Melanie Sumner is a software engineer, specializing in digital accessibility. We talked about her path to engineering, accessible design, Ember.js, and the importance of funding these efforts.
This post highlights a community expert, as a part of Learn Accessibility!
Alexandra White: Thanks for joining me! Who you are and what you do?
Melanie Sumner: My name is Melanie Sumner and I am a software engineer specializing in digital accessibility. I've been writing code for the web for 25 years. My first career was… kind of a spy. I was an intelligence analyst in the US Navy, and coding was my hobby.
I didn't really like being a spy. I wasn't fond of death, it turns out. As most people are not, when they have to be closer to it. I had to decide what I wanted to do next, and it was time to turn my hobby into my career. In the last 10 years, I've really focused on software engineering in the accessibility space, specifically.
Alexandra: You don't often hear, "Oh first I was a spy." No big deal. What brought you into accessibility work?
Melanie: I was working at the University of North Carolina [UNC] Chapel Hill at the time, in the Department of Development. They don't mean development like web development, they mean development like fundraising.
My direct manager had a vision impairment, and he had to zoom everything to 400% to see it. He was a fantastic software engineer. Probably the best manager I've ever had, actually. But he was always breaking my stuff, because he would zoom in to look at my work. If I hadn't thought about building things responsively, they would break.
My manager's boss was blue colorblind. I don't know if you know what UNC blue looks like, but it's this light sky blue color. And they loved using it on white.
Alexandra: (laughs) Oh no.
Melanie: His boss was always complaining that he could never see my work! I had to develop a set of complementary colors and a color scheme for our sites. That got me thinking about color contrast and thinking about how people who are colorblind (or otherwise visually impaired) use the web.
Because UNC is a state university, there's a US federal requirement to conform with WCAG accessibility level AA. We aimed for level AAA because it's an education institution.
I call accessibility the final frontier of the web. Lots of good people work on automation for accessibility—and we need to work on solutions the same way that we've approached other hard problems, such as performance and security.
Alexandra: You've probably read a lot of long complex documents, in the Navy and at UNC. Did you find it was challenging to understand the spec?
Melanie: I had to read it about five times before I understood it—and I'd read other specs before. I always tell people, don't feel bad if you don't understand it, because I had to read the spec five times! I'm not even joking.
It takes a lot of time to get used to spec language. And if you don't interpret it correctly, you might do the wrong thing. Also it's important to understand that a lot of the spec language is meant for browser developers. Look for "authors should," because that's a reference to web developers.
Alexandra: A lot on the web could be better if more developers knew how to decipher the specs.
Melanie: There's a lot to be said for sites that do that interpretation for you. I built a11y-automation.dev and that site is kind of like my baby, my side project. I try to itemize every accessibility violation and link it to the WCAG success criteria in question. If there's automation to prevent the error, I'll offer that solution.
You could familiarize yourself with the list of potential violations, but more important is learning how to fix it. For automated fixes that don't exist, maybe you're inspired to write a linter or a template—maybe you get inspired to write some kind of test.
I prefer to work in open source, because you get to kind of riff off each other, offer an improvement (sometimes an improvement, sometimes not, but we all try our best). We build on each other's stuff, and then we end up with this really great outcome for the web.
How to fund accessibility
Alexandra: I was really drawn to pleasefunda11y.com. It's really important to get developers to learn how to build accessible sites, but they won't always have the resources without having executive leadership funding and approval. Why did you decide to build this site?
Melanie: I was frustrated because accessibility is so underfunded. All of the open source funding seems to keep going to CSS. And I love CSS, we can do so much with it.
I built the site because Addy Osmani—a Chrome software engineering manager—reached out and said he saw I was asking for accessibility funding, but he wanted advice on what specific work could be funded. That's a big problem: open source funders want to give money to specific projects, not general ideas that have no determined outcome. I took some time to write down some specific initiatives, what's needed and how they'll help make sites accessible.
Even if companies build towards these efforts without me, we could move accessibility on the web forward in a really significant way. It's a very small spend by comparison to other web efforts, and it would have a huge impact on people's lives.
The current way of thinking is often, "Well, how many people have a disability?" It should be: "What is any person's relationship to their technology?"
And some folks have told me, "Well, I don't think color blindness is a disability." You may not identify yourself as having a disability if you're colorblind, but it does affect your relationship with technology.
Alexandra: Tell me more about understanding your relationship with technology. How does that relate to accessibility?
