97 UX Things

Holly Schroeder - Advocate for Accessibility

November 02, 2021 Holly Schroeder & Dan Berlin Season 1 Episode 21
97 UX Things
Holly Schroeder - Advocate for Accessibility
Show Notes Transcript

Holly discusses her chapter about advocating for accessibility and provides practical ways for everyone to keep accessibility in mind.

Dan Berlin:

Hi everyone and welcome to another edition of the 97 UX Things podcast. Dan Berlin here, your host and book editor. This week I'm joined by Holly Schroeder, who wrote the chapter 'Advocate for Accessibility'. Welcome, Holly!

Holly Schroeder:

Hi Dan!

Dan Berlin:

Thanks for chatting with me today. Can you tell folks a little bit about yourself?

Holly Schroeder:

Yeah, sure. I am a UX researcher and accessibility advocate, evangelist- I don't know, pick your favorite word- geek level eleventy! Currently, I'm working in the Healthcare space. I've worked in FinTech as well and a couple of different companies. I had a windy path to UX from corporate- I worked at a university for a long time. Research was the thread that was maintained throughout the process. I was always doing some sort of research, I got my undergraduate degree in Psychology. At university, I got my Master's in Non-Profit Management and that was the direction I thought I was going to go. I finished that and decided- nope, that's not it! A friend of mine went through a program called 'Launch Code' and I saw his career really take off. He said, 'What do you think about coder girl?' I was like- I don't know, maybe- I didn't really see myself necessarily as a tech person. I read about the UX program, but I thought it was called 'UX' [uhhx]- so there was that! On my first day of class, I asked where the 'UX' classroom was.

Dan Berlin:

Nice.

Holly Schroeder:

I did the 'Coder girl' program- completed that- did a Front End Web Development Program through them as well. Although, I think I got a pity certificate- I can build stuff with templates but I am no front end web developer.

Dan Berlin:

So how did you focus on UX research?

Holly Schroeder:

When I started the class, I was like- I already do all this stuff? We just call it something else. I figured out I had already been doing/had done all sorts of different research tasks. The new thing for me was the Design side- learning how to wireframe and that sort of thing. It wasn't a heuristic analysis- it was- "Holly, can you evaluate the website and make sure it looks okay?" In my head, that task was to make sure the website's not garbage. I just didn't have the language for it. When I finished there, they asked me to come back and TA, then I mentored there. My 'UX' career took off!

Dan Berlin:

Great! Here you are on an 'UX' podcast! Speaking of, your chapter- let's turn our attention to that. "Advocate for Accessibility"- can you tell us about your chapter, please?

Holly Schroeder:

Yeah, sure. I got interested in accessibility almost 20 years ago- I broke both my legs in a highway accident. As you can imagine, that was a pretty jarring experience. I went from being really active and able to get around just fine to- I couldn't even lift my hands past my waist! Then having to go through the whole process of learning how to walk again- it was a good couple years before I didn't walk without a limp. It was a very, very long process. Through that process I learned how, in physical design, how inaccessible so many spaces are. It was disheartening to say the least.

Dan Berlin:

Right. Even more so when I would bring it to the attention of a store When you started digging into accessibility in the digital manager or a restaurant owner wherever I was- and they didn t really seem to care. I know hat ADA is a law- we've talk d about it in my grad school, legal class, and those sorts o things. It didn't know about it for the Web until I took y UX bootcamp and learned ab ut it there. That sort of rei nited it for me, between the t me that I had my car accident and the boot camp, some of my own disabilities became mo e prevalent. It started to impac my life in a more significan way, including my interacti n with digital space and wi h devices. It just reignited t at passion for me. I'm a big be iever in universal design f r physical space and I think t at equity and access is just a important and just as much a human right in digital space. space, how did you start learning the fundamentals of of digital accessibility? I got very, very, very lucky to be connected by total chance to a fantastic human name, November Champion. She is an accessibility specialist. I didn't know it yet at the time but we had met through a neighborhood group that I started. A few weeks later in class, my mentor mentioned that she was coming to speak for us, and her name's so unusual I thought- there's no way there's two Novembers in South St. Louis, right? I messaged her, and I'm like- you HAVE to be the same one, is this what you do? I got connected to her. Then my mentor for that class introduced Wuhcag and some of the fundamentals of accessibility. I just went down the rabbit holes. What are those rabbit holes? Thinking of our listeners- how can they expand their world and knowledge about accessibility?

