For almost 2 decades, Kevin Rydberg has actively contributed to society through his specialty work in accessibility, usability, and design. Dedicated to helping individuals and organizations create websites that are accessible to everyone, Kevin is well known in the industry for his proactive approach to making this happen.
Kevin enjoys introducing the concepts of web accessibility to new audiences that may have not the technical background to tackle web accessibility. He especially appreciates those "aha" moments when these audiences begin to realize the importance of this best practice.
Accessibility is on the upswing. The press has had an effect. The message has been delivered with the number of lawsuits and people are aware that there are accessibility issues. So where do you stand? Kevin Rydberg shares his 20 years of experience in accessibility, usability, and design to help understand best practices in developing digital solutions for those with disability. Spoiler alert: we all have a disability, at some point, whether temporary or permanent.
KRISTINA PODNAR, HOST: Hello friends and to everyone out there listening in the digital land. Welcome to the Power of Digital Policy podcast. Today, I'm happy to welcome Kevin Rydberg to the show. For almost two decades, Kevin has actively contributed to society through a specialty work in accessibility, usability, and design. Dedicated to helping individuals and organizations create websites that are accessible to everyone. Kevin is well known in the industry for his proactive approach to making this happen.
Kevin enjoys introducing the concept of web accessibility to new audiences that may not have the technical background to tackle web accessibility. He especially appreciates those "aha moments" when these audiences begin to realize the importance of his best practice. Kevin, thanks for being with us today and for sharing your two decades of experience at accessibility.
KEVIN RYDBERG: Sure. I want to preface it just a little bit, Kristina, by saying that I've got about 20 years in the web world. Not all of it is accessibility based, but there's been a foundation of accessibility for the majority of that. The full-time, "serious about accessibility" part would probably be about half that time, about ten years, which still you know is I think a solid qualification, but we all learn as we go. As we go, we pick up little bits and pieces along the way, and then we find an area that we become interested in for whatever our motivation may be, and then we pursue it. And once you jump down the rabbit hole of accessibility, it's a fascinating subject area. It really is.
You can learn a lot about a persons with disabilities. You can learn a lot about the technology itself. You can learn about assistive technology. You can learn about the rules, the regulations, and compliance issues. So, it's a broad area to cover, where you can specialize even within accessibility. As a compliance specialist, or, assistive technology specialist, testing auditing those kinds of things, where you're using the tools more. Or you can be kind of an accessibility generalist. Like I really consider myself. Or I can address the concerns of a business from the top down from the executive level involvement, all the way down to the folks that are dealing with the code and it's a fascinating industry.
It moves quickly, just like, you know, the rest of our technology. And the key is to, you know, to be aware of how those changes are taking place. It's an amazing community globally. I've gotten to the point where I have a close-knit group of friends that are literally located around the world. And to be able to key off of those folks and ask questions in a very collaborative environment is probably one of the best things about accessibility and getting to know accessibility. No matter if we are competitors, with our businesses or not, we're all very collaborative, and we're all accessibility people, looking for solutions first and then competitor second.
KRISTINA: That's awesome., it's interesting because I don't think I've ever had the benefit of tapping into the accessibility community to the extent that you have. I think, I kind of take a look at it more from a policy perspective. So, I've never really delved that that deep, but I think what's really incredible to me is what a tremendous asset and resource the community is like you said, and the ability to really kind of tap them on the shoulder. But I think that that is probably sort of what people do once they have that "aha" moment and realize that accessibility is something they should be thinking about in parallel with what they're actually doing. Right? It should just be sort of part of your website development, should be part of your mobile app development. It should be something you're thinking about when you're developing social media videos for YouTube, right? It should be part of our daily jobs.
And so, I'm wondering for those folks that really maybe kind of have the notion of like "wow accessibility is a thing. I should be thinking about this," but they need to get those aha moments into their organization. Like what would you actually tell them to do, how you would get them to come in and compel the organization to have that breakthrough moment where people say "look this is not an onerous thing to do. This is something we should just be doing because it's beneficial to the business bottom line. It's the right thing to do, and it's, you know, relatively straightforward." Once you get into the groove of just thinking accessibility as part of what I do.
