Today, we talk with Kimberly Blessing about her upcoming keynote at John Slatin AccessU. Kimmie talks with our own Derek Featherstone about facilitating cultural change in an organization and how it relates to web accessibility.

Here’s our latest in our series of AccessU 2013 Speaker Interviews:

AccessU keynote speaker Kimberly Blessing

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Kimberly Blessing transcript

This is the transcript of an interview recorded on April 26, 2013 between Derek Featherstone, and Kimberly Blessing, the keynote speaker for AccessU. It was recorded over Skype and posted as part of John Slatin AccessU 2013 podcast series.

Interview summary

Derek: Kimmie Blessing has worn a lot of hats in her 20 year career on the web. She’s a developer, a manager, a speaker and a great leader in the web standards world. We’re running an entire series of podcast interviews with a number of great speakers from the John Slatin AccessU conference.

We talk with Kimmie about change, culture and four letter words as she prepares for her keynote address at AccessU. Coming up May 14th to 16th in Austin, Texas, presented by Knowbility, this is THE conference to go to for in-depth, hands-on, minds-on accessibility training. Check it all out at That’s k n o w b i l i t y dot org.

[Intro Music]

Derek: Hi everybody, this is Derek Featherstone with Simply Accessible. We are continuing with our series of interviewing speakers for the upcoming AccessU. I have with me today Kimmie Blessing. How are you, Kimmie?

Kimberly: I’m doing well, Derek. Thanks. How are you?

Derek: I’m doing really well. I’m getting kind of excited. We’re getting closer to AccessU time. I know people are deep in their preparations and getting ready.

Many people are out there trying to make the decision as to whether or not they’re actually going to be able to make it to AccessU to attend. I just wanted to spend some time with different speakers and help push people over the top a little bit. I think that John Slatin AccessU, put on by Knowbility, is literally the best accessibility specific conference that there is going. One of the reasons is that we have a lot of great speakers and this year is no exception.

I was really pleased to see that this year you are doing the keynote. I think that’s fantastic. Before we get into the keynote, maybe you could spend a couple of minutes just to share with the audience, people who don’t necessarily know you, maybe you can tell us a little bit about yourself and maybe a little bit about what accessibility means to you.

Kimberly: Sure. When most people ask me what I do, I tell them that I’m a web developer. I started developing websites almost 20 years ago. In 1993, my first site went live in ’94. That seems like both an incredibly long period of time and also like the blink of an eye. It’s great to be in a field that has changed so much in such a short period of time because you’re constantly on your toes and learning new things. That’s what I really love about it.

In reality, I haven’t had fingers on keyboard so to speak for 20 solid years. I’ve moved around and had a lot of roles. I’ve been in management, I’ve done program management, I’ve done standards, I’ve done strategy work, but always related to the web because that really is what I’m most passionate about is helping people connect using technology.

It’s funny because when I first got into the web, I got into the web I guess because I was a computer science student, but I was also doing IT work as a way to sort of pay my way through college. One of the things that I remember very distinctly, and I kind of say this is how I got my start with accessibility, was right around that same time. It was actually in 1994.

I was asked to install a couple of pieces of software onto a computer that was in a public library because they had gotten funding because somebody in the community had a disability and needed special software in order to be able to use the computer and the computerized card catalogue, and soon after that to use the internet and what not.

Literally the software just got dropped on my desk. Nobody knew anything about it. I just picked it up, I went to go install it, and I thought, “Wow, okay. Wow, this would enlarge a section of the screen so that somebody who was low vision would be able to see these words. Wow, that’s magnified 2000%. Okay.” Things started to click for me.

I met a member of the community who was going to use the software. She let me observe her using it and she explained how things could be better set up so that the entire system was more convenient for her. We actually moved the computer to a lower table because her wheelchair sat lower than most people prefer to sit on chairs.

I kind of got this entire hands-on tutorial thanks to just this rare opportunity. When I really got into web development as a full time profession, that just stuck with me. When reading the specs as some of us used to do and it said, “Use an ALT attribute on your images in order to give some descriptive text for the image in case somebody’s using a screen reader,” that made perfect sense to me.

I guess I should even mention that I myself have never been a big fan of the mouse. I like to keep my fingers on the keyboard. I’ve always been sort of a tab based navigation person, so those kinds of things, I guess in thinking about accessibility, I’m not thinking necessarily about even folks who would consider themselves to have a disability. I’m thinking about people who just have their own preference for how they want to interact with technology and with the web. I want to make sure that we honor every person’s preference as much as we possibly can.

That’s where accessibility really ties into things for me. I’m just really honored to get to be a part of AccessU this year, I guess I should say. I’ve never had the opportunity to attend before. I guess when I was a manager I was always sending my staff because I thought, “I want them there. I want them to get that same kind of hands on experience with people who can really communicate the importance of this far better than I can.” Now for once I get to go myself. I’m really excited.

