Q&A: Patrick Garvin

The creator of two web accessibility bots talks alt text and accountability.

Good news: Twitter is rolling out alt-text reminders that users can opt into.

Bad news: When sharing the news on Twitter, some outlets neglect to add it to their corresponding graphics.

This week, we spoke with Patrick Garvin about his Accessibility Awareness and Alt Text Awareness Twitter bots that provide information on web accessibility and encourage the use of alt text, respectively.

With more than a decade of experience in visual journalism, user experience, and front-end development, Garvin shares how prioritizing accessibility is possible for all newsroom employees, not just tech staff. 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.


Could you start by telling me about the bots? What do they do? 

There are two different bots that are both meant to bring awareness to best practices around web accessibility for people with disabilities. The first bot listens to Twitter accounts that are somehow connected to journalism. These are either going to be journalism schools, journalism nonprofits, journalism think tanks, or news outlets — anything from the major publications that everyone has heard of worldwide down to the nitty gritty local ones that are specific to local markets. It listens for instances where those accounts share an image that does not have alternative text. 

Alternative text, or alt text, is the text that is programmatically associated with images in HTML that allows people to know what is in the image if they cannot see it. What alt text does is provides a context of what an image has in it, who and why the image is important. It’s for people who are blind or low vision but it’s also helpful for people who have any kind of neurodivergence, like people who have ADHD and need to listen to content while reading. For most of the images on Twitter that do not have alt text, the default alt text that someone using screen reading technology would hear would be “image.”

A lot of news organizations don’t use text on their images when they tweet, and it’s something that leaves out a big part of their audience. I have spent the last two years and some change digging into the best practices for web accessibility and trying to figure out how to bring this knowledge to journalism. I spent 15 years in newsrooms after I graduated University of Missouri Columbia School of Journalism in May of 2004. From then onward, until November 2019, I was working in newsrooms, most recently at the Boston Globe, where I spent nine years working in information graphics, UX, digital design for special projects, and doing some front-end development. 

I left to come back home to St. Louis, where my parents are. My father had had a heart attack, and he’s fine, but it’s because he’s fine that I wanted to take advantage of this time that I knew wasn’t going to always be available to me. So, I came home for a contract role with Boeing that ultimately got cut short because of COVID and I was here at the beginning of COVID. 

While we were all getting used to this idea of quarantining at home, watching my parents in their 70s — including my father who has aphasia from a stroke — navigate their lives, use their phones and computers to do things they wouldn’t normally do in-person, really was an illuminating experience for me. I was already thinking about what I wanted to do next and what would be some ways that I could get back into journalism, especially now that it was becoming obvious that remote work was going to be a more tenable endeavor, and so I said, “You know, this is something that I need to know going forward in my career. I cannot be designing or building things, unaware of this, whether I go back to journalism or not.”

That was spring of 2020. And then, in the summer of 2020, I was asked to teach a class at the Mizzou journalism school called Multimedia Planning and Design: It’s a class for journalism students who have never coded before. I teach them the basics of HTML, CSS, and JavaScript, and I teach them in a way that’s cognizant of what people with disabilities need. At the beginning of 2021, I took a full-time job with Maritz Global Events in St. Louis as a UX/UI developer, and I’m working with them to build an accessibility policy. 

I’ve spent the last couple of years trying to train myself so that I can train others and I keep bumping into this question: “What’s going to be the thing that can help journalists know what they need to know?” Or, at least begin to start thinking about these things without them being laid off and living at home with their parents at the beginning of a pandemic. I’m trying to figure out, “How do I transfer the knowledge that I gained with that without them having to go through that experience?” Some of it has been through the classes that I’ve been teaching at Mizzou, some of it has been through Twitter threads, and some of it has been through doing conferences and speaking engagements.

Then in May, I noticed that there was a bot that a developer named Matt Eason created for Global Accessibility Awareness Day. This bot listens for times when people tweet an image with the hashtag “accessibility” without alt text. And for a lot of people, it was like, if you’re tweeting about accessibility but not using alt text, you really should be using alt text. So I made mine that listened for hashtags like “partylikeajournalist” or “journorequest” or ”amnewsers” and what it would do is it would find individuals, usually newsroom staffers, tweeting stuff from their newsroom or from conferences, and then it would retweet them and say, “Here’s why alt text is important.” 

