Listen in podcast format here.


We were privileged to interview a well known name in the accessibility space, Leonie Watson – someone we’d seen previously, giving a talk at Accessibility Scotland in 2019.

Leonie describes herself as; Director and co-founder of TetraLogical; accessibility engineer; W3C WebApps WG co-chair; screen reader user, tequila drinker and crime fiction junkie.

Thanks to her for taking the time out of her schedule to answer her questions. This interview was a true pleasure.

Léonie, explain what you do and what you care about

So right now, I’m director of a company called TetraLogical that I started because I care about accessibility and accessible user experience. I’ve spent most of the past 20 years working in accessibility and a few more years than that on the web in general. And now, as a blind person, I have a vested interest in accessibility.

That’s not what got me into the subject in the first place, strangely. But what I really care about most of all now is giving teams the knowledge and capability that they need to make accessibility happen. I’ve spent many years working for different agencies supplying accessibility services, and that’s great. It’s a useful business to be in.

But actually, I now think that the future lies not with agencies constantly being there to fight a rear-guard action, but to educate and empower as many people as we possibly can, right the way up and down, left and right through all the roles in a production team, all the roles in an organization so that everybody understands they’ve got a responsibility to do accessibility and more importantly, the knowledge and the capability to actually do something about that.

How did you personally go about explaining the importance of online accessibility to someone who’d never considered it?

That’s an interesting one. One of the most effective ways, actually in recent years has been to ask them if they use some kind of Home Assistant, Echo or Google Home or such. And many people, of course, now have. And then the next thing I ask them is how many times have you had a screaming match with it because it just didn’t do what you wanted it to do.

It just didn’t listen to you. It answered the wrong question. It started the wrong activity, and the answer comes back almost invariably. Yeah, that’s that situation. And I’m like, Well, that’s actually what using technology is like for a lot of people.

You have accessibility needs or disabilities, myself included.  As a screen reader user, we get to the point where we think we should be able to do something and it should be reasonably straightforward and possible to do. And we find we just getting these kind of frustrating bumps in the road.

The analogy kind of parts company with accessibility at that point, because where frustrating conversations with things like Alexa or Google come more because of a limitation of the technology in accessibility terms, it’s often a limitation in the way things have been built and constructed. But having got someone to that kind of recognition of, “Oh hell, is that what the experience is like?”

You can kind of then move the conversation into: So there were design choices made as people responsible for creating building products and services. There were choices that we have a responsibility to make in the right direction.  And from there, the conversation usually heads in the right direction. People get curious.

OK, so you know, what is it that makes the experience frustrating for you or for someone who has dyslexia or, you know, name your your condition? And what I more often than not find is that people are genuinely quite curious about how to do what they do better.

We all make products and services for people to use. So at the end of the day, people genuinely want to find out: Actually, there’s something I can do that means more people can use it or people can enjoy or be satisfied using it. There’s definitely a curiosity out there, so that’s how I approach that conversation these days.

How do you think the internet will change over the next ten years and what specific features or habits that exist now, do you hope will be seen as from that time?

My answers to the two parts of it are in almost direct conflict with each other.

I suspect that we will see more and more move on the internet away from people who learn their craft by hand, if you like. We’ve already seen, of course, the huge rise of JavaScript frameworks and libraries for rapid and effective development. And those are all good things. But what it’s meant is that people are now able to walk into two jobs where they’ve got those design responsibilities and development responsibilities without really understanding the impact that the tools they’re using have on on users. So I suspect we are going to see more and more of that where the systems get more complex.

And so developers in particular get more and more removed from the kind of the nuts and bolts of the craft of actually writing HTML and even JavaScript, you know, and understanding the implications of the choices that they make. So if we look back in ten years, the one thing I would love to see being of its time is that we recognize that fact and that we somehow swing the pendulum back somewhere a bit towards the middle.

I’m not suggesting for a minute that we stop using all these tools that make development so much easier and quicker and more efficient, especially for people working in agencies or development teams. We’ve all got deadlines. And, you know, we want to hit them, and those tools certainly help us to do that. But I think what we’ve got to swing back towards more of an understanding of what is the impact?

What are those tools actually spitting out that gets as far as the user in the browser and really getting into the point where where developers have a better understanding of  “Sure. You know, my JavaScript is going to output this HTML, but how good is the HTML?” And I say, why is that important anyway? I say I have no idea if those two things can be mutually compatible. I have a horrible suspicion – Probably not. But yeah, that that’s where I think we’re going.

