The Wikimedia Foundation is continually improving the user experience ensuring digital accessibility for people with disabilities. Leading the charge is Volker Eckl who started as a German Wikipedia contributor in 2004 joining the Wikimedia Foundation in 2015. Throughout his career, he has been building user interfaces to empower people to be more creative and productive by listening to the users.
ABILITY’s Laurel Wheeler speaks with Volker about his work and shares her experience as a blind user navigating Wikipedia.
Laurel Wheeler: What is your role at Wikipedia?
Volker Eckl: I’m a lead user experience engineer. I have been spearheading the design system and developed the user interface library at the Wikimedia Foundation for the last couple of years. Mostly from the departments’ side, we’ve been working together first in the design department, which I’m part of, also in the product department, where we focus mostly on building, improving, and maintaining the features of Wikimedia sites to come up with guidelines, technical help tools, and spreading the knowledge about what it means to have accessible products, have accessible apps, and disburse this information not only for our own use, but also in an exchange with our very active volunteer community, trying to improve lives of people who have certain impairments.
Wheeler: That’s wonderful. How did you get into accessibility?
Eckl: I think I would have to start very far back when I learned to work with the Web. The reason I fell in love with the Web was connecting different ideas in the most open and easily accessible way. I’ve studied information design and later philosophy. My philosophy professor, who introduced me to Wikipedia, and I was like, “Wow! This is exactly what I would love to build, the project I would love to have!” Part of my getting introduced to the Web was a very great German resource that very quickly showed that one of the beauties of the open Web is that it’s not limited to a certain way of looking at it. It should work in all kinds of devices. It should be available for all kinds of people. This has driven me for a long time in my career, this idea of providing an as open as possible Web.
Wheeler: That’s awesome! You said “products.” What are the products that Wikipedia has?
Eckl: That’s a very good question. People always are astonished to hear that there’s more than one thing. In digital accessibility development, we are separating parts of the website into so-called products. The most important one probably for people who are not too much aware of the insides of Wikipedia, we have several projects, like Wikimedia Commons, but for Wikipedia, we have an editing interface and a readers interface, which is somewhat separated. On the editor’s side, the most prominent one would be VisualEditor. Nowadays all the editors can edit the articles that you’re looking at.
Wheeler: You’re calling them “products.” They’re not for sale? They’re products within your arsenal of things—
Eckl: Right. Yes. Thanks for the clarification. That’s an internal way of looking at software products. They are absolutely not for sale. They are free for you to use or to come and help us with development and contribute to it on the code side.
Wheeler: I know you have some very active volunteers, do you know if any volunteers might be using screen readers in their volunteer work?
Eckl: Yes, absolutely. There is now a very new affiliate group that has been very active with several of the volunteers who are screen reader users. It’s called WikiBlind. It’s an international user group of Wikipedia and Wikimedia projects users. They have been in the past not only helping me, they have been establishing guidelines on the content side and helping each other to make lives better in the reading capabilities of Wikipedia and in part also the editing interface of Wikipedia.
Wheeler: I’ll have to look that up. I would like to get involved. One of the other many hats I wear is that I do Web accessibility for a university.
Wheeler: I won’t be doing it anymore because I’m about to move out of the country, but I would love to stay involved in Web accessibility somehow.
Eckl: Oh, wow! A lot of changes at the same time.
Wheeler: I got accepted to the University of Helsinki, and so I’m in the process—
Eckl: When are you moving?
Wheeler: As soon as my residence card shows up, which should be in one to two weeks, then I’m allowed to buy a flight. I’ve spent all day today using Wikipedia. I’ve been looking at the tram lines, an article about that, and different information about Helsinki.
I have often used, Wikitravel?
Eckl: There are a few things here. All the work that I’ve been focusing on has been dispersed across a variety of Wikimedia movement project. Let me just make sure that we are thinking about the same thing, because Wikitravel is not Wikimedia.
Wheeler: Oh, interesting. Even though it has “wiki” in front of it?
Eckl: Yes. That doesn’t mean a lot, because the Wikimedia Foundation comes out of the idea of the “wiki,” which was the software. The software then was used for a lot of different projects. There’s a huge variety of wiki-called websites out there in the world that are not affiliated with the Wikimedia movement.
Eckl: I’m sometimes finding myself in cabs and trying to defend myself that the donation that has been given to us is going to Wikileaks. (laughter) That’s not affiliated with the Wikimedia Foundation.