Holly Schroeder:

There's different lenses that you can look through. There's the Compliance lens, which is typically what businesses are most concerned with, right? Those are the ones that can cost them money if they get in trouble for breaking a rule. The government has a more stringent list of requirements, hereto called Section 508 and that is the strictest level of requirements for digital space. Then there's the Wuhcag guidelines. There's lots of guidance, there are some rules, ADA is applied in some cases- I feel like you kind of need to be a lawyer, there's some good checklists, there's accessibility specialists. To me, the more important part is really understanding the stories and the spectrum of disabilities that exist. There's some kind of big buckets that things fall into, you have physical disability, cognitive disability, vision, hearing, motor- there's big buckets of disabilities. There's so many different ways that those disabilities can be expressed, and how two people with the same medical diagnosis can have really different experiences, or how it affects them in their experience, or how usable something is for them, or what works for them can really be very different from one person to another. There's some basic things like making sure that the code for the digital products that are being designed works with screen readers, that you can use the keyboard only to navigate. Those are the lowest bars for accessibility, that you have motion and the users are in control of it. There's basic baseline things that you can start with, but then as you get to know people and understand them, there might not be a rule or a law about that. As you're doing research and as you're getting insights, if you really want to design the best experience, the most inclusive experience- you can. It's going to be driven by user needs, not by a rule or a guideline.

Dan Berlin:

That's a great point because people have different needs, people have different accessibility needs in the different products that businesses are putting out. In our research, we need to start looking into what accessibility needs are specific for the things that we are working on.

Holly Schroeder:

Right. Before any development work starts, you have to ask yourself a couple of questions like- Could this potentially harm anyone? Could creating this be harmful to someone? Because that's a pretty good reason for pause, right? Does that mean I should stop or does that mean we need to put in safety measures? Also, if we create it as it's imagined right now, who am I excluding? Am I excluding anyone? Chances are, you probably are. Taking that time to be intentional about thinking of it, then you start to include those people. The best way to do it is to develop relationships and/or network with people who have various disabilities so that you can say, 'Hey, I have a new I have an idea for something, what do you think? Could you use this? How would you use this?' Also, having resources where you can do usability testing with people who are actually disabled users, who can give you real feedback about whether that works or doesn't work.

Dan Berlin:

Absolutely, and taking the measures needed to make sure they have a comfortable experience when you're doing that research.

Holly Schroeder:

I think also, it's important not to make assumptions about people's accommodations. I'll give you a quick example. So I have a friend who is born deaf, and often when she is asked to speak- she's someone who's known in her field, people will just assume that she needs a sign language interpreter. But, she doesn't. She's a lip reader. She's vocal and she's a lip reader. She doesn't know ASL at all. She doesn't need a sign language interpreter, what she needs is captions. Many times people have unnecessarily booked a sign language interpreter and then created this awkward exchange where she has to be like- Thank you, that was nice that you thought of that, but that's not actually what I need. So, you can save yourself some step and some awkward conversations, if you just say- 'Do you have any accommodations that I can provide for you?' If you just ask everyone it's so much easier, because it could be large text print for one person, or you may have someone who's neurodivergent and very sensitive to light or sound, or, maybe has a lot of social anxiety. You're not going to have the same accommodation for all of those conditions. You want to open the door and ask a really good open-ended question so that they feel safe to give that feedback.

Dan Berlin:

And offering that to everyone because you never know, a lot of people have hidden needs. Offering those combinations to everyone is just so important.