And if I could choose one thing that we look back on and recognize that we’re not doing right, it’s really that we’re moving away from that innate understanding of the code that we’re creating.

If you’re with somebody who needs to check how accessible their website is, but only has five minutes – talk us through how you go about sharing them.

So the kicker there is five minutes!  The reason I’m laughing is because my team at TetraLogical recently produced a series of ten quick accessibility test videos precisely to answer this. Unfortunately, they take about ten minutes to get through site. So I guess my answer has to be “Choose five and then wait, and then choose another five“.

Accessibility can often seem very scary, very big, very overwhelming. And it’s nice to have a kind of stepping stone that lets you start making a difference quickly and easily lowering that kind of barrier to entry. And so these tests take a minute or so long each, and they cover just basic things like testing for Zoom, testing with keyboard testing for things like linked text just really straightforward.

It’s for accessibility, but actually, if you round them all up together and you kind of have a think about what the number of people that are impacted, if you start testing for those things and fixing things, if you find issues, you know, you start to have a really big impact on quite a large number of people.

So bite sized pieces that in and of themselves, maybe take you a minute or so to watch a video and then, you know, a few attempts to get it right. So you don’t need to go back and watch the video again. And suddenly you find something that that’s just second nature and you go and you do another one, another one. And even if you just take five minutes and watch five videos, that’s five things you’re going to be doing better than you were ten minutes before you started watching.

In terms of the adoption of accessible digital products, what do you think is the biggest challenge?

I think historically, actually, accessibility people have been a big part of the problem. And I say this, you know, with full disclosure as having been one of the back growing ten or 15 years ago, we spent a lot of time running around telling everybody how terrible a job they were doing.

You can’t design this new coding that wrong and you’re not doing this properly. And oh, by the way, you’re probably going to get sued. And I think the results of, you know, a fairly sustained effort of doing that sort of thing kind of made everybody think that accessibility is a big burden. You know, something that had to be shouldered.

So I think that’s that’s certainly part of the cause of why adoption of accessibility has perhaps not achieved what we’d like it to. I think another big part of the problem is that we’re not educating people, learning the craft of user research, design, development and how to do things accessibly. I did a computer science degree 20 years ago and started it after I lost my sight. And there was a module on how to do accessibility, and that was it.

Every other coding I came across, whether it was JavaScript HTML or something like Javascript that was outputting an interface of some kind, none of it was accessible by design. None of it mentioned accessibility. It’s just basic, garden-variety good practice.

And I don’t think that’s changed materially in the intervening years. So we’re churning out people who are doing online tutorials, online courses, going to college, even going to university, who just aren’t being confronted with the basic idea that good design and development is accessible. In design and development it’s always taught as an afterthought, a separate module. And so they come into the workplace, that idea of deadlines – you’ve got to get this done with the launch. You’ve got to push, push, push, go, go, go.

And so there isn’t time to actually do that and bolt on that extra step because they weren’t taught how to make it an innate and integral part of what they do every day. So I think if we can fix the attitude, which admittedly we’ve done a lot in recent years to to change that, there’s a much greater excitement and vibrancy around the idea of accessibility in recent years than there was going back.

And from that and more education, we we make it clear as a profession that accessibility is something we should take professional pride in and we give people the education they need to actually realize that in their day to day jobs, what is just the one thing that is one thing of many that every single person can do and they will learn to play a part in the in the progression towards an accessible internet.

When you’re talking to friends, peers, colleagues, anybody who will listen – give the impression that to you, accessibility is just part of what you do.

The more we can let everybody around us know that as individuals, we just think it’s something that is an essential component of the jobs that we do. The more we sell this idea that it’s it’s not extraordinary, it’s not unusual, it’s just something I do because, you know, I’m good at my job.

I think that’s that’s probably the biggest thing we can do. It undermines the idea that it’s this thing that can be dropped because we’re pushing for launch and we haven’t got time. It undermines this idea that it’s really not that important. And people with disabilities don’t really use technology anyway, do they?

All of those things, the more we collectively just actually hold our heads up high and say, You know what? This thing is real. It’s important.

It’s a thing I do because I believe it’s part of doing my job and it’s part of doing the right thing and that’s infectious. I think people will talk to you and they will see this attitude and and say, “OK, a person know something I don’t know. Perhaps I should go and figure it out and maybe learn something about this accessibility myself.”

And so it goes on, and the more we can kind of spread that infectious positive attitude, I think that’s how we’ll start to to make changes.