Disrupt the Culture of Digital Product and Technology Development to Include Accessibility

Disrupt the Culture of Digital Product and Technology Development to Include Accessibility

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(dramatic music) - Hello, this is "Digital Accessibility: The People Behind the Progress." I'm Joe Welinske, the creator and host of this series. And as an accessibility professional myself, I find it very interesting as to how others have found their way into this profession. So let's meet one of those people right now and hear about their journey. All right, well, here we go with another interview as I talk to accessibility practitioners from all around the world, and today, I'm please be talking with Jennison Asuncion. Hello, Jennison, how are you today? - Hey, there, Joe.

I'm doing well, and thank you for the invitation. - Well, I'm talking from my home office on Vashon Island in Washington, which is near Blink's Seattle headquarters in Seattle. And where are you talking to us from? - I am Zooming in from Sunnyvale, California, closest large city is San Jose. I'm about 35, 40 miles south of San Francisco, right in the heart of Silicon Valley. - Well, I think the one time I had an opportunity to meet you was in San Francisco with the Bay Area Accessibility Meetup group- - Absolutely. - was at Blink's offices there in San Francisco.

- Absolutely, it seems like forever because of the pandemic. Everything seems to have, there was pre-pandemic and now. But yeah, absolutely, it's been a while.

But like I said, I'm really happy that you asked me onto your podcast. - Yeah, well, so much has changed. And yeah, I wanna talk about the meetup group that you're involved with, and also the Global Accessibility Initiative Day. But why don't we just start with you kinda talking about your day-to-day work? You know, what types of things are you involved with now? - Sure, so I am a head of accessibility engineering evangelism at LinkedIn. And in my day-to-day, one of my primary responsibilities is I own training and education for all of our product engineers across web, iOS, and Android. So we'd offer monthly training, I have an Accessibility Champions Program that I run for our engineers.

So that's one piece of it. The other piece is day-to-day on-call support. So I have someone who works for me, who actually does all the training, and then also takes care of questions that come through our Slack channels. And we also have daily office hours for not only our engineers, but also for our designers. They can come in and show mocks or early builds and have them taken a look at for a spot check to see if there are any egregious block or critical accessibility items. So that's part of my job.

The other, another piece of my job, it involves being the interpreter, if you will, for all things, WCAG 2.1. So if questions come up as to like, which guideline might pertain to a particular UI, or what guideline or guidelines have been broken based on either feedback we've gotten externally or some internal testing that's happened. I'm also part of the accessibility leadership team at LinkedIn. So we spend a lot of time just thinking about like, what are the best processes to put in place? How do we up our game around test automation? And honestly, a lot of it is just, how do we scale? At a company like LinkedIn, we move fast, so we need to figure out different ways to scale accessibility. And then another big piece of my work has to do with external representation within industry.

So I represent LinkedIn within an organization called Teach Access among other affiliations that I hold representing LinkedIn. Doing things like this, podcasts, talk about the work that I'm doing, talk about the work we're doing at LinkedIn, conferences, that kinda thing. And then also working with the different disability communities, and staying in touch with them, and filtering in feedback back into the mothership, if you will.

So a lot of interesting and different things to keep me outta trouble. - All right, well, you just really made me tired just listening to you. (Jennison laughing) (indistinct) that you have going on. That's a really extensive list. And well, I made few mental notes, and I wanna come back and touch on a couple of points more specifically.

But one of the things I like to do with these conversations is to go back in time and, you know, each person has their own lived life, work life experiences where accessibility has become something important to them, and ultimately, decided to be part of our career. So, yeah, why don't you just take me back and tell me a little bit- - Sure. - about your journey. - Sure, so just more for context and information for viewers and listeners, so I'm completely blind.

I lost my vision when I was about two years old. The thing was, back in the day, I mean, my first screen readers were really like family members, my sister and my cousins who would read stuff as I was building games since like, games and things back, way back in the day of Commodore 64s and tape recorders and tape discs and all those things. And then, I was fortunate because I was growing up as the technology was evolving. So technology for me, it was just, it all felt natural to me.

It didn't feel different or anything. I mean, I was going to regular schools, quote, unquote, like, at schools with seeing kids since I was a kid. So, as computer and technology was just evolving, I was fortunately being served that up. And again, for context, I was born and raised back in Montreal. I think, though, fast forward to where I first got the itch of accessibility as a career.

