Expert Sheri Byrne-Haber Talks Accessibility

Listen to Podcast Episode 10 (MP3 File Download)

There are two speakers in this podcast: Kris Rivenburgh and Sheri Byrne-Haber.

Full Transcript Below:

Kris

This is the Accessible.org Podcast. My name is Kris Rivenburgh and today we have our first guest. It is Sheri Byrne-Haber. Sheri is a senior accessibility evangelist, a speaker and blogger, head of accessibility, and customer experience ambassador at VMware, Sheri, thank you so much for coming on. Can you tell us a little bit more about yourself?

Sheri

Sure. So I describe myself as having the perfect storm for getting into accessibility. Um, I have a degree in computer science. Then I got bored. And 10 years after that, I went to law school thinking that I was going to go into intellectual property. And in the second year of law school, we discovered that my daughter was losing her hearing. And so instead of doing intellectual property, I ended up going into advocacy for the deaf and sued a bunch of insurance companies. And one got extra coverage for children who are deaf from people like United Healthcare and Anthem Blue Cross, and then ended up going into accessibility from there. So even though I’ve been a wheelchair user off and on most of my life, I actually got into accessibility because of my deaf daughter.

Kris

And you have extensive experience with web accessibility in particular. Is that correct?

Sheri
Yeah, web and mobile. So I started off doing accessibility at Kaiser back when Obamacare was just kicking in to try to make sure that the enrollment screens were accessible for people with disabilities. And then my mom got cancer. I went into consulting for a while, so I had more flexibility in terms of what she needed. And then when her situation stabilized, I was the head of accessibility for McDonald’s for three years, I did some contract work for Albertsons, and I’ve been the head of accessibility for VMware for almost a year and half.

Kris

What was it like being the head of accessibility at McDonald’s?

Sheri

So the one thing I’m really well known for is building accessibility programs where nothing exists. So at McDonald’s I was accessibility person number one. You have to set up all the processes, all the procedures, all the training. I run very integrated accessibility programs, so I want accessibility in the crew training and I want access- I want people in customer support to know how to take calls from people with disabilities, and I want to stop people from procuring inaccessible software. So it’s really sticking my nose in a lot of places other than just IT. Some people just run accessibility out of IT and I think an integrated approach is far more holistic. So I did that. And now I’m doing the same thing at VMware. The primary difference between the two is that VMWare, since we sell to the government, we have to do what’s called a VPAT, a voluntary product accessibility template for every product and that’s what I’m currently in the middle of implementing. At McDonald’s and other retail organizations, it’s much more lawsuit driven. People are trying to make things accessible so they don’t get sued. VMware it’s a little bit more about making things accessible so the government will continue to buy our software.

Kris

Which makes- it leads me to so many questions but we’ve already got- I’ve already got a lot of questions in the queue, so I’m going to get to them so this interview does not go two hours. The first thing I want to ask you is I’ve watched some of your previous interviews and podcast episodes, and you’ve talked about invisible disabilities, including people with anxiety. Now, as it pertains to websites, can you go over a few implementations that can help reduce anxiety?

Sheri

Sure. So one thing that WCAG really doesn’t take into account is mental health issues, and I believe some of those air coming with the COGA release. But my understanding is Coga has been delayed until the silver version of WCAG comes out so we’re probably not going to see it for a couple of years. So there are things that people can do, like countdown clocks are very anxiety producing because you’re sitting there going, Do I have time? Do I have time? And then your brain is churning on the time and you’re not paying attention to the task at hand. Timeouts, I believe that the time out restrictions in WCAG are not generous enough so I have a few best practices, such as making sure that the default is on to continue button, making sure that you don’t wipe out data that’s already been entered that’s correct in a form. What else for anxiety… confirmations are really important, especially when you’re about to do something destructive. So that’s not required under WCAG, but I think it’s something that I think you really need to do so people aren’t worried about whether or not they’re gonna be able to recover from the command that they’re about to execute.

Kris

One of the things that I think is- it’s obviously it’s prevalent and it’s going to be hard to go away, but I think a best practice would be to eliminate pop-ups or at least limit them as much as possible. What do you think about that?

Sheri

I think limiting pop-ups is a good thing, and I think if you’re going to use pop-ups, they should always be modal. I believe non-modal dialogs are, you know, the devil’s work, let’s just say. Because it’s just too easy for screen reader users to go off dialog and not realize that they’ve gone off dialog. So a best practice where I am right now and you know best practices – you can’t make the mandatory, so people are going, well I’ve seen non-modal pop ups on VMware, it’s a big set of products, so I’m doing the best I can. But I believe all pop-ups, if you’re gonna use them, need to be modal.

Kris

And it’s just really just hard to get rid of pop-ups because they’re so a lot of times we need those prompts. Can you talk about the modal versus the non-modal?

