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Screen Readers and Beyond: How Web Accessibility Makes Lives Better

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Press the Issue
Screen Readers and Beyond: How Web Accessibility Makes Lives Better
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It is the duty of those who build with the internet to ensure accessibility. But what does that all mean, beyond completing a set of checklists? In this episode, Devin Egger and Teron Bullock connect to discuss the realities and challenges of web accessibility.

This podcast was sponsored by LearnDash. Your expertise makes you money doing what you do. Now let it make you money teaching what you do. Create a course with LearnDash. Visit LearnDash.com.

Press the Issue is a production of MasterWP. It was produced by Allie Nimmons. It was hosted and edited by Monet Davenport and mixed and mastered by Teron Bullock. Please visit masterwp.com/presstheissue to find more episodes. Subscribe to our newsletter for more WordPress news at masterwp.com.

Episode Transcript:

Monet Davenport:
Welcome to Press the Issue, a podcast for Master WP, your source for industry insights for WordPress professionals. Get show notes, transcripts, and more information about the show at
masterwp.com/presstheissue.

Monet Davenport:
It is the duty of those who build with the internet to ensure accessibility, but what does that all mean
beyond completing a set of checklists? In this episode, Devin Egger and Teron Bullock connect to discuss the realities and challenges of web accessibility.

Teron Bullock:
How you doing today, Devin?

Devin Egger:
I’m doing good, Teron. How are you?

Teron Bullock:
I’m doing excellent. I know we have an exciting episode today. We’re going to talk about web
accessibilities and we’re going to deal with it from the perspective of the end user.

Devin Egger:
Yeah. I was really excited when I started this article and presented this idea. As a developer, we’re both developers, I’m sure you as well as I have read lots of articles on how to make websites accessible, and they always are tackling it from a very technical mindset and this is what you do in the code to make things accessible. And I feel so much that when you do that, yeah, we nerd out on it and we like that. We’re like, “Okay. Yeah, cool.” But then your project managers and your content writers and your designers then, they just tune out. You know?

Teron Bullock:
Right.

Devin Egger:
And I think that it’s a conversation for everyone to have. And so I think by taking a step back and looking at web accessibility from a non-technical perspective, we can gain a lot and we can really look at it from a personal standpoint, because at the end of the day, we’re doing this for people.

Teron Bullock:
So hearing you speak about the end user, it makes me think, why did the end user become the focus for you?

Devin Egger:
That’s a good question. I mean, it kind of started off way back when I was a kid, before the web was
even really a thing. I grew up with my grandma, one of my grandmas was blind, and so there was all
these braille books around the house. So she knew how to read braille. I kind of started learning how to read braille when I was a kid, but that’s not something that ever really materialized anything. But I’d always kind of thought in the back of my mind what would this be like if you couldn’t see right. Just kind of fast forwarding several years, decades later, being a web developer, the whole idea of accessibility first came to mind. I think as a lot of web developers do, I had a client that was afraid of getting sued. So they’re saying, “Hey, there’s all these lawsuits going on. And people are getting sued for their website not being accessible. I don’t really even understand what this means. But either way, we need you to make our website accessible.”

Teron Bullock:
Right.

Devin Egger:
And so to be completely honest, I really didn’t know what that meant either. And so when I initially
started getting diving into it and doing research about what accessibility was as it relates to websites, I always like to look at the history of things, so looking at the history of web accessibility stems back to the Americans with Disabilities Act. It started with people busting curbs, people taking sledge hammers and busting curbs so that people in wheelchairs could actually use the streets, could get over the curbs.

Devin Egger:
Knowing that that kind of was the start of it really brought a personal aspect to it for me. There’s a lot of videos out there that will share what the experience is like using websites, for example, if you’re blind. And that’s kind of the big one that comes to mind all the time, it’s most easy for us to think about, “Well, if I just close my eyes and then I can’t see the website,” and so you can kind of just imagine how difficult it would be to use the website. But then think about some of that’s been amputated or that has cerebral palsy. See people that I didn’t even think about like, “Oh, what if you couldn’t use a keyboard or mouse?”

Teron Bullock:
Right. Right.

Devin Egger:
How do you use a website or the internet in general if you can’t use a keyboard or mouse? Yeah, so
hearing those personal stories is what really brought it home to me initially as a developer. And I
thought that was my basis for this article, is I thought that if we could touch on accessibility from the
perspective of the end user, maybe that would help people understand why this is so important.