I attended a program by the Canadian National Institute for the Blind that brought together 24 blind and visually impaired youth from across Canada together over four weeks to get exposed to different assistive technologies or adaptive technologies, and basically, get exposure to it amongst other things that the program offered. But it was at that program that I was, because I had already been exposed to screen readers and things by that point, but I was witnessing people from, mainly from smaller communities in Canada, many for the first time getting access to screen reader, to a braille, refreshable braille displays, and screen enlargement software. And it was amazing.

There was something there, something magical. Not to trivialize it, but it was like, just to step back and witness some of these folks who had never used a screen reader before, and now had access. And it was very impactful. You know, some of these kids, this was a very big experience for them, first time.

And, you know, for some of them, it was fairly emotional, and things like that. And I just said, wow, that's amazing if technology can do that. Now, I came back and I knew that technology was gonna be something, I wanted to do something that had to do with technology, and hopefully, maybe working with people with disabilities somehow.

Now, my issue was my math was not the strongest. And so, in order to do computer science, you really have to be strong in math. However, I buffed myself off math-wise and took two kicks at the can in computer science, one at the community college level and then one again at university.

So apparently, I don't learn well the first time. But that didn't work out. But at the same time, I was also began to work for an organization called the Adaptech Research Network. And that was a research team comprised of actual researchers, folks with different disabilities. And what we were doing was conducting grant-funded studies, looking into how college and university students with different disabilities and impairments in Canada use technology and how impactful that is. And then eventually, we would look at just campus accessibility from a digital perspective.

And so, and that was all part-time. I was going to school. I got a master's degree in educational technology, but I was doing this to kind of basically pay for my, pay for my partying, if you will, while I was in school. But through that whole time, you know, I was learning all about how different folks with different disabilities or impairments are using technology, what the pain points were, et cetera, et cetera. And it was just, again, it was just a job and something interesting to do off to the side. I would then graduate from grad school and then head off to do some other stuff.

I was working in e-learning and did e-learning development and then project management. But then in 2006, I decided to quit my job and figure out what I wanted to really do. I think, truthfully, I was burned out a little bit after being a project manager for about 5 1/2 years, and I wanted to see what else was out there.

And it was at that point in 2006, in the summertime, friends of mine were saying to me, well, why don't you consider doing accessibility? I mean, you're already doing stuff in it. Like, why don't you just do it? And you know, for me, I had to think about that because I was like, well, it just seemed too easy for me to do, to slip into something like that because I was blind, and I didn't wanna be pigeonholed or anything. But then I looked back at the fact that I had had a really good opportunity to do some other things beforehand, project management and e-learning development. I'm like, I think it's time now to do something where I think will have the most impact. So again, my problem was I didn't have any background in QA or anything like that. So when I started applying for accessibility roles back in Toronto, it was tough because when I was interviewed, they'd be like, talk to me about your QA, this and that.

And I was like, you know, I don't have any of this. And I certainly didn't have a coding background. Although, in my stints in computer science, I did learn programming and stuff, but it wasn't web, it was more mainframe stuff. And so, I was like, okay, maybe this isn't gonna work out.

But, by hook or by crook, my resume ended up at the desk of the manager of the IT Accessibility Team at Canada's largest bank, which is Royal Bank of Canada, and he called me in for an interview, which I thought was only gonna be like an hour, turned out to be about a two hour conversation. I missed a haircut, but we really had a great conversation, and he gave me my first chance. His name was Richard Aubrey, and he gave me my first chance, and he invited me to join the team. And I spent from December, 2006 to, what was it, October of 2013 over at the Royal Bank of Canada. And that's where I really cut my teeth and learned everything.

I learned, you know, I got exposed to the world of web development and spent a lot of time with web developers, spent a lot of time with UX and designers at all lines of business within the bank, sitting with them and getting comfortable talking more technically, as well as just understanding the code enough to be able to explain in a technical and a succinct way the types of behaviors that were expected. And then sitting with UX and design folks, and they would describe to me what the interaction was, and then I would probe them on what they were doing for color contrast and what they were doing for keyboard interactions, things like that. And during that time, I also built out the accessibility procurement accessibility program. But a lot of that time was spent consulting. With my team that I was on, we saw over 200 projects a year. And so, there was a lot of different types of web stuff.

And even because it's a bank, we have older technologies, so there were green screen things. And then, as I was getting to the end of my tenure at RBC, they were just starting to dig into iOS. So I got that early exposure. So that was really me going to school in accessibility, and really getting thrown in, and not only learning the technical pieces, but also the important, I was able to apply the people skills that I learned as a project manager.

