Access All Areas: Designing Accessibility From Day One
9:01PM Mar 2, 2021
An incredibly important aspect of these conversations about diversity and inclusion in tech is accessibility, which is why I'm thrilled to introduce Cynthia Bennett with Carnegie Mellon University stryn Mani Polly, co founder of accountable and former head of accessibility at Airbnb, and Mara Mills with New York University. My colleague, Steve O. Harris sat down with this group A couple of days ago. Let's check it out.
Ron, thanks for joining us, we got a lot I want to get through to you today. So I'm going to jump straight into it. If that's okay. So I guess the best place to start would be to first try to answer the question of what do we mean by designing for Accessible spaces, or accessibility? Both in a guest in the physical and digital worlds? So start with us when
I'm sure like, you know, it's in terms of what is accessibility? Yeah, I always like to kind of frame this in the most sort of EQT noticed accessible context that everyone can, you know, can can can kind of be outreach to in the sense that it's just simply a way of designing products and services, to make sure that anybody could use them, regardless of disability. And it's very simple level. And, of course, there are nuances to that, and to kind of what specific things one needs to do in order to achieve that. But at its most basic place, it's just making sure that we design things that everybody can use.
It sounds pretty simple. Since he's here is that, is that a good definition?
Yes, sir. And I really loved that you introduced it in such an approachable way. That is accessibility is something that we can all participate in and should all participate in I nuanced accessibility in a particular way. As I am a disabled person who works in tech, I work in design and research areas. And so for me, accessibility is not just about making sure that the products that leave the door are accessible, but also the tools and the processes, and the cultures are accessible. So if the products are accessible, are the tools used to create those products able to be used by everyone? And is there a culture inside that anticipates that people will be using the accessibility features and expects that? So I consider that as part of accessibility as well.
Okay, and more anything to pitch in? Yeah, yeah, I'll
just add a few points to strengthen Cynthia's excellent comments. And I would say my column comments followed directly from Cynthia's which is just, you know, it's important to remember that access technologies are not inherently accessible themselves, whether we're talking about software or a physical ramp, they have to be affordable, they have to be discoverable, people need to know that they exist, they often require training to use. And I think this is similar to what Cynthia was saying they have to be employed in welcoming settings, the culture has to be there too. So things like linguistic background, and age and social stigma, all these factors really matter to us. So you know, there's no such thing as a quick technical fix. Unfortunately, technology doesn't work completely independently, even though it can create really major barriers. And then the second point I want to make is just that, you know, disability is an umbrella category, and it's really internally diverse. And we sometimes see access efforts that work for one group, creating new forms of inaccessibility for other groups. And I think that's been really true in this moment of video conferencing where certain tools like zoom work for certain groups and then they don't really work that well for deaf and hard of hearing people or they haven't before automated captioning became available. So just keeping in mind like the diversity of of disability and the diversity of access needs. And since I'm a media studies professor, I'm coming from a slightly different background than both Cynthia and Saran. I would just as a last comment, say that I always like to reserve a place when thinking about inclusive design and accessibility for what's called critical design. And this is what designers like Graham pullin and Sarah Hendren describe as design even beyond functionality. This is designed for activist purposes. You know, it's designed it's meant to raise questions or raise awareness, or it's like just designed for the sole purpose of disability aesthetics. So I always like to sort of stick that in there is another another aspect of design for disability.
