The video transcription has been created as a clean verbatim style transcript to provide a less distracting, and more valuable interview – without detracting anything meaningful from the original. Total time ~33 minutes.
Nandita Gupta 0:01
Hi everyone! I’m Nandita Gupta and welcome to The Shakti Collective, and today we have with us Devon! Devon, would you please introduce yourself?
Sure! My name is Devon Persing, I’m currently an Accessibility Specialist at Shopify.
Nandita Gupta 0:17
That is awesome and so we are very excited to have you here, and hear your story… and so how would you describe accessibility in three words?
So my very optimistic three words are inclusive, wholistic, and people-first… that is kind of two words, but..
Nandita Gupta 0:37
I love that! I love that!
Yeah we’ll count people first one, that’s one word. [laughs] And so why, why do you care about accessibility?
So my first career was in library science. I you know, when I was pretty young, I started working in libraries with library school. I did that more formally. So that work was really all built around Information Services, and just helping people find the stuff they needed to do whatever it is they want to do. So, when I started doing more technical sort of digital work, libraries, I just kind of carried on through. So I think my, my interest accessibility kind of came out of the assumption that was part of what information work involves, and I kind of went down that path uhh for I guess more deeply, as I kind of switched toward digital spaces full time.
Nandita Gupta 1:41
Oh wow, okay, okay. And so, between your, in your experiences that you’ve had. What was your first, aha moment about accessibility?
I think my first app building uhh the first bit. I think my first aha moment was really realizing that accessibility wasn’t something that was kind of part of mainstream UX. This is the early 2000. So like, okay, let’s still do quarterly talking a lot about digital accessibility or web accessibility. And so, I was approaching you know making digital experiences or physical learning experiences accessible because because that was part of, you know, my kind of experience and kind of work as then, as information professional. So it was kind of my search for digital for work, and especially when I moved out of libraries and I realized, Oh, this isn’t, I really think that everyone’s thinking about that weird.. umm a part of it was that we were working on was we’re very lightweight, and we’re very flexible and we’re really meant to be very adaptable so I wasn’t doing a lot of like heavy web app type work. So I think it should be moving into more mainstream time to realize like, Oh, this is not a thing that everyone’s doing, and thinking about from the get go.
Nandita Gupta 3:11
Wow. Yes, and that’s that’s so true like I completely relate to that, and I can see that as well. And so, as you’ve learned, you know in your career during the course of your career. Can you tell us about someone who’s had an influence on your accessibility professional career? What kind of lessons that this person teach you?
So the person I chalk up like doing this full time now is umm.. my old manager, Bilmore [unclear] co founded and was my manager at that agency during so called foundry interactive, which is still around. He was really the first person that helped me take that interest I had accessibility and focus on full time, technical work. So, they hired me as a developer, I was doing some general dev and UX work, and I was bringing up things that are bothering me like that, or you know different aspects of projects, and he luckily had some background and doing successfully work, and we get a client that needed to successfully focus work. And so he really coached me through getting up to speed on that theory had applied for robots web app type experience. Oh, I had a lot to do as far as learning techniques of how those were actually worked. And it’s a small way but that was, I was, I was able to have the space and time to do that and that was really really great.
Nandita Gupta 4:48
That’s wonderful. That’s really wonderful. And so thinking about what you do today and you know how you got here, what really keeps you inspired to keep working and accessibility?
There’s a lot more work to do! I don’t know if that’s inspring or depressing, but it’s kind of the idea that there’s just so like, accessibility is so tight in physical and digital spaces, and there’s just so much work to do. And there’s so much get seen small steps forward. Those small steps are really really frustrating but there’s just so much to do. And, yeah, I feel like it’s just kind of something I’ll keep doing in some capacity forever, so much to do!
Nandita Gupta 5:41
For sure! And so, you know, as you’re thinking about all of that right, like oh my gosh I got to keep pushing the needle forward and keep working in this field. How have you made an impact in this field ? What are you currently working on, what is your day to day look like?
