A conversation with Derek Featherstone

In deze aflevering gaat Randy Semeleer in gesprek met Derek Featherstone, veel gevraagd spreker op het gebied van digitale toegankelijkheid. Van kinds af aan wilde Derek al leraar worden. Maar vanwege persoonlijke omstandigheden besloot hij al vrij snel te stoppen met lesgeven om zich volledig te wijden aan digitale toegankelijkheid. In 1999 richtte Derek het bedrijf Simply Accessible op, een bedrijf gespecialiseerd in een mens-eerst benadering als het gaat om het aanleren van de kunst van toegankelijkheid. Het bedrijf werd in 2018 overgenomen door Level Access en nu is Derek er CXO, de Chief Experience Officer. Randy praat met hem over zijn opvattingen over de huidige staat van digitale toegankelijkheid en zijn drijfveren. Het gesprek met Derek is in het Engels.

Uitgeschreven tekst

Randy: Beste luisteraars, welkom bij de podcast over digitale toegankelijkheid bij de overheid. Behalve deze proloog is de podcast vandaag in zijn geheel in het Engels; dit vanwege de Engelstalige gast. Luister je liever niet naar een Engelstalige aflevering dan kan ik je verwijzen naar een van de andere afleveringen in de feed, die zijn in het Nederlands. Wil je dit wel luisteren dan wens ik je veel luisterplezier.

Dear listeners, welcome to the podcast of Gebruiker Centraal, also known as User Needs First and Digitoegankelijk. A podcast about how the government can put humans at the centre of its services. This series is about digital accessibility in government. My name is Randy Semeleer.Today the episode, a conversation with Derek. We’ll talk about Derek’s views on the current state of digital accessibilities, his drives, and perhaps he’ll even share a tip or two. My guest today, as you might have guessed, is Derek. Derek is a sought-after speaker when it comes to topics related to accessibility, though in the early days it didn’t seem like it would come to this. Since his early teens Derek wanted to be a teacher. He taught biology and chemistry for a number of years. Then, in 1999, he shifted his career towards the path he is still currently on, you could say. He founded the company Simply Accessible, a company specialised in a people-first approach when it comes to teaching the art of accessibility, as they put it. The company was acquired by Level Access in 2018, and now Derek is their CXO, the Chief Experience Officer, a position I personally would like to see more often among the execs. Besides all this Derek is also a dad and a Canadian. Welcome, Derek.

Derek: Thank you so much for having me. It’s great to be here.

Randy: Awesome. Awesome for you to join us. So, Derek, I want to start with a little bit of trivia. There is this company called UsableNet and they did an analysis, and they are projecting that for 2021 there will be a rise of 20% regarding web accessibility lawsuits compared to 2020, in the US that is. So, when you hear a rise of percentage in web accessibility lawsuits, in your opinion, how important is it to actually have legislation regarding web accessibility?

Derek : Oh, wow, great question to start off. I think unfortunately, as much as I wish it wasn’t true, we still need to have that legislative side of things in the accessibility world. Not because it’s the only way that people take action, but it needs to be there to protect the rights of people with disabilities. Because I think what a lot of organisations have shown over the last year – and when I say over the last year, over the last several years, many, many years, and when I say organisations, I don’t just mean companies, I mean governments, companies, any level of organisation – sometimes they need that reminder that they need to create things that are for everyone.

Randy: Yes.

Derek: And people with disabilities are often left out, and so the legal side of it is there as a necessary reminder, as a necessary motivator. Even though I envision and hope for a world where people of all kinds create things that are accessible for people with all different types of disabilities, it takes a while to get there. And we want everybody to do it for the right reasons, because it’s the right thing to do, but often we need that legislation there as a reminder, as a motivator, as something to get the conversation started. So, it has an important role to play and will probably always be there.

Randy: You think so, always?

Derek: I think there… I mean, I can’t look too far into the future, but I think for –

Randy: Sure.

Derek: – the future that I foresee, there will always need to be some sort of legal protection for people with disabilities, just like we have protection for people, you know, that are often excluded for other reasons, you know, whether it’s race or language or age or whatever it is, disability is one of those things that needs to be protected in a way. Because if we don’t have that, some organisations just won’t care, and they won’t create things that are for everyone. And unfortunately, I think there is just this future where there will always be some legal protections that need to be there, because there will always be someone that doesn’t know that they need to act on this, that they need to make sure that the things that they are creating are for everyone.

Randy: Yeah. It’s interesting, because if you think about it a lot of countries – at least maybe we should, no, maybe we shouldn’t, I’m not sure– but a lot of countries, at least in the west, have a constitution that forbids any discrimination, and a lot of countries explicitly also include people with disability in that. Still, there is a need for extra legislation when it comes to making sure that digital means are accessible for those people.

