#TakeFiveWith Andy Ronksley
Could you tell us about yourself and your job role? And one hobby/fun fact?
These days I refer to myself as a digital accessibility specialist. After 12 years working in digital accessibility in both the charity and corporate sectors, in 2019 I made the jump into freelancing. As such, my job role is a little less defined these days! Essentially though, I work with companies to help them improve their digital accessibility. This might be through training staff, embedding myself directly in design/development teams to guide accessibility efforts throughout a project or by testing an application already in production and guiding any required accessibility fixes.
Training and working throughout the lifecycle of a project are my preferred ways of working. Aiming to embed a culture of accessibility within an organisation is always the most sustainable option. Accessibility auditing has its place, but ideally, I like to move organisations away from testing at the end of a project being their standard approach to accessibility. In terms of clients, I love to work with companies that are a big part of day-to-day life. So, sectors like government services, healthcare, employment, finance, housing, utilities, retail, transport and communications are of most interest to me. Essentially, the services that we all need access to in order to live a modern life!
In addition to my freelance work, I've also recently taken over as lead organiser of the London Accessibility Meetup (https://www.meetup.com/London-Accessibility-Meetup/). This event has been going for over two years now and has blossomed from something quite small into a vibrant, monthly event attended by around 100 people. I'm fortunate that this opportunity came my way and I'm really pleased that I can give my time to such a great community event. The accessibility community has given a lot to me over the years so I'm really excited and proud to be able to give something back.
Hobby wise, my main one is appreciating and enjoying the natural world. Working in technology means a lot of screen time and I'm as guilty as the next person of sometimes getting drawn into mindless, endless scrolling. Taking time to escape and nurture the sense of wonder that the natural world brings helps me restore my balance. I find that observing nature closely and realising that all of the animals around us have their own lives and behaviours keeps me appreciative of the fact that the world is a big place and that I'm just a small part of it.
What is a typical day like for you?
Since making the switch to freelance, my days are a lot less typical. I was fortunate to be able to take some time out to have a think about what I wanted the next step of my career to look like. That's how I landed on the sectors that I aim to work in. Since the beginning of the year, I've been lucky to work on two main projects that sit in these areas. The most recent, was a small but important application with major accessibility issues which completely blocked some users. Working closely with the product owners and developers, we were able to make changes which rolled out the following week. Knowing that we took an unusable system for some and fixed it the following week was really great. It's rare for projects to move that fast, but when they do the feeling of getting something better into the hands of people is hard to beat!
Aside from project work, as contacts are key for a freelancer, I've been investing time into attending events and networking. Living close to London is a huge benefit as there are so many really interesting events happening there every week.
On top of that, I've been trying to grow my own presence, both offline and online. My previous role before freelancing didn't allow for any presence outside of work. Now working freelance, being more known in the accessibility community should really help me.
Could you tell us how you got into your role?
I'm not really sure where my interest in technology and computers came from as neither of my parents worked in the industry. My dad got me a PC from somewhere, and Windows 3.1 is where it all started for me. I remember upgrading that machine as the years went by with the highlight being adding a CD-ROM drive which opened up access to a whole new world of multimedia-based goodies from my local library. At some point, I installed a 56K modem which, albeit slowly, got me online. I don't think my mum was ever happy about the super long extension lead I used to run from my PC, out of my bedroom, down the stairs to the phone socket in the hallway. Health and safety issues for sure! Secondary school saw more PC building experiments with a good friend who knew a lot more about it than I did at the time.
College and A-Levels came next and I chose computing as one of my subjects. This was my start in the world of software and programming, with none other than Visual Basic 5. Learning how to make a computer do things through programming was pretty mind blowing at the time. I loved it and I still do!
After college, university was on the cards and there was only one course that interested me; computer science. I didn't know what area of computing I wanted to get into, so as computer science covered lots of topics at a fairly high level, that felt like the right path until I knew the direction I wanted to go in.
Getting into accessibility came about more by fate than intention. My girlfriend at the time was studying business and was aiming to get into human resources. A comment she made one day about "wanting to care for the workforce" really struck a chord with me. It got me thinking about how I could use technology to improve peoples' lives. At the time, I'd never heard of accessibility or had any idea that disabled people could use computers.
