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Disability Representation in Accessibility with Nic Steenhout

April 22, 2022


Welcome to 3Play Media’s Allied Podcast, a show on all things accessibility. This month’s episode features accessibility consultant Nic Steenhout and is about including disabled people in accessibility work.

A developer in the mid-’90s, Nic was approached by clients facing issues not yet part of the public consciousness. On the emerging web, accessibility hurdles kept people with disabilities from engaging in a technological revolution.

Confronted by this gap within the digital landscape, Nic began championing web accessibility. He transitioned into the non-profit sector, where he collaborated with people with various impairments and was introduced to new assistive technologies.

Twenty years on, Nic continues his accessibility work as an independent consultant for both the private and non-profit sectors. Having worked on three continents, he’s engaged with thousands of individuals with disabilities. Blogger, podcaster, and public speaker, Nic offers real-world insight into everyday accessibility issues.

Listen to Nic’s A11y Rules Podcast.

Check out this episode on any of these platforms:

Want to get in touch? Email us at Allied@3playmedia.com. We’d love to hear from you.

Episode transcript

ELISA LEWIS: Welcome to Allied, the podcast for everything you need to know about web and video accessibility. I’m your host, Elisa Lewis, and I sit down with an accessibility expert each month to learn about their work. Every episode has a transcript published with it, which can be viewed by accessing the episode on the 3Play Media website.

If you like what you hear on Allied, please subscribe or leave a review. Allied is brought to you by 3Play Media, your video accessibility partner. Visit us at www.3playmedia.com to learn why thousands of customers trust us to make their video and media accessible.

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Today we’re joined by accessibility consultant Nic Steenhout. A developer in the mid ’90s, Nic was approached by clients facing issues not yet part of the public consciousness. On the emerging web, accessibility hurdles kept people with disabilities from engaging in a technological revolution. Confronted by this gap within the digital landscape, Nic began championing web accessibility.

He transitioned into the nonprofit sector, where he collaborated with people with various impairments and was introduced to new assistive technologies. 20 years on, Nic continues his accessibility work as an independent consultant for both the private and nonprofit sectors. Having worked on three continents, he’s engaged with thousands of individuals with disabilities. Blogger, podcaster, and public speaker, Nic offers real-world insight into everyday accessibility issues.

Hi, Nic. Thank you so much for being here. We’re really happy to have you on the show today to talk about disability representation in accessibility.

NIC STEENHOUT: Hi. I’m so glad you asked me. This is a topic near and dear to my heart, so it’s going to be fun to talk about it.

ELISA LEWIS: Excellent. So before we dive into our theme for today, I’d love to know a little bit more about you and have you share something with our audience. What is something important about who you are that’s maybe not covered in your formal bio?

NIC STEENHOUT: I actually have been doing a lot of wildlife and bird photography for the last three years, and it’s something that I really enjoy. I enjoy sharing it, and it’s important in this context because it’s a way for me to actually disconnect from the day-to-day work of accessibility and always being on for advocating about accessibility, whether it’s the built environment or online or whatnot. So it’s actually my way to take a breath and refresh and keep going.

ELISA LEWIS: Absolutely. That’s great. I am an animal lover myself, so it’s cool to hear from someone else who likes to get out there in nature and wildlife. And I’m sure that you’ve had a lot more time to do that over the last few years with the pandemic as well.

So I know that you brought the idea for today’s theme to us, and I’d love to learn where the idea came from and how getting disabled people involved in accessibility has been an essential part of your life and your career.

NIC STEENHOUT: I started in disability rights long before I started in web, really. I became involved in the Center for Independent Living in the United States, a small nonprofit, non-residential, service and advocacy organization, back in ’95. At the time, I was interested in the web and I was doing my own little thing, learning HTML and being aware of accessibility on the web, but that wasn’t the focus of what I was doing so much.

And there was this statement that we were saying, “nothing about us without us,” and that’s permeated everything I’ve done since. When we’re looking at the web, we have a lot of accessibility experts who don’t have a direct lived experience of disability themselves, which is fine. I mean, we need allies.