Derek: Yeah, and I think that is partly due to just the way that most jurisdictions, whether they be, you know, countries or, you know, parts of countries, states, provinces, whatever, there’s the legislation that sets the high-level concept, right? We, in our constitution here in Canada, you know, we have our chartered human rights and freedoms, and people with disabilities are included as part of that. But that is such a high-level document and such a high-level concept, that putting it into practice needs some of those other aspects that legislation and regulation bring. And so that’s like, how do we put this into practice? What does this mean? How will we enact this in the country of Canada, for example? So we recently created the Accessible Canada Act here in Canada, and that’s, you know, a couple of years old now. But we’re still going through the process of figuring out how will the country govern over this, right? What are the rules, what are the regulations? How will this be implemented? What are the timelines for implementing it? So even if we say at a high level the Accessible Canada Act exists, it’s not something that immediately… You know, there’s all the systems in place that we need in order to make that a reality within the country. So, there is kind of different levels of the legislation where the legal mandate that help make sure that people with disabilities are… and that their rights are protected.

Randy: Yeah, so a supplemental legislation, a regulation is definitely needed to help protect those rights.

Derek: Definitely.

Randy: OK. OK, thanks, Derek for that. I want to get into your past and your motivations a little bit. You made a switch from teaching towards your current career path. What made you make that switch?

Derek: There’s a few things that go into that, and I’d like to think of it as this, you know, these great coincidences that all happened at the same time. I was teaching, and in 1999 I was teaching high school, as you said, biology, chemistry, I was teaching computers as well. And I actually got sick at one point. And my grandmother had passed away and three mornings later I woke up and the left side of my face was paralysed. And that was, that shook me to a certain extent, it made me question a whole lot of things.

Randy: I can imagine.

Derek: My first reaction was “Oh, I’ve had a stroke. What does that mean?” It turns out it wasn’t a stroke, it was something that was probably a little bit related to stress and some kind of a viral infection or something like that, just based on everything that was happening at the time in my life. And you know, with my grandmother passing away, that was sort of the last straw so to speak. And I was off work, I think, for about three months. And during that time, I, you know, I recovered, but there is a whole lot of things that I think made me kind of rethink where am I going in my career, what am I doing? And so, a lot of things just happened all at once. I was building websites from the mid 1990s, when I was in university, and I was building web-based resources. You know, the web was still new, relatively new, and it was pretty cool, everybody wanted to be doing things there.

Randy: Sure.

Derek: So I had some exposure to doing things on the web and in the process, I would say in about 1996 or ’97, I was actually building websites for my students, so that they had online resources available. Up until then everything was either in a book or it was something that I would create as a handout, and I would give them a paper copy. And it just seemed to me that, since most of the students that I was working with at the time were really into and getting connected to the internet, it made sense to put extra resources out there, so that I could use that as one of the teaching tools that I had. So, that led me to discover a whole bunch of different things about web standards and the way that the web worked in different browsers. I was upset and frustrated that the web pages that I had built looked fine in Internet Explorer 3, but they did not render at all in Netscape Navigator 3.

Randy: Yeah, the infamous browser wars back then.

Derek: Exactly. And so that led me to kind of investigate, like, you know, what is web standards, how does this whole work? That led me to accessibility as well, and led me to all kinds of Usenet newsgroups that included accessibility as part of the discussion, and it was very much a thing that I was interested in. And it also resonated with me, because I very much believed as a teacher that the things that I was teaching were for everybody, for every student, regardless of… And I wasn’t necessarily thinking about disability at the time, I was more thinking about this message is for everyone based on their learning styles. So, I was teaching science concepts that I thought were really important to young students, so that they could become smart, engaged citizens down the road. But I was also teaching people that were very arts oriented and did not necessarily love science, and so I was trying to find ways to connect to each one of those students. And so, we did fun things, like I would ask students to write some poetry or act out a science concept, so that it found some way of resonating with them. So that concept of this content, this message is for everyone regardless of anything was always something that was on my mind, so when I first came across accessibility and the concept that this content, the things that I am creating are for everyone, including people with disabilities, it just, it really, that really clicked for me. And we take all of that together with my… kind of questioning where I was in my career.

Randy: Yes.

Derek: My grandfather had a stroke in the mid-1980s, and I lived with my grandparents for several summers, and you know, I saw the barriers that my grandfather faced after he had recovered from his stroke. He wasn’t ever able to use his left hand again, he walked with a cane, he had balance-related issues, he wasn’t able to bend his left knee. So, all of these things all come together and it becomes pretty clear to me that after teaching, I decided that I wanted to leave teaching, I was going to continue to teach people about web design and web development, and accessibility was going to be part of that.

Randy: Yes.

Derek: And that is what kicked off my career in accessibility to the point where in about 2002, 2003 all the way through to 2005 accessibility became just a bigger part of what I was trying to do in my work and with our small company. So, I eventually got to the point where I decided accessibility was effectively the only thing that I wanted to do, and the only thing that I wanted us to do as a company. That’s the genesis of, the very short version, of how I got to where I am. I know that doesn’t seem like a short story, but that is definitely the short version.

Randy: I can imagine that that’s quite a process that’s going to take… yeah, years even, to discover where you want to go and where you want to take your career next. So this is quite personal for you, it sounds like.

