Influencing the Trends of Digital Inclusion: An Interview with Jonathan Hassell

Published January 25, 2023

Jonathan Hassell is the founder and CEO of Hassell Inclusion. As one of the world’s leading accessibility thought leaders, he has demonstrated an incredible talent for finding practical solutions to complex problems.

Today, Jonathan leads Hassell Inclusion’s team of accessibility experts to help businesses and organizations meet and exceed accessibility compliance standards. They do so through audits and thorough consultations.  Hassell Inclusion boasts an impressive client list including Payfont and The BBC. 

For almost two decades now, Jonathan has helped influence trends of digital inclusion. His efforts have led to the authorship of both British Standard (BS) 8878 in 2010 and, more recently, International Organization for Standardization (ISO) standard 30071-1. 

In November 2022, was lucky enough to have Jonathan lead a panel discussing the benefits of businesses following the ISO 30071-1 model. 

On January 20, 2023, we were lucky to have him here again to talk about the standards he has authored, his experience in the field, and his take on the current state of accessibility. 

You're known for your work in the accessibility field. But before that, you earned quite an extensive educational background in computer sciences. What led you from computers to accessibility? 

So, I did a Bachelor of Sciences at Warwick and then a Doctor of Philosophy (DPhil) in Human-Computer interaction at York. The thing that I really loved about computers was how they interface with humans. My DPhil was all about usability, and how to make sure what we were creating with computers actually worked with people.

My focus on accessibility actually came after that. Around the turn of the century, my nephew was born with a condition called spina bifida. He's never been able to walk and he uses a wheelchair.  He's also slightly autistic and has learning difficulties as well. 

At the time, I was working at the BBC, and I was actually asked to look at accessibility as part of my job. My job was standards and guidelines. I had to try and define what “good” looked like in the qualities of websites, and then mobile apps.

Because the BBC had been doing a lot on TV and radio, we had to make sure that people with disabilities were able to consume both of those. We were working in “digital media accessibility” which was the term.

The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) had also just come out and nobody understood them. It was my job to translate it. I had to understand what this thing was, and how to make sure that people in all the BBC teams could implement it.  This partly involved technical stuff, but also managerial stuff. 

Did working in accessibility come naturally to you? 

I think it helped that my nephew had been born. So I knew that there was a human reason for this. Each one of those rules in WCAG is emblematic of somebody with a particular need, you know, a human being.

I was able to understand these rules. Not just how to apply them, but also why they were there. 

Accessibility can feel like the thing that gets you between you and launching your product. For me, right from the start, it was about more than just how to get this right, but why.

If you haven't got the “why” the “how” doesn't happen.

Was your position at the BBC your first job in accessibility?

Yeah, that was my first job in the accessibility field. And because the field was quite young at the time it was quite easy to be considered an expert.

I mean, I was invited to give my first presentation about accessibility at a conference about three months after I started trying to help this at the BBC. 

I said, “Well, you don't want me… You know, I didn't know any of this stuff three months ago.”

And they said, “That makes you at least three months in advance of everybody else.” 

So that's how, if you like, I became an expert in this field. I had the great fortune and circumstance to be ahead of other people. And that's always really been the case all the way through, through my career, 

A real pioneer them? 

Yeah, yeah, absolutely. And it's the most exciting place to be a pioneer because you have to think differently. And you need to be at the forefront of things when you're doing accessibility. That's why I've stayed in it for that long and will continue to stay in it because it is the most interesting, exciting part of digital for me. 

What led you to start your own accessibility company?

So I had been at the BBC for about 10 years. And we'd won loads of awards for accessibility. And it had gotten to the point where my ambition was for us not to win. 

We had established what the accessibility benchmark was and we won some of these awards for like three years in a row. And it was like, “Is nobody else following this?” It's not enough for one company to be good at accessibility. 

And so I started working on British standard 8878. I got together with a number of people who also worked in accessibility at other companies to see how we could get this right. 

We asked, “What are the bits that aren't in WCAG that would enable organizations to understand why to do this and how to do this, not just from a technical level, but from a managerial level.” I tried to codify things so that other organizations can get good at it. 

In the end, I kind of just thought, I want to be in a company where we help all of those organizations because every single moment I spend doing that is going to have more of an impact on the world than me staying at the BBC. 

We were already good. I needed to be somewhere else where we actually helped people who weren't good yet. So that's, that's why I moved on when BS 8878 came out.  I wanted to share it with other companies that also needed to get good. 

You mentioned British standard 8878. People may not know, but this was actually the forerunner to another standard you helped author, ISO 30071-1. Was there a particular moment when you decided that you needed to take the British standard globally? 

