Episode 5: ‘Nothing About Us Without Us’

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13 min read

Episode 5: ‘Nothing About Us Without Us’

In this extraordinary episode of The InclusionHub Podcast, we delve even deeper into its meaning and ongoing application in the fight for a fully accessible web. We’re honored, once again, to have truly incredible guests sharing their personal and collective experiences with us, toward this end.

Sam Proulx 00:00 | Welcome to the InclusionHub Podcast. I'm Sam Proulx, the Accessibility Evangelist at Fable, a leading accessibility testing platform powered by people with disabilities, and your host.

Sam Proulx 00:14 | Before we begin, just a quick word about InclusionHub and our sponsors. InclusionHub[dot]com is an online community and resource directory dedicated to improving digital accessibility and inclusion for all. This podcast is brought to you by InclusionHub's Founding Partners: customer relationship management software provider Salesforce, HubSpot Diamond Partner Agency Morey Creative Studios, Fable, and Be My Eyes, a free app connecting blind-and low-vision people with sighted volunteers, which I myself use.

Sam Proulx 00:5 | Now, in previous episodes we've talked about just how prevalent disabilities are, and stressed the fact that they know no particular group of people, nor boundaries. Disabilities are an inherent aspect of the human experience and they affect folks from every corner of this planet, and it's important we consistently remind each other of this.

Sam Proulx 01:14 | About one billion people—approximately 15% of the world's population—are living with a disability. And according to the World Health Organization, that number is dramatically increasing, due to a wide variety of factors, including demographic trends and increases in chronic health conditions, among others.

Sam Proulx 01:34 | The coronavirus pandemic has bolstered those figures. Long COVID is now recognized by the World Health Organization, and in the United States, [by the] Justice Department and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and people with preexisting disabilities are disproportionately affected by the virus. World Health experts expect nearly everyone on the planet to experience a disability during their lives, whether temporary or permanent.

Sam Proulx 02:04 | You'd perhaps think, then, that because of such prevalence, people living with disabilities would be afforded the same rights and access as those without. Unfortunately, this has never been the case. Rather, just as with many other groups, the disability community has had to fight every inch of the way—and we've still got a long way to go. People with disabilities historically and currently face abuse, neglect, stigma, and discrimination across many, many sectors of society, and exclusion from even basic levels of care and service enjoyed by the able-bodied. This includes health care, housing, employment, education, transportation, and as we've outlined previously, digital accessibility.

Sam Proulx 02:58 | The spectrum of disabilities impacting people around the globe are wide ranging, and encompass far too many conditions to name here. Yet, whether blind, d/Deaf, living with cognitive disabilities, speech difficulties, psychological or physical challenges, this community deserves and demands the same level of access and inclusion to every facet of society as those who are not experiencing these things. In this episode, our guests provide an overview of several types of disabilities, share their own experiences navigating an inaccessible web, and explore how to make meaningful improvements.

Sam Proulx 03:42 | There's a central theme within their stories, which we've introduced before, and that we'll continue to stress throughout this podcast series: Nothing About Us Without Us when it comes to improving the web's accessibility and inclusivity, this is imperative.

Sam Proulx 03:58 | Shining a light on all this for us in this extraordinary episode, are Laura Kalbag, co-founder of the nonprofit Small Technology Foundation, and author of the book 'Accessibility for Everyone'; Bradley Rikard, former Salesforce administrator at the nonprofit Blind Institute of Technology, now accessibility architect at Charter Communications; Will Butler, former chief experience officer at Be My Eyes, now working in corporate communications and accessibility at Apple; and lifelong disability rights advocate Jennifer Keelan-Chaffins, who participated in the Capital Crawl to force the passage of the ADA at age eight.

Sam Proulx 04:41 | Thanks again for joining us on another episode in this series. Starting us off is Kalbag.

