PEAT Talks Transcript: Expanding Accessibility Awareness in Higher Ed

Introduction

Jeff Wieland is Director of Accessibility at Facebook. He started the Accessibility Engineering team, which is responsible for embedding accessibility into Facebook's engineering, design, and research processes and infrastructure. This enables Facebook to create experiences that are usable by people with disabilities.

Today, Larry and Jeff will discuss how Teach Access is working with industry, academia, and advocacy groups to expand the quality and quantity of undergraduate programs that teach the fundamentals of accessibility. Participants will learn why the accessibility teams at Facebook and Yahoo (now Oath) created Teach Access, what its key goals/objectives are, and what initiatives they are currently working on.

With that, I'll turn it over to Larry and Jeff.

Presentation

Thank you, Corrinne. This is Larry Goldberg here. And hopefully you can see on your screen right now our Teach Access logo. And the reason I point that out is that it's a bridge – actually one of the bridges up on Route 1 in Northern California. And the notion is that Teach Access is a bridge between academia and industry, with significant participation of communities of people with disabilities to try to reach a point where we can resolve issues around accessible technology long before these technologies reach the public -- so that technologies can be “born accessible,” which is a term I know the folks at Benetech have long been using. And it's a goal of all the companies that have been involved with Teach Access.

The Teach Access mission is to include and enhance the teaching of accessible design and development principals in undergraduate education. When Jeff and I met at ta CSUN conference – might have even been four years ago now -- we commiserated over the fact that so many of our developers and designers really had never learned anything about accessible design development during their undergraduate careers. And though we feel like a lot of progress has been made in the tech sector around making our technologies, websites, apps, devices more accessible, there is always going to be a new challenge coming up every day. And we really wanted to come up with some way of being able to address these questions and the design and development as early in the process as possible.

And immediately the notion was, “Let's bond together with the universities that we were familiar with, that we have relationships with, and see if we can begin infusing some basic principles, fundamental skills about accessible design and development, into undergraduate curriculum.” Not special courses, not stand-alone courses, but the big, basic, computer science, design, human/computer interface, and the introductory courses that students take who eventually then get jobs in the field.

We ask quite frequently of our new employees what they know about accessibility. And the answer is usually very little. We will talk about that later.

So Teach Access began to reach out to the universities that we've had relationships with. And the slide right now shows only some of our higher ed supporters, Cal State, CSUN, the Coleman Institute, the University of Colorado, Cornell University, Duquesne, EdX, Georgia Tech. Knowbility is there because they are very educationally oriented. Michigan State, the New School, Olin College of Engineering, R.I.T., Stanford, University of Michigan, USC, and University of Washington. I am sure there are others who we've left out but who have been instrumental in advising us on the best way to accomplish this principle of broad and wide teaching of the accessibility principles.

The folks from industry have been very actively joining in helping make this all a reality. It started with most of the companies listed here, but some have joined recently. Adobe, Dropbox, Facebook, Google, International Association of Accessibility Professionals, Intuit, LinkedIn, Microsoft, Oath -- originally we were Yahoo when we joined -- the Paciello Group, and Walmart are all very actively involved in supporting this grand mission of trying to change the entire field of learning about technology so that accessibility can be infused in the practice.

We are doing this so we can work with our stakeholders in the advocacy community, and from the very beginning we have had direct connections and support from the American Association of People with Disabilities, American Council of The Blind. American Foundation for The Blind. The Hearing Loss Association of America, The National Association of The Deaf, and the National Federation of The Blind. And with the advice and consent and help from all these organizations, we've been able to make some pretty good progress, which we'll talk about today.

At this point I want to turn it over to Jeff to talk about some of the challenges that we've been trying to work on.

Thanks, Larry. All right. So I think the fundamental challenge that we face as an industry today, as it pertains to accessibility, is the fact that the sheer growth in technologies that are available, and the amount of software that's being written to power all the experiences that we enjoy is simply continuing to grow. There are more than 3 million mobile apps out there today across all the major app stores. And there's more than a trillion websites that are now connected to the internet. And certainly we want all of these experiences to be as accessible as possible.

And I think in a really fundamental way, the only way that this will be possible is if the people who are going to build these technologies and building these experiences have foundational knowledge of accessibility and how to make things accessible. That's really what we're after. And the only way we can do that is by attacking it at a more systemic level. It simply will not be sufficient for us to do that in each of our own corporate environments, like Facebook and Oath and Google and others. There are many individuals and smaller companies and larger companies who are building these experiences. We need all of them to be prepared to make them accessible.

