Meet a Joomler - Julian White
If you have visited the online Joomla User Group London in the last year you perhaps might have heard and seen our next interviewee in action, Juian White. Julian is an expert in the accessibility area and how he became such will become clear in this interview.
Tell us about yourself, where do you live, family and background?
I live in one of Britain’s smallest towns based in the heart of the Somerset Levels with fabulous countryside for walking the dog and with a great community spirit. I was diagnosed with Retinitis Pigmentosa, a degenerative eye condition with no known treatment during 2008 which ultimately resulted in being registered severely sight impaired (blind). I now have no usable sight remaining and require the use of a white cane to assist with mobility outside of the home.
As a result of this eye condition, I had to adapt my lifestyle to accommodate my visual impairment in ways I never thought would be necessary, from making a cup of tea to shopping and using a computer.
Using technology such as computers and smartphones was one of the biggest changes I had to make. Learning to use a screen reader took time and with frequent frustrations due to inaccessible applications and websites. Over the years, accessibility has improved yet there are still a number of poorly designed applications and websites out there. I regularly contact the developers with suggestions on how to improve their products but unfortunately, some make no effort to make adaptations or even refuse to engage altogether. These developers range from small, local website designers right through too, internationally known companies.
I am fortunate to have a very supportive partner and a sister who lives nearby but I try to maintain my independence as much as possible by visiting the local shops where the staff are on the whole very helpful and this includes most of the customers too. Occasionally I do encounter people who can be rude or even down right nasty either pushing me out of the way, knocking my cane out of my hands or shouting insults but this is rare rather than the norm.
How did you get involved with Joomla and the community?
In late 2015 I purchased a QNAP NAS (Network Attached Storage) box with the intention of using it for streaming music and additional storage for my ageing Windows PC. However, I soon discovered that this model could be used as a web server and so investigated the applications that were available to install including CMS platforms. Having researched these CMS apps from the well known providers, I settled on Joomla as it had the most accessible administration area and offers a great number of extensions from third party developers, both free and paid for.
I installed Joomla, purchased the langportonline.com domain name, configured the web server and had my broadband provider supply me with a static IP address so as to negate the requirement for a dynamic IP address forwarding service. Over the following months, I taught myself how to navigate the Joomla administration area, create articles, submit my sitemap to the search engines and created some content about the local area. I knew that the site was not the best looking possible as I had no idea what CSS was let alone had tried writing it but, I understood what made a website accessible, what extensions were well written and amazingly, my basic Joomla site actually received some traffic from Google searches.
My website development soon outgrew the capabilities of the NAS box as did the Windows PC so I upgraded to an Apple iMac and joined a hosting company and this is when things really took off. Apple’s VoiceOver screen reader opened up the internet massively, Joomla became much more accessible and I started building a website about being visually impaired offering support to others going through the process of being diagnosed with an eye condition, reviewing products with affiliate links and outlining issues I encountered with websites and applications. I was contacted by a member of the marketing department from one of the UK’s largest supermarkets asking how they could improve their advertising materials in store and on their website.
During the initial start of the CoVid pandemic in 2020, I was sitting in the car waiting for my partner to get his first injection and was viewing the Joomla Community website when I came across the Joomla Accessibility Team page which I was really excited about joining. I completed the form using my iPhone but to my horror, there was a capture which was totally in-accessible to screen reader users and gave up for the time being believing that someone with a visual impairment is just not welcome on the internet especially when their own sight levels are so low but this did not deter me from continuing with Joomla and website creation.
Late 2020, a friend of ours approached us about their support group’s website that was built by a local company using WordPress. he asked if I thought it was accessible. I reviewed it and the limited number of pages it contained and while most of it was acceptable, there were a few issues that could be easily resolved. This ultimately resulted in me offering to completely revamp the groups website but only if I could use Joomla instead. He agreed that a completely new website was required to meet the GDPR and to automate their newsletter service, so I set about building a Joomla website on a voluntary basis. Once the site was created with a host of new articles and features including a fully automated event booking service, I asked the group to review the site pointing out issues they had with colours, graphics and other elements that sighted people would have. This led me to the wonderful world of CSS and I discovered that a totally blind person could style a website even without actually being able to see it using feedback from sighted individuals.
