Conversations with Accessibility Experts: Jeanne Spellman
Jeanne Spellman works in digital accessibility and is the co-lead of the project to write a new version of the international web accessibility standards at the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C). She is mostly retired, and considers WCAG 3.0 her retirement project.
Working in the technology field since the early 1980s, Jeanne has worked for Boston College from 1989 to 1997 ending as Acting Director of Information Processing Support. In 1993, she learned web development and began specializing in accessibility in 1999. She worked for MIT from 2008 to 2015 in the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab for W3C.
She is keynote speaker and an editor (and author) of the “Authoring Tool Accessibility Guidelines (ATAG) 2.0,” the “User Agent Accessibility Guidelines (UAAG) 2.0,” and “How the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines Apply to Mobile.” She has consulted for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, Fidelity Investments, Twitter, and many smaller firms.
Jeanne's Accessibility Background
We sat down with Jeanne to talk about her background, her work on WCAG 3.0, and the importance of accessibility standards.
Q: Tell us about your background and why accessibility is important to you.
A: I started working with HTML in 1992 to 1993 when I was managing a university tech support center and we needed a better way to serve documentation to thousands of people. HTML was powerful and exciting. I designed my first website around that time. My job responsibilities included managing the tech support for blind students using the university library system. It got me interested in accessibility in the early '90s.
When I left the university to raise my children and needed something to keep me connected to adults, I started professionally coding websites from home. One of the early sites I did was for NOAH, the National Organization for Albinism and Hypopigmentation. They required a site that was accessible to their members with low vision. There wasn’t the amount of information we have today on low vision accessibility, so I searched online and worked directly with people with low vision to work out techniques. It showed me how much accessibility mattered to real people that I knew.
I worked with large organizations through the early 2000s to help them transition their organization to long-term accessibility processes, what we now call an accessibility maturity model. In 2008, I joined the W3C Web Accessibility Initiative to work on the Authoring Tool Accessibility Guidelines (ATAG) 2.0 and the User Agent Accessibility Guidelines (UAAG) 2.0.
I got to work with top accessibility people all over the world. I worked at The Paciello Group (TPG) for a few years, which was invaluable for learning the needs of business and non-profits who wanted to do accessibility, but were struggling.
Standard Accessibility Guidelines
Q: Why is it important to have a standardized accessibility guidelines?
A: I love standards work. It matters. We have to give people a place to start, so they can wrap their arms around the right things to do. I often talk with people who think that if they make their website usable by blind people, then it’s accessible. But what about people who are deaf, who have limited mobility, who have learning disabilities, low vision, neurodivergence, or aphasia? We need standards to educate people in what they need to do. Most developers want to do the right thing. They are professionals. But they need help prioritizing the firehose of information. To me, that’s the most important thing that standards do.
Standards also help drive the civil rights side of accessibility. They're used to measure and evaluate whether or not people with disabilities are being deprived of their civil right to access the modern digital world. Civil rights are essential, and I don’t want to downplay their importance. But in my opinion, the end result of our current accessibility regulatory approach is that too often accessibility is expressed as "we have to be able to prove in court that this website passes (or fails)." That need for black and white pass/fail becomes more important than educating developers of the needs of people with disabilities.
Many disability groups suffer from that approach, notably people with cognitive disabilities. I think the emphasis on black and white is very attractive — especially to testers, but it doesn’t serve the disability groups whose needs are not easy to measure in true false statements. We can’t drastically increase the cost of accessibility either, or people will give up on it. The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2 accessibility standard has shaped the accessibility industry, with some unintentional consequences. I spend a lot of time thinking about the unintentional consequences of the proposals we make. Standards matter.
W3C Accessibility Guidelines 3.0
Q: With the first draft of WCAG 3 published earlier this year, what are your thoughts on the future of accessibility guidelines? In what direction is the collective web moving in terms of accessibility?
A: When the small group of us were first starting the project that became W3C Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 3, we worked with academic and corporate researchers for 18 months to identify new directions. Shawn Lauriat of Google and I did a roadshow presentation called “Reimagining Accessibility Guidelines” where we talked about what we were trying to do and asked for their input.
We attracted a number of good people who were excited to reimagine. We had a long list of goals. At the top of the list was to make Guidelines that would be easier to learn and understand, that could include more disability needs, and would also better meet the needs of the organizations who want to provide good accessibility.
The collective web is becoming more complex every month. The days when I could know all there was to know about web development are long gone. The standards need to have more flexibility so that we aren’t always playing catch-up with new technology. We want new technology to build in accessibility as part of their alpha development process. That requires guidelines that are more oriented toward giving developers a direction of what to look for and do instead of telling them how to solve existing technology problems.