Laura Kalbag 04:47 | There are a huge range of disabilities that affect how people use the web, and every kind of disability is also different. So whilst one person with, for example, cerebral palsy might have difficulty reading, another person with cerebral palsy might have a greater difficulty using their fine motor skills—so difficulty using a mouse or difficulty typing quickly. So these are some of the needs that are just within one broad category of disability.

Laura Kalbag 05:17 | A lot of the time we forget to accommodate people who aren't neurotypical. And so that might be people who are autistic, people that have cognitive impairments. What we need to do to accommodate their needs is ensure that our content is understandable. So trying to focus on not using things like complex metaphors in our text, making sure that we are localizing our language, so that the people who are using it can actually understand what we're saying. So thinking about things like translation, because people don't speak the same language all around the world. I think, particularly if you live in a country where English is the native language, you can be very ignorant often of other languages and how people within your country, within your town, just down your road, might not understand the content that you're creating as easily as you do.

Laura Kalbag 06:08 | The most important thing we can do with accessibility is actually listening to disabled people. And so I myself, I would not identify myself as disabled, most of my knowledge has really come from an extension of growing up with a brother, who is disabled. My brother, Sam, has cerebral palsy. And so I've always cared about accessibility. I always thought about it when I was designing for the web, because it never occurred to me not to because I had that kinship, that closeness, and that understanding. Sam is just my brother, it's not about whether he's disabled or not.

And one of the things that we really have to do when we're designing things, is to actually talk to disabled people—not ask them weird questions about their disabilities that are completely irrelevant to the work that we're doing—just talk to people, other humans, ask them, 'What can we do to make this technology easier for you to use?' Or 'What are we doing right now that is making this technology harder for you to use?' I think a lot of the time we can do usability testing and things like that, where we can actually see people in their own environments, and watch them interact with what we're building to get a better understanding, especially where people might not be able to explain how they use because they don't necessarily understand how what they're doing is different from what somebody else is doing.

And an example I would give for this in my book is thinking about how we might type on our smartphones. So I am a two-thumb typer. But one of my siblings uses just a finger and holds their phone with their other hand. Both of us consider this to be completely normal—the default. But because we haven't seen each other do that, because we haven't witnessed what each other are doing, we've never even had our eyes opened to the prospect that there's a different way of doing it.

Sam Proulx 08:06 | Expanding on the critical need of including those with disabilities in the design and implementation of digital accessibility improvements, and sharing his own experiences navigating the many complexities of a non-inclusively designed web is Bradley Rikard, a digital accessibility professional with experience auditing websites and apps from a low-vision perspective.

Bradley Rikard 08:31 | So for my personal experience, I'm legally blind. For your listeners, I'm a low-vision user. So that means I have some vision, I don't use a lot of accessibility software, per se, but I use a lot of accessibility features like browsers zooming in, or Windows OS font size increase. And in my personal experience, I've run into software that doesn't respond to that. When I was an undergrad and graduate student years ago, I was using statistical software that looked like it was designed in 1995. It wasn't, but it wouldn't respond to accessibility features. So my face would be right up pressed up against my laptop screen—it was very difficult to use, and I wouldn't describe it as accessible.

But for users who are completely blind, who rely on speech-to-text or screen readers, very simple things that developers can do is go through a website with free software, like NVDA, which is a free screen reader, and just see if you can navigate your website using just the keyboard because that's what screen reader users use. And see, for example, if you have images on your website, are they descriptive to someone using a screen reader? Oftentimes, people forget that piece. So users might not even know that their image is there, or they'll get the image title name. And this descriptive text is called alt text or alternative text. And depending on the service you used to build your website, it might have that feature baked in where when you put this image in, you can just immediately put a little bit of alt text to describe said image.

Bradley Rikard 09:57 | Earlier today, I was interacting with a calendar widget on a website. And for your listeners, those are when you're going to a travel website or a hotel website, you can click a little calendar icon, it says, you know, choose your date for your travel itinerary. I was trying to interact with one on my phone earlier today. But because I was so zoomed in the calendar was cut off below the screen of my phone, because the website that I was on didn't have what's called responsive design, meaning that as I zoom into the screen, it should scale the entire webpage and every component in there to fit within the screen. But it wasn't doing that. So I wasn't able to do what I was trying to accomplish.

