My accessibility journey

December 13, 2023

I have a confession to make. I didn’t get serious about accessibility till about four years ago. Now that doesn’t mean I was not thinking about it or putting what I knew into practice.

But it was more of something that was at the periphery and not something that I was serious enough to have accessibility entering into so much of my thinking from day 1 of working on a project.

I want to share with you my story–my accessibility journey. I hope it will encourage you, challenge you, and hopefully help you to take a new step forward in your own accessibility journey.

Watson Library at the University of Kansas. The front doors are made of glass. I broke one of them when trying to get in using a wheelchair as a part of exercise to teach us about accessibility as architecture students.

My journey started as a sophomore at the University of Kansas. I studied and got my degree in architecture. As part of my second-year studio class, we spent several hours getting a hands-on lesson about disabilities and accessibility by using wheelchairs to get around campus.

I was using a wheelchair that was made more for someone with a more active lifestyle. It was more lightweight and easier to maneuver than your typical wheelchair. But it was also easier to flip over backwards which I did at least once as we were wheeling across campus.

But my biggest frustration of the day came when I tried to enter Watson Library. Going up the ramp was an exhausting experience. And then I had to use a button to open the door.

But my problem came in trying to maneuver through the door, which did not have much clearance for a chair to go through. I had struggled and kept banging against the frame. In my frustration, I ended up putting a crack in the glass door. I think the foot rest hit it.

I wish I could say that experience changed my life and made accessibility something I truly valued. But it didn’t. To be honest, I had not thought about that experience much until I started getting serious about accessibility several years ago.

Accessibility was not something I gave a lot of thought to as an architecture student or early in my Web career. To be honest, I saw it more as a nuisance as a student and probably designed really poor experiences that just met the requirements of the ADA laws.

Early in my career as someone who designed and built websites, I didn’t give it a whole lot of thought. My audience was college students and unfortunately like a lot of able-bodied people, just saw disability as a peripheral issue. I just didn’t think it mattered too much. And this was back in the days when I was still using tables for layout. So the code was not very accessible and I was not seeing a lot of articles about it.

As I moved into a more ‘standards’ approach to coding, I began to become more aware of accessibility needs. I would occasionally read articles. I remember Cameron Moll sharing an accessibility checklist that one of his colleagues, Aaron Cannon, developed. Aaron is a blind Web developer and he went beyond the best practices of the time. I would try to implement some of those things.

But I can’t say I was very serious about it. It was easy to push it aside and focus on other things. There are so many things you need to know about and think about when building a site. Accessibility was just one of many things. And to be honest, it was not that exciting compared to some of the other things. I am just being honest. I wish I had valued accessibility more in those days.

That is not to say that I did not follow some best practices for accessibility. Some of those were more of a result of practicing good semantics when writing HTML. Like only including one H1 tag on a page. I also picked up the practice of putting an empty alt tag on decorative images.

But I can’t say I was very serious about it or did a consistent job of testing the site I built. I continued like this for many years. I would slowly add more to my knowledge but still, I would not say I was ‘serious’ about accessibility and it was not part of my workflow.

I have identified several key moments that helped nudge me in that direction of taking accessibility more seriously.

There came a time in my career when I realized that text smaller than 16px on the desktop was not good for accessibility. A lot of that had to do with my personal experience. I was having trouble reading text on sites that were 14px or smaller. And that seemed to be a trend for a while. This was back before we were building responsive sites. Personal experience can be the best teacher. I have more to say about that later.

The second key moment may be the one that is the most significant. I remember listening to a Shop Talk Show episode while driving back from Nashville. Nicolas Steenhout and Christopher Schmitt were the guests on the show. Nicolas had been working in accessibility for about 25 years at the time of the podcast.

Here are some things that I took away from that episode.

  • We have an awareness problem –  Accessibility is not a core part of computer science curriculums or boot camps. Accessibility should be a core part of our training so that it is not just an afterthought but baked right into how we build software or websites.
  • There are a lot of simple accessibility fixes – most of the fixes involve using semantic HTML as it was designed to be used.
  • We don’t necessarily need more accessibility experts but we need accessibility champions – People who understand the basics and understand how important it is. You can always bring in experts for the really hard problems.