Q: What are you most excited about in regards to the latest WCAG 3 draft?
A: There is a lot that I’m excited about:
- Apps: We are covering more than web content, hence the subtle name change. W3C Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 3.0 preserves the WCAG acronym, but shows that we intend to expand beyond web content. I’ve been pushing for that for seven years, I’m thrilled it is happening.
- More flexible structure: We changed some of the rigid structure of WCAG 2 that was stopping complex disability needs from being included. The five (5) guidelines demonstrate the structural changes that we are making.
- Visual contrast (the old color contrast AA and AAA success criteria) has a new algorithm based on new research in visual perception. We hope that it will allow the designers to open up their color palettes while improving readability. I’m eager to hear feedback both from designers and from low vision researchers and advocates.
- Plain language is a new guideline that had been requested by advocates for people with cognitive disabilities for WCAG 2.1, but couldn’t be included because it couldn’t be tested with a true/false success criteria. We are trying out new ways to test and measure it. We haven’t done a lot to give advice to editors in the past. I don't think we have the final answer on plain language yet, but it’s at the stage where it needs the public to weigh in on the concepts.
The point system for measuring WCAG 3 is very exciting. This was over two years of work to get it to this proof-of-concept stage for public feedback. It addresses some very important issues:
- We wanted to balance out different disability needs. It’s easier to measure code for people who are blind, but harder to measure ease of use for people with cognitive disabilities. This has resulted in an inadvertent structural bias that WCAG 2.x doesn’t do as much for people with cognitive disabilities as it does for people who are blind. To pass WCAG 3 overall, you have to pass in each major disability category. We also are in the process of revamping and expanding disability categories.
- Today, some businesses and organizations who are working toward good accessibility have a hard time meeting WCAG 2 because of minor disability errors that usually are bugs. We are trying to walk a very fine line between keeping the high standards of WCAG, while reducing the penalty for minor mistakes. It took us two years and a lot of different proposals to get here. We are proposing a point system where each guideline has a different measurement that is appropriate to the guideline. Many of the guidelines will allow minor disability errors while still passing. But errors that block people from accomplishing the task they want, still don’t pass — and it varies by the guideline. For example, flashing always has to fail, but a product can have good accessibility and still have some minor bugs in the alternative text. It’s confusing when you first see it, but it gives us a lot of flexibility to address more disability needs. This is in an early stage of development and we definitely want more public feedback.
- The point system also allows us to start including the WCAG 2 AAA success criteria. They aren’t required, but they give you more points. Important accessibility guidance — especially for people with cognitive disabilities — has been lost in AAA because there is little incentive to use it. The proposals for WCAG 3 are attempting to give more incentive without penalties.
Q: How do the most recent guidelines build on previous iterations, and what gaps do they fill?
A: The proposals for the WCAG 3 take the guidance that people liked about WCAG 2.x and change the structure to address the gaps. We started WCAG 3 a few months after WCAG 2.1 started. It was frustrating to see proposals for important guidelines that couldn’t be included in 2.1 because they couldn’t be formulated as true/false success criteria. Especially as WCAG3 research results started coming in, we saw that it was a structural problem, not a guideline problem. That’s why you see so few guidelines in this first draft. The guidelines were chosen to test the proposed structure. If you look at alt text, you can see that we took the information directly from WCAG 2.1. Just the scoring changes.
That said, we also address the long-held problems with the Color Contrast success criteria in WCAG 2.x. Today, some dark on dark combinations pass WCAG 2 but I can’t read it, and I don’t have low vision. Good contrasts that fail. Orange. I used to work for a company that had orange in the corporate color palette. They never could meet WCAG 2, even though the contrast was very good, as they repeatedly showed in their accessibility user research testing lab.
By the way, please don’t be put off with the proof-of-concept contrast testing tool and the charts. We are showing all the underlying math so we can get expert feedback. We expect that professional tool vendors will develop easy to use tools before WCAG 3 is complete.
Q: What is your favorite accessibility-related event or conference, and why?
A: In the last few years I have been attending more of the local accessibility “camp” conferences and meetings. I have seen some fascinating talks about the future of assistive technologies. I am enjoying the smaller, more intimate venues where I meet new people instead of pushing through the crowds.
It’s hard to give a favorite: A11yBoston has recently featured some fascinating AI assistive tech talks, A11yToronto gets thought-provoking speakers, and A11yBay has the latest developments from Silicon Valley. I’ve been giving some virtual talks this year and look forward to traveling to different cities to talk about WCAG 3 once the COVID-19 crisis passes.