Podcast: Developing Talent to Make Workplace Technology Accessible
Future of Work Podcast, Episode 7
Larry Goldberg of Oath (formerly Yahoo) and Kate Sonka of Michigan State University discuss how the Teach Access collaborative is helping leading tech companies and universities partner to ensure that the next generation of tech developers and designers learn to think and build inclusively.
Intro: [00:00:00] Welcome to the Workology podcast a podcast for the disruptive workplace leader. Join host Jessica Miller-Merrell, founder of Workology.com as she sits down and gets to the bottom of trends tools and case studies for the business leader HR and recruiting professional who is tired of the status quo. Now here's Jessica with this episode of Workology.
Jessica: [00:00:25] Welcome to a new series on the Workology podcast that we're kicking off that focuses on the future of work. This series is in collaboration with the Partnership on Employment and Accessible Technology or PEAT. You can learn more about PEAT at peatworks.org.
Jessica: [00:00:44] If the subject of accessibility isn't on your radar it's time for it to be there. As technology becomes an even more important part of our lives and in our workplaces it's important that tech is accessible to everyone. But it's not just technologies and tools that need to be accessible the hiring selection and entire employment lifecycle should be dealt with accessibility inclusiveness reclusiveness in mind. It's not just the responsibility of the employer but it's also the responsibility of the university and college and the teaching institutions that were a part of. Throughout our lives so we are going to be talking about making our future technology accessible at the university or even earlier than that today in the Workology Podcast
Jessica: [00:01:32] Today joined by Larry Goldberg and Kate Sonka who are part of the Teach Access collaborative. Teach Access is a partnership of technology companies dedicated to preparing designers, engineers, and researchers to think and build future technologies inclusively. Teach Access works with academic programs and design engineering and HCI that are seeking ways to better prepare students to address the needs of diverse populations. Larry Goldberg is the senior director of accessible media with Oath, formerly Yahoo. And Kate Sonka is assistant director of academic technology for the College of Arts and Letters at Michigan State University. Larry and Kate welcome to the work Alty podcast.
Larry: [00:02:13] Glad to be here. Thank you for having us.
Jessica: [00:02:16] So we're going to be talking about how we can make our future technology accessible. And let's talk a little bit about your guys background. I'll start with you first Larry. Tell us about your background and how you came to where you are today.
Larry: [00:02:29] Well I've been involved in the field of making technology and media accessible for more than 30 years. Most of my career was with WGBH public broadcasting in Boston where closed captioning was invented. Video description for the blind and we created a research and development arm called the National Center for Accessible Media which advocated for making technology more accessible to all standards of all legislation and consulted with many major companies. One of the companies we consulted with was Yahoo. And after a few years of a wonderful relationship there the folks at Yahoo offered me a job to implement some of the standards and regulations that I helped develop while I was at WGBH.
Jessica: [00:03:17] Awesome. What about you Kate? Tell us a little bit about your background.
Kate: [00:03:21] Sure. When I came back to Michigan State as part of my work in academic technology one of the projects that I was assigned was accessibility and this is about four years ago so at the time it was kind of familiar to me but really in the last four years I've really kind of gone down that path quite a bit. So I do a variety of things to support accessibility on campus so I'm working with faculty working with students ensuring that course content and Web sites are accessible to anyone who's trying to access those.
Jessica: [00:04:06] Well let's talk a little bit about how you both got involved in teach access and what your roles are within the organization. So first I will start with Larry again.
Larry: [00:04:18] Great. So once I joined Yahoo which has become Oath after our acquisition by Verizon last summer I was talking with a lot of my colleagues in the field of technology and accessibility. And we all realize that we spend a tremendous amount of time training our colleagues developers and designers on what does it really mean to make a mobile app or a website accessible and as much as that was a very engaging and rewarding series of trainings. We realized we would be served a lot better our companies would and our end users would if our new employees actually came to us with some of the basic knowledge about accessible design and development. And in talking with Facebook and Google and Microsoft and Adobe and many others it was pretty clear we needed to focus on our friends in the higher education field. If the students would learn some of these basics while they're in school when they came to us they'd hit the ground running we would be able to serve our users a lot better. We could create better and faster technologies and really start working on the higher order issues of innovation around the field of accessible technology.
