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axe-con Day One

Accessibility
Team Insights

New year, new work, brand spanking new conference. This year Deque debuted axe-con, a free two-day accessibility conference with multiple tracks and dozens of excellent speakers. I knew that if I didn't attend what I could live, it would take me forever to get around to seeing all the talks I wanted to see (and I'll be catching up on talks I had to miss for a while to come from the recordings!). With a plethora of awesome information thrown my way, I decided giving a breakdown of attended talks and takeaways was the best way to share what I learned. So without further ado, here we go!

The Future of Accessibility

Speaker: Vinton G. Cerf, Google, Vice President and Chief Internet Evangelist

The opening talk of the conference was both exciting and sobering. Vint gave an overview on accessibility today (the sobering part), which, while we're moving in the right direction, still looks a little bleak. The truth is, most interfaces today are not capable of catering to every possible combination of disabilities out there. To top it off, most designers and developers aren't familiar with techniques to make their products accessible.

However, we have amazing technology and tools at our disposal to improve this outlook. Vint encouraged us all to look at the problem as accommodation rather than accessibility/disability barriers. We want to accommodate as many people as possible from wherever they are. Using design tools, principles, and tried and tested libraries, we can problem solve our products into being very widely accommodating. He brought up the idea of separating application and interface into two separate entities, allowing us to think of several ways an interface can interact with an application. Above all, we need to take accessibility into consideration earlier and throughout our design and development processes.

The State of Accessibility and axe Updates

Speakers: Preety Kumar, Deque CEO, Dylan Barrell, Deque CTO

This talk gave a little history into the founding of Deque, plus their shift from shipping products with zero tolerance for defects to their JT11 testing criteria for products have to pass. It also gave a little background into the founding of axe-con, which aims to provide relevant content for everyone in different areas of accessibility. This is done by having development, design, organizational success, and wildcard tracks that offered something for everybody. As both a developer and a designer, and accessibility lead interested in success for both my company and our clients, this made it incredibly difficult to choose which talks to attend throughout the day, but luckily I'll be able to catch up on what I missed over time.

As for the state of accessibility today, the US is a little behind other countries, such as Canada and those in the EU. Fortunately, we're starting to see large companies place more focus on incorporating accessibility into their core values and products, such as Apple, Microsoft, and Google. Also, with so many people working and learning remotely, we've had an additional push in the past year to improve digital accessibility. Deque is in the middle of these shifts and improvements by expanding their own toolsets, many of which I am anxious to try! Overall, progress is not as quick as many of us would like in this area, but moving in a positive direction. I for one can't wait to see where the US goes in the near future with accessibility initiatives and legislation.

Digital Accessibility Legal Update

Speaker: Kristina Launey, Seyfarth Shaw, Partner

I joined this talk a little after it started due to technical difficulties from a different talk, but still got plenty of insight into the legal landscape of accessibility in terms I could understand (which was awesome). My main takeaway? Our country is holding its breath when it comes to accessibility legislation. We have had many issues over the past many years on digital accessibility and whether it's covered under the ADA, which means that accessibility lawsuits have been increasingly common and have to be looked at and interpreted on a case by case basis. The Obama DOJ took a stab at defining "equivalent" alternative means of accessing goods and services (ex. a 24/7 phone line as an alternative to a website), but this was left pending with no proposed regulation, no guidelines on length of time businesses would have to make their websites accessible, and no standard to be adopted as the definition of accessible. The Trump DOJ withdrew website accessibility rule making that started in 2010, and overall had a hands-off approach to accessibility legal issues, which personally seems a step in the wrong direction (although I must say I also disagree with alternatives like phone lines being considered acceptable alternatives to website experiences).

So how are we holding our breath? We don't have official steps being taken towards regulation in the works, leaving lawsuits and courts to decide particular specialized issues, many of which contradict each other. Some of the best outcomes of these are the idea that the ADA does in fact apply to websites and mobile apps that have nexus to physical space, and that "separate but equal" platforms are not accessible methods to address accessibility issues (think phone lines or special sites for disabled people). There are varying levels of success with accessibility suits, and with different types of outcomes, it's difficult to come to a consensus on how the US should approach accessibility regulation for the web.

My thoughts? Get something out there already! We have global, tried, and true standards with WCAG, and can follow similar patterns of other countries before us to define required levels of compliance and how long companies have to bring their sites up to snuff. The blueprints are there, we just need to stand up and say that all of our citizens matter, and we should do what we can to accommodate and protect them for equal participation in our economy and communities. 

