Accessibility with Derek Featherstone
This article is an excerpt from an interview between Jared Spool and Derek Featherstone in 2007. You can also listen to the interview.
Jared: You’ve got clients from many different industries—financial, higher ed, religion. A big chunk of your work with your clients has to do with looking at and making sure their systems are not just useable, but also accessible for all sorts of different disabilities. Often times when people think about accessibility they tend to just focus on vision issues. Screen readers is mostly what we hear about. But that’s just only a small piece of the accessibility picture, right?
Derek: Yes, it is. It’s a small piece and often overlooked. People tend to think that providing screen reader compatibility means you have an accessible website. And really, it’s much more than that. It’s just as important to create something that is technically accessible and also useable to people that may use a touch screen—because they may be in a wheelchair—and they use a touch screen to access their sites. They may be using voice recognition technology. They may be using a mouth wand or a head wand to type or to interact with interfaces. So it is definitely much more than just creating something for people that are visually impaired.
So when you’re thinking of building these systems out, you need to think about the different ways people interact with your site. You need to consider if you’ve done a decent job of dealing with people ho use touch screens and not a mouse, and might not have fine motor control to select single pixel points.
Right. Yes, definitely. So we want to make a site technically accessible and then we start to look at it, taking it a little bit further. We want to make sure that we go the extra mile to make sure that not only are we doing something technically right, but we’re actually providing something that people can use in everyday life in practice.
Recently you told me a story about a client calling you about upgrading the site for accessibility. Can you share that story?
Yes, it’s interesting actually, because one of the companies that we do work for is a conference company. They do a lot of conferences for government employees and the public sector. Their new prospective clients is a municipal association that wanted to ensure that any websites that were built for the new conference were accessible. And the theme of the conference was accessibility itself.
So basically you need an accessible website for an accessibility conference.
Exactly. So the client called us up and said, “We have a question for you. What will it take for you to make one of our conference websites accessible?” I said, “Well, they already are accessible.” He was literally flabbergasted. He had no idea that we had already done this just because it’s the way you should build a website.
And this wasn’t a big-budget client either, right?
No, not at all.
This was a client that you had done a project, that was just a normal project, you’d priced it out, and you’d made it accessible just as part of your normal practice.
That’s exactly it. We setup their conference websites and we reuse a lot of what we’ve done before because we know that it’s solid and it’s going to work.
There are a few things here and there that we may tweak sometimes. Some color issues may need to be tweaked for one particular conference to make sure that there’s enough contrast in certain areas, but for the most part, their websites are already accessible. And it was quite gratifying because they didn’t even know. They didn’t realize that we had already built it in and baked it into the process.
You could have just charged them.
We could have, but didn’t.
In essence, you gave it to them, one could say, for free, right? Is it the case now where we have the technology, we add stuff where it’s either free or close to free in our development process if we’re paying attention?
If we’re paying attention, and if we’re doing the right things from the outset, then yes, there’s a lot of it that does come for free. And the nice thing is that it’s like open source. You have open source software and you use open source software. It’s already built for you. So you can spend your time and your effort in other areas because you’re not building everything from scratch.
It’s similar to using appropriate techniques and web standards. Using the right methodology will give you basic operability, so you get basic accessibility, which in most cases give you enough accessibility for most document-centric sites. It’s not always the case for transactional sites, but it’s certainly so for document-centric sites. A lot of it just comes with the process.