Derek: It is, it is. And people, I will say this and acknowledge this, I was born with a clubfoot, it is considered a disability. But I honestly say to people – you know, most people, they can’t see my clubfoot, they assume that I don’t have any disabilities – I would say I do, but I don’t have a disability that has a severe or significant impact on how I am able to use the computer, use websites. Although, as I am getting older, I find that my left leg is not as strong as the right one, and that’s been that way for my entire life, it’s not as flexible. So, I am not able to sit or stand for as long as I used to be able to. I need to walk around a lot. If I’m standing a lot, I need to make sure that I sit down. If I’m sitting down a lot, I need to make sure that I stand up and move around. And that’s more because if I don’t, my leg starts to hurt quite a bit and you know, not a 10/10 on the pain scale, more like, you know, a 3 or a 4.

Randy: A bit of a nagging.

Derek: But I find that that actually gets me to a point where, if I don’t keep moving around and changing my position, it actually starts to work through my knee and my hip and my back and my shoulders. And that means that if I’m sitting here for, you know, for two hours, I probably need to move around, because I’m going to be in, you know, I’ll start to be in pain in my back. Now, I will also say that could be just because I’m getting older, right? That may or may not be directly related to my clubfoot. I have no way of knowing though, I can’t A/B test it to be able to be sure.

Randy: You’ve only one body, of course.

Derek: Exactly.

Randy: OK. So yeah, it does sound quite personal, thanks for sharing that. You know, you spoke a little bit about at a certain point you wanted to focus more, solely on accessibility. Can you tell a little bit more about what went about that? What made you think that this is the thing: I’m about websites, I want to create web solutions in a certain point of your career? And then at a certain point you thought: let’s only focus or let’s high focus on that digital accessibility part. Can you go into that a little bit more?

Derek: Yes. I think I was at a point where I really saw that the entire web industry was not putting enough focus on it. And you know, for me as a teacher, you know, I wanted to be a teacher since I was around twelve years old, I wanted to teach, I wanted to coach people, I really enjoyed that aspect of doing things, it’s very self… you know, really fulfilling for me to be able to teach people and to share things with them. And I saw at that point, you know I would say even in 2004, 2005 there weren’t that many people that were talking about accessibility or teaching people about accessibility.

Randy: Yeah, really early days back then.

Derek: Yeah. And so that was a thing that I saw… You know, a) I saw it as an opportunity, but b) I also saw it as something that would be really… just, you know, fulfilling for me to do as a career. And having developed a certain amount of expertise in it, and seeing that people started coming to me and asking for consulting advice or for help with the hands-on, like “We don’t know how to tick this app and build it in a way that means it’s accessible.” And that to me was like this is… And I love that challenge, I also loved the challenge, especially back in those days, of people saying “We can’t make that accessible. That’s impossible to make accessible.” But as soon as somebody tells me that something is impossible like that, that makes me want to do it just that much more. So, I was really just quite excited about that, about having a niche that I could focus on, that I had developed some skill and massive interest in. And for me it was just a thing where I looked at it and said “This, I mean, it feels right.” I was at that point too, in 2005, I started getting invitations to speak at conferences internationally…

Randy: Yes.

Derek: …all over the world. And that to me was kind of a… you know, signaling to me that I’ve got some expertise here, I should definitely start moving in that direction because, you know, for every hundred people that would be out there and speaking at conferences about web development and writing code, whether it was HTML, CSS or JavaScript or you know, these days React or whatever it is, for every hundred of those people there is like one person that was talking about accessibility. And so, I just wanted to really get out there and teach as many people as I could and help, you know, help the industry get better at delivering on the promise of making these digital resources available to everyone and accessible to everyone.

Randy: Yeah. OK, so it sounds like that teaching is still an important part, being a teacher is till an important part of who you are, even if you switched professions.

Derek: Every day, every day. It’s what I love the most.

Randy: Great that you can still practice it then in this way, and of course beneficial for a lot of people that want to learn about that accessibility topic. So, Derek, if we talk about digital accessibility and inclusive design, these two topics you could say they relate and overlap, maybe they also differ. How do you think they either relate, overlap or differ?

Derek: So I look at accessibility as an outcome. It’s a measure of how someone can or cannot use – and I’m thinking digital accessibility here, not broader, like physical built environment accessibility, but accessibility is an outcome that we are looking achieve. And I think of inclusive design as a process, as a method that we use that helps us achieve that outcome of making things accessible. The goal of inclusive design is not just to make accessibility as an outcome happen, there’s also other goals of inclusion and participation and belonging and other inclusion-related goals that practicing inclusive design helps us with. But one of the most significant outcomes that it does help us with is better understand and better deliver on making things accessible to everyone. So, I’ll ilustrate with an example and I’ve done some work…

Randy: Please do that.

