Profiles in Accessibility:
This year QualityLogic has taken on the mission to build community and by that, we mean the community of leaders, advocates, and users in the field of testing. The first area of focus we have chosen to discuss is Accessibility. We have a passion for it and feel it is a practice that can have one of the most significant impacts on people. We believe that by having an ongoing conversation with the leaders in this area, we can help to create a culture of Accessibility from the ground up while enhancing usability for everyone.
Our conversation on Accessibility was conducted by our Senior Marketing Manager, Travis Franklin. Joining him in the interview were our Director of Engineering and founder of our Accessibility Testing Services, Paul Morris, and Clyde Valentine, our Growth Manager at QualityLogic, and the lead on this Community Building Program.
Our guest was Ronny Andrade. He joined us from Melbourne, Australia, where he lives and works as the Digital Accessibility Advisor for RMIT University. RMIT is a world leader in Art and Design; Architecture; Education; Engineering; Development; Computer Science and Information Systems; Business and Management; and Communication and Media Studies.
Ronny advises on Accessibility in the Operations portfolio helping the team build accessible content with designers (UX and UI) and developers along with content review to ensure accessibility across a product life cycle.
Ronny received a Ph.D. from the University of Melbourne where he studied human-computer interaction with a focus on digital games for people with visual impairments or low vision. His mission is to raise awareness about the importance of accessibility in any digital arena and we are honored to have spoken with him to further that mission.
What got you interested in accessibility in relation to virtual worlds and websites?
At 18 when I was studying at the university, I got a call from the library wanting me to drop by. I was curious because I had not borrowed a book in forever. Turns out they were developing a social program called “My Hands Are My Eyes,” working with blind people teaching them how to use screen reading software along with productivity software, and also teaching them about entrepreneurship for success in running their own company. They needed an IT teacher and asked if I was interested in joining.
However, I did not know how to use a screen reader, so I had to learn. I didn’t realize at the time that it was a turning point that would bring me into the world of accessibility but that is where it all started.
For 4 years there I helped people with how to use productivity software including Windows, Word, Excel, the internet, (Facebook was new). We did experimentation with Linux as well. So, I knew I had helped them with employment skills but started to wonder about how they might use tech for entertainment. Are there ways to play video games or engage with technology just for fun? That is what prompted my interest in my Ph.D. study with digital gaming.
You have written about echolocation in gaming which is fascinating. Can you talk about that and how it relates to gaming in general?
I still have a lot of interest in the topic but not as much time. So, I’ll explain where the interest came from but now that I don’t have as much time to explore, I mostly listen to the experts that I follow on Twitter as well as others who know more about what is happening in that space.
What you should know is that the scope of my Ph.D. study was quite small. I looked at different ways that people with visual impairments explore their surroundings and I decided to look at echolocation. Echolocation is a skill that some animals including bats, dolphins, and some humans have that enable them to produce a sound and then listen to how that sound bounces off the surfaces around them to create a mental image of their surroundings. Think of it as a form of sonar. In doing that research, I wondered if it had been used in games and found out it had not been done yet. So, I thought – is it possible to implement?
The games I developed for my research were very simplistic mostly in the form of mazes. I created layouts that people had to explore using the echo locations capabilities that I had implemented with the specific objectives. So, it wasn’t a game per se, but it was something that could be applied to games.
Ronny: I wonder if Paul could talk about it. Paul, have you had experience with echolocation?
QualityLogic’s, Director of Engineering, Paul Morris is also visually impaired.
Paul: It’s a fascinating topic and I know some people who are incredibly skilled in using echolocation. I use it myself, but I know some people that can describe the front of a building just through sound. They can tell you whether or not there are railings in front of a building or how many windows on the building just from a sound picture.
There are some causes of blindness that can help with those skills. For example, retinal blastoma is a form of cancer that causes blindness but for some reason, the brain gets a massive boost in orientation capabilities, and I find that the folks who are good with echolocation tend to be tied to that type of scenario as well. I use it mainly in close spaces, indoors. You can hear from background noises where doors are and things like that. It’s a skill that I think everyone can acquire to some extent, but you need to experience some sense of sensory deprivation. So, for a sighted person to start learning it or even intuiting it, they need to be blindfolded.
Ronny: Agreed. The consensus in the research is that sighted people can learn echolocation, but they will not be as good at it as blind people.