Bradley Rikard 10:36 | Similar example, one that I encounter fairly often in my day to day on my laptop, is more responsive design in terms of websites, where again, I'll zoom in and half the page will be cut off so I'll be using the scroll bar to scroll across the page instead of the entire page being there. So a task that might take a sighted person say, one or two minutes, takes me five, six, seven minutes because my reading speed is slowed down due to the technology, not due to my own reading ability.

Sam Proulx 11:04 | In addition to being a moral obligation, and a continuation of the ongoing struggle for equality, the battle for a more inclusive and accessible web is also beneficial to companies' bottom lines. It's important to recognize that it's not only those with disabilities whom inaccessible businesses are losing out on as customers, but rather, there's an exponential ripple effect excluding countless potential consumers, an exclusionary wave that continues to reverberate outward. Companies that exclude people with disabilities also do so to their families, friends, and more. So improving digital accessibility is simply a great business sense too. Explaining this and much more for us is Will Butler.

Will Butler 11:56 | It's funny because any marketer or business person or salesperson or anyone who has a product would be mortified to know that even one customer who was passionate about buying their product was rebuffed by bad experience on the website, right? Even if just one—one anecdotal story might cause an entrepreneur to redesign their website because they realize they were doing something that was turning people away.

Will Butler 12:31 | There are 34 million identified visually impaired people in America alone, who are having that experience on scores of websites on a daily basis. Some of the big players who work at scale understand that accessibility means real dollars and cents. But for some reason, a large chunk of companies haven't caught on to that yet. And it's a market you can just unlock. And we're not just talking about America anymore, it's global. You know, there's anywhere from 300 million to two billion visually impaired people worldwide, depending on how you measure it. These people want to buy your stuff. And if you have a button, that's just tough to see because of the color contrast, that might be the difference between them buying your product or just saying screw it and heading over to Amazon. It can sometimes be as simple as that.

Will Butler 13:31 | And yeah, there's this complex stuff around how do you code your site correctly for a screen reader, but any developer worth their salt is going to have learned that in school at this point. And schools are now teaching this stuff, user experience schools teach how to design inclusively. All you have to do is Google it, there are so many resources and any developer who speaks that language is gonna go 'Oh, okay, I see how to do this.' Of course, it's easier if you build it up from the beginning. But yeah, and then you know, it's a process not, not a project. And be wary of quick fixes and things that seem overly simple or turnkey. It's about having a culture where your team cares about it and checks off the box every single time they ship something, as opposed to doing a quick sprint and, and trying to patch stuff over.

Will Butler 14:25 | So I don't know, that's sort of my, my high level on accessibility if you're in business. I mean, you've got to have the CEO with that 13 letter word [accessibility] on his lips, on her lips, you know, talking about it, every time they stand up on stage, because it's not just about charity for a small group of people, it's about—let's say you offer cruise[s] and your cruise doesn't work for people in wheelchairs, you're not just losing the person in the wheelchair, you're losing their parents, their grandparents, their kids, their siblings, that whole extended. The family's gonna pick a different cruise. So do the math, you know, 25% of us Americans have someone in our family or close network, who's got a disability. So do the math on that ripple effect. If you're not talking about accessibility, like every month with all of your direct reports, you're hemorrhaging opportunity.

Sam Proulx 15:27 | You've heard from Jennifer Keelan-Chaffins in other episodes of this podcast. She participated in the Capital Crawl when she was just eight years old to help force the passage of the ADA. Here she is, again, sharing her disabilities and experiences with a non-inclusive web and explaining why the ethos of Nothing About Us Without Us is so critical in moving forward and achieving true equality; whether in healthcare, housing, employment, education, or simply access to companies myriad products and services across the internet.

