Accessibility, Part III – Andrea Skeries

Accessibility, Part III – Andrea Skeries [read the transcript]

The world of web accessibility can be overwhelming to navigate on one’s own. Thankfully, we don’t have to. Andrea Skeries, web developer at Geonetric and web accessibility specialist, guides me and anyone willing to learn through some of the important accessibility (a11y) considerations of today. She is also host of a public meetup here in CR on the issue of accessibility and user experience and design. Listen to the episode for great tips on how to make your web (and other digital) materials more accessible.

Links to some resources mentioned during our conversation:


TRANSCRIPT: Accessibility, Part III – Andrea Skeries

ANDREA SKERIES
For education, you’re going to reach more students because not everyone learns the same way.

ALAN PETERKA
Hey everyone. My name is Alan Peterka and you are listening to Education Is, a podcast about people engaged in teaching and learning. My guest today is Andrea Skeries, senior web designer and developer at Geonetric and a web accessibility specialist. Andrea is also one of the organizers of the Iowa Web Accessibilities, UX, and Inclusive Design local meetup right here in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Andrea, thank you so much for coming in and talking accessibility with us.

ANDREA SKERIES
Yeah. Thank you for having me.

ALAN PETERKA
Let’s start really broad, really big. Let’s just say: What is accessibility?

ANDREA SKERIES
Web accessibility is the inclusive practice of removing barriers that prevent interaction with or access to websites by people with disabilities and those using assistive technologies. Assistive technologies can include things like screen readers that read all the content out on the page to you, or even voice dictation software, like Dragon NaturallySpeaking, where a person would use that to navigate a website. Even just using keyboard alone, like some people cannot use the mouse.

When sites are correctly designed and developed and edited, all users have equal access to the information and functionality therein. Even the inventor of the World Wide Web advocates for accessibility. He’s quoted as saying, “The power of the web is in its universality. Access by everyone, regardless of disability is an essential aspect.”

ALAN PETERKA
Cool. How did you get involved with web accessibility?

ANDREA SKERIES
I started learning web accessibility techniques about 10 years ago from an advocate of accessibility at my job. After I learned some of the fundamentals, I was really intrigued and curious to learn more. I really love the Internet and I was super excited that my work could directly help people use it easier, because access to the World Wide Web is recognized as a basic human right.

Eventually, I began to study more about the accessibility laws in place. I also ended up purchasing some assistive technology software to learn more and helped conduct some actual usability testing and auditing. I was fascinated by what I learned, so I started teaching others on how to test and ensure that they have an accessible product, as well. Last year, I also applied and succeeded in becoming one of the first certified professionals in accessibility core competencies from the International Association of Accessibility Professionals.

ALAN PETERKA
In your schooling, when you were learning web, learning web design and development, did you go into any detail? Was accessibility part of the program at all?

ANDREA SKERIES
No. It was not, unfortunately. That’s really interesting. It really should be, though. There’s a lot for web developers to learn these days, like frameworks, APIs, JavaScript. It’s easy to forget about the fundamentals of HTML and how that all works and interacts with various technology. I think if they had something like that in school, where it was taught early on, it would be more incorporated into every website that you visit.

ALAN PETERKA
Why do you think this became such a big passion in your life? Why did you want to pursue this the way that you have?

ANDREA SKERIES
Really, just the drive to help people access the Internet easier. I’ve just always been fascinated as well, by the senses, the human senses and lack thereof. I’ve had a lot of friends with different disabilities, as well. Just knowing that I can help them out. Also, you never know when you might need that kind of assistance yourself. Things like, just general aging, or accidents, or disease, anything like that, that could happen later in life could affect how you use the internet. I just want to make sure that as many people as possible know about accessibility and how to improve their products. If nothing else, I can still use them when I get old. You know?

ALAN PETERKA
Geonetric is kind of in the healthcare industry.

ANDREA SKERIES
Mm-hmm (affirmative).

ALAN PETERKA
Is that industry particularly strong in this area? Do you know if other industries are playing catch up at this point? Maybe just talk in general about the different industries that you see represented.

ANDREA SKERIES
Yeah. Definitely, healthcare has a focus on accessibility, especially if they are a hospital that’s for rehabilitation and things of that nature. Most of their patients are going to have some sort of disability or a motor disability that affects how they use the Internet. Other industries include education, which is starting to make a really big push toward accessibility, as well. We’ve seen in the news, there’s been quite a few lawsuits recently involved with education and having accessible websites. Also, making sure that the building is properly up to code as far as universal design goes.

Another industry that’s really pushing toward accessibility is the government. Government sites have always had their own set of rules, called section 508, that they need to abide by to be accessible. Then, they also just had a refresh of section 508 that incorporates more of the web content accessibility guidelines. That’s more of a universally accepted guideline to measure how accessible your product is and now the United States government is also following that.

ALAN PETERKA
What are some of the things that we should be on the lookout for, as educators, to be not only compliant with the laws, but also making our materials more accessible?

ANDREA SKERIES
There’s a lot of aspects, but definitely check out the web content accessibility guidelines, shortened to WCAG, for short. There’s 65 guidelines, I want to say. I have to go back and check that.

