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Episode 106: Digital Accessibility with Perkins Access

In Blog, Community, The She+ Geeks Out Podcast by Vienna DeGiacomo

In honor of October’s designation of National Disability Employment Awareness Month, we spoke with our friends, Taylor Snook, and Jennifer Sagalyn from Perkins Access about digital accessibility. Perkins Access is the digital accessibility group from Perkins School for the Blind. Perkins Access partners with organizations of all kinds to help them create digital products, services and experiences that engage and include all people, regardless of their abilities. We learned about the ways everyone benefits from accessible universal design, chatted about how the pandemic has changed so much, and just how organizations can get started.


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Rachel: It’s been so long since we’ve actually done a podcast episode. We’re so excited about this one. We like to do special editions. So excited to have some lovely folks from Perkins Access here, and they’re going to talk all about accessibility. I feel like we just need to get right into it, cause there’s so much to do. We’ve got Taylor Snook, Digital Accessibility Consultant, and Jennifer Sagalyn, Director of Strategic Partnerships, with us. So without further ado, let’s just get on with it. Let’s just start with the basics. Let’s hear about your story, some of what brought you to this work and we’ll go from there.

Jennifer: Great. This is Jennifer and I grew up with a family member that was losing their sight. I think that really influenced some of the decisions I made about my career even early on. I started in the area of closed captioning and audio description, supporting individuals with sensory disabilities. And that took me in so many interesting directions then ending up today where I am at Perkins Access. And you know, it really is meaningful work. It’s wonderful to feel like we’re making a difference, not just with organizations today and the products and services they’re creating, but I feel that we’re also helping products and services of the future, because we’re really working on the cutting edge of technology.

Taylor: This is Taylor. I love this question because I  feel like I have a very unique, roundabout way of how I got into this work. Mqy undergraduate degree was in computer science and I really loved the test technical aspect of different jobs that I worked in, but I ended up going back to get my master’s degree in social work. And then from there I learned about Perkins International, which is one of the divisions at Perkins School for the Blind. And I started working there about nine years ago and that’s where I really became passionate about this kind of work. But I was really missing that technical side of my brain, I guess. So when Perkins Access was forming five or six years ago, it presented a great opportunity for me to touch and take advantage of both of my passions and my backgrounds. And so that’s how I came to work at Perkins Access. I’ve been at Perkins for a little over nine years. I’ve been at Perkins Access for almost five and I really feel like I finally found my niche here.

Felicia: I love that. And actually that’s a great bridge for our next question, Taylor, this is Felicia speaking. Some of our listeners may be really familiar with the Perkins School for the Blind, which is world renowned. I actually have a family member from India who’s been there. It’s literally all over the world. People know what this is. Folks may not be as familiar with or aware of Perkins Access. And so I would love for you Taylor, or you Jen, if you want to hop back in to tell us a little bit more about what Perkins Access is, you mentioned it’s formed about five or six years ago. How did that come about and what does it focus on these days?

Taylor: Yeah, absolutely. So this is Taylor again. Having worked at Perkins International, I know that we have a really large presence in India, so you’re right. Perkins has a great reputation. And I think we, as a school and an organization, we’re really committed to making the world a more accessible place. Perkins began in 1829, and since then, we’ve obviously had a huge, huge impact on individuals with visual impairments and other disabilities through education and innovation. In short, I would say that the mission of the school is to prepare our students for the world and the mission of Perkins Access really compliments that, in that we’re trying to prepare the world for our students.

Jennifer: You know, it’s a really fantastic department. That is really part of the way Perkins has always looked at addressing critical needs and we’re, like all of the other departments, committed to staying ahead of the curve. Our unique consulting practice is one that works with organizations to bring not only the expert perspective, but also the user perspective working with our colleagues across the organization and taking that combined knowledge and sharing it and guiding organizations as they’re designing and developing products and services that’s really you know, our strength and helping them create strategies so that they are addressing accessibility, not just for their technologies, but also for their organization as a whole

Rachel: Love that. It’s so great that you shared that, so thank you for giving some more context. It’s funny, Taylor, when you were talking, I loved hearing about Perkins School, preparing students for the world, and  Perkins Access to prepare the world for its students. It’s funny because Felicia and I have a similar approach to the work that we do, where we have the community side, which is supporting the folks that are in the world- the work world. And then on the DEI training side, giving folks the skills to help others from marginalized identities. So I love that. I think this is a really good opportunity for us to talk about what exactly digital accessibility is, and what does that mean for folks who are listening?

