lunchBOX interview 011
Senior Learning Designer | University of Southampton
28 January, 2022
lunchBOX: Hello, good day, and welcome to lunchBOX. On the menu today we're delighted to welcome the accessibility hurricane that is Matthew Deeprose, Senior Learning Designer at the University of Southampton.
We have a sneaking suspicion that Matt may have forgotten more than we'll ever know about accessibility, and he has become a legend in the higher education community for his willingness to share his knowledge with all and sundry. But we're here to ask the important questions. Like who would he invite for lunch?
1. Who are you and what do you do?
MD: I’m Matthew Deeprose. I’m currently working in the Digital Learning team within the University of Southampton’s IT department. I help to run a Digital Accessibility Community of Practice within our IT department. I also try to contribute where I can outside of the University, for example in user groups, delivering presentations, writing blog posts, and so on.
2. How did you come to be involved in the world of accessibility?
MD: I think it was in May 2018 at the Blackboard Teaching and Learning Conference, Robert Mclaren from Policy Connect gave a presentation about the Public Sector Bodies (Websites and Mobile Applications) (No. 2) Accessibility Regulations 2018. I managed our Blackboard VLE and I realised that it was vital to get an understanding of the regulations and to raise awareness within my department.
As I have learned more about accessibility, and particularly when I have developed some practical experience within a certain area, I’ve tried to share it in the hope that I can save others some time and perhaps make it a little clearer or easier to understand.
An example of this is developing a colour contrast lookup table for our institutional brand. In 2019 we developed a new theme for our Blackboard VLE, using our university colour scheme, after spending far too long manually checking contrast ratios, I wrote a script to look up all the possible colour combinations in our brand and whether they met the accessibility guidelines for colour contrast. I’ve helped around 20 other institutions now by creating a table for their brand. It’s nothing revolutionary but it has hopefully made the process a little quicker and easier for those that use it.
3. What does accessibility mean to you?
MD: I might give a different answer to this anytime, but right now I think of it as removing barriers that prevent people from maximising their use of a website, document, or electronic device. Most importantly for those with permanent impairments but also for all of us who encounter temporary or situational impairments in our daily lives. Accessibility is becoming thought of as a customisation tool for many. With greater reliance on computers and working from home, more and more of us want to bend the technology toward ourselves, rather than us having to bend to fit the technology.
4. What has been your biggest challenge in promoting accessibility?
MD: In terms of promoting accessibility, I think the main challenge is persuading those who don’t believe it’s worth spending time on or who see it as optional, or a “nice to have”. Without a policy or mandate from on high we are relying on appealing to our colleagues’ better natures. When they themselves have competing demands and pressures, accessibility can be seen as a lower priority.
The other main challenge for me is encountering an issue that is really hard to solve, perhaps because of limitations of a platform, or because there are lots of possible solutions but none seem good enough, or it’s just not clear what the right solution is. Having the opportunity to talk to a user who this directly affects can really help, but sometimes we’re looking at a problem in the abstract.
To give an example, a few weeks ago I was keyboard testing an interface pattern of a content authoring tool. It was a kind of web-based presentation deck driven by a menu. The question I was facing was whether when a menu option was selected, should the keyboard focus move to the start of the slide content or remain within the menu. Often this kind of puzzle is indicative of a badly designed interface pattern.
Another example is that we all know we should use semantic HTML where possible. I really like the details/summary HTML tag, but screen readers announce it as a button, not an expandable or collapsible interface pattern. Should ARIA be added to announce this? Luckily there’s usually somewhere online where questions such as this have been discussed.
A final challenge is keeping your patience and not falling into the trap of being “that grumpy person who is always pointing out accessibility issues”. No one wants to be around that person and no one wants to be that person.
5. What’s been your biggest success in relation to accessibility?
MD: I’m not sure I’ve felt like I’ve achieved a real success yet, but a few years ago I reached out to our Student Disability and Inclusion team to share some work I had been doing and to learn more about their challenges. We’ve worked together on a few projects since and have fairly regular meetings to keep each other informed of what’s going on in our respective areas and look for opportunities to meet our ambitions.
Another small success is that after a few years of probably sounding like a broken record in my attempts to promote digital accessibility within the IT department, I now get occasional messages from colleagues asking questions, which is a nice indication that something is working, however slowly.
6. What is the most enjoyable part of your job?
MD: Experiencing those moments when something “clicks”, and you’ve finally identified a solution or worked out the best approach to implement. I’ve been working in technology for long enough to know that within a few weeks I’ll learn a better and more effective way of doing it. But… this is how we grow and develop. The more I get into accessibility - the more I realise how little I know and how much longer it’s going to take for me to be able to make a difference.
