Future of Work Podcast, Episode 31.

Hadi Rangin, Information Technology Accessibility Specialist for Accessible Technology Services (ATS) at the University of Washington, discusses the importance of accessibility testing in the technology procurement process.

This podcast is developed in partnership with Workology.com as part of PEAT’s Future of Work series, which works to start conversations around how emerging workplace technology trends are impacting people with disabilities.​

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Intro: [00:00:01.02] 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 Miller-Merrell: [00:00:25.99] We’ve talked a lot about accessibility selection in our Future of Work series with PEAT. But today I wanted to dive into what accessibility technology testing looks like. What is involved and what do companies look for as they are vetting and partnering with technology companies? In this interview, we’re talking with an accessibility tester who will share not only his technical insights, but his expertise on what we should be looking for, the process, as well as advice for HR technology companies as they develop accessible tech for workplaces to purchase and deploy. This episode of the Workology podcast is part of our Future of Work series, powered by PEAT, the Partnership on Employment and Accessible Technology. In honor of the upcoming 30th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act this July, we’re investigating what the next 30 years will look like for people with disabilities at work and the potential of emerging technologies to make workplaces more inclusive and accessible. Today, I’m joined by Hadi Rangin. Hadi is an information technology accessibility specialist for Accessible Technology Services, which includes the Accessible Technology Center and DO-IT. His main focus is working with DO-IT to promote accessible technology designed for students across the nation and working with staff, developers, administration and technology vendors that support the University of Washington. Hadi has worked with companies including Zoom, Microsoft, Workday and PeopleSoft. Hadi, welcome to the Workology podcast.

Hadi Rangin: [00:01:58.00] Thank you very much. And thank you for the opportunity.

Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:02:01.00] Can you tell us a little bit about your background?

Hadi Rangin: [00:02:03.00] Sure. I’m a member of the IT accessibility team at the University of Washington, and my primary responsibility is to make sure that the software that we design and develop in our campus are used by everyone, including people with disabilities. At the UDub, at the Access Technology Services, we provide a large variety of accessibility-related services. Our department consists of two subunits, Access Technology Center as well as, the other unit is DO-IT. Access technology services provides accessibility services to the entire campus and DO-IT provides a lot of programs, including access computing projects. Some of our DO-IT projects are funded by federal grants, including the National Science Foundation, that is supporting access engineering to broaden the participation of people with disabilities in access computing fields. Access computing is all about the partnership and the need for our projects. We usually partner with higher education as well as industry.

Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:03:25.00] How did you end up working in technology’s accessibility testing? Why is it an important industry and field for you to be working in?

Hadi Rangin: [00:02:13.00] Let me tell you how I got to this place. I am originally from Iran and then studied computer science from 1986 to 1994 in Germany at the University of Karlsruhe. In 1994 I came to the United States as part of an exchange program between Oregon State University and the University of Karlsruhe to stay for six months to work with Dr. Gardner, who is still a pioneer in accessibility, and one of his accessibility projects that he was running at that time. So my six months ended in two years, and then I graduated there and I had the job and I didn’t see an immediate need to go back to Germany. So after graduating from Oregon State University, I worked for another two years with Dr. Gardner and then I went to New Mexico State University to work on a similar accessibility project. Then I decided to work for the private sector. I worked for a telecommunication company for a few years, but accessibility was, has been always my side concern. And then as a job. I always did some side jobs as an accessibility consultant. Then I think in 2004 I decided, you know, to work full time for accessibility. So I was introduced to Dr. Gunderson at the University of Illinois, and then I had the opportunity to work with him for over 10 years. That was actually where I considered to become an accessibility expert. At that job I had the opportunity to work with many vendors and many, many software companies and which has become my passion and my expertise. And in 2014, I moved to University of Washington and I’m working for Access Technology Services led by Dr. Sheryl Burgstahler.

Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:05:51.00] Talk to me about the process for testing technologies for accessibility. What goes into the process on your side?

Hadi Rangin: [00:05:58.00] It depends on when we get involved into accessibility projects. We are very fortunate that the University of Washington, we don’t have to go after, you know, products. I mean, the people who are purchasing the product or departments that are, who are purchasing the products, they are aware about accessibility. And they come to us and then we work with them on making sure their software that they are designing or developing or purchasing are accessible. So it is not always the case. Sometimes we are informed about the deployment of an application right in the last minute, so where we have really no chance to do anything about it. But there are, preferably we would like to be involved from the beginning. The types of software that we are dealing with are locally developed software or purchased through the third-party vendors. If it is about developing a software in our campus, so we sit down with them and then we get involved in their design process and then making sure that they are not introducing non-accessible experience or technology in their design and implementation.

