I’m in a coffeeshop in Cambridge, mulling over something Liz Jackson said in an interview. Liz is the founder of The Disabled List, and is a disability advocate, design strategist, writer, and speaker. If you haven’t watched her talk on weaponized empathy, or her talk on inclusion and “disability’s branding problem,” I can wholeheartedly recommend both to you.
Anyway, I’m reading the transcript of a two-part interview Liz recently gave to The A11y Rules Podcast. Both parts of her interview are excellent, but toward the beginning of the second interview, Liz is asked about her greatest frustration with accessibility. Here’s her response:
My greatest frustration with accessibility is I think the fact that people view it as a box to be checked. That there’s a minimum amount that you need to do and that I think is fundamentally lacking in creativity. I’m not saying that that’s what accessibility is. I’m saying that that is the perception of what it is. I think people view it a lot in terms of legal compliance. And I just… I wish we could sort of view it instead as an opportunity to engage.
The entire interview’s worth your time, as Liz talks a lot about her advocacy and her design practice. But as I read that quote in particular, I’m remembering the time I met Sina Bahram when he came through Boston about a month ago.
We hadn’t met in person before, so we’d agreed to meet downtown for coffee. If you haven’t met Sina, he’s a thoroughly enjoyable person to talk with, so we ended up chatting at length: about travel, about the year ahead, and about how we found our way into the industry. And we talked about Sina’s practice, which I found endlessly fascinating. I mean, I knew Sina’s company did a fair bit of consulting to help web and digital teams build more accessible digital products; I didn’t realize he also consulted with museums, helping them design and build more accessible, inclusive exhibits.
And then Sina said something I’ve been thinking about ever since:
Inclusive design’s a continuum, and different organizations are at different levels. On one end, we work to teach designers and developers about WCAG conformance, and about, say, the value of underlined links. On the other end, when I’m speaking to museum colleagues, the discussion often centers on nuances of language. For example, we can have debates about whether “naked” or “nude” is more appropriate for the description of a specific piece; we discuss best practices around conveying a subject’s skin color, or around indicating known gender identity.
In a few sentences, Sina managed to perfectly describe the level of maturity I’d love to see around accessibility in the tech industry. But it felt like a reminder of just how far we are from reaching that point, given how badly we’ve broken the web for so many people.
But as I sit here, reading an interview in one coffeeshop, and thinking about a month-old conversation in another coffeeshop, I realize there’s no small amount of overlap here. Liz cites the work of Shannon Finnegan, an artist who reframes
alt text as a space for poetry; Sina gets to work with his clients to find effective, useful nuance in descriptions of art. In other words, Liz and Sina have each given me the tiniest glimpse of where our industry could be—where we should be.
And personally, I want to get there: to have nuanced discussions about text descriptions; I want to read poetry in
alt text; to have our work’s success measured by how broadly it can be accessed; to create moving, beautiful experiences for people who may not use the web like I do.
For me, the one thing that people should know about web accessibility is it’s a learning process. We may not realize that we need it until we need it. We may not we realize that it’s there until our failure has left somebody out. We may start to hear the word and not necessarily know what it means and it’s okay to not know and it’s okay to have been naive. But, once you know and once you are aware that this is something that exists it is something that I believe we have a responsibility to better understand. Especially if we’re creating things that go out into the world.