The Accidental Ally – How I started my journey on accessibility.

the journy is on

Part 1: How I started my journey on Accessibility.

al·ly

/ˈalī/

a person or organization that cooperates with or helps another in a particular activity.

ac·ces·si·bil·i·ty

/əkˌsesəˈbilədē/

the quality of being able to be reached or entered.

the quality of being easy to obtain or use.

the quality of being easily understood or appreciated.

the quality of being easily reached, entered, or used by people who have a disability.

Accessibility

is a 13 letter word often referred to as a11y. When I first saw references to a11y, I thought it read, A L L Y. But a colleague quickly pointed out at that A-eleven-Y referred to the word ‘Accessibility’. “Pretty cool”, I thought to myself. Little did I know that this 13 letter word would change my life.This is my story of how I accidentally became an ally for A11Y.

This post is 1 of a 3 part series —

  1. The Accidental Ally- Part 1- How I started my journey on Accessibility.
  2. The Accidental Ally- Part 2- From Ally to Champion.
  3. The Accidental Ally- Part 3- Accessibility and Beyond.

“Not more than 2–3 hours per week”, she said. “Just keep an eye on the backlog of JIRA tickets and work them down to zero. Don’t let the engineers fool you. You have to stay on top of them to get this done.” This was part of the conversation I had with a project manager before taking on the Accessibility project. I was a freelance product consultant on the team focused on deliverables based product initiatives. Siddharth, who was the product leader for the frontend digital product team wanted to ensure this was getting the right level of attention and support from the product team. He asked me to get involved and do whatever it takes to see it through and meet all the deadlines. I had no idea what ‘Accessibility’ meant. I was aware of the American Disabilities Act (ADA) but other than recognizing the handicap signage in parking lots and public restrooms, my knowledge of what web accessibility meant and specifically what it meant for a digital product team was pretty close to ….nothing!

As a product manager, I knew how to work with developers so my next stop was to meet with the team to better understand where they were on this. We had a deadline to meet, all eyes were on us. Weekly updates had to be sent to the exec team every Friday with a big pie chart that showed them how many Jira tickets were still outstanding. The whole thing felt like a fire drill, the team was stressed, and everyone was in a frenzy over the deadline.

I was intrigued. My inner student woke up. I had to learn more. I started with a google search, typing “accessibility” into the search box and instantly overwhelmed by the sheer magnitude of content that shows up. I didn’t know where to begin. This was too overwhelming. I thought I would start with the WCAG guidelines. It took only about 20 mins of “trying” to read the guidelines that made me want to pull my hair out. But I persisted. I am glad I did because what unfolded was a deeply fulfilling experience.

Here is how it all unfolded for me. If you are starting your journey on Accessibility, you could follow this path but take your own detours, enjoy the process of learning, don’t forget to stop and ask for directions, and most importantly…always remember…

Accessibility is a journey, not a destination.

“If I were to summarize in one sentence the single most important principle I have learned in the field of interpersonal relations, it would be this: Seek first to understand, then to be understood.” — DR. STEPHEN R. COVEY

My journey on Accessibility started with a deep desire to understand and learn. In that process, I was able to apply my background, experience, and skills to deeply understand problems I could tackle in my own unique way. It was a transformative experience that challenged me to be authentic, vulnerable, bold and audacious in my approach to my work, and to life in general. I have organized my thoughts into 10 critical stops on this journey.

1. Seeking Data and Insights: A product manager always starts with data and derives insights from it. I needed data on the impact of Accessibility. What I discovered, was shocking.

  • Disability Impacts all of us. 61 million adults in the United States live with a disability. I AM one of them. (Source: CDC.gov)
  • Digital Accessibility is a ‘Billion-Customer’ and ‘$8 trillion’ Opportunity. It’s not just the right thing to do, it’s also good for business. “Over 1 billion people worldwide have a disability, and they have over $1.2 trillion in annual disposable income. That number balloons to $8 trillion when you include their friends and family who prefer to support organizations whose products are accessible.” — (Source: Forrester Report)
  • ADA lawsuits are on the rise. But first, you need to know what the ADA Title III is. If you haven’t heard about the Domino’s case, then you should read this. Read up on this data on the Legal Landscape.