KEVIN: Right, and there's really two different avenues that you can pursue. First and foremost is empathy. Without a certain level of empathy for your fellow man and understanding what the problem can be from that perspective, it's difficult to make headway. The secondary approach if that isn't as successful, is to think about it as being at the top of your craft. It's just that simple.
I saw a tweet one time where they compared accessibility to being a baker and that you can't push accessibility into the end product. It has got to be built in from the beginning. And they likened it to making a blueberry muffin or you can't push the blueberries into the muffin later. So, I like to think about it from both aspects. But you know as a professional coder, you want to think of yourself as a craftsman you want to be the best that you can be at your job. And if you're not doing your work in an accessible fashion, you're not doing the best work that you can be doing. So, as I said, you can play off of either one of those sentiments to make progress, but truly those "aha moments" like we've talked about, truly understanding how you've helped somebody by providing a little bit better sight. It is really what it takes for people to really grasp the concept, and in most cases, we have kind of a smaller range or closed thought process when it comes to accessibility. We all are dealing with disabilities in a certain way.
If I take my glasses off, I can't see, can't read anything on my screen 2 feet in front of my face. So, do I self-identify as disabled? Well, I would have said no a couple of years ago. But at this point I would say yes, so being selfish and knowing that I can zoom my monitor because of the accessibility functionality makes it a better experience for me. And in the end isn't that what we're trying to do, is improve the experience for all of our site visitors.
KRISTINA: Absolutely, and I think that's a really great way of thinking about it oftentimes. I think people immediately kind of jump to "oh somebody has to be blind, or they have to be hearing impaired." The reality is, as sad as I am to say that I'm getting older as well, we do have an aging population that has some ability issues. I know carpal tunnel is starting to come up a lot more folks these days. So there's everyday kind of challenges that we have that don't necessarily fit the traditional stereotypes that people had around accessibility and those that are disabled.
KEVIN: Yeah, and that's a great point. Our aging population, got a colleague out in New York who does a talk called "Selfish accessibility," where he's essentially addressing the needs of aging users. And whether it is, a lower vision issue, whether it is, you know, maybe tremors from early-onset Parkinson's or a different thing. We also need to think about temporary disabilities. What happens if you are cross country skiing and a deer runs out in front of you, and you fall over, you break a wrist? Well, that your mouse wrist. You know, am I able to continue to do my job? Even on a temporary basis? Well, yes, if the keyboard shortcuts etcetera, which are really accessibility functionality if they're built incorrectly. We are then able to continue doing our work until we heal. So, there are so many different aspects to the disability community, whether it's short-term, long-term, whether it's you know temporary, permanent. And then of course, we have the ranges from nearsightedness all the way to you know, complete blindness. From tone-deafness, it's all the way to complete hearing loss. We want to think very broadly when it comes to accessibility.
KRISTINA: And that's a really, really good point. I myself oftentimes forget about things like you mentioned, like temporary accessibility. It's so easy to kind of get caught up in what we're doing that we don't kind of take a broader viewpoint of the forest, if you will, for the trees. I'm curious from your perspective and thinking a lot about folks that I've talked to recently. Like single developers inside of an organization, or maybe there's a really, really small web team of two to three people. How would you advise them? How should they go about thinking about accessibility and really getting started with accessibility? I know you said, if you want to do your craft, well accessibility is a part of that. Which is ever so true, but for folks who have an existing kind of presence, but they're looking to kind of make that accessibility jump, they don't have a lot of resources. They're not going to be able to bring in an external team to help out or do some auditing.
What are the things that they should be thinking about or at least starting to do as an initial step?
KEVIN: Well initial familiarization with basic accessibility principles, whether it's Universal Design principles that they've learned about, you know, both in the physical and the digital world. Whether it is, you know, reaching out to W3C Web Accessibility initiative website and looking at the resources that are out there. Unfortunately, accessibility has not been rolled into college-level curriculums yet, or even high school level curriculums where people are getting that exposure to that accessible coding practice — simply using good clean, correct, semantic code is a great starting point. Get rid of all of the garbage. Cut it back to what's necessary. Utilize the functionality that's already built into the semantics of the existing HTML is a great place to start.