7. How have you or your organization made a difference?
MD: There is some excellent work going on at the University of Southampton. The Accessibility team in the Electronics and Computer Science department are world famous and have done lots of important research and produced some really useful tools over the years such as the ATbar. The teaching accessibility team are doing some really important work looking at how digital accessibility is taught. My colleague Sarah Horton in that team has written some wonderful articles that really challenge our perceptions of what it means to be a professional in the area of software development.
8. If you could click your heels and make one thing easier for yourself at work, what would it be?
MD: As others have said in interviews, making accessibility an institutional or departmental priority would help. It won’t make “doing accessibility” easier, but it will mean instead of spending our energy on trying to make the case, we turn our attention fully to the “doing” part.
If you compare it to the change and release process, the Change Manager isn’t visiting teams persuading them of the value of writing a Request for Change (RFC) and getting it approved. It’s a departmental process that is expected. If you were to make a change to a live system without an RFC you will be in trouble! From an IT perspective this is how I see where accessibility should be. Testing for accessibility and writing accessibility statements should be the baseline minimum. There’s lots more we should do, but getting the basics right would be a good start.
9. What is the most exciting development you’ve seen this year in the accessibility sector?
MD: From a technical point of view, I think how Microsoft have made accessibility controls available in the System Tray is a very simple change that should really help to raise the profile of these tools with all users, show their benefits, and help move forward the conversation about accessibility.
From a non-technical point of view, the axe-con conference last year was really incredible, around 30 really high quality accessibility presentations that really inspired me and took my knowledge to a new level.
10. Where do you see accessibility in 10 years? Any new developments you are keeping a close eye on?
MD: This is a really difficult question. Thinking about the new developments over the past year or so, the way Deque has been adding new features to their axe browser extension such as guided testing shows the potential for making the process of accessibility testing more widely available. It’s something I expect will continue. The process of “commercial grade” accessibility testing is still a bit of a secret that I would like to see opened up more.
For content creators I hope to see creation tools such as Office moving away from the accessibility checking tool and instead to only giving the options to create content in an accessible way. For example, if you make a shape in PowerPoint that is filled with a colour, the text colours that can be chosen from the palette should only include colours with sufficient contrast. Likewise, I hope that, by 2032, Design Ideas has stopped making suggestions which would not meet accessibility guidelines.
In terms of assistive technologies, I hope that we’ve found better ways to ensure eye tracking technologies can work well with online systems. I’m aware at the moment there’s a challenge for those who use eye tracking software for interface elements to be large enough to select without having to increase browser zoom to 300%+ where too little information is now on-screen to make for a pleasant user-experience.
Now, to use a screen reader effectively it seems to me you need to have some knowledge of things like headings, landmarks, page regions and so on to use a complex site effectively. Why should screen reader users have to learn about some of these “technical” things just to use a website? I hope that assistive technology will become easier to use.
11. How and where do you learn about new accessibility initiatives in the sector?
MD: I am a die-hard RSS fan and currently track around 40 RSS feeds from different accessibility blogs and organisations. I also use LinkedIn, Twitter, and communities such as the JISC accessibility community the Discord Accessibility Server and the A11y Slack. I’m also subscribed to many accessibility newsletters, I particularly recommend Laura Carlson’s Webdev newsletter which always has a roundup of the best accessibility articles each week and has been running every week since 2002.
You’ve inspired me to go through my inbox and RSS feeds and compile a list of accessibility newsletters and blogs worth following. Let me know what I missed!
12. What or who is your accessibility inspiration?
MD: There are so many but if I had to pick one person it would be Lindsey Kopacz. Her blog “a11y with Lyndsey” launched just as I was starting to learn about accessibility, and it was just at the right level of detail for me. I refer to her book, “the bootcampers guide to web accessibility” almost every day. I recommend her “ten days of a11y” to anyone who wants a gentle start on accessibility. Lindsey also wrote some posts that challenged some of my perceptions about communicating accessibility and made me more reflective about some assumptions I had made. I don’t think she is posting actively at the moment but at that moment in time she was probably one of the biggest sources of accessibility inspiration.
13. Which single accessibility tool do you use the most?
MD: The single tool I use the most is Microsoft’s Accessibility Insights for Chrome / Edge. Maybe it’s ‘just’ a reskin of axe with a few nice extras but the interface, range of tools, focus order display and other features are so nice to use, so quick and simple, that it has become my “go-to” tool. Here’s a great webinar by the developers that’s worth a watch.
14. Tell us your favourite accessibility story.
MD: Unlike most of your interviewees so far, I don’t have a good story where I was able to help someone directly, but after I gave my first presentation about accessibility, I was contacted by someone in the States who had watched the recording. They finished their message saying, “When I start running into accessibility issues here with Blackboard, I'll start by asking myself: ‘What would Matthew do?’” My cockles were truly warmed that day.
