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Making Tech Accessible for Disabled and Nondisabled People – In Conversation with Haben Girma and Rachel Arfa

January 5, 2022
Source: Forbes

I recently had the distinct pleasure of interviewing two incredible women, both accomplished disability advocates, on the subject of diversity, equity and inclusion in our tech sphere. The uplifting Haben Girma, first deafblind person to graduate from Harvard Law School, human rights lawyer advancing disability justice and keynote speaker at this year’s Grace Hopper Celebration (vGHC) joined me in discussion with Rachel Arfa, the first deaf Commissioner of the Mayor’s Office for People with Disabilities (MOPD) for the City of Chicago, and the highest-ranking deaf person to serve in a city government leadership role. We connected on our own deep levels of intersectionality, recognizing how important it is for all of us, especially in the tech industry, to celebrate and champion the ways in which we are different and diverse and what a difference that would make to the tech we can create. Because the technology industry bears the responsibility for creating change, we discussed steps the industry can make to remove barriers, allowing disabled people to work and learn alongside nondisabled colleagues and students.

As we came together virtually with our interpreters, one of the most thought-provoking moments in our conversation happened before my official questions even started. Commissioner Rachel Arfa offered to provide visual descriptions for Haben Girma, and those descriptions, as well as the act of providing that information, struck a chord with me. As a marginalized community, such as Black women in the predominantly white, male field of tech, we have been conditioned to avoid acknowledging the physical traits that make us different. Girma illuminated, “Tech is created by people, and when we pretend we don’t have bodies, or emotions, we end up with tech that’s designed for a very narrow group of people, usually white non-disabled men. It’s really important that we recognize the diversity in the people talking about tech, and creating tech.”

Girma also expressed how visual descriptions further inclusion efforts. “It’s exciting for a lot of blind women of color to discover other women of color in places where we’re still underrepresented. Oftentimes that information is available to sighted people, but no one tells us.”

The most recent Elevating Conversations series hosted by featured women working in product development for AR/VR [or Augmented Reality/Virtual Reality]. One of the more poignant parts of that discussion was around how their presence on their teams made for the discovery of some limitations of technology under development as it relates to their specific bodies, such as EarPods that react differently near curly hair. Their very presence helped call attention to product defects early in the development lifecycle so that they could be refined before shipping to market in a form that likely wouldn’t work for all segments of the population. This is just one more powerful illustration of why it’s so important for everyone to be represented in the space where tech is developed, so that all can benefit from the feedback of our unique insights.

Likewise, in her keynote speech at vGHC 21, Girma framed disability not as a burden but rather as an opportunity for innovation. “If you’re faced with a constraint, pause and reflect on alternative ways. When you come up with an alternative solution, often times it benefits the entire community of disabled people and nondisabled people.” The benefits of inclusivity run both ways. There are myriad examples, such as curb cuts, email, and text messaging – all initially created as adaptations for people with disabilities, now ubiquitous and relied upon by everyone. More specific to the tech sector, she shared that deaf people, unable to hear the audio content in videos, drove the development of captioning. Marketing now shows that videos with captions reach a larger audience, meaning marketing teams who use captions in their videos attract more growth to their products, compared to those that don’t. Not only are those captions a tool everyone can use, but that utility makes them an adaptation with dividends to the business.

Commissioner Arfa took the notion of reframing disability to another level, describing the unique skills developed to navigate the able-bodied world as “superpowers.” Marvel’s new movie, “Eternals,” features a deaf superhero named Makkari, played by Lauren Ridloff, a deaf actress who uses American Sign Language. The movie has had a profound effect on representation and awareness. For Commissioner Arfa, the connection is more personal. “Not only is Makkari very fast, but she can also pick up vibrations, those are her superpowers. I think that’s so accurate. People with disabilities develop other ways to experience the world. I’m very visual, watch body language, make eye contact, and because of that I can pick up nonverbal clues people are expressing without them ever saying a word.”