After some research where I didn't really know what I was looking to find, I stumbled across this whole new world of accessibility and assistive technology and there was no going back from there. Whilst researching, I discovered that two of my lecturers were researching in the field of accessibility. One of them, Professor Paul Blenkhorn was the original developer for Narrator, the screen reader built-into Windows 2000 and later versions. The other, Professor Gareth Evans agreed to supervise my final year dissertation where I worked on creating a prototype, self-voicing web browser based on WebbIE (https://www.webbie.org.uk/index.htm), a free text-only browser developed by the university.
After graduating, fate intervened again. A family friend saw a tiny, postage stamp sized advert in the Metro newspaper. The advert was for a small assistive technology charity that were looking for a technician. She cut the advert out and sent it to me in the post. Knowing how much of a small, niche sector accessibility is, I couldn't pass up the opportunity to apply. I was incredibly fortunate to get that job, which gave me my start in the industry. I spent 1.5 years there, working directly with people with disabilities of all kinds and using all manner of assistive technologies. This was back in the days before mainstream technology had the depth of accessibility features that it does today. Looking back, this role gave me a fantastic breadth and depth of experience that still serves me well to this day. Whilst they've rebranded and changed focus, the organisation that gave me my start is still going today - https://www.everyonecan.org.uk/.
Next, more fate and another friend making me aware of a web accessibility consultant role at RNIB (Royal National Institute of Blind People) (https://www.rnib.org.uk/). Keen to get back involved on the technical/code side of things, I knew this role could be perfect for me. Fortune favoured me again, and I was offered that role. I’d followed the work of the RNIB Team closely on their blog for years, so ending up in that team felt quite surreal. I was surrounded by much more knowledgeable and experienced colleagues - a perfect place to grow! I spent six years at RNIB in two different roles. The first carrying out web accessibility consultancy and training on a business-to-business level, and the second doing more of a technical advocacy role. This was around the time that smartphones were entering the mainstream. RNIB were at the forefront of engaging with handset and software companies, helping to push the accessibility agenda. Being part of this team effort, which resulted in more accessible smartphone options in the shops for everyone was a real career highlight.
Following RNIB, an opportunity came my way to join one of Apple's accessibility teams. An opportunity not to turn down, I spent the following five years there working on software services, both external customer facing and internal employee only systems.
I've always felt fortunate to have found work that I find meaningful and fulfilling. I count myself lucky for all the opportunities that have come my way.
What motivates you to do a good job?
Technology has the power to generate emotions in all of us ranging from positive to negative. Positive emotions, such as happiness, can come from well designed, aesthetically pleasing and accessible experiences that have been crafted with care and love. Negative emotions, such as frustration, can come from ill thought out, bland and inaccessible experiences that have been cobbled together with little to no thought for the users. What motivates me is bringing more happiness and less frustration to technology users around the world.
How do you learn at work?
During my career, I've been able to take advantage of the training opportunities provided by my employers including courses ranging from usability testing, programming with Swift, presentation skills and talking to the press and media amongst many others.
Working in technology, I've found that it's vital that I invest my own time outside of work to maintain the relevancy of my skills and develop new ones. Reading websites, blogs, using platforms such as LinkedIn and Twitter and doing online courses on platforms such as Udemy, Coursera and Treehouse have been where I have invested my efforts.
What are your aims for the next year? For example, if you work in accessibility do you have any plans to help make workplaces more inclusive? If you work in Learning and Development how are you going to promote workplace learning?
I have a few main goals for the coming year.
The first is to continue doing impactful work in the sectors I've identified for myself. In doing so, I hope to continue being able to have a positive influence of the online experiences for users with disabilities. More happiness and less frustration!
The second is to continue sourcing speakers with interesting and relevant talks for the London Accessibility Meetup. I also have new ideas that I'd like to try out with the event including different speaking formats and collaborations with other meetups. Other possibilities I’m looking at include facilitating some mentoring opportunities and running some reasonably priced paid for workshops. Any proceeds from workshops would be used in a nonprofit way, for example helping people from underrepresented and marginalised groups who are looking to get into the accessibility industry.
The third is potentially launching a new accessibility training venture with two trusted fellow freelancers. Whilst we acknowledge there are lots of training offerings in the marketplace already, we feel like our individual backgrounds and combined skills would allow us to offer something to fit a gap we see, particularly around the more technical end of accessibility, both for web and mobile applications. Watch this space!
YOU CAN LEARN MORE ABOUT THE LONDON ACCESSIBILITY MEETUP GROUP ON THE FOLLOWING PLATFORMS:
London Accessibility Twitter Account: @a11ylondon
London Accessibility Meetup: www.meetup.com/London-Accessibility-Meetup/
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