Hadi Rangin: [00:07:25.00] But when we are working with the third party application vendors, when we get involved  is very important. For example, sometimes we are involved at the RFP process. That stage is at the best time because we can ensure that the software is tested and evaluated and issues are identified. And then so we can come up with a roadmap to address those issues. Sometimes campus wants to purchase a product and we have no choice, but having a roadmap with a vendor that they know the accessibility problem with their product. And then so we can come up with a timeline plan when and how those issues should be addressed. This is really a key. Otherwise, everybody, every software will tell you, oh, yes, we care for accessibility and then we are dedicated for that. But they don’t dedicate the resources to achieve their goals. So as a result, it never comes to the top of the priority list for them. And accessibility remains an ongoing issue or it continues to be a problem.

Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:08:50.00] What are some things that HR leaders can do to understand accessibility better? This has been a challenge for so many of us in HR when we’re demoing software. And oftentimes we’re told prior to, and signing the contract that the technology is accessible. But then later on we find out once we are implementing it in our organization that it isn’t always the case.

Hadi Rangin: [00:09:13.00] Unfortunately, it is correct. Indeed, we fall frequently, or many of us who are in the purchasing, who make the purchasing decision, they fall into that trap that the companies, they come and then they demonstrate or they talk to them about accessibility, how dedicated they are, and they talk about their VPAT, voluntary product accessibility template, which is self-explaining statement about the accessibility of the product. And they tell us what, or tell the purchasers whatever they want to hear. But unfortunately, the purchasing department, they don’t have any mechanism where they have any resources to verify their claims. And then as a result, they purchase it and then they later discover the accessibility problem. My suggestion or the way that we handle it at the University of Washington is that we get involved in purchasing products, as I mentioned earlier, preferably, we would like to be involved from the beginning so we can evaluate an application for accessibility and provide a report to those people who are making that decision. So, they know, from the beginning, here this application has these issues. But the good thing is that having an issue is not the end of the world. We can come up with a roadmap. We can come up with a plan that the company can address those issues. And then usually we get involved and then work as a consultant or enter a collaboration with the company and then those people who are running the product or the service on campus and help them to address those issues. So if you don’t have accessibility experts on campus, you might want to build one, because I think accessibility is, I believe accessibility is, as important as security and privacy. So if you don’t have an accessibility expert, you might want to build it or you might want to, you know, hire an accessibility consultant to evaluate that. So you know what you are getting and you don’t fall into that trap.

Break: [00:11:49.00] Let’s take a reset. This is Jessica Miller-Merrell, and you are listening to the Worklogy Podcast. Today we are talking with Hadi Rangin about accessibility testing for workplace technology. This podcast is sponsored by Workology and is part of our Future of Work series in partnership with the Partnership on Employment and Accessible Technology or PEAT.

Break: [00:12:13.00] The Workology Podcast Future of Work series is supported by PEAT, the Partnership on Employment and Accessible Technology. PEAT’s initiative is to foster collaboration and action around accessible technology in the workplace. PEAT is funded by the U.S. Department of Labor’s Office of Disability Employment Policy, ODEP. Learn more about PEAT at peatworks.org. That’s peatworks.org.

Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:12:42.00] I know you’ve worked with a host of very recognizable technology companies. We talked about them at the beginning of the show, a few, Zoom, Microsoft, WorkDay and PeopleSoft when it comes to accessibility. Do they come to you or do you approach them and. or are they coming to the university specifically?

