Eyeway Conversations with Sheri Byrne-Haber
10:33AM Apr 23, 2021
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Hi, my name is George Abraham and welcome to this edition of Eyeway Conversations. I have with me, my colleague and friend Shilpi Kapoor from BarrierBreak, who are co-producers of this program. And our guest today is Sheri Byrne-Haber from the United States. She is an accessibility architect, and an active volunteer with the W3C, which is the World Wide Web Consortium. Hi, and welcome, Sheri.
Hi George, thanks for inviting me.
Yeah, let's begin the conversation with the question, what exactly is this accessibility architecture? And could you also share the journey that you had in promoting and helping organizations implement digital accessibility?
Sure. So, you know, not every company is large enough to need a chief accessibility officer, there's only a handful of those even across companies in the United States. And not every company is large enough to need an accessibility architect either. But you will occasionally see that pop up, or sometimes a different type of title, I know Jennison Asensio says accessibility evangelist, that was one at least I used as my self title for a while because I liked it. But what it means for VMware is because we're such an enormous organization, we've split the accessibility job into two. So originally, I was accessibility employee number one, and I built an entire team, but it really got too big for one person to be able to handle it. And so we took the testing, and the day-to-day project remediation programs and we gave that to one manager. And he's got the entire team reporting to him now. And I have moved into an individual contributor role. So architects are always individual contributors in technology. They don't have managerial responsibilities. But what they do is they focus on vision and strategy. And in my case, in specific, they call it innovation and outreach. So VMware actually wants me to work with other companies in getting their accessibility up to par to help improve what other companies are doing, as long as they're not our competitors. And they also want me to do innovation. So I've worked on some really cool stuff recently, for example, with machine learning and accessibility. So that's kind of where that title comes from. And then I work together with Chris, who's my counterpart, who does the remediation program. And we kind of share some of the strategic responsibilities at getting accessibility implemented at VMware. We have 32,000 employees at this point. So if there's around 140 products, so there's a lot of ground to cover, just way more than one person can do. In terms of how did I get here, I actually started off, like many people do. I grew up in Silicon Valley, and decided I wanted to do computers -- I've been programming for well, over half my life at this point. I was like, Sheri's secret fun fact is I was the first girl scout in the United States to get a badge and Computer Science. I don't know if you still call them Girl Guides in India. But it was a long time ago. And I've just always liked technology. So I decided to go to school, got a degree in Computer Science, like many people do. And for about 10 years, I was really heavily invested in software testing. It was my favorite part of doing excel in computer science. And then about a decade after I graduated, I decided I wanted to go to law school. So I had been involved as an expert witness, you know, the US is a very litigious society. And I realized that at end of the process that technology people didn't understand the law, the legal people didn't understand technology. And there ought to be a pretty good career for somebody who understood both. So even though I was born with some congenital mobility problems, I never really got into accessibility, or the legal field because of my own issues. I went to law school, and then partway through law school -- my middle daughter, we discovered she had a progressive hearing loss. And so instead of doing software patents, and copyright, and trademark and those types of things, I ended up going into advocacy for the deaf. And from there, about 10 years ago, I decided, if I wanted to start using my Computer Science degree, again, this really cool thing called accessibility might be a good way to go about doing that.
Quite a journey, Sheri, that is quite a journey for sure. Right? Which leads us to -- in this journey of yours, you've been through so many different companies. Right? And you've been advocating, you know, one for your daughter, sometimes for yourself, and within these organizations, you've been advocating for accessibility implementation, right? And for companies to take this on? How is your experience been over the years of doing that?