Sheri

Sure, so the modal dialog is where you have a close button, you know, consistently placed, usually in the top right corner, and you typically have two buttons at the bottom saying okay or cancel. And the focus is tightly locked on that dialog, so that if you get the last button on there when you hit the tab again, it goes back up to the top of the dialog. The non-modal if you got to the last button and then you hit the tab, it goes back to the screen that it came from, probably the next object in the tab order, so that that’s the big difference between the two.

Kris

This is going to actually lead me well into my next question. We know about accessibility toolbars. Everybody’s familiar with them in one way or the other, whether it’s a widget, whether it’s an app or a plug-in these are typically pieces of javascript code that you can put on your website and then a toolbar is shown on the side. Can you give me your opinion on accessibility toolbars?

Sheri

Yeah, so I typically refer to them as overlays. That’s just a Sheri thing. But then you know you’re talking about a toolbar, a widget, a whatever. There are so many problems with them, not the least of which you have to pay for them forever. You know, there’s always gonna be an annual licensing fee. I literally just had somebody – a new toolbar person reach out to me today from Israel going, our toolbar uses AI and it does everything. And I’m like, great explain to me then how you take a header that’s a paragraph long and shorten it into something appropriate. Oh, well, we just fix that manually. Well, if you’re gonna fix it manually anyways, fix the damn site. *kris laughs* If you can only detect 30% of problems using automated testers, which is this the standard amount that’s typically quoted, you’re not gonna be able to fix something with an overlay that you can’t find.

Kris

Right.

Sheri

And of course, the other thing is that you know people who use Jaws, people use NVDA, people who use VoiceOver – they’ve figured out how to optimize their environments for what they need. When you’ve got a toolbar or an overlay, you’re just, you know you’re putting another barrier in front of the user with disabilities saying, hey, you have to go learn this because we were too lazy to fix the site.

Kris

It’s such a- there’s such- people are looking for solutions, and they’re looking for answers and a lot of time they’re looking for easier answers, and these things have become very prevalent because obviously they’re easy to pro- I mean, they’re not easy to produce, but once they’ve got them, this is something where all they have to do is give you a piece of code, and they have them so that the vendors love it. But what the consumers don’t know is it’s not helping anything. In fact, it’s going the other way.

Sheri

And it opens you up to security issues and performance issues because you actually have to insert a line into your home page to bring up that that overlay. So what if your vendor gets hacked? What if your vendor’s performance goes into the toilet? Because, you know, they’re you know, they all got hit at once just like Zoom did. And, they can’t deal with the load. Okay, that’s going to reflect on your site. And people aren’t gonna be able to notice the difference. They’re just going to think that your site sucks.

Kris

Absolutely. That’s great information. Switching up now to, I’m going to switch to close captioning. I want to talk about the accuracy of closed caption because I think it’s very important and you don’t see a lot of focus on people. Just say to put closed capturing on videos which, yes, you do need close captioning. But when you see closed captioning, first of all, do people just leave in the automatic close captioning that you see on YouTube because there’s a lot of YouTube videos out there and then the follow-up questions are how vital is it to edit that close captioning and then how important is punctuation when it comes to closed captioning?

Sheri

There are two main things that you don’t get in automatic captioning, which people in the deaf community refer to sometimes as autocraptions. One is that you pointed out punctuation, and the other is who is the person who’s actually speaking. So if you have a scene with two or three people in it and somebody’s speaking off camera, if you’re using custom captions, it will tell you that somebody is speaking off camera. If you are using auto captions, all you’re gonna get is an endless stream of text with no punctuation and no identification of the speaker. And so that makes it much harder for somebody who’s deaf to actually have an equal experience, given that. And then that’s assuming that the captioning is 100% accurate, which it never is. So I’ve recently looked at MS Team’s auto captioning, and it’s definitely making vast improvements. It is able to actually sometimes detect the speaker. Still no punctuation. The accuracy rate is significantly improved. But if you take those automatically generated caption files and customize them and then load them back in as custom captions, it’s gonna be a much better experience for everybody. In user research testing we’ve determined that the auto captioning rate needs to be somewhere around 92% accurate for the person who, with hearing loss to have any hope of being able to understand what’s going on. So if you can hit 92% accuracy with some punctuation and some speaker identification, it will probably be good enough.

Kris

And that’s…

Sheri

That. Oh, sorry. That being said, it’s really just a checkbook engineering problem. If you can afford a $1.25 a minute, you can get it done professionally by Rev.com.

Kris
And another question on that. As far as vendors go, do you have any experience with IBM’s Watson?

Sheri

A little.

Kris

How did you find that?

Sheri

I’m- I would say it’s in the middle of the pack. It’s not as good as the, uh as the stuff that’s come out recently from MS Teams and PowerPoint, which I’m really frankly impressed with. But it’s not as bad as YouTube. YouTube is the bottom of the barrel.

