Jasmyne Epps on Digital Accessibility


Ryan: Welcome to 10-Minute Tech Comm. This is Ryan Weber at the University of Alabama in Huntsville. Thank you for joining us for this episode’s guest.

Jasmyne: My name is Jasmine Epps. I am a product manager at the Georgia Technology Authority. The product that I manage is a Drupal-based platform that allows about nearly 90 state agencies to be able to publish the content to the internet and allow our constituents to interact with them. One of our pillars at GTA, or at least with this product, called Gov Hub, is accessibility, and so we lead with that. We champion that. We encourage agencies to lead with accessibility when they’re creating their content. And so as product manager, I’m able to guide the product’s roadmap with accessibility and usability. And it’s really fun.

Ryan: I invited Ms. Epps on the show to talk about digital accessibility, which is the way that businesses and organizations can make web content available for everyone, regardless of what disabilities they experience. She’ll tell us what digital accessibility means and why it’s so crucial for diversity, equity and inclusion, or DEI, initiatives that have become so prominent in both government and corporate organizations. I hope you enjoy the episode.


Ryan: Welcome to the podcast. I’m really excited to talk with you. And I know this is a topic that you really enjoy talking about. So you are a big advocate for digital accessibility in your role. It sounds like in your life. So let’s just start with what does digital accessibility mean?

Jasmyne: Accessibility in general is really just about creating a frictionless environment for people with disabilities. So when it comes to digital accessibility, it’s really just about enabling everyone, no matter their disability, whether it be temporary, permanent, or situational, to interact with the internet. And so digital accessibility is something that we should frame our minds to think about. We’re all going to have some type of disability at some point. So it’s really just the right thing to do to allow everyone to be able to easily access the internet.

Ryan: So what kinds of things would I need to take into account if I’m thinking about digital accessibility? What kinds of disabilities might people have and how would that affect their internet interactions?

Jasmyne: Yeah, so a big one is visual impairments. Obviously, a lot of interacting with the internet is with a screen. We’re kind of moving away, moving towards voice type devices with Alexa and Siri and things like that. But most people use the internet with their phone. And so visual impairment is a big one. Cognitive impairments, making it really easy to interpret the content that you’re producing, the interface is intuitive and it may look really cool and have a lot of bells and whistles, but is it really accessible to everybody who may not understand maybe for instance, that this is a hamburger menu. That was a thing that people had to catch on and took a minute for folks to catch on to that.

Even hearing impairments. So watching videos, you can see the video, but you can’t hear the video. So it’s important to have things like captions. So yeah, I mean, those are the big ones. And then inside of those, there are so many different levels. So with visual impairment, there’s color blindness, there’s blurriness, and astigmatism and things like that. It affects your quality of vision. And like I mentioned before, situational disabilities, right? You may not be able to use your hands at the moment because you’re holding a baby or you’re doing something that’s your multitasking and things like that. So just making it to where in any instance, there are the least amount of barriers as possible.

Ryan: I like that definition, like the least amount of barriers for people to be able to access and understand information on the internet. So can you give us some examples either from your own products or companies that you know of or organizations you know of kind of like what really good digital accessibility looks like?

Jasmyne: I would say a good place to start and where at least it’s mandated on a federal level is Section 508. So that is a federal mandate that says that all digital assets need to be accessible. It doesn’t apply to the private sector and it doesn’t apply on the state level, but that is a good place to look for guidance. And that is a lot of where we get our guidance and standards and guidelines from. Derived from Section 508 is WCAG 2.0. The web content accessibility guidelines is what WCAG stands for. And so there’s different levels of WCAG compliance. So for our state websites, we adhere to WCAG 2.0. That’s the version of the guidelines. And then there’s different levels of compliance, single AA, AA, AAA. We adhere to AA. And the guidelines give you basically exactly what you need to do in order to make your website accessible, make your digital assets accessible, down to color contrast between the font and the background. A lot of WCAG 2.1 standards address mobile. So most people use their phones to access the internet. So just making sure there’s enough touch point space, you know, for where you’re tapping a button or tapping a link that there’s enough space around that link for someone to maybe not tap exactly on it, but they are able to access that link. But the WCAG guidelines are definitely a good place to start.

