Today we talk with Molly Holzschlag about CSS, resolving accessbility tensions in design, ARIA and the culture in Austin as we prepare for Knowbility’s John Slatin AccessU.

Our latest in the John Slatin AccessU speaker interviews.

Molly Holzschlag at AccessU on the open web

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This is the transcript of an interview recorded on April 19th, 2013 between Derek Featherstone, and Molly Holzschlag, a long-time leader in the web standards world, with experience working for browser vendors and open standards for the web. It was recorded over Skype and posted as part of John Slatin AccessU 2013 podcast series.

Interview Summary

Derek: Today we talk with Molly Holzschlag about CSS, resolving accessbility tensions in design, ARIA and the culture in Austin as we prepare for Knowbility’s John Slatin AccessU. We’re running an entire series of podcast interviews with a number of great speakers for the John Slatin AccessU conference. 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: Hey everybody, this is Derek Featherstone with Simply Accessible. I have Molly Holzschlag with me today. We’re doing some interviews, talking about accessibility and talking about the preparation for AccessU put on by Knowbility, May 14-16 in Austin, Texas.

Molly, how are you doing?

Molly: Doing great down here in the wild, wild west. How are you?

Derek: I’m doing well. I’m happy to have some warmer temperatures today. We’re still feeling some pseudo-winter here in Ottawa. I’m happy it’s a bit warmer today.

Molly: Crazy weather this year, I think.

Derek: It’s been absolutely crazy. Sadly, I don’t get to come to AccessU, so I’m kind of getting my chance to talk with all my friends and people that I would normally be speaking with in person and be in the conference schedule, but I’m not going to be there this year, so we get to do these interviews instead.

Molly: Participating; ever part of a tribe.

Derek: Exactly. Molly, believe it or not there may be one or two people who are listening to this who don’t actually know who you are. You kind of are one of the long time stewards of the web and I’ve known you for many, many years and consider myself very lucky to have met you pretty early in my career.

Can you tell people out there who you are? I know where you work, but they may not know where you work. Tell people who you are and maybe a little bit about your history and a little bit about yourself.

Molly: Okay. Currently I’m working with Knowbility. They are, of course, the nonprofit organization that we do a lot of outreach and education, the goal being to bring technology to children and adults with disabilities, whatever that means.

Whether it’s technology that we’re using on the web, obviously, or other assistive technology, we’re there. Obviously the web is where a lot of it is happening, so a lot of our focus at Knowbility has been in the web arena and working to educate, provide opportunities for people to contribute to the community, to work, to learn, and to grow as a result of the activities that we have, AccessU being a premiere one of those activities each year.

That’s really what I’m doing these days. Of course, what some people might know of me, I’ve been around a long time as you were saying, Derek, but then again so have you. We have good stories to tell about each other. I think that from the days of web standards, I like the word you used, you used the word “steward,” or stewardess, I suppose. I think that’s a good word. It’s better than evangelist, which has so many strange connotations to it.

I was well known for a while in that arena for the web standards movement. Of course, there came a certain time where that movement continued and the web standards project continued, but I was offered to come onboard with Microsoft as a consultant. Once I was taking money from the place we were working with, I could no longer lead the grass roots organization.

Of course, as you know, I left that and went on to work for several different browser companies including Microsoft, and later Opera Software.

I have a lot of interesting points of view that I’ve been very fortunate in my career to be able to be on a variety of sides of the creation, via the W3C, watching the technologies get made which is kind of like watching sausage get made; truly, not a pretty sight. Then moving on into actually developing and designing, so making the technologies, using the technologies, teaching the technologies, and then trying to fix the technologies.

I feel that I’ve been very fortunate because I’ve gotten to see a very broad spectrum of the industry. Of course, my fundamental principles and what I will probably ever be known for is that it’s always back to the vision of that transcendental platform.

What we’re creating should be completely barrier free. The word accessibility in this case, when it comes to the web, it’s simply access for all; all people, all operating systems, all user agents, all devices, all abilities. It’s just part of the bigger picture, is how I see it.

That’s a little bit about me. I write books and articles and I’ve done a lot of that, too. My focus now really is on attempting to kind of coalesce all of this various work we’ve done to an actual model. That’s really emerging as what is being called the Open Web Platform, and I think that’s a really exciting place to be and we’re seeing a lot of great things coming to bear because of much more community outreach and activism.