Taylor: This is Taylor, I can talk a little bit about that. I would say you know, it’s complex, but in the simplest of terms, digital accessibility means designing and developing a digital world that is inclusive of everyone. So this involves websites, native, mobile applications, all digital experiences, reading documents, et cetera. These things need to be usable by all individuals, regardless of their age, their ability, or the way they access digital content. I’d say that when accessibility isn’t part of the design and development process, that’s where barriers begin to form, which makes things really difficult for, or sometimes impossible for, anyone with a disability to really engage and interact as needed. We’re living in such a digital world that these things have to be accessible. You know, in the past there was a large focus on making sure physical spaces are accessible, which obviously is still critical and important, but our world is changing to be so much more digital. And now we need to make sure that those experiences are equally accessible and engaging for all individuals.

Felicia: As you were talking, Taylor, I was thinking about different examples of digital accessibility, and I loved your last poin. For a lot of us, we might be thinking physical first because that’s what we have been conditioned to think about. But the digital world is so important to also be thinking about. And so I’d love for you to maybe give some examples or share a little bit more about how folks benefit from digital accessibility beyond the obvious and what that actually looks like. So for me, when I’m hearing you talk about that, I’m thinking about things like for folks who are visually impaired, descriptions of images  on social media platforms or on websites or alt texts, things like that, is that what you’re speaking to? Is that a piece of it? I would love to dig into that a little bit further.

Taylor: Yeah, absolutely. So I’d say that there’s things that are factored into digital accessibility that might target certain audiences, but in a large part, digital accessibility benefits all users.  Physical accessibility that I was talking about is a really good example. So we think about curb cuts or wheelchair ramps, and how those have made things more accessible in the physical world, but they also have benefits for all different types of people. You know, if you’re pushing a stroller, you might be probably gonna benefit from ramps or a curb cut, riding a bicycle, moving heavy objects, all types of things. So those are very beneficial for everyone, but obviously at the same time, a very critical tool for individuals who have motor impairments. I would add that more recent curb cuts have a rubbery surface with tactile dots on it, and those have been added so that individuals who have visual impairments can locate crosswalks. So I think that curb cuts are a great example of universal design. Something that benefits everyone, that different people’s needs can be factored in to create one approach that’s great for all individuals. Another example of something that is as critical to accessibility, but really benefits everyone- and I’ll actually let Jennifer talk about this- but captions and transcripts are something that I think everyone can relate to and everyone has used at some point.

Jennifer: Yes, exactly.  At a high level, we’re talking about digital websites and applications and all of these different ways that you can get information and book an appointment. So digital just is around us, in every aspect of life.  Not so long ago.  I had a visit to our building on the Perkins campus and as I was walking into the building, there was a machine to the left, which spoke as I walked past it. It asked for me to turn and have my temperature checked. I didn’t have to touch anything. The voice was responsive- it came from the machine without any physical interaction. It was also placed at the right height for someone in a wheelchair, for example. It felt like this it’s a digital experience that was just so inclusive  and timely. It was such a nice way of requesting something that we’re all starting to get used to, and was not invasive in any way. It was just really great, I was so excited to see this great example of just a really inclusive experience.

Felicia: Oh, I love that. Yeah. There are so many new innovations and initiatives that have come out even in just the last year around accessibility and a concept that I’ve been just thinking about very recently is this idea of design justice and, you know, in our work as well, we talk a lot about not just things like accessibility, but also the equity piece of it. And so are we thinking about this equitably? And I think it was you, Taylor, who mentioned the captions and transcripts as one aspect of the digital piece of how we’re thinking about all this. And that’s very personal for me since I’m hard of hearing. I love a good caption, I love a good subtitle. We’re chatting over zoom right now, and I’ve got the transcript going live. It’s not perfect, but it’s there. Iit wasn’t earlier when we made that initial shift to remote work back in March 2020 when the pandemic really hit. 

Rachel: I’m curious to know from your perspective, especially for those who are maybe just starting out in their thinking around digital accessibility, what are some first steps that folks can take?