I realized that there is a lot of low-hanging fruit in terms of fixing accessibility problems. As I mentioned, there were a lot of things that I was addressing by simply using semantic HTML in my code.

But the thing that made the biggest difference was what Nicolas said about the importance of accessibility champions.

“You need people that understand how important it is and at least understand the basics because you can always reach out for an expert if you come into a gnarly thing. But if you have a champion that understands that probably three-quarters of all accessibility issues can be solved with very low entry tech solutions, it’s good. The more champions we have out there, the better it is.”

Nicolas Steenhout, Shop Talk Show #367

He said it was much more important to be an accessibility ‘champion’ than to try to be an expert for a practicing web developer. I knew that I was never going to be an expert. But I could see being an accessibility champion. And that was probably the moment that I turned the corner.

I took on the role of accessibility champion not long after listening to that podcast. I have been more intentional in learning about accessibility on an ongoing basis. I began to think about accessibility earlier in the process of a project and not at the end.

I began to use tools like Lighthouse and axe DevTools® to test my projects along with keyboard testing. I started using the media query to check to see if the user had no preference for reduced motion and put my animation code in that query. I started checking color contrast on our designs before we showed them to the client. Accessibility became a part of my thinking and workflow and not a periphery issue.

I also learned a lot performing a couple of accessibility audits in 2022 for several of our retainer clients. It gave me a chance to revisit a project I had built three years earlier I had gotten serious about accessibility.

I regularly look for opportunities to champion accessibility with my team. They pretty much expect that I will mention something about accessibility in every presentation that I give. I have even had many of them reach out to me with questions. It has been great to help educate my teammates and champion accessibility for our agency.

One more experience that I want to share that was an important moment in my journey. It also involved a wheelchair, much like my opening story.

My mother-in-law came to live with us in 2019. Her health has been declining since that time. She had a serious setback in early 2020 when she was diagnosed with congestive heart failure, which by the way is a poor name for the condition. She was also hospitalized with sepsis a month later. Then in October, she was put on hospice care (from which she graduated early in 2022).

She has had to use a walker since before the time she moved in with us. And the limited times she gets out, she uses a wheelchair to get around.

I have learned a lot about accessibility in the time of helping to care for her. I realize how this world is not built for those who are not as able. I have witnessed her frustration. And I have experienced it when helping her.

We were out one day to see my youngest daughter perform in a ballet recital. I was wheeling my mother-in-law along the sidewalk when we encountered a drain. The drain was not on level with the sidewalk and I could not get the wheels to move through it. I ended up having to go in the grass on an uneven surface to get around the drain. It was not easy to get through the terrain.

On the way back, I almost caused her to fall out of the wheelchair because of the incline in the grassy area. It was frustrating, embarrassing, and scary. I was frustrated with myself that I did not anticipate that gravity would work in a way that could have caused her to fall out of the chair. But it was one of those moments where you have to make a quick decision and don’t consider all of the variables.

I think experiences like this have developed a greater empathy for those who don’t engage the world in the same way that I do. My eyes have been opened to things I did not realize before. I see how this world is only designed for what is considered a “normal” experience. Very little thought is given to those who have different experiences.

I see sidewalks differently now. I recognize how their disrepair or their design creates obstacles for those in wheelchairs or who use walkers. I am much more aware of the obstacles. And I try to consider that more when I am building a website.

The reality is that all of us are going to face limitations of one sort or the other in our lives. As we age, we start losing some of our abilities like sight, sound, and cognition. We can become limited by breaking an arm and not being able to use the mouse or keyboard like we normally do. Or we may be in an accident and lose abilities that we take for granted today. We don’t like to think about these limitations but they are going to happen. When that time comes, we are going to need accessible solutions.

And the reality is that accessibility solutions benefit all of us because they will make those experiences better and usually a lot simpler.

I am an accessibility champion, not an accessibility expert. I am still actively engaged in the learning process. I still make mistakes. I am still trying to determine what images are ‘decorative’ and which ones are not.

The projects I code today are better than the ones I did before. And I hope the ones I do tomorrow will be even better.


Some low-hanging fruit or things I practice (not an exhaustive list)

This post is part of my attempt to post something every day for a month. I was inspired by Michelle Barker, who recently participated in National Blog Posting Month

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