So putting that here in a bit more crystally, the ratio at a larger company of the number of accessibility specialists, the technical positions available may differ. Generally, what we see is that the number of people who are experts in accessibility is going to be dwarfed by the number of people who are writing code and contributing to the life cycle of building and shipping products. And each of those steps of the life cycle, whether or not it's design or research or computer science and software engineering, has something to bring to the table for accessibility. And the only way that this is going to scale to the point where all technologies are going to be “born accessible” is making sure that the many thousands of people in their technical positions understand the basics of accessibility.

That's really what we're after. We're really trying to focus on raising the foundational knowledge of everyone who’s in the technology sector around best practices for accessibility and around specific things they can do in order to build experiences that are more accessible.

And I think that now is a good time to do that because we have a backdrop of an ever-increasing demand for things to be more accessible. And that cuts across a couple of different dimensions. I think one certainly is driven by legislation, and more and more, I think we are seeing lawsuits and cases in the space of accessibility. I think it's pushing the overall industry in the right direction.

Secondly, I think we are seeing more companies who are making accessibility and diversity an explicit part of their corporate policies. I think there is a desire on the industry side to do this well. But in order to do this well, each company needs its employee to understand how to do this.

A third dimension is simply expectation from users. I think the field of accessibility has been around for many decades now, as Larry mentioned. There's been a lot of great progress in the space of accessibility. And it's now becoming an expectation from consumers that things are accessible. The only way that can be true is if we are preparing everyone who is going off and building technology to understand accessibility well and to build with accessibility in mind.

Thanks, Jeff. To reinforce with a good example right now about what we're talking about, today I'm in the Oath headquarters in downtown Manhattan. We're building out a beautiful new accessibility lab here. And the whole concept is being embraced tremendously by our company. Everyone I'm talking to here is very excited about having an on-site demonstration of what we're really talking about in terms of accessible technology.

But I'm sitting in a conference room, looking at a sea of editors and coders from Tech Crunch and Gadget, AOL, Yahoo, Huff Post, and as warmly everyone is embracing the concept, they just don't have the awareness. And every one of these people have gone to a university where they learned about coding or design or even good writing, and they need to learn about this. And that really is about all of them, not the few experts.

For those of us who annually go to the CSUN conference or ATIA or M-Enabling, you can add up everyone who has ever been to any of those conferences, and you’re still going to only be meeting 1% of the people who work in the tech sector, at best. In talking about recently, Matt May from Adobe, who has long been working in this field, has said, “What we have are a few people who know a lot about accessibility. What we need are a lot of people to know a little about it.”

That is maybe counter-intuitive to say -- we want people to know a little bit as opposed to a tremendous amount. But in fact, that's to start the process of developing a new site or product, brand, just a little bit of awareness will help tremendously in assuring that we can build things right, instead of build and fix and break and build and fix and break. So we're looking at a horizontal effect that is touching many people in perhaps a bit of a shallow way, instead of reaching just a few people with all the knowledge in the world.

So one of the things that triggered us when we began looking into this Teach Access concept was we bring every new employee at Yahoo/ now Oath through our accessibility lab in Sunnyvale. And we show them the basics of assistive technology that works on desktop and on mobile, and all the different ways that a user with a disability would get input and output from their devices and get content from the web.

And then we ask the question of every single person who comes through, “What did you learn about accessibility as an undergraduate?” And as you might guess, the answer too often is, "Nothing." Or if it's something, it's very minor. Like, “Oh yeah, there was a kid in our class who couldn't see well.” But that is about it. We just decided we had to try to do something about moving the needle on this question. And that's where the whole concept of Teach Access came around.

Jeff, are we back to you now?

Sure. So yeah, as Larry mentioned, certainly if folks who are coming into our companies are answering to a high-level question with “nothing,” then there's actually a lot of information that is missing and a lot of information that we would really want them to ask before they’re coming in and understanding how to contribute to the space of accessibility.

So some of the general things -- that we think might be useful -- [indiscernible due to background noise]. I’ll step through these concepts.

