I was asked to build a lightweight web shop experience for a client. I also needed a web shop for my alter ego. I wanted to make a good experience, not just a usable experience for users of ATs. I posed the question online for examples of a good experience to examine what was under the hood.
A short conversation and a “thank you” later, and I started reflecting on my addiction to thinking in terms of accessibility. I tend to apply it to all things, but with software in particular, two stories came to mind.
The portfolio sitSection titled The portfolio sit
Around 2005 I went from mainly Flash-based websites to the LAMP stack. I was introduced to Zeldman, Jared Spool, and others in realm of usability. The emphasis at the time was the semantic web and accessibility.
While I didn’t jump in as far as others, for me, accessibility became a passion.
I was finishing my BFA degree. My concentration was in studio arts. The details of which are for a different site and my alter ego. I’ve had a website for a while sharing that work. Taking it down. Putting it back up. And now experimenting with this iteration.
My content has never driven much traffic. People talk about accidentally creating an audience, a community around their content. There are even movies with that as the premise. That’s not me and my content. And that’s okay. I experiment a lot and have little worry about deleting an entire site and starting over. I’m not sure I’d be as willing if I had a large audience I was actually aware of.
All that to say, I work a lot on pull and feedback. Words of affirmation are, after all, a high motivator for me.
When it comes to accessibility, Text on the web is easy. Images and more complex interactions are more difficult.
In 2005 I also worked in the call center of a credit union.
One day a woman called. She told me the story of her recently becoming blind. Her’s was a light switch, not a gradual degradation. She was high-spirited as we talked about navigating the credit union website and the experience of becoming blind. She even complemented the credit union site.
I have no memory as to why she called outside of that.
As we chatted, I brought up my website. My artwork. And my desire to make the site and my work accessible. She asked for the address. She said she’d take a look. And I asked, “If you do, and we talk again, would you tell me if I did a good job or not?”
She said she would.
Mind you, at that time, I talked to roughly 200 people a day. Rarely did I talk with the same person twice. I had no expectation that I’d hear from her again.
Almost a year later, I found myself helping a woman. As we were finishing up she said, “You probably don’t remember me, you talk to so many people.”
I said, “Names are hard for me in general. Seeing people as labels is a bit of a block. And, yes, I speak to a lot of folks. So, I apologize.”
“I went blind recently.”
“Oh my god! I do remember you.”
“I took a look at your site.”
“Oh. Wow.” I don’t get anxious often, but my heart was pounding, and my throat started straining. “What’d you think?”
“It’s beautiful,” she replied.
“Thank you,” was all I was willing to say because I feared losing myself in the middle of the call center.
I don’t remember much after that.
I was hooked on accessibility.
In the years since it’s become easier for developers who don’t require ATs to use them, specifically screen readers. However, it’s not the same as someone practiced at them who knows workarounds to common implementation patterns that are less than accessible and it’s not common practice among developers (including myself).
The Government siteSection titled The Government site
In 2015, I was working as an agile coach (and the front-end architect) for a Government website.
The site mainly displays page-based content, not an app experience. Yet, the developers and other architects were insisting that the site be a single-page client-side web app; no script, no site.
There’s a whole story here. In short, I was frustrated and becoming frustrating to others, because I kept trying to explain all the technical problems and increased effort required behind what they were trying to do compared to where we were. I was losing the argument by the quantity of folks saying I was making mountains out of molehills. My thoughts were from a bygone era, I didn’t know what I was talking about, or all of the above.
One day one of the other architects mentioned a statistic I found interesting:
I don’t know where the statistic came from. I just replied:
The reason we have jobs right now is because the Government got sued by a group representing less than three percent of the United States population because they couldn’t navigate the site.
A team member and I had a similar perspective, which was that we wanted to make a good experience for AT users, not just a usable experience.
However, we had very different perspectives on how to get there.
Eventually, she was able to put the couple of pages we had from the teams in front of the accessibility expert for the agency. They were blind. We got on a call. It did not go well.
My teammate was trying to ask how we could make the client-side thing work. The accessibility expert said something along the lines of, “I don’t know. I’m not a developer. I just know how I navigate the world. I don’t even know what you mean by client-side web app.”
I looked at her. Then back at the phone and asked, “Have you ever used Gmail in the browser?” I figured he must have at some point because that was the email provider for the whole agency.
He said, “Oh. I mean the site’s technically accessible, but it’s not a good experience. I use a different client.”
I looked to my teammate again. We both nodded and thanked our new friend profusely for helping us out.
Three more years of fighting and I ended up off the program. Roughly two years later, the new site was launched.
I didn’t do an assessment.
The conclusionSection titled The conclusion
With over 20 years of part-time and full-time designing, developing, and playing online I’m surprised at the arguments we make regarding how to approach web development. Some are new, but most aren’t. And many boil down to: I want to develop using the new shiny things. (Often reminds me of a scene from Jurassic Park.)
It honestly feels like little has changed since 2005 when it comes to adoption of semantics, accessibility, and approaches like progressive enhancement for web development. (And it feels like not much has changed since the 1960s when it comes to software development.)
The physical world seems to be evolving faster, which seems odd given how mailable digital spaces can be. I wonder how much of that is related to legislation and building codes.
I appreciate folks who have taken up the torch and continue to fight the good fight. I appreciate that some of the folks I followed back in the day are still fighting the good fight. I’m enjoying seeing more diversity along these lines in the developer space. And I still manage to convert some folks when we talk.
Accessibility is one of those areas of life where I wish progress didn’t take generations to manifest. Especially since generations have already passed to get us this far.