Community highlight: Olutimilehin Olushuyi

Olutimilehin Olushuyi is a lawyer, new to accessibility. We talked about his battle with JavaScript, international standards, and the importance of reading a website's contents.

Alexandra Klepper
Alexandra Klepper

This post highlights a community expert, as a part of Learn Accessibility!

Alexandra White: How'd you get started with web accessibility?

Olutimilehin Olushuyi's headshot.

Olutimilehin Olushuyi (Shuyi): Okay, so, it's a funny story. I'm a lawyer. I realized in my final year of school, I didn't want to practice law for the rest of my life. So, I tried to drop out of school, but my dean and "school mother," Professor Ayodele Atsenuwa, said, "Let's talk about this. You're in your final year—just finish it."

Ultimately, I'm happy she said that, and I'm happy I finished, because it's been helping me in my accessibility work. Professor Atsenuwa asked me what I wanted to do instead, and I had no idea.

I started to look up new career opportunities, and got in touch with some people who wanted to build a startup and needed a lawyer. That opportunity wasn't the right fit, but that was the first time I knew people wrote code for all of the products we use. I thought, "I can pick this up." I started to teach myself HTML and CSS. Then, I got to JavaScript and … [laughs] JavaScript did JavaScript things, so I went back to focus on my front-end semantic languages.

I came across the work of Andy Bell and Heydon Pickering. I purchased Every Layout, and it changed my life. Andy kept mentioning accessibility, but I didn't know what that meant in this context. I realized I may be able to work in web development without needing to know how to write JavaScript!

I reached out to Heydon and he was very receptive, very responsive. It seems everyone in the accessibility field is that way, and I'm grateful for that.

Alexandra: I'd definitely agree, everyone I've spoken with has been so kind and so helpful.

Shuyi: Absolutely. Currently, I do a lot more work in advocacy. I'm based in Nigeria, a country where web accessibility is not mandated by law. The Discrimination Against Persons with Disabilities Act passed sometime in 2018. But there's no web accessibility law, only law about physical accessibility. It's like the USA's Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Our law is poorly structured, but better than nothing.

I realized if I'm going to have any chance to make a difference and become an accessibility focused developer, first I have to make the ecosystem aware of accessibility needs. I started tweeting about accessibility advocacy. I talked to companies and brands, whose buy-in is needed to get accessibility to work.

Alexandra: I bet your legal background is incredibly useful in working with accessibility. You can actually read the new legislation and understand it in a way that the average person won't. That includes an average developer.

Shuyi: I think one of the biggest gifts from my legal background is that I can sit through unending pages of background materials, really lengthy documents, without getting tired. I just fold my legs, put my laptop up, and start to read. And read. And read. It's got advantages,

Alexandra: I mean … I'm jealous, that's a great skill to have. Do you think you'd ever work with the government to get a digital accessibility law passed?

Shuyi: I'll be honest, I don't think so. Engaging with the government is a different ball game. It takes too long to get our government to do something, especially as an individual. That kind of work is better for NGOs and other organizations with staffing and resources to bring about change.

The physical law took so much time to pass, and accessibility needs moved far beyond what ended up in the law years ago. It's like the first draft was passed even though the world has changed.

Ultimately, we're happy there's something to rely on, no matter how outdated it ended up being. There is a law to enforce.

Create accessible layouts

Alexandra: I read your article, <article> vs. <section>: How To Choose The Right One in Smashing Magazine and the Twitter thread that inspired it. What would you say is one big takeaway, what's the one thing you want from web developers?

Shuyi: Developers must read the content before they begin building layouts.

Originally, for my site design, I had just counted the number of paragraphs and put them in sections and articles, without much thought. But, someone drew my attention to the misuse of sections—it was the first time I thought about it. Reading the content is one thing you can do to make a better product.

Alexandra: When I was a developer, I often had freelance clients say, "Oh, just build something for us and we'll fill the content in later." And sure, there are some pages that have automatic context, like a contact page. But knowing how many pages to build, and what kind of custom support was needed, that could only be answered when I got the content.

Shuyi: Before knowing what I know, my best client would give me general design ideas, and I'd built out a site with a bunch of lorem ipsum. I'll figure all that stuff out. But, when you realize how much the content infrastructure affects users on the web, you realize just how much of the standard process for building things on the web is actually flawed. You must be intentional when you build things.

So much accessibility infrastructure work doesn't get attention at all, and it breaks my heart.

Alexandra: How did you do your research to make sure the advice you gave in the article was correct?

Shuyi: First, I separated the sources of information—that's something you do in law, separating primary and secondary sources. The primary sources are the actual law (like the ADA and Nigeria's laws) and the secondary sources are what experts interpret from the law.

I decided to refer only to the primary sources: the HTML, WCAG, and WAI-ARIA specs. I read other people's works, a lot of good work. But, at the end of the day, the opinions were so divergent, I decided I could only take them as useful context but not rely on them as having the right answers.

Build an accessible community

Alexandra: You mentioned trying to shape your Twitter feed into a place for accessibility. Have you had many other conversations on Twitter since the Smashing Magazine article's publication about what you learned?

Shuyi: For the first couple of days, I couldn't make good sense of Twitter. So many people followed me, like 200+ people. At first I was excited, but then I was scared. Like, I'm just starting out, don't follow me for a bunch of sage wisdom. I was added to a lot of Twitter lists.

But like, I'm a person. I tweet about a lot of vague, non-accessibility, non-web developer stuff. I don't want to let people down. Don't follow me just because of accessibility! I'll feel like I'll let you down.