Teron Bullock:
Absolutely. To touch on one of the things that you had said, speaking about it’s easier to imagine a
disability such as blindness and say, “I could perceive how an end user would experience this particular site,” because you could just close your eyes, but there are other disabilities that may be much harder for you to imagine that you can perceive.

Devin Egger:
Right.

Teron Bullock:
What about the person who takes the opposite point of view? Who says we have the tools out there? Why isn’t the screen reader enough? Why can’t I just maybe make the website black and white or put a button in there that toggles the experience or something? Why isn’t that enough? What would you say to that particular web developer? Do you think that the tools and thinking about it basically from the bare minimum mindset is enough?

Devin Egger:
I don’t, because first of all, there’s a lot more work to be done that. I think that’s one of the bigger
points, is that I don’t think we’re ever done thinking about accessibility. Just for example, we’re talking a lot about, and in my article, I talk a lot about website accessibility, but that’s not even going into the idea of authoring tools being accessible. And that’s one of the people’s qualms with WordPress, is that it’s not exactly very accessible as an authoring tool. I didn’t have time to get into that in the article because it was already way too long, but there’s a lot more work to be done.

Teron Bullock:
Right.

Devin Egger:
And if we’re always taking a retroactive stance to it, instead of a proactive stance to it, if we’re always playing catch up, then I don’t think we’re really doing anything justice because we’re not really thinking about it in the right way. And I think the right way to think about it is just to look at your website that you’re building. Again, whether you’re a designer or whether you’re a content writer or whether you’re a developer, there’s a chance for you to sit down and look at the thing that you’re creating and go, “Well, what if I couldn’t use my arms? What if I didn’t understand things quite as well as people?” The disabilities that are kind of more overlooked, such as cognitive abilities or learning abilities, like I said earlier, it’s easier to just close your eyes and think, “How would I how would I interact with this website?”

Devin Egger:
But if you’re making a website that has this crazy design, that one thing’s over here and one thing’s way over there, and the typical buttons are not in the typical places and this button is really small or
whatever, those are all things that we don’t really think about in typical website, accessibility, like
adding alt tags or adding visually hidden elements that are screen reader only elements. The
organization and the structure of the website is not something we always think about, but it’s also very important. You know?

Teron Bullock:
Right.

Devin Egger:
If I have a cognitive disability that makes it hard for me to understand things, or if you’re dyslexic, it’s
very hard to read a very long, just … thing of text all the way down. But if you break that text up, then it becomes more understandable. If you add images and graphs to highlight your point, it becomes more understandable.

Teron Bullock:
Absolutely.

Devin Egger:
That’s why I don’t think it is just enough to just do the bare minimum because if we do that, then we’re kind of stuck at just, “Oh, I added all the alt tags. We’re good. It’s accessible. Screen readers can read my website.” In this article that I wrote, I listed out quite a few different conditions that could affect your ability to use the website, but that’s not anywhere close to all the different things. So really at the end of the day, what helps the most is just making a good website, making a website that is as clear and well structured as possible. And really, what I’m doing is just outlining evidence for that and reasons why that’s an important thing.

Teron Bullock:
Absolutely. I think that you had touched upon, I think, a great point, not just from the end user
standpoint, as far as using the tools that may be presented from a business standpoint, but also like you said, from a content creator from a person who’s using WordPress. A lot of times when change comes, it comes because of compassion and empathy.

Devin Egger:
Right.

Teron Bullock:
And so if you could put yourself in that person’s shoes, like for example, I like to ride bikes and I’m also a web developer. We had touched upon this before we started the podcast. What if I was riding a bike and I happened to get injured and I can no longer type? As a developer, we’re talking about now my livelihood. How can I continue to develop if I lose access to my lens?

Devin Egger:
Right.

Teron Bullock:
We have to have certain tools that will be able to help us. We can’t just say, “Hey, well, that sucks for you.” Society will have to figure it out or whatever. But it’s better for us to think about, again, from a compassionate standpoint, if we can think about putting ourselves in that person’s shoes, then we can make things better. So the bare minimum, I think, couldn’t be enough. And just in that aspect alone, anything that you want to make better for someone, doing the bare minimum is usually not the best approach. You know?

Devin Egger:
Right. Right. And that’s kind of, I think, where a lot of times people will just put a plug in on a website that adds stuff to the website to make it accessible. And they go, “Okay, got it. I’m done.”

Teron Bullock:
Right.

Devin Egger:
When we look at it from the lawsuit perspective, because you and I were talking about this earlier, we look at it from the lawsuit perspective, that’s enough. Right? So if you’ve made the attempt to make your website accessible, i.e., installing this plugin and paying this company money for your accessibility, then that’s enough to prevent you from getting sued. So then that leads us to the conversation we were having earlier, like the carrot and the stick.