And I thought it'd be useful to set the rest of the discussion in a bit more context, in terms of the medical model of disability, versus the social model of disability. Probably unsurprisingly, I'm a big fan of the social model, which, as far as I understand, is pretty much replaced the medical model, certainly, in terms of how disabled people themselves will. But can you just mark, you just give us a really brief definition of those two models and why it's an important context to set. Yeah, I
mean, a social model of disability came out of disability activism. It's now infiltrated academia. And I'm so happy to hear that it's part of the world of tech and design. But it started in disability activism in the UK, in the US in the 1970s. And it's a really influential and helpful framework for thinking about the ways the built environment and social norms exacerbate and even create disabilities. So these disability activists in the 70s, were pushing back against what you just said, they're pushing back against this dominant medicalized perception of disability, that they called the medical model, which is imagines disability only as a so called defect or a disorder, something that requires a cure. In the medical model, the problem is supposed to be solved at the level of individual treatment, medical treatment. And they argued that, you know, with the social model impairments and other differences, a whole range of differences sensory and physical and other, actually only become disabling in certain environments. And, you know, classic New York example would be when someone who's using a wheelchair encounters a subway stop without an elevator, which would be like 90% first, avoid stops. And, you know, there's other disabilities that are entirely constructed with no foundation of impairment. We, you know, they're constructed because of social prejudice, that causes differences to be totally inappropriately medicalized. We saw this before 1973 in the case of homosexuality being in the DSM. So yeah, according to the social model of disability, the intervention required is not medical, and it's not individual, it's a matter of social justice. So things like new architecture, new designs, new laws, new software, revising the DSM. And, you know, the last thing I would say, is the goal of access and the goal of the social model isn't eliminating disability. And, in fact, many disability activists today are insisting on disability as an identity, like a coalitional identity category, not unlike queerness. I really love Lawrence Carter Long's recent, say the word hashtag campaign as an example of centering disability identity and culture, even as one demands access. So the social model isn't about like eliminating all difference in the world. And that's that sort of the the caveat I would add on,
you know, absolutely, no, I mean, for me, I just like the simplicity of the certain UK, we like to use the word disabled, like, well within a person with disabilities, and to remind ourselves that it's a social model, in a sense, it is the way societies organized and constructed and the attitudes and is it that tend to have a disabling factor? Not not someone's medical condition? Now, obviously, we're TechCrunch and we obsessively cover startups. And one question that I got asked recently is, when is it too early? Or too late for a startup or founding team? To think about accessibility? And or, you know, should accessibility be something that companies, you know, should bake in from the get go? You thinking like, an MVP, minimum viable product? So I want to throw that one to you, Cynthia, first, when is the right time to start thinking about this stuff?
So it's never too early? And I feel like a yes, no question is not the right question. And when, if we say no to accessibility, which sometimes might be said explicitly, and other times it might be said implicitly through the technologies, we design not being accessible? You are, you're kind of deciding that a swath of humanity is not going to be able to use whatever you've developed and that to me, that should never be okay. I try to redirect this question to think about Okay, given the resources that I have in the power that I have, how can I search for work with my organization to start thinking about accessibility no matter where we are and in the process, and so kind of in the level of individual contributor, maybe that's doing some self education, maybe that's helping to implement a basic accessibility guidelines, like Web Accessibility Guidelines, or architecture accessibility guidelines to try to draw those in to plans or write those into your code. And maybe there's other things, you know, that you could do at an organizational level advocating to your leaders, or if you are in a leadership position, making policies that can spread, you know, that accessibility philosophy, you know, ripple out to have a larger impact. And so I try to think of it as it's never too early. If you're asking the question, it's probably a little late. And it's more about assessing like, what resources and power do I have, so that I can start making an impact toward greater accessibility, I think if you haven't started on a project, it's a great time to think about accessibility. And again, as we've already talked about, not just thinking about how the end product will be accessible, but how the processes and the cultures are going to also be accessible as well. And I think shran has a little bit more applied experience. So I'm excited for his complements to my answer.
Yeah, no, absolutely. If I was gonna come to you next. Anyways, I want to, I want to add a bit of extra context. Obviously, you, you were a founder. And your startup in its set, in a sense, had accessibility as its mission, externally, as well as making a resume, that the products were accessible ourselves. But I mean, I, I've been a founder too, and I've got to be honest, founders would sometimes would flippantly say, you know, they've got a million other things to think about, right. And they would probably, quite completely shove accessibility to the back of the tube early on, and sort of justify that in the pursuit of getting their venture off the ground. So obviously, you have to think about it from the start, for multiple reasons, right?
