ADVICE: Amplify people with disability, don’t speak for them. We all have biases.

Digital accessibility has long-been misunderstood and overlooked as a complex and costly exercise. But high-profile court cases like the 2015 case against Coles in 2015, which has led to significant changes and new initiatives to make online experiences more accessible, demonstrate that accessibility isn’t a ‘niche’ area and in fact impacts the lives and autonomy of millions of people.

Allison Ravenhall is a Digital Accessibility Consultant at Intopia. In this interview, she shares how she started her career in this space and why she is still passionate about digital accessibility today.

  • How did you kick off your career as a digital accessibility consultant?

I started my professional career as a web developer in 2000. Later, I moved into user experience (UX) and technical writing. Around 8 years ago the place I worked for placed me in a digital accessibility role, they figured it was a “UX specialisation”. There was a lot more to it than that! I used my UX and programming experience, learned on the job and enjoyed it so much I have been working in digital accessibility ever since. I’ve worked at digital accessibility consultancy Intopia since 2016.

My role now… I run audits against a technical standard, to check if people with disabilities can use certain websites or mobile apps. I assess if a site supports 5 characteristics that can impact interaction: vision, hearing, speech, cognition, and mobility. I use assistive technologies like speech interfaces and screen readers to check how well a site works. I run training for developers to teach them accessible coding techniques. I run usability sessions with people with disabilities to understand their most pressing access issues. There’s lots of variety.

  • What originally sparked your interest in this field and how has your interest in digital accessibility evolved over time? 

My initial reaction to hearing about digital accessibility was, “Wow, this is a thing?” I didn’t even know it existed, which is sadly common. I have learned a lot about digital accessibility since then, not least that there’s always a lot more to learn! I love the technology aspect of it, how well-crafted tools can enhance a person’s life.

One thing I discuss in my training is how much accessibility can affect a person’s autonomy. A well-built, accessible banking app can enable someone to manage their own finances. A poor quality app may force people to ask for help. They may have to share their PIN, and the assistant can see their transactions, their balances. That person is in a vulnerable situation, all because an app isn’t accessible.

  • What are the most common misconceptions about digital accessibility that you come across? 

“Digital accessibility is a niche thing, it only affects X% of people”. No it’s not, and no it doesn’t. A short term injury or illness is a disability, for a time. Our environment or situation can affect our ability to interact to our usual level. Everyone is different, we should acknowledge and enable as many different ways of working as we can.

  • Why is diversity in STEM fields important to you? 

My privilege limits my contribution to digital accessibility. I cannot use, understand or appreciate assistive technologies like someone who relies on them 24/7. I cannot truly know another person’s lived experience. Where possible, I link my change requests to feedback from people with disabilities rather than “because the standard says so”. I seek to amplify people with disability, not speak for them. I believe in “nothing about us, without us”.

People with disabilities working in STEM is the most effective way to further digital accessibility. When team members can’t do basic tasks due to inaccessible tools, it creates awareness and urgency that doesn’t exist in an able-bodied team.

  • What are some examples of where you have personally experienced and seen a tangible impact of having diverse team members building a product?

I invite developers to observe usability sessions with people with disabilities. “I didn’t think they would use it that way” is the most common thing I hear after the sessions. We all have our biases. It’s hard to see beyond our own experience, our own way. Part of my role is to raise awareness of different ways of thinking and doing, so those developers know how and why to build more inclusive products.

About the expert

Allison Ravenhall has worked in enough IT roles to fill a bakery: tester, web dev, team lead, tech architect, usability and UX consultant, tech writer, training facilitator, speaker, and accessibility consultant.That depth and breadth of experience is all brought into play in Allison’s current role as Digital Accessibility Sensei at leading Australian accessibility consultancy Intopia, helping organisations create inclusive websites and apps.

Image description: Allison Ravenhall smiles, with fair skin, a solid build and long dark straight hair. She wears a black t-shirt with a white paint spatter print.