How to start a company in digital Accessibility - An Interview with Sophie Johanning

This is the transcript for the German podcast. I smoothed the text a little, but tried to keep the oral character. Typos are my fault. I spoke to founder Sophie Johanning about getting started with digital accessibility, accessible documents and artificial intelligence and her tips for others who want to start their own business in digital accessibility.

Domingos: Welcome to a new podcast on digital accessibility. Today I can welcome the first interview guest on this podcast, Sophie Johanning. First of all, thank you very much for taking the time for the interview. Just introduce yourself.

Sophie: Thank you so much for allowing me to be here. I work in digital accessibility and especially in the area of accessible documents and accessible software, me and my network Silta.

We try to bring people with different backgrounds and different focuses and previous knowledge in the area of accessibility together and work together on projects. On the one hand, projects for customers where we earn money. but on the other hand there are also projects where we try to either find long-term solutions ourselves or promote them and improve digital accessibility.

Article Content

Sophie's path to digital accessibility

Domingos: That surely is urgently needed. You have a very interesting background. You studied chemistry and physics for a master's degree and completed them. Then you have found a somewhat unusual approach to the topic of accessibility. Maybe you can tell those listening a little about how you got into accessibility.

Sophie: yes, exactly, I started studying chemistry and after two semesters I realized that I missed physics. Then I was so daring and studied chemistry and physics at the same time

Then in the final stages of my master's degree, because I studied a little longer because it was two courses and I wanted to relieve my parents a little, I looked for a part-time job. I came across You needed an assistant to travel with you through Germany and support you. I remember the first three or four appointments with you, I think the Spiegel interview was once in Hamburg, then a training course and lectures of all kinds in Düsseldorf. It was incredibly fun and I was able to attend a lot of training courses and lectures from you participate. It was all incredibly exciting.

I come from the natural sciences. There I specialized in coding. That is, I was given scientific problems and then I tried to find programs or algorithmic solutions for them. I was interested in how one could manage to perhaps improve a field like digital accessibility, which is not automated at all, to this day, how one could manage to improve it through algorithms and automatisms, perhaps in the future. And in general I found this field incredibly exciting. We often had to deal with this on many German trains that arrived late, which is why we were always able to chat a lot, before and after lectures. There is a bit of a lack of scientific perspective and technical expertise in German accessibility.

Then I became self-employed in 2019 and started really working in that area to this day. I gradually built up my network and there are now two of us. Me and my business partner who came along. She is also from the field of physics, she was a particle physicist. We are currently a network and hope to found a GmbH that deals with software development in the future. We're really trying to find solutions, like maybe making a better screen reader or automation or something like that.

So much for my path to accessibility, a bit unconventional, but perhaps really because you can't study accessibility, it comes from a completely different place.

Domingos: That's right. Even in web development, many people come from completely different areas. I also think that in general the scientific approach to accessibility is an enrichment. I usually approach the topic intuitively, which doesn't always make sense.

Sophie: I noticed that too. I automatically ask myself the question when someone says, for example, that icons are not accessible. The question that always comes up for me is why this is the case and often people can't even say how they came to a specific statement. These are simply things that people think about in terms of digital accessibility in Germany without having checked them. And then sometimes it's good when someone new comes along and asks.

What projects they are working on

Domingos: You've been working in accessibility for about three years now, so five years if we count the assistantship. Maybe you can tell us what interesting projects you are currently working on without mentioning customer or product names.

Sophie: At the moment we are cooperating with a public customer. The point is, what tourism should look like when it is accessible. For example, if I have an advertisement and a vacation is recommended, for example, or there is an Instagram post and you want to promote Germany as a holiday destination in some way, then the question is, how do we interest people with disabilities in Germany as a tourist destination? It might not be enough if I just post a standard image with an image description “This is the Wadden Sea”. then maybe something else would be more interesting. Maybe, for example, what activities can a person with a motor disability do on the Wadden Sea or if there are tours or something similar, are they accessible.