You are just familiarizing yourself with the basic needs of persons with disabilities, whether it's a mobility issue, whether it's a sight issue. If you talk about, you think about a visual structure of a web page. How important are the headings, not just visually but for organizing your information? We usually, when we get started with folks that haven't had a lot of exposure to accessibility, we think about the visual aspect of the site first and foremost. Because yes, you're going to improve that user experience for screen reader users by correctly applying alt attributes and things like that on your images, but a clean heading structure helps everybody.
Think of someone with dyslexia that is having difficulty reading the content, which can become pretty dense on a page with a good clean heading structure. They can jump through and find the section they are looking for. Well, a screen reader works exactly the same way, so don't bite off more than you can chew it.
You can focus a lot of energy on making something accessible. But if you start to roll it in on your projects a little at a time and don't become overwhelmed by it. You'll be surprised at the progress that you can make in a short time.
KRISTINA: That's really great advice. Actually, I felt more comfortable and I saw my shoulders kind of starting to relax as you talked about the practicality of it. I'm not sure that it's simple, but it's a straightforward approach. And I think that's what a lot of folks need these days.
And that's sort of made me also think about the other extremes of organizations that I see out in the world today. That's much larger organizations, perhaps global enterprises. What's interesting is there might be an awareness of accessibility. In fact, I recently was in an organization where people could tell me about how WCAG 2.1 was updated to WCAG 2.2. But what was interesting is that they weren't there. So, everybody was aware of the fact that accessibility ought to be included in practices. But what I found was that their vendors, even though they were fully aware of the need to do, we're not delivering accessible code.
The mobile apps were not accessible. Accessibility just wasn't baked in. Do you see that frequently? That digital agencies aren't up to snuff in terms of accessibility practices. And do you have advice for organizations in terms of helping them sort of navigate the vendor world to make sure that accessibility either in-house or outsourced is really there?
KEVIN: There's a number of tools that are available to help with that. I'm going to just kind of go down this path for just a moment. But there's a document called a vpat It's V-P-A-T. is an acronym. Stands for the Voluntary Product Accessibility Template. It's a voluntary product accessibility template where vendors self-report on their level of accessibility, which might include a corrections timeline. Typically, in a bigger organization when it is part of the purchase process, the VPAT is required. You need to show how accessible is the product. We actually work with different departments like procurement, to train them to understand how to look for accessibility in the products. Remember a VPAT is self-reporting. So, it may not be as accurate as you're hoping for, but accessibility definitely needs to be part of the procurement process for a large organization.
And you need to be able to hold your vendors accountable now. Now getting back to like an outside agency. A good agency that has a solid understanding of accessibility and is baking accessibility into the products that they're delivering, they're going to set themselves apart very quickly. Again, it's going to be a superior product. And if we think about the craftsmen aspect and we think about pride in our work, you'll see that comes through.
Now, the biggest issue that we probably run into right now in larger organizations is there is that awareness, but that awareness is in two places. It's lower down in the folks that are doing the day-to-day work. The coders, the designers, the developers, etc. Or it's coming from a compliance or risk aversion area and that's not the right place for it. I mean, it's a fantastic driver in our industry to get things moving. But compliance should be an outcome of an accessibility programs. What we want to do is we want to get in at the highest levels of that organization, and really help leadership understand the importance of building accessible products or delivering accessible experiences. We can look at building business cases. We can look at your world policy. Make sure that there are policies in place and that those policies have teeth because if it's not going to be enforced, or if it's not something that is at a board level of awareness, it's going to be difficult to build a successful program.
KRISTINA: I'm happy to hear you talk about that because we've seen more and more headlines around lawsuits and accessibility. Not that I want people to get sued. I would actually prefer that people just create and develop with accessibility in mind. I think it would make the world a much better and happier place, but I think that the threat of all of these lawsuits really sort of can drive home for the board of directors, for the folks in leadership, that we need accessibility.