Teron Bullock:
What is better? Is it the carrot or is it the stick? Is it better to think about web accessibility from the
beginning as a forethought? Or is it better to wait for a potential lawsuit and therefore you’re dealing
with the stick?

Devin Egger:
A lot of times this discussion is started by someone that says, “Hey, I need to make my website
accessible because I’m afraid of getting sued.” In my opinion, right or wrong, at least it starts the
discussion. But at the end of the day, when you’re doing that, when you’re just adding a plugin, it can
help with some things, but it doesn’t help with everything and it doesn’t help with the actual structure of the code of your website that’s going to enable a screen reader or a voice navigation software to actually navigate your website. And so what we’re talking about, making your website so that robots can understand what your website is. Right?

Teron Bullock:
Right.

Devin Egger:
The nice thing is, and here’s the carrot side of it, is if you do that, then guess what? The Google index
robots are also robots. So by making your website more accessible, by making your website more easy to understand from a machine perspective that is going to help a human use your website, you’re also making so that Google knows better what your website is. And so you get a little bit of an SEO benefit out of that as well. I like to queue that in when I’m trying to convince a client that it’s really important to actually make their website accessible from the get-go and think about it as a forethought instead of an afterthought.

Teron Bullock:
Right.

Devin Egger:
That’s a side benefit that we get.

Monet Davenport:
Thank you for listening up to this point. Press the Issue by Master WP is sponsored by LearnDash. Your expertise makes you money doing what you do, now let it make you money teaching what you do. To create a course with LearnDash, visit learndash.com.

Monet Davenport:
Master WP is sponsored by Cloudways. Cloudways managed hosting ensures that your sites get the
performance boost they deserve. It offers you fast speeds, uptime, and manage security at affordable rates. Learn more at cloudwaves.com. Now back to the podcast.

Teron Bullock:
What are some of the downfalls from a web developer’s perspective when you are trying to basically reengineer a website or trying to place in a plugin and also make it functional with the original thought that you had with the particular website?

Devin Egger:
Oh, man, there’s so many things on that note. So, I mean, for example, the big thing that just comes
right off the top of my head is, a lot of times these plugins, they alter the website to make it more
accessible using JavaScript. So you have JavaScript turned off right there, immediately you’ve got an
issue there where that plugin’s not going to do its job. That’s kind of a fault right from the get-go.
Whereas if you had just used the right semantic HTML in the first place and did your alt tags and your visually hidden elements and all that to describe stuff and used a clear organization and layout and all that, then you wouldn’t have had that problem in the first place. You don’t need JavaScript to make your website accessible. So there’s part of the problem.

Devin Egger:
The other answer to your question is, when you’re trying to re-engineer themes that have been prebuilt, that you just install a theme and you kind of change some variables and all that, is you really have such limited access to the code that that theme is spitting out. So then you’re either stuck going into those theme files and editing those files, which takes a good amount of programming know-how to do, and so you’re going to have to charge quite a bit to do that. So again, that’s a question of the carrot or the stick. As a developer, it can be hard to tell a client, “Yeah, it’s going to take me 80 hours to get this website accessible.” And so that can be a hard conversation to have. So it can be easier to just turn on a plugin.

Devin Egger:
At the same time I’ve done some research on some of these plugins that try to help with, like you had mentioned before, just changing everything to gray scale, and that should help with some colorblind issues. And is that really what we want? Do we really want to have to have users completely turn everything to gray scale to use our website? Granted, to be fair, there are some things that a plugin can do that we really can’t do in code. There are people that have color blind issues that are very, very specific. So one color on top of another color, a text color on top of a background, may work for one person, but that also may not work for another person. So a plugin can actually be better at helping with that because it would be very difficult for us to build a website that is just perfect for everyone, with every factor of color blindness to see. Or just with low vision, a plugin can make it more easy for you to increase the text size or the size of everything to magnify a website.

Devin Egger:
So there are cases where I think that it does make sense, but coming back to the point of, if you’re using a pre-built theme or whatever that is not a hand coded theme, like we choose to build, when you don’t have control over all the code that gets spit out by that theme, neither does the plugin. And so that’s also kind of one of the things that happens with those plugins and why sometimes they catch so much heat, is they can actually make a website less accessible than it was in the beginning. Because then it tries to read the screen, and the screen reader goes nuts and there’s all sorts of kind of weird little outlier things that can happen. And that’s because the code that the theme is putting out there is so convoluted, and it’s like a div inside of a div inside of a div inside of another div, and then a span, and all these other things and stuff that you just wouldn’t do, you and I wouldn’t do for hand coding a website.