Jennifer: I’m going to take that one. This is Jennifer. I think there’s a tactical answer to that question, and I’ll let Taylor jump into that, but what we’ve seen with our clients, is that while they may be addressing something related to how a patient is going to find a doctor, purchase a product, use public transportation, get a T pass- those really important steps. The first step really comes down to having a high level commitment from the top of the organization, from leadership, to set requirements and a policy. So we are fortunate to often engage when there’s buy-in and everyone is onboard. That’s when we have a great time, helping bring those experiences to life and make them accessible for everyone. But one of the first things for an organization, if they’re not at that point, is thinking about their strategy and thinking about how to get the key stakeholders educated about what accessibility means, and how they are supporting their employees and their customers. How are users impacted by the digital experiences that they have? I’ll let Taylor talk about one of the ways when we first start working with an organization that we answer some of those questions.  When a policy doesn’t exist, it does help to maybe provide some context about what we need to start.

Taylor: Yeah, this is Taylor. I think that the organizational piece is huge. Digital accessibility can definitely be overwhelming for individuals who aren’t experienced with it. I think it’s one way my social work degree comes in handy, because I try to remember that I’ve been doing this for several years. When you first learn about all the ins and outs, it can seem like a lot. One of the things we typically start with is a high level review of applications or websites. We call those our Perkin Insights. There are two core parts of accessibility testing in general: one part being an expert review- someone on my team or myself will go in and look at the application and look at what are some of the global issues that we’re seeing across the website or app. Something that they can get started working on to just sort of jumpstart the process. Another critical part of the Insights report is testing with native users of assistive technology. We come up with a couple key use cases that are informed by common tasks that users might come to perform on your website.

So for example, if you have an e-commerce site ,are people able to conduct a search for a product? Are they able to create an account? Are they able to add something to their shopping cart and complete the checkout process from beginning to end? Those are some use cases and user testing is so important. It’s something that can often be overlooked by just focusing on the guidelines or sort of the technical requirements. As a sighted individual, for example, I have biases. I know how to use assistive technology, I can look at the source code. All of those things are important, but I’m not relying on a screen reader on a regular basis. All users have different approaches on how they access content, so it’s really important to get that perspective and feedback.

Jennifer: I think when we talk about that strategy component, we’re also looking to help some larger organizations that have a range of digital properties. And one of the first steps that is really helpful is around prioritization. So thinking about what experiences are impacting the largest group of users, and that prioritization process then helps us to define where to recommend Perkinson sites or other activities. And often, the other activities include training, because Perkins Access provides that training. We want to help designers, developers, content creators. I show everyone who has a role to play related to accessibility.  We have accessibility for marketers. We have accessibility to help people write image descriptions, you name it. I could go on and on about all of the training, but it really is the way to build that knowledge into the organization. Our organization is about inclusion. So you’re thinking about it becoming part of the fabric of the organization and part of what you do on a daily basis. So getting that education is one of the ways that can be done.

Felicia: That’s so similar to how we like to approach our work as well, really thinking about not having, in our case, DEI be a side thing or an add-on, but truly baked into the fabric of an organization. So very much in alignment there. I’m really interested by the whole idea around the prioritization with looking at the different groups of users and use cases and trying  to triage that, if you will, and I’m curious if you ever have had any sort of pushback around that.I could imagine, just pulling a scenario out of my head, if I’m someone who’s not able to truly access a needed website, for example, and then I’m within that organization and they’re telling me, oh, you’re on the list, but you’re number five down, I might not be super thrilled. And so I’m just curious how that plays out, because, bringing a disability lens to it, I know that that’s a huge conversation, especially given the pandemic, around access to care and what decisions are made about different types of people. I’m curious if you’ve experienced pushback around that or people sort of are like, yes, we get it. We’re just happy you’re looking at this at all.

Jennifer: That’s a great question. And one that I do think of often, because prioritization can be a word that might indicate that some activities are more important or going to be addressed and others are not. And I think the way that we addressed the prioritization, there are limited resources- time and money for any organization. And so we take and create a framework for an organization to really look for the areas where the largest number of users are impacted. We’re looking for fixes that will help as many people as possible. There’s also ways while we’re addressing some of these critical areas with larger impact where we can also address low hanging fruit and begin through a different process to address all of the activity.

