Interview with Dennis Lembree

As part of my dissertation research, I interviewed Dennis Lembree over email. Lembree is the man behind the WebAxe blog and podcast and Easy Chirp, an accessible Twitter client (@easychirp). He requested that the interview be published, and I’m thrilled to be able to do so!

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Q: What’s your professional background?

I’ve been a web developer for well over a dozen years. I have worked for a variety of companies including PayPal, RIM, Google and Walt Disney World, and a few start-up companies. Earlier in my career I worked in marketing, technical writing and electronic publishing.

Q: How did you become interested in accessibility?

I was developing web-based training in 2001 for a company in Orlando and was tasked with learning how to apply Section 508 to the courses. I became intrigued on how much cross-over exists between web accessibility, standards, and usability, so I continued to pursue this area.

Q: If you choose to, you may share any biographical information that you consider relevant to your uses of the web.

I grew up in the first Star Wars and Atari generation; used the web since about 1995, and am a social media enthusiast.

Q: How would you define “disability?” Is that how you think others would define it?

A physical or mental condition which challenges an individual in every day life. Wouldn’t say how others would define it, but I’m sure it would range from empathetic, to tactful, to ignorant, to downright mean. Here’s a recent example of an ignorant developer.

Q: Do you consider yourself knowledgeable about web accessibility? Could you tell me about the first time you encountered this term relating to the web? How did you learn about accessibility?

I consider myself knowledgeable, but there’s always something to learn, and always something new to explore, and there’s always someone who knows more than you about a particular niche. I guess that part of the challenge and fun of this field, and this includes the web development field in general as well.

Q: How would you define “accessibility”? Is that how you think others would define it?

The ability of a product to provide comparable user experience to those with or without a disability. On the web, at least to me, this pertains to more than just disability. It could be temporary for a fully enabled person, perhaps a broken mouse or casts on both hands. Also, web accessibility should provide access to not only users of assistive technology, but older technologies such as Internet Explorer 6 or a low-band Internet connection. There are unlimited circumstances where using web standards and accessibility can benefit the user. And it also benefits the business.

Q: Easy Chirp is described as using “strict accessibility and web standards” – why is standards-compliant development important?

Using web standards has many benefits. Mostly, it level’s the playing field so developers, browser vendors, and assistive technology vendors are on the same page, have the same goals and specifications to make it happen. In other words, it vastly helps reduce browser wars and duplicate coding efforts. Other benefits include better search engine optimization (SEO), makes website easier and less expensive to develop and test; ensures that website is forward compatible.

Q: Why do you think sites like Twitter, Tumblr, etc., aren’t built to meet standards in the first place?

Many companies feel pressure to make the “coolest” product and in a short amount of time. And many developers simply don’t have the skills to correctly implement web standards and accessibility (as to why is a whole other conversation). Coupled with ignorance about disability and benefits of an accessible website, the result is inaccessible websites.

Q: Do you see accessibility as related to usability? How?

Yes. For example, a consistent and simple navigation scheme is not only usable, but also much better for people with cognitive impairments. Compare this to a large drop-down menu with multiple layers of flyout sub-menus which can easily create issues for folks with cognitive and mobility impairments. Also, take the example of a stop button. It can say “stop”, be colored red, and in the shape of an X. Therefore, it has more techniques to convey the meaning creates better usability, but is also accessible to someone who is colorblind.

Q: What are your thoughts on universal design?

We need more of it, that’s for sure. People involved in website planning, design and development need be more open and concentrate more on the user rather than the current trend. For example, when making web interaction, support for keyboard-only users must be done in addition to mouse users. For more, here’s an article I wrote from July 20122: Popular Mistakes in Universal Web Design

Q: Do you think that laws can encourage accessibility?

Yes, unfortunately it seems that law may be a required element to make websites accessible. In the U.S., there are federal and state laws, but mostly for government-related websites such as public services. And the law is only half the battle. Organizations must adhere to the law. If there’s no enforcement, which would be extremely difficult, then court cases must create precedents. This is finally starting to happen, but way too slowly.

Q: What other tactics do you think can help make the web accessible?

