Léonie Watson on giving a damn about what you're building

Consultant Léonie Watson is on a mission to make the web work properly for everyone. She tells Martin Cooper why accessibility must become an integral part of our processes

This article first appeared in issue 245 of .net magazine – the world's best-selling magazine for web designers and developers

A photographer opens a black bag, whips out a camera body and slots in a paparazzi-grade lens. Flipping the weighty device back and forth, he plays the viewfinder across a 360-degree Bristol panorama. Initially the heavens are a uniform Soviet grey, but as we chat and our carloads of video kit is assembled, a few pools of blue begin to coalesce. He’s happy, in that way only a cameraman blessed with the right light can be.

We’re setting up on the roof of Aardman Animation. Everywhere you look there’s a Wallace, a Gromit, a pirate or a Were-Rabbit. Even the lifts announce: “Mind your paws, lad,” in Peter Sallis’s voice. It’s a private slice of heaven with a its own cinema, a lovely restaurant – and areas we just can’t visit.

That said, the same sky that’s bringing joy to the photographer is making our video crew worry. It’s filled with seagulls, and they’re very vocal.

In the midst of the bustle, cables, tripods and lights, Lonie Watson sits quietly, dressed in black, and sips from a cup of black, sugarless tea. A crew member attaches a mic to her collar.

With everything recording, rolling and tested again, Watson – still sipping her tea – brushes her copper, bobbed hair from her eyes and begins.

“Are we ready? OK. By day I’m a senior accessibility consultant with The Paciello Group and I’m chairman of the British Computer Association of the Blind (BCAB). By night, I’d like to tell you I was a superhero. But, I’m a blogger, a podcaster, foodie, book lover and tequila drinker.”

Personal and professional

Watson is, of course, best known for her work in the sphere of accessibility. “I’m blind, so for me personally, it’s about being able to do stuff,” she says. “If it weren’t for accessibility, I couldn’t do my job, I couldn’t do my shopping, I couldn’t do a whole bunch of stuff. It wouldn’t surprise you that I’m a big technology fan. A lot of my life is spent in and around technology. If accessibility isn’t there, then my life either grinds to a halt or becomes a hell of a lot more difficult.

“Professionally, it’s my career. Spiritually – if I can call it that without sounding too ridiculous – it’s about quality. In this day and age we’re talking about a huge audience of web and technology consumers and in some respects everyone is a niche. You’ve got people using a particular tablet, you’ve got a number of people using a screen reader. You have people on laptops, desktops and phones. Our entire audience, as designers and developers, is all about niche audiences. So, accessibility is just one part of getting that experience right.”

Still cradling her tea, she walks us through her past. She studied drama at university. “I gave it a shot,” she says. “But, I discovered there’s no money in it unless you’re incredibly lucky. I came home and got a job as I needed money. It so happened that it was working for one of the UK’s first ISPs. I got landed with the graveyard shift, taught myself to code web pages and the rest is history.”

Most people, even when being interviewed, ramble, digress and lose their way. Watson speaks with easy precision, in neat paragraphs and framed sentences. She rarely, if ever, corrects herself.

Accessible solutions

“I fell in love with the web from its beginning,” she says. “I’d always liked technology. My dad had an Apple IIe back in the 80s. I used to laboriously copy code into it from an Apple magazine. Hundreds of lines of it, and then it would say something like ‘syntax error on line two’. I moved through having a Sinclair computer; I got an Atari and had a PC in about ’93. That was about the time the web as we know it was getting under way. It seemed logical to get a modem and battle getting that online.”

Underlining her geek credentials, she runs through the kit she owns today: laptops, Surface Pro, iPad, iPhones. “There are all sorts of bits and pieces strewn about the place,” she says.

Our talk inevitably works its way back to accessibility. Given the web’s trend-consciousness, is accessibility the enemy of beautiful? Watson’s response comes like a boxer’s jab: “Absolutely not. [Acessibility] is a creative challenge, not a challenge to creativity. We’ve come a long way since the late 90s and early 2000s, when the concept of an accessible website was probably a text-only site. There are lots of companies making beautiful, creative and engaging websites that are completely usable by all sorts of people: people with and without disabilities, and people using different technologies. To anybody now who thinks accessibility has to cramp their style, I suggest, ‘Take another look at it’. Put the talent you have as designers and developers to finding accessible solutions to the creative stuff rather than constraining creative stuff to make it accessible.”