Hadi Rangin: [00:13:02.00] For obvious reasons we can only work with those companies who have some business relationship with the University of Washington or we are using their software. I wish that they were coming to us instead of us going to them. We usually get involved in working with these companies through our service owner and service manager. For most services that we use at University of Washington we have a service owner and a service manager. Service owners are in charge of purchasing the product, making sure that all those fees are paid and then security or patches are applied. And then they connect, the software works with other software in our campus. And the service manager is responsible for day to day application, operation. We never work directly with a company. All collaboration is always through our service owners and service managers. In our collaboration with the company, we try to educate them about the accessible design. We start with fixing the low hanging fruit and then issues that can be easily resolved. But our long term goal with the companies is to train them in accessibility design and implementation best practices and then build accessibility liaison. So sometimes we end up training their staff. We have provided training, specialized training, to many companies in the past years. And then as a result, we see that those companies are producing more accessible and usable products. You ask about the certification. I am not personally in favor of certification programs. We have seen in the past that sometimes companies, they use this certification as a blank check, as if the mission is accomplished. Accessibility is an ongoing process. So that’s the same way that you can not say that, hey, we are safe and secure so we don’t need to worry about security. Something can always happen and then security can be jeopardized. Accessibility can be reversed or damaged or destroyed sometimes by new updates, adding new features, changing the user interfaces. So we do not generally support providing certification. We can always say that these companies are working with us. Some of them are putting in a lot of effort, investing a lot of resources. We can always say that, you know, that they are committed as of now, but we cannot give them a blank check with a certificate because we really do not know what will happen in six months or even a year. Hope it makes sense.

Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:16:12.00] Yeah, I can see that. It’s a moving target and a lot of times they’ll use certification in their marketing and sales efforts. And it’s not always accurate because, as you’re saying, things change. So what is good today meets standards for accessibility in your guise and mine, might not be that way in as little as two weeks depending upon updates.

Hadi Rangin: [00:16:36.00] Exactly.

Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:16:37.00] What advice do you have for maybe HR technology companies that want to make their technology more accessible for the workplace, for their users? I ask because I’ve heard from several companies that they’ve told me privately that the cost of accessibility, software development is a big issue and them being able to move forward.

Hadi Rangin: [00:16:58.00] First, if accessibility is taught at the beginning, it is free. We do not have anything like, you know, accessibility can be made or can make a software development more expensive. I mean, companies are spending a lot of time for security and privacy and I think accessibility is as important as that. So accessibility is not something that they have to do that extra. They just need to follow the design and implementation best practices. If they do that, there is zero dollar cost for accessibility. And if a company comes and asks about, you know, extra money for accessibility features or fixing some bugs, that is something that we should never, ever even listen, or even contemplate that. So that is an absolute no. Nobody should come to the idea to pay the company for accessibility features. Most of the accessibility issues that we see, that indeed are usability issues. But people with disabilities are more impacted by them. By addressing those issues that we calll accessibility issues, they make the product more accessible to everyone. So, it is not something that we can say that only people with disabilities can benefit from them. No, everybody can benefit from that. For example, we talk about the customization. If I am not dealing with a specific component in my application, so if the application allows me to customize it and then hide that and so it is not in my way anymore, so everybody would benefit from that. Accessibility, we should not pay for accessibility features. It should be part of the official set for every application and in every application, developers have the best practices. Then it is free and then the product is accessible out of the box. Secondly, you know, consider that, you know, if a lawsuit comes, I am pretty sure it will be much more expensive.

Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:19:16.00] I have heard this. It’s like, it’s going to cost us sixty thousand dollars, or a hundred and twenty thousand dollars to make it accessible. That’s too expensive for us to be able to do. And that’s, that’s come from several different organizations, after I have had several presentations where we talk about technology accessibility and workplace accessibility. It’s a good point that you’re making about the lawsuit on the other side of things.

Hadi Rangin: [00:19:52.00] Right. But I say in my statement that never even, they shouldn’t even think to pay for that. I mean, if this is something that is not accessible, it means that the application is not good, really not good. One of the good things that it helps me to discuss with the designers and developers is my background, which is in computer science and human centered design and engineering. So, I can discuss with them and I can, you know, show them and demonstrate a lot of things that they are doing is not correct based on the stuff that we have learned in school. So, again, accessibility must be part of the application feature set and we should never pay for that. And again, if the software developer, they follow the design and implementation best practices, they get for free.

Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:20:40.00] Talk to me about one of your biggest technology accessibility pet peeves.

Hadi Rangin: [00:20:45.00] I don’t know if your audiences are familiar with VPAT. VPAT stands for Voluntary Product Accessibility Template. It is a statement that companies make about their application and how accessible it is. While we are seeing more accurate VPAT in the past years. But most of the VPATS that we see, as my colleague Dan says, that, they are entertaining. So, when you read that as an expert and we really can laugh about it. They are claiming things that, you know, it’s not applicable. Something like that, you know, how is the weather? And they said that I like apple. It can be so unrelated, their responses that they give, or the statement that they make in their VPATs. And that is one of my real concerns, that they come with this shiny VPAT and they introduce that to the purchaser department or the procurement department. And they see all those statements that they would like to hear or see. For example, we are compliant with the WCAG 2.0 or 2.1 or whatever guidelines, and then they have no means to verify that. So that is my biggest concern. And as I mentioned earlier, I think every one of us is responsible for verifying these claims. If we don’t have accessibility people on board, we might want to build it, or we might want to use an external consultant to verify that. Otherwise, you know, we end up with a product that is not accessible. And we have to pay a lot of money for accommodation, due to the lack of accessibility of the service that we are purchasing.

Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:22:47.00] This is an important point that you’re making, that if we purchase technology to use in our workplaces that isn’t accessible for all our employees, then the employer will need to oftentimes pay for the accommodation. And that might mean bringing in an extra person to even help with things like screen reading for that individual. If the tech that they’re using, if you have a payroll processor in HR and they can’t use the payroll processing technology because it isn’t screen reader compatible, an accommodation is to bring in an individual to read the screen for your payroll processor.

Hadi Rangin: [00:23:29.00] Correct. Consider all the money that you will be paying for accommodation. At the end, it might be much more than that if you spend the money to verify the accessibility features. I need to emphasize that. If you are really purchasing a specific product, I mean, it doesn’t have to be a hundred percent accessible. So we don’t have, unfortunately, the luxury to go to a store and then, you know, choose between product A and B. You know sometimes there is only one player in the market, and we have to buy that product. But testing and verifying or identifying the accessibility issues before purchasing gives us the leverage to negotiate with the vendor and in the contract. So, to tell them, hey, we found these issues. Some of them are, we call that showstopper. It means they are so severe that many users or most users cannot proceed. Once we have the list of the accessibility issues, we can come up with a plan. And tell them, hey we would love to see that these accessibility features, for example, these showstoppers or priority one issues are addressed in two months or three months or six months or whatever you want to negotiate. But there should be a plan. Sometimes these are statements that we care for accessibility or we make sure these are not sufficient. We have too many of these cases in the past. The company told us, “Oh we care.” No. And some of them even said, “Oh, we have people with disabilities in our family. We understand that.”  But at the end of the road, money talks. Do not pay them, make them, you know, conditional the payment until the fix or the promise is in the contract.

Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:25:22.00] I love when you say accessibility is as important as security when it comes to technology. I think it’s important to repeat what you’ve said.

Hadi Rangin: [00:23:29.00] Indeed. We cannot deploy products that have severe accessibility issues. Or we call that showstopper or deployment blocker issues. Similar way when a product has security holds. By deploying a product that you know about accessibility issues, you practically, you open yourself to a lot of expensive lawsuits. And then, you know, besides that, think about the end user. I mean, you are providing that service that all your employees, all your staff or everybody in your community uses the software. By introducing an inaccessible software, you practically discriminate them, and you do not give them the proper means to do their job. So, we will impact the overall performance of the entire system. But unfortunately, some of us, they see only the performance within my unit. We do not see the big picture that other people are involved, and they cannot do the job.

Hadi Rangin: [00:26:43.00] One thing that I personally experienced and then be sure it makes me very passionate for accessibility, is that I have experienced inaccessibility as a student, as a faculty, as a staff for now with multiple hacks. So, I understand the underside of my job. I see. But I talk with people with disabilities that they cannot do their job. What I see is students that are falling behind because the technology that is used on campus by some of the faculty is not accessible. So, they fall behind. So, this is not something that we can really afford forever. We have been paying a big price for lack of accessibility by leaving so many people behind, by making sure that accessibility is intact or the software you are providing your campus or to your organization is accessible, you give a fair choice to everyone to perform equally and or fairly. I would say that accommodation is no longer the best solution for accessibility problems.

Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:28:06.00] Are there any technology companies who you think are leading the way in accessibility? I’m also curious if there are companies that you have found in your experience, maybe that might be more open to hearing feedback from customers than others.