Derek: I’ve done some work with teams that were working on their website for a podcast. And they produced the podcast and I had, you know, my goal was to practice inclusive design, to help them along the way. Not only did we wanted to be accessible, but I told them from the beginning I really want to include people with disabilities in this process, people with disabilities that aren’t me, that have different accessibility needs that I do, that, you know, I wanted to make sure that they were represented in the process. And the best way to represent them in the process was not me as, you know, I’ve been doing accessibility work for 22 years, but I didn’t want to represent them in the work and me be their voice, I wanted their voice to be represented in the process itself. And so, we engaged with probably a handful of people with different disabilities during that redesign process. And one of the things that we found – it was actually for a podcast, and it was really interesting to me – on the technical side it’s very straightforward to create an accessible website for a podcast. We have our audio, we know how to make the web-based podcast player, the web-based audio player, keyboard accessible, we can have all of the buttons and the controls in there, they’re well labelled, so that a screen meter user can understand what they are. And we know that we need a transcript that represents the content that’s in the audio, right? That’s…

Randy: Sure, the same as we do for this podcast, actually.

Derek: Exactly. One of the things that I found out – and that can be technically accessible, right? We know exactly how to make that technically accessible. And we can do all of that without talking to or working with people with disabilities. When we engaged with people with disabilities in the process, one of the people taught me something, and this lesson will never leave me, this is one of the most important lessons I’ve ever learned. This young developer is hard of hearing, and she and I were working through and we were actually doing, I think we might’ve even done the session, the research session through Slack, so that she could type and that I could type, so that it was more accessible and effective for her for communication.

Randy: Yes.

Derek : And what I learned from her was that – and I pause here because I still shake my head a little bit, because it’s so obvious when I look back at it now, but I hadn’t really considered it until she expressed this to me – I always looked at the transcript as an alternative version, or another version of the audio.

Randy: Yes.

Derek: And that if you don’t have access to the audio, then the transcript is what you use. And she said to me, she described a few things that she would love to see in the interface, and she said, you know, “What I really want from this podcast, from this design, is to be able to use the audio and the transcript at the same time, because I’m not completely deaf, I’m hard of hearing.” So it’s not that everybody is going to use the audio or the transcript, she actually wanted to use them together.

Randy: Yeah.

Derek: And wanted to use them in a way that complemented one another. And that to me was this moment where I realised that even though we could make things technically accessible, in order for her to use those two things complementary, in a complementary way, we needed a specific design that would actually facilitate that. So, you know, you might see things like it with that web-based player, as she was scrolling down through the transcript, well that web-based player was in a static spot on the web page, which meant that it was scrolled way off into the distance, and she couldn’t get at it. So, if she wanted to listen to something again, or to read something again, or to match up where she was, that design wouldn’t facilitate that, even though the design technically passed every existing check point that we have from an accessibility perspective. It still didn’t meet her needs, and so that design, we would need to do something with that design in order to facilitate that need for her to use those things independently. One, you know, she could have the transcript open in a separate window, right? That would allow her to control them independently.

Randy: Yeah. That sounds that she would have to do herself.

Derek: Exactly. Or we could have it so that the web-based player, as you’re scrolling through the transcript, the web-based player follows and is in the left hand margin of the transcript, so that you can control those two things independently and that allows you to use them in a complementary way.

Randy: Yeah.

Derek: And that for me was part of the value of inclusive design. It was something that I learned that I never would’ve connected in my head. And I look back now I’m like I understand that intellectually, before talking to her, but I hadn’t really connected it that way. And after talking with her, and after seeing her trying to manipulate this interface and talking to her about it, it became so much more clear to me that inclusive design isn’t just about meeting a technical accessibility standard, it’s about actually meeting the accessibility needs of people that have a whole variety of needs that we haven’t really even started to discover fully yet. So for me that was like, the most critical piece was understanding that yes, we created a podcast website that was accessible, but we needed to go beyond that to make it more inclusive, to make sure that it actually worked really well for people with all different kinds of disabilities. And the only way to get that is by actually including people with disabilities in the process.

Randy: Definitely. And when was that, Derek, just about?

Derek: That was about a year and a half ago, I think.

Randy: Oh, wow, OK. Besides hosting this show I’m also an avid podcast consumer, and I’m just thinking about how many websites I visited about podcasts, with podcasts, that don’t even have a transcript, or if they have, they aren’t going to feature any of these features you’re talking about now, it’s very rare, I think.

Derek : It is.

Randy: So still a long road ahead of us in that sense.

Derek: And that to me is the beauty of inclusive design, is that when we practice inclusive design and we include people with disabilities in that design process, whether it’s through doing, you know, really straightforward interviews, or whether it’s doing an exploratory usability study or a [summit of? 31:25] usability study, testing a prototype, doing a survey, any of that, the more input that we have and the more thoroughly that people with disabilities are represented and can participate in the process, the better the outcome that we end up with. And that to me is the value, the true value of inclusive design is we actually end up creating designs that are better for everyone, but most importantly, we are creating something that meets the needs of people with a variety of disabilities. And that’s why I turn to… If we focus on practicing inclusive design, there’s a very, very good chance that accessibility as an outcome will be well taken care of. If we focus on accessibility as the outcome without including people with disabilities, there’s a greater chance that we fail to deliver on accessibility as an outcome, and we definitely fail from an inclusion perspective.

