The Interactive Accessibility Podcast (IAP) is an entertaining approach to accessibility. We enjoy sharing our discussions on accessibility and how it relates to technology, real-life issues, information, businesses, and people with disabilities. In this episode: An interview with co-founder of Global Accessibility Awareness Day (GAAD) Joe Devon.
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Announcer: Welcome to the IAP, the Interactive Accessibility Podcast. Bringing you the people, technology, and ideas helping to make your world accessible to everyone.
Mark Miller: Hey, welcome to the IAP. I am Mark Miller.
Jeremy Curry: I'm Jeremy Curry.
Mark: We are really happy and privileged today to introduce Joe Devon who is known as one of the people that founded GAAD Day, G-A-A-D, Global Accessibility Awareness Day.
This is really an amazing thing. Tell us Joe, I don't know that you were really involved directly in accessibility when you came up with this idea. It was something you were thinking about, is that right?
Joe Devon: Essentially I was just a web developer at the time. I had no knowledge of accessibility at all. I just saw a video by Viktor Taran, who was a programmer at Yahoo at the time. I'd never heard of screen readers, and I'd been pretty up on the latest tech. All of a sudden I see this screen reader, this video of a guy doing a screen reader.
It was just shocking to see. I realized that when we're building things incorrectly, not to standard, it would make it a lot harder for a screen reader to access content. I was like, "If I don't know about this, I'm sure that most other developers don't know about it." It kind of stuck in my head.
Then one day I wrote a blog post saying, "Hey, let's create a day of awareness so that folks that are building..." At the time I was just thinking websites, but it's grown to really digital products. Anybody that builds a digital product should pay attention to Assistive Technology and make sure that they are making their products accessible.
Jeremy: Seems like it's really blown up into a really big deal since you started this. Did you ever expect that to happen?
Joe: It's funny. Sometimes I have these crazy ideas, and then while I'm writing it down I really believe in it, but then when it's done you're like, "Oh, alright, well at least I put the idea out there, but no. No way." [laughs]
Mark: I agree with you, Joe. I would have written that blog post and had all these grand feelings about how I was going to change the world. Then I would have, the next morning, woken up and gone like, "Ah, that was a waste of time. Why did I do that.?" Or, not a waste of time but, "How silly of me to even think about that."
Mark: This is a really good point. This is something that I wanted to talk about today, that the whole Global Accessibility Awareness Day is fantastic. It's really kind of incredible in and of itself, but this idea...
That you had an idea, and you flipped up a blog post -- I'm imagining this thing might've taken up three-quarters of a Word document page -- and you posted this. It got somebody's attention, and out of that simple act you end up with something that's really a global phenomenon.
One, how did that kind of make you feel? Two, where do you go when you realize that that's the kind of traction this thing's gotten? What are your next steps? What do you do after that? How do you really turn this into what it is today?
Joe: Wow. First of all, every year I get chills down my spine as I see what's going on. It's kind of bizarre. You create this thing that went viral. The virality of it has more to do with the fact that community has taken it up than anything that I've done. Jennison is certainly a force of nature and he is very responsible for making it grow as wide as it has grown.
It's also the community. If folks did not pick it up, it would have been nothing. I keep telling people, "If you have vision, get the word out." Today, with social media, if it strikes a chord with an audience the community will take it over, but you definitely need to be a community person.
Mark: You credit community and I think that's fantastic. That's just a good overall message. Also the fact that you took this little seed and you flipped it out into the community, and with that little seed, with that little thought, and by sharing that thought, you can inspire a community towards something.
I think that's amazing. I mean, I think that that's the message here. There was something that you felt was important -- not even necessarily something that you were deeply involved in -- just something you looked at and went, "Hey, this is crazy this really should be a thing. People should be thinking about this and doing this."
With that little thought and with some simple actions, and with follow-through, you inspired a whole global community.
I think that that's fantastic. I really, really, do. Also, I wonder how many people have had the experience that you had. Looking and seeing a screen reader and going, "Wow I didn't even realize or stop to think about the fact that people are trying to experience my product and my work this way," and never did anything about it...
I've got to confess that I'm one of those people. There was a time I put together a technology crawl. At these different locations there were different technologies. I was working for Interactive Accessibility at the time. We put assistive technologies in place. I can remember a UX person coming in and experiencing a screen reader for the first time.
Just basically looking at me saying, "I had no idea people used my product this way." Did I do anything? Did he do anything? No, we didn't. You did something and it inspired everybody. Do you stop to really think about that as your role or are you just caught up in the wave?
Joe: I don't think about that. All that would do is, do ego. There's no point to that.
Mark: [laughs] We can say nice things about you. That's OK, right? [laughs]
Joe: Thank you. I appreciate it. The bigger thing is really, I don't want it to be just patting ourselves on the back. I mention this on another interview yesterday. I'm not a negative person. I don't try to be negative.
I don't try and look at it in a negative way, but I will not forget one year the Blind Onion tweeted out, "This is wonderful. Today Global Accessibility Awareness Day. Now that it's over let's enjoy 364 days of global accessibility oblivion." Even though it hurt at the time, I take that as an inspiration too.
