Episodes

Introducing 13 Letters: The Accessibility Podcast

13 Letters
February 13, 2020

Accessibility is, ironically, not the most “accessible” concept. An intricate mix of best practices, regulations and creative approaches, accessibility really just means making things work for everybody. On this new podcast from Be My Eyes, Will Butler and Cordelia McGee-Tubb interview some of the world’s leading experts on accessibility to talk about how the field has evolved, and how esoteric things like WCAG, universal design and usability tests affect the lives of billions of people in big ways.

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Episode Transcript

Will:
You're listening to 13 Letters, the new podcast about accessibility. I am one of your hosts, Will Butler.

Cordelia:
I'm another one of your hosts, Cordelia McGee Tub.

Will:
Before we jump into the podcast itself, which is all about accessibility, both physical and digital accessibility in a lot of different contexts, we thought we would tell you a little bit more about who we are.

Cordelia:
So let's start with like who are you Will? What's your elevator pitch for yourself?

Will:
Well, I'm a writer, I'm a producer, and I'm legally blind, and I'm the VP of community at Be My Eyes.

Cordelia:
What does it mean to be a VP of community?

Will:
Basically my job is to figure out what makes the community at Be My Eyes tick. We have this big community of 3.5 million sighted volunteers and 200,000 blind users who are seeing the world together and sort of translating visual information. It's my job to kind of figure out how do we make the app useful for them and how do we make the experiences valuable so that people want to use it because it's a free service and it's unlimited. So part of that is thinking about accessibility in all of its forms and really knowing our accessibility community inside and out. Who are you and what do you do?

Cordelia:
I'm Cordelia. I am a web developer, a cartoonist, and an accessibility engineer. My official role is I am principal accessibility engineer at Salesforce where I sit inside the user experience team and help designers and engineers and content writers make accessible products for all of our users. So that's what I do in my kind of day job. Outside of that, I really like making comics and figuring out how to blend those two interests. I'm also learning more about gerontology.

Will:
I've known you for years, but one of the reasons that really made me reach out to you about the podcast was I saw a presentation you were giving about how to make comics accessible and I just loved it. Something that people think of as so visual and something that's really for entertainment and education, but mostly entertainment was something that you thought was worthy of a real close examination of how to make it inclusive. To me that was the spirit and the energy that I wanted, you know?

Cordelia:
Well, I'm flattered that you asked me to cohost with you Will, and really like you were saying accessibility isn't all about just making things that work well. That's a very clinical definition. It's about making experiences that people really enjoy and want to use. So I definitely think that comics, that all forms of entertainment should be, need to be accessible. A lot of people are like, how do you make comics accessible? I mean comics are just stories. They're relationships, they're everything. I don't know.

Will:
Yeah. So accessibility is the quality of something working for someone who has a range of abilities. Whether that's someone with a sensory disability, maybe they're blind, maybe they're deaf, maybe they're just like subtly hard of hearing, color blind, all the way to being a wheelchair user, having invisible disabilities, everything in between. Cordelia, how did you get into this field of working on accessibility and what does it mean to you?

Cordelia:
I got into the field of accessibility, there were two parallel things happening in my life. So I'll be honest, I didn't know about accessibility when I graduated from college. I got a computer science degree. I was like, I'm going to be a developer. I came to San Francisco, started developing stuff, knew nothing about what it means to for instance, build an accessible form. I started volunteering at a local senior center helping older adults use technology and I started getting really, really frustrated by the fact that they were using the same websites that I as like a young able bodied person was using and they're running into certain issues that are really common issues of this button is low contrast. So I don't know how to log out from this page or a button with an icon where the icon didn't really mean anything to them and didn't mean anything to me.

Cordelia:
So they were running into these accessibility barriers using these really common products. It kind of was this light bulb moment for me of like, "Whoa, a lot of technology is made by young able bodied people and it's made for young able bodied people." So I started thinking, that kind of opened my mind up to accessibility. Then separately at work I was a front end developer and I sat right next to the one accessibility specialist at my company and he would ask me like, "Hey, could you build this prototype for me? I want to test this thing out." So I started learning from him about what accessibility really was on the web and what it could empower for users. I was like, "Whoa these two ideas are kind of converging from the volunteer work of working with older adults who are using technology that wasn't built for them. Then having this opportunity at work to work on these innovative solutions. Why don't I combine those two and do this for a living?"

Cordelia:
So that's kind of my path into accessibility. Since then I've just learned so much more about what accessibility is and what it can be. So yeah, I'm super excited to be part of this podcast because we're going be interviewing some pretty cool people.

Will:
Some real leaders yeah.

Cordelia:
Yeah. I'm just so excited by the variety of topics that we're going to cover.

Will:
It's really interesting because I think most people think of accessibility as being the thing that helps. It's like charity for people who are less fortunate. The thing they're forgetting is literally every single one of us gets old and our senses change. We lose the ability to see as sharply, to hear as well, to smell as well, to move as well. This is something that every single one of us is going to experience. So to think that we don't need this for every single person in the world is just irrational.

Cordelia:
There are so many things that one might consider. Accessibility features that are actually just really amazing efficiency features or user preferences. I am sure I will end up rambling about Apple's accessibility menu in a future podcast, but I love seeing how the features that are somehow buried in the iOS accessibility settings keep moving up and up and up in the settings tree to become these kind of mainstream settings because there are things that people who don't necessarily identify as having a disability end up really enjoying and benefiting from. I'm preaching to the choir here on this podcast, but really accessibility is something that benefits everyone whether it be right now or yourself in 10 years, in 50 years.