15. Which lunch would describe your organization and why?
MD: This is the hardest question you’ve asked! Thinking about the IT department I work in, the varying teams are all highly specialist and experts in their area, and when they get together they can produce a great result. So, based on my own preferences I would describe us as a quality fry-up: excellent ingredients that when put together well can deliver a great result, and perhaps leave you feeling like you don’t want to eat anything for the rest of the day and want to have a nap in a dark room.
16. What would be your favourite setting for that lunch?
MD: It would have to be a classic greasy spoon. It’s rarer to find such places these days with the explosion of identikit coffee shops. I find a greasy spoon café to be a great leveller. Everyone is welcome, and you will find people there of all ages and backgrounds. Since COVID began I haven’t had the opportunity to visit one as I’m within the clinically extremely vulnerable category.
17. Which 10 people from any time or place would you invite to your lunch?
MD: I’m kind of doubtful about having lunch with ten people and being able to eat my food before it got cold and keep up a good conversation, but in the spirit of trying to give you an answer I would suggest:
First, I would invite you Huw, so you can experience this and take some photos to include on the web page, with great alternative text of course.
Fyodor Sologub, author of one of my favourite books, “The Petty Demon”, if he were not available, I would settle for Nikolai Gogol, or Anton Chekhov.
Erik Satie. Hopefully there can be a piano in the café, or perhaps for the greasy spoon aesthetic, an 80s Casio keyboard.
MF DOOM. One of his albums is called MM Food, which is about eating food. His lyrics are incredible and he is originally from the UK so the fry up should bring a wry smile to him.
Jeff Minter. He has been creating intense computer games since 1982. You can tell one of his games easily from a distance, they are always intense and primal. Every day on his Twitter account he posts videos where he feeds his llamas and sheep.
Léonie Watson. So I can pick her brains on lots of deep accessibility questions.
Accessibility consultant, Alistair McNaught. We live not far from each other and yet I have still not managed to take up Alistair’s offer to pop round for a cup of tea, so this would be a good opportunity.
Finally, I would invite my colleagues Tamsyn Smith and Sam Cole. We’ve had many adventures together over the years and they shouldn’t miss this one.
18. What are you reading at the moment?
MD: John Szczepaniak's “Untold History Of Japanese Game Developers”. It’s a fascinating three volume book of interviews with Japanese computer and video game developers of the 80s and 90s. It was a labour of love for the author to produce and every page is filled with interesting anecdotes and details.
19. What are the applications/services that you couldn’t live without at work or personally?
MD: It’s very rare that a day goes by without me using one of the following:
Foobar 2000 – The music player I use.
Vivaldi - My preferred browser on my home machine.
Chrome - The synchronised bookmarks make this so useful.
Pocket - This allows you to save articles for reading offline. Maybe they say this to all their users, but each year they tell me I’m in the top 1% of users. Last year I read 1.1 million words on the Pocket app.
RetroArch - Great emulation tool: really easy to use, playlists, very accurate cores, great choice of overlays, a joy to use.
Microsoft 365 - I seem to use Word, PowerPoint, and Excel every day.
Stylus - So useful for instant CSS prototyping. I seem to use it every day.
Reader view - Removes distractions and helps concentration. I’ve started using immersive reader on Edge as well.
Feedly - I still mourn the death of Google Reader, this is an ok replacement and I use it every day.
Steam - Over the last few years I have got back into PC gaming. Steam Remote Play is incredible too.
Magisk - The first thing I do when I get a new Android device is root it, and this is the main method these days.
Notepad ++ - Another program I’ve been using for years. So many nice little features that I’ve never needed to look for an alternative.
Camtasia - My preferred tool for screen recordings. I’m never going to have the patience to learn Premiere, and I doubt I will ever need to do something more sophisticated than what you can put together in Camtasia.
Kodi - The best home cinema program. I’ve been using it since it was called XBMC. Over the years it has got better and better and is a joy to use.
YouTube™ Vanced - This is a version of YouTube for Android phones with lots of extra features. Requires root and frequent updating but it’s hard to used the vanilla YouTube app once you get used to this version.
Paintshop Pro - I think I’ve been using this in various forms since 1994. Many of the keyboard shortcuts are muscle memory now. No doubt Photoshop is more powerful, but this does everything I need and it’s easy to use.
20. Anything totally secret to tell us? We’re amongst friends…
MD: I’ve probably made every accessibility error possible many times over the years. It’s easy to find stuff I’ve worked on that has glaring accessibility issues. We all have to start somewhere. Let’s all try to help each other do better and better!
lunchBOX: A perfect, positive moment to ask for the cheque...
Thank you so much for taking the time to join us for lunch today, Matt. It's been fantastic to hear all about your work and we're sure that your insights and wide range of helpful resources will be an inspiration for everyone. We will all be asking from now on, "What would Matthew do?"
Thank you for your patronage (and invite to your lunch!). We know that you could choose other luncheon establishments. We'll take care of the bill...
To learn more about the accessibility initiatives at the University of Southampton, please visit their Digital Learning website.