A11y: GitHub Brings Accessibility to 85% of Open Source
With 1.3 billion disabled people in the world, they are not edge cases. Yet, while there’s an effort and even requirements to embrace accessibility in the end-user experience, it remains incredibly rare to see accessibility guidelines for the developer experience. And, without accessibility — or a11y in shorthand — built into the software development lifecycle, 16% of the world’s population are kept from participating in the creation of our future.
GitHub — home to 85% of open source communities — is in a unique position to change that. Which is just what it is doing in recognition of today, Global Accessibility Awareness Day (GAAD).
The New Stack interviewed Head of Accessibility Ed Summers to talk about GitHub’s updates toward an accessible developer experience at a global scale, and what next the tech industry and the world have to do to make sure everyone are able to build technology.
‘Nothing about Us, without Us.’
GitHub’s accessibility effort fall within two buckets:
- Increase cultural acceptance of disabilities — which they are doing via highlighting the voices of disabled developers in the ReadME Project
- Make developer experience inclusive and available — lowering socio-technical barriers to entry
Much of our discussion focused on the latter.
“Technology is both ubiquitous and absolutely required, and access of it is required. So how do we make technology more accessible for 1.3 billion people out of the gate, and also create better, innovative access technologies?” asked Summers, laying out the foundation of GitHub’s approach to accessibility.
It’s also what attracted him to joining the company nine months ago. In fact, he wasn’t looking for a new gig, but when he was headhunted, and he was so intrigued by GitHub’s job ad that he went on the interview just to meet its author. Really, it came down to a line at the end of the description: “People with lived experience are encouraged to apply.” As a blind software engineer and accessibility specialist, he understands the specific struggles associated with keyboard-only navigation, screenreaders and more.
This verbiage in a job ad showed that GitHub understood that the success of this endeavor is defined by making sure “that people with disabilities are participating in — or leading — those efforts to build the technologies that are used by all humanity. And if the relatively small group of people who build the technologies that we all use are not representative of all populations and excluding people with disabilities, then people will be excluded,” Summers said.
So the overarching goal is to empower people with disabilities to create, collaborate and contribute to that future. In other words, “Nothing about us, without us.”
Updates to GitHub’s Cross-Platform Accessibility
One of the most exciting outcomes of the next stage of advancement in mobile, the Internet of Things and AI is increased inclusion via better accessibility. Because technology is essential for people with disabilities to participate in the world. And technology is becoming a human right that no one should be excluded from.
With this in mind, Summers says, GitHub has reached an inflection point, creating a “unified, strategic, organized effort,” with significant improvements recently released across the platform. “It takes time to build the systems and other elements of culture in order to make that progress,” he said, but continuous momentum — with the right systems and culture in place — is essential to tackling the challenge.
They are continuously testing the accessibility of the whole website, as there’s always room for improvement.
Now, an overview of recent cross-platform improvements to GitHub’s accessibility:
- Copilot – just released in General Audience (GA) GitHub’s “AI pair programmer” has removed barriers for keyboard-only and NVDA screenreader users.
- GitHub Copilot Voice – currently in technical preview, allows users to code completely hands-free with just their voice — they are accepting volunteer testers.
- Color contrast – across GitHub, better color contrast in both light and dark modes is now available.
- Code search – went GA last week, this is a code search experience designed for NVDA screen readers.
All of these changes have been implemented across hundreds of pages across the Primer, GitHub’s open source design system, which includes large components of reusable code. They’ve also put in place automation to prevent regressions in the future and incorporated it into the CI/CD process, “shipping that left,” Summers explained.
Speaking animatedly of the new code search tool, he said, “It’s just really improved my productivity, [Searching code] is just something I do all the time. I need to go find something and it’s just so easy to go to use that search, of course, with a screen reader.”
In fact, Summer listens to screenreaders at a rate of about 600 words per minute — more than double the average sighted reader — so anything that can increase that, dramatically improves his productivity, even potentially giving him an edge over sighted coders. When accessibility support is there, he says, it’s not unusual that disabled people surpass abled people.
“We are forced to adapt to our assistive technologies and kind of push it to the limit,” Summers said. He then shared the incredible example of Paul Chiou, a developer who is paralyzed from the neck down, and who, in pursuing his doctorate, is designing and building custom hardware and software, as well as revolutionary accessibility automation tooling.
“Paul was having some real problems with accessibility within a game and he started tinkering and experimenting, and he got to the point where he had like 12 different commands that he could use within the game, which was more than a fully-abled developer would have on their keyboard,” Summers said. “It’s a great example where disability was a catalyst for creativity, and that creativity led to capabilities that are beyond the norm.”
It Is a Pipeline Issue
While computer science is a degree that attracts more disabled people on average, overall, people with disabilities have a lower rate of graduation from high school and a far lower rate of graduation from university and beyond. “Access to education as a whole can be a real struggle,” Summers said, and the tech pipeline still relies heavily on the often artificial barrier of university degrees.
He offered some “bright spots” or resources that are helping make tech education more accessible:
- Access Computing – out of the University of Washington, along with the DO-IT project.
- Make4All – has projects including making physical computing more accessible.
- CS4ALL – for primary and secondary school students.
- Code.org – for same age.
- Paths to Technology – out of the Perkins School for the Blind, this helps teachers to adapt to ever-changing accessibility technology and adapt technological advances for disabled students.
Then, of course, once they get into university, Summers said there are other hurdles, including the rest of STEM study, like math and physics, that are required and often not technologically inclusive at all.
On top of all this, tech workers need to pursue life-long learning to stay in the game. That is mostly done via online materials.
FreeCodeCamp.org has invested in accessibility, and targets the parts of the world without high-speed internet access. Wikipedia is another open source project that has achieved global accessibility of education through low bandwidth and, while reliant on a partially voluntary open source workforce, has very detailed accessibility standards.
Understanding that education is another hurdle for this community, the GitHub Global Campus, already written in more accessible HTML, has recently shipped accessibility fixes to improve the way HTML is written, including:
- Reviewing headings and content hierarchy for skim-ability.
- Making sure linkable things are links and clickable things are buttons.
- Including more semantic tags for easier interaction.
What Companies Can Do GAAD and Every Day
“It’s a great time to hire people with accessibility expertise,” Summers promises, even with or because of continued tech layoffs. Especially “for companies who are interested in making the world a better place and increasing representation.”
By no means does he think GitHub’s work is done. “We’re shipping to learn,” he said because accessibility is hard to get perfect, but “it’s relatively easy to tell if there’s a positive intent and effort being made,” like with actively encouraging people with disabilities to apply to join your teams.
And while no one has it perfect, Summers encourages other organizations to also share their progress. Because even GitHub isn’t doing it perfectly. “We ship accessibility improvements that we know are flawed, that may be flawed, or missing, or not completely what we want them to be, but we can get them out the door and get them into the hands of developers now,” he said because disabled developers need these features now. And what better way to learn than to get them using it.
“I’ve never been more optimistic about the possibilities for people with disabilities — it just keeps getting better and better,” Summers said. “And I think technology is a large part of that, but also, it’s just the widespread acceptance of people with disabilities.”
And at the scale of GitHub, the impact for an accessible developer experience can be tenfold. Or, as Summers put it:
“We’re creating a platform that anybody can build on. All are welcome. Let’s see what we can do.”