Meet the first-ever accessibility engineer at The Washington Post
Feb. 1, 2023, 2:20 p.m.
“It is definitely stressful to be the first in this new role. I feel deep down like I need to justify its creation with every step that I take.”
As some newsroom roles go the way of the dinosaurs, other new jobs are being born. This is the first in an occasional series of Q&As with people who are the first to hold their title in their newsroom.
Holden Foreman is the first-ever accessibility engineer at The Washington Post. Like many “first-ever” roles, the new job is a deeply multidisciplinary one.
I start a new job today as @washingtonpost’s first-ever Accessibility Engineer! I have long cared about making our content more accessible, and I love that I now get to focus on this. We always want user feedback. My DMs are open, and you can email us: firstname.lastname@example.org.
— Holden Saige Foreman (@hsforeman) January 18, 2023
Foreman makes the case that accessibility in journalism is important for everyone: Making news products more accessible, after all, often means making them more user-friendly and efficient. He hopes to discover and standardize ways of making the Post’s journalism accessible to as many people as possible.
Foreman and I went back and forth about his new role over email. Our conversation, lightly edited, is below.
Sarah Scire: How “first” is this position? It sounds like it’s the first time this title has been used at The Washington Post, right? Can you talk about what accessibility work looked like there before this role? Was there someone who was doing any part of this work under a different title or different team?
Holden Foreman: This is the first time that the title of Accessibility Engineer has been used at the Post, but accessibility is not a new concept to us. Ensuring that everyone has access to the news, including people with disabilities, is essential to the mission of journalism. Many of us at the Post have worked to increase the accessibility of our content. This includes folks in the newsroom, like our designers and recently hired disability reporter Amanda Morris, as well as folks in marketing and other teams. I learned a lot about accessibility from colleagues whose job titles are not accessibility-specific. But this work has been siloed and intermittent in the past. The goal with the new job is a sustained, centralized, and organized push for accessibility.
At many smaller news organizations, there may not be the option to hire an accessibility engineer, or any software engineers at all. That doesn’t mean those organizations don’t care about accessibility. Having this new title at the Post isn’t the difference between caring about accessibility or not. It’s about refining our existing efforts. It’s about having the time to innovate in this space and help make the Post a leader and model for newsrooms with less resources.
Some of the bigger tech companies have had accessibility engineers for years, which helped motivate us to create this role at the Post.
Scire: What is your job as accessibility engineer and how, specifically, did this role get created? (Did the Post identify the need for the role and advertise for it, or did it come about in a different way?)
Foreman: There are many barriers to journalism, including financial and language barriers. But there are also barriers invisible to many of us that are experienced on the websites, apps, and other platforms where we consume and interact with the news. It’s great that more people have become aware of alt text (also known as an image description), which is added to images so that blind and low-vision users can hear what an image contains by using a screen reader.
But it’s important to realize that accessibility in media is about so much more than alt text or any other single issue. There are many different types of disabilities, including temporary and situational disabilities — like a broken arm, bad internet, or loud surroundings — that change how people interact with journalism. Some people are unable to use a computer mouse due to a motor disability, for instance. These folks may rely on a keyboard to navigate content, but many websites and apps are built with the assumption that everyone can hover a mouse over a map, or click and drag on the screen. Assumptions like these hinder accessibility.
Having an engineer dedicated to accessibility at the Post will help us eliminate assumptions and focus on maintaining up-to-date standards. It will also give us the time to explore new opportunities in research and feature development. The accessibility engineer will help educate others at the company on the latest accessibility practices and will be a resource for support.
I’ve had hopes for an accessibility role at the Post since 2021, when I started an informal working group at the company with biweekly meetings for skill shares, news, internal updates, shoutouts and other discussions related to accessibility. With the help of Julie Bacon Arsenault, one of the Post’s engineering directors, I delivered a pitch last year for an accessibility engineer job title. Julie is a champion of this work, and I’m so grateful for that. I’m also grateful that Arturo Silva, an engineering manager who oversees the Washington Post Design System among other things, was willing to make a home for the role on his team.
Scire: What kinds of previous experiences — personal, professional, educational, etc. — have led you to this job?