Randy: Yeah, it might hit all checkboxes, but it won’t be as inclusive as it could’ve been.

Derek: Exactly. And I was writing about this just last week on Twitter, I tend to go off on threads there and I’ve been saying this, I think, since 2015. The checklist, you know, compliance, the checklist is the starting point, not the endpoint.

Randy: Yes.

Derek: And the end point really needs to be about that greater understanding of accessibility being part of user experience, and not just a compliance.

Randy: Yeah, that’s something that I really had to learn also early in my career. I came from, doing some usability engineering to becoming a UX researcher later on in my career. And early in my career I really saw it as a separate topic that I didn’t really want to spend too much time on. I thought it was, you know, I thought it was important, however, I thought: OK, hit the guidelines and hit the checkboxes and things will be OK. And it really took me a while to get that greater understanding, also from talking to people that have those specific disabilities to hear their perspective and what they sometime – or sometimes, daily even – have to struggle with to open up my own perspective that it is an important part of the entire experience even.

Derek: Yeah, absolutely. I think we all, at some point we all go on this journey of growing and understanding and you know, when we think of designing a product or creating a website or whatever it is, if we’re looking at that as like the checklist is the starting point, not the endpoint, that actually speaks to the way that we as individuals learn about accessibility as well. We often learn about it as a checklist, as a compliance measure, as a measure of quality, and here’s this list of things that we need to do. And you know, the thing that I love the most about this field is the more that I learn and the more that I know, the more I realise that I don’t know. And that just kind of keeps me going to dig in more, and to learn more from people with disabilities about their experiences, and how the things that we are creating could be more accessible, could be more inclusive for them.

Randy: In that sense there’s some parallels with your previous fields of expertise within natural sciences, I suppose.

Dere : Yeah, absolutely. I like to think of it as… There’s a biological concept, which has been maybe debunked a little bit and people say it’s not exactly true, but conceptually it basically says the development of an individual often mirrors the development of a species overall. And so, I often like to think of that, kind of that micro and that macro, you know, those parallels that are there. And again, that from a biological perspective some people have actually written against that and said that that’s not a thing, the way that it was originally conceived of. But I like to think of it from that perspective, because it means that if I think of my own learning on accessibility or another individual’s learning on accessibility, that journey of realisation is quite often going to be very similar to the journey that an organisation takes, right? So, an individual’s path and the way that they learn, and that they make sense of what they’re experiencing, often mirrors and parallels the growth of an organisation and the growth of an entire industry. So, there’s some really interesting parallels there.

Randy: Yeah, interesting. OK, Derek, very interesting concept there. I want to move on a little bit and ask you, you have a lot of experience, international experience also, in your opinion what are some of the biggest challenges that digital accessibility has to deal with in these days, also regarding governments?

Derek: In the broadest sense, I’ll speak not specifically about government to start of, I’ll just speak about digital accessibility more broadly. I think the biggest, one of the biggest challenges that we face with accessibility in the industry in general, not the accessibility industry, the web industry, one of the biggest challenges that we face is that people underestimate the impact that accessibility barriers have on an individual’s day-to-day life. They underestimate that impact significantly because they don’t have, most people don’t have experience that they can relate to, they don’t have a disability themselves or they… You know, when people are younger, I was younger, I’m 50 years old now, but when I was 28, 29, 30 years old I was at a point where I thought I was maybe, you know, to a certain extent invincible and these things wouldn’t impact me.

Randy: Sure.

Derek: But as I get older, like, my eyesight is not anywhere near as good as it used to be. I need to wear glasses, I’ve got the fonts all bumped up on my computer at a systemwide setting, I regularly command plus and command minus to adjust the font size of things for me so I can read it more readily depending on the activity. We all age into disability, and I think a lot of people just, you know, don’t understand that or they haven’t for whatever reason had it impact them or somebody in their lives yet, so they don’t necessarily recognise that this thing is something that is, you know, a big part of, you know, close to a quarter of the world’s population. So I think that’s one of the biggest challenges that we face is people, they’re not aware in the first place. And even if they are aware, they often look at it as a statistic, they look at accessibility and the web industry and they think: well, how many people is that? And they look at it and they say “Well, that’s less than the number of people that are coming to our site using this browser and we don’t care about that browser, so why should we care about people with disabilities?” And it’s just thinking about accessibility in kind of in the wrong terms. When we are helping someone, we often say, you know, and as teachers or as whomever, if I have helped just one person, I’ve made a difference.

Randy: Yes.

Derek: But we don’t give the same weight to creating barriers for just that one person, right? We’re all very proud, like I helped this one person, I am therefore a good person, I am proud of what I’ve done. But if we have barriers for one person, we don’t give that one person the same weight, because it’s something that we kind of face that maybe makes us feel guilty or whatever it is. So, you know, in my mind the digital accessibility industry or digital accessibility within the web industry is a thing that people sometimes aren’t even aware of, haven’t thought about, I still have conversations with people where they say, “You mean a blind person can use a computer?”

