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Combined 50 years of accessibility expertise: an expert interview

Written on 18 June 2024 (Average reading time: 17 minutes)

Curious about the benefits of web accessibility and the European Commission’s policy? Wonder how AI impacts accessibility's future? Our senior experts, Christophe Strobbe and Régine Lambrecht, share insights on these topics and more. As certified Web Accessibility Specialists, they train and coach teams and conduct audits ensure your site meets WCAG and EN 301 549 standards. Listen to our interview to gain valuable advice from their nearly 50 years of combined experience.

Combined 50 years of accessibility expertise : insights from Eleven Ways' senior experts. An audio interview with Christophe Strobbe and Régine Lambrecht. A graphic illustration of portraits of Christophe and Régine with a mic in the middle accompanies the text.

Our senior accessibility experts, Christophe Strobbe and Régine Lambrecht have been committed to making the web more accessible for everyone for many years. For example, Christophe was a participant of the World Wide Web Consortium's (W3C) Web Content Accessibility Guidelines Working Group (WCAG WG) from 2005 to 2018. Régine has been a lecturer at the Université Libre de Bruxelles for over 7 years, teaching the next generation about UX and digital accessibility. In their daily work, they audit digital products, train, and assist teams at institutions such as the VDAB, DG Comm or Eurostat to increase their accessibility maturity.

You can listen to the audio or read the transcript below!

We’re here with Regine and Christophe, experts from Eleven Ways, an agency specialising in accessibility. Together, they have nearly 50 years of combined experience in accessibility.
Okay, to get started. Christophe, can you tell us a bit about your background and how you got started in digital accessibility?

Christophe: Like many people in this area, my background has nothing to do with accessibility because I originally studied languages and literature, followed by a one-year curriculum in IT. And then when I wanted to apply for a job, I just happened to find a position at university where they needed someone, not for accessibility, but then through some shifting of roles within projects ended up in an accessibility-related research project, and that’s how I got started. At the time when I was studying, there was no way to study accessibility anywhere in Belgium, as far as I know.

Regine, what is your background exactly, and how did you get into accessibility?

Régine: I have the same kind of answer. So I also studied language and literature. I also started accessibility by case. At that time, my job was to check the conformance of a website, many European websites, against their style guide. And one section of the style guide was about accessibility already at that time.

This was in the early 2000s, so there was no training for accessibility at university. So I went to Paris to follow a training there, a one-week training by Braillenet.

Can you explain what Eleven Ways exactly does?

Régine: We do a wonderful job. We check the accessibility of websites and apps and documents and videos, all what must be accessible according to the legislation. So that’s for the audits, and we also coach clients and help them to raise their maturity. And we give trainings, we organise user tests, so inclusive user tests with people in disability situations, and I think I covered everything, yeah, audit, training, coaching, user tests.

And what exactly is your role specifically at Eleven Ways?

Régine: Well, the same as Christophe, so expert in accessibility and I do all what I mentioned before. The part that I do more with my seniority is helping the client grow its maturity. So it’s working at the process level, design systems levels, not at one single product, but a broader approach for corporate clients.

Christophe, you do something similar, but not exactly, right? What is it you do?

Christophe: Well, formerly my role is described as principal digital accessibility specialist. So that means that for every internal question where people have doubts about how to interpret a certain guideline, I am basically the last resource inside the company for any doubts in that area. But otherwise, I work for clients almost the entire time. One of them is the European Commission, the other one is the Flemish Employment Agency, VDAB.

What is a typical workday, working for Eleven Ways or for the European Commission or other jobs that you guys work on, what does it exactly look like?

Régine: Firstly, looking at all your inboxes, Slack messages and notebook, et cetera, to look at potential urgencies and then following up all the previous audits. It’s called regression auditing and iteration. So often we create tickets based on issues and on products, and then we exchange with the developers, the designers, the editorial team, whether they have questions or they think it has been solved and then we double-check if it has been properly solved.

We answer comments and add resources. Then we check articles. We read a lot about accessibility newsletters and new articles, and at Eleven Ways we always share these finds with each other.

Christoph, what does your day look like?

Christophe: This is to a large extent similar. Except for VDAB, we start with a so-called stand-up in the design team. We tell people what we’re going to work up on the rest of the day. Usually, both for the commission and VDAB, there are JIRA tickets that are waiting for my attention. Also sets of components or websites that I need to check. But for the most part, it’s similar to what Régine does.

Regine, your background is more in user experience research. And Christophe, you come from a more technical background. And you’ve contributed to the web content accessibility guidelines, the WCAG. How do you guys think your background influences your point of view and your approach to accessibility?

