Accessibility podcast with Char James-Tanny
In this podcast, Sarah discusses content accessibility with Char James-Tanny. What makes content accessible? How can content creators include accessibility in their planning process? What happens if you do not provide accessible content?
- Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0
- Accessibility Checklist for Web Writers (but applies to all)
- WebAIM articles
- WebAIM Color Contrast Checker
- Making Documents Accessible (refers to Microsoft Office but the Word tips can be used with Framemaker)
- Making Files Accessible (Section 508)
- Full transcript of podcast
This is the Content Strategy Experts podcast produced by Scriptorium. Since 1997 Scriptorium has helped companies manage, structure, organize and distribute content in an efficient way.
Sarah O’Keefe: Welcome to the Content Strategy Experts podcast, episode 6. Today I’m delighted to welcome a special guest. Char James-Tanny is a content strategist with over 35 years of experience as a technical communicator. She is currently a principal technical writer for Schneider Electric and based out of Boston. She’s also an advocate for accessibility and that’s our topic for today. Char, welcome.
Char James-Tanny: Thank you. It’s good to be here.
SO: It is great to talk to you. Let’s jump right in. How did you get started in accessibility?
CJ: When I was 10, I broke four toes on my right foot skate boarding, while being towed by a bike on Easter Sunday in Upstate New York. I hit a piece of ice, flew through the air, landed badly, and amazingly enough in 50 years nothing has changed in how they can treat broken toes. But I couldn’t walk to and from school anymore. So my parents made arrangements for me to be picked up by this little shuttle bus because we lived about 25 minutes from the New York State School for the Deaf. For six weeks I rode a bus with… Everybody else was deaf. We couldn’t communicate, and you know me and you know I like to talk. It wasn’t any different when I was 10, and so they taught me how to finger spell, so that we could at least carry on very basic communications for the eight minutes that I was with them.
CJ: Since then everything in my life has just tripped along and I just keep gaining experiences in accessibility, and then all a sudden it was like, “Wow there’s a hashtag for accessibility on Twitter. There are people talking about accessibility.” For the longest time it was like people didn’t know. Like with Tech Com, for the longest time nobody knew other people who were doing WinHelp. It was the same with accessibility, and all a sudden it opened up the flood gates and you could find people who knew more than you did, who could teach you. You’ve brought things to the equation that they didn’t know, and that’s how I got started.
SO: So what is accessibility or what is your definition of it? How do you constrain that field, ’cause I know there’s a lot there?
CJ: There is a lot there and it tends to scare people, just because it is such a wide field. For me accessibility ties into usability because what you’re doing is not just making something useable for somebody who has all their senses and for mobility and everything else, but you’re making products that work no matter what constraints the person might have to try and work with. They use…
SO: Go ahead.
CJ: I was just gonna say, so you’ve got people who use screen readers. They’re not always blind but there are people who use screen readers, which reads the stuff on the screen to them and then they can talk back. They text through their iPhones by talking. They read Facebook by listening. They post by talking. People who are deaf, that’s who need captions and video description, so they could watch the video and even though they can’t hear what’s going on they can tell what’s going on. They perceive it. Mobility issues. People with arthritis or cerebral palsy, or even just a broken arm, who need to be able to navigate a website, there need to be keystrokes. Typically we use the tab key. It helps if people add in links that let people jump to different sections. Some apps like screen readers have special key combinations that pull up anything styled as a heading, not anything that looks like a heading but something that is styled as a heading.
SO: It seems like there’s an analogy here to the physical world and you even touched on this with your broken foot example. We have curb cuts, and we have traffic lights, or pedestrian lights that make noises in addition to having visual “Walk” “Don’t Walk” kinds of signs. It sounds as what you’re describing is that same kind of guide posting or the same alternatives being provided in the online world, in the content world.
CJ: Yes. I actually did talk about… I’m trying to find the curb cut for documentation at one point.
CJ: Because curb cuts started after World War II, a little city in the midwest. Basically somebody was watching these Vets who could not get up over curbs between crutches and wheelchairs and things. Once curb cuts were adopted and they spread it went from there to San Francisco and then just everywhere. Now curb cuts are mandatory, but you’ll notice everybody uses the curb cut. People who have trouble bending their knees because of arthritis, use a curb cut. Mothers who are pushing strollers, use a curb cut. People pulling wheely suitcases, use a curb cut. Even though it might have been originally designed for a specific accessibility purpose, it’s open to everyone and makes everybody’s life easier. The same thing happens when documents and websites and podcasts and videos are accessible. It not only accommodates that person who needs that specific thing, but it actually makes it easier and better for everyone.