Derek: I think you’re going to have a fantastic time. It really is a wonderful conference with lots of different people and lots of different perspectives. I think that’s a huge part of it.

I’m interested in hearing a little bit of your talk. I don’t want you to tell us everything that you’re going to talk about, but the name of your keynote address is Change is Not a Four Letter Word. Tell me a little bit about that.

Kimberly: Usually I give technical talks, and when I was approached to give the keynote I was sort of both really flattered and a little bit frightened because obviously in giving a keynote to this type of audience, what I understand about the conference and what I really want to do is help people understand that they are agents of change.

They have it within themselves to help their organizations, their peers think of accessibility in the same way they do. They’re passionate about it, they believe it’s important, and we really are at least in terms of the U.S., I think sometimes the U.S. is perhaps a little bit behind in some ways when it comes to legislation regarding accessibility, especially on the web, but we are at this kind of pinpoint opportunity where things are really about to change in terms of laws and various legislation.

The knowledge that people are getting at AccessU, I really want to help people feel empowered to take that back to wherever they’re from, whether it’s an institution of learning, whether it’s a giant company, a small consultancy, or whether they’re just independent and they have the opportunity influence a larger community of people. It’s important that they know how to do that, to understand that they already have it within themselves to do it. I want to help them understand some really simple steps that can make that process of introducing change much easier.

A lot of times when we talk about introducing change in an environment, the initial reaction is fear. That’s what I’m talking about. It’s true enough when people say, “Oh, it’s time to change something,” there’s a lot of cursing. Usually that comes out of a sense of fear. People get comfortable with the way something’s done. It works for them, and so in order to make a difference, it does mean adapting. It does mean possibly failing. That’s how we grow as individuals, it’s how we grow as a community, and it’s how we’re going to grow and make the web into the powerful tool of communication and worldwide interconnectedness that I think a lot of us see it as.

Part of it, I hope to be inspirational, and in part of it I hope to be very practical by telling stories about opportunities I’ve had to influence and create change in organizations. I can demonstrate very specific steps that the audience can go and take so that they don’t even have to be fearful about being that change agent that they can see. It’s just a series of steps. It’s a methodology. Not everything always works, but you can try and try again until you get it right.

Derek: It sounds like a lot of what you may be talking about or working with people on is that idea of introducing change and helping people overcome that fear. Are there any little tidbits that you could sneak peek to us that might help people, just so they get a sense of what kinds of things you’re going to be talking about?

Kimberly: Sure, absolutely. I think there are a couple of really essential things that people need to understand. The first is that they’re not alone. There are others out there, and some may be local and some may not. There still is a community that they can lean on.

As much as they can leverage that community to help them and support them, it’s going to reinforce that they’re doing the right thing and get them through those tough times when either they’re surrounded by a lot of naysayers and nonbelievers. It will help them brainstorm and give them ideas for other ways of coming up with tactics to address the audience that they’re going after.

One is to make sure that you’re finding those people and reaching out to them and building that community of support. At the same time, it’s really important to find sponsors. This is particularly important when you’re working in a large organization because if you’re a low person on the totem pole or somewhere in the middle, you may not necessarily have the authority to just say, “Hey, we’re going to change. We’re going to make all of our websites accessible.”

What you’d probably need to do in that case is start to find that community that does support you, but then find those folks who are higher up who can sponsor your ideas, who see the value in it, will back you up, will help you find other ways of getting your message across. Probably eventually those will be the people who can use their authority to say, “Okay, now our policy is to make all of our websites accessible.” You want to make sure you spend time finding those sponsors.

In order to find those sponsors, sometimes you have to change your language and learn how to speak a different language. Most of the people I know who are really passionate about accessibility come from either a design or a development sort of background. We’re used to either communicating in perhaps soft terms or very technological terms.

If you’re in a large business, those terms really may not make their meaning clear to, for example, a finance person who’s focused on financial figures. It is sometimes a matter of taking a step back, looking at what it is you’re trying to communicate, and seeing if there are other ways to get that same message across. Tell the story, but tell it in a different way so that you’re connecting the dots for the intended audience. You’re not making them connect the dots on their own.

` That can actually help to bridge any gap much more quickly. It’s a lot easier to go to a finance person and say, “We need $2,000 to buy a copy of JAWS and a new computer to set it up on because…” and then you demonstrate the financial value of making sure that the site is accessible. Maybe it’s expanding the intended audience for a product and increasing the overall revenue of the company. Maybe it’s avoiding lawsuits and the financial payouts that have to go along with that.