So the first is that accessibility is expected in commercial product development. I think one of the benefits of having accessibility a part of computer science and design is that it's now becomes a fundamental thing that is expected of students. And actually, one of the things that the set of industry folks that are part of Teach Access first did when they came together was update our job descriptions for a bunch of technology-oriented roles to include accessibility as something we are looking for in candidates.

So we can signal to schools and job placement organizations that this is something that we care about. And I think from a bottoms-up perspective of people like the same thing to be true of curricula for these different disciplines that we care about.

The second thing which I think is nice to have, perhaps not a need to have, is an understanding earlier that accessibility is a legal requirement, something that is now expected from the government.

The third thing is, and I think this is really critical for what we want people to be exposed to before they come and work in the industry, is an understanding of the different types of disabilities and the way that those different types of disabilities might influence how somebody interacts with technology. Of course, a related concept to that is have a working understanding of different assistive technologies that exist today. So that when you're going off and working at a company, or you’re building a website or building a mobile application, you have some sense for the different paradigms with which people might interact with your experience; some of the different mediums and technologies that might influence how they might interact with your products.

And of course, related to that, I think is exposing them to some of the common barriers to digital accessibility. Simple things like the need for closed captioning for any video artifacts that you might produce as a company; to understanding the basics of how a screen reader works and some of the things that a screen reader might be trying to understand from a given web page or a given mobile application. There’s obviously a lot of concepts in there. But even the basic example that are illustrative of the kinds of design and engineering decisions you might want to make would be a huge improvement.

And of course, we have some fairly robust and globally agreed-upon standards for building accessible content and accessible experiences on the web. I think the earlier we can expose students to WCAG and some of the basics within WCAG, especially if they pertain to key barriers in the space of digital accessibility, the better. There is a lot of content here from a slide practitioner perspective.  The more that computer scientists and designers and researchers understand disabilities fundamentally, and understand the differences in the way people interact with technology, or the different use they might have in technology, is really the focus of what we would want students to understand.

So in thinking how our consortium might be able to make it possible for students to be exposed to these concepts earlier in their pathway in their careers in technology, we've been working on a number of different initiatives in this space. The first is the top-down approach. This is trying to understand how we might make accessibility a curriculum requirement. There are actually a number of accreditation boards that govern what the content and success outcomes are for students in different disciplines.

To name two that we have been dealing with a bit – one is ADET and one is NACID [sp]. They are both critical for accreditation in computer science as well as design. Obviously, a huge win would be for us to make accessibility an explicit part of the curriculum requirement. This is one of the things we've been chipping away at for the past year and a half or so.

The second is to share some industry best practices around accessibility. As Larry talked through the slide before, we have about ten different corporate entities who have all spent a considerable amount of time building their own in-house education and training platforms for their employees. One of the things that we've been trying to do is pull together some of the best practices that we teach our employees and package that up in a way that is accessible to anyone on the outside.

The best example of that is we put together a do-it-yourself online training tutorial, called the Teach Access tutorial. You can find that at TeachAccess.org. It steps through some of the very concrete concepts that we want computer scientists and designers to understand about building accessible technology.

The third is related to four, which is scaling programs nationwide and fostering initiatives that promote teaching accessibility. I think we combine into two larger steps that we have been mixing this past year. The first is, I think one of the challenges of getting accessibility into the classroom is making sure professors have what they need from both a concept and materials perspective to be successful in teaching it.

We've done a couple of things in the space of this. The first is we've been running a number of workshops and boot camps for professors where we actually present on the concepts that we would like them to teach, and talk through some of the examples and ideas we have around ways that they can bring those concepts into the classroom; and work with them and identify in partnership, what are some things would make sense in their classroom to expose students to accessibility? We’ve done a handful of those over the past year.

The second thing that we've been working on, which launches this summer, is the Study Away program for students. So we've been working with a number of academic institutions, like Michigan State University and University of Michigan, to put together a program to bring students from those academic institutions out to Silicon Valley, and have them come to the campuses of Google and Facebook and others so that we can talk to them about the work we do in the space of accessibility. And hopefully inspire some of the students to make accessibility something that they want to pursue in the future. That obviously is not going to scale the way that the accreditation approach will, or the way that creating [NO AUDIO] – going wide and deep in our approach to trying to bring awareness to accessibility.

This lists out a couple of things we have done against those high-level ideas on the previous slide. So faculty boot camps; online tutorials is something that we already produce. Study Away Silicon Valley program is a summer program that's happening this summer where we bring the students out here.