So an example would be at a university, there may be applications and websites that are really critical to student success. There are other websites that are as critical to the organization and instead of an expert testing for those activities, we select fewer use cases as a starting point. And then the next step is moving up into some kind of additional testing. So prioritization is really about saying we have different buckets and different levels of effort. We believe that all content should be accessible, and then we also encourage organizations to ensure that there’s ways for employees and customers to always be able to communicate and get the contact and support that they need in those cases where the accessibility is not yet built in.

Taylor: If I’m looking at a single website and I’m prioritizing issues, it’s not necessarily about what disability is impacted. Something to factor in, as Jennifer mentioned, is how much time and effort is it going to take to remediate an issue. If it’s something that’s quick, it might have a slightly lower impact, but let’s just get it done. Because eventually, we want to get everything done. The other piece of it is how significant of a barrier it is. Without using a mouse, if I can’t click on a menu and access all of the content in that menu, that’s a really critical barrier for me. If I can’t access the link that leads me to my shopping cart, that’s a critical barrier. If a decorative image doesn’t have alternative text, that’s an issue because users might not know that it’s a decorative image, but that’s not going to block them or prevent them from using the website. We want everything to be addressed, but that’s some of the thought process that goes into prioritizing things in terms of remediation.

Rachel: Yeah. Thank you. I wanted to just highlight back when we talked about what accessibility means. It’s just a shout out for your own website, which by the way, Felicia and I have been joking about how we just want to basically take it all, and it’s so beautifully done, but there is a knowledge center on there which has a ton of really great resources too. I would love to talk to, and the low hanging fruit is so perfect because it is really how you get people to start to think about like, oh, we can do this, but there are still going to be some folks I’m sure that are resistant to making any change and making it a priority at all. We love to hear about how to address the folks that maybe aren’t bought in.

Jennifer: So I work with most of the organizations looking for guidance and wanting to learn about engagements and how a consulting group like ours can support them. I run across certain challenges, often related to budgets and resources. A big one is sometimes that there’s a misconception that only a small percentage of users are impacted by accessibility. So what I think that our organization believes is that the cost certainly is there when you’re retrofitting an experience. That is a reality. We encourage clients to think about building the accessibility in to reduce the cost, because you’re building an inclusive experience and you’re not going back and trying to fix something that will not work for all of your users. That’s often just, a very exhausting experience.

Taylor: When we work with organizations that have tons of content, especially for universities, some of it is legacy and very old. Clients don’t want to take it down, but it’s just not feasible to remediate everything. In that case, we would recommend they have a way to provide this someone an accessible version of this to someone who needs it. They might provide a way for users to contact someone and you are responsible for getting them an accessible version of documents within a quick turnaround. It’s really important to focus on new content.

When you’re going through a web design, I can’t say enough how important it is to start thinking about accessibility. It’s so exciting when I get projects that are doing a redesign because we get in right at the wire frame stage and start reviewing things. A lot of people think you have to have a website that’s at least interactive in order for you to start testing things, but what I say all the time is you could sketch out a website on a cocktail napkin, and I can look at it and I can tell you where some potential problem areas might be. It’s hard, especially in the design phase, you want things to look good, you don’t want to compromise. So our goal is to never come in and say, oh, you can’t do that. Our goal is to say, Hey, this is going to take an additional level of expertise, and a level of effort and time to make sure that this is accessible, but as long as we talk about it now and get ahead of it, we’ll make that work. Remediating a site that is already fully built out is definitely more costly, but if we get in at the beginning, we can have training,  and review at the wireframe and the visual design stages, that’s key and can be cost-effective. 

To Jennifer’s point about this perception that it’s a small population of individuals who need accessible sites, that’s really not true. There was a survey done by the CDC in 2018, where one in four adults in the United States reported having some form of disability. Obviously there’s a range of different types of disability, but we’re talking about a quarter of the population. Looking at older adults, almost 50% of adults over 65 have some form of disability. Tthe aging population is I think one of the fastest growing populations in the United States, which is great. People are living longer, but they are living with disabilities. It’s not a small population. You’re not just making a better experience for a really large population of people with disabilities. You’re making a great experience for all of your users.

