Accessibility is Delicious: Food analogies for digital inclusion

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This is a post about using stories about food to talk about making sure disabled people can use technology. One story is about blueberry muffins. You cannot put the blueberries into the muffin after it is cooked. This shows that you have to think about accessibility from the beginning, not after a website is already built. Another story is about ice cream cones. If you ignore your ice cream cone it gets very messy. In the same way, you cannot ignore accessibility until the end of the project. There are other stories about cakes, pizza, eggs and curry. All these stories came from people who work hard to make sure the digital world works for everyone.

multi-ingredient cookies with sign reading "Bake Accessibility into Your Organization

For many years, I (and many others) have said that organizations need to “bake” accessibility into their culture and DNA. Then, a few years ago I noticed a lot of food analogies popping up in accessibility talks and writings and on Twitter.

In 2018 I did a presentation where my co-presenter and I offered real cookies to the audience. Later that same year I arranged for cookies to be baked in New Zealand for an accessibility talk there. [You’ll find an image of those ingredient-packed cookies at the top of this post. The accessibility cookie ‘recipe’ is the next-to-last food analogy below.]

As the collection of food analogies in this post shows, stories about food are useful in explaining core (apple core?) principles of digital accessibility and inclusion. And food tidbits are fun and memorable, two things that make for a great story.

And a great story can help raise accessibility awareness and spread (like marmalade!) accessibility goodness.

Yes we need to keep talking and writing about civil rights, WCAG standards, the science of color contrast, the pitfalls of ARIA, and inclusive design principles. But for myself, I’m going to try to serve up those ideas with the blueberry muffins and the other treats collected here.

Got more? Please send them to me for future updates.

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Blueberry Muffins

9 blueberry muffins on a rackPerhaps the most popular food analogy in the digital accessibility world boils down to this, from Cordelia McGee-Tubb, web accessibility engineer at Salesforce and co-host of the 13 Letters Podcast:

You can’t put the blueberries in the muffin after the muffin is baked.–Cordelia McGee-Tubb

I went to research the origin of Cordelia’s brilliant baking reference and I think I found it in this recorded April 1, 2016 talk titled “Baking Accessibility In.” Thanks to the transcript, I got the full story:

And I will use metaphor, because we all love those, and talk about making muffins for your niece’s birthday party. And on your way there, your mom said, these were supposed to be blueberry muffins. And you forgot that, and you start to force blueberries into the muffins and they are gross.

They are not really the same as blueberry muffins; they are not melted and delicious. It’s not a good experience. By definition yes, it’s a blueberry muffin, and yes, you may have an accessible system, but it is not a good system. Cordelia McGee-Tubb

I only question one thing – is it really a blueberry muffin if the blueberries aren’t baked in? Or a poor approximation of a blueberry muffin. A failed blueberry muffin?

Either way the analogy is spot on. You cannot think about inclusive design and accessibility at the end of product development or content writing. Inclusion must be baked in at the start, and Cordelia’s muffin analogy has been relied on ever since.

Just one example is this December, 2018 article by Marcy Sutton, titled “JavaScript and Civil Rights: Using our skills as technologists to protect the equal rights of users.” Marcy sums up Cordelia’s insight:

To quote Cordelia McGee-Tubb, “accessibility is like a blueberry muffin—you can’t push the berries in there afterward.” Marcy Sutton

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Indian Curry

chicken curry with garam masalaFurther proof that the blueberry muffin analogy is a great teaching tool comes from Nandita Gupta, a graduate student at Georgia Tech, whose Masters Project will delve into what makes teams practice inclusive design.

Nandita wrote me after a presentation where I said (as I usually do) that it is critical to “Bake accessibility into your organization’s culture.”

“The baking line truly resonated with me and was super useful.” she wrote, and then she gave me an Indian twist on Cordelia’s muffins. Her message?

You can’t sprinkle garam masala on top in the curry.. it has to be cooked in to truly give that amazing flavor So just like accessibility cannot be sprinkled on top, garam masala needs to be cooked into the curry. Nandita Gupta

Thank you Nandita! Let the blueberry muffin-related-analogy-race-begin!

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Crunchy Peanut Butter

peanut butter spread thickly on brown breadThe crunchy peanut butter analogy begins with a great story that started in 2014. That year, Gisele Mesnage, founder of the Digital Gap Initiative in Australia, learned that some laws in Australia were mandatory, while others were voluntary.

Gisele likened those laws with teeth to crunchy peanut butter. The voluntary laws were smooth. Gisele calls for more crunchy peanut butter laws in this short and powerful talk delivered in February, 2020 at the OzeWAI Conference in Perth, Australia: Gisele Mesnage’s talk, What Does Peanut Butter Have to do with Accessibility?

As she explains, the Digital Gap Initiative is working for crunchier accessibility laws. And when she recently discovered a new type of peanut butter, she upped the ante encouraging her country to adopt “super crunchy accessibility laws.”

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Layer Cake

five layer cake in the shape of a pyramid covered with chocolate frostingIn January 2016 Devon Persing, a self-described “accessibility warlock” who “does stuff” at Shopify, a11ysea, and and SVCSeattle, wrote The accessibility stack: making a better layer cake.

Devon’s cake has three layers, which are, starting from the base, are HTML, CSS and JavaScript. The icing on the cake? ARIA.