And the guest lectures – a piece I haven’t mentioned yet -- which is one of the other things that we have been offering folks who have been participating on our task forces in Teach Access is the opportunity to solicit from industry partners guest lecturers in the classroom. So if you are a professor that's been working with Teach Access, you have access to a bunch of different people who all work in accessibility full-time, who are comfortable and willing to talk about different concepts in the accessibility space, in the classroom via digital conference and guest lecture of some kind. This is one of the ways we can make sure that professors have support in making sure they are able to teach the concepts that they think are important for accessibility.

So this last slide here is contact information for the group. So our email address is teachingaccessibility@gmail.com. Our website is TeachAccess.org, and our Facebook page is www.facebook.com / TeachAccess. Emailing that Gmail account will give you a little bit more information on where to route your employees [Background Noise].

Cool, so I think that's all the prepared remarks that we have so far. So we're happy to take some questions from the group on what we have been up to, and what we’ve shared so far.

Q&A

Great, thanks so much. So we now are open to questions. If you have a question for Larry or Jeff, please type it into the chat window now. And I have a few questions, actually. To start it off, Larry and Jeff, you covered several different new platforms and technology on the horizon that are all available today that need to make meet designs with accessibility in mind. What are some other emerging trends around today or upcoming that developers need to be baking accessibility into?

Yeah, um -- I can take a swing at this one. I think one of the interesting trends in technology today is in the space of artificial intelligence. Breaking that down more concretely into concepts like speech recognition and object recognition.

Looking at speech recognition in particular, we have very good examples of speech recognition becoming really critical ways that people interact with technology. When you look at hardware devices like [Background Noise] and software interfaces like in a restaurant. I think we're really at the cusp of that becoming indicative in all technology.

I'll give one basic example. If you look at many of the applications on an iPhone or Android device, they today don't yet enable you to navigate them comprehensively via voice. We can navigate operating systems, and in some unique cases [Background Noise]. But we really haven't gotten to the point where that is foundational and fundamental. I think that certainly speech recognition, I think, is a profound offering in the space of disability and in the space of people in the spectrum of ability in different ways.

I think that's one larger trend that's really exciting to me. And I think when that becomes modified as something that is simple to do across platforms will be something that developers should be thinking about in terms of minimum product support in the future.

This is Larry, can you hear me?

Yes, we can.

Thanks. I think many of us are aware that the Consumer Electronics Show just finished. A huge number of technologies are introduced every year. Some of them will never see the light of day. Some of them become essential to our lives. The things that we're clearly seeing year after year now is around issues like artificial intelligence, machine learning, robotics, cloud-based computing, crowd sourcing, virtual reality, 3D printing – all of these aspects of technologies that have been developed, or are in development but might not be pervasive yet in the marketplace, are all things we really need to make sure we're building accessibility into. And we're all working quite hard to make what we do today accessible. But we know what's coming is going to be as important or even more important, especially if we can catch the accessibility issues before they become pervasively available.

Absolutely. Thank you. So I see another question here in the comments from Jamie who asks, “Is Teach Access hiring?”

That's a great one. There's nothing like the power of a great idea. And all of the things that Teach Access has done so far, and has great ambitions to do, has been done with no staff and pretty much little to no money. So sorry to say, we don't presently have any open positions. We're all volunteer from all the supporters that are helping out. But we really do want to grow ourselves into an organization that is properly staffed to meet and match our tremendous ambitions. So no positions yet.

Okay. Thanks. I see another question here from Rick. “There was a lot of mention about design. But does this training pertain to developers as well?”

Yeah, I can take this one. Actually, the focus has actually been more on computer science and developer training than it has been design. And if you look at TeachAccess.org and check out the (inaudible) that we have posted there, you’ll see that most of the do-it-yourself modules that we provided are very developer-oriented. So stepping through concepts like headings and (inaudible) et cetera; things like focus management, proper focus order. So absolutely, I think computer science and developer training is I would say the lion’s share of our focus so far as we have gone about engaging with universities.

Okay and thanks. And another question from Alan. “I've been lecturing on accessibility at a local university. We are now talking about adding accessibility to the curriculum. Are your resources available for me to work with them?”