Jessica: [00:05:39] What about you, Kate?
Kate: [00:05:41] Sure. So it actually a colleague of mine was attending CS conference which is the California State University Northridge conference. And he went into a presentation that Larry was leading on Teach Access. It was a new initiative getting started ended up through a series of events. I was able to go out and attend the kickoff meeting and it really supports a lot of what I do for our college experiential learning is one of the things that I'm passionate about professionally and also look to create opportunities for our students to really engage in learning in various ways and teach access is really one of those things where I saw a lot of overlap between supporting our faculty so that they are helping students be prepared so that when they leave whether they're hired by a company like Oath or any other company they're prepared to tackle whatever is coming their way. So I found that each access was a really great way to kind of bring together student experience as well as faculty helping them in their classrooms being able to teach this content. So there's been some interesting overlaps.
Jessica: [00:06:50] I love this and I love that employers are coming together with colleges and universities and academia to help drive the conversation and the training and the support around accessibility at the University and student level before like Larry was saying they go out to start their careers at various organizations. Larry can you can it kind of run through a little bit maybe some of the organizations again that are involved with access because there are some very notable and exciting and innovative technology companies that are part of this.
Larry: [00:07:30] There sure are. And I think a lot of the power of our ability to make some change in this field is the fact that we've gathered together across companies that sometimes are competitive but in the field of accessibility are always holding hands and trying to advance each of our initiatives so it's started right off the bat with Yahoo and Facebook sitting out on the patio at the seats on conference and coming up with this notion of how can we band together to make change right away. And immediately we have friends across the industry Google jumped right in. Microsoft's Chief Accessibility Officer said I am violently supporting this and she really jumped right in and dedicated Microsoft resources.
Adobe as the leading company for supplying design tools clearly saw it in their interest and their involvement in accessible design that has been long standing and we have. It's a it's a great community in terms of Silicon Valley and Redmon and the Midwest and New York Boston. We know each other pretty well. So it was pretty quick that we then brought in it and PayPal and Dropbox and then some other interesting companies that were struggling with the same interest and issues in the banking field because they too need to work on making sure what they're offering is accessible so Capital One T.D. Bank was interested.
Now Wal-Mart just joined all of us lining up around the same issue of we need to be able to create technologies that are born accessible and that's the term we like to use. No fixing broken inaccessible stuff Boerner accessible right off the bat. Luckily all of us also had some great relationships with universities Michigan State University of Michigan Georgia Tech the whole Cal State system Olin College in Massachusetts throughout the country. There were champions within all of these universities and we turned to them first and said This is the initiative we're trying to launch we think we have some power. Speaking from these incredible companies can you help us reach the faculty at your institutions and talk about how we can incentivize the professors to begin building this into the courses that they were already teaching.
Kate: [00:10:14] I really love that this is a groundswell effort and you're involving all the right players and innovators and educators in a kind of helping to drive the change within the schools.
Kate: [00:10:27] And then also in your respective organizations.
Larry: [00:10:31] Yeah and the next thing we really need to do as we're growing this within our companies and then working with universities is to take it to the next level. We've already put language in our job descriptions for relevant positions that knowledge of accessible design and develop preferred or even required. And our HR teams are talent acquisition or recruiters. We want them to begin actually implementing this in career fairs and job fairs on campus and first line interviews to ask the question well what do you know about accessible design. Have you ever heard of the web content accessibility guidelines and for any applicants who can answer those questions. Well they're definitely going to have a leg up on where you are hiring.
