Q&A With Léonie Watson, Accessibility Engineer and Director, TetraLogical

Léonie Watson is Director of TetraLogical, an inclusive design company focused on emerging and existing technologies, customer experience, and research and development, combined with a mix of traditional accessibility consultancy. She is also a member of the W3C Advisory Board, co-Chair of the W3C Web Platform Working Group and co-organizer of the Inclusive Design 24 (#id24) conference.

How did you get started in accessibility?

It was more or less by accident. I was working as a web designer in the 90’s before I lost my sight in 2000. As I adjusted to using a screen reader, I joined some online forums to find help from more experienced screen reader users. One day there was a message from someone at a new start-up, asking for help from screen reader users. They had built a website for a customer and had followed the (still fairly new) Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 1.0, and were hoping for feedback from Assistive Technology (AT) users.

I thought to myself that since I used to be a web designer, and since I now qualified as a screen reader user, I’d try to help. The email was from Alastair Campbell at Nomensa (now Co-Chair of the W3C working group responsible for WCAG), and it turned out that Nomensa was based only a few miles from where I lived. That was in 2001. In 2002, I worked on one or two projects with the Nomensa team before I joined them full-time in 2003.

It was working at Nomensa that introduced me to accessibility, and it was during my time there that I discovered just how much I enjoy it. There is something incredibly satisfying about taking something that excludes people, pulling it apart to find out how it works, and then putting it back together in a way that means lots more people can use it.

You recently announced your departure from the Paciello Group after five years to start a new venture, TetraLogical. What is TetraLogical and how does it reflect your professional evolution as an accessibility engineer and consultant?

TetraLogical is a company with inclusion at its heart. Our focus is on emerging as well as existing technologies, customer experience, and research and development, as well as traditional consultancy.

Much of the accessibility industry is fixated on audits as the solution to everything. It’s certainly a lucrative business model, but by the time someone needs an audit it’s already too late. It usually means accessibility was an after-thought, or that accessibility is the subject of a legal dispute. These things happen, but they’re treating the symptoms instead of the cause.

TetraLogical takes a different approach. We build partnerships with organizations, helping them change their culture, their processes, their skills and expertise, until they become self-sustaining in terms of accessibility.

We also look beyond websites and apps, because sometimes people want to pick up the phone, visit a store, or use a voice assistant instead, and it won’t be long before people are using Virtual/Augmented Reality (XR) as well. No matter how someone chooses to engage with an organization, they should expect the same inclusive experience, and TetraLogical is perhaps the only company helping brands think about inclusive customer experience in this way.

For me personally, it’s about moving away from the audits and conformance model of accessibility, towards a more holistic and sustainable model. Most people want to be the best they can; they want to create products that are engaging, fit for purpose, and usable by as many people as possible.

Someone once said to me that they always thought accessibility was a challenge to creativity, but then they realized it was actually a creative challenge. That thought has remained with me over the intervening years, and I think it sums up TetraLogical very well.

Inclusion appears to be a core value in your work. What does inclusion mean to you and how do you prioritize it in your projects?

I’m going to borrow a description from the Inclusive Design Principles, because it describes it perfectly:

“Inclusive design is about putting people first. It’s about designing for the needs of people with permanent, temporary, situational, or changing disabilities – all of us really.”

For example, it doesn’t matter if someone has a permanent condition like Macular Degeneration, a temporary condition like a bruised eye, a situational condition like bright sunlight, or a changing condition like a migraine. The result is that they all have difficulty seeing. Inclusive design is a philosophy and a process that includes all of those people, for all of those reasons.

Inclusion goes beyond being a priority at TetraLogical though. It’s part of our DNA. The company is founded on four principles that both define and govern what we do:

  • Inclusive – we consider everyone and make decisions that exclude no-one,
  • Efficient – we work effectively and deliver quality solutions with minimal waste,
  • Ethical – we make decisions for the good of our clients and their customers, our employees, and for the world at large,
  • Safe – we respect privacy and manage data securely.

What is an accessibility barrier that you would like to see solved?

I’d like to remove the barrier caused by a lack of education. Hundreds of thousands of people join the tech industry every year, but until schools, colleges, universities, and online courses start making accessibility a core design principle, the accessibility industry is going to keep fighting a rear-guard action.

Things are changing for the better. Teach Access is working with universities in North America to put accessibility onto their curricula. Universities across the UK and Europe are starting to offer inclusive design modules, and most design/development conferences now include talks and workshops that focus on accessibility. There is still so much more to do though!

There is something incredibly satisfying about taking something that excludes people, pulling it apart to find out how it works, and then putting it back together in a way that means lots more people can use it.

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