But the risk we’re running here is that, without a really strong understanding of the lived experience, without the perspective of disabled users, we’re going to do things for disabled people rather than with disabled people. And this seems, to me, to be very othering rather than inclusive. So obviously, it’s not because you have a disability that you know everything about everybody’s disability.

I’m a wheelchair user, I have arthritis, and I don’t know what the lived experience of being blind is. But at the same time, I don’t know what the lived experiences of any other wheelchair user is. I only know my own. But we have common elements, cultural elements, lived experiences, that are shared and in common, and we really need to get that perspective.

The other thing is, without hearing about different experiences, we’re not going to be able to really make the web accessible. I have about 40 episodes, 40 interviews on my own podcast with disabled people, talking about their own barriers on the web. And what I hear back from my audience is that they’re saying, oh, wow, these aspects of accessibility, I would never have thought about these.

They’re often surprising, but when you start thinking about it, they make sense. So unless we hear the voices of disabled people in the work we do, we’re not really going to be able to make things truly accessible.

ELISA LEWIS: You brought up a really great point. I’m glad that you mentioned the phrase, “nothing about us without us.” I did want to ask you about that. I think it’s something really interesting to dig in on.

In reality, the field of accessibility can be inaccessible and is often led by non-disabled people. What do you think are some of the barriers people with disabilities face in getting involved in accessibility work?

NIC STEENHOUT: Well, the first thing is access to tech, plain and simple. If we don’t have access to the hardware, if we can’t afford the proper connections, if we don’t have the tech understanding, the training around how to use tech and what that means, that’s a very first barrier. And I think, in general, disabled people are– ooh, I’m losing my words here.

I think disabled people are not presented with as many opportunities purely from a perspective of budget. Now, whether it’s school budget when you’re going to school as a kid and you have to do your IEP and then the school doesn’t have money for whatever support the student needs or whether it’s you’re in your late teens or early 20s and you can’t find a job because you have a disability, so that’s a very first real blocker.

The second thing is, in the field of accessibility, if you want to get technical, you have to learn about the technical aspects. You have to learn about HTML, about CSS, about JavaScript, about how to learn development or how to learn design. And the learning environments around those are very rarely accessible. So if you are a disabled person who needs accessibility to access tuition, to access learning, if the platforms are not accessible, then that’s a big barrier right there.

Another barrier is not all the tools that we use in a day-to-day– accessibility expert/auditor– not all the tools are actually accessible, so you have to find the right tools.

And then, also, perhaps as important a barrier is the mindset. It’s been said to me that, well, this person is blind. They can’t actually do an accessibility audit because how are they going to do screenshots? Well, actually, blind people can do screenshots, and they may not be as precise as you want them, but they’ll be useful, and they’ll be usable. They just need to be given a chance to learn the tools and use the right tools.

So all these things combine to make it difficult for a lot of disabled folks to enter the field. But at the same time, I think that the more disabled people we have in the field, the better it’s going to be.

ELISA LEWIS: I think that’s an excellent point. I’m curious, as a follow-up to that, do you have any thoughts that you could share on finding the right balance between ensuring that disabled people are included in accessibility work and are at the forefront of accessibility work, but not putting too much pressure on them, like we do with so many minority groups, to advocate rather than the majority groups educating themselves?

NIC STEENHOUT: It’s a fine balance. I think what we have to consider here is the distinction between disabled folks that are having day-to-day barriers on the web and imposing advocacy on them versus disabled folks who are working in accessibility and are doing this day-to-day work where advocacy is part and parcel of the work. I do a lot of advocacy online– in real life as well– as part of my life as a disabled person, but I don’t want everybody to flag me on Twitter, hey, Nic, can you check if this is accessible? Or what do you think about this?

I do this for a living, so I’m happy to do it in the context of I do this for a living or I’m happy to do this in the context of this is actually important for me to get this done right now, but I wouldn’t want people to start imposing their demands on me or any other disabled person. So I think it’s not that difficult when you start looking at making the separation between Nic, the person who works on accessibility, and Nic, the disabled individual going about their everyday life.