SO: We mentioned the physical, the curb cuts. I think for those of us listening in the United States we know that those are a legal requirement of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Is there a similar legal requirement for the content accessibility that we’re talking about?
CJ: Not officially in the United States, no. There is Section 508, which is for government. Anybody who does business with the government and any government site has to be accessible. It’s also a procurement law, which means that when the government is looking to hire a vendor and they have to choose between vendor A who has a really sucky interface or a product but it’s accessible, and vendor B who has this gorgeous product but isn’t accessible, they have to go with vendor A.
SO: Okay. What about worldwide are there other countries or other regions where there are accessibility requirements?
CJ: Yes, pretty much every place but here. WCAG 2.0 is the base standard, and the new section 508 which is due out I believe next January. January 2018, will tie into WCAG, because WCAG 1 went for very specific rules, like “You will use this font size” sort of thing or whatever. Now they’ve made it so much more generic, because our phones are computers, really. Therefore if you’re gonna make something accessible it needs to be accessible not just on a computer, but on a smartphone, on a tablet, on a watch, anything that is a device that has electronic capabilities. That’s what we’re aiming toward. Section 508, as far as I know, will still only be for government. Accessibility is just a good thing to do if you’re in the States even without a legal requirement.
SO: Okay. We’ll include links to all of these things in the show notes. WCAG is W-C-A-G by the way? [chuckle]
CJ: Yeah. Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.0, which is put out by…
SO: I’m glad you know what it stands for.
CJ: Which is put up by WAI, which is Web Accessibility Initiative, which comes from a W3C, which is the World Wide Web Consortium.
SO: Well, I knew how to spell it, and then, there my knowledge ended.
CJ: Yeah. We’ll get those links in so that everybody has them. Okay, there’s some amount of legal requirement, and if you’re operating globally you’re going to be dealing with multiple different jurisdictions. Now, if I’m a content person, a content creator, where do I get started with this? How do I even know, is my content accessible or not? I have no idea, so where do I start?
CJ: One advantage for Tech Commers [technical writers] is that we typically like styles, not all of us, but most of us. If you’re doing something like structured frame, you’re already part way there, because you have to follow that structured authoring paradigm, which means heading 1, followed by content; heading 2, followed by content; heading three, followed by content. That’s accessible. Heading 1 to heading 5 isn’t really accessible, because it’s missing several steps. [chuckle] Tech Commers in general, tend to already be producing somewhat accessible documents even though they don’t realize it.
SO: That’s the tech side of things. What about other media, like graphics, video, audio?
CJ: Alright. When you get to graphics, video and even text, you want to watch color contrast. Color contrast is how easy is something to read. Obviously black on white is really good, because everybody can pretty much… Anybody who can see can easily typically read black on white. Some dyslexics actually find blue on yellow to be a better combination, and some people have said that if you tone the white down a bit it’s not so glary, which also makes it easier to read. Where you run into problems is when you do things… For example, I have a site up on my screen where the hyperlinks are in a lighter shade of blue. Now I can see it, but people who have different sets of… Some kind of color blindness. Let’s go with that. Might see the text more as grey. They might still be able to recognize it as a link, but due to the fact that it’s just blue and it doesn’t underline until you mouse over it, they may or may not actually recognize it as a link. People who use tab, the mobility side, would actually tab to the link, so the color wouldn’t be a an issue. The color is an issue for people who are low vision or who have some form of color blindness, and there’s nine or 12 different kinds of color blindness.
SO: Okay. For graphics and any visual display we need to worry about color and color contrast?
SO: Then what about audio, like this podcast?
CJ: The audio should be… It doesn’t need to be transcribed because there’s nothing to see. No, it needs to be transcribed because you want the words. It doesn’t need to be described because there is nothing to see. An audio transcription means that somebody sits there and… There’s tools actually that’ll do that. It’ll listen to us. It’ll listen to the recording. It’ll do it’s best guess. Same as if you send a text message by talking into your phone, which sometimes works and sometimes you get weird words, and then you just clean it up. That’s one way to make a podcast accessible for somebody who is deaf, or who has some sort of hearing issue. For video, you want to caption it so that people… This not only helps people who are deaf. It helps people who are sitting in bars at airports waiting for their flight, or at the gate at the airport waiting for their flight, where there’s a huge amount of background noise, and you can’t hear what they’re saying on the TV that might be in at the gate area. These captions make it so that everybody knows what’s going on.