Régine: That’s maybe what differentiates us more. We’re the same age, we were born in the same month. So the difference between us is that background. For me, it’s more oriented on users, the needs, their assistive tools, the support issues that we have in assistive tools. Also, sometimes you do something perfectly according to the standards, but that’s not the way screen readers interpret that standard, so it doesn’t really work for blind users. I’m more targeting that part, or really testing the experience for users using assistive technologies. Not only based on standards.

Christophe knows standards much more than I do. We are really complementary and sometimes I ask him for his opinion. It’s not exactly what the standard says, but the experience is actually better. How can we find a compromise?

Do you think there could sometimes be disagreements between both of you because Christophe is more focused on the guidelines and you are more focused on the users?

Régine: More misalignment than disagreement, we have to find a compromise depending on the impact, the effort, the cost for the clients and how flexible the code is. Sometimes it’s just not feasible or it would cost too much to improve the experience beyond the standards. But I really appreciated these discussions with Christophe because it’s really two ways of thinking.

Christophe: With regard to the technical I also do a bit more things that can be automated to some extent, for example, for a client that recently wrote a script that finds all accessibility statements on a bunch of websites for the client, which is a rather specific task that every accessibility specialist does.

What are your personal biggest frustrations when it comes to digital accessibility? What really annoys you?

Régine: Repeating the same thing again and again and the keyboard test. We are often asked to check components after they have been developed, maybe even some days before it’s published, and then we just do the keyboard test, which is a very easy test, and it’s wrong, so the developer has to restart all over again. It’s also frustrating for us to see that we will ask the developers to restart their whole code when it could have been tested before. So last-minute tests that could have been done before, this is really a pity.

Christophe: To generalise a bit, I could say that one of my frustrations is that organisations don’t have a real process where we are involved as early as we should be involved. At a later stage in the process when you finally get involved, I would say, okay, there’s this issue with the components and the people who designed it should have done this differently. If I had been involved early at the design stage or even the analysis stage, we could have prevented the issue. We’d be involved too late usually. That’s a big, big issue.

A lot of people still need to be convinced of the importance of accessibility. How do you guys approach sharing the importance of thinking about accessibility?

Régine: Well, there are so many good reasons to think about accessibility. As I said in my training, it is not a good thing to do, it is THE good thing to do. It has many benefits, not only because you will have a broader audience, that’s logical, but also because it will improve the experience for much more people than only the disabled community. 
You have to think about people who could be in a disability situation temporarily. It makes the websites more mobile friendly, because having it accessible means also having it flexible for zoom and high-level zoom.

Imagine a manager comes to you and is like, oh, accessibility, why is this necessary? This is expensive. How would you convince that kind of person?

Christophe: There are several types of arguments you can use. One of them is simply the legal one, which is of course also the least attractive argument. The legal one is, if you’re working for a public authority in the European Union, it’s a legal requirement.

But even aside from that there is also the more general anti-discrimination legislation. So when you don’t take accessibility into account, you exclude certain people. How many people do you really want to exclude? Basically, more ethical arguments. Another argument you could use is that if you implement accessibility in a way that also involves people with disabilities, you create a better user experience for everybody. These are the main arguments, three main arguments I would come up with.

Régine: Yeah, I can add about machine-to-machine friendliness. If the code is really semantic and makes an accessible website, any other machine that has to communicate with the code will communicate better. It can be Internet of Things, it can be Google or search engines, and that may be also an extension for voice interaction with the voice assistants.

How do you think AI will affect the future of accessibility and do you think it can replace it?

Christophe: That’s a very big question.

One thing is that current AI is mainly based on machine learning from data and generates models rather than rules or anything. So everything that comes out of it has a certain probability level to it or sometimes a confidence level. So it’s never 100% correct. It always requires human checking. And one of the issues that I see is that especially certain so-called overlay tools that rely on AI.

They give the impression that the reliability is 100%, which is not the case, and that can lead potential clients in the wrong direction. That’s a danger, I see.

Okay, so what we took away from this is that AI could help, but definitely not replace it.

Christophe: Well, that’s an unanswered question at the moment because, I mean, who knows what the AI will be able to do 50 years from now. Especially when improvements can accelerate at a certain point, I have no idea what the limit is.

A website can be accessible, compliant, and conformant. These three things all mean something different. So let’s start. What makes a website accessible? And is it the same as being compliant?

Christophe: These are well, three different things. Conformance means conformance to a standard, such as WCAG or EN301549. There’s basically a baseline for accessibility usually. But standards in themselves are voluntary. No one’s required to implement a standard unless there’s a law that says, okay, you need to follow this or that standard. That’s the case in the European Union.

