The interview has been produced verbatim as written by Sarah Schaidt
I am an Accessibility Services Manager at Level Access and I’ve worked in the tech industry for more than 9 years. I’m passionate about designing websites that are beautiful, functional, and most importantly — accessible for all users.
How would you describe accessibility in 3 words?
“Offering equal access”. To me, it is about ensuring users of all abilities can access and interact with physical or digital property.
Why do you care about accessibility?
I feel that everyone should have equal access to technology and the opportunities it brings including employment, education, social interaction, etc.
What was your first “aha” moment with accessibility?
I had assisted in a design and development team with the creation of an interactive infographic to educate users on the benefits of insurance. I had a wireless mouse at the time and the battery to my mouse died. I had to navigate using a keyboard alone and was shocked at how difficult it was. I had already learned a bit about accessibility, but this was eye-opening.
Can you tell me about someone who has had an influence on your accessibility professional career? What lessons did that person teach you?
My mentor helped me fully understand the difference between accessibility compliance and inclusive design. There is a big difference between checking off WCAG success criteria and actually creating something that is both functional and usable by everyone. I want to continue so I can spread that message to others; you do not need to sacrifice a beautiful design in the name of accessibility, you can have both.
Tell me more about your work. Tell me about how you have made an impact in the work of digital accessibility through your role a Software Accessibility Engineer?
I am a consultant for a wide variety of clients ranging from online retail, streaming media, financial institutions, and universities. I help clients understand current barriers for accessibility on their digital properties and partner with them to strategize a plan to implement suggested solutions.
What experiences were most beneficial to you as a Software Accessibility Engineer in gaining experience in accessibility?
Taking the time to learn how to test using assistive technology helped me immensely in understanding accessibility.
During the course of your accessibility journey within tech.. how have you requested support for your professional development for accessibility knowledge?
Attending conferences, like CSUN, or webinars hosted by experts, like IAAP.
During your professional career within accessibility, what was something you learned that surprised you?
What surprised me most is how we often create accessibility barriers for users by not applying basic HTML principles when developing web content. For example, it was surprising to see how many developers will use a <div> with CSS applied to style something like a button instead of using a <button>.
What is your proudest accomplishment in accessibility?
I was able to help a game developer add text to speech menus to their game. A blind YouTuber recorded their experience using the updated and accessible game menu for the first time and could not contain their excitement. That is why I do what I do.
As a Product Manager, how do you build support for accessibility in your organization? How do you advocate for accessibility on your team?
I am primarily advocating with clients for accessibility in their applications. I always come at it from the approach of it being the right thing to do.
For you, what is the difference between inclusive design and accessibility
To quote Derek Featherstone: “Inclusive Design in a process, Accessibility is the outcome.”
What is the most frustrating thing you have faced in your career within accessibility?
Overcoming the idea that users with disabilities are an “edge case” that only represents a small percentage of impacted end users. For example, while the percentage of legally blind users may be low, the percentage of users with visual impairments (blind, low vision, color blind, etc) is much higher.
If you could change one element of digital design for everyone, what would it be?
Ensure everything is accessible by keyboard. Keyboard accessibility is the gateway to accessibility for other assistive technologies such as screen readers, switch devices, and dictation software. Ensuring your design can be used with a keyboard alone would be taking a huge step in the right direction.
What is different about working for an Accessibility team v/s other teams you have worked with?
People who have dedicated their lives to accessibility have a common goal or purpose that drives them. It is a kind of unspoken comradery I have not been able to replicate in any other team/environment.
What advice would you give others so they can be an effective change agent in accessibility?
Experiment for yourself – turn off your monitor and listen with a screen reader, unplug your mouse and use a keyboard alone, or fire-up a dictation program and speak commands to your computer. You cannot truly understand barriers until you have experienced them first hand.
How do you change people’s minds and hearts about accessibility?
Make it about actual people, not just a “group” of people. Personal stories or creating inclusive user personas helps make people see this as a need instead of just a “nice to have”.
What does an “expert in accessibility” mean to you?
Someone who has taken the time to study, explore, and learn about how different users with disabilities encounter the web, barriers they face, and ways to overcome these issues.
What advice would you give to others who are thinking about or becoming involved within digital accessibility?
Reach out and ask for help! From my experience, those who work in this industry want to help others who are interested in learning more.
What is the one thing that you could tell a Software Accessibility Engineer that they could do immediately and in the short term to achieve accessibility in their day to day work?
Accessibility is a big endeavor and no one expects you to do it alone or all in one day. Start small. A blog I enjoyed when I first started was One Guideline A Day which helped me learn bit by bit.