So, my current work is kind of like it’s program level work. What I mostly do at this point is what I function as a like an internal testing specialist in a product company. So, I don’t work with any particular product teams right now I’m kind of doing high level, not quite policy, but a lot of training a lot of educating , not just doing dev or design work but I’m also working with directors, working with executives working with managers and trying to figure out how to scale this thing. So a lot of it is not necessarily accessibility work day to day but kind of trying to communicate and build out. Simply culture, which is not what I really ever imagined. [laughter] I thought I’ll be sitting and testing all day. But yeah, it’s kind of. So I think I feel like the biggest impact the stuff I’m doing right now that’s really valuable, obviously what I hope is really valuable is education and kind of getting people to think about not just kind of the nuts and bolts of like how do I make this webpage accessible but really thinking about, you know, why haven’t we been thinking about this. Or, what are the things that we can truly change to make this just part of our work, that kind of stuff. That’s … those are the, kind of difficult questions I’m currently trying to solve.
Nandita Gupta 7:28
And that’s so fascinating and so, you know, thinking about… It’s almost like you’re, you’re advocating for accessibility, not just in your team but even in your organization right so how do you really build support for accessibility in your organization? What are some ways that have worked, maybe that have not worked as well? [laughs]
The biggest thing is patience, which is very difficult for me. [laughs] Oh, I think that the first time I did this did kind of building out an accessibility program was as a consultant working for a very long term, like a year and a half, almost two year contract with the client. And that was with kind of very directly, like that. This is your goal. Um, my current job that wasn’t the original goal the original goal was like I was, I would work on the design system. And that kind of bloomed. So it’s been a trunk take what I learned from that experience of having the direct goal of the laying out of a accessily program and trying to figure out how to adopt that in my current space so a lot of is, is trying to share the same messaging in a lot of different ways as I can, I try to figure out things that you know some people a bit like data right, people want user stories, like they want to. They want to see video, they want to see usability studies. Some people want to get down to technical needs. So a lot of it is taking my instructional design background for work in libraries and my research background and trying to figure out how to plant those seeds to help people do a lot of that thinking on their own because they have to kind of make those connections themselves, which really stick. So it’s a lot of trying to figure out as many ways as possible to get people to think about it until it’s like a portable, its a lot of a lot of training materials, a lot of hand holding but trying to figure out the different ways that different people learn, people kind of process information..
Nandita Gupta 9:41
Right and like what engages one person may not engage someone else right so you just kind of figure that out. And so, as you’ve yeah right and so as you’ve learned and figured that out so what experiences have been beneficial to you, um, you know, especially for your current role but just you know within accessibility for gaining that experience like what were some of those experiences that were helpful?
I know I mentioned with library science background a lot, and I think when I was kind of coming up as a, quote unquote, I guess web generalist, UX was a thing. But the bigger thing was HCI or human computer interaction so it was really about teaching people how to use and studying how people use computers less than making things easier for them. So that’s been very nice to kind of see that switch but I think coming up in that kind of way of thinking is maybe consider things from a kind of scaffolding perspective. So a lot of my background in training was information architecture. Umm Digital visual by modern visual designer, but I have done a work. I’ve done a lot of research, learning about how people do search and how people browse, how people use web interfaces interfaces. I have a lot of background in like semantic markup, because at pne point was writing code to publish journal articles from XML to HTML, sorry so like a lot of those kind of boring, sort of, early web and very library skills have really come in helpful.. so I find that those are the things that I think have given me that kind of underlying context for all the kind of like, crunchy, things that that kind of trip people up when they are learning about accessibility, because often people will be like, oh well, I know that I’m just worried about the keyboard, but like, How do I know if I should use a link orr button or, you know, what does this list item type, actually do or should I use one type of element or the other. And I’m not learning about HTML because I studied, read act, and I have figured out, Oh, React outputs HTML, I learned HTML first like I was HTML before CSS. So, that never very long but for a while so I think I have that kind of structury magic background. It is kind of formal education and how people use computers in a way that has been extremely helpful. The thing I’ve really have been having to be I’ve having to focus on learning more about is the usability side. I like having people actually do stuff in the web outside, which is very interesting to me. But that’s been easier to adapt to than I think the other way where I have to learn that kind of nitty gritty stuff, if that makes sense.
Nandita Gupta 12:49
No, absolutely. And so, from the things you’ve learned, you know, within your career and accessibility. What was something that you learned that surprised you?