Web access directives require compliance with EN301549. Basically, when you conform to the standard, you comply with the law. So compliance is with the law and conformance is to a standard, that’s the difference. Now accessibility, on the other hand, that is something in the user experience. And since no standards can fully describe an accessible experience, there is always a gap between compliance and or conformance and real accessibility. Another thing to bear in mind is that accessibility is basically full accessibility would imply that every user can access a website if you’re talking about accessibility in all sorts of contexts.

Whereas in reality, there will always be certain users who can’t use the website, either regardless of context or in a specific context. So it’s basically an almost unachievable goal if you take it in the absolute sense. That’s why we need standards to set at least a baseline. It is really difficult because I have never audited a website that was 100 % conformant.

But it has to be.

Régine: Yeah, it’s true. That’s why we also say that it’s progress over perfection. Let’s start earlier and let’s start with the priorities and then it’s a feasible path. If you only look at like, I have to have 100 % on my exam, that maybe, yeah, is the long-term target, but let’s just start and split the task into smaller efforts.

If my website is accessible, then will it be easy to use for any users with a disability?

Régine: There will always be people in disability situations that will never open a computer, so actually not, at least for the disabled community, for people that may be in temporary disability situations it will depend. There are also cases where your disability, even temporary, won’t impact, so it’s the same for you. Even if it’s 100 % conformed with all the success criteria required by the legislation, it doesn’t give access to all people.

Christophe: Yeah, so since the question asked is about whether accessible websites would be easy to use, I think it’s also worth pointing out that there’s a difference between effectiveness and efficiency. So a website that is conformant should be able to work with users with disabilities as effectively as someone without a disability, but they won’t necessarily be able to use it as efficiently. That’s the bottom distinction that’s also made in the definition of usability actually.

If you accommodate people with a certain type of disability, can that affect the experience of people with another type of disability? Could they overlap in some way?

Régine: It often overlaps actually, because people with different kinds of disabilities may even use the same assistive tool but with another goal. So blind users will use a screen reader because that’s the only way for them to reach to hear the information. But we know that autistic people may also use the assistive tool to combine the visual input with the oral input because it helps them concentrate.

Do you think they could get in the way of each other? That one person would need something and the other person would need the opposite? Is there any case that could happen?

Christophe: Yes, one example is some people need high contrast, but some people need low contrast or at least a less glaring screen. You need to have a webpage that basically can adapt to both if the people are using assistive technologies that adapt contrast.

I think the contrast will be too high for some or too light or too bright for others. That’s one issue. Another one that I recently came across is when you have decorative images, you will mark them in a way that they are ignored by screen readers for blind users. But a partially sighted user may still be curious about what’s in the image, even if it’s decorative. But if there’s no description because it is marked, well, we don’t give a description to the decorative edges normally, then basically it’s left in the cold wondering what’s in the image. So that’s a potential conflict as well.

Regine, I know you know a lot about decorative images. Do you think decorative images should be explained more? Because sometimes an image might communicate something to the user. And if it’s not explained, then it might be missing some kind of message. Do you think that is the case sometimes?

Régine: I know that blind users themselves sometimes say that they want the emotion to be conveyed if that’s the goal of the image. But it’s also true that there is more information they hear than is actually written, they will hear that is a button, that is a link, that is an image, that is a table. They will hear a lot of things and they take more time to discover the content of a page. Even more, if it’s not well structured with titles. So if we also start describing all the decorative images, it will be too much. So yes, on one side they say that they also want to know what is decorative, but on the other side, it may be too much.

Yeah, so how do you decide what is important and what is not?

Régine: If the image is really there for emotion, if it really conveys a message.

I remember an image on a bank website and it said that they were ready to help you. So there was an image supposed to convey that idea. There was a tagline, but the image also supported that idea that the bank is there for you. So that one was important to describe. But not every single image that is there is important, on news cards for instance. You have an image frame on the template, that you have to fill with any image that could match the title of the news. But it’s actually just there because it was in the template, it conveys no meaning really, no emotion. It’s just there to fill a blank space. So that definitely shouldn’t be described.

In a nutshell, what does the European Commission’s accessibility policy look like today and what is it exactly?

Régine: We know that there is this directive that applies to public websites, but it doesn’t apply to the public websites of the European institutions themselves. It applied to the public websites of member states. So now they just publish an action plan where they also ask EU institution websites to become accessible and compliant with the same standards, they commit to making the same effort as member states.

The European Commission publishes directives obligating member states like Belgium to make their public websites accessible. But the European Commission and other European institutions have their own websites that are also aimed at the European citizens. So the question is, do the EU institutions practise what they preach? Do they follow their own rules?