You know, it depends on the industry, it depends on the time. You know, as I mentioned, US is really really litigious. So in 2020, the last year that we have records work, we had over 3500 lawsuits filed pertaining to digital accessibility. And the point is, the individuals with the disabilities are largely winning most of the cases at this point. So as that is starting to become better understood as a business risk in the US, it's become a little bit easier to make the case for accessibility, you know, people in the US in business always want to see a business trade off. American businesses are known for doing things because they're the right thing to do. They're known for spending money on things because it's going to save them money in the long run. I don't like to look at accessibility, necessarily from a compliance perspective, it's certainly not what I start with. But it does tend to be an effective argument, especially in larger organizations, because the larger the organization, the more the legal risk, because these are the pockets the company has, if they get sued.
You know Sheri, leading from that -- So in India, one of our biggest challenges is how do we get even the larger companies to listen to the digital accessibility advice? We don't have a very litigious society at this point of time, though we do have a law in place. Right? So what is the kind of advice you would give us? How do we start? And you know, where do we start advocating for, right? Because today, we've got so many E-commerce portals, you've got so many delivery services, and a lot of them are totally inaccessible to people with disabilities. And we are struggling as a country. And as experts in the area, George and I both, how do we, you know, start? How do we sow that seed? So what is the advice you would give us to start to advocate? Because, you know, 10 years back, what did you do that we can do today?
So, I don't know that I have the magic answer to your question, but I can tell you how I would go about it. So, obviously, because of my own disabilities, and because of my daughter, I have a very personal connection to disability. So one of the things that you have to do to start with is to create a personal connection to disability, with the people who are making the decisions. You know, when you've got a large number of relatives, when we're talking about the numbers of people, right, in the United States, the number that's usually thrown around is that 18% of people under the age of 65 have a disability. So chances are you're related to one of them, you know one of them, you know, your dog walker's girlfriend's cousin is one of them, there's going to be some connection somewhere. And so one thing is to find that connection. And if there isn't a connection, you know, we're all guaranteed to be disabled at some point in time. It might be situational, it might be temporary, it might be permanent. But it is guaranteed they say death taxes, well, it's actually death taxes and disability. Because there's always going to be at least some chunk of time where you as an individual, experienced disability and then you have to reflect and say -- would I want to be cut off from the banking, from the healthcare, from the government office, if I had a disability and it turned out that it didn't resolve itself in a short period of time? And of course, the answer is no, nobody ever wants to be cut off from anything. So I think shifting the mindset to make it about the person who's making the decisions is needed. I have recently known a saying that, when you argue for accessibility, if you're not disabled, you're arguing for your future self. It is important. The other thing is that there's a large amount of money in the disability sector, if you look at the spending power of all the people with disabilities globally, 51% of the gross national product is spent by either people with disabilities, or their friends or their family. So just immediate friends and immediate family. That's half of the world's economy. And so if the delivery companies, and the organizations like that started to become accessible, guess what, people with disabilities would start to become customers. And they tend to be fairly loyal customers. And also people, they're going to tell their friends or family, hey, I use this delivery service. And it really worked for me, they took care of me. Then they're going to create loyalty, and extend contacts, as well. So make it about the money. Just don't make it about the negative money, define the penalties for lawsuits, make it about the positive money.
Well, another question that comes to mind is that, you know, corporations are large organizations. And when you make an approach, strategically, which is the best place to actually enter the company, who do you think would be the most effective connect to start with?
The problem that you're trying to solve is technology. I usually advise people to put the accessibility as the solution as close as possible to where the problem is. If you put it in compliance, if you put it in diversity and inclusion, those people don't have technology backgrounds. So they don't really know what's possible, what's not possible, how much it's going to cost. They're not going to know how to schedule things, how to prioritize things, so I think IT is the right place for it. At VMware, it happens to be part of the design team. Because the person who had the vision of starting an accessibility program at VMware was actually a design leader. And so I don't always necessarily think that I'm in the right place, but I was in the right place, and that organization was the right place to start the effort at VMware.
Yeah. So, when you also talk to a company, very often they do say that this is expensive. We don't have a budget for it. It costs money. So how do you normally address that issue?