CJ: Description is when they actually do things like, “A guy named Joe just walked across the living room, and said… ” Then Joe’s voice jumps in. They can audio describe TV shows and movies and things like that. A friend of mine in England has a setting on her TV that automatically enables audio description, so that when she’s watching TV she gets the full experience even, though she can’t see it.
SO: It almost sounds as though they’re taking what would’ve been in the original script and reverse engineering it back in.
CJ: Basically, yeah. But a lot of people only get as far as adding captions, which is good, but it doesn’t provide the depth of detail.
SO: If I’m sitting here faced with a product that I need to document, or some technical content that I need to write, what are some of the best practices to think about as I’m thinking about “What’s gonna be my strategy for this content?” and then eventually I’m gonna localize it, but at what point in the process should I be thinking about accessibility?
CJ: From the beginning. At the very start. I did a project once. Somebody had created a multi-tabbed Excel spreadsheet for a class… I guess it was their homework. I’m trying to remember the project. And they got all done with it and somebody said, “By the way, it needs to be accessible.” And so I had to go back and pretty much redo it. I had to change the colors. I had to change the font sizes. I had to change the font families. I had to get headings into Excel, which is always a fun time.
CJ: So that they could navigate around, all that kinda stuff. The fact is, if somebody had started from the very beginning and said “Okay look, we need… This is our color combination. It’s already verified. This is the font family we’re gonna use. This is the font size we’re gonna use. This is how we’re gonna differentiate headings.” Poof, it would be done, and when they got all done they’d have an accessible Excel spreadsheet. Instead, because they brought me in later, the end result was like an extra 15 grand for this 10-tab Excel spreadsheet, to make it accessible, ’cause I had to go back and redo everything but the content.
SO: This is just like anything else, if you plan it upfront it’ll be fine, and if you glue it on after the fact it’ll be not as good and cost a ton of money.
CJ: Yes. Not only that, but if you glue it on after the fact, typically what happens is you start project A and it’s not set up for accessibility, and so project A is working it’s way through it’s little product cycle and halfway through product A you start product B. Now you get to the end of product A and you go, “Oh, we should’ve included product B, or we should’ve made it accessible,” but now product B is already three quarters of the way through it’s cycle and now you gotta paste it on there; whereas if you start from the beginning by making it accessible, by setting up templates that are accessible, by having everybody on the same page. ‘Cause we’re talking more than just the styles and the format and the colors, we’re also talking words, especially for us. We’re Tech Commers, so words matter.
SO: It does seem as though we have a responsibility to think about this in the same way that nobody else thinks about style guides or anything like that. This is one of these things that as content producers we’re responsible for.
CJ: Correct. I was working on something the other day. I was editing something, I think, for a friend of mine, and there was a sentence that said, “Once you do this step once.” They’ve now used once two different ways, once meaning after and once meaning one time. Now that’ll cause issues just in general, understandability for almost anybody in the world, but it’ll also cause problems with translation. That example specifically, not so much for SEO, for search engine optimization, but other examples. If you make things accessible, you automatically make your translations better, your localizations better, your search engine optimization better, and everybody benefits. Another good word that’s been coming up a lot lately is follow, “Follow the following steps,” so “Proceed in order through the steps that come after this paragraph.” Somebody needs to… When you’re setting up your style guide, you need to indicate which words are and are not allowed, or how they should be used, especially if you’re going to translation.
SO: So it sounds as though potentially this can basically pay for itself, because [A], if you do it upfront it’s not that expensive. [B], it’s gonna help with translation or localization cost efficiency and all of that. And [C], you’re expanding your market. You’re expanding your market in the sense that, for example, the US government will look more kindly on your product if it’s accessible, but also anyone that cares about accessibility that’s a customer will be more likely to buy your product.
CJ: Yeah. One of the most common things I heard before I started working for Schneider Electric when I was still a consultant, would be… I’d say something about accessibility and the answer would almost always be, “We don’t have any disabled users.” It’s like, “How do you know that?”