Paul: And I think that is from saturation. The more you use it, the better the skills. I went through training for orientation of mobility when I had some residual vision at the time. They took me through a building and the instructor asked, what did I think was going on in the space, and I was surprised to be able to describe the situation. I’m in an open area and I can tell it is a lot more open to my left and it sounds deep. I could hear a hum on my right side that sounds like a vending machine. I was surprised when the instructor told me I was right. I was in an alcove with a vending machine on the wall to the right and a stairway to the left. I was amazed at how much I could pick up even in my own limited experience. The more you use it, the better you get.
Ronny: That reminds me of some of the findings I made in my research. I placed people in a virtual room with a lot of open space on the right side and they were able to tell me exactly that, yes there is open space on the side. In another test, I placed them in a room with the sound of a ventilation fan and they would be able to say that there is a ventilation fan behind me and because I hear sound through the vents, I can detect that there is a gap a few meters ahead of me in the virtual world. So, in the virtual world, I was able to create something similar to your experience, Paul, with the same level of awareness.
You mentioned your background in gaming. What do you see in the gaming world as far as the steps companies are taking to address accessibility on their platforms?
Ronny: The answer to that question has a few parts. The first has to do with the current state of the gaming industry. In one part of my research, I explored just how people with visual impairments currently play video games. There is a consensus that when games transitioned to 3D design it all became more difficult especially with low vision users. Maybe they were able to play Super Nintendo games where the graphics were flat and colorful, but that ability disappeared when games became 3D. So that was a barrier. That said though, people I talk to people who are visually impaired say that the industry is moving in the right direction and that big players are putting in the work to make games more accessible.
One example I have seen is the Xbox controller. The controller is larger than usual and can be used with pedals that to connect to your devices. So, if you are someone with reduced mobility, you can use the pedals instead of having to grip the controller with your hands. So, that has been widely praised by the people I spoke to.
Another example that I have seen recently as well is the game, Last of Us Part 2, which was released last year (2020). It has been widely praised as one of the most accessible games ever released. It was designed from the ground up for use in the visually impaired community. So, things are getting better in terms of accessibility and awareness to those audiences.
Paul: One of the things you touched on, Ronny is the fact that there has to be a culture of inclusivity from the ground up. For example, what we see in existing games like World of Warcraft is essentially impossible to retrofit. To make it accessible would be such a vast task that the parent company could not even pretend to attempt it because it has so much history and legacy. But if you start from the ground up and you have imagination, there is no reason you can’t come up with alternative modalities which allow people to interact. That is really the culture of accessibility which is what we need to focus on today. We need to push for people to start thinking about it before they start writing code.
Ronny: 100% agreed. That is absolutely right. I want to share a thought from an organization called A11y Bytes that produces accessibility events here in Australia. They say that at the heart of accessibility and inclusion is not guidelines, codes, and regulation but it’s about people, and how they live life, and access information — how our lives are affected by technology today. It’s not just about compliance, it’s about how we engage with people with disabilities and create something truly accessible from the ground up. That is why I am so happy with my role and my ability to influence design. I can make sure that designers provide a model with accessibility built-in, so the developers know what to do.
Think from the ground up and include people with disabilities in the conversation. There is value in the lived experience of people with disabilities and each one has a different lived experience which is why inclusion is so important.
Paul: Absolutely, and another good example of that is someone who is paralyzed. As a person who is not paralyzed, I can’t even imagine what that would be like, and for me to assume that I can understand what it’s like would be completely erroneous. Very much like someone who is not visually impaired cannot come close to imagining what it is like to be visually impaired. Until you live it, you can’t get your head in the space of what it is like to be somebody else. That’s why inclusivity can’t just be micro-focused. While a lot of our testing space is focused on the blind and V.I. we also must consider cognitive issues, and deafness, and other forms of interactions just to make it inclusive. Getting everyone involved in that process is hugely important to avoid a singular focus on one situation.
You taught an Introduction to Web Accessibility for Designers. Two-part question: 1. How familiar was the audience with the idea of developing for accessibility? 2. How receptive was the audience to your ideas surrounding accessibility in design?
Ronny: This was a talk I gave with an audience in Thailand and Singapore. They didn’t know much about the topic. They had design experience but had not considered the issues around accessibility because, in both countries, there is still a stigma around disabilities. It’s not as openly spoken about as it is in other countries. So, to answer your first question, they were not really familiar with it but to answer your second question, they were actually very open to the idea of accessibility because I was able to show them that accessibility benefits everyone. An accessible site is going to have a higher ranking in Google SEO and search. There are examples of products that were created thinking about accessibility and that are now commonplace. The electric toothbrush, for example, was created for people with limited hand dexterity but is now used in the mainstream. So, the focus on creating for accessibility is not limited to use for people with disabilities, and that idea made them more open to thinking about the benefits of accessibility for everyone.