Derek: Definitely that’s the case. Things have clearly changed over time. I think in the very beginning of the web we didn’t have the long term view because we couldn’t have the long term view. Now we get to balance all the short term gains and the long term vision of things.

You make a really good point. It’s sort of a natural evolution of what web technologies are, what the web stack is, and how it all fits together into creating something that’s bigger than all of us and that just fundamentally works and provides access to everyone, regardless of what they’re using or what their abilities may be.

It’s important that we call continue to bring that message forward. Thank you for everything that you do and have done and continue to do. It’s always a pleasure to work with you. That’s important for us to keep doing this stuff. You’re a leader and always have been.

Molly: Thanks, Derek. You are of the same ilk and I have great respect for the work that you have done throughout the years, diligently learning. It’s been fascinating to watch my friends grow, too. That’s another thing that we don’t necessarily always talk about.

We’re talking about educating other people through AccessU, the outreach we do, the work we do, but one of the things that is greatest, I think, and most remarkable is how wonderful it is to see the growth of the people around me and what sparks their interests and how they move through their careers.

It’s becoming very fascinating to see the industry mature a little bit. It gives me great hope because there are still some very, very strong minds that came out of all that time of chaos of the mid to late ‘90s, I guess would be really when Web Standards Project emerged for the first time in ’98 because there was just browser chaos beyond belief.

Now we have even more browser chaos, but better inter-op overall. It’s a very fascinating thing to see. I was thinking of my very first job as a web designer. We’d talk in terms of a three to give page or 10 page site. It would be one person doing some HTML. If they were exceptionally lucky, they had a clue what they were doing. If they didn’t, it still worked. This is what I think was really amazing.

We’ve come from that sort of slipshod, democratic, creative, anything goes environment into where at least for the professionals among us, we have created in less than 20 years something that has deep art, deep science, and deep knowledge that is required of those of us who do the work. It’s incredible to see that we’ve been able to adapt so quickly to it and how we do that as individuals. It’s been very fascinating to me.

Derek: Seeing the development of people over time is definitely interesting. That’s something that I think all teachers are really ultimately interested in.

One of the things that any web professional needs these days, I think anyway, is we need that accessibility knowledge. You mentioned sort of the chaotic times that we’ve been through and are in. We still continue down this chaotic path to some extent.

One of the skills that people need is something that you’re actually talking about at AccessU. Your main conference session is CSS related. I know that’s a skill that, put to good use, can be such a powerful tool. I love this line from Uncle Ben Parker from Spiderman, “With great power comes great responsibility.”

One of the things that you’re going to be talking about is CSS and some of the accessibility problems that we actually create when we don’t use CSS correctly. I don’t want you to give away your entire session, but can you give us an example of what are some of the main mistakes or maybe one or two examples that you can give us so that people know what kinds of things you’ll be talking about in the session?

Molly: I think the core issue; there are a lot of different issues. By the way, the title is called CSS Oopsies, in other words things we do we don’t necessarily mean to do that oddly, just like you were saying, cause problems from an accessibility standpoint.

Of course, a lot of this has to do with color and contrast; big issues, right? How we choose fonts, things of that nature I’ll be going through.

Let’s just take a few well known examples just to give a little sense of what I’ll be doing. A lot of it has to do with where focus is and how we help people focus on either the functional pieces of the application that they’re in, or the pieces of information that they want to be reading or interacting with.

Essentially what I see there is that we got into a bad habit because people started removing the lines. I think it was IE that showed the lines around, anytime you used Focus, it would put a visible line that people would then hide that line. The point is that we need not to do things like that because if we are hiding a feature that is an accessibility tool and required by certain people to comprehend and interact with that average site, then you’re causing problems.

We really need to look at focus in CSS, and also we’ll be looking at animations, we’ll be looking at transitions. Anything that moves, blinks, or otherwise causes visual or other problems.

One of the things that I am addressing that I think has not yet been discussed a great deal is it’s become very popular, backgrounds with very, very thin, close striping so that when you move it, it looks like it’s moving. It’s a strange effect and it really is causing people like myself and other people who have photosensitive epilepsy; I get to a site like that and let’s say they’ve used a background like that and then I’m looking at a dress on a shopping site and the dress has stripes and the background has stripes. All of a sudden, everything begins to move visually and I become nauseated and feel the world begin to spin.

