The story of accessibility is the story of humans connecting to each other. In this post, Jeff Smith reveals why he got into accessibility, and what keeps him here.

Before there was colour contrast, before there was accessibility, before there were even computers in my life, there was my buddy Graham.

Two small boys seen from behind, walking in a grassy meadow; one boy holding the other's arm.My best friend since age 4, Graham was born with oculocutaneous albinism, a form of albinism that, in Graham’s case, resulted in low vision and colour blindness.

As we entered junior high school, home computers were becoming more common. We were both really into music and we spent hours looking up guitar tablature online for our favourite songs. I watched as  Graham struggled with seeing the screen and the tiny diagrams for the guitar tabs. Through Graham’s experience, I learned about what assistive technology was available from the Canadian National Institute for the Blind (CNIB). This consisted of monitor magnifiers, large magnifying glasses and different types of screen magnifying software.

Still, Graham had difficulty. While using a screen magnifier, many necessary elements on pages would be out of his view. When he read content on the web or navigated through pages with forms he would often sit very close to the screen in uncomfortable positions to avoid using a screen magnifier. Doing so would ensure that he’d be able to scan the screen to locate those items that would normally have been out of his view. Looking back, I can see how this could have set Graham up for potential back issues and other injuries later in life.

Focus management

During high school, I developed a strong interest in web design and development. However, none of my preferred universities were offering web development programs. The next logical step for me was computer science and software engineering. I chose to place a heavy focus on human computer interaction (HCI). The HCI courses provided some focus on digital design and web technologies.

Although I wasn’t yet aware of the digital accessibility movement, I knew something was missing when it came to the HCI curriculum in the classes I took.

I couldn’t understand why it didn’t include any consideration for vision disabilities.There was a gap in my computer science education, a gap that I had been witnessing my best buddy struggle with for years.

I moved on in my studies, pursuing a diploma in graphic design. My studies placed a heavy focus on colour theory and how it applies to colour blindness. Immediately after graduation, I began freelancing in web design and development.

Discussing colour blindness with clients led me to experience hesitation and pushback. Some clients wondered why they should even worry about it, while others were concerned about the ripple effect of changing their branding on the web. I knew I needed more fortification to back up my reasoning. The more I learned, the more I began to fly under the radar, making slight colour changes that made user experiences better for everyone.

I was just doing what I knew was right—and in doing so, I rarely ran into pushback.

Getting connected

As I met more and more developers and designers online that were also interested in improving the digital experience for everyone, it was just a matter of time before I connected with Derek Featherstone through an online mailing list. Derek is among the most prominent leaders in the digital accessibility space and I regularly bounced ideas off him when I ran into new, challenging issues in my work.

Tired of the freelance rollercoaster, I took a position at a small Microsoft .Net shop. At the time, .Net components were incredibly inaccessible out of the box. I began teaching my co-workers about some of the accessible development techniques I had been learning in my free time. Again, I ran into resistance from project managers and clients worried that creating an accessible user experience was adding more time and cost to our projects. I flew under the radar once more, working with our developers to convert all our .Net controls into custom, accessible controls. We were essentially building out a pattern library that had accessibility baked into it. Still, I didn’t feel like we were doing enough for our client’s end users. I was craving the opportunity to do more, since it was clear to me that there was so much more to be done.

Up close and personal

In early 2007, I began working as a developer with Derek. As I continued to refine my accessibility skills, I also began learning more about advanced manual accessibility testing and accessible design. The more I worked with Derek, the more my passion for accessibility grew. I got a closer look at the incredible barriers that users with varying disabilities face on the web.

Soon, I found myself working closely with our client’s development and design teams. Through this, I saw that many people didn’t believe accessibility was their responsibility. Still others were daunted by the task of adding yet another skill to the already mountainous list of technology they need to stay ahead of.

I made it my goal to work with developers. I wanted to show them that incorporating basic accessibility practices into their workflows didn’t require extra work. I wanted to show them that quite often these practices contributed to things they were already thinking about, like web standards, and test-driven development.

As I moved into the role of Director of Operations at Simply Accessible, my new challenge became helping discover better and more efficient ways for our team to help clients to incorporate accessibility into all aspects of their digital practice.

While my focus has shifted away from testing and working side-by-side with our client’s development teams, I still very much believe that the key to making the digital world more accessible is reaching the artists and builders of the web, the designers and developers.

Turning designers and developers into believers in accessibility, and finding champions in that group, can trigger mind-shifts that have a lasting impact within companies. Product/team managers and decision-makers will start to see the benefits of these practices through results like an increase in conversions for their business and less stress on their customer support teams.

The journey continues

I’m still here because I hope to see many more people embark on the accessibility journey I’ve been on since my early 20’s. I want to see people start with something seemingly small, for instance, colour contrast or keyboard accessibility, and grow to the point where we’re all thinking about digital accessibility beyond the web: mobile devices, kiosks, self-serve checkouts in stores, and so on. And finally, I want to help more people think beyond digital accessibility, to education, the physical space, and more.

Silhouette of two boys playing guitars with the sunset behind them.As for Graham, he and I are still good friends. He now leads a branch of a large investment management company and is still very much involved in music. Every so often we’ll discuss the issues he runs into on the web, but advances in both optical and assistive technology have made his online life easier. I keep doing what I do, so Graham can keep doing what he does.

4 thoughts on “I’m still here: a career in accessibility”

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  1. Fran Osborne says:

    Great read and intro to accessibility (and thanks for all the work you did under the radar).

    1. Jeff Smith says:

      Thanks, Fran!

  2. Gail says:

    Hey Jeff, I’m a product designer who is really passionate about accessibility but I haven’t received much support from stakeholders on the topic (or even my peers). This article was really inspiring and motivating for me. Thanks!

    1. Jeff Smith says:

      Very glad you enjoyed it, Gail. I definitely empathize with the situation you’re currently in. Keep up the good fight and hopefully you’ll find some allies on your team!

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