ELISA LEWIS: Yeah, I think that your point about context is huge, and when you put it that way, it almost sounds so simple. But I think it’s a really important point. I’m curious also– you brought up your experience and being a wheelchair user, and of course, your work is more in the digital side of accessibility– I’m curious if you could touch on physical versus digital accessibility and cross-disability advocacy. It seems that, oftentimes, these things are thought of very separately, and I’d love to get your thoughts on that.

NIC STEENHOUT: I’m going to talk about cross-disability advocacy first because I think it’s a very thorny topic, actually. Back in the ’90s, I was saying disabled people need disability or awareness training. And I think this is still true today. We have a lot of disability advocates who know their disability very well but they don’t necessarily know other people’s disabilities as well.

I’ve heard of someone who is a wheelchair user who has been an expert in physical accessibility, but since the pandemic, they’ve tried to reframe themselves as digital accessibility experts, and they know nothing about digital accessibility. So this is a very real problem.

When we’re talking about doing cross-disability advocacy, we need a minimum of awareness of what other disabilities– what the needs are, what the barriers are, how do we do these things. So I think that the very first step, before doing any kind of level of cross-disability awareness, is– sorry. Before doing cross-disability advocacy, we need cross-disability awareness.

In terms of bridging physical accessibility and digital accessibility, for me, it’s been very much of a natural move because I’ve done so much work in the physical realm and so much work in the digital realm that I’m able to use my experiences in the real world to illustrate access in the digital world. One of the examples I like to give is, if someone tells me that their website is accessible because there is a text-only version, I can tell them, yes, and that’s like the restaurant telling me that, yes, they’re accessible– I just have to go through the alley, go by the dumpster, get into the back entrance, and navigate through the kitchen. Sure, I can get in, but it’s a question of respect to the letter rather than spirit of accessibility.

I think using physical built environments examples makes it more concrete for a lot of people that are not aware around accessibility. So that, for me, while they are very different, there’s so many similarities that you can leverage examples from one into the other.

ELISA LEWIS: Absolutely. I love that example that you just gave. I think it’s really true that people tend to be more familiar and can conceptualize physical accessibility more so, sometimes, than digital accessibility. And I love that you’re able to use the two to draw comparisons and help make people a little bit more understanding and empathetic.

The question of why we should get more disabled folks involved in accessibility might seem evident to many of us who are working in accessibility, but I’d love to talk through it with you. Why is getting people with disabilities involved in accessibility so vital?

NIC STEENHOUT: I think it goes back to what we were talking about earlier, “nothing about us without us.” We’re doing inclusion work, we’re doing accessibility work, and we’re trying to improve diversity. If our own teams aren’t diverse, then we’re missing out on so much great feedback. We’re missing out on a lot of just good people that can do the work.

It’s often been said that disabled people are very creative problem-solvers because we don’t have a choice. We’re faced with problems that other people don’t necessarily have solutions for, so we have to figure out how to fix these things. So when you have a lifetime of coming up with creative solutions to a problem, that’s someone I want on my team. That’s someone I want to make my work output better. I think anybody involved in accessibility should be thinking that way.

ELISA LEWIS: And as we live more and more of our lives online and in a digital world– certainly we’ve seen that over the last several years– how do we talk about disability, inclusion, and accessibility in a way that encompasses everyone?

NIC STEENHOUT: With great difficulty. I think the first step is, when we’re talking about DEI, Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, we really have to make sure that disability is part of the equation. And so many DEI experts aren’t actually versed in accessibility, versed in the barriers disabled people experience.

And for each individual to start adopting this mindset of, we want to talk about accessibility and make sure that we are covering all disabilities, it goes back to disability awareness. We have to seek out learning about the lived experiences of different types of disabilities. We have to actively do that. We can’t expect Susanna, who’s blind, to tell us about their lived experience of disability. We can’t expect Rochelle, who’s got ADHD, to tell us about their lived experience of disability.