Yeah, no, of course. I mean, when the the fundamental thesis of what we were doing was was was, was based around accessibility? Sure. Like it's something we think about from the get go. But in answer to sort of the question about how to sort of advise founders who may be feeling like a million problems, kind of imperfect, they're getting it sort of fundamentally reframing the question that it's, it doesn't have to it's an opportunity rather than a problem, it is something that actually, if it's baked into the very beginning, and it's seen as part of the workflow of building a product actually doesn't have to be of a different challenge, there is so many things that can be done very easily in the early days, where it can just be built into processor. Like, let's say, I don't know, maybe a decade ago, when, you know, mobile was beginning to take off, and people had to redesign websites to be mobile friendly. Sure, new websites that get made are sort of built with mobile in mind. And I think you can very easily take that to things like security, or privacy or accessibility, where there are different categories or verticals of sorry, of, of matters. And it is very much possible to build with those principles from from from the get go. But think it doesn't, it does come back to a framing and it's really important for founders to not see this as like a problem to be solved, that this can be something that is just part of making our product or service kind of usable by our customers and delivering a great customer experience. And, and again, at a fundamental level, a startup can only survive who is building a product that customers like, and I would see making sure product is accessible is central to that in the first place.
Obviously, as was mentioned already, you know, disabled people disability is not a single homogenous group. Right. And that obviously poses challenges around accessibility and inclusion. So I'm just wondering, what advice would the panel give in terms of how to involve disabled people themselves or stakeholders in the process of designing for accessibility? You know, I'm sort of reminded of the you know, the slogan nothing about us without us, right. So, yeah, so that tomorrow?
Yeah, sure. I can say a few broad things about nothing about us without us as like a central motto of disability activism and also, how I think about it in my own work as a media studies scholar and historian of electronics. And then I'm really eager to hear how Cynthia and serenity this principle at work in HCI in an industry, since I'm in academic Media Studies, so yeah, nothing about us without us is like this century. His old political slogan that that was taken up by disability activists in the 80s, and the 90s. And if you think about that phrase, initially, the goal behind it was inclusion, and self representation. So like wrenching discourse about disability away from rehabilitation specialists who weren't disabled and centering disabled people in discussions of disability. But since this TechCrunch event is focused on the topic of justice, I want to just add that many disability activists now have moved beyond the issue of rights or in addition to the issue of rights, like beyond inclusion into an inequitable social order to the question of Disability Justice, this this question of how to remake the world in an unjust way. And this newer Disability Justice Movement is much more intersectional than earlier activism. And rather than like nothing about us, without us, it asks, like how the disability perspective can inform topics, even seemingly far afield from disability. So, in my own research, I look at the relationship of disability to histories of the present, especially histories of electronics, so the importance of cochlear implants to designs for neural computer interfaces, or reading machines for blind people, the century long series of experiments around those two, the development of OCR and pattern matching and AI. And I should just say that I know Cynthia from a small project we did a couple years ago with an A team of people on disability bias and AI. And since then I've drawn from her HCI work on biographical prototypes, what she calls biographical prototypes to think much more broadly in my own historical work about the contributions of disabled people to design. So I try not to just think about disabled people in the past as like designers or test subjects, but as maintainers, and tech workers, and tinkerers and retailers, and just, you know, what, what's interesting to me about this is that involving stakeholders today, as Cynthia does actually can change. The writing of history of the work that she's done in the present has changed the way I think about telling stories about disabled actors in the course of the history of electronics.
And sort of pitching this idea.
Yeah, thanks, Mara. And there's a cadre of people who are doing this rewriting of history, I think of Liz Jackson in the critical access blog that analyzes disability representation in the media, and often brings in histories to provide context for why certain aspects of media portrayal are problematic or empowering. And so part of bringing everyone to the table is recognizing that we all come to the table with histories. And it's likely that when we work with people, they've probably tried to solve the problem that we think they have, in many different ways. And so sometimes, that is, you know, amplifying a solution. Or sometimes it's recognizing there might not be a solution. But we're here to listen and, and design can be kind of an amplifier of this tension, or conflict that is probably unsolvable. But that we can kind of chip away at a couple of practical tips that I try to offer, and I'm very much still learning is thinking about different positions disabled folks can occupy. So people with disabilities need to be in all positions of power in these processes. They're both people on the inside, but you know, also people who can give that fresh perspective from those of us who might be on the inside and remember, kind of outsider or more diverse perspectives. And then something just really low level practical things I do are being flexible with with language. So I am a disabled person, and I'm very proud of that identity. But not everyone who experiences discrimination based on the way their body or their mind works, uses that language. So often, when I'm trying to talk to folks, I'll use terms like chronic illness or impairment or mental health condition or the deaf community. And so I try to have educated myself and I'm still learning about the different words that people use. And I try to approach them with a diversity of language to say, hey, even if you don't call yourself disabled, we want to talk to you. And on a second kind of low level practical advice is when you're looking to reach out to folks I also sometimes specify the type of interaction I'm looking for. So for example, you might recruit blind people to kind of take part in a design process with you, when really maybe what you're looking for is people who use screen readers or people who use Braille or people who use magnification so being sometimes being specific About the interaction technique or accessibility feature, can help you make sure you get the more specific group that you're looking for.