I think the biggest thing that’s been the.. that sort of more recent keeps getting more into research and usability. Both while working agencies and now is how much I’ve learned about, well, I guess the current push to sort of get a better handle on cognitive disability and how that impacts technology use because that is so varied. That’s so kind of feels much squishier than come some of the more technical like, Ah, this magic markup is correct, that, you know, a screen, user should hopefully be able to use it. Even things like thinking about, you know, people using assistive tech in ways that maybe wasn’t originally designed for, or really getting into that kind of day to day of how people are actually using technology, is very really scary in some ways because it makes it accessibility I think feeling that harder, because then people start to realize oh this is a usability problem, this is like a cut and dry technical problem. So for me that’s been really exciting because it feels less rote and less like I’m giving people checklists. But it also means that is, I think the part that surprised me the most is how much I’ve also seen that kind of realization. I get to help people who are practitioners or people who are trying to get into it, realize how broad the impact is, it’s not a very small number of people it’s a lot of people, and realizing, helping people think more about more broadly about what disability means, what accessibility means. I think has been really valuable, and I think I’m hoping that kind of helps us to shift to a squishier direction, which is a person who likes organizing things and really likes structuring things right, which here is good, because I’ve gotten more in touch with that side of my way of thinking…
Nandita Gupta 15:19
Very cool. Yeah, yeah, that’s very cool. And so thinking about, um, you know your proudest accomplishment in accessibility if you had to pick one, because I’m sure you’ve done amazing things! If you had to pick one, what would you say your proudest accomplishment in accessibility was for you?
So the thing that I think about when I’m having a really bad day. I feel like this is, you know, just …[unclear] up a hill, forever. A co worker of mine, who I used to once told me that. So I had done a workshop for our team, a few UX workshops, one in particular was about cognitive disability, and you know, examples of learning disabilities, examples of you know different types of things that impact how people cognitively access in the deliberation. He realized from that workshop that his girlfriend, who had been told growing up but she wasn’t smart, she was lazy, etc probably he was dyslexic, and umm she went and tested and it turned out she was dyslexic. And so she’d been able to find all these tools and find all these adaptations, and different ways of thinking about results that have not been on your radar before. So that is one of the things I think about when I’m like, Oh, I guess I want to rest too much. That just, like, it changes people’s lives. I’ve watched that kind of happen where people are like, Oh, I didn’t realize the way I think about this, this isn’t quote unquote normal… . I guide me in this bucket of people. So that’s for me the most valuable thing is seeing people will have that personal connection and hopefully learn something that actually helps them as a person. I just do like helping them make better experiences.
Nandita Gupta 17:14
So those are basically your proud moments when you’ve seen the things you’ve done really affect people that way and so I guess we keep pushing the needle for those days. [laughs]
Yeah. Yeah, and it’s someone who’s work takes so long. Especially if you’re doing programmable work and not doing feature or product level work that those types of moments, I feel like are really impactful when you’re not seeing really obvious..
Nandita Gupta 17:40
Nandita Gupta 17:43
Know for sure, for sure. And so, you know, thinking about product level versus process level right… One question that comes to mind is what’s the difference between inclusive design and accessibility for you?
I thought it was really hard. [laughter] So, for me, I think, of inclusive design as an activity. Um, it’s something you do, it’s a it’s a choice you make when you’re making design decisions whether it’s literal visual or physical design, or like coat design like all these things. I think accessibility is kind of a facet of them, I feel like it’s a requirement, like I feel like it’s tricky because I feel like accessibility is a requirement for desig. It’s almost a checkbox that sense, but it’s obviously not a trick. It’s a lot of different things. So I feel like inclusive design is inclusive of accessibility… Accessibility is it’s all kind of requirement or discipline within that concept. Umm I sat and thought thought about this a lot, I didn’t say a good answer but that’s what I got! [laughs]
Nandita Gupta 19:00
no no for sure! Again it’s how you would look at that. And so thinking about, you know, different experiences you’ve had, what was the most frustrating thing that you were faced in your career with an accessibility?
I think as a consultant, I would do, all sorts of different projects. I worked with a couple different agencies, the most frustrating thing would be when we would go into organization. They’ll maybe hire us to like run a training session, or do a simple audit of their product. And we will do that work. And then they would decide that it’s actually, quote unquote, too expensive. And there was never time to unpack that with them. Because, you know, I think that that comes from a very deep misunderstanding about what accessibility actually means. What’s involved in making it sustainable, who are most affected, and it’s tied up in ableism in ways that when that’s the kind of level of interaction it’s impossible to get into that, that depth of like the the shades gray bolded. So, the sort of stuff from you know I think it’s really frustrating. And I think just the, I guess the biggest thing I could say upfront kind of like, Oh, this sounds hard and expensive. We’re not gonna do it right. [sigh] Ah, maybe because there’s there’s it’s very difficult to them, get them to realize it this way that is not a good. That’s not even a good way to think about it.