One big issue is that browser vendors (Microsoft, Google, Apple, etc.) many times don’t support standards and accessibility specifications which have been defined by the W3C. One example is the browsers’ neglect of the HTML title attribute. Also, assistive technologies, such as screen readers, can take time to support them and be able to work well with the browser. And especially since the web is such a dynamic, growing medium.

Q: What do you think is valuable about this podcast? Why do you do it?

The Web Axe podcast and blog provides all sorts of information about web accessiblity, including some fun things! The Twitter account @WebAxe is also great to follow for the latest topics. I started it when a friend in Michigan asked me to join a group of podcasters, and so I did. I figured I’d try podcasting, so I asked myself, “what’s a topic that I’m knowledgeable about and that I’m passionate about”? Web accessibility first came to mind.

Q: Who is the audience you have in mind for Web Axe?

Web Axe is great for anyone interested in web accessibility. Several years ago, it started as more of a basic tutorial, providing tips for coding accessibility. Then it expanded to providing content such as special guests, website reviews, conference summaries, job listings, and more.

Q: How would you describe the web accessibility professional community? Would you even use the word “community?”

There’s definitely a “community” feel at many accessibility-related conferences and on Twitter (follow #a11y for a peek). There has also been an Accessibility Camp movement to spread the good word. It’s a very educated and passionate group of folks, especially since many have a personal interest in the topic. The term “the tribe” has been used to refer to the accessibility community.

Q: How would you compare Web Axe to other web development podcasts, like the Big Web Show?

Web Axe concentrates on web accessibility which is quite unique. And I’d like to say that Web Axe is more “grass roots”; it’s not backed by a big company or sponsor. I do take sponsors, though, once in a great while, just to pay for transcriptions. Every new podcast is transcribed.

Q: Can you tell me how you came to develop Accessible Twitter?

In January of 2009, Gez Lemon wrote about the lack of keyboard focus in old Twitter. I participated in a few tweets about this and other accessibility issues in Twitter. A former co-worker then suggested that I use the API and create an accessible version. My wife and kids were out of town visiting family at the time so I took the opportunity to do so. It was only 2 or 3 weeks until I had the basics of the Alpha version written and began asking a few web accessibility professionals for feedback.

Q: Did you have a particular audience in mind when you developed it?

Not really. The only goal was to make a universally accessible and robust Twitter web app. And I think the site has met that goal pretty well. Now many enhancements to the site are waiting to be made.

Q: What was the general reaction like? Did Twitter ever contact you about it?

Since the start, I’ve been fortunate to receive wonderful feedback from the accessibility community in general. Constructive feedback, suggestions, and praise. Twitter did contact me a while ago, and I even met with the VP of Design for a couple hours to give some tips and feedback. They expressed interest in providing accessibility, but the final product speaks for itself.

Q: Do you think that Twitter is particularly useful for people with disabilities in any way?

Yes, at the root, it allows people to communicate who otherwise may not be able to well due to a physical or mental disability. It also helps break the social barrier with those who may at first be uncomfortable socializing with people with disabilities.

Q: Can you tell me about the decision to change the name?

There are 3 reasons for the name change, I guess. One is that the name “Accessible Twitter” was a bit long, especially on Twitter when you’re limited to 140 characters! Another reason is that Twitter has a rule that its name cannot be used in the name of a 3rd party app. I was never contacted about it, but just wanted to play fair. The last reason is that Easy Chirp is for use by more than those with disabilities, and I wanted to communicate that. The app is great for beginners, IE6 users, tablets, non-JavaScript environments, low-band Internet connections, and many more use cases!

Q: How successful has the PayPal donation button been? Is Easy Chirp self-supporting financially?

Donations are received once in a while, I’d say not quite enough to support the hosting. I do get a little advertising income as well, but doesn’t really cover the time I spend in maintenance.

Q: Easy Chirp has gotten a lot of recognition and awards! Can you tell me a bit about those awards?

The most prestigious award I feel is the 2011 Access Award from the American Foundation for the Blind (AFB). I paid my way to Seattle to received the award, and it was worth every penny. I met a lot of great folks, and was honored to be recognized so highly. And it was fun to visit Seattle as I had never been there before.I was excited to go o the very original Starbucks.

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