People who have sensitivity to these sorts of things have to be aware. We don’t spend a lot of time on what visual things can actually harm people. We’re always talking about, “For the people who are blind, we provide this.” What about the people who can see, but have problems with how that information is interpreted neurologically?

That’s one of the things about accessibility that I think we miss a lot of times. What works for one may not always work for the other. We tend to focus on gnome issues. We have to look outside of that into the bigger world and the realities of just what it means to be human and living and aging.

I’m sure we all can agree. When I passed 40, I lost a certain percentage of my near vision. Past 50, it’s all gone. I can’t see anything a foot in front of my face. These are realities of being of the human flesh.

Whether you have a disability or don’t have a disability, fundamentally these issues will distract or cause users discomfort or problems. That’s really where I’ll be addressing. I’ll be addressing some topics that are normally not addressed, as well.

Derek: Cool. That’s good because one of the things I think that you mentioned, and we all feel this, is that the first reaction when people talk about accessibility is that it’s about screen reader, screen reader, screen reader. We all know that not to be the case, but it is definitely one of the populations of people or groups of people who have a significant difficulty using the web, so it’s pretty natural to focus on them, but there are definitely other groups that we need to focus on. I’m glad that you’re going to talk about those.

One of the things that you just mentioned that I kind of wanted to pick up on is this idea of what’s good for one may not be good for another. That’s a tension that I think a lot of designers and developers feel because they’re told to do things one specific way for a particular group, and then they face other things.

Like you mentioned here, a visual design that might be really good for one particular group of people and simply because of a change in CSS might be more difficult for another group to use. How do you resolve that tension between something being a feature that’s really good for one group of people, but an absolute nightmare for others?

Molly: That’s a very, very tough question. I think this is where, what I was saying earlier about the professional growth and watching people kind of fill their shoes over the years. I’ve watched us start out as web designers and developers and turn into real engineers. A lot of us, we’re ending up having to make those kinds of decisions.

First of all, I think it’s a collaborative decision. Those kinds of decisions should never be made by one person. I also think that the best way to get information about that is to do user testing with the people or the diverse user groups that you are working with to reach. You have to gather real information. You can’t just make assumptions about how people use things.

It goes back to that whole, first of all, that costs a lot of money. You know what? It’s all part of the engineering process, and that’s the difference now. We are no longer just designing and developing. We are engineering. When we are engineering software, especially in the web apps world where we have a lot of interaction and a great deal of complexity going on, what I think we really have to do is we have to put that stuff right into the environment of a wide variety of users will be using and take a look and really see what those differences are.

You have to work through that, and then you have to study it and I think you have to talk about it. It becomes a collaborative solution, and there is no one size fits all. Somebody had a session at SXSW this year, and I didn’t get to see it because I was working the Knowbility booth. I heard the title and I just loved it. It was called One Size Fits None. I thought that was just brilliant. I think that kind of sums up the issue.

Derek: That’s great. I’m going to have to track down that talk. I didn’t make it to SXSW this year, but that sounds like it’s philosophically a great talk.

I like the approach. This sounds crazy, but that actually sounds Molly like you’re advocating that we actually do research.

Molly: You mean actually work?

Derek: Actually do research and test with real people? That’s crazy talk.

Molly: I know, I know. What can you say? I have these ideas.

Derek: Unreal. I wanted to talk really quickly about your workshop, as well. You have a workshop on May 16th, a full day, called Pragmatic Accessibility for the Open Web. That sounds like it’ll be a fantastic full day with Molly.

Can you give us the brief 30 second elevator pitch on your workshop, what it’s about, and what kinds of things you’ll be looking at that day?

Molly: Absolutely. It exactly reflects what I’ve just been talking about, about now looking at this from the point of view of being engineers. It’s not just engineering, but from a professional, a high level profession of art and science. Looking at the entire stack from the core, from HTML 5, extending into ARIA for rich internet applications, working with that. Working with CSS, working with SVG, working with graphics, working with media.

Everything that we do in the stack, and really looking also at that stack as a mature both in the front end and every moving toward this restful, decoupled kind of model where things happen, especially like with node where you can actually create things that happen where there’s very little conversation between application and server. You are basically at that point running a decoupled application.

I’m going to be looking at that entire stack and speaking about the role of the variety of technologies and how they play into that with obviously some focus, pun intended, on ARIA, on aspects of HTML 5, on best practices as we go through that process.