2. Understanding Disability: The concept of an “able-bodied” person is deeply flawed. We have all been disabled at different points in our lives. Did you know that >70% of disabilities are invisible? Here is a visualization of different types of disabilities.

3. Walking in their shoes: As a product manager, you have to practice ‘deep customer empathy’ but its nearly impossible for you to imagine what it’s like to live life with a disability if you don’t have that disability yourself. However, there are ways to develop empathy, understanding, and compassion. I believe in the power of connection and observation. You cannot expect to understand people with disabilities if you do not engage with them. I was fortunate to have the opportunity to spend a week with my friends Vinay, Hannah and Carrie at CSUN in May 2019. All of them have a visual impairment and navigate the world with (adorable) guide dogs. I walked alongside them every day for a whole week to always find myself lagging behind and struggling to catch up. They walked faster (part of their guide dog training is to maintain a certain pace), they navigated crowded spaces with ease, looked up places to eat on Yelp, called an uber / lyft on their phone (always beating me to the punch..Vinay and I had a secret competition on who could get an uber faster. He always won! 🙂 ). We spent our after-hours talking about random stuff getting drinks at the bar and laughing. I left CSUN that week feeling like a complete idiot for all the misconceptions I was carrying with me about people with disabilities. I also felt like a fraud for hiding my own disability from the world and acting like I was “normal”. The best part was that they didn’t think of themselves as “disabled.” They lived normal lives, doing normal things, using tech like a boss and it just worked. That’s all that mattered to them. When they used tech whether it was a device or an app, it just worked. This was very important learning — ‘When I use it, it just works’.

4. Using Assistive Technology — Have you used assistive tech? Do you know what a screen reader is? If not, try this now. On a mac, the screen reader is called voiceover. Turn it on, take the tutorial and try to navigate your computer and a few websites using it. At one of the early executive reviews where we were expected to show the big pie chart of Jiras, I did a crazy Ivan. For those of us who are not familiar with submarine terms, it’s an abrupt maneuver to reposition the vessel. First, I blindfolded myself, turned on the screen reader on my laptop, then proceeded to navigate the homepage, shopping for items, adding to cart, checking out and finally paying for my order. The room of execs watched as I stumbled my way through the experience. At the end of the demo, there was drop-dead silence. One of the execs said, “This has truly been a humbling and eye-opening experience. We have a long way to go.” I am a very big fan of hands-on learning. Try it yourself and you will quickly find out how much your product sucks. If you cannot use it, then your customers with disabilities definitely cannot and will not use it. Please note that a very important observation I made early on is that there is a vast difference in the way non-sighted users use screen readers vs sighted users. The only way to get the real experience is by observing a non-sighted user use a screenreader. It feels like being on a roller coaster ride. Really fast and nauseating! 🙂

5. Reaching out for help: The accessibility community is a vibrant, open community of passionate individuals dedicated to accessibility. I started off by following accessibility leaders on LinkedIn. Not everyone is available to you 1:1 but it never hurts to ask for help. Another great resource has been attending meetups and the annual CSUN Assistive Technology conference which was a life-changing experience for me in 2019. As a freelancer, you can sometimes feel like an orphan. I joked with Ted Drake (Intuit’s Head of Accessibility) that he should adopt me as his orphan employee and invest in my development as an accessibility professional. I have learned a great deal from people like Ted who take the time to share their knowledge, provide guidance and sometimes that’s all it takes. You just need someone to tell you where to start. I also diligently follow and read what Sheri posts on her blog. Sheri is a force to be reckoned with. You will know what I mean if you follow her on LinkedIn. 🙂 Ted Drake, Samantha Evans, Sagar Barbhaya, Carrie Farber, Hannah Chadwick, Daniel Frank, Vinay Billimoria, Greta Harding and so many others have been so instrumental in my learning journey. I will forever be grateful for your help and support!

