What will it take for John Maeda to Transparently Speak with Disabled A11y’s?
I have been wondering for some time now, how to tell the story of Automattic, Gutenberg and their accessibility audit — in a way that can be easily consumed. But it’s hard, even I struggle with the complexities of the Automattic/WordPress business structure, the open source nature of Gutenberg, the intangibility of code, and the smallness of the A11y community. But if we, as a disability are going to push back on the straw ban, even when some of us don’t need straws, it is my hope that we can take a moment to educate ourselves about how disabled people are being systemically pushed out of Automattic and their products. I think we, the greater disability community, owe our A11y peers a little solidarity.
Automattic is a massive web development corporation that people outside of tech tend to be unaware of. But Automattic has a massive presence in our everyday lives. Automattic owns Wordpress.
Back in October, Automattic’s Lead A11y quit. Quick primer: An A11y is basically a person who makes the web more accessible, in accessibility, there are 11 letters between A and Y, hence A11y.
So why did she quit? Well, Automattic’s A11y team was given neither the time nor the resources to conduct a comprehensive accessibility audit of Gutenberg, which is the newest Wordpress update. This meant Automattic systemically and strategically reduced access for millions of users on millions of websites all over the world, simply because they wanted to speed the process up.
I made the uncomfortable decision to approach John Maeda, the Global Head of Computation and Inclusion at Automattic about what happened. I wanted to ask him if he’d speak with a disabled A11y in an open forum (a podcast). TLDR: He’s not interested.
But this is an incredibly important story, because not only do accessibility issues make it harder for many to consume content, but in this case, it also diminishes the capacity for those same people to create.
Here’s the video of my interaction with John Maeda:
The reason I am posting this on Medium is because I wanted to make a transcript of our interaction available. Here is that transcript:
John: Are you going to record? Can I eat my breakfast, I’m so in the middle of this
Liz: I have to run to the airport, so can I just ask you one quick question is all I’m asking. One question. It’s easy, it’s gonna take a few seconds of your time.
John: I’m so sorry, I haven’t had breakfast.
Liz: Will you please commit to going on my friend Nic Steenhout’s podcast called A11y Rules where he discusses accessibility.
John: Can I see it? [pulling out his phone]
Liz: Yeah, you can pull it up.
John: Sorry, one second. Sorry, I got here at midnight and I’m just so disoriented.
Liz: I came here to speak with you and I have to run to the airport.
John: You did? To speak with me?
Liz: I spoke on the first day.
John: Oh, oh you spoke?
Liz: Yeah, I’ve reached out to you multiple times. And I’ve never been able to get any of your time.
John: [Scanning his phone]
Liz: [As John is searching his phone] It’s A one one Y N-I-C S-T-E-E-N-H-O-U-T. So he has a podcast called A11y Rules. If you go to his Twitter.
John: I have a lot of people on it and I don’t really look at it. So you said you reached out to me on Twitter?
Liz: A lot of people have tried to reach out to you in multiple ways to discuss what’s going on with Gutenberg and Automattic. Literally, all we want to do is have a conversation with you about what happened. And so I am asking you if you would be willing to go.
John: Do you know David Allen Kinney at MIT?
Liz: I’m not, no, I speak a lot to a few other people at Automattic. But no, I’m not familiar with him. But I’m specifically, I just
John: Also, uhh Enrique Sanchez? I just brought him on board our team.
Liz: I’m asking if you’ll go on a podcast and speak with a disabled person about Gutenberg is what I’m asking you.
John: I’m not responsible for Gutenberg, so I can’t
Liz: But you are the head of computation and inclusion. You’re the person who we see as the voice of this and if you’re not standing up for us, what chance do we have? I’m asking will you just have… why is it so hard for us to get in front of you?
John: We’re here.
Liz: Yes, and I’m asking, I’m not an A11y, I don’t have the tech prowess to have some of these conversations. And so I want you to get in front of an A11y and discuss some of these things.
John: You want to talk about accessibility and Wordpress?
Liz: I want to talk about what happened with Gutenberg.
John: I’m not, I don’t, I’m not. I’m sorry, but I’m not…
Liz: But you’re the head of inclusion
John: I’m the head of, uhh
Liz: and computation, right? You’re the head of inclusion. Why aren’t you talking to us?
John: To us?
Liz: Disabled people, A11y’s, the people who are affected by the decisions that happen within Automattic at Gutenberg. This is an Automattic thing. I understand that there’s a difference between Wordpress and Automattic.
John: The difference between Wordpress and Automattic
Liz: But you have the power to make a difference, and instead, it’s like you’re completely unaware
John: I have the power to make a difference in… Gutenberg is an open source system, so
Liz: And this is why I don’t actually have the skillset to have this conversation with you is because I don’t fully understand how Gutenberg works, but I do know that Nic Steenhout and other A11ys have been trying to get in front of you for many months and I’m asking
John: They have?
John: They email me?
Liz: I don’t, I
John: I looked up, uh, emails, so I don’t uh, if it’s on Twitter, I don’t, uh
Liz: I don’t know how to email you. And I don’t know if other people know how to email you. Right? So people reach out however they reach out.
John: Ok, so I’m trying to understand… first of all, thanks for staying late to talk about this
Liz: I’m just asking, will you talk to a person? Will you talk to somebody named Nic Steenhout about Gutenberg? Is literally what I’m asking.
John: I can find someone who is near Gutenberg
Liz: No. I’m not asking them. I’m asking you….
… and I’m left with one thought. Processes that exclude disabled people lead to products that exclude disabled people. What is Automattic going to do to ensure this never happens again?