Hadi Rangin: [00:28:18.00] Let me make a disclosure that any companies that they name here, it does not mean that we endorse their product. Just talking about their accessibility effort does not mean they have already a fully accessible product. Yes, there are a lot of companies that we are working with and they are eager for every bit of information, accessibility consulting that we can provide to them. We have been working with pretty much all of the companies, some of the companies like Microsoft various teams, with Microsoft Windows team, Microsoft Office team’s various products, Microsoft Mac Outlook team, Zoom, Google Forms, Google Cloud Projects platform. We recently started working with Google Docs. You mentioned Zoom. Workday has been another product that we have been working for over five years with them. And then, you know, another smaller company like Poll Everywhere, Manifold and Press books and many more, really many more. Depending on the size of the company and then the development infrastructure that they have, our collaborations can be quite different. Sometimes with a small company, we sit down with the designer developer right at the table and then we address, we discuss the issue and we propose some solutions and then they learn it and they go and implement it. With other products, now, like Google Products and Microsoft where they have a very distributed development system, some of them are sitting here, some of them, you know, in China, in India, or different parts of the world. It is different. Some of them, they give us access to their bug tracking system so we can easily see how, if they are working out the issues that we have reported. With some other companies, you know, we don’t get access to their bug tracking system. So, all these companies have some means to address accessibility. But really, the outcome is not the same. Of course, you know, some products like Google Docs or Microsoft Word, is a significantly bigger program than, for example, a company like Poll Everywhere that offers small products. The fact is that all of these companies, they have some accessibility programs. Companies like Workday, they have a well-established accessibility team. There are companies like, you know, a smaller company like, as I said, Manifold. So, we are dealing with only a couple of people. And then I do not know that when these people are no longer with that company, what will happen with the company, with the accessibility of that product. So, what I am trying to say that, again, depending on the size of the company, the products, and then, you know, the accessibility development system they have, sometimes accessibility stays there forever. Sometimes, you know, it can change from one version to another. Because it depends on the people. They don’t have accessibility systematically in their design and development process.

Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:31:59.00] We have been asking this question throughout this year’s PEAT Future of Work podcast series. And I wanted to ask you, as we look to the next 30 years of work, what emerging trends or technologies do you think will have the biggest impact on people with disabilities?

Hadi Rangin: [00:32:16.00] I think the technology that we are using for remote work, kind of hybrid work, that would be the theme or the one of the biggest areas that we have a lot of room for improvement. As a person with a disability, I know that some of us cannot secure a position because of the transportation or commute. I think this pandemic situation due to Coronavirus has given us or forced us to try the remote work or kind of hybrid work and see how it works. I’m hearing, I cannot verify the data, but I’m hearing from some companies that they say that the performance of some of the employees has been increased since when they are working remotely. I’m not sure it can be applied to every job. Not if you are a cook. You cannot work remotely. But there are many types of jobs that can be performed remotely or in kind of hybrid format offices, will be different. In a home, probably, we will have in future a more dedicated home office. There would be some concern, you know, about the accommodation of people with disabilities at work. If I am a person with disabilities and I need some equipment, who is willing to pay for that or who can support me with that or who is, who is responsible for the insurance if something happens while I am working from my home office. Does the work insurance cover that or not? I’m pretty sure, I mean if you go that route, the laws and regulations will change. But I think, as technology that allowing users to work remotely becomes more mature, more flexible. And I think this will be something that we should look forward to it.

Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:34:30.00] How do you thank you so much for joining us today. Where can people go to learn more about you and what you do?

Hadi Rangin: [00:35:15.00] Thank you again for the opportunity to talk with you and then share my opinion of the accessibility solutions that we have as far as IT accessibility goes. To learn more about our work, you can go to Washington.edu/accessibility or you can search for us University of Washington Access Technology. You will get a lot of links to our resources and I will be providing some links to you so you can share with your audience.

Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:35:16.00] Fantastic. We’ll be sure to include those in the resources section of the podcast transcript. So, if you just go to Workology, you can access those links there and be able to connect with Hadi and the team at University of Washington directly.

Closing: [00:26:51.00] Are you tired of putting your professional development on the back burner? It’s time for you to invest in yourself with UpSkill HR by Workology. We’re a membership community focused on personal development for HR. Gain access to our elite community training, coaching and events. Learn more at UpSkillHR.com.

Closing: [00:27:16.00] Hadi shared in his interview that accessibility is important, is just as important as security when it comes to technology. Companies are hiring or employing entire teams who are focused on testing and working with technology partners to ensure that the tech we as employees purchase is accessible to all our employees. My hope is that the technology companies who are listening to this podcast will learn from this interview. We need to be accessibility focused from the inception of the development of our technology products, not after the fact. This Future of Work series is in partnership with PEAT and it is one of my favorites. Thank you to PEAT as well as our podcast sponsor, Workology.