As you said, this is a risk. A lot of times I find that I'll translate that into maybe a dollar number, and I'll say, "Hey, it's okay if you don't want to bake inaccessibility in your organization. You know, it's not a choice I would make, but it's okay from a business perspective if you don't do that, as long as you realize that this is a serious risk. That you might be taking on legal issues. You might get sued. And that you're probably going to be alienating a lot of users out there, and you're going to be foregoing sales that you could have possibly made. And also, that it creates some kind of a bad word of mouth. Quite frankly, because you know, just as people who have a disability can praise your product, they can also talk about it in a negative light when they can't use the product or service.
And so, I'm wondering from your perspective, do you see more organizations starting to kind of pay attention to this especially, at those kinds of top levels? Are you kind of seeing that be a decrease these days?
KEVIN: It's on the upswing. Definitely. The press has had an effect. The message has been delivered with the number of lawsuits whether it's been in the Department of Education Office of Civil Rights for a school district, or whether it's been a very newsworthy large public organization like a Domino's, or a Target. People are aware that there are accessibility issues. Now it's unfortunate that that's what it takes. But again, we will utilize that, and use them as those; I guess you'd say, teachable moments for folks. The awareness is there, but unfortunately, in most cases, yet leadership, they don't know what they don't know if that makes sense.
KRISTINA: It does, it absolutely does. In some, I'm curious, you know, not to put you on the spot. But do you have a few examples of folks who are getting it? People who are doing a great job? Not that everybody's perfect or anybody really. But who would you kind of call out today and say "look I'm going to give them a gold star today." Because either they've gotten accessibility right or they are trying really hard and doing a great job at it.
KEVIN: Uh-huh. Well, we're kind of all over the map on that. I would say one of the shining stars I usually point to is coming out of our neighbors to the north. Out of Canada is CBC. Their website is very accessible and very usable. They've done a fantastic job of building and baking accessibility into every aspect of their online delivery.
So we sometimes utilize that site as an example of good versus an example of bad. There's a number of larger universities that have put some great accessibility programs together and are doing some good things. I will say Notre Dame, the Ohio State University, are a couple that come to mind very quickly. Some smaller universities. The California University system is making great efforts. Harvard. Yale. They're all doing; they're making a strong effort. Whether they're there or not has yet to be determined, but at least they're looking at that cultural shift. They need to think about all of their digital presence as inclusive.
KRISTINA: And so, I noticed that none of the organizations that you just mentioned are in the private sector. Is the private sector sort of falling behind, or are they kind of leading the way? Where are they compared to higher ed and the government?
KEVIN: They are definitely behind. This awareness has started to make that shift where there is definitely an interest. It really depends on the sector. Something like the financial industry and the insurance industry, and places like that. We're seeing some pretty positive strides. Definitely, where there are regulatory concerns, we see definitely movement in those areas as far as good. Retail is tough. Hospitality is tough. They're all dealing with existing sites, existing tools that they've had online for a long, long time. And it's sometimes very difficult to go back and retool all of those pieces. It's very expensive. It's not, it's not necessarily cost-prohibitive, but it's not an efficient way to manage an accessibility program.
So, as more and more new functionality and new features and the technology changes, we see a pretty strong change in the retail and other areas to embrace that. I can tell you about the move to mobile a number of years ago. What are we going to go back and say 2012? 2011? When responsive web design became a thing so that it was working on all of the different devices. That was actually a kind of a leap forward for accessibility, just because of the needs of a device and having a simpler site. In many cases, with less coding issues. It helped improve accessibility.
So, folks may be farther along their journey than they realize they are. Sometimes they think that they really are at step 1 when there may be at step 3 or 4 on a 1 to 10 scale.
KRISTINA: Hmm. That's interesting because I think I don't see a lot of people may be taking a look back and saying look, we've made progress. I think it's harder when you realize that it's a long road ahead, and it's not a road that you complete ever. Right? It's just a practice. That's how we live. Rather than something that you kind of start and finish as a journey. But looking back is also important.
KEVIN: Yeah, correct. You don't know how far you've come if you don't know where you started. And that's one of the things that we talk about when we come into an organization and help them get started with an accessibility program or help them bake, you know that into their culture. You have to know where you're starting. You have to know where you're going, and you have to celebrate the victories. Even the small ones make a huge difference for morale. We want folks to understand that. Hey, you may feel like you're behind the eight-ball a little bit, but you're still making a strong difference.