ALAN PETERKA
That’s not a short list.

ANDREA SKERIES
No. It’s a long list of things. Really, you’re focusing in on all the things that say level A and AA, because those are what is required by law. The AAA level of accessibility is sometimes harder to achieve, but it’s nice to have if you can, definitely. It will help people, but maybe not as wide of a group of people as the A and AA guidelines do.

ALAN PETERKA
Do those different guidelines kind of split up across the number of people that they might help assist? How are those differentiated?

ANDREA SKERIES
Right. Yes. All the A level guidelines will help the most amount of people. If you don’t comply with those, it’s going to be causing the most barriers, basically, to overcome for people that are using assistive technology.

When I teach about accessibility, I like to build empathy with those we’re trying to help. I often do activities that simulate what it’s like to have a disability and how it affects your ability to perform certain tasks.

Being as this is an all audio for this podcast, I have a scenario for you to imagine. People that use screen readers, they hear all the text on the page, but not everything on a webpage is text. You’ve got a lot of things like images and the like. For these kinds of things on the webpage, you have to provide alternative text. An image has alt text. Imagine for a moment, you’re on the phone. You don’t have FaceTime and you’re just chatting with your friend. You’re telling her about how you were going to go through old photos and you found one or two of them from the ninth grade. How would you describe this image to her over the phone? You might start off with the main subject, the two of you in the picture. Maybe, what the emotion of the subjects in the picture is. Are they doing anything special? Is there any significance to the background or where they are located?

You can apply these kind of questions and techniques to writing meaningful alt text for images. Even if a person cannot see the image, like your friend on the phone, they will be happy to be included in that experience. Remember, though, that not every image needs lengthy alt text. Images that are logos or of other text should include alt text that contains nothing more or less than the exact words in the image. Also, purely decorative images can include an empty alt text, but it’s even better to try to get these types of images into the CSS and out of the mark up. That’s just one example of something that you could do that pertains back to one of those WCAG guidelines. That would be something that falls into the level A guidelines.

ALAN PETERKA
Those alt text is a level A guideline.

ANDREA SKERIES
Yes.

ALAN PETERKA
Cool.

ANDREA SKERIES
On the other hand, imagine you were deaf, or hard of hearing, or English wasn’t your first language, or maybe you have an auditory processing disorder. This podcast is not going to be very useful to anyone in any of these scenarios without a transcript. That’s why those and captions for videos are also so important. Other things to consider when you’re editing your webpages are, to make sure that you’re using proper heading structure. Every page should have a H1 heading and be nested down from there. You could have as many H2s as you need to kind of break up the content. Only use H3s if it’s directly under and H2, and so on. Keep the content simple and readable by including bulleted lists where possible. Always include informative link text, instead of generic link text like click here or learn more.

ALAN PETERKA
A lot of our instructors might be creating Word documents. Do these same rules apply in those situation?

ANDREA SKERIES
Yes. Microsoft Word documents, as well, you can put things like headings in there. Generally, though, a webpage is kind of more accessible than a Word document in some cases, because not everyone might have that Microsoft Word to open it with. The web is kind of a more universal.

ALAN PETERKA
Another thing I see pretty often, instructors will include an entire link to an external link. Rather than just having a click here, which we’ve already talked about, may not be as descriptive. They’ll have the entire HTTP, colon, slash, slash, and then spell out the entire link.

ANDREA SKERIES
Oh, okay.

ALAN PETERKA
Is there a better way? What’s a better way to do those?

ANDREA SKERIES
The best way for that link text is to include something that lets the reader know what it is going to go to. Usually, it’s like an action item. It could be, learn more about, da da da da da. If it’s a link to an external file, like a PDF, you can say the title of the PDF in there. Also, it’s good if you’re linking to an external file type like that, to let the user know what kind of file it’s going to be going to. It could be unpredictable to them. They might think they’re going to go to another webpage, but it opens up a different file. If you cannot see, that also poses problems. They might not realize something has opened elsewhere.

ALAN PETERKA
Talk to me a little bit about the different tools that we might use, browser plug ins or other tools that we might use to help us figure out if all my materials are created accessibly or not.

ANDREA SKERIES
Yeah. There’s a lot of different plug ins out there and different websites you can go to. There’s one called Tenon.io that you can check your webpages with. There’s HTML_CodeSniffer, which is a plug in for Chrome and Firefox. I really have been using that one a lot lately. It’ll point out all the errors. Then, if you click on that, it will actually point out where on the page the error is located, so it gives you a nice visual cue.

ALAN PETERKA
Thinking more broadly for a moment. What do you see as being the situation, the current state of affairs, in terms of web accessibility?

ANDREA SKERIES
I think it’s getting better. There’s definitely room for improvement, but people are becoming more aware. There’s a really big community right now around web accessibility. You can look up more information on Twitter. They have their own Slack channel. There’s that International Association of Accessibility Professionals that’s coming together. They have a website and a group you can join and talk to other professionals in the industry. You can talk to people who are more end-users on there, who actually depend on the assistive technology every day, and get their opinion and feedback on different problems you might be running into, or work that you’re doing day to day.