Kate: [00:11:22] Can you talk a little bit about the organizations again that are that are part of a teach access. Is it just it doesn't sound like it's just technology companies it's financial institutions. Are there any specific technology types or restrictions for membership. Maybe somebody listening here was like this sounds great. I'd like to get involved kind of whatever the requirements and how do we make that happen.
Larry: [00:11:45] For companies we're interested in companies that are in the tech field. So that helps or use technology to serve their customers so that's pretty much anyone. We ask that if they're coming to us there's a small contribution we ask so far it's been very modest. We ask for a time of dedicated employee to participate in our task force work where we're having six or more major initiatives we're looking for volunteer help on that important issue. We've seen this for a lot of companies who first hear about the access they immediately come to us to think that this is where they can learn how to make technology accessible.
And even though we have quite a few experts involved with teach access there are other resources where companies can go to learn the basics about what the 3C has done and what the section 508 mean if you want to get involved with us. It means you're looking to help drive this issue and to support faculty and that's really what our focus is we're trying to stay very focused on that to begin infusing these principles into mainstream courses. And if a company wants to get involved they should go to the teach access Web site teachaccess.org and there's information there about membership how to get in touch. What our initiatives are and what we ask of companies who are getting involved.
Jessica: [00:13:18] Kate can you talk a little bit about training and resources that students teachers and professors have access to as a result of Teach Access.
Kate: [00:13:28] Absolutely. One of the great things that that's come out of Teach Access are our faculty boot camps that we've done a few of them in different parts of the country. But this is where faculty who teach about accessibility or already or faculty who want to teach about accessibility but could benefit from some additional support and are able to sign up to have some really targeted one on one instructional time essentially with our Teach Access. Industry partners there's been a variety of universities involved in this and a variety of industry. But the idea here is that over the course of a day or a half day faculty and instructors really get to understand what is accessibility. How do I teach this in my classroom.?What are the and things that students should take away from it? So you camps have really been a wonderful aspect of teacher access. Another one is that many of the industry partners have agreed to be available if you will for an hour of their time or whatever makes sense for them and the faculty to essentially kind of do a video guest lecture. So if I'm teaching a class and I have time and one of my days I can I can ask someone ask Larry.
Kate: [00:14:46] Larry would you be able to spare an hour of your time to come and talk virtually with my students about accessibility on whatever topic it is that we're trying to address that day. So from those two there's really some great resources and assistance from that. One of the initiatives that we're about to pilot at the end of May this year is a study away. So the study away program is similar in concept to a study abroad students just remain in the United States. But in this case we at Michigan State along with three other Teach access institutional partners through other universities are taking out about 30 students to Silicon Valley at the end of May over one week. They will visit five different teach access industry partners to learn about the accessibility landscape specifically in those companies and then also start to gain or continue to understand the accessibility landscape kind of in general in that region and through some of our partners. The idea here is that students will really come away with an understanding of what does it mean to be an accessibility professional what are people doing. What are the projects that are that are in front of a lot of the companies that they'll be visiting with. So as an institution there's there's quite a few ways that we can partner with our teach access industry partners that we can work with or teach access industry partners to really benefit from their knowledge and help strengthen what we're doing in our own classrooms.
Jessica: [00:16:16] I love that you're having the students go out to to their respective teach access organizations partners and and they get to see firsthand and they get to build real professional relationships and ask real world questions. And I would think as a member there is a great opportunity to engage with some really great talent that is going to be looking for work shortly and graduating from the University and Colleges. Absolutely.
Jessica: [00:16:48] Let's take a bit of a reset. This is Jessica Miller-Merrell and you're listening to the Workology Podcast in partnership with PEAT. Today we're talking about teacher access and accessibility training for university colleges and even high school and elementary. We're talking with Kate Sonka and Larry Goldberg. You can connect with Kate on Twitter. It's @Kate_Sonka.