Even though you may have internalized it as doing good in the world or this is important because other people have different technology preferences, sometimes your audience will go, “Yeah, yeah, yeah. That’s nice, but speak to me in my language.” That’s another bit that I’ll be talking about in the keynote.

Those are kind of three things. I have five different techniques. I’ll only give you three as a little preview. Those are some starter ideas. Hopefully that’s enough to pique folks’ interest and get them to attend.

Derek: I think it will be. I don’t think people will want to miss this. One of the questions that I’m asked all the time, and as you know I speak quite a bit to different audiences, sometimes designers, sometimes developers. I was at a conference in the Netherlands in December and we had gone through this entire full day workshop and the designers were all ecstatic. They loved it. One of them put his hand up at the end and he said, “Okay, this is fantastic, but how do I sell this? I don’t know how to sell this to the people who I report to. I don’t really know what to do there.”

I think it’s interesting, some of the things that you’re talking about. Empathy for the other person’s point of view is something that is built into us as people who are supporters of accessibility and good design in the first place. We don’t always think that way when it comes to the tactics that we use for trying to do things like create change. I think your point about speaking to people in their language, I think there’s almost that empathy in trying to create personas for different types of people that we need to work with in an organization would be really useful just to get a sense of what’s their likely frame of mind and what is going to be useful to them in order to help them make this decision.

Any other thoughts about your talk or anything that you want to share?

Kimberly: I think if you look at the AccessU site, it talks about my experience at AOL and my technical career. One of the things mentioned there is the Web Standards Project, which is obviously Derek, you know, how we know each other I think initially or best. We have experience in working to create change in sort of a massive scale, trying to speak to an audience of web professionals the world over.

We could probably speak a lot about successes and failures of that group as it relates to change and the ability to empathize with one another and communicate effectively. That’s just sort of another example of why these basic tenets of understanding how people process change and how to make it an easier transition are really important.

I think these are the same principles. I read an article years ago about how a number of employees at a company banded together in order to get daycare into their organization. To me, it read exactly the same way. This is not just about creating change necessarily in order to bring accessibility to the forefront of web professionals’ minds and in order to make it a reality for everyone, although obviously in terms of this conference that is what’s most important.

These same techniques will apply anywhere and hopefully that will also resonate with people because it may be less scary to try and do this in some other regards first. Just trying to get your kids to do their homework or trying to get your community to actually sort their recyclables, which is actually another story that will probably be in the talk, as well. When I was in high school a very long time ago, before recycling was commonplace, I tried to get the school to recycle.

These are the kinds of things that I’m betting that people will be able to relate to. They’ll already have some kind of experience trying to do something similar, they just haven’t connected the dots for themselves. I think as soon as they latch on to that and realize that they have either been through this before somewhere else in their lives and hopefully been successful with that, that will also empower them to realize that being that champion for accessibility within their organization, their whole lives have been preparing them for this. They’re going to do great when they get there.

Derek: That’s fantastic. That’s already an inspirational message. Hopefully not just the people who are there at AccessU listening, but anybody else who listens to this podcast as well will be inspired by that. I think you’ve made a lot of really great points. You had me at convincing your kids to do their homework. I’m sold already. I think that’s huge.

This is definitely something where the things you’re going to talk about are not going to just help with accessibility change, but with change in general. That’s fantastic. I think we need more of that within the accessibility community because quite often I think in the accessibility tribe, we don’t necessarily have a lot of those skills. What ends up happening is we end up trying to create change by what seems to be forced methods. That just leads to resistance and things don’t change.

I think some of these skills and the techniques that you’re talking about or will be talking about will be incredibly useful.

Last question. Tell me about something that you want to do. We have a lot of people coming in from outside of Austin who don’t know Austin. We’re playing sort of virtual tour guide here. What is a must see/must do thing for you while you’re in Austin? If you could give advice to people on one thing that they absolutely must see or do or eat, what would it be?

Kimberly: Okay, I have one in each of three categories. The must eat for me is the Moonshine restaurant, which is downtown. It’s actually near the convention center. I think it’s just a beautiful location and they have popcorn as an appetizer which I just love. Their meals are just delicious. I’m hoping to find time to eat there.

I’m hoping to make it to Waterloo Records to go record shopping. Waterloo Records is one of the top record stores in the country. I always try to make time to go there for a bit.

If I had the time, I’m not sure I do, I would go to the Alamo Draft House and Movie Theater to catch a movie.

Derek: Very cool. Thank you very much, Kimmie. We’ll talk again soon.

Kimberly: Thanks, Derek. Have a great day.

Derek: Those are some great lessons from Kimmie — this should make for an excellent keynote. Go register for AccessU at – that’s k n o w b i l i t y dot org.

[Outro Music]