So who’s getting accessibility right? “In terms of productions, I was really privileged to be part of the new government website. They’ve rewritten the book on a whole bunch of stuff around web development – especially in the public sector. The thing they’ve done that’s been a real game changer is to put their audience, people, as their absolute top priority. That, of course, includes people with accessibility requirements. It’s not perfect – nothing ever is – but each person working in that team understands that whatever they build and however they build it, it has to be done in such a way that anyone in the country, across an extraordinary demographic, can use it.

“You know,” she continues, “accessibility can seem scary at first ... really complicated. It’s not rocket science. The rocket science is learning to do what we all do; it’s learning HTML, it’s CSS, it’s cross-browser compatibility and debugging. If you can do all that, you can get accessibility right – no question. If you’re looking for advice, I’d say think about the quality of the stuff we’re designing. We want people to use our websites, our apps and our web applications. Design like you give a damn. That’s all accessibility is: giving a damn about what you’re building and who you’re building it for.”

Into the mainstream

So, accessibility and good design are easy bedfellows. What about accessibility and RWD? With all its breakpoints, finesses and maths, is it a frontier too far for accessibility? “No. Responsive design is brilliant for accessibility! In fact, it’s what accessibility, in some respects, is about in its very heart. [Responsive] is about creating different experiences for different audiences so, actually, it’s brought something [that has been] in accessibility for a long time right into the mainstream.

“We can now build on that to make things even more accessible. [RWD has been] about looking at different platforms: mobile, desktop. You can take that on to great variations. CSS media queries [enable you to] present different experiences to different user agents. So, yes, responsive is brilliant for accessibility.”

From a user outlook this is great; from a design and development team’s perspective, responsive does have a reputation for making the nine-to-five more taxing. If we’re setting our sights on making products that are both accessible and responsive, are web pros facing a tougher future? “Bringing together two things like responsive and accessibility: that’s the wrong way to look at it. It’s easy to think about designing and building a website, then thinking about making it accessible. We all need to be doing that first ‘design and build’ part with accessibility built in. I talk to designers around the world who just get it. There’s no concept of, ‘I’ve got to build this. Oh. I’d better stop and work out how to make it accessible.’ Accessibility is built into all they do. If you take that on to responsive, it’s inherently there.”

With browser builders competing to build ever newer features into their products, how can assistive technologies keep pace? “It comes down to not wanting to separate accessibility from the stuff we’re doing every day. Accessibility is also pretty dependent on the browsers. For example, a screen reader depends on the browser a person is using. The browser has an accessibility API and pushes out information about the content on a page; the screen reader picks it up and conveys the information to the user. There’s a real symbiosis. The rapid changes taking place don’t cause any more of a headache because you’re thinking about accessibility. They cause a monumental headache simply because they’re changing so fast!”

And which browser does Watson rate best from an accessibility point of view? “Firefox is good. It’s making a lot of information available through its accessibility API. The team working on it has put a lot of time and effort into it and deserves a lot of credit. There are probably others doing good things in that space but, for the moment, Firefox and Internet Explorer are the two big players when it comes to screen reader support. But Firefox has to take the winning ticket on that one.”

The discussion shifts, to explore the assistive technologies themselves that are impressing her. “Jaws is a screen reader developed in the States by a company called Freedom Scientific. They’re doing good stuff in terms of ARIA support.”

WAI-ARIA (Web Accessibility Initiative — Accessible Rich Internet Applications), Watson explains, is a spec from the W3C designed to bridge gaps between assistive technologies and some of the components being built into websites. In essence, it’s a method of supplementing and extending some of the information available through the browser accessibility APIs, providing assistive technologies with more to work on. A simple example, Watson suggests, is “if you’ve got a link, you style it to look like a button, but to a screen reader it’s still a link though it looks like a button; there’s an obvious discrepancy.

“With ARIA, you can stick a role of ‘button’ on that link and, to a screen reader, the thing looks and behaves like a button.”

Technicalities cleared up, Watson continues to list open-source screen reader NVDA. “It’s brilliant to use in testing,” she says. “I’d probably have to include Apple’s VoiceOver screen reader too because it’s available on all their products. That was a gamechanger in the marketplace, when a blind person could walk into an Apple store, pick up a device, and have it speak to you straight out of the box.”

Finally, we arrive at content strategy and what accessibility experts need to think about. If you’re looking for a pithy summary of Lonie Watson’s professional quest, you’ll find it here. “This is a real passion of mine: we need to stop thinking about accessibility as a separate entity and make sure it’s part of everything we do. [With] content you need to think about the audience it’s going to target. Some people in that audience aren’t going to be able to see, hear, move around. To separate [your content] is going to make life a lot more difficult when it comes to putting that strategy together, let alone delivering on it.”

Lonie Watson will be speaking at our conference, Generate. Use the discount code LW15 to get 15 per cent off your ticket