Derek: Cool. It’s interesting; there was a word that you used in there that I kind of picked up on. I find it’s an interesting conundrum in the work that we do on the web because you talked about us maturing as professionals and that we’re in a maturing profession. We’re much more mature than we were. Some of us are never mature, but that’s okay.

Molly: I might be 50, but I’m just not mature.

Derek: Mature in the sense of talking about some of these technologies. ARIA, for example, is still fairly new, even though it’s not. ARIA has been in the works since 2004 or even earlier than that, and drafts started to appear in the 2005 timeframe. Here we are, it’s 2013, and we still don’t have ARIA support for lots of different things. We even have scenarios where we’re seeing problems because there is incomplete ARIA support or buggy or spotty ARIA support.

One of the things that I struggle with is making recommendations where people want to rely on ARIA, but we know that from our experience in testing with real people with disabilities and using different assistive technology that ARIA is a solution that only satisfies some very specific needs. It certainly doesn’t make everybody’s web experience accessible.

I know I struggle with that quite a bit in terms of recommending ARIA as the solution.

Molly: It isn’t. That’s exactly it. Everything you just said could be said about SVG also, except it even has a longer history going back. Here was have, at least with SVG, we have an XML based language where the data is exposed and we could do things with that, but no. We have a whole info graphics movement that has to be in binary format, which graphic representation is of no use to somebody who cannot see that or understand it.

It’s a big conundrum, but I think part of the thing with ARIA right now, and I totally agree, there is no part of the web that’s a magic button. I think you actually helped me kind of identify the core reason for this class at all because it’s really about that. It’s really about getting in there, understanding what the toolsets are, and learning how to make good decisions about a given problem. Again, one size fits none.

I think with ARIA there are some advocates, and Richard himself, the person who is the editor, has advocated or I’ve heard that he’s advocated, “Use ARIA everywhere.” I think that’s not really the best way. I think you have to really think about when you’re using it, where you’re using it, and less is more; where it’s really relevant.

I think people also don’t understand. They think it’s a technology that does something in the browser, but except for live regions and all of that, the role and state is just simply information passed on to assistive technology, not to the user directly or not to the browser directly unless we tap into that in some way.

I think that’s a big issue that people don’t really quite understand where it fits in the stack. We’ll clarify that in that class.

Derek: This has been fantastic. I just have one other question for you, and I’ve asked everybody this, and this is about Austin because there are going to be a lot of people coming to AccessU who aren’t based in Austin, so they’re going to be maybe hitting Austin for their first time. What’s your must do or must see event or place to go or thing to eat or whatever in Austin, Texas when you’re there?

Molly: You know, the thing is there’s so much to do. Let me tell a brief little story from last year, and I think that this puts what can happen in Austin into the frame.

During AccessU, we had a party at a dueling piano bar. We had set it up so that the pianists were there. We had a private party at 5:00 to 6:00, hors d’oeuvres and drinks, and then they opened the bar and people come in and a lot of us stayed.

We had three women who did music and they were signing, so they were doing interpretive signing of the music. We had some audio description and we had some other things going on there that was quite fun.

When the bar opened up and the people from the street are just coming in, couples coming in or whatever just to see what was going on, you have these three women up there dynamically signing and it was great because the two piano players and there were a couple of other people playing music, as well, started picking up on some of the signs. You know how they do call and response? They would do a call and then we’re all responding in sign. It was so much fun. The entire bar was just having a great time.

Everybody in there, whether they were associated with accessibility or not, learned how to have extra fun because that was going on. It was really a blast; one of the best nights I ever had in Austin; so much fun.

I think that no matter what you do, you have to get down to Sixth Avenue, you have to see some of the music, you have to eat some of the food, and Tex-Mex is great and of course, the barbecue. What can you say? We’re planning to all go to barbecue, so that’s real important.

Derek: That’s excellent. It sounds just like all the AccessU events that I’ve been to. It’s exactly the same; a great experience and a great chance to hang with like minded and differently minded people and experience the local culture. That sounds great.

Thank you very much again, Molly. This has been great. Have a great AccessU and I’ll catch up with you again later.

Molly: Thanks!

Derek: And, there you have it. It’s time to get yourself registered and head to Austin to see Molly and all the other great speakers. Again, it’s the John Slatin AccessU Conference — get all the details at
– that’s k n o w b i l i t y dot org.

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