Accessibility, diversity, and software teams

For all of yesterday and half of today, about 25 industry leaders from Google, Microsoft, Salesforce, Yahoo, and a few dozen smaller companies and non-profits gathered with the University of Washington’s AccessComputing team to discuss whether and how to increase the number of people with disabilities in the software industry. We called it a “Capacity Building Institute”, but really it was basically a group of people with a deep interest (organizational or personal) in lowering barriers to participation by people who are blind, deaf, motor impaired, autistic, or have other less visible learning or reading disabilities, and leveraging each others’ knowledge to do so. I’m an expert in people’s interactions with code, but new to accessibility, and so I was eager to learn and connect with experts. But I had no idea just how much latent expertise is out there in industry just waiting to be gathered, aggregated, and shared with the rest of the world.

For me, there were two big takeaways that I think are relevant to not just software companies, product designers, and software developers, but really anyone in the world who knows little about disability.

First, why hire people with disabilities at all? Aren’t they just more work for an organization, no matter how skilled they might be at their core job functions? The group speculated about a lot of the benefits they’ve seen in practice, but this was the most compelling one to me: hiring people with disabilities improves productivity, effectiveness, and creativity via psychological safety. The argument goes like this. Recent work has found that a key to effective, functional software teams is something called psychological safety, which is the feeling that one can openly share ideas and critiques without being punished, criticized, or shamed. It turns out that psychological safety helps teams problem solve because they’re free to find the best ideas and discard the bad ones, leading to better, smarter work, and more innovative solutions to product and process problems. What does all of this have to do with disability? People with atypical abilities who can be open about this different abilities in an organization can be catalysts for establishing psychological safety. Employees are not only forced to think about accommodations for these employees, but also become freer to share their own struggles, which promotes a psychologically safe team environment. In a way, diversity of any kind, but especially the more overtly visible and stigmatized diversity in ability, is a constant embodied reminder of the need to create space for vulnerable conversations about not only ability, but the intersection between ability and work. This creates safety, which promotes sharing, which promotes business outcomes. Now, that’s a pretty extended argument, and not that’s easily grasped or shared in a quick hallway conversation, but if you’re in a hiring position, you might start thinking of diversity in ability (all other skills being equal) as a benefit to your team rather than a liability or cost.

The second big question we grappled with was why prioritize accessibility at all, in products? There were many arguments here (e.g., 1 in 7 potential customers and employees has a disability, so they’re hard to ignore). But the most convincing argument to me was that building universal accessibility into products helps all customers and all employees, not just ones with disabilities. The argument is two fold: 1) by focusing design on people with a narrower set of input and output channels is a forcing function to simplicity and clarity in design, as people with disabilities have a heightened need for reduced ambiguity in UI design; and 2) by enhancing products with multiple redundant channels of information input and output can be creatively appropriated by the whole population of potential customers. The examples of 2) abound. It turns out that text messaging was originally a form of personal messaging for deaf communities, later appropriated as a general text-based communication medium now used by billions. Annotating the web with the metadata used to support screen readers helps not only blind people, but also people with dyslexia, and even provides semantic data for tools to enhance websites with faster and more efficient web automation, including for automated software testing. Captioning videos not only helps deaf people hear audio, but also indirectly creates a scannable transcript for everyone else to quickly skim time-based media and gain random access into the video via topic. Ensuring that every user interface can be operated by keyboard not only helps blind users, but also keyboard-addicted power users who prefer the quick action of a keystroke over the clumsy movement of a mouse. Pick pretty much any access technology, and it will have some other use for typically-abled people. Think of accessibility like a stress test for your products: if it can work for someone with different abilities, it can work for anyone.

Both of these arguments are related to the idea of universal design, which is a design philosophy grounded in the idea that we can design products in ways that everyone can access. This is a powerful idea, because it shifts the problem of designing specific accommodations for specific disabilities, to a problem of finding a design that can be accessed unambiguously through a range of input and output media. That means you don’t need to necessarily advocate for a specific population, but you can advocate for serving a whole marketplace of diverse customers through the same design.

How feasible this is will become clear in time, especially as companies like those present in our meeting, and non-profit groups like AccessComputing at the University of Washington, make inroads into sharing these ideas with companies eager to compete in an inclusive way. I’m excited to watch this unfold over the next decade!

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