Alexandra: [laughs] I mean, I think a lot of people think that. I certainly do about my Twitter persona.

Shuyi: Most responses to the article itself were positive. I got one response to the article which was a bit controversial. Vitaly was my editor, and he reached out directly to share the comment and asked me to investigate. Turns out, the person was referencing the MDN docs which said that all articles should have a heading element. I recommended that the section should have a heading element based on the specs.

The MDN docs recommend including the header but don't really explain what the benefit is.

The spec changes less frequently than user needs, of course, so as long as you can back up your decision to change the way you build something, it's probably okay.

So, let me give an example. Let's say you're building a card component called "Prices," with three elements in it. Hayden Pickering would suggest putting each card into a list element. That way, when someone using assistive technology (AT) gets to that section, it's announced to them that there are three items in the price list. You can style the list so that there are no bullet points, make it look however you want, but it helps AT users get the useful information first. If you wrapped each item in a div, you'd just be focused on the visual aspects, which doesn't help visually impaired users. Think of people before design.

I took that idea, and transposed it for a blog page. The blog posts are actually within a list element. That way, on entry to the page, the user is alerted that they are at one of some number of posts on the page.

So, I stood by my recommendations in the article, and I will until I understand why MDN makes the recommendation.

Alexandra: Since the MDN docs are open source, will you suggest changes and make updates there?

Shuyi: I'll be honest, I haven't yet made any open source contributions. But, this is the kind of work I would like to be doing, certainly more than working with the government.

Spec versus implementation

Alexandra: It sounds like one big takeaway is that sometimes the spec says one thing, but implementation and other external docs may suggest doing something different. How does someone decide whose advice to follow?

Shuyi: I think about this a lot. I'm not sure I have the required experience to answer that question. We're always trying to future-proof. It's good to make continuous enhancements as the web changes. That way, when the spec is updated, you don't need to retrofit your site. What are the chances that you make a choice and three years from now the spec changes.

Every choice we make now is our best guess of what we think the future of the web will look like, what direction we think the spec writers will go.

Alexandra: The web is constantly changing, one person can't have all of the answers! Did the specs go through changes while you were writing?

Shuyi: I started writing my article before the document outline model was removed from the spec. This model suggested that heading levels should be automatically calculated based on how deep the nesting was. But it was never really implemented and that created a lot of issues for developers. The advice to developers was to manually fix their headings.

If the article had been published before the spec change, I probably would have gone back and made that edit—it is in Smashing Magazine after all. But if it had lived on my personal blog, would I have? Probably not. And that's just talking about updating an article, not updating an entire website that's built based on a changing spec.

Do we expect developers to immediately change their websites when the spec changes? Of course not. They make calculations as to what's best when they're building their sites and live with those choices. The specs will change, the specs may not have the answer.

Accessibility as a career

Alexandra: How much of your time do you spend thinking about global accessibility standards? Standards and laws are different around the world. I'm sure you've read a lot of them, and I'm sure some laws tell you to do the opposite things. What would you do in those cases?

Shuyi: I thought about launching a business for freelance accessibility work. I went into a global web accessibility chat channel and asked for tips on how to get started. Adrian Roselli reached out and said, "Your clients will be relying on you to keep them compliant with laws which could have major consequences. Before you offer your services, know what region you have expertise in. Know what laws you're familiar with so that, while you're making a living for yourself, you don't leave clients with huge liabilities. They trust you to know the law."

Of course, so many businesses are seeking accessibility help because they are legally required, and not just because it's the right thing. Capitalism is the reason accessibility is being implemented. At the end of the day, it doesn't matter why it happened, it matters that the product is accessible.

I put a pause on freelancing until I have full confidence that I can help clients with the laws of their region. Standardization is critical, the efforts and impact of WCAG cannot be overstated. Having a central framework of how the web should work makes it easier for governments to rely on the same standard. But of course, not every government will accept those standards.

Alexandra: You've gotten a lot of great advice from great people in your journey into accessibility. Is there any other advice you wish you'd gotten before you decided to pursue this as a career?

Shuyi: While it wouldn't have changed my career path, it would have been nice to know that as noble as accessibility work is, it's greatly affected by capitalism.

Alexandra: [laughs] Oh yes.

Shuyi: And I'm a junior. I have a year of experience in accessibility. Especially if you're based in Africa, like I am, there's a limited availability of positions in accessibility. Companies are hiring managers, one person to meet whatever legal requirements are needed. But I want to work on a team, where I can learn and build skills.

I was so excited to get to work without learning JavaScript—that I could just learn the rules and help my team apply them. But the developer positions at agencies require that I have JavaScript experience. I moved to a new city and joined a JavaScript bootcamp so I can meet those requirements. For anyone else on their accessibility journey, know that you must focus on building your development skills first.

I'm not going to lie, I still don't like JavaScript.

Do one thing: add keyboard focus

Alexandra: [laughs] Is JavaScript the reason I'm now a tech writer instead of a developer? Yes. Yes, it is. I hate it so much. I wish you the best of luck in your boot camp.

What's one thing you want developers to do to make their site accessible?

Shuyi: Keyboard focus. I am begging from the bottom of my heart. My trackpad currently doesn't work, so when I'm on the go, I rely on my keyboard to navigate the web, and almost every website is horrible. Keyboard focus doesn't just benefit disabled people.

Building accessible platforms benefits everyone.

Keep up with Shuyi's work on Twitter @shuyiolutimi.