So we launched BS 8878 in, I think it was, November or December at the time. Then, in January, there was a big conference at the British Standards Institute in the UK. Lots of people from all over the world came to it. And someone from Japan came to me and said, “We need your standards. Right now. Can we have it please?”

And I said, “Totally, but see it’s a British standard at the moment. I'm not totally sure how we make it a Japanese standard.” 

I knew that it was needed in other places. 

Then later on, maybe that year, or the year after I decided to write a book on the standard so that people understood how to use it. And I went to the CSUN conference to interview people for it. 

One of them was Debra Ruh (CEO of Ruh Global) who basically said, “We need your standards in the states. The only thing I don't like about your standard is it's got the word British on the front of it!”

It then became less about whether or not we should make it into an ISO standard, but more about how to handle the politics of international standards so that we can actually get this done. 

What's it like to author an ISO standard? 

So if you can pick your favorite film that is set in the United Nations, that's what it's like. It's at most 50%, about accessibility. The other 50% is diplomacy. 

We'd already proven that the standard was good. I'd already taken it to places like the Middle East, America, all sorts of different places. People were going,” Yeah, we get it, we want it.”

But for it to be an international standard, it needs to work in all sorts of places. You know, some of the language in the standard had double negatives in it. As far as I recall double negatives don't exist in, say, Japan.

So a lot of what we were doing was actually trying to understand how these things traveled. For this to land and be helpful in a particular country, how would it need to be slightly changed to make sure it was not misunderstood?

See there's a double negative.

You can’t get away from them.

There were also various aspects of the standard that were specific to the British context. Why you should do this from a UK perspective in terms of the law and various things like that. So it was very much a process of translating it culturally. So that all of these different countries could actually adopt it. 

Some people might not realize this, but we've had an ISO standard about accessibility before. Most people know it as the WCAG. What sets 30071-1 apart from WCAG?

The way I tend to think about it is it's a managerial wrapper around WCAG. WCAG is great for improving an individual product. It's telling a designer, developer, or content author how they should design a product.

What, 30071-1 does is to try and  enable product managers who are trying to work out, “Okay, I've got all of these people in my team, how do we get them working together so that what we're creating is delivered in an accessible way?”

WCAG says some things about how to test for accessibility. But there are loads of different ways of testing for accessibility. Some are really automated, some are very human. Some are really expensive, some are really cheap. What should you do? It's not quite as easy as just saying, “Follow WCAG,”  because you need to make decisions.

A product could be a robot vacuum, it could be the metaverse, it could be any IT system, it could be for an internal audience, or for the widest general public like YouTube. Do you make each of those in the same way?

From our perspective, that's inefficient. 

Organizations need to say, “Can we work together to come up with some strategies so that we can standardize accessibility across the organization? “

So, WCAG tests a product website or mobile app, but ISO 30071-1 tests a company.

It says, “Is this company set up to consistently repeatedly sustainably make all of their products accessible?” 

So it's focusing on the producer rather than the product?

Yeah, absolutely. 

Say I create a product that I sell out there to loads of companies, they all want to know, not just that the product at the moment is accessible because that might be a fluke. It could be that at the moment, we've got a really great accessibility team. And then, like three months after, the accessibility team goes away. And so suddenly, the product that was bought, because it was accessible, is no longer accessible.

That's a real problem. For companies who care about accessibility, it's not just about the product. It's about how we, as an organization, have set ourselves up so that we will always deliver accessible products. 

So since the standard has come out have you noticed any change in broader business practices? 

In some ways, ISO 30071-1 is BS 8878, just kind of written large. We noticed a lot of really good stuff happening after we came out with 8878. When, when 30071-1 came out, I guess, you know, it took a while for people to get going. 

But the interesting thing, it's almost like we're in a sweet spot. Most organizations maybe five years ago, were, really struggling to get one website accessible, according to WCAG. Most companies can do that these days. Look at, you know, Microsoft, or Atlassian. And most of the people who I've known from CSUN, are now Chief Accessibility Officers at these big companies.

This should just be business as usual  And the way you ask an organization if this is business as usual, is ISO 30071-1.

Because of that, we're getting companies all over the world saying, “You guys have got what we need and you guys can take us with your standard to the level of ‘business as usual’, that our customers are now demanding from us.” 

Can you describe a little bit what Hassell Inclusion’s auditing process is like? What are some common mistakes you find businesses running into?

So, auditing against ISO 30071-1 audits the business, not the product. We do look at some products in there to see if the results processes and policies that they've got in place actually are where they need to be. 

