselves and got accessibility to another point.

I, personally, hate to think that something can’t be made accessible. I am practical as well. You do realise there are cut-off points, but by trying to go down that route of making things accessible you challenge yourself. You get to a point where you create things you never thought you would. That has a knock-on effect and that’s actually beneficial for everyone, not just people with impairments and disabilities. So always push for that next step, always push for things to be accessible, because by challenging yourself you just create more and more better things.

Graham Armfield: The earlier you think about accessibility, the more money you’re going to save down the line. That’s one thing, but any of us would have said that really.

Yacoob Woozer: Following on from that, I would say never stop talking. Talk to developers, content designers, clients, users, and have those conversations as often as possible with everyone in the same place. You’ll get so much more done.

Jonathan Hassell: Rob, one tip from you.

Rob Wemyss: One tip from me is to understand from the other person’s perspective, when you’re selling accessibility. Think about, “What do they need from this conversation as well?” From our point of view, it’s how do you sell accessibility better, to make it more understandable for people. Because it tends to be quite confusing sometimes.

Jonathan Hassell: I think one tip from me would be that it used to be the case that we had to push a lot for organisations to care. Now, it’s more the case that organisations do care and they’re really looking for great people who know how to do this stuff. If you’re at all interested, come on in. The water is great.

We hope you’ve enjoyed this podcast, hope you found something in there that’s really useful for you. If you’d like to get in touch, and ask us to talk about particular things that might be of interest to you, then please do. Go to HassellInclusion.com, our website, and get in touch via the ‘contact us’ page. Thank you very much.

Next month we’ll be discussing the future of accessibility. Join us then.

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