KRISTINA: Absolutely. So, let me ask you a slightly different question, Kevin, because I've been wondering about this. And I was excited that we get to talk today because I wanted to ask you this question. Which is, we've been thinking a lot and working a lot on websites, mobile apps, and some folks are starting to become aware of social media posts as well in terms of accessibility. What about emerging technologies? Have you been talking or hearing or working a lot with things like voice assistants? And how do we deal with accessibility in those new areas of emerging technology?
KEVIN: That's a great question. And we are seeing a lot of those questions being asked. The Internet of Things (IoT) of course is huge. I mean, if you've got an interface on a refrigerator, it's going to have to be accessible based on the rules. So, I think a lot of technology is learn as we go. In some cases, here because again, we can't throw the baby out with the bathwater and start fresh on every project. We sometimes have to work with a lot of legacy: operating systems and codes and things like that. But as technology and changes and as technology improves our lives, it's definitely a strong consideration. And while there's some movement in the area. There's some interest in the area. There's a long way to go. But at least the companies that are producing products with sort of a digital interface are aware and making strides.
The other thing, the other aspect on that is, the coating can become quite complex. There are always changes in that. So, we have to sometimes think about keeping it simple and then and then making it more complex as we go. Making sure that that accessibility is in there, but definitely some interest is in how the technology changes and a lot of questions being asked about how do we keep making the products accessible moving forward?
KRISTINA: Now that's a great insight. I think sounds probably as reasonable as we can all expect. So let me ask you a tougher question, and maybe it's not a tough question for you, which is, how much accessibility is enough? For a lot of businesses out there and a lot of organizations that have limited resources. I often hear them asking things like how much is enough, and you know, there's multiple kinds of angles. I think to that question, right? There's the how much is it enough from a commitment or a human perspective? How much is enough from a business perspective? How much is enough based on the resources I have? But what do you think? How would you answer that question?
KEVIN: That is a bit of a tough question, and it does come up fairly regularly. And it really, there's a lot of variables in there. But it really depends on are you serving the needs of your users? Are you getting complaints from your users because they can't complete a task on a website because they can't access part of the mobile app? What you really need is that feedback from your users. That will help gauge how quickly you need to move, how big of steps you need to make to keep moving forward. And that's again; it's that end goal of making sure that our user is completing that task. Why would we not want our user to complete an email signup form? For example, why would we run analytics and not see that? You know, we're getting a lot of phone folks that have clicked on the form, but nobody's really submitting. Is it because they can't find the submit button? Or there's another problem? Well, you know, what's the case? So, we see A/B testing and all these kind of things, but it really does come down to, are we serving the needs of our users, and do we have a clear understanding of who those users are targeting?
KRISTINA: That's really, really good. That's a very good way I think for folks to think about it. And, so let me ask you a kind of a wrap-up question here because I've taken a lot of your time and we appreciate you being with us today. But looking ahead to 2020 and probably the next few years, What is the biggest advice that you would give to folks in the accessibility space whether they're getting started or they're just trying to continue the journey? What do you want them to know and think about, either about where we are as an industry or where we're going?
KEVIN: Awareness is the key, Kristina. It's really a matter of being aware that it is an issue. It isn't a matter of it's not going to go away. We have to know that we have to change how we think about accessibility. I mean, we have protocols, we have policies, we have systems in place for privacy for security Accessibility is really no different, we need to think of it again from a large business perspective. We need to kind of put accessibility up there at that same level so that we're giving it the same consideration. From a smaller business perspective being aware providing resources to your help so that they can do the best that they can do. The industry is always evolving, and always changing no quicker than the rest of the tech world. But without that awareness without at least making minimal efforts, it's going to be difficult to see that shift for that change, so my advice is be aware. And don't try to take on too much. Don't think of it as a project are don't think of it as a project, but more as a process. That's really kind of the approach that you're going to need to make it work.
KRISTINA: Well, that's great advice. Thanks, Kevin. We really appreciate it. And thanks for taking the time, and really kind of a big chunk of your time to give us good insights into accessibility. I really appreciate that.