When I called Matt Dempsey to interview him for this profile, I was met by a cheerful voice and a cacophony of dogs barking. He lives in upstate New York with his wife, his son, and their dog—a German Shorthaired Pointer named Fyx, short for Fiddlesticks. But the barking wasn’t just their dog Fyx saying hello. “My wife is doing some doggy day care this week,” he said. Dog sitting is simply another part of the caring and compassionate work done by the Dempsey family.
Matt is SocioFabrica’s ADA compliance expert and a disabled veteran. With over 30 years experience in the IT world, he has been focused on ADA compliance work for the last several years, bringing hundreds of websites and documents up to speed. “I find it deeply rewarding to help people with visual, hearing, and limited mobility impairments by giving them opportunities to be fully productive in their lives,” he said.
He was interested in computers and programming at a young age but after his military service, he found himself working jobs that moved him further away from his computing passion. “In 2004, all the physical labor I’d been doing caught up to me like dominos all at once and I became disabled. I started doing online courses and got a degree in Computer Science with close to 4.0 GPA, then within a couple of months I was offered a job to do accessibility work.”
Matt skyrocketed through the ranks to lead his department doing web audit work, and he’s been focused on this ever since. “I realized through that process that—even though my disabilities aren’t visual or hearing-impaired—it really isn’t a good feeling to not be able to navigate through the world. I was able to help people with impairments feel more productive and feel better about themselves.”
Better to build accessibility in at the beginning
Something Matt found across his hundreds of projects is that every site or document is unique and each project has the potential to uncover headaches that you either fix or start over from scratch. “One thing I’ve learned is that it’s better to build web accessibility in from the beginning. You don’t want to have to go back and fix stuff, because you’ll end up with a new site anyway after making all your fixes.”
You are an interpreter
“You have to put yourself in the shoes of the user and think of yourself as an interpreter. You’re interpreting images for visually impaired users by providing visual cues to someone who can’t see. There’s actually enhanced captioning now that provides additional context for the image and sound, like saying that someone is pointing at something and saying these words, not just putting the dialogue up on screen.”
Discussing some of the projects he’s worked on at SocioFabrica, he mentioned a long list of fixes a client had in their web accessibility report. “Once you dive in, you see that most of it is repetition. If you fix a thing on one page, it fixes across multiple pages and you can knock out a bunch of fixes all at once. A lot of the work is in interpreting the report and making sure you follow their specific guidelines.”
A lot of the work relies on interpretation and nuance. For example, one section of the accessibility report mentioned that color contrast was off for the text within an image on a page. “There’s nothing that I can recall that says the text within an image must be compliant, as long as it has the appropriate title text and alt tags. But to be safe, we covered all our bases and increased the color contrast of the text within the image and had the correct title and alt text.”
Most common issues uncovered
After flipping through the hundreds of pages of issues uncovered with client websites, Matt knows that most fall into two buckets.
- Color contrast. “Lack of color contrast is usually the biggest issue.”
- Alternate text. “I don’t know why, but people always seem to neglect to identify what a picture is. If your website relies on images or colors to convey information, then you need to have alternate options.”
Even though clients hire him to bring their web sites up to speed, sometimes they ignore his advice. “I told someone that this color on their site was wrong, that it had to either be darker or lighter in order to be compliant with color contrast rules. They said ‘Nope, we want it anyway.’ Well, ok, but you’re not going to be compliant, then.”
“One of the biggest misconceptions is that visually impaired people are going to use screen readers 100% of the time. But not all visual impairments are total blindness. Some people can see blurry images, some can see to a limited degree, some need more contrast or a bigger font. Even someone with otherwise perfect vision can be colorblind.”
Staying current with the latest information
Matt stays up to date with the shifting guidelines by subscribing to a few key newsletters and visiting a handful of industry-related websites. “There are constant updates to keep up with technology releases. For example, ten years ago mobile apps were not as prevalent but now they are a top device. Or updates to deal with things like the digital screen on the thermostat in your house.”
Advice for newbies
I asked what advice Matt would give someone looking to get into the field of accessibility compliance. “Don’t make assumptions. Take the time to research more than one website for guidelines, don’t just rely on one site for all of your information. There is a firehose of information out there. Keep your eyes open for repeated sources.” Some of his top recommended sites are:
- HHS.gov – The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services is a wealth of information and has a section on helpful resources.
- WCAG – Web Content Accessibility Guidelines
- Access Board – The U.S. Access Board is a federal agency that promotes equality for people with disabilities, and the site is filled with guidelines and detail.
At the end of a project after having faced down a long laundry list of fixes, Matt feels thrilled to be a part of something that will be beneficial to someone with disabilities. He especially loves working on projects where the product itself can benefit the world. “You feel good working with that particular project.”