Randy: Wow.

Derek: And that is still such a foreign concept for some reason. So, I think that’s one of the biggest challenges that we face is that there’s still lots of awareness related issues. I think that’s changing, I see… I will admit, I’m on TikTok and I see actually quite a few disabled creators on there, like there’s lots of people with disabilities –

Randy: Really?

Derek: – that are creating on TikTok. And I think, you know, one of the things that I’m most excited about is that that just shows people that are consuming content out there that here’s these people with disabilities that are people, that are funny, that are creative, that, you know, maybe they have a facial difference or they’re missing a limb or they might be blind or whatever it is, but they’re out there and they’re just a person, the same as everybody else. That’s what many people with disabilities, that I’ve talked with, they want, they want to just be seen as a person. Not as something special, they just want what everybody else… whatever, the same kind of treatment as everybody else. So, you know I think awareness continues to grow, but it’s sad to say that even here, in 2021, there’s still a severe lack of awareness that is out there for what accessibility is, why it’s important, how we should prioritise it.

Randy: So lack of awareness in your opinion is one of the larger barriers.

Derek: It is, it is. The other one is a mindset that a lot of people, you know, decisionmakers in business and in organisation, I’ve even heard of scenarios within governments where there’s pushback about accessibility, because the person believes that accessibility is not a thing that they need to take into account in that particular situation because it doesn’t impact anybody. Well, that’s an internal tool and it’s not facing the public, therefore it doesn’t need to be accessible. The reality is that that’s changing overtime and people, I mean, we should’ve always had accessible tools within internal tools. But when you think about opportunities and the ability for a person with a disability to move up to a manager’s position or to a manager of managers or a director, are the tools that the company has chosen, or that the organisation has chosen at a kind of a systemwide level, are those tools accessible? Could somebody with a disability have that director’s job? Could they be, you know, the senior minister in a government department based on the tools that those people need to use? You know, is there a barrier there just because of the tools that the government has procured? And in those –

Randy: It’s interesting because… Yeah, go ahead.

Derek: No, I was going to say like, those are the questions that people need to start asking a little bit more. You know, can people with disabilities be part of the team? Can they be on a career path like everybody else is? Or are they in a position where they got hired at this level and they are at that level forever? Not because of their ability, not because of their intelligence or their skills, but because they can’t move up to a higher job simply because the tools that are used in that job are not accessible?

Randy: Yeah, it’s a bit of a chicken and egg story also. You could say we don’t need to make that internal tool accessible because we don’t have anyone with a disability, but are you going to hire someone with a disability if you know that they probably can’t work with your tools? And if someone does move up, or gets a high position within the company, they probably will get those tools because he or she will make a fuss about it, rightly so. However, it’s a shame that it needs to come to that before a company is going to think about their internal tooling to become more accessible.

Derek: Yeah, and this speaks to the broader issues that many organisations face, which is how do they embrace, how do they embody, how do they value diversity, equity, and inclusion.

Randy: Yeah.

Derek: It always connects to that at a higher level, and the actions that they take and the systems that they put in place need to be aligned with their beliefs and their values on diversity, equity, and inclusion. And maybe that’s the problem, that people don’t believe that diversity, equity, and inclusion are important.

Randy: That’s one thing, to put it on your website, that you think it’s important, but it’s another thing to take the action of course.

Derek: It’s the action and, you know, to me it’s like are we living out the values that we say we have? We say that it’s important to us, and it’s more than taking action, because I can take all kinds of action and have it be the wrong action, it’s that pure alignment between we say this, do we live it? Do we live it? We say that all citizens should have access to this, regardless of their ability or disability. Do we live that? Do we live that in the day-to-day work, in the systems that we put in place, in the software that we procure, in the services that we hire? Do we live it? Do we live it?

Randy: Yeah. Yeah, yeah, that’s a good point, Derek. So we spoke quite a bit about the barriers, if we talk about the drivers of accessibility, earlier in the conversation we spoke about legislation, an important driver, probably. Any other drivers you care to mention, to emphasise here?

Derek: Yeah, this is actually my favourite one. You know, the driver, we kind of talked to this about, a little bit about this in terms of just the last little bit about diversity, equity, and inclusion, like that –

Randy: Sure.

Derek : – for many organisations is a driver. The one that I think gets left out an awful lot, that should be a driver for everyone, you know, we talk about, we want to create great experiences for people, for a government department, we want to create great interactions that are seamless, that feel not like a massive bureaucracy, they feel easy to use, I can achieve the goals that I need to, you know, that I’m trying to achieve. One of the things that I think people miss on, when they’re not practicing inclusive design, is there is so much opportunity for innovation and creativity that ultimately make that service, that product, that whatever it is, better, not just for people with disabilities, but for everyone else, the opportunity for innovation that is there. If you look at… I’ll go to the private sector for a moment, but…

Randy: Sure.