When discussing the ways that tech remains unwelcoming to people with disabilities, one of the greatest frustrations both women referenced is the lack of accessibility. Computer data starts out in a language very few people can comprehend. Guidelines exist to give programmers the power to convert code to speech, to braille and to fascinating visuals, but often the greatest focus is on the visuals without providing access for sound and for braille. Artificial intelligence [or AI] is now being employed in the retrofit under the mistaken belief that accessibility can be automated.

“Unfortunately, AI is not a magic solution,” Girma explains. “AI is helpful in certain situations, but AI alone will not make tech accessible. Be wary of its biases. All the automated accessibility solutions I’ve tried have barriers. Organizations need to invest in people with accessibility expertise.”

Commissioner Arfa expanded on this from personal experience. “As a profoundly deaf person, I have a distinct speech pattern because I cannot hear. In my job, I often get speaking invitations, and the automated captions don’t understand my speech pattern at all. I’m not the only person! AI is an area that the tech world has not solutioned for deaf people with a deaf accent. My recommendation for people is to hire a real-time captioner as AI does not capture all that is said. I want to be heard and understood, even if the automatic captions don’t give me the time of day.”

The determination of these two women belies – or perhaps is born of – an educational system which did not always support and encourage them. We speculated together on what education can do better to prepare tomorrow’s technologists in the disability community, and how we can support our educational communities so that they are helpful in the pathways to better tech for all. Girma stressed the need to assess our tech teaching tools for accessibility: videos with captions, screen readers and braille devices that function for blind children, multiple ways to access learning tools for children with physical disabilities. Just as important as the tools are the teachers, and both women had cautionary tales from their own formative years.

“There’s also the problem of instructors excusing disabled kids from computer science because it’s assumed that they won’t be able to participate – that happened to me a lot,” Girma shared. “Outside of my mainstream classes, the teacher for the blind taught me how to use screen readers and braille devices. I was really blessed to have that access; most blind and deafblind students are in school environments where they’re not getting access to screen readers and braille displays, which is a problem.” Beyond the obvious egregious error of this educational mindset is the missed opportunity about how much we need to include disabled people in the design of tech (and thus making sure they are included in CS [or Computer Science] education). It’s not charity.

“I think we have to acknowledge bias and assumption in the education system, this goes beyond disability, this also applies to race and gender and other protected classes,” Arfa noted. “There is a bias about what people with disabilities are capable of doing, and capable of becoming. I would love to go back to some of the teachers I had growing up because I had people in my life who tried to discourage me, who didn’t think a person like me could achieve and be successful. We need everybody to recognize their own assumptions about disability that may not be accurate.” Arfa also stressed the additional bias that accompanies disabled people of color, stressing the all-important understanding of the impact of intersectionality on bias.

We ended our time together by considering the theme of this year’s vGHC, “Dare To…”. I wanted to know what these successful and courageous women would dare the rest of us to do, both personally and at an institutional level. Their answers did not disappoint.

Girma was ready with her call to action. “I want to dare nondisabled women to listen to disabled women of color and transform that listening into action. A lot of disabled people are called ‘inspiring’ by people using the word as a mask for pity. If you feel inspired, ask yourself what you feel inspired to do.”

Commissioner Arfa had ideas for people with disabilities as well as their potential employers. “Dare to break barriers, stop self-selecting yourself out of a job for which you don’t think you are qualified, thinking you don’t have enough experience while overlooking a lot of your experiences that are valid. To businesses, challenge yourself to hire more people with disabilities, set higher benchmarks for hiring people with disabilities, then surpass them. That’s my pitch to tech companies: people with disabilities are the best problem solvers around because we experience access barriers every single day, and we apply those problem-solving skills to our work.”

I left my conversation with these two incredible women energized to champion the issues they had brought to light. We can all do better, our organizations can be better, and we must work to be conduits for the change all of us in the tech sector, especially those of us with differences to celebrate, so desperately need and deserve.

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