Beyond alt-text

There’s a wave of new senior corporate positions in accessible technology. But who can they hire?

Sara Hendren
Jan 5, 2015 · 7 min read
Image: a digital dot matrix wheelchair on a screen, followed by an equal symbol, and the International Symbol of Access. Below it is a partially obscured printed “accessible.” Credit: Jason Eppink on Flickr.

In the last 2 years, at least four big tech companies have created positions in accessible technology — a move that seems to signal a serious commitment to making products and services usable by people with all kinds of abilities and needs. AT&T named Christopher Rice as “Chief Accessibility Officer” in early 2013. Since then, others have followed suit: IBM’s Frances West and Microsoft’s Robert Sinclair, both of them longtime leaders in inclusive and adaptive technologies, were given the same new CAO position and title. And this summer, Yahoo tapped Larry Goldberg, former leader of the National Center for Accessible Media — they brought the world closed-captioned television — to be its first Director of Accessible Media.

Inclusive technology appears to be hitting the mainstream, after decades of tireless advocacy by non-profits and invisible corporate side efforts. Why now? These companies may be taking seriously the market implications of a 2011 WHO finding: that one billion people worldwide live with disabilities. Or they may have in mind the recent acceleration of digital tech use by adults over 50.

Whatever the case, the need is great, and these companies are hiring. But they’re not finding the programmers, engineers, and designers who can think about differences and needs beyond the basics.

I talked with Larry Goldberg about accessibility in the age of wearables and the Internet of Things, why he can’t hire fast enough, and what young professionals can do to make their projects more inclusive.

You’re the new Director of Accessible Media at Yahoo, and you’re joining other recent senior-level hires in accessibility. Tell me about that.

Yes, this position was created for me, essentially, because Yahoo has elevated video and other media to be a central offering for our users. I have a background in media production, distribution, operations — and accessibility — so it was a natural fit. We are hosting hundreds of thousands of video streams every month, so it’s no small challenge to make them all accessible. Then there’s Flickr, with millions (billions?) of images — it would be great to have the ability to describe them too.

Throughout Silicon Valley, companies are hiring accessibility experts like never before. Developers, engineers, product managers, mobile, web, every possible platform and at the top companies, like Facebook, Google, Amazon, Twitter, and many others. At Yahoo we have four open positions in our Accessibility Team alone!

What does it mean for Yahoo to make its content more accessible? Who are the users you have in mind, and what kinds of alternate interactions are your challenges to create?

For Yahoo, whose mission is “to be an indispensable guide to digital information, yours and the world’s,” being accessible means aiming for a sort of seamlessness in experiencing the web, for the web to be served up your way, personalized to your needs and preferences. On a day-to-day and minute-by-minute basis, it means that however you access the web, via whatever platform or app, we’re working to make sure our content works with your screen reader, for example, or that a video you watch has closed captions, or that any of our web sites you go to can be navigated without a mouse. The users we have in mind are people who rely on VoiceOver on iOS devices and OSX Macs, TalkBack on Android, JAWS on PCs — whatever assistive technology you use, we want to support it.

And deeper and earlier into our design and development process, we want to be sure that our apps don’t break if you increase the font size, for instance, or that the experience of a great service like Flickr works for everyone however it’s accessed. It all comes down to supporting alternate inputs and outputs, and there are lots of them our users take advantage of. Speech in, Braille out; single switch in, audio out; head-stick touch in, magnified screen out — we test for all combinations and possibilities.

Tell me more about your background in accessible media.

I started many years ago (1985 to be exact) as the Operations Manager for WGBH’s Caption Center, in its New York office, managing the captioning of hundreds of TV ads every month. It was an incredibly fast-paced job, very demanding at a time when closed captioning wasn’t widely known or accepted.

Prior to taking that job, I had never met a deaf or blind person — my background was in TV production and computers. I got an on-the-job education — from our stakeholders in the disability community — of what it meant to be shut out of mainstream media and how incredible it was that a brand-new, cutting-edge technology could make a huge change.