Teron Bullock:
Right. I look at it from a perspective of building an entire house or office building or something. Well,
you talked about busing up the curves in order to first start with making places more accessible towards for wheelchairs. You could tell the difference between an establishment that thought about it from the beginning versus an establishment who just had to put the ramp in after. Often, there are times where you see buildings where there’s a ramp to make a wheelchair accessible, but the ramp is so steep that is it really accessible? You’re creating maybe more of a problem now because I recognize that you see that it’s a problem, but you really didn’t address it in a way that actually is helpful, which makes it worse than not thinking about the problem at all.

Teron Bullock:
And so when we look at websites in that particular way, I also think, like you said, maybe it’s a little
more time in the beginning, but it’s a lot more time to go back into a website and try to reengineer. Like you said, different plugins can access certain things or not be able to access certain parts of code. I’m thinking about, like you said, with the gray scale and having the plugins alter the website may take away from the experience. And when you think about web accessibility from the beginning, you’re never going to cover everything. Like you said, there’s going to be outliers out there and we’re going to always try to cover as much as we can. But when you think about it from the beginning, you can design something that works for as many people as possible, and still make sure that everybody experiences the website in the same way.

Teron Bullock:
If I switch a website over to gray scale, it’s almost like having two different restaurants and you say,
“Okay, so these set of people with these abilities can go here and these set of people with these abilities can go there.” And anytime that you have two different things, you lead to a point where someone questions, “Why can’t I fit in that crowd?” And I just think that it’s never best practice to do something like that. So as much as we can offer, thinking about, again, the mindset of how do we solve it from the beginning so the experience is the same for all people, I think that that works in a better way than trying to jury-rig something afterwards.

Devin Egger:
Right, right. That’s the key point there, Teron. You nailed it. Because what we’re ultimately talking about here is making an experience better for all people. And even if not making the experience better, making the experience the same. These people that have disabilities that impact their ability to use a website, all were really asking for here is to give them the same ability to use your website that a person without those disabilities would do. For example, let’s say you are someone with cerebral palsy, you have a difficulty using a keyboard and mouse, and you get to a website that you can’t use. Do you think that they’re going to take the time to find the developer’s email or the website owner’s email and then write them an email and let them know that the website’s not accessible? Probably not. They’re probably just going to go right to the next website that is accessible and rightfully so.

Devin Egger:
That’s not their responsibility to go and say, “Hey, website, owner, I tried to use your website and I
couldn’t do it. So I went and used someone else’s website.” Maybe they would. And that’s great, but
again, it’s not their responsibility. And I think that a lot of times, as developers, we get kind of caught
into this mindset that, “Well, if there’s a problem, someone will create a ticket and tell me about the bug and then I’ll be able to fix it and then we’ll move on.” And that’s, again, that retroactive mindset.

Devin Egger:
But we got to really just accept the fact that if your website’s not accessible, chances are, someone
that’s having a problem using it is not going to then take the time to write you an email to tell you that. They just want to be able to access their bank account and deposit a check. They want to just want to be able to do the same thing that everyone else can do. So again, it just comes right back to the point of, this really is something that needs to be a part of the conversation as we build websites, as we’re creating the internet to make it a good experience for everyone.

Teron Bullock:
Absolutely. And I think that maybe from a developer’s perspective, it’s a good idea for us to maybe look at some of these tools to see or experience how someone who has a disability may experience your site. And that will ultimately go back to the beginning, what we said about having empathy for someone. It’s easier once you’ve walked in someone’s shoes, to have that empathy. It’s harder when you’ve never experienced it.

Teron Bullock:
And just as an example, I was listening or attempting to listen to one of our articles, and I wanted to see if I can use a screen reader on a particular device to see how one would accomplish this. And it became a very frustrating experience. Once I turned on the particular tool, first of all, to back that story up a little bit, there aren’t any readily accessible screen readers on a mobile device that you can just go to right away. I did a quick Google search. I tried Google translate, but it only had a 5,000 word or caret limit.

Teron Bullock:
So just thinking about that from a user’s perspective who needs this versus somebody who wanted to use it, that already would be a frustrating step. Then to go to my particular mobile device and to realize that they had a tool that I could use. Once I turned the tool on, it was frustrating just to get out of the menu. Just with the tool on, you get all these clicks, these chimes, it’s just repeating the same thing over and over, but there was no clear direction on what do you do next in order to move on to reading the article.