Wheeler: Wikipedia and all of the different Wikimedia, the different websites they are part of, is that I can navigate by heading, by link, by anything to find any information I’m wanting.
Wheeler: So I’m able to use this to quickly look for the information I want to know to help me have an idea of what areas of the city to find housing in, for example. That’s just one real-life way that I’ve managed to use this.
Eckl: I’m very happy to see you navigating those tables. You’re probably as quickly as I am navigating those tables sometimes. I’m very impressed by the way you’re finding your way through.
Wheeler: One of the cool things I enjoy about different Wikimedia, Wikipedia, and the different Wiki sites is that whenever I pull this up on my iPad, I love that it’s slightly different. A lot of times all the headings are collapsed and I can simply go by heading and click on the one I want to expand and read the section I want to read, which in a mobile version makes it way easier to navigate because you don’t have to scroll through everything. I always thought that was really interesting, how they present a little bit differently layout-wise. It’s really cool.
Eckl: There’s an important thing I need to clarify in the very beginning of our interview. The Wikimedia Foundation cares mostly about the interface, not about the contents. So the contents come from volunteers. Although we have guidelines and the volunteers, we’re standing on the shoulders of giants. The volunteers came very early on in their work on coming up with Wikipedia articles, things like accessibility guidelines. Those guidelines are not everywhere implemented, and not every article has seen a person with a screen reader coming across and then either taking it into their own hands and improving it or flagging it with other contributors here. This is something that needs more knowledge-sharing about making an interface more accessible.
Wheeler: I love how Wikipedia and Wikimedia’s framework is set up as multilingual. I work with many languages every day, and if I have the automatic language detection setting turned on my computer and I’m reading an article that has English and Finnish, or English and Russian in it, it’s set up such that it will automatically tell my screen reader which language to read correctly for me. That’s something I really, really like.
Eckl: I highly appreciate hearing that. One of the things that also makes contributors understand very early on that what they are writing it not only for them and their friends, it’s for the world, is that our projects have been set up multilingual from the very beginning. One of the things that we want to be smart about, because we are sharing knowledge, so we should be smart, is that people with impairments make up such a big number of humans that we would be not self-fulfilling, not reasonable to neglect their needs because if you trust the World Health Organization numbers, they would make up the fifth biggest language group. If we care about multilingualism, then something like disabilities could be seen as a similar group and a similar approach. That is important for us.
Wheeler: That’s cool! I’ve always noticed that Wikimedia, Wikipedia, Wiki projects always do a really good job of describing photos. There were photos on that page, and there was enough text surrounding the photo that I knew what was happening. How do you guys make sure to accomplish that, where people do a really good job at making photos and visual content either straight-up accessible by alt-texting properly, or by adding enough surrounding content so that a blind user what know what’s going on. How do you guys accomplish that? It’s pretty incredible. I have not seen too many inaccessible images on any kind of a Wiki website.
Eckl: Interesting. I have seen some. In the big picture, this comes back again to the openness of the project and the motivation of people. They really want to share their knowledge. They really want to get into this project. There are guidelines for volunteers on how to describe pictures, and you seem to be lucky to have seen mostly articles where people were following those guidelines and trying to provide a descriptive, not too long, not too short, image subtext.
Wheeler: That’s really cool that you guys have an emphasis on that. I’ve always noticed that it’s not perfect, but overwhelmingly I’ve noticed that I’ve never had a large problem with Wikipedia or Wikimedia images. I always thought that that was really cool.
In the future, what do you guys want to continue to advance accessibility?
Eckl: First and foremost, we have come up with some quite important milestones in the last couple of years. I just want to say them in the right order. From an interface perspective, we have some limitations in what we can care about. We can mostly care about physical and visual impairments. We can in some ways care about neurological impairments. But all the others, like cognitive, auditory, and speech are not necessarily the ones that are within easy reach for us now. But I don’t want to say not completely. It’s just from a technical limitations point of view. As a nonprofit organization, from a limited resourcing point of view. We have to refer to other devices, other software to help those people access our sites. And whenever we hear that there’s still a limitation, whenever we hear about hurdles, how we can address those hurdles and possibly circumvent them.
The part that we’ve been focusing on most recently is, we’re to come up with technical guidelines. I’ve already mentioned those. with tools for our product teams, how to make their products—I’m staying with this term— more accessible. A very simple example is if we find in the design team an accessible color palette and brought this within less than a few months to all our—accessible in the sense of high contrast—to all of our products.
