Remembering Accessible Joe

In life, you often need someone to give you a nudge.

That nudge can come in many forms. A word of encouragement that ups your confidence. A long, heartfelt chat that makes you pause, think and change direction. Or an idea you can take on as your own. That’s just to name a few.

A few days ago, I heard that Joseph O’Connor, a well-respected accessibility advocate, died after a long battle with chronic illness. You can read more about Joe in the announcement on his website, and in a nice round-up from Dennis Lembree. Deborah Edwards-Onoro also has a lovely goodbye on her blog. Mike Gifford created a well-deserved Wikipedia page for Joe.

Hearing this news made me deeply sad. Joe helped my career in a way I’m not sure he realized, so I wanted to that share here.

I connected with Joe as a member of the WordPress Accessibility team — how I started contributing to WordPress. Along with Joe, Joe Dolson, Rian Rietveld and Graham Armfield, welcomed my contributions and gave me a home where I felt useful and valued. Joe and I worked together the most on his Cities initiative, which aimed to increase the number of accessibility-ready WordPress themes. I decided to design and build a theme representing Washington D.C. It didn’t quite work out that way though.

I had wanted to create and release a public WordPress theme for awhile. But I stopped short of creating one because I didn’t know how it would be different than everything already out there. Joe’s Cities idea gave me the “nudge” I needed. Accessibility would be the difference in what I made!

As I mentioned, things didn’t go exactly to plan. Once I started brainstorming design ideas, I got more excited about making a minimalistic design, inspired by Zen HabitsAccessible Zen was born, and I released it in June, 2013. I needed that nudge, even if what I made didn’t fit into Joe’s vision. I still learned a ton, and put something accessible out into the world.

Releasing the theme also gave me the confidence to apply to speak at my first WordCamp. The organizers accepted my talk about Accessible Zen, and I delivered it in early 2014. Shortly after, I began a trial at Automattic to work on its Theme Team. I landed that gig, and it shaped my career in countless ways.

All thanks to a nudge from “Accessible” Joe O’Connor. Someone I admired who took the time to share his big idea, and his expertise. Thank you, Joe. I won’t forget what you did and I’ll miss your voice in our community.

Joining Ad Hoc

I’m excited to share that I’ve joined Ad Hoc as a Senior UX Designer, focused on accessibility.

If you don’t know, Ad Hoc builds digital services for the U.S. government. The company’s founders helped rescue after its turbulent launch. The talented team has since launched among other notable projects.

I enjoyed working in this space before, as a contractor for the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to use accessibility as a lever to improve government digital experiences. The more I’ve explored accessibility, the more passionate I’ve become about it. It also helps that for me, the work has a deep, personal meaning. It was time to give it my full attention.

What attracted me most to the position at Ad Hoc was that it was part of the design team. Along with my colleagues, I can advocate for accessibility early during the design process. It won’t just be about testing before launch. I started last week, and the first few days have been lots of fun. I’m diving into all sorts of different tech stacks, tools and challenges.

This new gig lacks something I’ve had in past jobs though: a focus on WordPress. While that means I won’t work with WordPress day to day, I imagine I’ll still be around the community. I’m so thankful for WordPress and the people I’ve met both in the community and at Automattic. Both have made me better in countless ways.


A Leadership Toolkit

Leading people takes a lot of energy. Once you move from being an individual contributor to a manager, everything feels and functions differently. To combat this, I created a leadership toolkit for myself.

It reads like a letter to myself, a reminder that when things get chaotic and I’m overwhelmed, I always have choices. I’ve amassed expertise I can draw on. Even making mistakes will help me hone my craft. I aim to keep it updated as my career evolves and I grow in different ways. I bet I’ll read it more often than revise it, as that’s its biggest purpose.

I’m sharing not because I think this exact set of principles will help anyone. More that maybe in reading this, you’ll be inspired to explore and build your own toolkit. If you’re on the right path to creating a system that works for you, you’ll see it’s not about becoming or being a leader, but instead, reminding yourself of who you are already.

Special thanks to Akshay Kapur, whose coaching and collaboration helped me craft this over the last year-plus working together. If you’re looking for a leadership coach, please reach out to him.

Leadership statement

I bring empathy and persistence to my work as a leader, focusing on seeing clearly and helping others do the same.

I aim to foster perspective, movement, empowerment and transparency with the people I work with every day. I see my job as selling ideas. I plant the seeds of the ideas so that individuals and teams can come up with better ideas. To carry the metaphor further:

“Be a forester. Plant the trees; remove what can’t flourish. You tend to the forest because you know that diversity and strong bonds between elements creates the strongest ecosystem.”


I use a few mindsets in my work:

Journalist: I’m a storyteller through and through. Ever curious, always asking questions. Think of the popular journalism axiom: “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comforted.” Writing helps me often get to better clarity.

Runner: I know races aren’t won the same way every time. I constantly look to apply the right training and approach to what’s ahead. I’m not afraid of a tough run or a run on a new trail. That helps me grow stronger.

Co-Leader: I lead, but with people and through people. I’m excited when people engage with me on a challenge. Where some may see opinions and noise, I see opportunity for alignment and clarity.