Teron Bullock:
By some happenstance, I was able to get to the article that I was looking at, and then it just kept reading the headline or the title. And once I started trying to scroll, it just went back to getting these error chimes. And I got extremely frustrated. And again, I don’t have this disability. It was just me trying to experience it. Imagine somebody who relies on this. How would they have experienced it? And someone who may have low vision, they wouldn’t be able to tell whether it was just the tool itself that was causing the problem, or they may have thought that they were causing the problem, not being able to see if maybe a box is on the screen that they had to press in order to move forward or anything of the sort.

Teron Bullock:
And the screen was clear. I’m looking at the website and there’s nothing that I could do in order to move the screen down. And so does that mean that I have to turn it off, scroll the screen down and turn it back on? Just all these different steps is problematic. It really should be more intuitive, which leads me to the next question, which is, how do we become better allies more than just making it more intuitive? What are some of the things that we can do moving forward, or mindsets that we can use, in order to make this process better for everyone?

Devin Egger:
Yeah, that’s a great question. That experience that you’re talking about is I think indicative of part of the problem and a part of indicative of the solution. And the answer to your question there is, we got to try to use these tools before something happens, that makes us have to use them.

Devin Egger:
In doing the research for this article, one of the things that the WCAG, which is the guidelines that is put out to give us the guidelines for accessibility, talks about is that not all of these disabilities are things that happen from birth. Some of these things happen in an accident. I mean, there’s all sorts of different things that could happen, that could make you blind, that you could get in an accident and lose a limb. And then you’re in a position where all of a sudden, brand new to your life, you’ve got to figure out how to use these tools and you can’t see.

Devin Egger:
When you’re telling that story, I just keep thinking to myself, “Man, that is so frustrating.” And I’ve tried to do the same thing. I think we’ve all accidentally turned on voiceover on our computer, and then not being able to figure out how to turn it off. And it’s hard to figure out even when you can see. And so to answer your question, I think, how do we become a better a11y is try to use these tools, try to navigate the world of the internet as if you didn’t have the ability to use both of your arms. When you’re building a website, have you tried to tab through it, just hitting tab, tab, tab, tab? And can you access most of your website that way?

Devin Egger:
Maybe it’s good to take a step back, and for those of us that don’t know, when we talk about being an a11y, that’s A-1-1-Y, and you can do learn a lot about how to become an a11y by searching that, and that’s because there’s 11 letters between the A and the Y in accessibility. So that’s why we do a11y, a11y is a11y.

Devin Egger:
So really, I think part of what we can do is really try to use these tools. As web developers, as content writers, as designers, as project managers, you try to use these tools and try to see how easy or how difficult it is to use them. Because as developers, we’re problem solvers. We like to put together puzzles and figure out the solutions to problems. So naturally, if we try to use these tools and we have a difficult time using them, we’re probably going to try to come up with solutions. But we need to be doing that before a client comes to us and says, “Hey, I’m afraid of getting a lawsuit,” or, “I already got a lawsuit, and now I need to make my website accessible.”

Devin Egger:
And we need to think about it beyond just like, “I’m trying to make an accessible website.” It needs to be something that we’re kind of just always thinking about whether you’re posting something on Twitter or whether you’re building an app, or whether you’re building a website. I think that part of this whole movement of becoming an a11y is, A, keeping the conversation open, don’t stop talking about it. And then also trying to use these tools and really kind of immersing yourself in the experience of what it would be like if you didn’t have a typical functioning body that would allow you to use a website. You know?

Teron Bullock:
Absolutely. I think that we can leave this right here. It’s such an extensive conversation. This is a great article that you wrote, and I encourage everyone to go check it out. It’s on Master WP right now. The title is Screen Readers and Beyond: How Web Accessibility Makes Lives Better. It’s written by Devon Egger. And I encourage everyone as well to, if they have any input that they would like to add to it, reach out to us on Twitter, and we can keep the conversation going there.

Teron Bullock:
Devin, I thank you for your time. I think that this was an exciting conversation, and I look forward to us having other conversations about other topics.

Devin Egger:
Oh, you’re welcome, Teron. And likewise, look forward to keeping this conversation open with you and with everyone as we go along into the future.

Monet Davenport:
Thank you for listening to this episode. Press the Issue is a production of Master WP produced by Allie Nimmons. Hosted, edited, and musically supervised by Monet Davenport. And mixed and mastered by Teron Bullock. Please visit masterwp.com/presstheissue to find more episodes. Subscribe to our newsletter for more WordPress news at masterwp.com.