Well, every single job I've ever started in accessibility, I've started with low budget. So one of the articles I wrote is on how to get experience of accessibility without spending a lot of money, there are definitely ways you can do it. Now you're not going to go out and buy 150,000 US dollar tool, because you have no budget, but you can still arrange for trading, you can still do internal audit. It's possible to do that on a fairly limited budget. There's an ever increasing amount of information in the open source that's available to help with accessibility. There's Google lighthouse, there's X, there's Waves. There's the tool that we're launching, called Crest, which is the machine learning segment that sits on top of waves. So all those things are available for free. It's just the manpower to run it and interpret the results. So when we're doing budgeting, typically I advise people that for the very first project, when nobody has ever done anything related to accessibility, add 10%. Okay? We're not talking about doubling the cost. Because when you do accessibility upfront, and build it in all the way, it's far cheaper than retrofitting in accessibility at the end, because you're not fixing bugs, or at least you're not fixing as many bugs. You're doing it right from the outset. People when they think about it, they think about it from the Oh, we spent all this money, and now we have to fix all these bugs. That's retroactive. And that's not the right way to do it. By starting with an accessible design, training the developers, doing accessible development and then adding accessibility into your QA cycle, you'll find that there's very little overall cost increase. And that cost increase actually goes down over time. So if you have the same team for the second project, you only need to add 5%. And then my recommendation is just to be safe, because you're always going to have turnover, people are going to leave the company, or they're going to transfer into different departments, you will have new people, maybe they don't know about accessibility. So, you do need to include a small amount of money for every project to get new participants trained so that they can produce the same high level that everybody else can. But t's kind of, to me, it's a, it's a 10-5-3-0 approach.
Sheri, would you like to tell us about specific organizations or companies or corporations who have actually run along with your advice, and actually made a success of it?
Sure. So, the place where I was previous to VMware was McDonald's. And so McDonald's, even though I haven't been there, for almost three years, they have a new accessibility manager who stepped in when I left, and everything McDonald's does is still largely accessible. The websites are accessible, the mobile apps are accessible, then built into the crew training. So, they're continuing to do fairly well. Another place that I did some accessibility work was at Kaiser, their accessibility was partially part of compliance. And if you look at the the good cop, bad cop scenario, compliance is always the bad cop. So that's not my favorite place for accessibility. But they have gotten more accessible over time. It's a big health insurance and physicians group, especially in California. About 40% of Californian citizens have their insurance through this company. And then there's all kinds of volunteer things that I've done, you mentioned that I worked on the W3C, I've also done work on nonprofit sites, you know, because for them to 10% is too hard. So we try to crowdsource the efforts for people who have spare time to work on some of these projects for nonprofits. Where they're committed to accessibility, they just don't have even the small amount of budget necessary to get it done.
Sheri, listening to you, what I hear is that there are small companies, small organizations, as well as large companies who can take on accessibility. And companies don't need to necessarily run away from it, but need to embrace it at different stages and in different spaces. So that we can take it on. Because this has been one of the biggest challenges that personally I have experienced. And I know George has, in getting people on-board. Sometimes you hear things like we are not a large enough company, we don't need to look at accessibility. You know, it will come when you get there.
There's a lot of myth busting you have to do when you start in accessibility. In the US, the first myth that you usually have to get busted is I don't need accessibility, I can just go spend $400 a year for one of those overlays and everything will be magically fixed. So, I have a list of kind of six or seven, usually, to go through at the beginning -- because people just have complete misconceptions about how assistive technology is used by people with disabilities. They also think because they're outside of the US they can't be sued in the US. Totally not true. We've got two major lawsuits in the US right now pending against companies that have no US presence other than the website.
You know, there are several companies in India which have global origins, many companies that started in the US or in Europe or wherever. And I've noticed that when they operate in the US or in UK or in Europe, they do follow the discipline of digital access, but very often when they come and work in India, many of these companies are kind of short on accessibility -- whether it is about working environment, when they hire people with disability or even their products that they actually provide in the market. So, is there a possibility of a global approach to making these companies actually comply or accept the digital form of working so that they become big examples and workable examples for countries like India?
