Firstly, tell us about yourself and your work!
I was BT's Accessibility and Inclusion Manager for over 20 years. Initially, it was to ensure that people with disabilities were able to use the telephone. There was a strong focus on people who were deaf or hard of hearing. As the world moved on and the internet and mobiles became more common my scope increased to cover all forms of communication. I ensured they were as accessible as I could make them.
This included online accessibility of the web (to AA), documents like PDFs and ebooks. Equipment too, like the BT Hub, the Big Button phone, text relay (text direct) and most things BT was developing from an accessibility perspective.
What qualifications do you have that have influenced your work, if any?
I have no formal accessibility training and learnt my trade as I went along. I was involved with Cambridge University in developing the Inclusive Design Toolkit http://www.inclusivedesigntoolkit.com/. I also presented at several inclusive design seminars with the University.
You've clearly been an advocate for an impressive length of time, but why accessibility? What does it mean to you?
My journey started at a school in Wales. We were showing a range of telephones to children as part of their technology class. A young pupil, who was hard of hearing, explained the problems she was having communicating with her friends. The short story was that she was upset she couldn't "just chat" with them and was missing out on so much. The reason being she was using a textphone (Minicom) and people just didn't answer or hung up.
At the time we had a phone called a Converse 300 with an additional earpiece. I got the pupil to try it and she could hear what was being said. I can still see her face now and thought…
…If I can make this much difference with technology then this is what I want to do. And it was and is that feeling that drove me for the rest of my career making a difference.
You've been heavily emersed in communications through your entire career; how has accessibility caused changes?
Accessibility hasn't always driven change as I would have hoped. In industry, there is an economic driver that can seem to be at odds when investing in accessibility. Equally, once changes have been made, additional investment can be kept to a minimum. For example, if you build a website correctly you do not have to go back and do a rework to make it accessible. This can protect the company against any legal challenges over a site's accessibility and protects the brand.
The big turning point for BT was when we produced the first big button phone. Up until this time, BT said there was no commercial market for such a phone. We built a case to challenge this and, if I'm honest, I think they got fed up with us and gave in. We developed the phone and it became the best selling corded phone BT had. This gave us quite a bit of kudos for future work.
With regards to the internet, once our coders saw the external pressure on building accessible websites and came to me to see what we could do to help. Again, a much cheaper option than going outside the company, we also developed an internal forum of people with disabilities that BT could engage with to get insights on the projects it was developing.
You've proven an ability to take complex messages and turn them into a simple language. What one bit of advice do you find yourself giving?
This is perhaps the easiest and hardest question, my advice is to put yourself in the other person's shoes.
A couple of examples are:For the internet, unplug your mouse and try to use the site you have developed.
For products, put on a pair of "vine glasses" that simulate visual impairment and try to use the product.
The other successful option is to get someone with disabilities in to use your product whilst you watch… this always works.
What trends have you noticed in web accessibility over the years?That developers want external verification of their work rather than self-certification.
As the web becomes more feature-rich, old issues keep coming back. Particularly navigation around carousels, which need to be coded correctly. The way around this is to have common libraries with accessible code that can be reused time and time again.
Finally, are there any stories you like to tell that hit the point home about the importance of accessibility?
My first was looking at bt.com for the first time. I enlisted the support of a BT employee who was blind and used both a text to speech programme and a braille keyboard. I then asked him to navigate the site to our sales page. He started by explaining how his kit worked and what he looked for when navigating the web.
It went something like this: The first thing I look for are headings which allow me to move through the site to the areas I want to go to. If I hit the "H" key this will give me the heading (note, I've never tried this on the BT site so don't know what will happen). He hit the "H" key and got a response of, "there are no headings on this page", to which he said, "well, that messes me up. Now I would need to go elsewhere." We captured this and other testing on video and circulated to the web team for comment.
The second was to get another user who was also visually impaired (from AbilityNet) to visit the web team and browse the internet as he always did, every day. We displayed the visual and audio output on the screen. When the team saw how he could navigate a well-built website they were amazed and kept asking him to look at sites they had built to see how it performed. This was a real lightbulb moment for the team.
Thank you to David for sharing his fantastic stories and experience with us.