This is kind of a feeling that's out there because we've not achieved what we've wanted to. It's nice to have these corporations coming in and celebrating it, and working on it internally, but I really don't want it to be something where it's just...We have to make sure that we do better.
Jeremy: Absolutely. As someone with a visual impairment -- this audience knows I've lost my site over a period of years -- I'm definitely grateful for the awareness that you have brought to the issue.
Working in assistive technology for well over a decade, oftentimes when I would go to corporations, I would say the word accessibility and they would...I could see them cock their head like, What's accessibility?" They'd say, "Oh, yeah, our website is accessible. It's up 24 hours a day, seven days a week. You can always get to it."
They just had no idea [laughs] what accessibility was. I'm curious if you have any stories about specific ways that you've seen this change the culture of other web developers that you come in contact with this. Or just ways you've seen company cultures change in general towards accessibility, as GAAD has gone viral.
Mark: That's a good question.
Joe: Great question. Again, there are so many little things that are freaky somehow. One of them is, I've worked at corporations before and trying to achieve change internally is almost impossible. You really have to be high up. Then you're still fighting all kind of politics from down and from above you.
The thing that prompted this was a bank -- that I've never named and I will not name. They were inaccessible. My dad was losing his vision, as well as his hearing. He had great trouble accessing this bank. They sent him a message and he couldn't access it.
I got quite frustrated. For him to go to the bank, physically took a full day with all the buses because he couldn't drive anymore. He couldn't call them up because he couldn't hear anything. The website should have made all of the difference in the world and it didn't. That's when I really wrote the blog post.
Then what shocked the hell out of me is, three years later we got a private email. This is never anything we posted on the website or anything.
They said, "We know that we need to work on our accessibility." The very same bank. "We know we need to work on our accessibility and we're doing an internal event in order to improve the accessibility." We didn't say anything. They didn't even know that they're the inspiration and I didn't tell them. [laughs]
Joe: And they didn't even know that they are in the inspiration. I didn't tell them. [laughs]
Jeremy: Just like with so many things in the arena of accessibility, I think maybe those who are outside of the accessibility culture don't necessarily recognize why we come up with this stuff.
Probably one of the reasons that inspired your post was because of actual people. They think it's just some random code concept that's just out in cyber space. Just "Oh, well. Here's another regulation somebody [unintelligible 10:48] for me to follow."
That's not really it. It's about people. It's about people accessing. That's really intriguing about your father being the whole inspiration behind this. That's something I didn't know...very, very, interesting.
Mark: Very. I think another good point out of that, Joe, is that...you talked about that sort of accessibility [unintelligible 11:09] and the rest of the year being oblivion. Completely, to a certain degree, kind of get that.
Also I think that email is evidence that however slowly -- it may not be fast enough for everyone or whatever the case is -- but the awareness is growing. It's through things like Global Accessibility Day and it's through several other things as well. There is a positive impact I think that's starting to occur.
On that note, what are kind of your hopes for the future of Global Accessibility Day? Do you have kind of some goals in mind? Or where in the next five years do you really hope to see this?
Joe: I do. Though I'm not sure that I really want to announce publicly.
Mark: [laughs] Sure, whatever you can share.
Joe: [laughs] We're working on some internal things in order to get ahead of it. What's really happening, at least from my perspective, is this is blowing up so much bigger. It's hard to kind of keep up with it. I can't even follow all that's going on on Twitter and all the emails that come in and what not.
I have lots of ideas of how we can increase the awareness. I keep throwing some ideas over Jennison's way, because I don't have these issues. There's lots of details that I'm missing. I learn a lot from the community that I just never would have expected. It's hard to really figure out exactly next steps, but we have some really good ideas.
I really want to focus on things that are going to change things. Not necessarily that it has to be something public. It's more about making the change. One of them, for example, is I want to start to speak more at a developer conferences. Especially ones where there's a front-end framework work that's created.
I did that at Mid-west PHP and the response was tremendous. Honestly, I'm more of a techie guy. I don't especially like public speaking. I'm really going out of my comfort zone every time I get invited to these things. I'm really going to push myself because I think it makes a big difference.
Mark: I think you're right. I think that through this you're becoming probably the perfect spokesperson for that kind of thing. Especially since the group of people that you're talking to is your group of people. You're not an accessibility person coming in saying, "Hey, you guys have to do this."
You're another peer developer coming in saying, "Hey, I'm paying attention to this, and I really think you guys should too." I think that that's a powerful way to deliver the message.
Jeremy: Absolutely. If people want to learn more about Global Accessibility Awareness Day, is there a website or some place that you can reference them to?
Joe: Yes, globalaccessibilityawarenessday.org. From there, there's a YouTube channel, and Twitter, and Facebook...access to all of them.
Mark: We'll post that in the show notes as well so you guys don't have to search for that. If you do jump on that web page, one of my recommendations is to go and read the original blog article that's started all this. To me that's sort of the little really interesting nugget that's behind the scenes...or not necessarily completely behind the scenes.