6. Learn-Teach-Learn: I first heard this when I was working at Intuit. The concept is simple. You learn something new, you teach others, you learn by teaching others, and the cycle continues. This was music to my ears. I love to learn. I applied this diligently to my work on Accessibility. There were times when we had to learn together as a team, teach each other and that dedication to the learning process is what made us better as a team and most importantly helped us navigate the complexities that we often faced on accessibility work. Shashank, Sachin, Soumya, Upasana, Sky, Ajay…I couldn’t have asked for a better team of people to learn with. You guys were fantastic partners in crime!

7. Demystifying the WCAG guidelines: I don’t mean to give the WCAG guideline a bad rep but they are not written to be user friendly. BUT the good news is that many who came before me recognized that and simplified the guidelines. I found it very easy to think of the guidelines as they align with Accessibility principles POUR — Perceivable, Operable, Understandable, Robust. Here is a great list from WebAim that I use often to better understand the guidelines. I think we could all use a WCAG app! Accessibility guidelines at your fingertips..! Looking for an enthusiastic app developer to partner with on this! 🙂

8. Learning Disability Etiquette: I credit my dear friend Carrie for helping me understand and practice disability etiquette. I recall my first meeting with Carrie. I knew Carrie’s story from this blog post. To me, Carrie was a celebrity. She worked in a building up the hill from me. So I offered to meet her there. She insisted on meeting me at my building, walking to it by herself (with her guide dog, Ames). When she arrived, I met her in the lobby. I didn’t know what to do when I first met her. Should I grab her hand? How does she know I am extending my hand for a handshake? I was a complete mess. A few mins into the conversation, as we settled down into a spot in the cafe, I apologized to her for not knowing what to say or do. I asked her for guidance on the appropriate way to behave with a person with a guide dog or cane. Carrie laughed that infectious laugh of hers and assured me that this was not uncommon. She told me that most people mean well and do not really know what to do. She gave me a crash course on disability etiquette – People First language, ALWAYS ASK if someone needs help, ask if they want to ‘take an elbow’ vs holding their hand, NEVER EVER engage with a guide dog (no matter who ridiculously cute they are) and so on. It is very important to know this and it was shocking there are many people out there like me who mean well but have very low ‘Disability IQ’. Here is a good resource if you don’t have a friend like Carrie to walk you through it.

9. Doing an Accessibility Assessment: Some call it an audit or a teardown. I prefer to call them assessments. Less intimidating and it encourages people to engage with the process by first downloading accessibility plugins. The one I recommend is the Accessibility Insights plugin by Microsoft in collaboration with Deque (The makers of Axe). You can find all the information on the plugin here. The FastPass will give you a quick look at the overall gaps but the assessment tool is what you should spend your time with. That is by far the best way to get your hands and feet wet. Jump right in!

10. Never stop learning: That’s the thing about Accessibility. There is no shortage of things to learn. One of the best decisions of my life was to get certified in Accessibility core competencies (IAAP’s CPACC certification). There are many other resources you can engage with to continue the learning process. I think it calls for a separate blog post but the general ideas are around following thought leaders on LinkedIn, attending webinars, reading blog posts, attending meetups, and of course, following me and my blog! I promise you will learn something new. 🙂

In conclusion, let me leave you with another story from the CSUN conference. I mentioned to you earlier that I spent a lot of time with my friends Vinay, Hannah, Carrie and their respective guide dogs, Abel, Spritz and Ames. On one of the days, we were rushing to get from lunch to a session that we didn’t want to miss. As we are sprinting, Hannah says to me, “Those are really cool shoes you have on and I love your trenchcoat”. I was stunned. I asked Hannah, “How do you know that when you cannot see?” She replied, “I could tell by the sound of it.”

I leave you with this….

“Just because a man lacks the use of his eyes doesn’t mean he lacks vision.” Stevie Wonder

“Start by doing what’s necessary; then do what’s possible, and suddenly you are doing the impossible.” Francis of Assisi