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Journeys in Accessibility: an interview for Society x Tech

Published (gregorian) (ornellember)

In August, Ademusoyo Awosika-Olumo asked me a few questions about accessibility for her blog Society x Tech, which does many amazing interviews with movers and shakers in the industry. Find my full answers below, and read the post as published on the Society x Tech blog here!

How would you describe yourself?

I’d describe myself as a front-end engineer who wants what she codes to be inclusive of everyone. I am pretty new to web accessibility – in fact, I started coding as a full-time job less than a year ago, so I am pretty new to writing software. However, I have been lucky enough to start learning about accessibility early in my career, and I have made it a point to make it central to my craft. In my opinion, writing accessible software is simply a requirement of being a good front-end developer. As I continue to grow as an engineer, my understanding of accessibility grows proportionally.

What got you interested in learning and advocating for better accessibility within tech?

I think the first time that I started to learn what web accessibility meant was at the HalfStack conference in 2019, where Bekah Rice, an Interactive Designer & Developer, gave a very informative talk on coding accessibility best practices. Researching more about accessibility, I realized that it was, in so many respects, the right way to do things. In fact, I imagine that the Venn diagram showing the intersection of well-designed software and accessible software is close to being a circle. After all, if not everyone can use your product, how good can it be?

A good illustration of this is the emphasis of the web accessibility guidelines on semantic code. Not only is this good practice so that user agents such as screen readers can accurately represent the content of a webpage, but it’s usually very practical. When you create a button, it makes a lot more sense to use the HTML <button> element than to create, for instance, a <div>, and then write custom code to recreate all the behavior of a button.

Maybe another part of why accessibility stuck with me is that I have people in my life who have disabilities, and also because while I don’t have physical disabilities, sometimes, parts of who I am mean I have unpleasant experiences using the web. An innocuous example: the other day, I was visiting a design website, and I tried to perform an action, like deleting something. A confirmation modal popped up, and it had 2 options: “I’m good” and “Sure.” As someone who speaks English as a second language, I instinctively clicked “I’m good” to confirm since that sounds positive. Of course, this was likely written by Americans, for whom “I’m good” means “No, thank you”; so I had to repeat the process. This was a small inconvenience, but these kinds of experiences can be repeated and magnified for people with disabilities.

When you think of accessibility within the tech space, what comes to mind?

I’m not going to lie, the first thing that comes to my mind is web accessibility, particularly as defined by the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines. As a front-end engineer, it is part of my responsibilities to ensure that all the guidelines are met, and that does occupy a significant part of how I think about accessibility.

To help me contextualize these guidelines, I like to think of how different people I know would interact with the website. My grandmother, who is turning ninety-seven next month, uses the internet almost daily. Since she is not a “digital native”, she sometimes runs into roadblocks when navigating the web. For example, it can be challenging for her when a certain behavior on a site is implied because it is supposed to be intuitive – like when the user should swipe to see more, but there are no arrows, or when there is some text that is linked and clickable, but not underlined. This thought process helps me understand the W.C.A.G. better and implement them more consciously.

Nevertheless, as time goes on, and I learn from people who know a lot more than me, I realize that accessibility goes way beyond W.C.A.G. and digital accessibility. You can make sure your site is accessible with screens, screen readers, and keyboards, but that does not make it inclusive if the content does not match up. For instance, is the language that you use inclusive? Is it easily understandable? Does it say everything it needs to say? This area of expanding accessibility beyond strictly digital accessibility is where I am currently learning and growing the most.

What have you done within your current job to ensure accessibility is top of mind?

To me, the first step is to self-educate. If I stay engaged with the community and keep learning, then I can keep improving. Recently, I’ve attended an outstanding, very thorough talk by Angela Hooker, who is a Senior Accessibility Program Manager at Microsoft. It encouraged me to document all the work that has been done on the accessibility of my app, which I have found to be particularly important when onboarding a new team member.

Also, in my current job, whenever a new feature is brought to our team, I consider accessibility as early in the process as possible and speak up when I perceive any usability concerns. I do regular audits of the sites I work on, using automated tools and a manual checklist, to make sure nothing is getting out of sync. Finally, I am currently working on writing good documentation on accessibility for the projects I work on. Beyond all this, I’m always open to feedback, I connect with other people who can teach me, and whenever a concern comes my way, I make it my priority to address it.

Have there been any challenges when it comes to getting people to focus on accessibility first?

As a developer, you often are the last step in the chain when it comes to creating and implementing a new feature. While the company I work at does take accessibility seriously, inevitably, things sometimes slip through the cracks, and it has happened once or twice that I received designs to implement and had concerns about how their accessibility. Thankfully, not only does this happen very rarely, but product managers and designers have always been responsive to my concerns, and we’ve worked together to address them.

What do you think the future is for accessibility within tech?

I think accessibility is the future of tech. As more people with different lived experiences, people with disabilities, make their voices heard, accessibility becomes as central to tech as it needs to be. I think that accessibility is now becoming an important part of the conversation that junior engineers

Anything else you think we should know?

I’d like to end this by saying that these are my personal experiences and thoughts and that they don’t necessarily reflect the views of the company I work for. Also, I am always happy to connect, so please feel free to reach out to me on LinkedIn if you have any thoughts, feedback, or questions!

Thanks again to Soyo for this opportunity to share my thoughts!