ALAN PETERKA
Just recently, you gave a presentation showcasing some of the wins, recent successes in web accessibility. I wonder if you could talk about some of those wins.

ANDREA SKERIES
Right. There’s a blog by Marcy Sutton, called Ally Wins. Ally, but the way, is a shorthand word for accessibility. What we do is, they take the A and then the number 11, and then Y, because there’s 11 letters missing between the A and the Y. It’s kind of a little shorthand way we can share about accessibility news on Twitter, where you don’t have a lot of characters to work with. She’s curated a bunch of wins. People can submit things that they’ve worked on or things that they’ve seen, and things that people are doing in the industry to really push it forward.

ALAN PETERKA
Does it seem like the law is really pushing people along and that’s what’s causing this to change? Are people taking it upon themselves, industry taking it upon themselves to improve their own reach?

ANDREA SKERIES
I think it’s a little bit of both. Definitely, some people get that extra push from the law, I think. Really, it’s the right thing to do. I think that’s why most people want to do it, just because it’s going to help more people. You’re going to get more customers and more consumers in the door. For education, you’re going to reach more students because not everyone learns the same way. Not everyone consumes information the same way. It’s really important to reach the widest audience you possibly can.

Accessibility is important because hundreds of thousands of people will benefit. There’s a lot of reports and studies out there that show that about 13% of students have a disability, but this number can be misleading, because not every one of these students chooses to disclose their disability. Others will identify maybe one primary disability, but in fact, they have a combination that significantly impacts the types of accommodations that they need.

You also never know when you might need an accommodation. Even if you design and develop for those extreme end cases, really, everyone benefits, even those without any disabilities, to various degrees. One example of this would be curb cuts. That’s the place where the sidewalk and the curb meets and it’s ramped down. This was designed so that people with motor disabilities or people in wheelchairs, they can cross the street and get up and down the curb easily. Really, now it’s just part of the norm. We don’t really think of that as an accessibility accommodation. Parents with strollers use it so they can easily push their baby up off the curb. People riding their bicycles. People texting and walking, even. It just makes sense for everybody. Even though those were initially designed as an accessibility feature, everybody uses them now and appreciates that they’re there. These same types of curb cut accommodations, we can use in websites, as well.

ALAN PETERKA
I appreciate having captions on any video that’s on the web, so that if I’m on my mobile phone, I can easily access the video without having to play it, because I don’t usually carry around headphones with me. It’s a lot easier to watch it.

ANDREA SKERIES
Absolutely. Same here.

ALAN PETERKA
Yeah. What are the challenges that you see remaining out there with getting our content on the web more accessible?

ANDREA SKERIES
I think just awareness, building awareness is probably the key thing that we can do to keep pushing it forward. I know people think it’s going to cost them more money to do or it’s going to take more time to do. If you bake it in, like I said before, at every stage of the way, it’s going to be a lot easier to implement. That’s when you’re going to see the biggest change. It’s going to just start to come in together a lot more naturally.

ALAN PETERKA
What advice or recommendation that you have for teachers who are putting together their classes?

ANDREA SKERIES
You really have to put yourself in other people’s shoes and think about how they’re going to use the website. Not everybody takes in information the same way or consumes that data the same way. Think about, if you can’t see the page, how are you going to lay it out in a way that makes sense? How are you going to describe those images? If you can’t hear, how are you going to consume this video? I use Twitter a lot to find new news and new techniques too. Like I said, there’s a big community out there that’s really passionate about accessibility. They all use that hashtag A11Y, or Ally, or ALLY. If you just search for that on there, you’ll find a whole bunch of information about new laws and techniques and quick little recommendations about a lot of different things.

There’s also an A11Y daily newspaper that kind of aggregates all of those, the top headlines, I guess, of the day. Just all the different websites out there. People go and they look and they see which one is most interesting to them about accessibility. There’s different categories you can look into, like science, technology, health, leisure. All those different categories, you can kind of sort through and find information.

ALAN PETERKA
That’s great. Thanks a lot for coming in and talking about accessibility and helping us being accessible.

ANDREA SKERIES
I hope it was helpful. If you find yourself wanting to learn more in face to face, because I find that method of learning easier than just kind of rummaging through the internet to find information, you can come to the Iowa Web Accessibility User Experience and Inclusive Design meet ups. We have them about once a month. They’re usually located at the Geonetric building in Cedar Rapids. That way, you can get some more hands on learning. I demo a lot of the assistive tools and technologies. I demo a lot of the different automated testing tools, as well. You can learn a bit more if you come to one of those.

ALAN PETERKA
Where could listeners follow up with you on Twitter if they wanted to?

ANDREA SKERIES
Yeah. My handle is Artistic_Abode.

ALAN PETERKA
Perfect. Thanks again for coming in and talking about accessibility with us.

ANDREA SKERIES
Yeah. Thank you.

ALAN PETERKA
This has been the Education Is podcast. Thanks for listening. For more episodes visit educationis.us, subscribe on iTunesU or wherever you get your podcasts.