Maker: I create for a living and out of necessity. I have to because it’s how I’m built. Making gives me the most energy.


These methods serve as reminders to how I like to work:

Imperfect: My craft requires creativity, and there’s no “right” way to find it. But you won’t find it if you’re trying too hard.

Gentle nudges: I prefer to nudge people toward a path. But I know when I need to apply more force too.

Put it down: When I get stressed because something takes hold, I remember I have a choice. I can put it down.

Practice silence: My job requires a lot of inputs. Silence can be one that helps me know which inputs matter most at any given moment. It helps me make my own inputs too.

Think in buckets: Who needs to help me right now? Journalist, Co-Leader, Runner or Maker? What needs attention? People, Process, Projects or Me?

What’s the story? What’s the narrative here? I’m always searching for the story because if I know the story, I’m closer to clarity.


I can practice these skills when I’m unclear:

Do nothing time: Take 30 minutes to do nothing. Let your mind wander without an agenda.
I wonder: Ask yourself, “I wonder if…”, “I wonder why…”, “I wonder how…”

Write it out (journal): The faster you do it, the more valuable it usually becomes later.

Draw it out (whiteboard): You are a designer after all.

Talk it out (inner circle): Play the journalist and co-leader.

Know/Don’t Know exercises: This is the research that will always drive the story.

Leadership as a craft

Approach your work as though it’s a trade. Here’s a process to practice that:

  • Listening: Ask at least two questions that make others pause & think
  • Balance: Block your calendar between 6pm-6:30pm daily
  • Writing: Type for 5-10 minutes without an agenda


Feeling overwhelmed?

  • Find time to workout. Kettlebells to the rescue.
  • Schedule “do nothing” time. Aim for at least three times a week.
  • Write. Just put words on a page somewhere.

To Do List Iterations

When I worked as a journalist, I loved my notebook. It didn’t just hold my notes and interviews for stories, but my to do list items for each day and week too.

Granted, that may have been a requirement given it was a major tool of the trade. But as digital equivalents became more popular, and I switched careers, I used real notebooks less. In the past few years, I’ve tried a bevy of different methods and apps for managing my to do list. Recently though, I’ve landed on something that works for me and might stick.

I use both a digital task list (Google Tasks) and a small notebook. Google Tasks holds everything I need to do. I turn to the notebook each day to plan out the most important things to do, plus any meetings and other small items that need attention. I plan out the entire week the same way in the notebook. I pull out major items I want to get done that week and note them on a page using the same formula. I never break down big items, because that happens naturally each day. This combination of digital and analog provides the perfect mix for me.

So a day might look something like this:

MIT (Most important task)
- Finish accessibility review for new interface.

- Check-in with Steve.
- Check-in with Carol.
- Check-in with Lauren.

- Reply to thread on theme work.
- Look over data on customer sites.
Handwritten to do list showing most important task, meetings and other items.

I think it’s the physical act of writing the day’s activities down rather than typing them that makes it work better. I’m a few weeks in, and this has helped me be and feel more productive than most anything else.

Why I Care About Accessibility

Hands formed together with red heart paint.

Many people don’t know that I’m a twin.

Born two-months premature with many health challenges early on. I was a small kid who wore thick glasses and had a visible scar on my head from a surgery. My twin, Darrell, had a different fate. He didn’t fully develop because of the early birth. He never spoke or walked and required around-the-clock care. When my family visited him, he’d always light up when you gave him a kiss, a hug or whispered in his ear. From an early age, I had this real example that some people’s bodies or environments trap them. Their voices go unheard. Every time someone asked me about the scar on my head, I thought of my brother.

I still do. That’s why I care.

In my first web-related job, I worked for The Arc. The United States-based nonprofit serves people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. I felt connected to the cause because of my brother, of course. While there, I saw firsthand how much harder people with disabilities had to work to be heard. To be included. To live. They always reached for opportunity, often limited only by the world around them.

That’s why I care.

When I was a teenager, I told my mom that I felt like I had to live for two. I still feel that way. Darrell died September 23, 2012. I think often about how my journey, my life’s work, wouldn’t be as meaningful without his influence. In a way, he wasn’t silenced at all. I’m lucky.

You don’t need to have a personal connection to accessibility to care about it as deeply, of course. You just need to be open to the world around you. What’s different? Who doesn’t have room to flourish? How can you help? Be curious. Grant the space for people. Help each other.

I wrote a bit about this story, and told it on stage for a recent talk. I wanted to share it here too since it’s shaped a big part of who I am and how I operate.

Image courtesy of Tim Marshall.

Good Accessibility Means Quality

Cracked concrete with green tint.

WebAIM recently released a report about how accessibility errors permeate the Web. The report states, “the results paint a rather dismal picture of the current state of web accessibility.”

If you’ve ever tested sites for accessibility, the results may not surprise you. I can tell you in my own work, I see a lot of the same mistakes repeated. Depressing, indeed.

Eric Bailey wrote about the results eloquently. He compared inaccessible websites to structurally unsound bridges. Would you use a bridge with possible known faults? No. Yet, we ask people to do this every day with inaccessible sites.