SO: Well that’s interesting, because years and years and years ago, the first time I actually ran across accessibility was because we had a customer that called us up and said, “We need some form of help.” It was a long time ago. “And our help absolutely has to be accessible.” This had to have been maybe 15 years ago. It was awhile back. I looked into it a little bit, and of course out of the box what they were doing was not accessible, so we did some more digging, and we built them accessible help and everything was fine. But later we asked them, “Why was this such a concern?” Because it’s quite unusual to have somebody lead with that, to have a client show up and say “Accessibility is our number one concern.” It turned out, they said, Well… ” They made something related to networking. They said, “Well, our major client over here has a CIO who is blind, and we can’t sell to him unless we produce accessible help.”
CJ: That’s the way a lot of people end up getting into it. There’s a specific reason, “I know somebody who… ” “I needed this customer who… ” When I said earlier that “We don’t have any users,” or somebody saying “We don’t have any users with disabilities,” you can’t actually, unless you’ve been able to send everybody a survey saying, “You need… ” “Does this have to work on a screen reader?” “Does this have to work with TTY?” “Does this have to have to have captions?” The thing is, even if you try, the list is so long that you’ll never know. What typically happens is, a lot of people with disabilities might contact the company and say “Look, I really wanna use your product but I can’t.” Most just go find somebody else. They’re no different than everybody else, ’cause they are everybody else, which is the easy way out. You don’t wanna spend hours trying to get somebody to make something that works for what you need, you’ll just go try and find something that already does what you need.
SO: This actually sounds exactly like the argument against localization, which is basically, “Oh, all of our customers speak English.”
CJ: Yes, it’s very similar.
SO: And it’s true, all of your current customers speak English because you’re not providing anybody that doesn’t speak English with the option of using your product.
SO: So the real question…
CJ: I liken getting back to the mid ’90s when the browser wars were going on, and I always used… What was it? Netscape Navigator, was my primary browser. Every time I would talk to somebody about it and they’re just like, “If it works on IE that’s fine.” It’s like, “People use other browsers.” “No, none of our customers use other browsers.” “Well, I’m one of your customers and I use Netscape Navigator, and I cant see your site.” It takes me back 20 something… Wow, 30 something. Wow. Wow. A really long time. It’s the same fight just with a different battle, if that makes sense.
SO: I think that you’ve got some statistics around, not just the legal requirements but in fact the market, in terms of how large the market is of people that have some sort of limitation in accessing content.
CJ: The World Health Organization estimates that 20% globally, a billion people have at least one disability.
SO: That could be anything, low vision.
CJ: That could be anything. Somebody said to me “That’s an oxymoron,” but it’s the world’s largest minority group.
CJ: It’s the only one that everyone will join at some point; not you might join it, you will join it. You will end up on crutches, because you sprained your ankle. You will end up in a cast, because you fell down. My joke when I give presentations is to show pictures of my son, they say that… The statistics basically say that people will spend 11% of their lives with some kind of disability, and my joke was always, “My son tried to fit in his 11% before he finished high school.”
CJ: The thing is, that 11% includes people who were born with some kind of a disability, as well as those who just get it because they got old.
CJ: 11%… Right. And aging, right now aging… [chuckle] I’ve been laughing. We read. You read, I read, we all read, but you and I especially I know we both read a lot. I’m getting so tired of all these novels of the 50-year-old gray hair stooped women. It’s like, “Oh, come on. There’s 50-year-olds who don’t look like that anymore. There’s 60-year-olds who don’t look like that.” But it doesn’t mean we don’t have other issues. We have arthritis, which means it’s hard to mouse, and so I’ll switch to the keyboard. Or instead of tapping to type on my phone I swipe, because it’s so much easier on my hand. I just have to hold a finger in place and I can just move around, or I can use the microphone.
SO: I’m sure it’s not me, but I’ve noticed that the type on my computer is getting smaller and smaller and smaller.
CJ: Two things. One is that the average age is 40 when people’s visions start to change. I’m one of the weird ones, I am farsighted, but most people who get over 40 are nearsighted, so it makes a difference. But, about 10 years ago, some nifty, young 20-year-old designer, nobody will ever know who it is and whoever it is, is certainly never going to say who they are, decided that a medium-gray type, that’s about what would the 8.0 when printed, is the most professional looking website, which rules out anybody over the age of 45, unless you’re wearing glasses and you up your font size in your browser. You just can’t read it, it’s too small.
