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Leveraging Technology to Aim at a More Accessible Future

By Jacquelyn Adams

You know the drill over here. I talk with leaders in the community or sift through my own experiences to come up with a lesson to share. From there I write up top tips, which I then pass on to you. You check it out and then give me your feedback and personal insights. We’ve pretty much got this thing down to a science. Except that’s not going to be the case this week.

Instead of sharing my top tips of what we should do, today is an important day for us raise awareness and learn a bit together. #themoreyouknow

While this may fly in the face of my column’s expectations, you’ll understand that’s par for the course when you meet this week’s thought leader. Sheri Byrne-Haber, an Accessibility Architect at VMware, insists on exceeding expectations whether she’s on the archery field or raising the standard for automated accessibility tests. And with today being International Day of Persons with Disabilities, it’s important to dig in and understand why it is so vital for us to step up and make sure our tech is usable by persons with disabilities.

Why is Accessibility Important?

From the outside, accessibility can seem like a big investment of time, energy, and resources. But imagine this morning you woke up with just one disability, blindness for instance. When we are all being encouraged to social distance, the inability to see at one hundred percent capacity just adds another layer of fear and complication to what we are all struggling with. It would be great to circumnavigate at least some of that by getting your groceries online. However, when WebAIM did its 2020 annual survey on the top one million websites, it found less than 2% of them were completely usable by people with disabilities using assistive technology such as magnification, screen readers, and voice-to-text software. Therefore, it’s highly unlikely that you would be able to continue your normal level of internet interaction without additional assistance from someone who can see.

This is just one small example of the struggles facing those with disabilities. So many doors are automatically shut. Mundane tasks like shopping can become onerous. It paves the way for many lives of unfulfilled potential if we do not start leveraging tech effectively to create accessibility.

What does Accessibility look like?

Now let’s pause to clarify terms. When we talk about accessibility, we could attempt to flesh out the 50 WCAG 2.1 Level AA guidelines: not using red and green for the 4% of the population that has color blindness; ensuring software is compatibile with eye gaze products; and ensuring buttons with images also have text labels, just to name a few. However, Byrne-Haber typically finds that a concrete example simplifies her explanation. So here’s her question, “When he was alive, would Steven Hawking have been able to use your software?” Even with his severe disabilities, Hawking’s life was far from unfulfilled. This is because the necessary tech was leveraged to ensure we wouldn’t miss his contributions to society. Unfortunately, as we said before, that is the exception rather than the rule. Byrne-Haber continued, “Individuals are being defined by their disabilities — at times — because organizations don’t know how to leverage the tech that currently exists to create equal opportunities for them.” Just one consequence of this is that the unemployment rate for people with disabilities is at least twice as high as the average unemployment rate. With this being the case, how much are both the individuals with disabilities and we as a society losing because of inaccessibility?


What Steps Are Being Taken?

There is good news, too! Many organizations are out there leading the charge for accessibility, and many leaders are starting to come alongside them. Since Byrne-Haber is deep in those trenches, she had a couple examples right at hand:

    1. Firstly, VMware will soon be launching an open-source solution called Crest, which augments a tool called WAVE, which helps businesses improve their automatic accessibility review process. Rather than just relying on code sniffing, Crest uses machine learning to review behaviors in the context with data to automatically determine the accessibility of certain website components.
    2. And on a fun note (as well as a reminder as to how wide reaching the effect of a disability can be), Byrne-Haber made Safeway’s Monopoly Game accessible. Working alongside game developers, they made the tickets scannable by the corresponding app. Now a disability does not get in the way of joining the fun or possibly winning prizes.

These are just some of the contributions one person has worked on. Yet there are so many of us who can join the ranks as well.

What Can You Do?

Ok… well, apparently, I just can’t help myself. A call to action requires some direction, so here you go. According to Byrne-Haber, here are the top three tips for leaders who want to create a more accessible world:

    1. Think accessibility from the beginning. Some believe making tech accessible is really complicated and expensive. Well it is… if you try to add accessibility to a finished product. Adding accessibility at the end also tends to be overly complicated for people with disabilities to use. However, if you think about accessibility during design, development, and maintenance updates, then it can be integrated smoothly and bring down the cost point significantly.
    2. Hire employees with disabilities. Accessibility teams are a key part of the accessibility process. While formal accessibility teams have existed for about fifteen years, it’s only in the last five years that they have become more mainstream. By having at least two-thirds of the team members represent a variety of disabilities, this can help keep awareness at the forefront of product development.
    3. Lastly, do not forget about consumer testing. When it comes to getting feedback from consumers, disabled voices need to be heard as well. Byrne-Haber recommended organizations like Lighthouse for the Blind and local centers for independent living, which are devoted to providing people with disabilities the support they need to live and work equally.

My friends, this is a complicated time for all of us, but it is good to remember the struggles of those around us. People with disabilities have been disproportionately impacted by COVID-19. Those that don’t drive can no longer safely use mass transit or ride share; and ordering food, medicine, and products to be delivered can be next to impossible. It is vital to do our part in reaching out, raising awareness, and working to bridge those gaps. My hope is that today we have all learned a bit together. I hope our view has been widened, so that the next time accessibility is discussed we don’t worry about “wasting resources” to serve a small population. Instead, I hope that we recognize that it is an investment in opening some of the doors. Then we all can work together to live up to our potential and make great contributions together — regardless our walk of life.

Jacquelyn Adams is a career development enthusiast and an award-winning CEO. She lives in a world of constant exploration, whether it’s summiting Mount Kilimanjaro, delving into more effective employee training strategies… or discovering how she’d do in a chocolate eating contest (answer: last place). Find more of her Lessons on Leadership articles here or connect with her on LinkedIn here.


Jacquelyn Adams

Jacquelyn Adams, founder and CEO of Ristole, uses her column to delve into the wild world of leadership. Whether the article is about her days as a Peace Corp volunteer, exploring corporate training, or even grabbing lunch at Chipotle — she will come out with a story and her “top tips.” As she passionately believes in leveraging her platform to share others’ voices, her column welcomes guest bloggers to create a fuller and more diverse pool of experiences for her readership. So, welcome to “Lessons on Leadership” where you never know what the next article will hold: online networking advice, guidelines for creating a joyful workplace, or even puppies. Just keep reading to discover what’s next!

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