Interview with web accessibility champion Laura Kalbag - Heart Internet Blog - Focusing on all aspects of the web

Laura Kalbag is a freelance web designer from Brighton who has earned herself a reputation as a rapidly rising star in the industry. She can be seen up and down the country speaking at major web design events and has frequently appeared in Net magazine. Laura is currently calling for better web accessibility for people with disabilities.

Hi Laura! We saw you at Revolution Conference recently talking about the importance of better web accessibility. What kinds of difficulties can people with disabilities encounter when looking at websites or using computers?

When people think about accessibility on the web they usually think about blind users and screenreaders. Whilst this is a common use case, it’s not the only type of user experience we need to cater for on the web.

There are four different types of disability that affect web access:

  • Visual disabilities: blindness, low vision, colour-blindness and other eyesight impairments
  • Hearing disabilities: varying degrees of deafness
  • Motor disabilities: the inability to use a mouse, slow response time, limited fine motor control
  • Cognitive disabilities: learning disabilities, distractibility, the inability to focus on large amounts of information

And of course, it's not just about the extremes of these disabilities. These are all conditions that can affect any of us at any time throughout our lives. We may have an accident and not be able to use a mouse for a while. We all lose our eyesight and hearing to a certain degree as we age. This is why accessibility is really just another facet to usability.

Why are you championing web accessibility?

I used to think that designers and developers just knew about accessibility. I learned it when I was starting out, so I assumed other people had too. But the more I spoke to other designers and developers, the more I found that people either weren't sure about what accessibility was, or worse, just didn't care.

There are many people working in the industry who don't talk about accessibility because they consider it part of building a website correctly (https://www.veen.com/jeff/archives/000503.html). But I wish there were more. So I decided to try to make a bit more noise about accessibility in the community. 

How do you rate the current state of website accessibility for people with disabilities?

It's very hard to generalise when you're talking about the state of the web. Some sites appear to be very usable when you look at the surface visuals, and browse around, but then you take a look at the HTML and realise that it's such a complete mess that neither screenreader nor search engine could ever hope to untangle. Then there are sites that probably don't match up to our trendy ideas of what's beautiful, but they've really considered the way that their site works for many different types of users.

You’ve created some handy cards to hand out to designers and developers with some advice on accessibility. What are some of the steps people can take to make their website more accessible?

I think the first step is just considering the different types of users that could visit your site. As soon as you start thinking about people whose eyesight isn't as good as yours, or aren't as quick with the keyboard as you are, you're caring. And as soon as you start caring, you'll think about these users when you're building your site.

The two tips I think could make the most impact are:

  1. Readability: Make text content easy to read and understand. Ensure readable font sizes and that there's enough contrast between background and foreground colours.
  2. Predictability: Make web pages appear and operate in predictable and consistent ways.

Do you know of any other good resources for website accessibility advice?

The Webaim Wave accessibility evaluation tool (https://wave.webaim.org):

The Wave tool is very useful for getting a quick overview of where your HTML and CSS falls down in terms of accessibility. Of course, it's no substitute for a real user, but it gives you pointers on where you're going wrong.

Lea Verou's colour contrast checker (https://leaverou.github.io/contrast-ratio):

Lea Verou's colour contrast checker helps you test your foreground and background colours to ensure they're high-enough contrast for users, particularly those who are colour blind.

Color Oracle (https://colororacle.org):

Color Oracle is free software that works on Windows, Mac OSX and Linux, so there's no excuse to not use it to test your sites and apps for colour problems. Colour Oracle simulates different forms of colour blindness, so you can really see where the problems occur.

As a regular speaker at conferences, does public speaking get easier the more you do it?

I think you get more confident at public speaking the more you do it, particularly if you use feedback to try to improve each time. I'm sometimes very nervous and sometimes just a bit nervous, and this usually depends on the audience. If I have friends, or other people I admire, in the audience, I get incredibly nervous!

Why do you think designers, developers and other web professionals should attend web conferences and events?

I think all web professionals should attend as many web conferences and events as they can. They don't all have to be the expensive conferences, local meetups are often equally good or better. The important thing is the discussions you have with other people who work with the web. Watching talks will often spark interesting conversations, and we can learn so much more from rich interactions than we do from snappy comments on Twitter or one-sided arguments on our blogs.

I also find these events are great places to meet like-minded people. You're unlikely to go to a web conference if you don't like working with the web, so these events help me find friends who are equally interested in/obsessed with design and development.

What advice would do you have for anyone looking to get started in speaking at events, or public speaking in general?    

There's no point speaking at an event if you don't have anything to say. If you've written a great blog post, or have something else you want to share, then you should try doing a small talk about it at a local meetup. Local meetups are a good way to practice speaking to small groups, and bouncing your ideas off people to make them stronger.

Loads of conferences are now doing open calls for speakers, and it's fantastic. This encourages a lot more diversity in the speakers at conferences. It's also a great opportunity for new speakers to test their ideas on conference organisers.

You mention on your website that you work with a lot of SMEs and start-up businesses. As a designer, what’s the best thing about working with these kinds of businesses?

I love working with small businesses as both sides are so invested in the project going well. It means I get to communicate directly with the stakeholder, and there's rarely any complicated company politics to work my way around.

What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned in your career as a designer so far?

The most important lesson I've learned in my career so far is that you've got to have confidence to be a designer. You need the confidence to explain and stand by your decisions, you need confidence to decide when your ideas are worth sharing and you need confidence to charge the amount of money that you are worth.

We’re running our Power Up campaign at the moment which is all about energising yourself and your websites, helping you to achieve more. What do you do to get inspired or energised for a new challenge or project?

Variety is the best way to keep me motivated. I try to mix up the projects that I'm working on so my next project is always for a different industry, a different type of end user or a different type of client. Often I'll do projects where the output is completely different too; going from web design to logo design or illustration, or from simple designs to a site that needs a lot more programming.

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