Also, I tried to give simple advice or simple things that designers can do to focus on accessibility even without being aware of it. For example, thinking about good contrast, thinking when choosing a good combination of the background and foreground colors. Thinking about headings and how they structure the content of the page. Page structure with the use of headings helps a lot because according to a recent screen reader survey by Web Accessibility in Mind (WebAIM), 69% of people who use screen readers use headings as a primary means for navigating a website. Also thinking about the reading order in which the content on the page appears is important. All these things help everyone, and I think that is what resonated with the audience.
Paul, regarding your work with QualityLogic, when we suggest solutions or fixes on the client-side, what is their perspective on those suggestions?
Paul: It’s mixed. Some are heavily compliance-focused, so they don’t really care. They just want to be compliant and check the legal box. But they are ignoring the elephant in the room which is that 90% of the assistive tech users don’t know anything about the WCAG and they don’t really care. They just want it to work. That is why we do dual-path testing. We test to the guidelines, but we also submit the enhancements.
With respect to the SEO benefits of having a more readable page, that was proven when we worked on our own website. We worked to get a better page render and to make it follow the correct semantic order on headings, and I think it is paying off on the SEO. I think it may be better read content than what we have had in the past. There are material benefits and frankly, I have never actually suggested to the client that they would end up with a better website, but if you are doing it for better aesthetics then you are making assumptions about how people are going to interact, and those assumptions are almost certainly wrong. Things are going to work better if you stick to HTML coding and stop trying to be so clever with the presentation.
Ronny: That is curious, and I would like to learn more about the perception of compliance in the US. I am very fortunate that the executives working at my company are very strongly behind the culture of accessibility. I don’t have to convince people here that the job I do is important. They see the value.
Paul: Yes, Ronny, it’s my job to tell my clients to implement accessibility for the right reasons and I have pretty decent success in engaging them on a level where they see the human element. The humanizing element becomes more compelling. The companies that are only interested in compliance serve far less interest to us than the companies that are doing it for the right reasons and we amplify it. We love the ones who are passionate about it like we are, and we have had a good degree of success in creating that passion by interacting with me and the team made up of a blend of folks with physical limitations and folks without. That mix is most effective at creating a truly accessible product. Humanizing it is really where it becomes successful.
What are some of the trends you are seeing in accessibility?
Ronny: One of the biggest trends is that there are more job offerings in the field. I see the field growing with new positions. I was surprised to see the opportunities that had not been there 5 years ago. The other trend is related to the pandemic. On the one hand, the pandemic brought forth some of the things that people have been asking about for several years such as flexible hours, working from home, and so on, and they are happy with the results that the pandemic forced. Now that the pandemic has gone on for so long and it seems that people in the U.S. are looking at the pandemic as taking a back seat, people with disabilities are worried that those benefits might not be sustained and will start to go away. So, the trend is the fear that the benefits the pandemic inspired might vanish.
Trends in gaming are more about attention toward making games successful. Creating awareness that a game can reach a wider user base and pool of gamers if you include accessibility from the beginning. Some people would buy PS 4 specifically to be able to play The Last of Us. There is definitely a push toward making games more accessible.
Paul: I’d add the benefit of disruptive innovation. When everyone went remote, suddenly everyone had to start using different technologies to be able to communicate, interact to get things done. That activity spawned a lot of accessibility improvement simply to keep people engaged, and that was caused by the pandemic. I think that is one benefit that will be long-lasting. As an example, at QualityLogic we went from everyone working in the lab to everyone working from home within 48 hours. The pandemic forced a change and toward the benefit of disruptive innovation.
Ronny: I just hope that those benefits will remain. Google chose to punish employees who decide to work from home permanently by cutting their pay. So, I share the fear that some of those benefits would go away and hope that we don’t just go back to normal but instead, go back to better.
Is there anything you would like to add that we have not already covered in terms of accessibility?
Ronny: I would like to emphasize bringing people with disabilities into the conversation. I think it is a good value that QualityLogic provides. Hire more people with disabilities.
Accessibility is not just about norms and compliance, but it is about a journey. Improve upon guidelines. Think beyond that.
Most disabilities are invisible. When most people think about disabilities, they think about wheelchairs and canes, but disabilities include mental illness or intellectual disabilities which are things we can’t see. That is something we need to be more aware of and address which the guidelines will not capture.
Paul: I’d echo that. It’s nice to talk to someone who is a champion in the cause and makes a difference in the world by humanizing the situation and engaging in the solution.
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