I found that it was easy for it to be overwhelming and a lot of people weren’t even paying attention, they would just block the bot. So I said, “You know what, even though that bot was corrective, it could still be seen with some negativity.” So I started a second bot that tweets out advice. It doesn’t retweet anyone, it doesn’t call anyone out — It calls everyone in. It tells people, “Here is stuff that you might not know,” and it’s in bite sized chunks that can help you, whether you’re an individual, part of a team, in journalism, academics, or whatever. It’s really started to take off in the last two weeks or so and it’s found a home among a lot of people within universities and higher ed. People feel grateful that they have a place to learn this stuff that they might not have even thought about, or they may have been embarrassed that they didn’t know, and it’s really a great thing to get people saying, “Oh my goodness, thank you for this account.” I say all of this not to toot my own horn, but it goes to show that this is kind of why I did it: I want to be able to inform. 

Over your career in journalism and while doing this work, how have you seen conversations around accessibility change?

Since I left the Globe, I definitely think there has been a bigger conversation around accessibility and what people can and should be doing. I think that there was some discussion around accessibility between individuals within newsrooms, but I don’t necessarily think that there were too many newsrooms that had organized approaches, at least during the last 10 years. There weren’t too many publishers and editors making a big commitment to this. This decade, there are places that don’t have policies or plans in place, but there are a lot more people saying we’re behind the curve on that and we need to get better. Granted, I’m not saying that’s an improvement, but they’re at least being honest and acknowledging it.

Back in February, the New York Times posted a position for someone to be a accessibility visuals editor that would work with visuals teams, including the graphics department, the video department, and photo department, to make that work more accessible to people with disabilities. It was really exciting for people in the accessibility space to see that job posting at all and I think the idea of them doing that is huge. Once the Times does anything, so many people will follow, and I strongly think that we’re going to see more outlets and publications start to emulate that. They might not be able to hire a full time person, but they’re going to find ways to bake in training from the beginning and they’re going to really make a bigger commitment to it.

And it’s not just the New York Times. You’ve got people thinking about it at the Washington Post, including Holden Foreman. There’s also Hannah Wise, who just finished a fellowship at the University of Missouri’s Reynolds Journalism Institute and created a toolkit for newsrooms. Joe Amditis from the Center for Cooperative Media created a Google listserv for journalists to ask questions about accessibility. I think we are seeing this change happen and I think we are seeing it in a different lens than people would have thought about it five-to-10 years ago.

I think newsrooms have really started to take themselves to task where they’re lopsided. They’re starting to have conversations, from how they cover issues of race and gender to how they treat people of color in their newsroom. That’s not to say that they’re always aware, but when some have been publicly taken to task they have to come to terms with it. As they build these committees and councils around inclusion and equity and diversity, it’s going to be a lot more intuitive for people to see accessibility as part of that sphere. 

If accessibility is only pitched as something that’s related to code or only related to computers, it’s going to be real easy for people in newsrooms to distance themselves from that. They’ll say, “Oh, well, I’m not a coder or a developer. I’m a reporter or an editor, nothing that I do affects accessibility.” I think that those are the people that we need to reach the most, because they don’t know what they don’t know and they’re the ones that can really be doing some damage. 

I definitely see that we have some changes happening. Even if we’re not “there” yet, we’re closer to where we need to be than where we were even just a few years ago.

What advice would you give to people who want to do similar work?

I will give them the advice that I have gotten from other people, and that’s to start somewhere. Your first efforts are going to be imperfect, but that’s okay. Nobody can immediately start something at a varsity expert level, a Yoda expertise — and that’s okay. 

I think it’s going to be much better to have people aim to be advocates rather than feel like they have to become experts who know every single thing. I think that looking up resources and following the a11y hashtag on LinkedIn and Twitter can be very helpful. It’s a numeronym in which the 11 letters between a and y are replaced so the word accessibility becomes “a11y” (and it’s also kind of a cutesy way to say ally). That hashtag helped me learn a lot. 

The web has so many resources from people who are doing this work and who have made it free or discounted to be able to get this. There’s a great quote from accessibility specialist Meryl Evans, which is “progress over perfection.” The idea is, you might not be able to get something that completely complies with all of the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines for something that’s running tomorrow, especially if you’re in the process of learning what those are. 

People who are in daily journalism need to be patient with themselves and they need to be patient with each other. I think it’s going to be really helpful for them to follow the people who are doing this work on social media and to create a Teams or Slack chat in their organization where they can talk about this. They don’t necessarily have to come up with the answers to the questions, they just have to come up with the questions because that will help them figure out where they need to learn and grow. My advice would be just dig in, and give yourself patience and permission to not be an expert. Create a space where you can hold each other accountable, those things will go a long way.

This piece was edited by Curtis Yee.

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