Yeah, that makes total sense. It's really do anything to add? Um,
I mean, essentially, like, yes, it's really important to make sure disabled people are at the table in that decision making process, from the more kind of entrepreneurial or the industry perspective, it also just makes really kind of good sense to make sure that the people that you are building solutions for help you co create those solutions in the first place, just as a fundamental efficiency. Like, if you're trying to make your product better for disabled people, you can do that so much better if disabled people are helping you build that in the first place. Yeah, absolutely. I
recently got pitched a founder who is building or attempting to build autonomous driving wheelchairs for airports, right? It's that horrible situation, where you know that the aircraft there, they lose your wheelchair, because they don't let you stand your wheelchair to board the plane. So they take your wheelchair, and they and they damage it. In the meantime, when we put into a
yeah, and some some airport Porter will put push you to wherever you are, go, right. So the founders that we're gonna build these autonomous, wheelchairs, they're gonna take you from, from the waiting, you know, whatever, to the airplane. And I'm right, whose problems are solved in height, that we stay in my wheelchair. So yeah, definitely code ration is I think, is fundamental. And I want to talk about inclusion more broadly, with regards to disability, because I feel that certainly when I did this article for TechCrunch, where I asked the big tech companies, why don't they include disability in their employee reporting, right. And they came back with various different reasons, including this sort of this bizarre argument that as long as their products were accessible, whatever that means. It was okay not to really care about how many people with disabilities were employed by tech companies. So I'm just wondering if the panel has views on, you know, how important accessibility is, in general actually starting with giving people jobs like, and being involved in, in the sense of the workforce. Cynthia nostalgie.
So this has been something that's hard as a disabled person who works in this field, it's been hard to find community. And part of that is that there's lack of reporting, there's lack of data collection. So I know that there are problems, challenges with information that's considered health information. And I think sometimes that's considered a showstopper. And I'd like us to think more creatively about how we can build company cultures where people want to disclose where they know that when they identify with a certain identity, or have a certain need, that they'll be supportive, and they can actually find community. So I understand that that's sometimes a blocker, but I hope we can think more creatively about, you know, can you spend it to like users of different accessibility features or something like that, um, I tend to also try to comment on, it's not just giving people jobs, but fundamentally rethinking the hiring and retention process. I've discussed the retention a little bit in regard to the internal tooling and cultures and processes, to make sure that disabled folks can actually survive and hopefully thrive. But in terms of hiring, we do still see a lot of underemployment and discrimination in education systems. And so I think, you know, until those situations are resolved, which is not going to happen anytime soon, we have to think about what qualifications do we have? Are there spaces where we can bring people in, who have diverse sets of skills and value those instead of having kind of the same expectations of like conventional tech education? So I really do think there has to be some work and not just giving disabled folks jobs, but collecting that data and kind of retooling, hiring and retention processes, as well,
as when we were preparing for this panel. You also talked about the importance of making sure the internal tools are also accessible, right? Which was not something I've thought of before. Um, can you just shut up right on that you feel?
