In Conversation With: Accessibility Expert Joe Chidzik

A white ampersand in a grey roundel. This team member has requested that we do not share their face online. Caterina Sorenti | 26 Feb 2024
A screenshot from of their accessibility statement

Shell's "Accessibility Statement", linked from their footer

It is essential to stay well-informed about the evolving digital accessibility landscape for your company's online communications, and managers must stay ahead of the latest advancements in standards and regulatory frameworks. This can be challenging, especially as changes in the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines take time, and emerging technology comes into play. 

Joe Chidzik, Principal Accessibility and Usability Consultant at AbilityNet, spoke to us about the importance of raising awareness of accessibility standards within your digital team, advocating for foundational change and the significance of seeking feedback from users, as their experiences are the best way to improve your site’s accessibility.    

Caterina Sorenti: What should global digital managers know about the changing regulatory environment and evolving standards? 

Joe Chidzik: Yes, it's a great question, as there's a lot to keep up on. Many bits of legislation are based on the WCAG (Web Content Accessibility Guidelines). So being aware of them first of all is a good port of call, especially in the digital realm. Any changes to those web content guidelines will over time be incorporated into other bits of legislation, whether it's the EU or the US or further around the world. And while those guidelines are developed, they can take quite a long time for updates to be pushed through. 

Being updated as to legislation and the legal aspects of accessibility is important too. It's a big world out there. Attending conferences is key. We can hear from people in Canada, for example, about how their legislation is developing. I think learning together from other people is a great way to stay up to date, as there is too much information for one person from one organisation. We run an annual event called TechShare Pro, but there's a lot of organisations that run similar events around the world. We invite people who are part of introducing legislation and working on the standards to come along and speak and so going to those is a great way to stay informed. 

CS: If someone has neglected accessibility and they want to get better at it, where should they start?  

JC: The social model of disability is a good way to understand what accessibility is all about. The social model of disability states that disability is a product of a person and their environment. It's a social problem to solve rather than an individual issue. Being aware of that is a good introduction to accessibility and why we do it and how we solve it, and it means we can solve it at an environmental level as well.  

A relatable example is maybe a wheelchair user cannot access a building because there's only stairs going into it. Now, the social model would say that the issue is that there's no wheelchair ramp, not that the person needs to be able to use the stairs, or they need a wheelchair that allows them to go upstairs. It means give them an equitable experience and provide a wheelchair ramp. It’s framing the problem in a way that allows everyone to take ownership of it. By saying yes, we can put the wheelchair ramp in, it removes the responsibility from the person who's disabled to fix the problem, and puts it onto the organisation, and I think that's a big step to take maturity wise.  

Finding out from service users, by encouraging people to share feedback of their experience of your service, whether it's an online service or something similar, is a great way to get feedback from everyone, particularly people with disabilities. If you can encourage feedback from people, that's a great way to understand what challenges people face and what it means to them as well. You need to involve people in that process because at the end of the day, it is people benefiting from it. 

I would caveat this with: it is great to get feedback when people encounter difficulties using your service, so you can work to improve and fix issues. However if you are then asking specific people to provide further feedback, then this should be considered a paid service, and individuals should be paid for their time. 

CS: Exactly. If you don't have that feedback to form a foundation to develop your corporate communications from, then you're not arming yourself with the necessary knowledge, and change will feel unsubstantiated.  

JC: It is a foundational issue. As you're going on your accessibility journey, that can ground you, remembering that it is people that are going to benefit at the end of the day – it is not just a question of standards. On that question, someone who wants to get better at it must understand that yes, there are those foundational levels, but there is specific learning for the different roles in an organisation, e.g.for people who are in management, to help understanding about policy, and people who oversee development ought to know how the guidelines apply to them and so on. Being aware of what different roles there are in your organisation is key, but it’s also understanding that accessibility will and should touch all those roles. It's not a step to be introduced as part of your journey. It is something that is introduced into your organisation's culture, so you are more aware of accessibility across the board. 

CS: Is there a way to make PDFs more accessible?  