Holly Schroeder:

And they could have a temporary disability, right? In your head, you're like, 'Oh, they're not disabled so I don't need to ask them', but they broke their leg since the last time you saw them.

Dan Berlin:

Right. That's a nice segue into the chapter itself, where we're talking about advocacy for accessibility. As user experience designers and researchers we're in a very unique position to advocate for accessibility. Can you give folks some tools and tips and thoughts on advocating?

Holly Schroeder:

I think going back to getting to know and understand the perspective of actual disabled people, not just reading about it from an academic point of view; There's great academic literature about all of these things, of course, but there's also lots of content that's available that's written by people with all kinds of different disabilities where they freely and openly share what that's like. I think that that really helps. Those stories really help us understand it, and it makes it more real. One in five people has a disability of some sort. The mental model that everyone who's disabled is in a wheelchair is so far from the truth, you know? Sure, that's some people. I'm someone that, at first glance, most people wouldn't expect me to be disabled. But I have quite a few disabilities, and I've had brain surgery recently. You can't look at someone and know those things about them, or what they might need by just glancing at them.

Dan Berlin:

Right. How do we start that conversation with people around us in our companies or other organizations to be that advocate?

Holly Schroeder:

Embracing the notion of radical candor in my experience, disclosing whether or not I was disabled- used to be something that I didn't- it will be different depending on the situation, right? Sometimes I would, sometimes I wouldn't. Now, I say it out. That's really the truth because sometimes, I felt like I had to, to be safe. I had to not disclose for safety reasons. Now, I'm at a point in my life that I'm like, if it cost me, whatever the thing is, then it wasn't meant to be. There's something better on the other side. I'm willing to accept the risk because that is just a too psychologically painful way for me to live. For me, that's just not something I can do anymore. There are people like me who, I've had the experience of being the person in the room who's like- what accessibility considerations were made? That's a really easy question. But it feels big if nobody's talking about it, right? It can feel like the elephant in the room when you first start introducing the topic. Whether they considered me an irritant, or it finally started to sink in, who knows? Either way, it caught.

Dan Berlin:

Why is the topic so taboo? Why don't people talk about it?

Holly Schroeder:

I think because people still think disabled is something out there, being disabled is still very much othered in our culture. People are afraid of things that they don't know or understand. That's why I think it's so important for the people who are comfortable talking about their disabilities to do so. Not everybody can and that's okay. Not everybody who's disabled has to be vocal. Not everybody can or should, but those of us who can, I feel like we have a responsibility to do so. To be advocates for those of us who can't for whatever reason. But, it's the unknown. People talk about disabled people the same way they talk about race. They'll be like, 'Oh, well, I know this guy.He has- acts- but he's not like those other ones'.

Dan Berlin:

That's a great point. The other part of this is that by thinking about accessibility, in our design work and in our research work, we can have it affect us outside of work. We need to be thinking about accessibility not just in design, but in everything that we do. Whether we're volunteering for a nonprofit, and we run an event- we got to make sure that our captions, that sort of thing. There are so many ways to be thinking about accessibility in every part of our lives.

Holly Schroeder:

Oh, absolutely. Look, Zoom has closed captions standard to all professional accounts. There's no reason not to have live transcript available. Literally just no excuse. You never know who's gonna need it. I always think about who's maybe here but can't speak up for whatever reason, or is too fearful because they have been on the receiving end of backlash. I've been there, it sucks. It sucks when you nicely ask for accommodation, and you get gaslit in return. That can be extremely painful. And when it's happened four times that week, the emotional toll can be very high. I'm very sensitive to that. Sometimes even if I could get by, I'll still ask them to turn on captions, because maybe I could squeak by but there might be somebody else here who can't, but can't ask.

Dan Berlin:

Right. This has been a wonderful conversation, thanks for all of this. Was there anything else about your chapter and advocating for accessibility that you were hoping to convey to folks today?