Kris

Hopefully, we can see some improvement there. Researching you for this interview, I found out that you’ve spoken about the gamification of accessibility training. Can you tell us what is gamification and what are some real life examples of that?

Sheri

Sure. Oh, I mean, accessibility tends to be a pretty dry topic for people who haven’t made it their life’s purpose. And so, in order to get people’s interest, you need to make it fun. So one of the things that we did at VMware was we broke up the accessibility training by subject. So we don’t- I don’t care if people know that 1.4.3 is the color guideline. I only care that people understand that there are colors that are okay and there are color combinations that are not okay. And so we’ve tried to insert some fun into it and rather focusing on the dry regulatory aspects of it. We’ve made a competition out of it. You know, who can identify the bad color combinations in the fastest period of time, for example, make it a competition pitting people against each other. You would be surprised what people would be willing to do for an Amazon gift card.

Kris

Yeah, I think- I think that’s such a great idea because a lot of this stuff is actually really interesting once you get into it and you start to see the different perspectives and how it can be interpreted. And did you talk about the real life examples like, which was another one that brings it home?

Sheri

So, you know, like consistency. The meaningful sequence is an interesting requirement because what one person thinks is a good meeting, full sequence and a good focus order. Another person might think differently. And that’s where accessibility gets into as much art as it does science. There’s not always a right answer and a wrong answer. There might be multiple right answers and multiple wrong answers. So, you know, making it a contest to see. We did this based on – somebody wrote an article, and I’m spacing on his name, I’m so sorry – about the worst web page that you could write wit- that could score 100 on the Google Lighthouse test. So, you know, we we would do things like what’s, you know, the craziest focus order that might still be considered to be okay.

Kris

I’m gonna move- that’s- I don’t really have a good segway for my next question. I want to ask you about great practices in web accessibility. So going beyond just WCAG, what is something that people can do to go above and beyond and go to that next level of accessibility?

Sheri

So one thing that we’re doing at VMware is we’re building a catalog of assistive technology and reasonable accommodations that will be automatically made available to people as soon as they’re onboarded. So, for example, if somebody self identifies as having vision loss, you know we’ll say, do you want a braille notetaker? Do you want this? Do you want that? You know well, do you need a larger monitor? And- and then people don’t *inaudible* simple accommodation requests, they’ll come automatically. Making a reasonable accommodation request sometimes psychologically can be difficult, because you have to make yourself vulnerable and say- raise your hand and say, hey, I’ve got this disability, I need this special thing. So having everything put together and sitting on the person’s desk on day one is such a powerful thing to be able to do for your new employees with disabilities, and you don’t- and you’re not making them have to ask for stuff and then wait for it to come in. You’re not making somebody fail in order to give them something to make them successful. So I think it’s really important and organizations that do great accessibility, number one, the experience for the employees has to be as good as the experience for the customer. Too many people are focused on the customer. Can we sell software? Are we going to get sued? Or they don’t take care of what’s going on with the employees? So making everybody used the same definition of assisted technology, the same definition of disability, the same definition of accessibility and using it across the entire company and not just have it siloed in the segment of IT that happens to produce the company’s products or take care of the company’s websites.

Kris

And you- you put the focus right there on within the company. But when it comes to customers and having different channels of support, how important is it to have those different channels of support?

Sheri

Oh, it’s absolutely crucial. So my death daughter. If all she’s presented with it’s a telephone number, she is not going to call for support. But if you give her the option of an accessible chat, especially because she’s a millennial, she’s all over it. That form of communication where other people’s preferred forms of communication might be email or, you know, might be the telephone if they have vision loss. So when you have multiple channels, you’re providing your customers the ability to choose what’s comfortable for that.

Kris

Something that I think is overlooked when it comes to accessibility is different environments and testing with different environments to make sure that whether it’s your website or your app, that they are robust and able to be accessed across different environments, how how important is it to test with older devices and different devices?

Sheri

Oh, for sure. So one of the things I got busted for at a previous job was buying old equipment off of eBay because it showed up on the credit card – the corporate credit card got flagged in the financial department. People with disabilities tend to be in lower socioeconomic strata. I’m generalizing here. They tend to not like to upgrade because they’re comfortable with the environment that they have. So unless they have a reason for upgrading, they’re not going to. And so testing with older devices is particularly important. I think another thing that’s really important is for the companies to identify what’s the best experience, okay. Did you test it on FireFox. Did you test it on Chrome? And keep an eye on what’s going on with the trends by looking at the WebAIM surveys. So, for example, Jaws just lost their first place standing for the first time in forever because Jaws usage is dropping off while free screen readers are accelerating. So NVDA is something that people really should be testing on.

Kris

Definitely. I didn’t know that Jaws had actually fallen off the number one on the leader board, but that was that was coming, right? That was a long time coming.