Sponsor : [00:17:21] The Workology Podcast Future of Work series is supported by PEAT. The partnership on employment and accessible technology pizza initiative is to foster collaboration and action around accessible technology in the workplace. Pitas funded by the U.S. Department of Labor's Office of Disability Employment Policy. Learn more about PEAT and PEATworks.org that's PEAT w o r k s dot org
Jessica: [00:17:50] As we dive more into our Future of Work series with PEAT, I am becoming more and more aware as I hope you are as you've been listening to this conversation that we've had about how much of the world isn't accessible to everyone especially people with disabilities and this includes. And Larry alluded to this a little bit earlier what might seem like a small area to some but the hiring process including job descriptions. Larry talked a little bit about the commitment to including into jobs descriptions experience on the subject of accessibility.
Jessica: [00:18:29] I will include a link to some of more resources but I want to I want to kind of talk a little bit more about this Larry.
Jessica: [00:18:39] Do you have any learnings from this maybe personally at Oath or maybe of some of the other partner organizations about how maybe this has impacted hires or maybe improved or changed the type of candidates that are coming to your or other partners organizations?
Larry: [00:18:55] Well I think we're looking at a long term result out of both what teach access is doing and and all of the companies who are involved knowing that to create better more accessible technologies we really need a workforce that is directly familiar with what does it mean to have a disability and to use technology and to design technology. There's a saying in the disability advocacy community nothing about us without us. And that really strikes home for us if you are a developer and you've never met a blind person you have no familiarity with what it's like to not be able to hear or to use your your hands with full dexterity. It's going to be a little abstract to you.
But as we can and ratchet up our own hiring practices and make our and help our managers really understand more about what does it mean to work with a deaf employee. It's really going to help us do a better job recruiting to really understand what kind of accommodations we can make that are most of the time fairly simple and straightforward and then we can improve the nature and the driver city of our own workforces. So that development team who might have someone with a temporary or permanent disability can really contribute much better to the improvement of our products.
Jessica: [00:20:28] I will say again that I work with PEAT has really opened my eyes and something as simple as a PowerPoint presentation. There are additional steps that you need to go to to make something like that fully accessible or a webinar where people are able to participate or be a part of the conversation and hear and see and feel what what you're saying. So for me it's been really eye opening and I've been in human resources and recruiting a long time and have worked with a lot of different kinds of people and hired a lot of different kinds of people but there are just some things that I think we take for granted.
Larry: [00:21:09] Yeah I think most of the people in my company that I talk to about this are really good hearted people and I think that's true across the board. They just don't have the awareness. And when their eyes are open to the nature of how people with disabilities use technology they embrace it wholeheartedly. But our job really is to find ways to really raise awareness make people feel more comfortable around the issue. I didn't really meet deaf or a blind person until I was probably in my late 30s mid 30s and I went through all the early learning processes the discomfort and I'm very sympathetic with people who this is new to them really once they understand that people with disabilities are just like everyone else or they're different in every way that everyone else is. Things flow a lot better but it's those early encounters certainly in the interview process and the onboarding process and the daily workload. It's not hard to do. It's just something people need to learn.
Jessica: [00:22:16] I love that you're a part of this conversation and that you're participating in this podcast because we're helping to drive that awareness about the subject of accessibility and talking about how as a child recruiting leaders we can push our organizations forward to making that hiring selection and interview process or the workplace more more accessible. I love that you guys are doing that with job descriptions and certainly all the conversations and trainings and learnings that are happening in the workplace as a of your guys is work.
Larry: [00:22:52] Yeah I would like to add that the issues of diverse work places in the tech sector has been quite a hot one over the past few years but the inclusion of people with disabilities as part of that diversity discussion is actually unfortunately relatively new. We've been talking about women and people of color in the tech world and now we're finally making sure that we are including people with disabilities as part of this broader discussion of having a diverse work force having people bring their whole self to work. And luckily in our organization at Oath we are like a startup after the merger with AOL. So we're able to introduce all these new concepts as we shape our diversity initiatives and it's working quite well.