I will always say that the work I did beforehand did not go to waste because all of those skills, negotiation skills, relationship skills, difficult conversations, all of those things that I learned as a project manager have stood me well throughout. I mean, those are the things that they don't teach you in accessibility 101, are those soft skills that are really so critical if you're gonna be having conversations. 'Cause you can't just like, beat your hand on the table and say, make this accessible. You have to step in. You have to understand the positions that different people have, why there might be some resistance, and figure out ways to work with, not force, people to make things accessible. So I'll finish my story by saying that in 2013, I was, yeah. - But before you go on,

let me jump in, 'cause you've already covered a whole lotta stuff, and I- (Jennison laughing) - Yeah, yeah, yeah. - I've been having questions from the start here. So let me- - Go for it. Go for it. - just go back a little bit. - [Jennison] Yeah.

- You know, one of the things that I think is interesting, where you talked about how you got into the project management phase for, I think you said, five years- - Yeah, mm-hmm. - six years, something like that. For a person like yourself who's blind from a young age, often it's difficult to get into positions where you're doing that kind of work, just because tools and processes in many organizations aren't set up to be able to participate fully, collaborate fully. And so, I think it's great that you were able to have that experience, but maybe you could talk a little bit about that, because I think that for a lot of people, you know, who come into a professional world being blind, it's extremely difficult to get into those situations. - Yeah, no, absolutely.

In terms of project management, so I had gotten exposed to doing that in my work with the Adaptech Research Network. I project managed all of the early research that we conducted. And so, I got to learn Excel very quickly. In terms of using, Excel was the program I used to do project management. Microsoft Project back then wasn't where it is today.

Although, I did end up starting to use project management toward the end of my tenure as an actual project manager. But so, I'd already had some of that exposure and skillset that I had built up while I was going to school. So when I became a project manager, when they built that role out and I did it, it was kind of like old hat. And the running joke I have about project management is a lot of it is about herding cats, because you're basically making sure everyone is on time, you know, with their deliverables, and things like that. And my job was to track those things.

So it was a little bit of a hassling job, hassling people, haranguing people, finding out where they were, and for me to unblock them if they were blocked, and to identify risks or issues that might pop up, that might impact the project plans, and things like that. But a lot of it, I was able to do successfully using Excel and like, Microsoft Word for my own notes and stuff in project meetings. So it wasn't that I was using any higher tech software or anything like that because I was the one, I was managing the folks who were the ones who were the brains behind the work that had to get done. So, yeah, and like I said, what that did teach me, though, as a project manager, was those things like managing a project, and what are some of the things that weigh on timelines and things like that.

So when I, now, in my current role, I have a better appreciation for when I'm sitting down with a project manager going, so you're gonna have to add accessibility into your timelines and such. I tell them, like, I know that this might be a challenge in the beginning because I've been a project manager, so I know what that's like. So you would get this automatic kinship when I'm talking with current project managers to say, I've been there, done that, let's work together to figure out how to make this work. - Well, and it sounds like, then, all that experience really worked well coming into the bank situation because QA testing tends to be one of the first places people start working, just especially with having, you know, being blind from an early age like you were. And that's kind of a natural place to start.

But it sounds like you jumped right into doing a lot of program building, and that type of thing. - Yes, I was very fortunate that I was, you know, and all credit to my managers (clears throat) who, (clears throat) excuse me, who clearly saw past the fact that I had a disability and treated me like everyone else and gave me the opportunity to get exposed to stuff like project management. And I didn't even know then that that would end up coming in handy later. And to your point around coming into accessibility, I did not, you know, I did not start off doing QA testing. I ended up getting thrown right into things, and starting to work directly with projects and doing more consulting work.

And like I said, talking more to the designers and to the developers and stuff right away. Now, did that mean I didn't do my share of checking? You know, did people not ask me, hey, can you just check the accessibility of this or that? No, absolutely, I still did some of that. But more of my job was more on the consulting side of the house and that, when I moved into accessibility. - Well, then, kinda that brings us, so then, does that bring us next to your work with LinkedIn? Is that your next? - Sure, yeah. Yeah, absolutely, so here I was, I was trucking along at RBC, minding my own business. And in 2012, I had the opportunity to travel to San Francisco on my way to the CSUN Conference in LA.

And I had reached out to LinkedIn because I had been a big LinkedIn user starting in 2006. And it was more just emailing them to say, hey, you know, I'm a user, and if you folks would be interested in seeing how someone who uses a screen reader uses LinkedIn, I'd be happy to stop by. I'm gonna be in the Bay Area. I had no agenda or no eye on ever going to work at LinkedIn.