Jennifer: One other point is that we hear from organizations about resistance. There is a frustration around accessibility because they’ve taken the approach of waiting for testing. We can start so much earlier in the process, but waiting until you’re testing a product or service that’s complete means that you are going to have to do the retrofit. That leads to frustration from organizations that find themselves addressing the accessibility of a website. And then a year or two later, they have to start all over, and that’s really frustrating. “How do I do this right” is the question that I love to get, because I believe that our group is able to educate and help designers, developers, and the people within an organization that are procuring products to say, this is something we just have to think about. As we talked about earlier, this just needs to be part of what we do. And once it’s built into your process and your procedures, it becomes less overwhelming. And as an organization, you start to recognize that you don’t have to experience that frustration because now you’re on the right path.

Rachel: Ah, I love that! Two thoughts: I love that you brought in the aging population. It immediately made me think that this is about age-ism as well. The other piece that I want to bring in is that I am a geek at heart, and prior to this work, one of my favorite things to do in my job was migrating websites from one platform to another. I could absolutely relate to the retrofitting, moving things over, migrating people, freaking out. I personally loved it, but I love changing. I’m a weirdo for that. I’m curious because when I did it, it was actually really hard, and I think there are so many tools out there now to make life a little bit easier. So I’m wondering, are there tools or platforms that you recommend that might be helpful to make it a little bit easier to build accessible sites?

Taylor: This is Taylor- I could take a crack at that. It’s so important to do your research upfront. Another thing that we help with, particularly for our higher ed institutions who aren’t just dealing with so many different platforms and third parties, is helping them to go through the vetting process with vendors, making sure that they have done their due diligence to make sure that product is accessible. If you are going through a web redesign or you’re changing your design vendor or your developer vendor, it’s important to ask questions about accessibility. Unfortunately, our experience has been that vendors are not always truthful about their experience when it comes to accessibility, and they are starting to hear questions about this more often now and they realize that it can be a barrier in terms of getting a contract.

So they might, we’ll just say, bend the truth a little bit. So that’s one thing we help some of our clients do when they’re looking at vendors is “these are the questions you should be asking.” Let’s review those and see what follow up questions we need to ask, and what kind of testing they are doing. Are they testing with native users? Are they conducting manual testing? Are they using automated tools for testing, which is helpful, but automated tools can usually catch 30, maybe 40% of issues on a good day. So it’s really making sure an organization is approaching testing in those three ways. And while I’m not going to name names, there certainly are some platforms that from our experience prioritize accessibility more than others.

Felicia: I guess I’m not surprised, but I am a little shocked about vendors lying about this. It just seems like something that would come out.

Taylor: Well, in defense of the developers and the designers, sometimes it’s on the sales side, they know less about accessibility. So they’re more likely to say, “oh yeah, we know about that.”  Or “we’re making sure we’re on top of that,” without consulting with others,

Jennifer: I find that as well, just that they’re often overselling their capabilities and accessibility is complex. There’s an assumption that you can do some of the testing without relying on an expert or a user. It’s fairly complex, in general, to complete all that information and share it.  Even getting the information can be complex and how to understand it as well. So on both sides.

Felicia: I’m curious, we’ve touched on this a little bit already throughout our conversation so far, but I’d like to just maybe really talk about the last year and a half or so. We have the pandemic- that’s impacted a lot of folks in terms of moving into the digital virtual remote space. And have you seen any trends in the space because of that or any considerations that have been impacted specifically by the pandemic? Curious how that’s kind of layered into all of this for you.

Taylor: Yeah, this is Taylor. I’m happy to talk about that. Critical activities were suddenly all moved online, and so the call for accessibility grew. Unfortunately, things happen so quickly that there wasn’t an opportunity to vet different products or make sure that accessibility was part of QA testing or even factored in. So that’s unfortunate. On the positive side, more things are available online or virtually. Say your bank is closed because of the pandemic or, for whatever reason you don’t want to go to the grocery store anymore. Now people are making sure they have apps. You can have home delivery, and all of those things are great.

But imagine if those services that are now so critical aren’t accessible. Obviously, that can be frustrating for some, and also just a critical block to essential services for others. And this could also be healthcare, virtual appointments with doctors, all of these things that are so important. It’s great that they’re now available, but it’s also critical that they’re made accessible.  I think along those same lines, there’s a lot of people with disabilities who already relied heavily on home delivery services prior to the pandemic. You can imagine for some people with disabilities going to a grocery store can present a number of challenges. So having home delivery available and being able to order on apps was great, but unfortunately then everyone’s using it and they’re updating the apps and if accessibility is not factored in, then you’re creating new barriers that they were having to deal with before.  