JC: The first thing we say when we're teaching other people about this is to work on the source document. If you're taking a document and you're turning it into a PDF, for instance, a Word document moving into PDF, then focus your efforts on the source document. Structure is fundamental: use headings and lists and anything that changes how the text fits with other bits of text. These features comprise what is known as the semantic part of the page or document, they describe the page structure. And if you do those well in Word, typically by using the built in styles that Word offers (headings, lists and tables), they will typically translate well into a PDF. Microsoft have some great resources on this.

A large organisation will have templates in place for making documents, so make sure those templates are accessible as well. Have a base level of consistency there. All documents start off the same with appropriate styles and features to support accessibility. 

CS: Are the new and popular accessibility tool overlays ever a good idea? 

JC: It’s a hot topic in the accessibility industry and has been for a couple of years now. It really depends, because ‘overlays’ is a catch all phrase, it can refer to a lot of things, but in general, it refers to some third-party technology that claims to fix a website and, in some cases, go so far as to say this will make your website compliant with local legislation. 

I think it comes down to the fact that accessibility is a human endeavour again, and an overlay is a bit of software which will try and fix some of those problems. It's good that we explore how technology can be used to make more accessible experiences, but the claims made by a lot of overlay companies are problematic. They claim to fix all problems whereas as an accessibility expert, I know that some of those problems are only solvable by people. A claim like that just makes me a bit more inherently suspicious of further claims.  

A very common example would be alternative text. That is a fundamental aspect of accessibility and the first criteria that many people learn about. All it means is that if there's something on the screen that you need vision to perceive then there is a text alternative that allows people who cannot see the screen to have that read out, turned into Braille or whatever they require. But when an author of a page uses an image, they are really the best person to know what that image is trying to convey. Why do they want to put that image there? Is it conveying an emotional feel? And if software comes along and says "I know what the alternative text for this image is", I'm a bit suspicious of that. Content is created for people to consume, not technology. So, we should not rely on technology to tell us if content is accessible or not.

Another aspect of overlays is that they replicate features that are already on somebody's computer. A lot of overlays will have features to enlarge the text or change the colours on the screen. That's good and useful for some people, they will benefit from that. However, if people learn how to do it on their computer, as these features are readily available, they have a lot more power, and can use them across the web on any site they visit. For anybody who is interested in this topic of accessibility and overlays, I would encourage you to check out Overlay Fact Sheet. This site features feedback from actual disabled users, outlining difficulties they experience caused by overlays.

CS: What makes a good accessibility page? 

JC: An accessibility page is a way of making a public statement, saying “this is what we're doing for accessibility”. If you are making your site accessible, it is something you absolutely should want to shout about! Because accessibility pages are ubiquitous now, people will typically have an accessibility link in the footer or the header of their site. Most people will know where to look, and they will go there to look for assurances that this organisation is doing something about accessibility. They want to be made aware of any potential problems, and if the organisation is working to fix them. Use an accessibility page to state what level of conformance you are aiming for, what work you’ve done, and any timelines you are working towards. The UK government provide an example statement for public sector organisations, but the structure is good and provides a strong model for any accessibility statement page.

CS: Are you seeing any role for AI in this? 

JC: I think it's inevitable that it will have a role to play. We're embarking on an exploratory study in our organisation, we've got a small team of people who are looking at how AI is going to be involved in our jobs going forward as well. I think it will have a place, though there are some limitations to be aware of in relation to overlays and understanding what technology can do and can't do. I've heard about people using AI to generate accessible code. Now, I think it’s good that, if it can generate code, it should be accessible. But I think it's important that this doesn’t take away the need for people to understand why code needs to be accessible. You don't want it to create accessible code and then you copy and paste it into your website. You want to look at it and go, “Yes, I can verify that this code is accessible” before you roll it out and start using it. So, it can certainly play a role, but we need to be wary of over overreliance on AI and not forget our goal – to make better accessible experiences for people

Joe Chidzik was speaking to Caterina Sorenti of Bowen Craggs. If you want to know more about anything discussed in this interview, or want further advice, visit