Nandita Gupta 20:42
How do you deal with that because, you know, I’ve, I’ve faced similar frustrations and I’m sure this is not going to be the last one. So you know sometimes you just have to take the deep breath in and like, okay, deep breath, I got this I’m gonna figure this out. What are some ways in which you deal with that you know what do you, what are some ways in which you keep going, what helps?
I think there’s always like there’s always like the one person that shows up in that workshop or the one person who takes that information, not all of it, but was really engaged, we’re going to be really engaged, and the hope that they’re gonna run with it. When that information they have, whether it’s there or if they jump ship and go work someplace else. Umm hope that they’re gonna check that, I guess, seed with them. It’s the same it’s like people go to meetups or conferences or see a talk, online or whatever and it’s like I always heard of it in those sort of extra level concepts in whatever way I can so that you don’t forget any of the nitty gritty stuff, or the really detailed stuff. We’re gonna least be like, Oh, this is something I need to worry about and I will learn more about it and figure out how to do it. It’s that kind of just getting people aware of the.. I would say complexity because that’s it makes it sound scary but just people realizing how much they don’t know. Hopefully that they then want to learn more from that it’s not, they’re not turned off.
Nandita Gupta 22:18
So that kind of like hoping that I’ve planted some seeds here and there. And that someone, eventually, figure out the best way to take care of that used to continue by my great metaphor, but the kind of hope that other people will take that torch.
Nandita Gupta 22:38
Right. Right, absolutely! And so thinking about you know, you touched on your experience with working with a consultancy right, and now you’re almost like an internal consultant, so you’re actually embedded in the actual company. So what’s different? I’ve heard so many different things right ,about whether you’re the only accessibility person on a team, or whether, like you said you’re a consultant and you’re working with another team. So what’s different about working on, as you know, in a dedicated accessibility team versus you know maybe some other teams that you worked with, what are some differences in that?
The biggest thing is, you really hit the nail on the head, where you said internal consultant, I think that’s the biggest difference because I’m not working on a specific product or a specific kind of set of products. So, I’m not the person usually sitting and testing something, or working directly with just designers. Things I have done are write templates for them to think about it accessible work while they’re doing the project, documentation about testing or sort of best practices, things like that. And I’ve made materials available that hopefully they can use whatever is the right time to find those things, versus things like you know, reviewing wireframes or mock ups or that kind of like daily accessibility kind of review work, is stuff I don’t I really do. I’ve tried to enable people to do that stuff, so that might change over time depending on how our program changes and grows but at the moment I’m really doing that kind of higher level work, while thinking stuff and not so much like this exact product, this decision to make to make this thing accessible. It’s much more abstract, for better or worse!
Nandita Gupta 24:34
That makes sense. and so as you’re working with different people and really, you know, taking this program forward, almost going on the analogy of you know watering the plant right, and so how do you change people’s minds and hearts about accessibility?
It’s really hard. It’s not easy and I do not have like a, I do not have a good, nice succinct answer for that. There’s an article that goes round once in a while that’s about, it’s not about accessibility specifically, I think it was a Huff Post, a Huffington Post article that’s the title is something like, I don’t know how I can convince you to care about other people, or something like that. It’s sort of like this, that’s the point at which like someone has to make decisions to care about other people. So I’ve kind of given up on making people feel, trying to make people feel because you can’t make people feel things. And what I’ve tried to do instead is kind of have as many self serve resources available as I can and make it so that, if either something crashed, I can point them in the direction of a resource or give them some guidance to where to go next. But they kind of already have to be at that like, I need to learn about this. Whether or not they want to or not. is upto them but they kind of already at a point where they’re willing to dive in and learn more. I feel like you can’t. Like you can’t, you burn up so much energy trying to make other people feel something. So like I go back and forth about a lot of research about empathy and digital accessibility I have a very hard time with trying to make people feel empathetic, or whether empathy is the thing you should be feeling, maybe they should be, I don’t know what they should be doing but hard to make people feel things.
Nandita Gupta 26:36
Okay, okay. And so I like a lot of times I’ve heard, um, you know, the whole carrot versus the stick, analogy, which kind of goes around sometimes with you know, how can you really make accessibility more about people, and maybe a little less about standards and compliance? Not to say standards and compliance are important. I feel like they’re good guiding stones right, in a way, but sometimes I think we lose track of the fact that this isn’t a checkmark right. This isn’t a actual, okay you met the minimum compliance you’re good to go right, this is actual people, we are talking about and so how do you really make accessibility more about the people?