Difference Drives Innovation & Disability Inclusion Benefits All of Us

Speaker: Haben Girma, Author, Lawyer; Disability rights advocate

This keynote was one of my favorites of the conference. Haben Girma is, in short, a total badass. An Ethiopian deafblind native, she's a lawyer that has earned the title of White House Champion of Change from the Obama administration and shatters glass ceilings wherever she goes. Throughout her life of slowly becoming an advocate for people with disabilities, she's paved the way by fighting battles for herself that help people who come after her. She's learned not to take no for an answer and encourage creative problem solving instead of giving up.

One of the main points she brought up as an issue with disability rights and advocacy is the concept of ableism. In this context, it means there's a widespread assumption that people with disabilities are inferior to people without disabilities, although you can apply the term to multiple societal issues, like racism, ageism, sexism, etc. Ableism with regards to disability has leaked into common phrases in a negative way, such as saying a person is "blind to reason" or that your words have "fallen on deaf ears." Not only is this an issue in several facets of society, they often intersect, and unless we can start looking at those intersections, we'll never truly grasp the breadth of the issue or what we can do to improve the situation. We also need to stay true to individual struggles and story, and not try to lump everything too much under the "inclusive" umbrella. Inclusivity is great—unless it washes away our culture, background, and capabilities. Definitely, some big issues to think about.

Grid, Content Re-Ordering and Accessibility

Speaker: Rachel Andrew, Web Developer, Writer, Editor

This talk centered around a common headache that we experience these days: logical tab order and modern CSS layout techniques. With fancier new methods like CSS grid and flexbox, not to mention things like JS masonry libraries, front-end developers have many new ways available to them to manipulate and layout visual content, in many cases without having to touch the document source. However, this often means accessibility takes a hit, most commonly in terms of a logical tab order. Making the perfect visual experience can completely throw things off for screen reader users or those relying on keyboard navigation, creating a confusing or sometimes unusable experience.

So what can we do to combat this? There are a variety of things, not the least of which is understanding our newfound power over site styling. Some things include:

  • have the document source order reflect your visual as you go. Don’t style out of order and remediate after the fact (or worse, leave it out of order)
  • make sure your document makes sense when loading without CSS
  • use good HTML semantics. Don't convert to divs and spans to cut style corners
  • test your tab ordering to make sure it appears logical
  • make sure changing the display type for an element doesn't negatively change the accessibility tree or how assistive technology interprets the content.

What's a big desire here for front-enders? To find a good way to override the tab order when needed, especially if it needs to be different on different screen sizes. Adding a tabindex to every interactive element is simply not feasible, and in most cases, there are only certain areas where we need to exert alternative orders, such as in responsive headers or reprioritization of content on mobile. The only way to get this particular feature off the ground is to make the needs clear and work towards what the best solution could be. I for one would very much enjoy not having to use JS or duplicate content in order to put things in logical order responsively or make a choice as to which breakpoints of the site will end up out of logical tab order.

Applied Accessibility: Practical Tips for Building More Accessible Front-Ends

Speaker: Sara Soueidan, Independent UI engineer & Conference Speaker

This was a useful and practical talk that was full of useful examples of front-end implementation that encompasses good keyboard navigation and screen reading. The upfront positioning of accessibility in this talk was great too, in the fact that we should be looking at accessibility as an opportunity for creativity and innovation, not as a detriment to overall experience. Striving for good accessibility benefits everyone. I especially liked a quote that Sara brought up:

“we’re all just temporarily abled” - Cindi Li

There were many valuable demos in the talk, from how to handle screen reader text in a way that doesn't impede voice control users to tips and tricks on styling custom checkboxes and radio buttons. Luckily, we here at RDG were already familiar with many methods outlined in this talk's demos, but I still gained some valuable insights regarding how to properly handle some screen reader experiences.

Agile, Educational and Empathetic: a Digital Persona Set Linked to User Journeys Service Accessibility

Speakers: Nathalie Pican, Orange, Human Factors Specialist, and Vincent Aniort, Orange, Accessibility Expert

This talk centered around having a solid set of personas with a wide range of criteria to construct archetypes. These include information such as:

  • disability
  • digital equipment
  • age & gender
  • relationship with client
  • family situation
  • geographical location

Instead of just using a smaller number like three personas, this team created 10 personas to better cover the gamut of possibilities for people that would be interacting with the site. This not only aided in product design, but also helped with user experience, usability testing, and types of accessibility considerations to take. While this should by no means replace user research and working with real people, it's a good way to cover all the bases throughout the project.

Day One Conclusions

I was blown away by all of the information from different talks today. I missed a few developer track talks about React I intend to watch once recordings become available too, amongst other interesting ones! Learning about new opportunities and getting to jump around to different tracks was nice too. Biggest critique on the conference itself? Too many talks going at once for too long! This could easily be a weeklong conference should they choose. As for the quality of content, I learned a lot and joined a worldwide community all working to make the web a more inclusive place. Looking forward to day two!