We also generally do a lot with accessible documents and the question of how we describe specific images so that they are received accordingly. Another project is about how the tagging structure of documents can be created automatically. For those who have nothing to do with digital accessibility or just want to take a look at it: It is very important that we have a PDF that, for accessibility, says every single little element of itself what it is: Am I a heading , I am an image that is called semantics. Until now, this structure has to be stored manually. That means someone has to go through and assign each element what it is. Word can help you with this, but it's not optimal when exporting to PDF. Our project is to automate the whole thing.

Another project we have right now: A huge problem in accessibility is that we hardly have any data about how people with disabilities move through the internet because, thank God, it isn't tracked. However, this means that we have no opportunity to weigh up what is really best accessible, especially when it comes to specific statements. We are working on a project where we take the data we have and visualize it and try to process it in order to draw attention to how little we actually know and how important it is to actively involve people with disabilities. I remember you gave a talk at Microsoft in 2018 and you talked about how important it is that as a developer you don't just think, okay, cool, that would help a blind person, but maybe you should talk to one beforehand blind person have talked about whether this is really the best option. And we want to draw attention to the fact that we talk much more to people with disabilities about what they really need and consider to be accessible. Especially from a developer perspective, sometimes you are a little too benevolent and think you already know what will help in the end.

Challenge of accessible documents

Domingos: Your colleagues from the network, you specialize in the topic of accessible documents. What problems arise in this area?

Sophie: I already mentioned it briefly: this problem with semantics. And that's really the crux of the matter with PDFs. You have to integrate a technical structure that gives elements and structures a meaning and a purpose. Where AI can help or, in general, simply smarter algorithms that can make decisions independently is when I have, for example, different headings and one of them, for example, is green and bold in font size 26 and another is also green and not bold in font size 20 printed. An AI could look at that and then decide, maybe one is a headline and the other is a title and so on. On the whole, infographics and especially graphics that should be described for blind people are generally a problem. Image recognition systems can help in the future. A thing that is more important with documents than, for example, on the web. On the web, content and design are strictly separated. This means that content is passed through the HTML, the design is done via CSS. This is currently more difficult in PDF. They often need to be tagged manually, we are working on a solution to automate this.

Because you brought up the topic of problems. Another important topic is the automated checking of PDFs for accessibility. There are tools for this, but they are currently not usable.

Domingos: You and your colleague are also AI developers. How do you see the future of AI in accessible PDF? Will there be any positive developments in the foreseeable future?

Sophie: Absolutely. This is now my personal assessment. But the new laws in the EU and the European Accessibility Act have given a lot of impetus. There used to be no pressure to develop such clever algorithms. Money is invested where money can be made. What we have so far is rather mediocre and needs a lot of manual improvement. You can tell that there is a lot more momentum here and there are many initiatives. I think things will look a lot better in three, maybe five years.

Tips for getting started with digital accessibility as a freelancer

Domingos: Before we conclude: You made a conscious decision to become self-employed on the topic of digital accessibility. There are a lot of young people like you who have just finished their studies and want to do something meaningful. What would you advise them if they want to go into digital accessibility?

Sophie: I really have to say, our network and the community, there are so many lovely people who want to help and are looking for people. That means really having the courage to write to people. Maybe try out a course or a session/lecture at university. One thing that I would really like to say because it all brings us so much joy and we have so much fun with the job and the subject matter.

Accessibility is not yet on the timetable. You have completed your studies and it is always safer to get a job. But if you're brave, you should also try self-employment. and if you maybe write to a few people in the network and ask if you can do an internship for two or three weeks or if you can get a taste of it. It's such a nice community, there are so many helpful people and it's so much fun and we need really smart people with all kinds of skills. In general, networking with other like-minded people is super important.

Domingos yes, thank you very much for these tips. I hope that some people will then feel encouraged to delve into the topic of accessibility. They don't necessarily have to be young people; you can also take a completely new direction at the age of 50. In any case, thank you very much for taking the time for the interview.

More on Sophie and

More Interviews