Interview with an accessibility expert

We wanted to see what the world of accessibility is like over at WordPress. Rian Rietveld — Digital Accessibility Specialist, spoke to us about her experiences.

Maygen Jacques
Aug 11, 2020 · 7 min read
A11Y Collective Logo
A11Y Collective

Tell us about yourself and your work! We’d love to hear about your work with the recent A11Y Collective training.

Hi, I’m Rian Rietveld, a web accessibility specialist at Level Level.

I live in a pretty little town close to The Hague in the Netherlands. At Level Level I am responsible for the accessibility of the work we deliver. Besides that, I perform audits and reviews of websites/plugins of other web agencies and plugin developers.

This year we launched The A11Y Collective: an e-learning platform that offers plenty of online courses about Web Accessibility. We’ve created courses for everyone who wants to learn more about web accessibility.

Our courses focus in particular on knowledge and skills that developers, designers, content marketers/creators, project managers and business owners need when creating accessible web projects. We will continuously add new courses and masterclasses to this platform. All concerning web accessibility.

Teaching web accessibility is important to me. There are so many people who want to create accessible work, but who don’t have any idea how or where to start. With the A11Y Collective, we want to help these people and provide them with the right resources to start or to expand on the knowledge and skills they already have. And good news: everyone involved in creating web projects can make an impact. You just have to know what you can do and then do it!

What qualifications do you have that have influenced your work?

My original education is in analytical chemistry. I worked in a laboratory for TNO where I analysed pesticides in food. Working in a lab means that you have to work with Good Laboratory Practices in mind. I was used to working with guidelines, standards and proper documentation. In the lab, I learned to code, writing software in FORTRAN 77 to process and validate all the data the lab produced.

When I switched to web development this way of working kind of stuck. Code must be tested, validated, meet standards and guidelines. This also goes for accessibility.

A big part of accessible code is semantic and error-free HTML. It’s simply a part of the code quality.

Why accessibility? What does accessibility mean to you?

An accessible website is not just meant for that one blind guy that never visits your website anyway. It’s a way of thinking: include everyone, don’t exclude people from your website. We all know that nobody is perfect, so we should not create websites for perfect people only.

How has your approach to accessibility changed over time?

I became more optimistic, as interest in accessibility is increasing more and more in the last few years. Accessibility experts can be ‘grumpy old people’ and do a lot of ranting. But things are definitely improving. What also helps is that the legislation worldwide is getting stricter for the accessibility of websites.

And the technology improves. Think of voice control that has become more available for everyone. Now you can talk to your car to start the route planner or ask Siri what the weather is tomorrow. Browsers added a reader view, so you can read without distraction, have the content read out loud for you and choose your own font and colors. This benefits everyone.

So I now feel more optimistic about a future in which accessibility and in particular web accessibility will become ‘normal’ and something people will just incorporate in their work.

We’re a Drupal web agency. Tell us about what WordPress is doing with regard to accessibility improvements…

WordPress has a small accessibility team of mostly volunteers. They review new work and help fix issues. They also maintain an accessibility handbook, with good practices, tips and resources.

The aim is to make default frontend themes accessible. Those are the themes that come for free with a WordPress install. On WordPress.org there’s a large collection of free downloadable themes. Themes labelled with the tag “accessibility-ready” are checked for some basic accessibility requirements by a group of volunteers.

You’ve been immersed with WordPress for an impressive number of years. How has accessibility influenced the CMS over the years?

As long as new features in the CMS are built without accessibility in mind, it’s a tough job for the accessibility team to keep up and fix the accessibility of the designs and code afterwards.

The accessibility team works very hard but has no mandate to overrule decisions made. From the top management, there is not enough awareness about how important an accessible interface is to let all people create web content.

Label maker type stickers with the wording “what if this is all real?” printed.
Label maker type stickers with the wording “what if this is all real?” printed.

How would you convince someone that accessibility is important?

I often say: Look at you, you are young, bright, healthy, you own the world. But as you get older, things break. Your eyes, hands, ears… One day you will need an accessible website yourself. So you better start working on that.

Have you ever seen an older person struggle to fill out a fancy unique designed and animated form they just don’t get? People don’t want to be delighted by design. They want to do what they came for as quickly as possible and then get on with their lives.

From a business point of view: 20% of all visitors need an accessible website, one way or another. If you invest a lot of money in SEO to attract people to your website and 20% leaves because they simply can’t use it, that’s a lot of revenue you are throwing away.

An accessible website adds to the user experience for everyone. So all businesses benefit from paying attention to the accessibility of their website. Did you know for example that accessible forms lead to more conversion?

You’re in a unique position of consulting people about accessibility. What anecdotes or stories do you like to tell?

Level Level sends me to a lot of companies for accessibility consultancy and training. And as an (older) woman in technology, people can be very suspicious at first. Who is she, what is she going to tell us, how much extra work will that be for me and for what of whom anyway.

But during my training or talk, people change. They see what accessibility actually is and how it can help people. They realise: “It’s not that one blind guy, it’s actually everyone, including myself”. I often see a 180 degrees turn in opinion. And that makes the work so rewarding.

In our company, we have new interns each year, and they also get caught by the accessibility virus. They turn into advocates within their schools and do research about it. That is so much fun to see happening.

What is your opinion (or experience) of inclusion and diversity within the WordPress community?

The last few years there has been a huge improvement in inclusion and accessibility. Jenny Wong organised WordCamp London with inclusion in mind. She has done a tremendous amount of work, focussing on every aspect of inclusion. Because she did all that work, other WordCamps copied her ideas and solutions. Most WordCamps have live captioning now.

On heropress.com, Topher DeRosia collects stories of people from the WordPress community all over the world. We are a worldwide, diverse community, only the African continent is still a small, but growing, part of it.

What challenges have you come up against in your career? This can be personally, or technically.

In web development technology changes fast. It’s difficult to keep up with everything, so you have to make choices.

An iPhone on a wooden desk with cardboard symbols for likes, comments and friend requests beside it.
An iPhone on a wooden desk with cardboard symbols for likes, comments and friend requests beside it.
Social media changes so quickly

As you grow older, you have seen a lot of frameworks, libraries and social media come and go. It makes you sceptical. Yeah yeah, yet another javascript framework, yawn. And what the heck is TikTok? It’s hard to decide what is important to learn or when to wait and see what catches on or is useful for me. For example, I decided to learn React and ended up never using it in my daily work.

What advice would you give to a woman starting out in tech that you wish you’d been told?

Trust yourself. Work hard and prepare yourself well. As a woman in tech, you often start with a disadvantage. A lot of people think that a woman probably doesn’t have the right technical skills.

But as soon as you start talking that can change. If you speak up and show your expertise people start to listen. So don’t be afraid to speak up or to disagree, that is the only way to get heard.

And if you don’t get taken seriously anyway, it hurts, but it’s not your fault. Don’t blame yourself for ignorant people. Trust yourself.

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If you’d like to talk to us about how to make your site more accessible, contact us.

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Maygen Jacques

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Marketing Manager for web design, development and hosting agency, @CodeEnigma. Hold my drink, I’ll be right back…

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Code Enigma is a community of creative souls and the technically brilliant, dedicated to building a better world wide web.

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