So, when I started with McDonald's, McDonald's was present, I want to say in 120 different countries. And it became rapidly apparent that trying to figure out what the accessibility laws were in each one of those countries and then keeping track of it, as it changed was not feasible. So we picked the strictest law in the world at that point in time and said, we're going to comply with that. And if we comply with that, we're good everywhere. So that's the approach that I took at McDonald's. Also the approach that I'm taking right now at VMware. So, right now, the strictest law in the world is is WCAG 2.1. 2.1 is not required in the US at this point. The public sector sales requirements only requires 2.0. Now I suspect, under the new administration that that's going to change. So, part of this is just me with my crystal ball going, you know what, US isn't going to be on 2.0 forever. Eventually, they're going to upgrade the standards. And I want to be ahead of other people when that happens. So, we have chosen to 2.1, and we have made it a global program. So, I subscribed to Richard Branson's beliefs on this, which is if you take care of the employees, the employees will take care of the customers. We only have 16 people on our accessibility team at VMware, which to some people might seem like a lot, but remember 140 products, 31,000 employees. So, I need other people talking about accessibility when I'm not on the call or when I'm not in the room. And the way for that to happen is to have more employees with disability. The way to get more employees with disabilities is to have more Employee Resource Groups focused on disability. So we actually started there. And we started that initiative literally almost the same day that we started the Accessibility Initiative at VMware. We built an employee resource group for accessibility -- we have a branch in India, we work with Enable India on different things like coding projects, and hiring people with disabilities and things of that nature. And we started an autism hiring initiative. So that was new to VMware. I didn't personally start it, but I've been working side by side with it while that's been running, and it's about to enter our third cohort. So during that period of time, VMware self-identification rate for employees with disabilities had gone from 1.8% to 3.2%. So we've almost doubled in a little bit over two years, which is pretty fantastic, when you realize that VMware as a company has almost doubled in the same time period. It had about 20,000 employees when I started, we have 32,000 employees today. So, our growth rate of employees with disabilities is actually almost double the growth rate of VMware in general. I would say the average is probably about 7 to 800 participants in each one of our Employee Resource Group meetings. We cover everything. We've had, obviously, the stuff that's near and dear to my heart, we started sign language classes, we have a left-handed day. You know, a lot of this stuff is employee responses. So, the employee said we want to see more stuff on mental health, we want to see more stuff on dyslexia, we want to see more stuff on hidden disabilities. And then somebody came to us and said, did you know that you know, people who are left handed die in accidents at a higher rate than people who are right handed? Being left handed in our society is actually a disabling condition. And so we're doing -- you can see what from my sign -- Autism Awareness is my backdrop. April is Autism Awareness Month, so we've had a lot of autism focus events at VMware recently. So just getting into the state of all the global days, you know, the International Day of People with Disabilities, Global Accessibility Awareness Day, making sure that you make as wide of a splash as possible, that these things are happening and people should feel free to participate. That's what generates the buzz, and the comfort that people find in raising their hand and saying, hey, guess what, I'm actually one of those people with the hidden disability.
You know, 4% of the male population is colorblind. Everybody probably knows somebody who's colorblind, but for some reason people don't ever want to talk about it. The thing is to get us past the, 'Oh, I can hide it, so I can pass as able-bodied' to actually saying, 'You know what? I don't want to hide it because not hiding it might help somebody else.'
The Employee Resource Group seems like a very good place to start George, for us in India. Right? Sheri, Thank you for that. That is a very interesting way to approach this probably.
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Being a sports lover, I'm a big fan of left-handers. And you know, they bring in style and class to the sport. But what I wanted to ask you was, in a team sport, one of the endeavors of the team is to make sure that every member of the team performs to potential and the environment is kind of created, so that everybody is able to contribute to the optimal level. So my question to you is, in the US, and in the areas that you work, the companies that you work with, the disability inclusion and which means accessibility within the organization itself, is it the responsibility of just a few individuals or just a department? Or is the entire company kind of committed to it? And what is your take? Should we in this campaign of disability access, and digital access, should we move towards involving the entire company?
