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 Healthcare.gov after its turbulent launch. The talented team has since launched Vets.gov 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.

Onward!

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?

No.

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.

Focusing on What Matters

Tim Kadlec gave a powerful, recent talk called Focusing on What Matters that you should watch. It touches on the three areas of the Web that we web workers often overlook or neglect: accessibility, performance and security. Yet, those end up being the factors that have the most impact on the people using our products and services. We have the ability to unlock the Web for everyone – if we focus on the right things.

The Future of Accessibility Weekly

After the new year, I started Accessibility Weekly back up.

It feels good to be writing and curating again. Since starting back up on January 10, I’ve only missed one issue due to travel.

Keeping a newsletter going on a regular basis turned out harder than I thought. It takes time to convert the excitement of a new project into an everyday reflex. I’ve hit that point though, and am thinking about the future of the newsletter.

Right now, Accessibility Weekly has 872 subscribers, a 56 percent open rate and a 22 percent click-through rate. It’s not bad, but the subscriber base remains small. They seem engaged though, and I’ve received good feedback thus far.

I’m thinking about a few goals for the rest of the year:

Think through changes in format, if necessary. Lately, I haven’t included many news links because those have been harder to come by. Plus, I’m more interested in resources, tools and tutorial links. They center on teaching and learning, which is one of the reasons why I started this in the first place.

Explore advertising and revenue possibilities. I’m not looking to make money from the newsletter. I would like to cover costs though. Especially when I eventually will need to start paying for Mailchimp once I hit a certain number of subscribers. I don’t really want to traditional ads, so I’m thinking either:

  1. Monthly sponsorships. Just one featured sponsor section in the newsletter, running monthly.
  2. Patreon. Since I don’t need a ton of money to cover the costs of Mailchimp and any other miscellaneous expenses, a donation platform might work.

Setting up a site to catalog the resources. I thought about publishing the resources on a site initially, and integrating with Mailchimp’s automated RSS publishing feature. I decided not to do it because it wasn’t the minimum viable product. I wanted a way to let people into the world of accessibility and educate. A newsletter did all that. Plus, sites like WebAIM, A11y Project and A11y Buzz do a good job of educating via a site. But lately, I wish I had a more reliable way to know exactly what I’ve featured before without searching individually through issues. I’m undecided here.

Running a survey. I’d like to know more about what my readers want. So I’m considering a short survey to help answer the above questions.

I’ve loved watching the newsletter grow organically. I get a rush when I see people subscribing with domain names I recognize, like IBM, Google, Microsoft and others. And It’s always thrilling when people you admire recommend your work. Mostly, I’m looking forward into making this thing a continued go-to resource for diving into accessibility!

Is Accessibility Hard?

Well, no. And yes. Let me explain.

Every now and then, I see something like this from someone in the web community:

But I’m just gonna be honest here… for most developers, coding for #a11y (especially screen readers) is might as well be voodoo

I get it. I still remember the first time I turned on a screen reader. What a foreign experience! I felt so lost. But remember, when users visit a site that isn’t as accessible as they need it to be, that’s how they feel too. I’m not trying to guilt you into accessibility, but show you that we can all have similar experiences that fuel empathy.

The entire Web can feel like voodoo at times. A blur of fast-paced, “what should I learn next?” – “oh no, I feel so left behind” – “I don’t know this all that well” pile of voodoo. Accessibility is no different than learning anything else. Like responsive design, Sass, React or whatever comes next. You can learn accessibility. That’s the “no” part of my answer to “Is accessibility hard?”

So what’s the “yes” part? Accessibility is hard because you have to take that first step. You have to be willing to try. Feel lost. Make mistakes. And of course, like anything else, the deeper you go – the more complex it all becomes. But then you remember, you know a little voodoo, and you’ve got this.