Melanie: For example, if you are neurodiverse, maybe you need really simple language and very clear directions. You may be better served navigating through three or four screens in a flow, making a few choices at a time until you get to the end. There's not good guidance for modern technical applications.
We have whole companies that do devops, and if you try to use some of those websites, you're like, "Oh my god," you know? We try to pack the kitchen sink into all of our interfaces these days.
Alexandra: Can you share an example?
Melanie: For example, GitHub has dropdowns with nested tabs. And [exasperated sigh]. I can't get upset (even if I'm frustrated). The modern web has to grow to meet new demands. But we also have a responsibility to build in a way that doesn't leave people behind.
That's what drives me, that's my passion. I don't want somebody to not be able to get a job because the tools they'd have to use at the job are not accessible.
Alexandra: One hundred percent. And people often think about building accessible products for their external users, but not necessarily thinking about their employees.
Melanie: I thought, you know what, this funding advice would probably benefit everyone.
I hear from engineers all the time that they'd love to do accessibility but "my company doesn't care." I bet they do care! You just need to bridge the business logic gap. Show them the beneficial outcome for the business. The site is open source, of course, and I love contributions and edits.
Alexandra: Accessibility is often left to the end of the process, like, "Oh we can just make this accessible later." But it's going to take a lot more time to add it later than it would to integrate accessible practices throughout the project.
Melanie: I often say, "Do you want to pay to build it once or do you want to pay to build it twice?"
Ember.js and the core accessibility team
Alexandra: I know you're also involved in the Ember.js framework core team. How did you get involved?
Anyway, I showed up to an Ember conference, and I met a bunch of people in the community. Ember folks were so kind. And there's a really strong code of conduct that I just hadn't seen yet in other places.
When I got out of the military, I wanted to go into security. I went to an infosec meetup, and didn't see any other woman there. One of the older guys looked at me and said, "Are you sure you're in the right room, sweetheart?"
Alexandra: [Groans] It hurts. And it's completely unsurprising. I've experienced something similar.
Melanie: I want to say this was 2011, maybe 2012? The landscape has changed a lot. I stayed that night, through that meetup, to prove a point. I wasn't gonna let that comment shut me down. I cracked jokes, took good notes, and participated in the conversation, so people knew I was there. I feel like a lot of my career has been proving men wrong.
But, I don't want women to become software engineers just to prove men wrong. I wanted to be a software engineer to build amazing things, because it's fun to do. Women should have that career option.
I'm working on initiatives to help make Ember accessible by default. That means
when you say
ember new <my-app-name>, you should immediately pass WCAG
Alexandra: I saw a long list of accessibility tools for Ember on GitHub. Have you found that people in the Ember community are excited to contribute to those tools?
Melanie: That's been a really exciting part of this work. I wrote accessibility linting rules for Ember while working at LinkedIn. Then I left LinkedIn to work for Hashicorp, and other folks are still contributing to the linter because it's useful for them. That's the part of this work that gives me chills and gets me excited.
We accept that, as a baseline, accessibility is a civil right. That's not up for discussion.
What we discuss is: What can we implement? When? How do we make it? How do we teach this and make it backwards compatible? How do we help developers provide accessibility support without a huge extra feature that they have to build or plan for?
Alexandra: Accessibility is a civil right. That gives me chills! It should just be a thing we all know as truth.
Melanie: I've had people say uninformed things to me, like "I wouldn't use the internet if I was blind." Or, "Why do I have to think about disabilities when it's only 5% of my users, when it's working for 90% of my users?" I won't have those discussions, because they're often used to distract from the work.
When you write accessible code, you're going to get performance boosts because
you're thinking about building sites informed by W3C specs. You'll use the
semantic HTML instead of just divs, and you'll use headings. You'll choose a
<button> instead of adding a click event to a
<div>, and you'll get
Do one thing: automate accessibility
Alexandra: What's one thing web developers should do to build accessible websites?
Melanie: Add automation. Start with an existing linter for whatever framework you have, whatever kind of code you're using. I don't care which one you use! Your build should break if one of those rules is broken.
Some things can't be automated, because AI can't yet decipher intent. For example, an image's alt text value should be meaningful, but what does that actually mean? Right now, a human needs to discern that, and not automation.
But an automated tool can tell you, "You're not passing color contrast." Just fix it. Don't fight it, don't say, "But I don't want to, I prefer it this way." This is not about you. It's about making what we do available for everyone in the world every day.
Accessibility is a journey, and you're always going to be learning. I've been specializing in accessibility for over a decade, and I'm still learning new things all the time! Don't be defensive, just do it.