I would say definitely, yes. So look at it from the perspective of, you know, somebody who might be responsible for updating content on a website, you know, it's not a particularly technical job, or maybe they do social media posts, but they're responsible for the content of what they post. They need to know to write the alt text, they need to know, to send the videos out to be captioned, or if they're posting other videos, to make sure to only post captions videos. So, it's not just for the people in IT. That's largely for what you're building to use internally, or what you're building to sell. But everybody is responsible, are you you know, down to the goals and bonuses, you know, are you bonusing your engineers for getting software delivered on time? Or are you bonusing your engineers for delivering accessible software on time? Okay? Because the difference between one and the other is the difference between a team saying -- Ah that accessibility thing, we can fix that after the release! And -- Oh, my God, we have to get this done because otherwise, we're not going to get our bonus. There's another famous thing, which is you can't fix what you can't measure. So being able to understand where these points are, that you can put pressure on people to integrate accessibility into their jobs is important, because you need them to want to do it organically. If it's something that you're making them do, there's always going to be resistance.
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Vendors, procurement. Right? That is a huge challenge as we see it. And I see, you know, there is this ripple effect that happens when companies like VMware, Microsoft, you know, George at Score Foundation or BarrierBreak start making people accountable for their products being what they are, right? So, how do you think we should tackle vendor management in procurement and bake it in so that that ripple effect of what companies are doing is felt by everybody and that forces the entire ecosystem to become accessible?
So, if you accept what I said about having employees with disabilities being a core component of having a successful accessibility program at face value, then you're obliged to get accessible tools for these people to use. If you don't, you're going to be able to hire people, but you're not necessarily going to have happy people, you're not necessarily going to have engaged people, and you may not be able to retain them. So at VMware, we have something called our epic two standards and our epic two standards talk about how VMware executes what their integrity is -- our responsibility to the community. And so under our epic two values, we have recently developed an internal accessibility policy. So again, risk, right? There was only so much I could get done -- and the risk was much higher of us being sued by a customer or a potential customer than it was being sued by one of our employees. But now that we've made progress with our products, we're now shifting our focus to the employees. So when VMware engages with a new vendor, there is a clause in there saying, you know, our standard is WCAG 2.1. And you commit that you're going to deliver code that's compliant to that under this contract. But we've got 280 plus or minus products that we've bought, that we use, across the entire company, only about 15% of those 280 products are fully accessible, the other 85% are not accessible. So, what we did is the employees with disabilities got together, we made a prioritized list, what are the biggest impacts to us on a day to day basis? And we are now working with those vendors. And especially for the smaller vendors, they are more amenable to making changes, they can move a little bit more quickly. And they don't want to lose a prestige customer like VMware, just because they can't meet the standards. You know, the good news is when they fix it, they fix it for everybody. They don't just fix it for VMware. So, as I said, you know, VMware that does come under my outreach, when I said I do largely innovation and outreach, working with vendors is taking up more and more of our time. We help them get their program scaled up, we're not an external QA organization for them. We'll do some initial auditing, just to give them an idea of where the problems are, and what the impacts are, and things of that nature. But we're teaching them to fish, we don't want to hand out an endless stream of salmon platter. Some are easier than others, some are closer than others. Some inherently are more complicated. The design tools are definitely the most difficult because they frequently rely on things like drag and drop. And they have to make all of that keyboard accessible to work. So, some of those projects I suspect are going to take on the order of two to three years perhaps where some of the projects will actually be, you know, fully wrapped up and they'll be able to comply our claim of AA compliance on their website, probably by the end of this calendar year.
We look forward to that. And thank you very much Sheri again for the time and all the best!
Anytime. Thanks, George. And Shilpi.
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