Jessica: [00:23:43] Kate, I wondered how I mean you talked a little bit about the boot camps and the kind of study away programs. What are some other ways that the accessibility training or teaching is being worked into the university and college level classes and programs.
Kate: [00:24:04] Sure. So we have as part of kind of the first generation of teach access. We all kind of divided ourselves into task forces and we had a variety of task forces looking at different things. So I went into the driving Academic Engagement Task Force but we had some other some others that were looking at creating resources. So helping to create teaching resources that could be adopted or used by faculty. And to that end kind of as it's evolved we will be doing some faculty grants to help create further resources that could be used.
Kate: [00:24:40] We also had a group that was working on introducing language or working with governing bodies like a bat or some of the other organizations that set standards for certain majors or certain programs so in engineering for example or computer science for certain programs there's an outside entity that saying in order for a student to be qualified to say that they are whatever they are as a graduate of this program we know that they have met these certain qualifications. So there is a group that was working on talking to some of these organizations to introduce language to encourage faculty to adopt more accessibility teaching into their curriculum. Moving forward. You know there's some other potential ideas swirling out there but really as an organization or as a collaboration I guess everyone is finding where they fit and finding ways that they can have an impact in what ways makes sense to them.
Jessica: [00:25:38] How long has Teach Access then in an entity or or an organization?
Larry: [00:25:43] Well it started as a wonderful idea that no one could avoid. Everyone embraced it. I think our kickstart meeting that Kate mentioned was in April of 2016 if I'm recalling correctly so we're about 2 years old now and our early days really was trying to shape our initiatives what's the best way we can have an impact at scale. We're always talking about how we can have an impact to large numbers of students to all the faculty are who were really hungry for this information
Larry: [00:26:19] And in our first two years we have accomplished quite a bit. We've gotten a word from the FCC and nobility organization out of Austin and everyone we talked to about this is just fully engaged and it's great now to have support from the project and the U.S. Department of Labor to help us actually implement some of the great ambitious ideas we have.
Jessica: [00:26:42] Well I just want to reiterate to folks if they want to get involved the best place to go is teach access dot org and you can find out how to become a part of the organization and and help further these great programs and training and collaboration that's happening between the university and colleges and then the tech companies and employers. So I think I think it's a great cause and I hope that some of you choose to become a part of it. Larry and Kate thank you for joining us today. Where can people go to learn more about you guys. So let's say they want to connect maybe with each of you. We talked about teacher access but where can they go to connect with you specifically.
Larry: [00:27:25] Well I'm kind of an old timer I love it. Yes I have a Twitter account my Facebook page is for private purposes. But yes people can write to me. firstname.lastname@example.org.
Kate: [00:27:38] And I'm happy to connect with anyone on Twitter my handle is @kate_sonka and that’s k-a-t-e underscore s-o-n-k-a or happy to connect on LinkedIn as well. And you can find me Kate Sonka.
Jessica: [00:27:52] Awesome. And we'll have access and on the transcript here. Links to all their twitters and their links and send also e-mail addresses and things so thank you so much again for for taking time to join and talk with us today.
Larry: [00:28:07] Thanks for having us.
Jessica: [00:28:08] Yes thank you teach access is a great organization and I love the partnership and collaboration that is happening. It makes my heart happy to know that companies are working to make their tech as well as their employment processes more accessible. I hope that you'll think more about accessibility in your own workplaces and also reach out to teach access and consider being a part of their mission to drive change. Thank you for joining the Workology Podcast a podcast for the disruptive workplace leader who's tired of the status quo. This is Jessica Miller-Merrell.
Exit: [00:28:38] Until next time you can visit Workology.com to listen to all our previous podcast episodes. Production services for the Workology podcast with Jessica Miller Merrell provided by TotalPicture.com.