Ethan Marcotte issued a call to action in his post about the results. He asked us to ask ourselves, “What’s one thing I wish I understood better about accessibility?” He even recommended my own Accessibility Weekly as a way to learn. That question rattles around in my brain constantly. So much so, I wrote a few blog posts about questions I get around the topic.

But one of the questions that I keep coming back to the most?

Why is accessibility not as exciting as say some new JavaScript hotness, CSS technique or [insert web thing]? If it were, maybe we wouldn’t be in this sorry state?

I don’t have the answer there, only some hypotheses.

Hypothesis number one: Inclusive design and/or accessibility shows a sign of quality. For some web workers (myself included!), you can ignore quality at times. Like a concrete slab being laid level and smooth. If it isn’t level or smooth, many may not notice. Some will though, and over time, that slab will break down quicker than one laid right. Ignore accessibility, and your experience will deteriorate faster.

Karl Groves has written about quality problems related to accessibility before.

Marcy Sutton’s A11y Wins blog has great examples of paying attention to quality.

Hypothesis number two (related to one): Most accessibility challenges come down to three factors: decisions, people and details. I wrote about this in the past in a series I called Everyday Accessibility. We won’t make all the right decisions. People won’t always know enough about how to design or build an accessible experience. Details come and go so fast in projects that we may not pay attention to enough of them. These factors help drive quality.

Let’s focus on making the concrete a bit more level every time way lay a new slab. Anyone can make the Web more accessible one change at a time.

Image courtesy of Mahdis Mousavi.

Accessibility Answers: Is Safari Better than Chrome for Accessibility?

Woman sitting and raising her hand beside another woman.

When I give presentations on accessibility, I usually get one or two questions I’ve fielded before. I’ve collected a handful for an ongoing series of posts with my answers. I hope they help you understand accessibility better.

Is Safari better than Chrome for accessibility?


That’s the short answer, but let’s go deeper. People often ask this type of question because Apple has developed a good reputation around inclusive design and accessibility. Maybe its browser has an edge? They also wonder what browser and screen reader combination work best together.

All valid questions, but in today’s “modern web” most browsers are comparable when it comes to accessibility features. If you’re testing your design or development work in a browser with a screen reader, you’ll want to stick to a few combinations:

  • VoiceOver with Safari on MacOS and iOS.
  • NVDA with Firefox.
  • Edge/Internet Explorer 11 with Jaws.
  • Talkback with Firefox or Chrome.

This post from Maxability on screen reader and browser combinations has more information. And if you want some survey data on screen reader usage, WebAIM has puts together some on a regular basis.

Follow the series Accessibility Answers. Ask me a question via my contact form or Twiter.

Image by rawpixel.

Better Conversations About Accessibility

I published another post about accessibility over on the Automattic Design blog. This one focuses on why almost everyone can call themselves a designer, and how to have better conversations around design and accessibility.

My favorite piece of advice from the piece: design with them (whomever needed). Too often, accessibility gets hard because it’s viewed as an immovable obstacle, but it’s just another design constraint. Embrace it.


Red fireworks over Lincoln Memorial.

I started January 1st like I have the past few New Year’s days. I listened to David Foster Wallace’s commencement address, This is Water. You can get it in article formbook form or on YouTube (blogged about it last year and in 2015).

I love its message. Pay attention, Be aware. Support others. Every day. Beyond that annual reminder, I’m thinking about what to focus on this year. I say that instead of goals because “focuses” last year helped me make substantial progress. I set one professional and one personal priority.

Last Year

Professionally, I wanted to be a better leader. I’m happy with the efforts here. I started working with a leadership coach, and it’s made a huge difference for me. I’m more aware of how I want to operate as a leader, how I actually operate and how to cross the delta between the two. I have to keep growing of course, but I’m more mindful of the journey, not just the destination now.

Personally, I wanted to read more. I did that in a big way, reading 22 books. I spent a lot more time reading more consciously rather than thumbing through feeds. I’ve gone back to using a feed reader for articles on the web. My favorite read from 2018 was Silence in the Age of Noise.

This Year

The priorities I decided to aim at this year skew more toward objectives. They’re broad, and I need to decide exactly how I’m going to work toward them, but having a direction versus no direction means I can start somewhere.

Professional: Thanks to a new professional growth focus at Automattic, all our designers wrote mission statements. Mine is:

David Kennedy works to make the Web fast, accessible and beautiful. He brings empathy and persistence to tackle problems customers and colleagues face that block their path to the future.

I’m looking forward to focusing on the craft of those areas, and helping others grow there too.

Personal: I want to find better balance in how I approach the things that require my attention and energy. I did a poor job of finding space from pressing matters in 2018. I let challenges consume me rather than me consuming the challenge. I read a few books to help with that, and have one exercise (spending 30 minutes doing nothing) to help here. I want to make “doing nothing” a stronger habit so I can gain clarity faster.

Happy New Year! Let’s do this.

Previous years: 2018, 201720162015201420122011.

Image by Sharosh Rajasekher.