Sheri

But when you’re charging $1600 for something that the core behavior can be attained for free, you can expect to lose first place. They they really squandered their position on that one.

Kris

Yeah, they really did. When it comes to diversity, many times disability is an afterthought were forgotten altogether. What are your thoughts on this? And are are you starting to see a change in this?

Sheri

I think a change is coming, but I think it’s going to be slow. So there’s an organization called The Valuable 500 where Caroline Casey, who’s the head of that organization, has coined a hashtag called diversish and you are diversish if you take care of all the other elements of disability. Sorry, all the other elements of diversity, but don’t include disability as a diversity dimension. So her number and I’m not sure where she got this from is that 96% of organizations don’t officially include disability is part of their diversity programs. Um, and you know, from what I’ve seen, that might be a little high, but I wouldn’t be surprised if you know, if you’d asked me to lick my finger and stick it up in the air, I would have said probably 85%. So I don’t think she’s an order of magnitude off, but you’ll find companies thinking in diversity programs, oh we have an autism at work program, we’ve taken care of disabilities, and that’s really not the case. There’s only one company in the United States in the Fortune 500 that has reached the government suggested goal of self disclosure of 7% and that’s Northrop Grumman. Even at VMware we’re just getting started on our disability is part of diversity journey.

Kris

The good thing is that, you know, the more we talk about it, the faster it will come. So hopefully, hopefully we see changes there, and we both know that money accelerates changed and beyond the lawsuits, I think everybody’s sense of urgency will go up when they find out how much money- I think a lot of companies don’t realize how much money is being left on the table by not being accessible. How much money do you think is being left on the table? I mean, I know that’s a broad question, but just in general, what are companies missing out on? Can you convey the gravity of not being accessible to these businesses and companies?

Sheri

Sure. So there’s two things that are the problem here. One is, you know, 18% as identified by the census two years ago- 10 years ago, sorry. And that number is not going down any time soon. So that’s the total number of the population that self identifies as having a disability. So if those people can’t shop on your website, guess what? They’re gonna take their business to somewhere else that they can. And some studies out of the UK have shown at 91% of people who are blocked by an inaccessible website, don’t report it. They just take their business to the competition. The other thing is, if your products aren’t accessible, then you’re not employing people with disabilities or you’re not employing as many people with disabilities that you could, because your own employees can’t use the products that you’re selling. And there’s lots of studies- there’s a really awesome one that just came out from Accenture that talks about the benefits of having a diversity within your company, including disability, and so you get better ROI, less turnover, better net profit. There’s all kinds of benefits to having more employees with disabilities.

Kris

And I think one of the things you talked about, which I think is worth repeating is not not just that you are embracing diversity and including disability within that diversity, but you’re also- you’re encourage- you want to hear their feedback because their feedback is super important, and I think sometimes they- you know, sometimes people won’t say anything, especially if you don’t encourage it. What- what do you think about that?

Sheri

No, I think that’s so true. Because especially with people with congenital disabilities, they’ve spent, you know, I’ve spent 55 years fighting, you know, curb cuts in bad locations so when I see the 19,000th curb cut in my life that is broken or should be in a different place, I don’t complain about it. I just work around it because I’m you know, frankly, being disabled can be very tiring sometimes. You know, it’s only if it gets to the point where it blocks *inaudible* parking ticket which happened once that that I actually will get pissed off enough to file a Department of Justice complaint. So you really do have to- if you provide a channel, it’s like if you build it, they will come. If you provide a channel for people with disabilities to provide you feedback, they will.

Kris

Sheri, this has been so informative and, I think- I hope this podcast is listened to by as many people as possible because this is great information. Thank you so much for being on this podcast. Before we stop, I want people to be able to contact you and find your work and find your writings because I can tell you that Sheri’s information really- it’s top notch. It’s some of the best information they’re going to find. So, Sheri, where can we find out about you? How can people contact you?

Sheri

Sure, so first of all, my last name is hyphenated. The first part is Byrne, B Y R N E, and then a hyphen and then my last name is H A B like boy again E R. So I have sheribyrnehaber.com, which is an accessible WordPress template based site. I do blog on Medium, which is, you know, kind of sort of, but not really accessible. But it’s an easy interface for me to use. And then once a month, I carry all my articles ever to sheribyrnehaber.com. So if you don’t want to buy a Medium subscription or if use a screen reader, definitely, sheribyrnehaber.com is the place to go.

Kris

Perfect. Well, I’m also going to include those links in the show notes so everybody will have that. Thank you so much for being on, and we will talk to you later.

Sheri

Thank you for inviting me, Kris.

Kris

Absolutely.

– End of Transcript –

Most inaccessible website with a perfect score on Google Lighthouse
Sheri’s blog
Sheri’s Medium channel
Sheri on LinkedIn

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