Holly Schroeder:

I've got quite a few suggestions for reflections- things to think about. I think it's like any other kind of work that requires some reflection, there might be some moments where you're like- that was maybe not my best showing. Or, you may realize that you are harboring some bias. What I can say is that, look, we're a product of our environment, it's full of bias and you're just a human. You're acknowledging it. The only shame would be is if you choose to do nothing about it. Don't sit in shame, because it's not productive. But do make a decision- I'm going to try and change that. If you're like, 'you know, I'm hard of hearing', or like, 'deaf people, it just freaks me out', or 'hard to hearing people wearing hearing aids freak me out',- challenge yourself to learn more about what that means, and to find out what that experience might be like. Through that understanding of other people's experience, that's how we make it not scary. How we normalize it- that's how it stops being othered. It's just part of us. And we are part of the 'us'. We're absolutely right here, we're 20% of Americans, we're not somewhere else. Any product that's made with accessibility in mind, there will be unintentional side effects that are beneficial for all users, just like universal design. Everyone benefits from ramps and curb cuts and thank goodness for elevators, whether I could use the stairs or not.

Dan Berlin:

You mentioned stories a few times. That's actually been a thread throughout this podcast- there's a big part of UX in general of understanding people's stories so that we can really understand what's important to them, so that we can design things that they love and want to use. I love the idea of just understanding the different stories that are out there.

Holly Schroeder:

I mean, the world tradition of storytelling is nothing new. It's endured for good reason, right? I had the pleasure of being invited to a friend's Day of the Dead celebration. A part of that was telling stories about their loved ones. It was a really beautiful experience. I thought about the rich tapestry of culture that was literally being like woven in the air as people were telling these stories. Our brains are just sticky for stories. We are major stories. And so I think that, that is the thing that transforms users into people.

Dan Berlin:

I'll put. Holly, this has been a great conversation about accessibility. Thank you for all of this. In our final moments here on the podcast we love getting a career tip, either for folks breaking into the field or who have lots of experience. Do you have a UX career tip for folks?

Holly Schroeder:

Yeah, I do. I think that the value of networking cannot be emphasized enough and I don't mean in a cheesy salesy sort of way, but being really intentional about where you put your energy. I'll just use Twitter as an example. So UX loves Twitter and there's lots of great people who hang out on Twitter, you can let Twitter be a dumpster fire and just randomly follow whoever comes your way. Or, you can curate the people in your feed, so that it turns into bite sized learning. You have an opportunity to interact with people in your profession who are all stages of their career and get to know them. You can use it as a tool that helps you authentically develop relationships. Or, you can let it be a dumpster fire. For me, it's been fantastic and I've met amazing people as a result. The blue bird's pretty cool by me. But, I've been super intentional about it. So that and ask lots of questions.

Dan Berlin:

Yeah, that's a great point. I think a corollary to that is- find people outside of your normal circles and networks. There's definitely different ways to do that these days. That is a great way to expand your network authentically. It's all about doing it authentically though, to build good relationships.

Holly Schroeder:

I feel like UX is sort of the social worker persona in tech, we're the do-gooders of the tech world. Stick with the the nice folks, that people that believe in mentorship that want to raise up others, that freely share resources and model good kind of behavior. And do it. Repeat that yourself, that will pay dividends.

Dan Berlin:

Amen. That's a great point. So Holly, this has been a wonderful conversation. Thank you so much for joining me today. My guest today has been Holly Schroeder, who wrote the chapter 'Advocate for Accessibility'. Thank you so much for joining me today, Holly.

Holly Schroeder:

Thanks, Dan.

Dan Berlin:

You've been listening to the 97 UX Things podcast. Thanks for listening. You've been listening to the 97 UX things podcast companion to the book '97 Things Every UX Practitioner Should Know' published by O'Reilly and available at your local bookshop. All book royalties go to UX nonprofits as well any funds raised by this podcast. The theme music is 'Moisturize the situation' by Consider the Source and I'm your host and book editor, Dan Berlin. Please remember to find the needs in your community and fill them with your best work. Thanks for listening