After three years at the New York office, I moved up to Boston to become Director of The Caption Center at WGBH and its three offices — in Boston, New York and Los Angeles. My connections with the deaf community grew as did my knowledge of technology and innovative solutions for inclusion. It was around this time that WGBH started up Descriptive Video Service (DVS), which provided narration of visual images on TV and movies for people who are blind or visually impaired. Eventually, I was asked to consolidate the department for all forms of accessible media on all platforms : The Media Access Group at WGBH.

The final chapter — and the most exciting — was the creation of the National Center for Accessible Media at WGBH. NCAM, as it’s called, was the first and only R&D shop for advancing media and technologies into the digital age for people with disabilities. We developed technology and standards and public policy for access to media in movie theaters, DVDs, online entertainment and education, e-books, and wherever media and technology impacted the lives of people with disabilities — in their homes, schools, workplaces and communities.

What do you see as the most promising opportunities and pressing challenges for accessibility in media (and hardware, design, tech at large, if you want to comment)?

There are a dizzying array of opportunities for exploiting new technologies to advance the goal of inclusivity for all. Just think of what you could do with wearable computers for health monitoring, heads-up displays for enhancing what you see with captioning and subtitles, embedded cameras for wayfinding, the entire Internet of Things for making your environment more responsive to your individual needs — personalizing your world through augmenting reality.

The challenge is not technological, it’s psychological. I am a big believer in the infinite possibilities inherent in innovative thinking applied to advanced mechanical and computing sciences. But first and foremost, those who shape our digital world have to wrap their brains around the fact that not everyone is shaped like them, moves like them, perceives the world like them. Deep and lasting impressions about human diversity need to be made to alter the mindsets of all the creative links in the chain from invention to fabrication to implementation to marketing to sales to end users. One little “oh, I never thought of that” can derail the entire process of making the next big thing great for everyone.

What can people with disabilities and their allies do to advocate for more accessible media?

It’s amazing how few complaints many companies receive about inaccessible products and services. That’s unfortunate, because the solutions are at hand, and quite often there are people embedded in the relevant companies who want to help, who can help, but who need to have the Voice of the Customer driving corporate priorities.

You said you have four positions open. Why can’t you find people who are trained for the work?

Yahoo is searching for two front-end mobile and web engineers — with strong backgrounds in online accessibility. That’s the rub. We need experienced staff who can guide the company’s developers and speak their language and who are steeped in assistive and accessible technology. While we could bring on a great engineer and give them on-the-job training on the various web and mobile accessibility standards, techniques and tools, that just won’t work for us. These new hires need to know more than the existing accessibility team and teach us what’s new and what’s next. This is the kind of knowledge universities should be adding to their design and engineering curricula. And it’s not just Yahoo — every Silicon Valley company is on the hunt for just these kinds of candidates.

We’re are also looking for someone great to run our Accessibility Lab (equipped with the latest and greatest technology) and a Manager of Community Engagement to handle our social media and internal and external presentations. Great jobs — for the right people with the right skills and experience.

What can young developers and designers do to gain more literacy in this part of their fields?

Luckily, there are quite a number of excellent resources available, from the W3C’s Web Accessibility Initiative for the most widely accepted standards to R&D and outreach organizations like WGBH’s National Center for Accessible Media and WebAIM. Apple, Google and YouTube, Microsoft, Facebook and my own company, Yahoo, all have excellent resources on their web sites regarding their own approaches and developments in the field. There are MeetUp groups in every major city that focus on accessible technology and online discussion groups for every aspect creating and enhancing media and technology to make them fully accessible. Search for “accessibility” and the media you’re interested in (ebooks, video, images, web sites, mobile apps) and you’ll be rewarded with more than you can absorb.

And, if the dreams of many of us in the field can be realized, colleges and universities will eventually be offering specializations or minors or even majors in Inclusive Design or Accessible Technology within their computer science and design departments. We’re working on it.

    Sara Hendren

    Written by

    Fellow at New America. Artist, Designer, and Researcher in Residence at Olin College. Design / prosthetics / adaptive technologies / interdependence. @ablerism