Will:
Technology ages, right? It's brand new and then it gets old. As technology ages, its users age with it too. Right? So it's been interesting to see how some of these big tech companies who didn't initially prioritize accessibility have to start thinking about it as they get older because their users are getting older or their user base is getting wider or they're becoming more popular and they're realizing that really everyone in the world is going to need technology that's accessibly built at some point.

Cordelia:
Yeah, and I think there's like all of these advancements that are happening in like mainstream, I say that in air quotes, technology. Just the fact that we now like tablets and touchscreens are so ubiquitous. Suddenly all those hover interactions that were inaccessible to keyboard users are also inaccessible to touch screen users. When we have these voice activated interfaces, I don't know, there's so much happening where you can't not think about accessibility. I don't know. It's a kind of exciting time to be working in this space.

Will:
Yeah, totally.

Cordelia:
So you also are a host for the Be My Eyes podcast. Right?

Will:
Right. Yeah. I'm two timing.

Cordelia:
Two timing for now, but it seems like you've got other ideas in the works. What attracts you to this medium of podcasts, to the format of podcasts?

Will:
Yeah, well podcasts are really interesting, right because you can have podcasts that are generally widely appealing to everyone. Then you can have podcasts that are really made for a specific group of people. Because podcasts tend to have loyal, passionate listeners, as long as you know your audience, you're doing something right. So for the Be My Eyes podcast, we focus entirely on interviewing people who are blind or low vision and the only requirement for being on the Be My Eyes podcast is, are you blind and are you passionate about what you do? If you fill those two requirements, we want to hear from you, right? So the audience is for blind people and people who are friends and families and allies of blind people to really get a window into a world that isn't talked about very much. For 13 Letters, I see us as doing that about accessibility, right? That's also a world that's not talked about very much and very openly.

Cordelia:
So you came up with the name 13 Letters for this podcast. Why 13 Letters?

Will:
It's kind of like a joke. I feel within the accessibility community that the irony of the word accessibility itself, being it. I mean can you spell accessibility just off hand off the top of your head quickly?

Cordelia:
A-C-C-E-S-S-I-B-I-L-I-T-Y. It's like I-B-I-L-I-L-I-L-T-Y.

Will:
It's like you need to develop a song for it.

Cordelia:
Yeah.

Will:
It's an incredibly difficult word to spell and it says something deeper about how we haven't always done a good job in the past presenting accessibility in a way that is accessible to people who might not know about it. Right?

Cordelia:
I mean online a lot we use A11Y, which I learned that the official term for that isn't an acronym. It's a numeronym, right? It's 11 characters between the A and the Y, but even that format which is supposed to be this quick shorthand is really unknown to a lot of people. So if you see tweets with hashtag A11Y and you're not part of the accessibility space or aware of accessibility, that just kind of goes right past you.

Will:
How do you say it out loud?

Cordelia:
I say a eleven why or A11Y or sometimes I'm like, it looks like ally because that's what we all should be.

Will:
Yeah, exactly. Accessibility in the past has had some branding issues and so I don't know. I hope we can make a little dent in that.

Cordelia:
So the 13 Letters is the 13-

Will:
It's a joke.

Cordelia:
Letters of this word.

Will:
We're making fun of it.

Cordelia:
I love it, but it also sounds very sophisticated. No one writes letters anymore.

Will:
Yeah. It sounds like someone made a powdered wig would sit down with a quill and dash off 13 letters. Some treatise or something like that, right?

Cordelia:
Yeah. Maybe they might even make an album about it. We're both really passionate about accessibility and that's why we're doing this podcast. Where did your passion for accessibility come from?

Will:
I wouldn't even try to pretend like I have a passion for accessibility in terms of the code and the rules and the regulations as much as I have a passion for stuff that works.

Cordelia:
Yeah.

Will:
I'm legally blind and because awareness about accessibility is low, I encounter barriers every single day in my life. I've come to realize that when you start talking about accessibility, even with people in the tech industry or in the design field, they really don't know much about it. So I'm passionate about spreading the word more than anything else. You're the expert.

Cordelia:
I wouldn't call myself an expert, just a specialist. I don't know. It's hard to be an expert in something that's constantly changing and that you're just constantly learning more about. I think yeah, accessibility is just about making things work and making them work well. One of my favorite things about working in the accessibility space is you're totally right that there are a lot of folks who don't even know that it's a thing, but once they learn about accessibility, it opens up everything for them. They can't go back from it. Once they know what accessibility is, they can't go back. We were talking earlier about that huge network of volunteers for Be My Eyes. Once they do a video call where they help someone read something or get some information, they can't go back from realizing this is something that matters. Access to information matters. That's what's so cool about this field is people get really passionate because you can't not be passionate about it.

Will:
Yeah.

Cordelia:
Yeah.

Will:
These days everyone's looking for not only a job that pays well and has good benefits or whatever, but something that makes them feel good and feel like they're doing good for the world. When I hear that, I always think like, "Oh my gosh, go into accessibility. There's so many jobs available. There's so much work to be done and you can see the impact of what you're doing."

Cordelia:
There's a lot of job security because there are a lot of accessibility problems that need to be solved.

Will:
Yeah.

Cordelia:
Yeah. It's a good field. For me it's just like because I do work on website accessibility, it's this perfect blend of design and development. So it's a really fun, very interdisciplinary, multidisciplinary field.

Will:
We're looking forward to embarking on an accessibility journey with everyone and stay tuned for the next several weeks because we're going to be interviewing some of the people who are running accessibility programs at some of the biggest and most influential companies in the world. We want to hear what you think. Cordelia, where do they find you?

Cordelia:
They can find me on the internet at Cordelia Dillon. That's D-I-L-L-O-N. I'm on all the social medias.

Will:
Yeah. I'm on Twitter as well. Will K butler. W-I-L-L K Butler or you can email us at 13 Letters. 13Letters@bemyeyes.com.