Speaker Spotlight: Catharine McNally & Web Accessibility


If a feature of a website separates audiences, particularly those with disabilities, Catharine McNally views it with a critical eye to find better solutions. As a Quality and Accessibility Analyst at Phase2 Technology, Catharine McNally uses a process-driven and strategic approach to provide clients and the community with the confidence to develop inclusive and user-friendly content on both the backend and frontend of a web platform.

You can see Catharine on the Accessibility Panel on Saturday, June 2 at the Big Design 2012 Conference.  She will be sharing her insights on web accessibility with a panel that includes Sharron Rush from Knowbility.  lara Becker will be moderating this panel.  For now, read this article to gain some of Catharine’s insights.

Seda: Catharine, thank you for agreeing to this interview for the Big Design Magazine.  How did you become involved with accessibility? 

Catharine: I lost all of my hearing to meningitis when I was a baby. When hearing aids didn’t provide me with access to sound and language, I underwent an experimental procedure for a cochlear implant.  As one of the youngest and first recipients of this successful procedure, I naturally became a role model for how technology can positively be used for accessibility.

Illustration of internal parts of a cochlear i...
Illustration of internal parts of a cochlear implant (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

What I mean by this is, I look at our existing technologies with a critical eye: how can our devices and software be used to make my communication with others easier and clearer? What are the hidden, untapped applications? Let me give you an example: twitter. I recently discovered these 140-character messages can serve as a “transcription” tool of sorts when attending presentations or talks at big group events. (Check out blog post here: http://www.agileapproach.com/blog-entry/discovery-white-house.)

I apply this type of thinking on a daily basis for my clients at Phase2 Technology, an open-source software development firm operating in the Government, Non-Profit, and Publishing sectors. As the lead Quality and Accessibility Analyst, I focus on educating and providing our clients with the resources and tools they need to develop accessible software and websites that not only meet the bare minimum, but go above and beyond to achieve optimal user experiences for everyone, regardless of their ability.

Seda: Fascinating! What inspires you to maintain that focus?

Catharine: I never want to be treated differently just because I’m deaf. Nor do I like to request different services to accommodate my communication strategy. I dread moments where I have to flag someone down to say:

“Hi. I’m deaf. I cannot use your [service/product/website]. Do you have other ways in which I can use your service that doesn’t require me to hear?”

That’s just not who I am – it can be embarrassing for me. And I know that’s the attitude of most people with disabilities; we just want to go about our daily lives with our families and friends.  Most of all, I believe no one should be left out. People with disabilities should be able to enjoy the same services and experience as everyone else.

That is why at Phase2 Technology, I’m at the forefront of working with our clients to ensure that their websites serve the greatest audience possible, and that they are not unintentionally setting up roadblocks to accessibility.

Seda: Based on your experience, what is the level of awareness of Accessibility with Business and GUI Developers?

Catharine: Typically, businesses know something about accessibility but perceive it as overwhelming, inconsistent, and costly.  That is an understandable fear as the available technology seems to be constantly changing; however, the foundational principles of accessibility stay consistent – videos need captions for those who are deaf, and images need descriptions for screen-reader users.

More often than not, businesses avoid addressing the aforementioned fears until someone complains. In fact, an executive of a national corporation once admitted to me,

“We’re not going to add captions to our online videos until we have a complaint or a potential lawsuit on our hands.”

Seda: Ouch!

Catharine: Interestingly, when accessibility is addressed at the beginning of a project, there’s an added cost of 10%. When a company delays such analysis or testing, there can be up to a post facto 200% added cost when the technology has to be changed after the initial stages to accommodate for accessibility. The lesson is, the sooner accessibility is addressed, the more beneficial it is in the long run from a time, cost, and management perspective.

Seda: What are the three top hurdles for making websites accessible?

Catharine: The top three hurdles for making websites accessible are, in my opinion, the following factors:

  1.  Misconception that accessibility is difficult to implement, expensive, and applicable only to a very small audience.When having the right technology, knowledge, tools, and people in place, accessibility can be a smooth, inexpensive, and beneficial experience for everyone. When knowledgeable individuals understand the business goals of a site, they recognize the accessibility requirements and weave them into the development process, so that they are developed in parallel. A seamless user experience rises out of this process because the accessibility development is not “added on” as an after-thought, making the experience less usable and potentially more confusing than helpful.Also, this is nota small audience. Studies show that 1 in 10 people have difficulty accessing websites, whether it’s because of mobility, learning, or sensory disabilities.  Additionally, at any point in his or her life, a person may experience a “temporarily disabling condition,” such as broken wrists, a temporary brain injury, or an instance when a mouse isn’t working, that changes their typical web experience. So the important thing to do is to make the web experience seamless for everyone.In doing this, increasing usability and accessibility, a business is not only putting any potential users’ needs first, but also improving the brand within the community.
  2. Lack of clear education and direction on how to test sites for accessibility, how to remediate, and how to fix.It’s understandably intimidating to think about how to make a website accessible.“Where to start?”  This is often the challenging and puzzling question.  I thought I’d point the readers to a few tools and resources to get started.
  3. No culture of commitment to accessibility.This is a show-stopper. When an organization isn’t committed to accessibility, then it’s not going to follow through on the website or software. The end user’s experience is going to be negatively impacted, which leads to frustration. It helps enormously when the senior leadership is committed to accessibility and that effectively filters through to the entire company. I’m really proud of Phase2’s senior leadership for having this commitment both internally and to our clients.
Catharine:   Here is a list of tools and resources to help anyone get started.

The Accessibility Standards & Rules

  • Section 508 – Part of the US Rehabilitation Act of 1978 to ensure equal access to technology offered and provided by the Federal Government.  All agencies that receive federal funding must comply with the requirements, which can be found here: http://www.section508.gov/.
  •  Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG)  – The World Wide Web Consortium develops these as “best practices” beyond Section 508 principles. These are developed in the past 10 years, and often include tips and tricks for making the more current technologies accessible. See the WCAG 2.0 guidelines here: http://www.w3.org/TR/WCAG/.

Automated Testing Tools

  • WAVE:  A free accessibility web-evaluation tool. You can view the original webpage with embedded icons and indicators that highlight where accessibility issues lie for easier remediation.
  • Chris Pederick Web Developer: A free browser extension for Firefox and Chrome that allows users to evaluate different elements on the site, such as how the site looks without images, CSS, JavaScript, and so forth.
  • Cynthia Says: A web-content accessibility validation solution that measures errors related to Section 508 and WCAG. It can be used free of charge, but validates just one page per minute and generates a report.

Manual & Automated Test Tracking & Report

 At Phase2 Technology, I created a way to help our developers understand what to test, how to test, and how to notice the distinctions between Section 508 standards and WCAG 2.0 guidelines.  This 35-page PDF, divided up into specific sections (i.e., “CSS,” “Images,” and “Page Structure”), is great for keeping track of a website’s QA. It identifies areas where the compliance is not met and, on a broader scale, provides a reference to understanding if the bare minimum (Section 508) is being met, and/or whether or not the site is being built towards best practices (WCAG 2.0).

Seda: When you see opportunities to offer your solutions, what is your approach?

Catharine: Collaboration is the most important part of this process. As I review the business goals of the software that we are building at Phase2, it’s important for me to communicate to the client the potential risks for accessibility and usability. When identifying those risks, I often talk with our developers about ways to mitigate any risks early in the process, and that includes picking the right technology approach. As a common example, many sites have mapping applications, so I work with my developers to ensure that the proposed mapping application can support accessibility. If it doesn’t, I pursue the alternatives or workarounds that achieve the same objective. I then take this back to our clients so that they’re involved in this process.

By more fully involving our clients in the accessibility process, they are able to take ownership of the accessibility solutions and maintain commitment to following through, which emphasizes the culture of commitment.

In this collaborative approach, it’s important do the following:

  • Identify and address accessibility early and often throughout the entire life of the project;
  • Use technologies that have the greatest application and flexibility for multiple audiences and devices (for example, use optimal color contrast not only for people with low vision, but also to make readability easier on mobile devices outdoors) and;
  • Conduct manual and automated testing to check for Section 508 compliance and WCAG best practices (see the list above).


Seda: What is your vision for accessibility?

Catharine:  When accessibility is so entwined into our products and services that it never stands out for people to think, “Oh, that’s there for people with disabilities.” I get to use the very same services and products as everyone else. That is the golden (?) standard.

Seda: What advice do you have for Architects, Designers, and Developers with regards to accessibility?

Catharine:  Think of accessibility as an opportunity for a better user experience, improved SEO, and a more inclusive way to serve your audiences – not as a burden!

Seda: Great advice! Thank you, for this very insightful interview.

You can talk with Catherine at the Big Design Conference on Saturday, June 2 at 4PM on the Accessibility Panel.

Update to this article:   This article is translated to Serbo-Croatian language by Jovana Milutinovich from Webhostinggeeks.com.  Jovana was born in Yugoslavia, Europe.  The former Yugoslavia consisted of now totally independent states like Serbia, Montenegro, Croatia, Bosnia & Hercezovina, Slovenia and Macedonia, which are all united by Serbo-Croatian language.  She is currently studying Computer Science at the University of Belgrade, Serbia.

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Contributed by Seda Maurer (3 Posts)



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