So, I guess, I just read this research paper from 2015 or 2014 rather… I’ll send you a link later. It’s called web accessibility and disability, developing a critical perspectives on accessibility. It’s brilliant. It’s by Sarah Lewthwaite. And it is about the idea that the fact that we’ve created laws, based on standards, makes those standards.. because cements them. When all of all of those digital technical standards are written to be squishy. Because there is no sort of good universal model for everything. So, this is something I’ve been thinking about a lot, because often organizations come to accessibility work because of the stick, they get sued, or some other there’s some other legal concern. So, try to steer people away from that, like, Oh, we did everything, checkbox we’re done forever! way pf thinking, I think really requires organizational change.[laughs] You know, just that. [laughter]
Nandita Gupta 28:27
That’s it, so simple, just what we need! [laughter]
Really placing a emphasis on doing usability testing, and not just hiring people with disabilities and accessibility teams but just across the board. And every department every role. So I think it’s really up to rethinking it. I think it’s tied up in, including disability as part of diversity, and really changing the way an entire organization thinks about disability. To make it a usability concern that can introduce barriers to people, instead of that kind of checklist. Yeah.. You know.. I think there’s a way forward I don’t think it’s easy! [laughs]
Nandita Gupta 29:19
! know I completely agree and so you know, thinking about all the people who are in this field, and thinking about experts right, who we share knowledge and you gain knowledge from, what does an expert in accessibility mean to you? How would you define an expert, in accessibility?
I have a hard time with the word Expert because it’s definitely something that. So I think it’s, I don’t like to say I’m a expert in accessibility because of how, I keep using the word squishy but how, people, and user focused it is and how very [unclear] so like for example. I know a lot about web accessibility. I know a little bit less about mobile, I know very little about desktop apps and things like VR. So I feel like you’ve kind of specialized in different areas, especially by saying like education or specialize in implementation, but I think it’s very difficult to say that you’re an expert in this whole concept.
Nandita Gupta 30:32
I’m with you on that. [laughter]
I do like to point to the expertise of disabled people, talking about experiences that they have. For example, well, what is expertise, I feel like I try to steer away from saying that I’m an accessibility expert, or that people can be accessibility experts, I feel like it’s like saying I’m a design expert, or a development expert like they don’t usually say that because you say that you’re a specialist or you say that you’re a practitioner of some sort.
Nandita Gupta 31:05
Make sense,make sense! And so, what advice would you give to others who are thinking about becoming more involved, pr just jumping, you know into digital accessibility?
Get ready to learn forever! Because there is something to know…[laughter] Get comfortable with getting political, because it’s a political topic for better for worse. That it’s very difficult to do accessibility work, and not in some way, you know, have that impact the way you think about politics and social issues kind of thing. And I will say it depends, I’d say it depends a lot. I don’t say it as much as I used to, doing a lot of, like, the in the weeds work anymore, but when people come to you and say like is this going to be accessible? It’s always almost always very difficult to give a, like a yes, or no, there’s always ifs or clarifications needed, or there’s always a bunch of caveats, which I know can be frustrating sometimes if you’re working with an accessibility specialist and they won’t give you a straight answer, but because they don’t feel comfortable giving the straight answer because it’s not easy. So, yeah, basically be comfortable with ambiguity. I think is a strength which is, stressful sometimes but important.
Nandita Gupta 32:38
Be comfortable with ambiguity, I like that, I like that! And so, as a parting question, you know something a little bit more actionable. What is one thing you could tell someone that they could do, immediately, in the short term to achieve accessibility in their day to day work? I mean something as simple as you know reminding people to, “Hey, there’s something called an all text function that you know shows up on most apps so if you’re adding pictures, make sure you add alt text. Are there other things , like is there one thing that you could tell someone who’s watching this, to go do today?
Test with the keyboard. Jesus Chivas. Test with the keyboard. It’s like the easiest thing, but people don’t know how, you know, they don’t know how controls work on the keyboard, if you’ve never done it. So that is a thing, I always spend time on it in workshops when I’m teaching. It’s the thing I always talk about nauseum, because you’re gonna find a lot of things you’ve done wrong if you can’t use the keyboard with anything you’re building. So, yeah, test the keyboard.
Nandita Gupta 33:42
Love that! Thank you. Thank you so much!
Thank you for having me.