Ryan: So it’s going to tell you things like what kinds of colors are effective for colorblindness or like I’m just, I guess I’m interested in some like examples. I really liked the example of the mobile phone with a little more room to click the link because we’ve all been in there. We’re like trying to you know press the button and get it exactly right. Yeah. So what about might be some things that would recommend that we do?

Jasmyne: Not necessarily which colors are good for colorblindness, but just the contrast, right, making it enough contrast between the words and the background for it to be seen with most visual impairments. So that that’s one example.

Form design. That’s another example. So making sure that you’re asking for information that is not super sensitive and if you are, then explaining what you’re doing with that information. That’s a form of accessibility.

Keyboard navigation. So making sure that your tab order of the content on your page is keyboard accessible and it tabs in an expected order right not just you tab and then you’re just jumping all over the screen, because some people can’t control a mouse. That’s a motor skills and motor functions is another disability that you have to consider. So people with those kind of disabilities, they use a keyboard to navigate your website. Being able to operate the site, not just navigate it, but using space bars stuff like that to open links or open search bars or like accordions and things like that.

Screen readers. Making sure that your markup is accessible for screen readers, that you are using the proper landmarks and things like that that will put the content in order that makes sense to a person using a screen reader. So those are just a few examples I can think of in the top. Well I do want to say that accessibility is an ongoing effort. There’s a checklist, right, that you can go through. There’s a bunch of tools and things like that that you can use to scan websites and things like that for like automated tools that give you some information, but they only catch about a quarter of the accessibility issues. A lot of them, a lot of the accessibility issues, you have to manually audit, so you have to use a screen reader, you have to use a keyboard, you have to actually lay your eyes on the image and make sure that there is no text that is relevant to the user that’s in the image. That text in the image is not accessible to a screen reader. Right. So there’s a lot of things that you have to do manually as well and again if you’re constantly creating content if you’re constantly changing your site it’s an ongoing effort. It’s not just okay we did this checklist from WCAG’s website and now we’re done. It’s definitely something that you have to pay attention to as you as you continue to grow your site.

Ryan: It’s a continual process to make the accessibility better and better as things go. One of the reasons I got in touch with you is you posted about this on LinkedIn, and you said that diversity, equity, inclusion efforts, DEI efforts, have to take digital accessibility into account. Can you talk a little bit more about that?

Jasmyne: Yeah absolutely. So DEI you know that is like the buzz word of the last few years, you know, and a lot of it is hard to measure, right? So a lot of DEI is about attempting to change minds and change hearts and change people’s perspectives on, you know, their work environment or the people that they work with and things like that and just making the world around them more equitable. But that’s really hard to measure. So we really feel like accessibility, if you include accessibility in your DEI processes or approaches, then that’s something that you can actually measure. That is actually putting work and a cost to your DEI, right. So again, like I mentioned before, accessibility is going to affect everybody. So with DEI it seems like it’s a lot of let me try to include this group because they haven’t historically been included. Let me try to identify all those groups, but with accessibility you are covering everybody. You’re covering all groups. You’re covering people who don’t have broadband access to the internet because they live out in the boonies. You’re covering our aging population. You’re covering the populations who don’t have the latest and greatest iPhone,, you know, that you know that have you know older technologies and so when you include accessibility, you’re really including everybody, and I think that is the main goal or should be for DEI at least.

Ryan: So accessibility is a really important part of DEI that maybe kind of get overlooked sometimes?

Jasmyne: Agreed yes, yes, absolutely.

Ryan: And I like your point is it’s measurable. You know, there’s really important stuff with DEI like eliminating unconscious bias and things like that that are hard to measure, you know, and it doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t be done, but it also is nice to have something where it’s like okay this website is more accessible than it was three months ago.

