Confessions of a designer / developer / empath
After 20+ years designing apps and web sites, I figured that I knew more than enough about web accessibility.
I knew how to keep my designs accessible: I was a seasoned web designer/developer that followed industry best practices — you know, those that are published in developer blogs and the industry press.
It wasn’t difficult to call myself an expert. After I knew more about the subject than anyone else in the room. I’d read through the W3C’s guidelines on my own and got familiar with them. At work, we checked our work with the tools available to us, and we could claim that our work was compliant with these standards.
The bar was set pretty low. In 2006, Derek Featherstone declared in his blog that all you needed to do was “Put the words ‘Accessibility Consultant’ on your business card.” And he wasn’t far from the truth: there were no credentials to separate a real-life expert like him from a self-anointed expert like me.
Thankfully, the standard is set a lot higher now. As of last year, there is an actual accreditation process for accessibility professionals, with two levels of certification — one general, and one technical. I decided that it was time to fill in the gaps in my own knowledge and experience and to become a Certified Professional in Web Accessibility (CPWA).
I also decided that it would be fun to blog about it in the first person and share my experiences.
What made me take accessibility more seriously than before? Well, on one hand the web publishing industry grew up, and there were some changes in my own personal life.
I had read through the W3C’s Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG 1.0, pronounced “wick-ag”) and found it to be no small accomplishment, as they were written in the driest of bureaucratese and laid out in the least reader-friendly typography possible. Still, WCAG 1.0 was a milestone just the same, condensing a large body of knowledge into a series of 14 guidelines. In 2008, WCAG 2.0 replaced the original spec with a far more detailed and actionable set of guidelines, albeit in the same dry bureaucratese and unfriendly typography.
While WCAG gave us concrete suggestions for making our work more accessible, we were still free to ignore them if they didn’t suit us. Even when the National Federation for The Blind won a landmark lawsuit against Target in 2008 for its inaccessible web site, it didn’t really affect most of us designers and developers. After all, target.com was a showcase of everything you shouldn’t do — missing alt tags, inaccessible image maps, and unusable purchase forms. Making matters worse, Target chose not to modify its site, even after a lawsuit was filed against it. Even though Target paid handsomely in the end, it was easy for us designers and site builders to think that it couldn’t happen to us.
Still, the door to litigation had been opened a crack, and now there was a remote possibility that you could actually get sued for an inaccessible site. Of course, we had the illusion that we’d be immune as long as we followed best practices and weren’t as arrogant and dismissive as Target. Our clients in state-funded higher ed institutions were now particularly at risk of losing state and federal funding if their sites and course materials were found not to be compliant with the Section 508 standards for accessibility.
Starting in early 2015, hundreds of accessibility lawsuits began cropping up, blowing the door wide open on corporate liability. Any business or organization could be held liable for violating the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Many of us found ourselves doing remediation work on some of my clients’ sites, as now the standards could no longer be ignored.
On a good day, I’d look at web accessibility as being about doing the right thing, like recycling my bottles and cans or using proper syntax and indents in my code. On a bad day, it started to feel like nit-picky pedantry and ankle-biting.
I was missing empathy.
I had to age into it, literally. The perfect eye sight and hearing of my younger years evolved into the progressive lenses and tinnitus of my 50+ year-old self. I can’t make out every separate pixel on my monitor anymore as I used to.
I learned about assistive technologies because I had to. I became a part-time caregiver for my 90-year-old mother, who has Parkinson’s. I now watch her type and sign her name with a huge amount of effort, and soon she’ll lose the little ability that’s left in her hands.
Although she’s impressive intellectual, learning PIN numbers or — God forbid — a strong password are completely out of the question. Keeping her intellectually active this become a huge quality-of-life issue for her and the rest of the family. I try to keep one step ahead, trying out assistive technologies myself and then trying to teach her how to use them. These experiences have become a good place to draw empathy for users with even greater disabilities.
I’ve come to realize that web accessibility is about taking down brick walls and obstacles that those who lack disabilities leave behind. While we see physical rudeness in the form of slamming a door in front of someone, we miss the exasperation and pain that our inaccessible work must cause. I think of it as kicking the cane out from under an old lady.
This blog is about my journey to becoming that kinder person.