Monki Gras is the annual RedMonk conference that celebrates software, craft and tech culture. This year’s theme was Accessible Craft: creating great experiences for everyone.
Many conferences talk about diversity, but Monki Gras doesn’t just pay lip service to inclusion: scholarship tickets bring in under-represented groups, closed captioning is provided for all talks, the venue is fully wheelchair accessible and food options cater for all dietary needs. The result is an event that feels welcoming for all, and has the best male/female balance of any tech conference I’ve ever attended!
Disability is not always binary, or permanent. This diagram, part of Microsoft’s inclusive design toolkit, helps us think about the temporary and situational contexts where people may need extra help. Captioning isn’t just for deaf people: it helps those in noisy environments, it helps watch a video on the tube, it helps people using a second language. If we think about all the people who fall into these wider categories, the number of people who benefit from accessibility features is much higher than we might think!
Ben Fletcher gave the opening talk. He is an engineer at the FT. He is deaf, and partially sighted. He uses sign language and a translator to help him communicate. Ben shared his experience applying to university, and explained how he operates in the workplace. When we’re aiming for equality, too often we think it’s enough to give people the same resources, without recognising that people have different needs.
The Equality Act dictates that businesses must provide “reasonable access” to services, but what is the definition of reasonable? The goal should be “equivalent access”: if it takes the average person 10 seconds to complete an action, but it takes a visually impaired person 5 minutes to complete, that is not equivalent usability!
When we think of accessibility, we often think of physical access, like ramps and lifts. We tend to think about permanent physical conditions, differences in hearing and vision. On the web, we might think about screen readers, font size and colour or contrast. There is much more to consider: creating a safe and welcoming space for diverse users, encouraging good work/life balance, ensuring fair division of emotional labour in the workplace, and equal access to career progression and investment opportunities. Suki Fuller spoke about her work in helping venture capital firms address the funding gap for minority groups: raising awareness, taking action, supporting advocacy and bringing accountability. If VCs can’t find founders of colour, they’re not looking hard enough!
Louise Miller from GDS spoke about life in a two-mum family. She gave examples of awkward language in medical forms and policies: how do you make sense of “If the mother’s partner wants to take shared parental leave” when you are both mothers? Why is it that popular period tracking apps provide features for logging ovulation testing and sexual activity, but no options for IVF or insemination? Our tools need to be flexible enough to accommodate everyone: we are all “edge cases” at some point in our lives.
Bruce Lawson argued that the web started out simple and accessible: we are over-complicating it and locking people out. The tools and frameworks developers use have speed and efficiency implications. As websites get more bloated, the data cost of a site goes up. Use What Does My Site Cost to see the real cost of accessing a site in different countries! In Nigeria, two minutes of video might cost more in data than sending a child to school for a month. A React app will never take less than a second to load on the average phone in India. Accessibility is a global issue.
Lorna Mitchell set us a challenge: “stick a post it note over your trackpad and see how much you can get done!” An RSI problem prevents her from using a mouse. Because of this, she needs to navigate around the internet with only a keyboard. As a developer evangelist, a lot of her work is online. Being an engineer, she found the best accessibility tool for modern browsers is Vimium — a plugin that is designed for coders as keyboard superusers, but also happens to meet her specific needs.
With Vimium, links are labelled with shortcut keys. Unfortunately, many websites have features that are not compatible with keyboard only access. Unnecessary autocompletes, non-standard components, unusual date pickers, and sliders all cause problems. Even introducing keyboard shortcuts can have unintended consequences.
On TypeForm, for example, you can choose a survey question response by hitting a keyboard shortcut. However, if you’re using a tool like Vimium that already has those keys mapped to a different function, you can’t answer the survey! When Lorna contacted TypeForm to point this out, the support team replied saying: “As the product and company continues to mature, I am sure we will get to tackling accessibility as soon as we can.” The culture this response reveals is telling: accessibility is just part of the backlog. We’ll get round to it. We’re a startup, and these features are not a differentiator for us. They won’t help us secure our next round of funding, so we won’t prioritise it.
This leads us to the bigger question of why companies should care about accessibility at all. Rachel Stephens explored the ethics of business decisions. How do you build a business case for accessibility? This isn’t just a resource allocation question where we seek to maximise utility. Equity isn’t a zero sum game: when you give to one group, you don’t necessarily take away from another! As many speakers argued, building accessible products and services often results in better, more usable outcomes — which may spur wider adoption and result in faster growth or more profit. But if you’re only doing it for the bottom line, aren’t you missing the point?
Businesses should have a moral framework at their core: a set of values that everyone in the business understands and believes in. Don’t incorporate accessibility just because there’s a PR risk of looking bad if you’re caught out! We should build accessible products because it’s the right thing to do. Because it’s a moral imperative. Because it’s part of our value system. Because equality and access are essential tenets of our worldview. As Tim Berners-Lee says: “The web is for everyone.” Let’s keep it that way.