Yeah, thanks for bringing that up again. And I guess I started just as an aside from the last comment, as I mentioned, with research, recruiting Flex, maybe flexible language can help with like reporting as well, you know, if not everyone identifies as being disabled, maybe they have, you know, health conditions or things like that. And that flexible language can help capture that that demographic. Yeah, internal tools. I mean, if you, if you hire people, and they can't use the tools that they're expected to use, or can't interact in the ways that that are kind of cultural norms in an organization, it kind of perpetuates this idea that maybe people are just kind of tokens, or here to kind of just affirm what's already happening, like, Oh, we have a disabled person, so we're good. And so so I think the internal tools are the ways to actually embody accessibility in a very material way, and to propel the talent of disabled people to make sure that they can exude that talent in in ways that are going to benefit the company and using the tools that they have available. So happy to elaborate further, if that wasn't specific, but
yeah, no, no, I think your points were wait. Yeah, it's not just about getting disabled people through the door. It's about empowering them to do their jobs properly, by allowing the tools themselves to be accessible. I think he also said in the prep to write flexibility about what tools they need to use to get their job done. I think, if I understood correctly,
yeah, definitely kind of having options and making sure that, you know, when there are multiple options for getting work done, that it's very clear that those are all legitimate options, because it never feels good to be the disabled person. That's like doing, doing using a tool that's like technically allowed, but that like nobody wants to use or people ask you why you're using it. So making sure that those, those flexible options are also kind of elevated as legitimate ways of doing the job.
No, absolutely. I'm gonna jump to the next topic, because I don't want to run out of time. I think this one is super important. How do startups or companies avoid paying lip service to accessibility? In terms of certainly no, see me as someone on the on the checklist, they've got to hit like the minimum requirement. And that's kind of done. I'm going to go back to use him for briefly. And then we can bring the other team keep iTunes.
Yeah, I'll just be brief, because I'd really love to hear from sir in particularly, but just reiterating all the things we've mentioned, like putting materials, like material commitments and money toward this having accessibility be non negotiable. from the top down, I've talked about kind of incorporating it into performance reviews, like when people are being great allies, and are incorporating accessibility, that should count and there should be consequences when that's not happening. So I'm really into like, putting the power and the money and having consequences when it's not happening.
I'm sharing them with you, you know, you are the founder CEO. Yes. So, I mean, you are probably the best person to champion this. But say, the companies and so fortunate, how does it become just not? That's due to bad legal minimum?
Yeah, and I think taking Cynthia's point further, right, like, it does meet that buy in from the top. And I hope, through sessions like this and other advocacy that we collectively do, that actually founders do learn that, again, this doesn't have to be sort of the back of the queue problem, that there are very, that there are interventions that can be made. And there are decisions that can be implemented from the get go, that does create that more inclusive culture from the beginning. And when you do have that buy in from the very top from the beginning, you know, this doesn't have to be the afterthought. And if it is there from the beginning, hopefully that is embedded. And as the company and organization scales, this is just something that is just ingrained into into the organization. But I think it all loops back into the fact that it's got to be there has got to be buy in from the top if if you have a required sort of improvements are there and again, just to take Cynthia's point further like for you, one of the biggest, easiest interventions improvements that can be made, is just making sure things like accessibility and the work in this area is incorporated into performance reviews, and there is like professionalism and this and people are held accountable for making sure improvements are made.
I'm more just about a minute left, just some historical context. I'm just wondering, in other sort of social issues we're seeing, not just a top down, but a kind of bottom up with employees demanding that some of these injustices are addressed. Is that a relevant point on why this is With link to my, my blog.
I mean, it's true, but the employees have to be there. I mean, I was just looking at the US Department of Labor Statistics for 2020. And, you know, nearly 70% of working age, people with disabilities are unemployed. That's for people who are self reporting. And of course, Cynthia brings up the important point that not everyone reports, but that number of 70% is held fairly steady since the early 20th century, despite the passage of the ABA in 1990. So, you know, access is important. But cultural change really has to happen and there and in order for the complaints to happen in a bottom up way, people have to be there and and have a mode of complaining. So I just completely agree with Cynthia and Saran that corporate leadership needs to enforce existing laws meant to prevent bias in hiring and culture starts to change as as demographics change. And it's not just its employees at every level. So yeah, I just got a plus one, two things that they were both saying,
you know, absolutely. So change is gonna speed up and ran out of time. But that was super, super interesting. Thank you, everybody.
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