Foreman: I do not identify as disabled. In college, I took some courses related to disability and was loosely aware of concepts like alt text through my work with the college newspaper. I started working at the Post in 2020, but I hadn’t thought about accessibility engineering as a full-time job until I had been with the Post for about a year. There were many accessibility considerations that I explored and acted on in my day-to-day work, but I often did not have time to dig deeper. I most recently worked on our live elections coverage at The Post, and I’ve blogged in the past about some of our steps toward screen reader and keyboard accessibility on those pages. This work helped me see the need for a full-time role focused on accessibility. I have for years been at this crossroads of wanting a more community-oriented journalism job while also enjoying the day-to-day work of software engineering. Basically, I would rather write code than write articles, but I’m more passionate about interacting with people than with technology. Accessibility in technology is such an interdisciplinary area of focus; it’s about understanding the needs of individual people and how to build things inclusively. That feels like a perfect combination of my skills, passion, and interests.
Accessibility is a relatively small area of focus in journalism right now. There aren’t yet a lot of roles like the one I’m starting now. At its core, I think journalism is about wanting valuable information accessible to as many people as possible, and I believe I have potential to create real change if I invest fully into it. Thankfully, the Post agreed and created this new title.
Scire: What are your hopes and dreams for the role?
Foreman: There are so many young people out there who are becoming educated and passionate about accessibility. The Twitter accessibility team — which created the alt text badge — was formed in 2020 as a group of volunteers after Twitter got called out for not including captioning in audio tweets. Everything has to start somewhere. I want my new role to be the new norm, not the exception.
Another big hope with this role is that we create a stronger dialogue with our users, real people with different backgrounds and including folks with disabilities, as we do our work. There are different types of manual and automated tests that we can use to gauge the accessibility of a website or app, but these only scratch the surface. It’s essential to learn how different people are actually using our tools and identify the opportunities for improvement with their input.
Scire: What do you see as some of the challenges and opportunities for being the first accessibility engineer — or the first anything — at a news organization? Are there groups, people, or resources that you’ll look to, outside of the Post, that’ll help you and give you feedback and community as you do this work?
Foreman: The coding is the easy part. Centering our work in listening, and elevating voices that have long been marginalized, is essential to improving accessibility in journalism. Trust has to be earned, and I think this is the biggest opportunity and challenge of being the first in this role. It’s counterproductive for accessibility work to be siloed from broader audience engagement and DEI work. Keeping that in mind, a lot of my initial work has included conversations with various stakeholders to get a better understanding of where and how engineering support, education, and documentation are needed. Accessibility may be viewed as a secondary concern or just a technical checklist if we don’t engage with real people in this area just as we do in others. At an organization like the Post, we have great opportunity to contribute to the broader discussions surrounding accessibility and technology. I’ve often found myself wishing conversations in this area were more inclusive of people with a diversity of backgrounds and identities. It’s essential to think about accessibility not just in the context of disability but also in the context of other inequities affecting news coverage and access to news. For instance, writing in plain language for users with cognitive disabilities can also benefit users with lower reading literacy. [The Post published a plain language version of Foreman’s introductory blog post.] Making pages less complex can make them more user-friendly and also possible to load in the first place for folks in areas with bad internet, etc.
It’s definitely stressful to be the first in this new role. I feel deep down like I need to justify its creation with every step that I take. My managers and colleagues have been fully supportive, and it is thanks to them that the role exists, so I would say that the pressure feels self-enforced. Thankfully, there is a lot of collaboration in the accessibility world, and I have already been in contact with some folks from outside of The Post regarding how we can support each other.
Scire: You said you’ve found yourself wishing conversations were “more inclusive of people with a diversity of backgrounds and identities.” Can you give me a better sense of how you plan to address that? I know you’re good at putting your contact info out there and encouraging people to reach out, but do you have a plan for outreach, too?
Foreman: Yes, I plan to reach out to people directly. I’m also looking into conferences and organizations that feature diverse perspectives and areas of focus. If you’re reading this and have any in mind, please let me know. I look forward to sharing updates on our findings and solutions via The Post’s engineering blog and social media.
There are many types of diversity that we’ll consider in our outreach. For journalists, it is essential to source with diversity in race, gender, sexuality, and more. It is also essential in accessibility work. People with the exact same disability can have different resources, needs, and preferences. And issues like low internet bandwidth can correlate with other user demographics like geographic location. There are nuances specific to the accessibility space. Not everyone with a disability has access to the same technology. Screen reader availability varies by operating system. JAWS, one of the popular screen readers, is not free to use. And there are many different types of disability. We cannot focus our work only on disabilities related to vision or hearing. We need separate initiatives to address separate accessibility issues.
I’m always looking to learn from others, especially those directly impacted by accessibility issues. Some have already reached out to ask questions and share resources, and that is always appreciated. I also realize that not everyone will be as forthcoming. It will take trust, commitment and regular engagement to ensure we are not only considering the most well-supported and outgoing voices in this space.