Christophe: The ‘practice what you preach’ is of course very relevant. For example, a long time ago the European Commission declared the year 2003 as the European Year of People with Disabilities. And now we’re 21 years later. But when you look at the European Commission website, there is still work to be done 21 years later. It’s impossible to ignore and even for the websites of the member states the compliance is really really low, less than 10 % in the member states.

It’s progress, accessibility is sometimes about the small wins. Can you give an example of a small change that you implemented that had a big impact?

Régine: For me, the changes that I do at the design system level are essential. That design system is used by many websites in the EU institution world.

For instance, there are tags that each have what is called an ARIA label, a description of the tag. But because of that ARIA label, all the tags were the same. It has the same description by screen readers because it has been coded in a way, so that it always pronounces it as tag. Instead of saying what the tag was about because it was overwriting the visible label with a kind of hidden label for screen readers. It always said tag, tag, tag but we remediated that so that now all the tags will be pronounced correctly on all websites that use that design system. Without that, the information was lost for blind users. It’s not a big component that is used a lot, but I know that acting at the design system level, it will be applied to many websites.

This is something you could say you’re proud of that you made happen.

Régine: Yes, when we see such a blocking issue where information is really lost or a button is not clickable at all and we know it will be solved in many websites because we solved it in one centralised instance of the design system. Yes, we are really happy doing this because we know that we will have an impact on the experience.

Christophe, is there something that you are proud of doing?

Christophe: At the Commission, there’s more than one library of components. One is called the Europa Component Library, another one is called the Web Tools. And for example, in Web Tools you also have maps, and some of those maps you can navigate with the keyboard. Originally, it could be difficult to see where the keyboard focus was inside the map. The problem is, some of those maps have a bit of a lighter background and some have a darker background. For example, different countries on the European map can have different colours. So you need a focus indicator that contrasts with both. So how do you do that? And I suggested something very simple, use a keyboard indicator with a double border, a white one and a black one around it. So whatever colour you land on, either the white or the black border is going to have sufficient contrast. A very simple thing, but because these web tools are used across the commission websites, that is something that can have a big impact.

How would you guys encourage young people to pursue a career in this industry?

Régine: It’s fascinating and it’s very large. It’s not only about websites but also about apps and documents and videos and games and virtual reality. It’s a never-ending story. I’m a really curious person and I know that Christophe is as well, so we will always have something new to learn.

Christophe: Another thing is that the current generation of young people is much more sensitive to diversity and inclusion than when I was young. So it’s good to point out that accessibility for people with disabilities is part of that diversity that I hope they care about.

Régine: Something else that is interesting is that it’s not only technical. Part of the job is really relying on code and technical competencies. But as we said, we don’t have that background. So it’s open even to people who study language and literature. And it also concerns design and writing, management, it’s really broad. You also have the opportunity to work with designers, collaborate with them and participate in wireframe meetings because there are also things that you can’t solve directly and should avoid making in the wireframes. So it’s really large and you are not alone. You will work with a lot of different profiles.

Do you guys have a general takeaway or a really good tip that comes from collectively 50 years of experience, you must have learned a lot. Is there a certain tip, the best tip that you would like to give?

Régine: I would say doubt. You find a lot of articles or even code or patterns that claim to be accessible. Doubt and test. Because it’s not a mastered competence, so there are a lot of libraries that pretend to be accessible, but they are not. So you have to have doubts about material that you find online, articles, but also doubts about assistive technology support, it’s a lot of testing and checking. Don’t take something as accessible, because they say it is. So doubt and test.

And in the test, I would say involve people with disabilities. Because even with more than 20 years of experience, I still learn every time I do a user test. So you have to see how a blind user uses a screen reader. You have to know that you will never be able to test a website like they can. They have more knowledge of their own tool. You cannot step in the shoes of a person with concentration issues. It needs to be tested with real users and users with a disability, it’s essential to involve them.

Christophe, do you have a tip for the people?

Christophe: If you look at the standards for accessibility, it can look intimidating as a subject because it takes quite a while to become familiar with all the applicable requirements. So I would say, start with something simple. If you have a website, check whether you can navigate it.

Just using the keyboard, you start by using the tab key and go through everything and can you read everything? Can you see where you are with the keyboard focus? And start working from there and then look at the more complex requirements. It’s still going to be a long climb, but at least you have a starting point.

Are there any additional insights or thoughts you would like to share?

Régine: Follow me on LinkedIn. I share and I follow a lot of the accessibility there. So if I find an interesting article, I’ll be promoting it there every time. And yeah, go beyond theory and try to have contact with people with a disability to really understand their experience and their challenges.

Ok, Christophe, anything to add?

Christophe: I can only say the best moment to start with accessibility is now.

It’s been a pleasure learning from your expertise today. And thank you for the meaningful conversation.

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