We're looking at who's bought in. Are they doing things right? Do they understand what the benefits are? 

A company that is doing accessibility because they don't want to be sued is probably a company that I wouldn't ever want to work with. Because, because all they're doing is using accessibility as an insurance policy. 

What that generally means is, they will go to a certain point, and no further, and actually most of the benefits that come from accessibility, or when you properly deliver. 

It comes back to the “why,” then. 

Yeah, yeah, exactly. So you need to understand why for every individual company, accessibility is good business.

You mentioned lawsuits. So the last couple of years in the US has seen a rather striking increase in accessibility lawsuits. Just last year, we had something like 4061, which is a 75% increase from 2018. From your perspective, what might be causing this uptick?

If I'm honest…lawyers.

In the states, there is a much more litigious society. You know, if there's something wrong, you reach for the lawyers. The reason to be accessible is not just because there is a lawyer after you. 

The law is helpful. And yet the law is such a battering ram, especially in the States. People get obsessed by little minutiae that in the grander scheme of things are probably not as important as something as simple as whether somebody with a particular condition can actually use your product to do what they want to do with it. 

That, from my perspective, is what the aim is. The aim is so much more than running away from lawyers, who or may not be trying to make money out of the situation. It's about actually helping people. 

Let's say, a longstanding company has never really considered accessibility, but they decide, for whatever reason, now they want to; where do they start? What advice would you give for a company to take those first steps?

Yeah, so two things I would say…

So the first thing is you need to check out your product. So you need to get some sort of test to see how good or bad it is. 

Second thing, you need to test out your company to see why it's that way. 

At Hassell Inclusion, we actually do what we call “live audits”. It's not a big document that no one wants to read. It's actually experiencing why this matters. As I say the “why” has to be always in there. Our live audits are designed to be quite an affordable service because they're designed to try and help people on their way. 

Our scorecard, which can actually uncover why a product isn't so good, is completely free. So people can go onto our website, find that there, and they can get a score of how good, they are on accessibility. 

And those who aren't scoring? Well, the questions almost give you the answers. It's kind of like, “Okay, we haven't trained our staff, we probably should train our staff.”

It seems that a lot of companies don't understand how good accessibility is for business, why do you think that is?

I guess maybe two reasons. Number one, we all get busy… that's just the real world.

Number two is that I think, and we try and buck the trend on this one, but I think the accessibility community hasn't played hard enough in terms of enabling people to understand why people should do things.

Most companies these days of any size, know that diversity, equity, and inclusion has to be a fundamental part of their company. They may not understand that actually, accessibility is a key part of their delivering that. Accessibility is an essential part. 

Similarly, sustainability. Most companies may be looking at the UN goals for sustainability. One of those, the equality goal, is fundamentally about accessibility.

And it's part of what being a good company is. Like privacy, security, you know, all the rest of it.  If you don't do accessibility, you are missing something.

You had alluded to us being in a sweet spot with accessibility earlier, would you say that you're optimistic about the direction accessibility is going in? 

Yeah, 100%. 

We're rushed off our feet from organizations that want to get good at this. Gone are the days, when the length of time we work for an organization is looking at a website, finding the problems, maybe we fix them, and that's it.

We're helping organizations fundamentally transform themselves so that they are consistently good at this. And we're doing that all over the planet. 

You know, people I think, are starting to understand that accessibility is important. And even more important, those people who are starting to understand are not just individuals in one company. They are people like the chief technical officer, the Chief Operating Officer, and the people who have the ability to say, “This is important. Let's do this, as a company.”

And that, for somebody who's been working in this for 23 years, is very different from where I started out. These days, people are realizing that this is for the long term. 

Before we leave, is there anything you’d like to promote or plug? 

We've got a free webinar next week on trends in accessibility, which is really important for people to kind of keep on top of, especially those who are already good at accessibility.

Accessibility keeps on changing. 

How do you do accessibility in 2023 different from how you did it in 2022? How did the technologies change? How did the laws change? How does the culture change? How have the benefits changed? You know, how are organizations changing in the way they do accessibility? That's something that we've been tracking for, you know, at least 10 years. 

If people are interested in what accessibility looks like, now, you know, what is and isn’t working.

They need to know, what's coming along. For instance, there are two new versions of WCAG in the pipeline. What does that going to mean for organizations?

I'm deep in all of my research for our webinar and putting it all together. 

I’d also like to promote our scorecard. It is very, very quick, completely free. The webinar is also free. 

Hassell Inclusion’s Trends in Digital Accessibility Webinar will be on Thursday, January 26th

Visit Hassell Inclusion’s website to try out their free accessibility scorecard. 


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