I worked in web accessibility in different setups: as a freelance developer specialised in accessibility, as a WCAG auditor and as a full time team member of the W3C's Web Accessibility Initiative. As a developer I would receive audit reports, as an auditor I would write them and as a WAI team member I would work on promoting and documenting the standards these audits are based on. An observation: in the developer role, advocating for accessibility can be the hardest in various ways.
Writing audit reports, a company would request in-depth feedback with the intent to fix stuff (ideally; sometimes it's just because the law says they have to 🤷). At WAI, I engaged with accessibility standards and practices on more of a meta level. When developing tools or resources, I never had to explain why I wanted videos to be captioned or have a visible focus indicator on the stuff we published, because everyone else on the team had worked with WCAG for years, often decades, and many had lived experienced to draw from.
In the developer role, I had more responsibilities than ensuring accessibility, I also had to make sure our assets didn't break under an updated Content-Security-Policy, fix a deployment pipeline or figure out with which templating language my client could use their design system most widely. And then there was accessibility, my main interest and priority. I mean, why have a web app if it's inaccessible… I would often do that work under the radar, sometimes because other developers in the team weren't interested or skilled in that particular area, sometimes because I felt it would take more time to get extra time for a thing than to just do the thing.
Accessibility and support
Accessibility is hard to do bottom up, I found. In some cases, especially when working for government and non profits, accessibility would explicitly be in the requirements and or I would specifically be hired for that expertise. This was great and gave something to work with. In other situations, it was much more of a challenge. Time would go into making a business case (I learned about WAI's business case page late), trying to get budget for external audits or screenreader licenses (procuring JAWS is no fun) and figuring out how to go about recruiting users with disabilities for user tests. And that's still the meta stuff.
When it comes to writing code as an accessibility specialised developer, you can ensure you follow lots of users with disabilities and accessibility specialists to try and learn about implementation issues early. You can find lots of good resources. My favourite are blog posts by developers and accessibility specialists who have tested a solution with users and go at length to describe all the ifs and buts you need to understand the nuance and compromise. But let's be honest, if you want to rely on the official documentation (normative or not) that is also used by browsers and assistive technologies, it can be pretty difficult to find out exactly what to do.
Gaps in documentation
There are systematic problems in accessibility standards documentation:
- outdated examples are often not marked as outdated and hardly ever removed
- it is not always clear if examples are ready to use or merely displays of how stuff ‘should work’ if all browsers and assistive technologies followed the standards (a problem ARIA Authoring Practices Guide has)
- it's hard to find user-tested examples
- the guidance can be scattered across many places
From the standards org perspective this is all explainable. There is a lot of work on few plates, the consensus process and organisational structure have, besides benefits, an impact on how responsibilities can be and are distributed. It's understandable, but has an effect. It impacts how effectively developers (and designers, content editors etc) can build accessible products. Even if from the standards side of things, you can only do so much to try and have standards that are implemented interoperably by browsers and assistive technology makers. There are relatively few people in the space who specialise in this.
Channeling one's inner developer
From the auditor's perspective, as well as from the standards org perspective, accessibility looks different. The system is, sadly, ableist and almost every website you look at has accessibility conformance and usability issues… it has often frustrated me and made me more cynical than I want to be. You write down the same issues over and over, knowing they are just a few lines of code. I always had to channel my inner developer again, and remember what it can be like. Yes, removing the line
outline: none is trivial, and it's extremely ableist to keep it in, but what can a developer do if the QA and/or design departments flag it as a bug and they're the only one on the team who ‘gets’ this need. Let's not blame the developer, let's blame the ableist system we all operate in. Or, as Adrian Roselli recently said, ‘arm developers’ with useful feedback so that they are more enpowered to make the changes (being an auditor often puts one in this somewhat rewarding position).
I don't know where I'm going with this, but thinking about what I'd like to see for the web if I had a magic wand, I would want to see better accessibility documentation (clear, up to date and user tested), more engineering budget for compatibility between standards, browsers and assistive technologies and have legal requirements that make it so that serious organisations see accessibility like they see security and data protection. At least some if not all of these wishes are in progress, of course, in various places… they have been for years, I just wish ✨ change ✨ could be sooner.
Developer experience and user experience
Some say ‘user experience is more important than developer experience’, and I'm all for that sentiment. Of course. Web accessibility is all about users with disabilities. That's the point of it. Developers ‘just’ need to do the job.
But companies who make products they want developers to use effectively, like browsers, have dedicated developer experience teams to try and ensure that developers can use their stuff well. To try and set them up for success. In their case, that makes good business. Might we, as the accessibility field, also benefit from better developer experience (of web accessibility) to get to more widely spread user experience?
What if standards orgs hired content designers, like governments with similarly complex content do so successfully? Isn't explaining standards essential when making standards? In the majority of cases, an inaccessible pattern can be addressed in code, by developers. Might some focus on developer experience be a sensible means to an end? If it was less frustrating to find out how to build, say, a combobox, in practice not in theory, we would more easily get to the end goal: less frustrating experiences to end users.
Besides a focus on quality of documentation, I feel like we should keep the individual developer's perspective in mind, acknowledging they may have constraints beyond their control. We could contribute to fight those constraints by providing executives and team leads with the right tools too. We've got to set teams up for success. That way we all win.
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