We presently have a nice tutorial on the TeachAccess.org website mostly geared toward desktop or web accessibility. But it's free, open source, and available not only for downloading but for altering and adapting for yourself. Other materials are really top priority for us. There are a lot of really good materials about developing accessible technology. We are hoping to be able to curate and vet and collect some great examples of those training materials.

But at present, we don't have anything really more substantive than this really excellent tutorial which you should take a look at. And we each, as Jeff said, have our own training systems in-house, often requiring access to our own internal networks. But we're looking at how we might publicly share our own training materials.

And I should point you to Microsoft's accessibility site. They have just a tremendous rich collection of videos and training materials, and they're contributing that to our site. And they're making them free and publicly available.

The other really good, though quite long, opportunity, we did do a three-hour presentation at the Accessing Higher Ground conference in Colorado in November. That was geared toward faculty as a faculty boot camp. And that entire video now is available on the Accessing Higher Ground website. It's fully accessible. It's captioned. It it's in an accessible platform. So that's available for you to see, and I'm sure PEAT will be glad to point to that. It might be a good place to start as you consider building that into your own curriculum.

Oh, that's wonderful. Thank you, Larry. And another question, “What's the number one driver that you found that motivates and spurs teachers to begin accessibility?”

The question of incentivizing professors has really been key. We think our ideas are essential. They’re important. The fact that these top tech organizations are all supporting this, and that our job descriptions include that. Of course, universities want to have their students get good jobs.

But the fact is, there's nothing like money to incentivize people in our society. So we are looking very closely and very seriously at being able to provide some small grants to professors to begin building and infusing their curriculum with accessibility components, whether it's one module, one lecture, a good exercise; and both providing some financial resources and requirements to teach those resources and share them, and then find ways to publish them. So time, money, and publishing seem to be the big issues for faculty.

Okay. Thanks. And one final question from Pete. “Do you think accessibility awareness is increasing generally in the education field?”

Yeah. I can start. I think it's a tough -- it's tough to answer that question. There has been some research in this space. And I think Matt from R.I.T. may be the person who has done the most to understand how this has evolved over the last couple of years. Based on his investigation, I think the answer is yes, it is increasing.

Apart from that, I don't have great signal yet on whether or not this is true, you know, even within the U.S., based on anything that I have encountered firsthand. That said, what I would say is that I think exposure to accessibility has gone up generally. Whether or not that's happening at the college and university level, I think, is a bit more nebulous in my head.

We do a similar thing to Larry where we ask people that we're onboarding around their exposure to accessibility. I would say over the past two years, absolutely I see more hands coming up where people are aware of the term and the loose definition of accessibility. So anecdotally, from my side, yes, I think awareness is increasing. Whether or not that that is concretely increasing at the student level is something I haven't seen great data on.

I agree with that, with what Jeff said. There's a National Science Foundation grant that R.I.T. does hold to study and encourage this. University of Washington has been tracking this as well in their access computing groups. One of the things that we really need to do is to reach out and have presence in that educational community in the mainstream.

We've been present at and had a great deal of involvement at CSUN and M-Enabling and other environments. But we're focusing now on places like the ACM computer science educators conference coming up in Baltimore in February. We will be there. We will be at the South by Southwest EDU conference. And these are conferences full of people who haven’t been exposed to these notions before. That's where we're going to finally see some traction.

There's also awareness growing, because some universities are feeling significant pressure about making their own courses accessible, or their campuses. Of course, that's not what Teach Access is doing. We're trying to affect the curriculum. But I think those two somewhat go hand in hand, and as universities begin to realize that they need to do a better job in making their educational environments more accessible, that is a hook for also infusing this knowledge into their courses.

Conclusion

Great. Very exciting. And, uh, thanks so much for everything. I think we're going to -- that's a great note to wrap up on. We're very excited to have seen how much Teach Access has accomplished the last two years. I'm excited that you could join us today.

My pleasure.

Yeah, thanks for having us.

And to follow and learn more about Teach Access, please check out their website TeachAccess.org. And please join us on Thursday, February 15, at 2:00PM ET for our next PEAT Talk with Paul Schroeder, who is the director of public policy and strategic alliances for Aira. They’re a start-up that has developed SmartGlasses for people with low vision.

I'd like to give a special thanks to Larry and Jeff for speaking with us today, and all of you who took the time to join us. We hope you enjoy the rest of your afternoon.

Thank you.

Thank you.

Thank you.