There is so much great information on the web about different disabilities and different lived experiences for that that it’s up to us, as individuals that are interested in these things, to go out and learn. And we were talking earlier about the responsibility, asking people to share stuff, and we were saying, well, we have to differentiate the experts that work in this field from the people that are going about their day-to-day lives.

And some people will be happy to share, but before expecting people, before being able to digest that kind of information, we just really need to go out and research and learn where we can. There’s tons of great information, so use your searching skills and go find it.

ELISA LEWIS: Thank you. And before we wrap up our conversation today, I want to learn a little bit more from you and have you share with the audience about your podcast, A11y Rules and the A11y Rules Soundbite. Can you tell us a little bit more about those? How did you start your podcast, and where did the ideas for the show and the Soundbite come from?

NIC STEENHOUT: The initial series of interviews, which were really long-form interviews that I broke down in two different sessions of half-hour, came by the fact that I had been working in accessibility for a long time, and I knew a whole bunch of really cool folks that I wanted to learn more about. And as I was talking to them, it suddenly occurred to me, why am I not recording this and sharing these great conversations with people?

So that’s how I ended up with nearly 100 episodes of talking to different people, from newbies in the field to big names like Jeffrey Zeldman or Eric Meyer, really cool conversations. But then I realized that what I really wanted to focus on was putting the voices of disabled people upfront, and that, coupled with my experiences of designers and developers trying to understand accessibility, they were missing the voice of disabled people.

And I thought, well, I know a couple of disabled folks, so why don’t we focus and do really short episodes, soundbites that can be easily digested, 5 to 10 minutes. You don’t have to go for a half-hour walk, you can just even listen to it while you’re doing the dishes. And it’s really about exploring aspects of accessibility that are not as well-known, necessarily, as how people use a screen reader or what kind of barriers someone who’s deaf experiences on the web, that kind of stuff.

So I’m focusing on aspects of accessibility that may not be quite as well known, and I love to hear it in the words of disabled folks because it’s powerful. We have great stories to share, and we’re the expert in our lived experience.

ELISA LEWIS: Absolutely. That’s great. We certainly encourage those of you listening to the Allied podcast to check out the A11y Rules podcast and the A11y Rules Soundbite as well.

NIC STEENHOUT: Thank you.

ELISA LEWIS: Yes, of course. If you could pick one or two pieces of advice to share with our listeners as we wrap up today, what would those be?

NIC STEENHOUT: The first piece of advice is disabled people are not different from you. Disabled people are people. And we have good days, we have bad days, and we don’t have a chip on our shoulder because we have a disability. We do have a lot of frustration sometimes, so you have to consider that, but we’re just people, at the end of the day.

The second thing I think would be important to consider is that you really need to include disabled people in your everyday work. Whether you’re a designer, a developer, a QA tester, a stakeholder, a company owner, a podcaster, just start thinking about how can you expand your reach and include disabled people because your work experience, your lived experience, your work product, is going to be so much better once you start increasing the diversity of the people working with you.

ELISA LEWIS: Absolutely. Thank you for sharing those. Where can our listeners find and connect with you online?

NIC STEENHOUT: I’m on Twitter. My handle is Vavroom, V-A-V-R-O-O-M. I’m on LinkedIn, Nicolas Steenhout. I can be found on the Web Accessibility Slack. You can find me on my website, incl.ca, and obviously, at my podcast the A11y Rules, a11yrules.com.

ELISA LEWIS: Great. Thank you so much. Thanks again for joining us on Allied. It was great chatting with you.

NIC STEENHOUT: I had so much fun talking about this. It’s a topic we don’t talk about very much, and I’m glad you’re approaching it.

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ELISA LEWIS: Thanks for listening to Allied. If you enjoyed this episode and you’d like to help support the podcast, please share it with others, post about it on social media, or leave us a rating and review. To catch all the latest on accessibility, visit www.3playmedia.com/alliedpodcast. Thanks again, and I’ll see you next time.


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