Jennifer Keelan-Chaffins 16:01 | As a person with cerebral palsy, I also have low-vision, and I have visual tracking issues. And so I use assistive technology on a daily basis to help me navigate the digital space. I use a screen reader, and I use all these different assistive technology devices, so that I can freely navigate that space, and it is just as important to be able to freely navigate that space and be accepted and acknowledged in that space, as it is the physical world. Otherwise, you are intentionally excluding someone from that environment. And, you know, that's, that's not right.

And I think it should be acknowledged that the ADA states that it's the whole environment, the whole environment needs to be accessible. And that includes digital space. And this is the reason why it's important to continue to say, no, it's not acceptable to be excluded on the internet, it's not acceptable to have the web not accessible, because that is an environment that everyone uses every day. And it is part of being able to—to fully access and participate. And so that's why it's important.

Jennifer Keelan-Chaffins 17:37 | This is something that I use and have used for decades, these are things that I use at work, these are things that I used at school. So yes, it is a necessity. There's a critical point here, where we need to, you know, acknowledge that having the digital space accessible is just as important as having physical space accessible, because the whole point of the ADA is to be able to have full and equal access to all areas of society. That includes the digital space, in order to be fully recognized and fully participate.

When you don't have access to those things, it puts a barrier in your way. That's what we wanted to show Congress. That's why the Capitol Crawl was so important because the Capitol Crawl showed what it was like for people with disabilities when they were confronted with barriers. You know, when you don't have access, full access to your entire space, that's not only discriminatory, that's an intentional barrier.

Jennifer Keelan-Chaffins 18:53 | Nothing About Us Without Us means a lot to me personally. It was one of the very first things that I was taught when I joined the disability rights movement, and was mentored and taught by my mentors, Justin Dart, Judith Heumann, Ed Roberts, these were my teachers and my mentors. And this was one of the very first things that I learned as a young child. And so to me, Nothing About Us Without Us means that for a long time, agencies and different organizations and different policies have been made and created about people with disabilities, often without their input and consent.

Jennifer Keelan-Chaffins 19:44 | And so for me, what that means is we need to have more people with disabilities in those areas of government and policy making. So that when these policies are created, it has full input and support and acknowledgement for people with disabilities, by people with disabilities. Because for far too long policies have been created without the disability community's input and consent. That still needs to change even today.

I believe that when it comes to the digital environment, we need to have more people with disabilities involved in creating—for example, creating code language, because the digital environment is all about code language, right? We need to have more people with disabilities in those roles, creating code language, and creating digital accessible environments and having that input. Because a lot of times people with disabilities are ignored in that environment. And I believe that this is the reason why we should have more things like universal code language, so that it makes that environment more accessible. I also believe that we need to have more people with disabilities in STEM education, because STEM education is also a very important component in the digital environment.

And so for me, what that means is we need to have more people with disabilities’ input and creation in that environment. That is what is important for me. And I think that, you know, it just goes to show that this is why it's so important to continue to break those barriers that we are still being confronted with today, and be able to have more people with disabilities in the computer and internet industry, so that we can have that full input.

Sam Proulx 22:09 | Wow, such incredible insights. Once again, I'm Sam Proulx, InclusionHub Podcast’s host. I'm also the Accessibility Evangelist at Fable, a leading accessibility testing platform powered by people with disabilities. Check out all the great things my company is doing at MakeItFable[dot]com.

I want to thank you again for listening and for accompanying us on this ever-evolving journey for a more accessible and inclusive web. Once again, we’re brought to you by InclusionHub’s Founding Partners: leading customer relationship management software provider Salesforce at Salesforce[dot]com; HubSpot Diamond Partner Agency Morey Creative Studios, which you can visit at MoreyCreative[dot]com; Fable; and Be My Eyes at BeMyEyes[dot]com.

Be sure to join us for our next episode in this series, where we continue this critical conversation about the importance of improving digital accessibility and inclusion for all. You can help spread the word. Visit InclusionHub[dot]com for more information about all of its Founding Partners, along with insightful blogs and articles, and much more. Until next time, remember, a more accessible and inclusive world is a better world.

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