In April 2022 came an update to Joomla 4 which instantly placed a massive barrier to the way I used Joomla. The update was to the source code editor within Tiny-MCE and introduced highlighting which meant I was no longer able to access the HTML of an article thus editing the code was impossible. Despite numerous attempts at finding a work around including trying third party extensions, I could not find a solution and believed that Joomla had joined the ranks of inaccessible CMS platforms.
I returned to the Joomla Community website, found the Accessibility Team page and sent a message pleading for a way of reverting the source code editor back to how it was but with little expectation of a response. Within a few hours I received an email from the team leader Christiane Maier-Stadtherr who took a very keen interest in the problem and outlined a possible solution. Incredibly, an update was released within a couple of days and the issue was fixed with the introduction of a new option within the Tiny-MCE editor plugin configuration to turn highlighting off. With my faith restored in Joomla, I had made a great new friendship with an understanding and helpful member of the Joomla Community.
What do you do for a day job and if it includes Joomla, how?
Along with my partner who has a degree in Creative Music Technology which includes graphic design, video editing and website creation, we are starting a business based solely around the Joomla CMS platform offering a range of products, services and accessibility consultations. Using the domain name I first registered all the way back in 2015, https://langportonline.com.
I will provide an Accessibility review service for application and website developers using my unique skills as a severely sight impaired person who also has the inside knowledge of how Joomla fits together, operates and how various extensions, plugins and modules can affect the way that screen reader users interact with the website. We believe that with the combination of his multimedia skills and my understanding of truly accessible websites for those using screen readers, we can provide a great all round service for our customers. Of course, the Accessibility Consultations will not be limited just to Joomla websites, we will offer this service to anyone developing websites on any platform.
Do you use Joomla in other ways, hobbies, websites, building sites for clients,, etc?
Yes, I started a website https://twisty-bits.com, in 2019 aimed at anyone interested in two wheeled forms of transport. At the time, we had a Yamaha Tracer 900 GT sports touring motorbike. Having had lots of motorbikes before losing my driving licence due to sight loss, I really enjoyed the feeling of freedom this offered and being a pillion passenger was excellent fun. However, in June 2021, while less than half a mile from home, a careless car driver pulled out in front of us sending us both flying over his bonnet and resulted in us both sustaining broken bones, a written off motorbike and my partner no longer able to ride having had metal plates inserted into his left arm to hold it altogether.
The Twisty-Bits website taught me a lot about search engine optimization (SEO) and according to Google Analytics, the site regularly has at least three pages showing on the first page of results with no advertising or promotion on social media. I tried a number of extensions from third party developers, discovering which ones were accessibility friendly for both the front and backend and just how professional some developers can be.
We built another site to present and sell a late uncle’s art work, https://peterthomaswhite.com and although I have made little effort with regards to online promotion, it receives a number of hits every month. I tried three different eCommerce extensions before finding one that has the best accessibility and functions.
Are you involved in the Joomla community apart from your official position?
Yes, shortly after making contact with Christiane from the Joomla Accessibility Team, I was contacted by Phil Walton of the Joomla London User Group who asked if I would be interested in a 30 minute slot during one of the online meetings. With some research before the scheduled time slot, I found some example websites with both good and bad accessibility and started my presentation that also included the Joomla 4 Cassiopeia template. Nearly two hours later and with a number of really useful questions asked and answered, the presentation came to a close with everyone in attendance saying how useful it was to them as developers.
A similar presentation was performed during June which again went on for over two hours in which I covered a number of tests on the Gantry 5 template both front and backend, then moved onto the Joomla administration area where I pointed out a number of accessibility issues I encountered. One of these was accessing the media manager with difficulty choosing the correct folder for images but, George Wilson was present and announced that he could rectify the problem now that he was aware of it. Through the Joomla Accessibility Team chat, I was asked to test the new coding which had fixed the problem for screen readers.