There is an accessibility statement that we would like to see applied to all the projects that we are conforming to with content accessibility guidelines 2.1aa level. That’s one thing that is very important for me. It’s basically the industry standard, but we are looking from problem to problem if we can expand and extend and make our interfaces more inclusive and more accessible. This shouldn’t be a stopgap, it’s just a thing that as a product team we’ve agreed on to have as a requirement for new products to roll out, and like I said in the beginning, maintaining and improving our existing products.
Wheeler: That’s great. One thing I thought of as well. I know that you have a lot of volunteers who help with these projects and you also have employees who work and oversee and work on these projects. What percentage, if any, of employees have disabilities?
Eckl: I’m not in HR. I know currently, we are expanding in our hiring to diversify our employment range of people when we’re setting out to share knowledge for every human being. That’s something that has been in discussions. I’m too involved with on a day-to-day basis. I would have to refer for further details to other parts of the organization. But it doesn’t help if just like the prototypical young San Francisco designer with perfect eyesight and perfect computer equipment is going to define interfaces. That is very clear. If we want to reach a diverse group of people, we have to work with them very closely. One of the things that we did was engaging the American Foundation for the Blind to work with us on new product releases.
Wheeler: It’s cool that you work with the AFB.
Eckl: And I don’t want to forget about the Wikimedia Foundation has taken the torch from the incredible user community, where we have user groups like WikiBlind.
Wheeler: What is the number of employees involved?
Eckl: We have just about 400 staff at the Wikimedia Foundation. That includes contractors around the world as well. And there are more than 250,000 editors around the world on Wikipedia and class to 300,000 across all the Wikimedia projects, including things like the photo repository with things like Media Commons or Wikidata or some of the other projects that are a little less well-known.
Wheeler: How does someone qualify to be a volunteer?
Eckl: You’re qualified.
Eckl: We are open to everyone. There are clearly some guidelines and maybe some community processes that you’ll have to get into and familiarize yourself with, but that is the beauty and one of the core powers of our approach. It is open and is meant to be open to everyone to contribute.
Wheeler: If there’s a problem with a particular volunteer not doing the right thing, who monitors the volunteers? Who monitors the volunteers who monitor the volunteers?
Eckl: (laughs) There are different levels of social processes and in some ways also, for example, something very particularly successful is an artificial-intelligence bank, flagging certain changes in Wikipedia articles and Wikimedia contributions. There’s another filtering flagging possible malicious contributions that then goes to more advanced user hands that have been positive in the community for a long time. That is a very short summary with big gaps.
Wheeler: What kinds of international resources does Wikimedia have to help gather the input of users with disabilities who don’t speak English.
Eckl: This is a great question. I have to say that most of the environment that we’re focusing in the product design on the disability side is making—getting—lowering the technical barriers, and the multilingual part comes from a separate project that is completely agnostic of the accessibility technical issues in the interface, so we are making sure that when this is an accessible interface, it also works in different languages for screen readers that have a different language set.
I know specifically of one that we’ve been exchanging in a South American user group that has been involved with blind users. And there are some spread out where people come back and say, “This is a user who wants to be active and is blind. We want to differ the technical issues to you guys while we are working on the content side with them.”
Wheeler: Perfect. So Commons that you mentioned, that’s a Wikipedia product?
Eckl: That’s right. In the volunteer communities often find themselves separated by languages, so you have an English community, you have a German community, and so on, there are meetings and discussions and they’re ongoing. There’s very little that hasn’t been reevaluated or won’t be reevaluated. That’s also one of the things of an open movement like the Wikimedia Foundation. There’s nothing set in stone, although there are some guiding principles, like the neutral point of view, that seems to stay with us till the end of time, similar to that this is free and open for everyone to alter and contribute to, an encyclopedia in the case of Wikipedia. Those seem to be two rules that will probably not be disputed.
Wheeler: Is there anything else you want people to know?
Eckl: I think that for us it’s incredibly important to emphasize this openness and to make sure to spread the word that we care about people with disabilities as we care about other people. To get the word out, if you run into trouble, ‘this might be the organization and the website’, where you see feedback. We’re collecting those inputs. We’re serious about lowering the hurdles, and that you love and you want to be part of in one way or another.
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