The article concedes the end product is really a pyramid – but who says a cake can’t be a pyramid too? The image in this section proves that Devon’s analogy works. It’s a picture of a cut-open multi-layer (and multi-colored) cake in the shape of a pyramid covered with chocolate frosting. The recipe for this pyramid cake (not the analogy)is here.

Thanks to Allison Ravenhall, digital accessibility sensei at Intopia, for her 2018 tweet saying “I think accessibility people are a hungry bunch” that lead me to the layer cake!

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More Cake

I have received two other great cake analogies from accessibility leaders.

Ian Pouncey, web developer and Director at Tetralogical reminds us inclusive design and accessibility deserve (and require) detail. As he explained on Twitter:

The idea is that cookbooks don’t just give you a picture of a cake, they give step-by-step instructions on how to make it. The same should go for designs; don’t just show developers what a site or app should look like, provide the semantics and interactions as well.Ian Pouncey

Sara Basson, Accessibility Evangelist and President, Disability Alliance at Google sent me a slide from a presentation she did at Google a few years ago.

The slide title was “Order of operations!” and along with a picture of two adorable kids having fun baking, it contained the following accessibility wisdom:

Can’t sprinkle on eggs after the cake comes out of the oven…Taste along the way.Sara Basson

Isn’t tasting the cake along the way a great way to deliver the message that a usable end product needs accessibility testing and checks throughout the design, development and roll-out process?

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whole uncooked eggsGisele Mesnage, in addition to writing about peanut butter, also uses egg stories to advance accessibility awareness. Here are some of her egg -related messages that I’ve embellished slightly:

  • Don’t scramble to add accessibility at the end of development or deployment
  • Don’t poach by stealing ideas without credit (but do share, as our community is open and generous)
  • Honor good eggs (through things like an accessibility champion program)
  • Don’t let a few bad eggs derail your commitment to accessibility.
  • Treasure sunny-side up eggs – optimism is an advocacy strategy that keeps you going when, well, you run into a bad egg!
  • soft boiled (volunteer) eggs are good but sometimes hard boiled ones (law suits) are needed.
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Ice Cream Cone

melting strawberry ice cream coneAt a recent A11yTO conference, Phil Springall, a Canadian web accessibility advocate, introduced another yummy analogy that he described for me on Twitter:

“Accessibility is like ice cream. The more you ignore it, the messier it gets”Phil Springall

Phil has put the ice cream cone analogy to good use as his Twitter header image. The accessibility community uses the shortcut “A11y” for accessibility because there are 11 letters between the A and the Y in the spelled out word. In Phil’s Twitter header those two “ones” between the A and the Y? Ice cream cones! the word a11y with ice cream cones instead of the "ls"

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pizza with mozzorella, tomato, and basilPizza shows up often in recent accessibility posts because of the 2019 Supreme Court order in the Domino’s Pizza case in the United States allowing a case about the pizza chain’s inaccessible website to continue through the court system.

But a company being sued about accessibility is not a good symbol for the yumminess of inclusion.

Instead, our pizza analogy comes from Gareth Ford Williams, head of user experience design at the BBC who writes that he uses pizza to represent:

Progressive enhancement. Starts as a flatbread, then margarita CSS and Javascript toppings…

Take away the JavaScript and CSS, you still have the basis of the meal, bread.Gareth Ford Williams

Gareth said the analogy was developed “when we were trying to stop the flow of sites built solely in Flash.”

It came from a conversation I had with Tony Ageh where I described the accessibility merits of progressive enhancement and he said, “like pizza?” We referred to PE as ‘Tony’s Pizza’ for quite some time afterwards.Gareth Ford Williams

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Ingredient-packed Cookies

cookies with handwritten sign saying bake accessibility into your organizationThe cookies shown with this section were served at a CSUN presentation in the Microsoft Suite in 2018. Microsoft Assistant General Counsel Sue Boyd and I presented a “Recipe For Staying Ahead Of The Legal Curve: Bake Accessibility Into Your Organization.”

Those cookies had lots of ingredients — flour, chocolate chips, M & Ms, butter and more — to symbolize two thing. First, just like it takes many ingredients to make a good cookie, it takes many roles to make sure technology works for everyone. If you are reading this post, you are no doubt in one of those roles. thank you.

Second, those many ingredients symbolize the many things that go into making technology accessible, first and foremost including disabled people throughout the process. (You can read the full ingredient list, which includes accessibility culture, design and development, inclusive hiring, accessible procurement and more, in the post on this website, Recipe For Staying Ahead Of The Legal Curve: Bake Accessibility Into Your Organization.)

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spoon full of saltJust like putting too much salt (or even sugar) in a batch of cookies, putting too much law into an accessibility program leads to problems. One of those problems is what I call the 65% problem, stemming from a question I was once asked during a webinar: If captions are 65% accurate, does that still comply with the law?

People laugh when I share that 65% story in talks and trainings, but I know the question was earnest. It’s the kind of question that arises when there is too much focus on the law, not enough focus on the people the law is designed for. Not enough focus on the people with disabilities whose advocacy made that law possible. Read my 65% post.

Salt is not a good analogy for accessibility. But it’s an analogy for what can happen when accessibility is done out of fear of legal ramifications.

I’d rather use blueberry muffins and cake to encourage inclusion.

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