Jasmyne: Yeah, and even down to including accessibility in your hiring practices, you know, you can’t say I want or at least on the state level you know or the government level, you can’t say I only want to hire people with disabilities, right, you have to be fair and transparent, but you can broaden where you post those jobs so that you’re getting all types of people, including those people with disabilities so just accessibility opens your mind to if I hire somebody with disabilities is my work environment conducive to that person? Will they be able to work here? And so, then you’re going to open up to more diversity in your workforce automatically if you include accessibility in your hiring practices.

Ryan: Well and you’re right, because you know you could say well we are you know happy to hire people with disabilities or whatever, but then your job ad isn’t accessible for a screen reader or whatever it is, you know like it’s harder for those individuals to apply for the job at all. So I really like this connection between accessibility and DEI and also just kind of this, you know, this emphasis on accessibility. What kinds of things if I run say a company that’s not you know mandated by section 508 but we want to make accessibility better, what kinds of things, where’s a good place to start?

Jasmyne: If you’re fortunate enough to start from ground zero with a new product or a new website, bake it into your processes from the beginning. You know, trying to go back and retrofit accessibility after you’ve already coded you know this part of the site, you’ve already picked these colors and the design and the UI, is just  going to cost more and cost more time, right. So one concept I spoke on years ago was accessibility baked in and the analogy that I use was when you’re baking blueberry muffins, do you put the blueberries in before you start baking, or do you shove the blueberries into the muffin after you’ve already baked them right? So it’s just, you know, definitely start with, are the colors I’m picking, the UI design that I’m considering, is this the most user friendly? Is it the most accessible? But if you’re having to start and you already have a product and it’s already out there, gaining buy-in from leadership has been the biggest hurdle for most organizations because accessibility, just like with most technology, and most, you know, IT kind of initiatives in a company, are seen as a cost. They’re not seen as an investment. It’s not seen as something that is just like literally the right thing to do, so you have to gain buy-in from the leadership, and I think that’s a good place to start. And a good way to do that is put your product or your website in front of a person with disabilities and see how it goes. That is the biggest teller of is my website or my product accessible. Can this person who just simply wants to navigate it with a keyboard instead of a mouse, are they able to do that? And then you start going down the list of guidelines and things like that to make those improvements to your product.

Ryan: Do you do a lot of that? I was curious about that kind of interacting with people with disabilities, seeing how they use various products.

Jasmyne: Yes, so there’s organization here called CIDI. That’s an organization here in Georgia where they provide those resources in order for you to be able to interact with people with any disability you can think of and any assistive technology that you can think of. There’s all types of assistive technology that I didn’t even know existed, like just being able to move things with your eye movements, like things like that. Like there is just so many different types of technologies out there that people with disabilities use that you have to consider when you’re building certain products and so we do interface with them and we get periodic audits from them of our websites to see if we’re, you know, where we want to be, you know. So yeah, we definitely include people with disabilities in a lot of our decision making when it comes to accessibility, you know.

Ryan: You talked about leadership getting on board, right, and the challenge of getting, which is a common issue ,and it’s frustrating sometimes you have to make a business case to do the right thing, but in this case accessibility has a strong business case, is that right?

Jasmyne: For sure. Not wanting to get sued is a great business case, you know. If you are collecting information from users through a form or something like that, and somebody with disabilities can’t, you know, especially if you’re providing a service, right especially on the government level, especially. Everyone is entitled to these government services. Everyone is entitled to the same interaction with their government, and so if someone who has a disability can’t do that, you open yourself up to litigation. It’s a liability. So that that alone kind of like shakes the table when it comes to getting buy-in from leadership. And just the cost, you know, for not baking your accessible practices in from the beginning, having to, like I mentioned, go back and retrofit things, that is a business case as well, like having to spend that money after the fact and you could have just done it in the beginning.

Ryan: It’s cheaper to put the blueberries in now than to get the blueberries in later

Jasmyne: And a lot less messy, a lot less messy.

Ryan: Yeah, and the muffins are going to come out a lot better that way.

Jasmyne: Right, exactly, the muffins will be right much better!

Ryan: Right. Well, Jasmine I really enjoyed talking to you. Thanks so much for talking with us today and keep up the good work.

Jasmyne: Thank you thank you Ryan! I really appreciate the opportunity!

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Episode 5