SO: Yeah. And then because that particular person apparently worked for a certain well-known design leader, everybody else adopted that same grey on, sort of white. Yeah, not good.
AV: Yeah, and the world sits there and goes “I can’t read it.”
SO: “I can’t read it.” [chuckle] “It’s not me.”
AV: “I can’t read it.” [laughter] “Please.”
SO: As we wrap up here with our lament of aging…
SO: What is the advice that you would give somebody that’s hearing this and saying “Okay. I hear you and I understand, and now I think need to go think about this and maybe get started.” Where should they start?
CJ: They can start with WCAG, W-C-A-G. You can just type it. If you type in WCAG 2.0, there are guidelines and… That site is awesome. It not only has the 15 major points, but it actually describes each one. It includes things like color contrast and captions on videos. One of the the things is sort of along the lines of ‘Do No Harm’ in that it says “You need to make things so that if users end up in a quandary, they can get back out again.” Which is what we do. This is what Tech Com does. There’s an WCAG guideline just for us, really.
CJ: About eight of them I think, apply directly to Tech Com that can be implemented immediately. Easily, the quickest way to get started is make sure you’re using a style sheet and stick to it. Make sure you always use headings. Headings by the way come in handy, not just because screen reader users can pull up a link saying “Here’s all the headings in this document,” but because people with cognitive issues, traumatic brain injuries, anything that just has to do with brain stuff, they can look at text that is a different size and they can go, “Oh the bigger text is more important than the text that’s smaller, and that text is more important than the text that is smaller than that,” so there’s a visual acclimation that happens as people look through things.
CJ: If you make it look like a heading then you rule out the screen readers ’cause they can’t pull up the headings, although it still would work with anybody with a cognitive issue. Anyway, make sure your color contrast is good. Make sure that any graphics that you choose or use. Or screen shots, if your screen shots don’t… If you look at a screenshot and you have trouble and your vision is considered relatively normal, then go to your dev team and say, “Hey, we need to make some changes here. We need to modify this.” Somebody emailed me a couple of weeks ago and said, “I’m working on this website… I’ve asked somebody to work on a website for me and this is the button that they put on it. What do you think?” I’m like, “You’re kidding, right?” Because it was some pink text on a variegated blue back ground.
CJ: I’m just like “Oh, that is just awful.” [chuckle] They way the colors worked out, they just had to change the pink text to black, and it was good enough. The blues were light enough that it would make enough color contrast. You worry about that.
SO: So it’s small things?
CJ: It’s small things.
SO: It’s basic, best practices.
CJ: If something looks weird to you, and like I said, you have roughly normal vision, it’s going to look weirder to somebody whose vision isn’t as good as yours, or it’s not gonna appear at all. My husband plays ‘Clash of Kings’ a lot of times, and every now and then he has to run in with the screen and say to me “What color… ” They do these little icons that are one color sitting on a background of a different color, and because all these icons are mushed onto one screen, he can’t always distinguish the colors. He can if they were separate but not because they’re all so close together. I look at them and go “Um, I think that one’s blue.”
CJ: But there is… I forget which one it is. AbleGamers would know. But there is actually a game development company, where they actually accounted for people who are color blind right from the start, because their CEO was color blind, and he didn’t tell anybody. A lot of times people don’t… They don’t wanna say. It’s almost like it’s a bad thing. Sometimes people with disabilities are treated like it’s a bad thing. But this guy just basically… He didn’t actually tell anybody for awhile, that he wanted good color contrast ’cause of him. He just said it’s a good thing to do, and eventually it came out that this was why. Whatever the reason, you make it better for everybody.
SO: Yeah. I used to have a co-worker who was quite color blind, so we would run everything by him, “Can you see this? How does it look?” Of course now there are websites that will do that for us. [chuckle]
SO: In return of course, he would wander in, in the morning and say, “Does this outfit look okay?” [chuckle]
SO: Okay. I think that wraps it up here. Thank you so much.
CJ: You’re welcome.
SO: There’s just a ton of good information here.
CJ: There’s stuff all over. One thing you can do is go to any government website: DOJ, the VA, Section 508, obviously. They should all have a page about accessibility. Even your state government website should have a page about accessibility, what they’ve done to make their sites.
SO: We’ll include a few of those in the show notes to get people started.
CJ: Yes. I have to send you a bunch of links.