Speaker Spotlight: Ian Lloyd

By Oliver Lindberg02 May 2024Interviews

Ian Lloyd, principal accessibility engineer at TPGi, discusses common issues that cause problems for users that access websites with assistive technologies like screen readers, how to prepare for the European Accessibility Act, and more

Where does your passion for accessibility come from?

This is a question that pops up from time to time, and I often think (rightly or wrongly) that there is an assumption that it's due to my having a friend or relative who has some kind of disability that prompted it. 

Truthfully, when I first started learning about accessibility in the late 90s, I didn't really know anyone personally who might struggle using the web because of poor coding practices. For whatever reason, it intrigued me that there was this sort of 'hidden layer' that the majority of people would never know about, that you could spend a little extra effort on and know that someone, somewhere would be thanking you for it.

How has web accessibility evolved over the years?

My sarcastic, but honest, answer: slowly. When I think about the many years it took to get from Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 1 to WCAG 2.0 (and less time between that and the 2.1, 2.2 updates). But then again, some of the basics that were covered in the first version of WCAG are things that people still get wrong in 2024.

For me, some of the more interesting changes have been around ARIA (Accessible Rich Internet Applications). While HTML elements and attributes can get you a long way and provide the basis of a very accessible web page, there are features that have evolved that need more guidance from the developer about what an element is, what its current state is, what its purpose is. ARIA provides those additional clues but remember that it should only be used if there isn't already an HTML element or attribute(s) that can do this by default.

And how did you come up with the idea for your Pixel Pioneers talk?

Well, I will refer back to the previous question/answer somewhat:

  1. Despite the basic issues being unchanged since WCAG 1.0, people still get those basics wrong far too often and
  2. Sometimes they think the answer to that is to 'throw a load of ARIA attributes at it'. Well-intentioned, perhaps, but often it ends up making things worse.

I see this sort of thing time and time again, so I thought that it might me useful to point out some of the common mistakes, to provide a little course-correction.

So what can we expect to take away?

My main hope is that any developers in the room who may have employed some of the techniques/approaches, and are unaware of the impact, will realise that there are better ways — and often the better way is to just not do the thing that they were doing.

What are some of the most common accessibility issues you hear from clients?

Ah well, it's more the case that they hear about the accessibility issues from us (TPGi) as part of the audit. If the question is "What are the most common issues that we see with clients' sites?", it's the usual collection of poor colour contrast, lack of keyboard support, missing or incorrect alternative text for images, and empty links/buttons.

But if the question is "What do clients say are their biggest issues to fix accessibility issues?", I would just use the F-word: frameworks. What we might believe are easy HTML fixes to correct mistakes can often be hamstrung by whatever JavaString framework was used to generate the markup. I have a particular pet-hate for frameworks that promise 'out of the box accessible components', when the reality is quite different.

What other accessibility issues currently bug you when you perform site audits (and how can we fix them)?

To be honest, as I've alluded to already, there are some issues that crop up again and again and again. And will probably continue to do so (which is one of the reasons why people working in this industry can get burnt out through frustration of repeating themselves for so long!). But aside from this ever-present background noise I would suggest two things that bug me:

  1. Incorrect, needless use or overuse of ARIA attributes
  2. Overly-complicated user interfaces that seem like nothing more than a designer trying to be clever.

These are often inter-related — the complex UI is not something that is obvious for assistive technology users to grasp, and so it results in the liberal spraying of ARIA attributes in the hope that its purpose becomes clear. Often the solution to both these issues is simply, well ... to keep it simple. If you find yourself contorting yourself trying to make the UI accessible for all, maybe the solution is not slapping more ARIA on, but instead to simplify the UI for everyone?

The European Accessibility Act will become law in June 2025, and it will impact UK businesses and organisations as well. Do you have any tips on how to prepare for it?

Yeah: maybe start a year or two ago? Seriously, this is going to have an effect on such a raft of businesses. For any company that wants to do business in Europe, this will have an impact. Given how many accessibility issues a single accessibility engineer can find on a small site with a handful of pages, you can only imagine the amount of problems there can be on multi-national ecommerce sites. 

Think: many thousands of accessibility issues that, once logged in a bug tracker, need to be allocated to dev resource, fixed, re-tested, regression tested and so on. It's a huge undertaking and it needs to be in place by next year. NEXT YEAR! I'm sure that a vast number of organisations will fall foul. The question is what the legal side of things will look like once it's law: Will we see large lawsuits filed soon? Who will be the unlucky 'poster boy' for failure to take action in time and feel the pain? I just hope that organisations don't try to go for the quick fix and use an overlay (because they won't be sufficient, despite the vendors' promises, to fix all their issues).

At Pixel Pioneers Bristol, Ian Lloyd will be talking about well-intentioned markup and coding practices that do more harm to accessibility than good. The conference will also cover modern CSS layouts, AI and practical prompt engineering tips, how not to kill your design system, planning and successfully carrying out a technical migration, and more. Get your ticket today!