Derek : …if you look at a very recent story, and I’m not sure how publicised this is worldwide, but Degree makes a deodorant and antiperspirant, that’s a, you know, pretty… I think it’s a worldwide brand, but I’m not sure where they are. But they make an antiperspirant and deodorant.

Randy: Sure.

Derek : And they recently created something called Degree Inclusive. And they designed a container for the deodorant, and I would encourage everyone that’s listening on the podcast to just go and check that out, Degree Inclusive and…

Randy: We can include it in the show notes also, I’ll look it up.

Derek: Perfect. They went through a process where they consulted with, and worked with many people with disabilities that want to be active, but maybe sometimes – again, it’s weird to talk about this, but – they maybe don’t have the confidence to work out or to be active and fit because, for whatever reason, they may not be able to use deodorant. And so, they’re not as active and healthy and fit as they could be. And this came across my, kind of came across my desk, because I’m always looking for these companies that are innovating. And so they created a container that is easy to use by someone that has, you know, the use of only one hand, or maybe no hands, and they made it so that it was easy to use for somebody that can’t see. They made it so getting the lid on and off is… just as one example, they have little magnetic closures on the lid, so that it’s easy to automatically align. You don’t have to get it exactly where it is, it will kind of snap into place.

Randy: Yeah.

Derek : So it’s easy to close, it’s easy to open. And that can be, you know, that can be really useful for people with all kinds of different disabilities. They looked at it as an opportunity to work with people with disabilities as an opportunity to innovate and to do something that nobody had done before. They went through and created over 200 prototypes and eventually ended –

Randy: Wow.

Derek: – with a deodorant that they are super proud of and is actually, you know, changes in some kind of meaningful way the fitness experience and that experience for people with different disabilities. So I would encourage –

Randy: Sound impressive

Derek : I would encourage everybody to go and just read about it, learn about it, because it’s an example of what most orgs are missing, is that if we practice inclusion, if we practice inclusive design, the opportunities for innovation are massive and underutilised. And so it’s a really great story, and I think that’s probably the thing that I would encourage people to do the most is to go and look at that. It’s the thing that excites me the most about including people with disabilities in the process.

Randy: That’s a great example, Derek. I’m not familiar with the story myself, but I’ll definitely seek something out and make sure it gets included in the show’s notes for all the listeners to check it out also.

Derek: Cool.

Randy: You know, Derek, I want to talk about your position a little bit. You’re a chief experience officer.

Derek: Yes.

Randy: That’s a position that you don’t, if you look at the C-level or the executive level, that’s not a position you see for every company, more often not than it is there, I think I would dare to say. Especially also in the Netherlands you don’t always see that. Why do you think it’s important for companies to include such a position and what difference does it make in your opinion?

Derek: I’ll give you two answers. I think the first answer is, you know, I specifically chose that title because I wanted to send a message to our own company, but also to all the companies and organisations that we work with, that accessibility needs to be part of the user experience. That it is not something that is just about quality assurance testing and it’s not just part of IT or the development side of things, it’s actually part of the user experience. At least part of it needs to be. So part of my choosing that title was that that’s a message that I think is really important for everybody to hear. In the broader context, having a chief experience officer at an organisation, whether it’s a company or you know, whatever it is, that connection to people that are actually using the things that we are creating, it’s really important to have that mindset. And so, if accessibility and customer experience rolls up underneath a chief experience officer, that is basically a way for a company to say “We believe in ensuring that we are putting people first in this, that we are putting the user first, and that their experiences actually matter, that this is not just a technology company, this is a company that values experience, that values user experience, customer experience, client experience”, whatever it is. And that to me is probably one of the most important reasons to include it at the executive level, it’s somebody that is diligently, constantly advocating for the customer or for the person that is consuming what we’re creating.

Randy: And do you think the fact that you came from your background, with your reputation, choosing that title of CXO, that that adds that usability, no, I should say accessibility flair, to the CXO position?

Derek : I hope so. I mean, that was the intent and that’s my hope, that it inspires other people to… or it doesn’t inspire them, but forces them to think about where accessibility should live within the organisation, right? That there does need to be that mindset, that this should be part of experience overall.

Randy: So for another organisation who perhaps, if they want to hire or select a CXO, it could be someone that doesn’t have that extensive experience in accessibility. How about a separate chief accessibility officer? Is that something that you think could be needed in some places?

Derek : Yeah, we actually have a chief accessibility officer at Level Access, there are lots of organisations out there that are at the point where they have senior level leadership at the C-level executive suite that include a chief accessibility officer. And so that, you know, that to me is somebody that you partner with. So a chief experience officer would partner with a chief accessibility officer, where the accessibility, the chief accessibility officer might be in charge of an ultimately… in charge of the compliance aspect of accessibility and the execution of it and the how do we do the work, how do we do accessibility work at this organisation? Whereas the chief experience officer would work with them to help the teams understand that this isn’t just about that technical side, there is this user experience side as well. And so, while the engineering and the development and the testing aspects of accessibility and inclusion work might roll up under the chief accessibility officer, the research and the design components can easily roll up under the chief experience officer. So, having them work as partners, when you can get to that type of a scenario, would be ideal.