Being part of a JUG really does help spread the word, raise issues and is a great way of meeting new people with an interest in Joomla.
I “look” forward to presenting more seminars at the JLUG in the future about templates, extensions and other accessibility related issues and would really like to see (pardon the pun) more Joomla developers attend if possible.
How did Joomla change your life?
I have always had an interest in website creation long before discovering Joomla, dating back to 2004 when I opened an eBay shop selling items related to my job at the time. I soon realised that with a bit of effort and a very limited amount of HTML knowledge, it was possible to create original and eye-catching listings that helped promote my items and soon propelled me to the ranks of Powerseller.
I then set about constructing a website using pure HTML, FileZilla and free hosting provided by my ISP. Looking back at this now, it was really basic but I did embed a video into the home page, created a basic shopping cart with PayPal buttons and promoted it with flyers while at work travelling around the UK. This site did amazingly make a few sales before the whole thing came crashing down when the ISP removed the free storage and with no backup (I did not even think of a backup at the time) to call upon. Discovering Joomla rekindled my enthusiasm for website development but on a much more secure and professional level.
What did you learn or gain from being a Joomla volunteer?
I never envisaged being part of the Joomla volunteer community due to my perceived lack of coding skills, this was a world of people with computing degrees, professionals who can make amazing extensions and nobody would have the slightest interest in what a severely sight impaired person would have to say. I have followed the Joomla Magazine, reading the articles about various topics and only after raising the issue of the inaccessible source code editor did I discover just how wrong I was.
The Joomla Community is full of genuine, honest and interesting people who, for all the right reasons, want to help others in their quest for Joomla perfection. Being part of the community has benefited both myself and my partner in so many ways. We have made some great connections around the world, helped make Joomla better for everyone and hopefully, we can attend some Joomla days in the future, especially within Europe along with our utterly crazy dog if anyone will have us?
Do the accessibility features of Joomla help you build a website?
Without a doubt, Joomla has some really useful accessibility features built in and with Joomla 4 offering excellent features such as the skip links generator that works across all templates, even those from third party developers, this is a really exciting time for accessibility and website development.
I have started writing a series of articles about accessibility, websites and how to ensure everyone can make their own sites better with ease of access part of the core. These articles will appear in the Joomla Magazine and with extended versions available on our own site at langportonline.com for people to read, even those using other CMS platforms. I will always be singing the praises of Joomla and extolling its virtues, encouraging both new and old developers to try Joomla over other forms available.
What more accessibility features are possible with Joomla?
From the administration area and within the articles and categories section, the ordering of items is not accessible as it requires the user to hover over an icon then dragging this either up or down the table to position that item relative to the other items in the list. Some third party developers such as Joomlapolis use a screen reader friendly version with buttons to move the item up or down the table. While this can be a slow process if the developer needs to move an item through a number of positions, it is fully accessible.
Regarding the Joomla Extension Directory, a similar situation happens when trying to rate and review extensions. There is a sliding scale to award a percentage and this is inaccessible also. I did unfortunately once award a very good developer a score of only 66% by mistake rather than the full 100% they deserved. Some months later I realised the error and had to delete the review and sincerely hope this did not affect their rankings!
Do you have a memorable Joomla moment?
Goodness, there have been so many it is hard to pick just one but, I think that the time I realised my first version of Langport Online was appearing within search results on Google, Bing and other search engines and then people started visiting the site and registering, posting and sharing the site with others gave me a feeling of tremendous achievement. The fact that someone with limited experience of website development and technical knowhow could install a CMS onto a NAS box and within a few days publish a functioning website was quite honestly a revelation.
Of course, thinking back to that first site it must have had zero visual appeal due to my non-existent styling skills however, the content was obviously of interest to those viewing it or they wouldn’t have bothered signing up to use it.
What happened to your first website?
As a complete novice with very little understanding of how Joomla fitted altogether, I was oblivious still to the importance of making backups and during some testing of all the extensions I had installed, something terrible went wrong and the site was broken beyond repair. A valuable lesson learned which has put me in good stead for the future.