The silver lining is that more things are available remotely and digitally, but at the same time, the accessibility has to be factored in. One thing to mention with regard to the pandemic is obviously so many people started to work remotely from home. This is something that for years, people with disabilities or disability advocates have been pushing to have that opportunity and that flexibility to work from home, and for whatever reason, so many companies were reluctant to do that prior to the pandemic. When push came to shove, it happened and for a lot of people, it was very successful. Some of them aren’t going back to that. This can be really beneficial for individuals who are sort of more restricted in terms of transportation, opening up more employment opportunities to them. At the same time, there are some individuals who find it harder to work remotely. There might be things at their place of employment that helped them do their job, or it’s easier to meet with individuals in person. 

If you have a hearing impairment, it can be important to be able to see someone’s lips when they’re talking to pick up on those additional cues. Some of those things can happen over zoom, but there’s also benefits to being in person as well. So that’s a mixed bag answer, but there are things to be grateful for that have come out of this. It’s important to take some time now to go back and ensure that all of those things that have been developed out of this are accessible and beneficial to all users.

Felicia: For me, what I was thinking of when you were talking, Taylor, was when we made that initial jump to everyone going virtual all at once very suddenly, it was so reactive because that’s what it was. Now that we have the benefit of not having to act so quickly to go back into what’s our new normal, our new reality, how can we really be thoughtful about it as opposed to just saying, oh, well, let’s just go back to the way it was, because we know that beyond everything that you’ve already just said, we’re even seeing more people coming into the ranks of those who have disabilities because of the pandemic. That’s another whole area of long-term impact and effects that we don’t know how it will play out. I think it just really speaks to this idea of how we really think about it from all aspects, in all different use cases, and not just fixate on one area or just the low hanging fruit, or just the thing that impacts you the most. 

Rachel: Just to piggyback on that, it’s just being so intentional. It takes work and effort. When you said, for whatever reason, companies were so resistant to having people be able to work remotely, it was different and it would take effort. It wasn’t until we were forced to do it that it had to happen. So this work is hard and it’s important. And so I just want to say thank you for the work that you do-  it’s really important. And thanks for this conversation.

Felicia: Yeah. Any final thoughts? Any final things we haven’t touched on? I’d love to give you all a chance to plug anything.

Taylor: I know I’m beating the curb cut example to death, but things are so much more efficient when you factor them in from the beginning and it highlights the importance of training. When I went to college for computer science, I never learned anything about accessibility. There was no course on it. It was not covered in any of my courses. Accessibility and web accessibility has been around for well over 30 years, and the web accessibility guidelines have been around forever. Architects know about wheelchair ramps and designing elevators, having certain things marked with braille. Hopefully at this point, these things are second nature. And my hope is that in the future with integrating this into computer science college courses, certifications, and also into the training that we’re doing, the more people we can train, the more that this can become second nature. Then it’s not such an afterthought, and something so costly and time consuming, because we’re always trying to fix things. We’re always trying to apply bandaids to things that we could have had right upfront.

Jennifer: It’s really exciting to see the direction that accessibility is taking because organizations really are embracing inclusion and embracing the work that needs to be done to, to support everyone across the organization. What we’re finding is that what that means for digital accessibility is that the user and that user perspective is a huge part of accessibility now. Our work at Perkins Access is helping organizations to not just check the box of accessibility, but also, what’s the experience that your users and your employees are having? Can someone apply for a job? Are your customers able to purchase a product or take a course? That’s a real piece of what they’re coming to us to get help with. It’s just an exciting time to be in accessibility because this is now a time where we’re ideally all embracing everyone’s unique capabilities, and that’s something that I’m proud of being part of Perkins Access. We try to share that information on our website at PerkinsAccess.org

Felicia: Yeah. Let’s get that website out there.  Rachel mentioned already, but yes, so many amazing resources that you all have, just even looking at that knowledge center. So if you’re listening, check that out. Thank you both so much. This has been so informative and wonderful to connect and chat with you. And thank you for sharing some of your experiences or thoughts on your viewpoints.

Jennifer: Thank you so much for having us.


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