Randy: Yeah, so in that sense the position you’re at now at your company, it’s quite… I would imagine in many ways a comfortable position, having two professionals on that executive level, on the C-level.

Derek: Yeah, definitely. Definitely.

Randy: Sounds great. Thanks for sharing that, Derek. So Derek, we’re nearing the end of our conversation, of the episode. This is a Dutch podcast in an English version for this episode, but I’m still curious, if I ask you for either a tip or a message for the Dutch government or Dutch listeners, is there something that you would like to share with them?

Derek: Yeah, I think the tip that I give to move people these days, because people tell me all the time, they want to learn more about accessibility, they want to learn more, they want to take action, what should they do? I recommend that they always go and talk with, work with, engage with and include people with disabilities in some way. If you do nothing else, go and do that, because that helps you understand, it gives you a new perspective, it gives you a different mindset. Even if you are doing accessibility work that is strictly at the compliance level, right? You’re not at the point yet where you can make it more a part of user experience, even at that compliance level, talking with people with disabilities, working with people with disabilities and actually engaging them in the process is one of the most valuable things that you can do. We had a, as part of leading up to our Accessible Canada Act we had a bunch of public consultations and presentations from our government officials that were involved, and the statement that you hear very often in the accessibility or the disability world is “Nothing about us without us.” And one of our senior level government officials, the honourable Carla Qualtrough, she has a disability herself and as part of this she said “We need to drop the ‘about us’. It should just say ‘Nothing without us’.” Because if we’re truly involved, people with disabilities are truly involved, it can’t be about them.” It’s literally just you’re either doing it without them or you’re not doing it without them, so “Nothing without us” is kind of a next evolution of that very famous quote and saying. I think that is a great way to approach things.

Randy: Wow, very powerful.

Derek: So be mindful of that and think of it that way.

Randy: Very powerful stuff, yeah. Wow, that really got to me a little bit, yeah, it’s an important way to think about it that way. So, we’ve been having this conversation, I’ve been listening to your answers, and I’d like to at the end of the show summarise some takeaways for the listeners. So, one thing I heard you say is the checklist is the starting point, not an endpoint. Another thing that I thought was very important to note, people, even if they are aware, people still underestimate the impact if something isn’t accessible for people on a daily basis. And a lack of awareness is actually a large barrier. Important drivers are legislation and organisations wanting to be inclusive, but one that according to you is overlooked is actually the innovation and creativity that come from making things accessible, making services digital accessible, but also making products, physical products accessible. And even if something is accessible according to the guidelines, it still might not meet all the needs of someone with a disability, and that’s why it’s so important to include people with disabilities. And the tip we had just ended on, work with, talk with, engage with people with disabilities no matter what level you are at. Even if that’s the only thing you can do, just do that then. And to end of the evolution from “Nothing about us without us” to just “without us” is something important to mention again, I think. So, Derek, this includes our conversation. This includes my conversation with Derek, the Chief Experience Officer at Level Access. Derek, is there something you would like to plug, you would like to forward our listeners to?

Derek: Yeah, just encourage you if you have enjoyed this and want to talk more, or follow along with the things that I’m writing and thinking, you can catch me mostly on LinkedIn and Twitter. I’m @feather on Twitter, I am Derek on LinkedIn, I write lots of thing there and share things pretty regularly, so would love to connect with you there and yeah, that is literally the best place to find me, it’s both on Twitter and LinkedIn.

Randy: I’ll make sure those also get in the show notes, so people can just tap or click along.

Derek: Excellent.

Randy: Derek, I would like to offer my sincere thanks for your time and insight and expertise. Thanks a lot.

Derek : Thank you for having me, this has been a lot of fun and love sharing, love teaching, so great to have another opportunity. Thank you.

Randy: That’s it for this episode. Thank you for listening. Are you interested in more interesting conversations like this one? Subscribe to this podcast through Spotify, Apple Podcast, Google Podcast or in your podcast app of choice. If you subscribe, it will be easy to listen to a new episode. It’s also very helpful is you leave a review on your favourite podcast platform. Does this episode contain something important for your organisation? Share this episode with your colleague, manager, or product owner. Do you want to learn more about digital accessibility? Visit gebruikercentraal.nl/about-us or digitoegankelijk.nl. You can also find these links in the show notes. For international listeners, most of the content in this podcast feed and on these websites are in Dutch, though Gebruiker Centraal, a.k.a. User Needs First often invites international speakers, thus they have quite a bit of content in English on their website. Dear listeners, in these times, when there is so much going on, I sometimes feel like I cannot have an affect on anything. During these moments I like to remember myself what the 13th century Persian philosopher and poet Muhammad Jalal ad-Din Balki Rumi has written: “Yesterday I was clever, so I wanted to change the world. Today I am wise, so I’m changing myself.” Dear listeners, until the next one.

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