It's just very inspiring to me that someone can just share a thought in a way that we all share thoughts and have it turn into something like this has. Man, it didn't just turn into something. It turned into something that's very positive. There's lots of ways things can go. You really created something that's just a positive force out there.
Jeremy: The crazy this is like, [laughs] it's not a popular blog. There were half a dozen people that might've read it.
Mark: Well, yeah, it's a little luck. Maybe some divine intervention here that Jennison stumbled across it. I think it was a fluke. If I've heard the story right.
Joe: I posted on Twitter and then he saw it. [chuckles]
Mark: [laughs] That's what I mean, a little luck and the willingness to share and off you go. Anything you'd like to add, either Jeremy or Joe, before we wrap the podcast up?
Joe: There are a couple of things. I'd like to leave a message here. Another aspect to why this...
Mark: Should I beep first so that you can leave a message? No, I'm joking. Bad joke, sorry.
Joe: Part of why this went well, again, is community. It wasn't just community like, here throw it to the community and they will take it over. There is some leadership that has to happen. When I arrived in LA there was no tech scene really to speak of, at least not for programmers. I started a bunch of meet-ups.
I try and recommend that folks, if you want to change an issue that's particularly in technology, to start a meet-up. I can't tell you how many times people say, "Well, there's not a scene over here." I'm like, "There was no scene in LA either."
Mark: [laughs] Right.
Joe: I took five meet-ups. I made them joint meet-ups and said, "Hey let's meet at Panera Bread for coffee." We had less then 10 people showing up at the beginning. It grew into a massive community that now in Silicon Beach there's hundreds of tech meet-ups. Silicon Beach is huge. This leadership in running an event made a big difference here.
Jennison in Toronto was doing that over there and then he was doing accessibility camps all over the world. He then went to the Bay area and has been doing the same thing over there. Which I think it's one of the reasons that the tech scene has really caught on to GAAD. He's making a huge difference.
He's one man and it's just inspiring watching what he's doing. Don't feel like you as an individual can't make a difference, like you're not able to. Look what a little blog post did. Start a meet-up. Start a meet-up group in your area. Bring in leadership. Do some speaking. You can make a huge difference.
I don't care if you have a disability. I mean, Jennison is blind, but there is nobody that's going to keep up with him. He's amazing.
Mark: What you need is people to evangelize. Who those people are is irrelevant. It's just people that care and want to do it. I think that's a fantastic message and a fantastic point that, hey it doesn't exist because nobody's gone out there and become a leader and led it into existence.
I think another message I'm getting behind the scenes here, too, is humility. You're obviously a very humble person, Joe. In the way that you talk about how the community is really the one to bring this about from your initial thoughts here.
Also, I think the community to step back and say "Hey, I recognize this person's doing something good and I want to get behind it." To humble themselves to the cause and be whatever part of that they can be, is also a great message I think that you're delivering there as well.
Jeremy: Yeah, absolutely.
Joe: Thanks, guys.
Mark: You're welcome. Thank you. Geez, we didn't do anything we just...
Jeremy: Yeah, thanks Joe. Thank you. Thank you for being here. Continue doing what you're doing. We think it's awesome and you're changing the world.
Mark: Jeremy, I love your perspective on this whole thing. You, out of the three of us, understand first-hand what kind of an impact this can have in other things. It's great to have you on board here and hear your perspectives on Global Accessibility Awareness Day, too.
Which by the way, if you listen to this podcast and you haven't found us on the blog, we're going to be doing some accessibility trivia throughout the day to sort of do our part in helping bring awareness about. As well as releasing this podcast.
Please pay attention to that all day long and everything else that everybody else is doing out there today, Global Accessibility Awareness Day. Do your part. Any last words, Jeremy or Joe?
Jeremy: One thing I just want to add before we go here. I kind of want to encourage Joe. Like you said, he's a very humble guy and you can tell. That's sometimes rare in people who have founded something this big.
Not only is that awesome, but it's the longevity of the -- I don't want to say the fight to make things accessible -- the movement to make things accessible. The Americans with Disabilities Act has been around since 1990. Here we are 27 years later and I still have problems.
Some restaurants and places kicking me out -- because I have a guide dog -- because they don't understand. This isn't, why don't we compare that to digital accessibility. It doesn't change overnight. I just want to encourage you, Joe, to keep doing what you're doing...and those like you to keep doing what you're doing.
As I mentioned, you're changing the world. It takes time. It takes time, but it's definitely well worth it.
Mark: Well, thanks Jeremy. Joe, please accept our verbal pats on the back. Really, really, appreciate you being a part of this. Encourage people to check out your website, participate in Global Accessibility Awareness Day in any way you can.
Certainly thanks, Joe, for your part in really seeding this whole thing and starting it.
Joe: Thank you, guys. All right, I'm going to head out to the airport now.
Jeremy: Safe travels.
Mark: [laughs] Thanks for carving out time for us today. Safe travels. This is Mark Miller thanking Jeremy and Joe. Reminding all of you guys to keep it accessible.
Announcer: The IAP, Interactive Accessibility Podcast, is brought to you by Interactive Accessibility, the accessibility experts. You can find your Access Matters Blog at interactiveaccessibility.com/blog.