I was being kept very happy at the bank. This was strictly just to do this stuff. I had already had the experience of going to other companies in the Toronto area to do what I call the accessibility talk, so this wasn't new to me.

But I had been, like I said, I'd been a LinkedIn user since 2006. And I had actually had a situation where I had flagged an accessibility issue to them, and they were really fast at contacting me and finding a workaround. This was back in 2011 or 2012 as well. So I had already started a relationship with them. But anyway, so I went and visited, did an hour, walked through LinkedIn, and people asked questions and all that kinda stuff. And I went home, didn't think anything of it.

I ended up going for a subsequent visit again when I was back in California and then went home. But then in 2013, I got a message on, actually, on my birthday, over Facebook of all things. And my manager, the person who'd become my manager, asked me if I would consider coming to LinkedIn to help formalize their accessibility work. So I was like, wow, this is a bit nuts. I mean, I don't have a degree in engineering, and here I am, potentially headed off to Silicon Valley.

And fast forward to November, 2013, and so, I started on November 11th. So I started my, I celebrated my eighth anniversary with LinkedIn a couple weeks ago. And yeah, I came to work at LinkedIn, and I started off as a program manager. I then became an engineering manager when I built and was the first manager of the Accessibility Engineering team. I did that for three years. And then I switched over to my current role, which is head of accessibility engineering evangelism.

So those are the Cliff Notes. - All right, well. (Jennison laughing) Oh, that's definitely a great resume of experience. I wanna talk about your community building work because you're definitely deeply involved in that. I had already mentioned the Bay Area Accessibility group, which, by the way, whereas a lotta groups, well, in the olden days when we were doing physical meetings, would tend to be, you know, relatively local.

But in the online time, you've been able to do a lot of events that are cast pretty widely. And then there's Global Accessibility Day, which is just a wonderful event. Maybe talk about- - Sure. - talk about that day, how that originated, and what people can expect from that.

I know we, as Blink, participated- - [Jennison] Yes. - [Joe] in that this year as well. - Yeah, so I'll talk about GAAD, Global Accessibility Awareness Day, just by way of background.

So outside of my work that I was doing at RBC, we're talking like 2011, eh, 2010 to 2012, okay? We'll put some timelines around that. I was, in that period of time, I was looking for ways to make the practice of digital accessibility something that was approachable or accessible to your everyday designer or developer. I was fascinated about finding ways to make that more interesting and something that people would get excited about and wanted to learn about. So in 2009, I ended up attending something called Accessibility Camp DC. And it was an amazing event. It was on a Saturday.

And it was like, a bunch of people who didn't know each other, got together at this library and we formed like, we basically built a schedule around accessibility topics, and there were sessions. It was pretty chaotic in the beginning, but it became fairly organized. This whole BarCamp movement apparently was a thing. I had just never been clued into it. But at the end of that day, I was like, wow, this is amazing.

I need to bring something like this to Toronto. So in 2010, I ended up hooking up with a bunch of folks in Boston, and we ran something similar in the Boston area, Boston Accessibility Camp. And then in 2011, I ran one of these in Toronto. And thanks to the folks at OCAD University and Jutta Treviranus and her team, I was able to do that in Toronto. It wasn't as chaotic as the one in DC.

I mean, people had to sign up, and we put topics ahead of time and things, but I was able to still fill a room of like, 200 people. And we had different sessions and different breakouts and fed them pizza, and people were just excited in learning about accessibility. So I continued to run Accessibility Camp for the rest of the time I was in Toronto. But then, 2012, oh, excuse me, 2011, it was like, November of 2011, I was uncharacteristically at home on a Saturday evening, and I was trolling Twitter, as one does, and I came upon this, well, I would learn later, it was an automatically generated tweet.

And it said something like, new blog post by Joe Devon, accessibility must go mainstream now. And I was like, whoa, what is this? And so I activated the link and went to this blog post. And I read this blog post by someone who I didn't know named Joe Devon, who is this web developer in Los Angeles, who basically was ranting.

And he was talking about how, you know, developers know nothing about accessibility. They don't know what a screen reader is. And ultimately, there needs to be, we need to have a day, some sort of global day where people learn about screen readers and accessibility. And I went, wow, this is perfect. Like, this is totally along the lines of what I was interested in doing anyway. So I posted to his blog, and the rest is kinda history because we then met by phone.

And I have to say that Joe and I are the two people who shouldn't not have been involved in building something like this, 'cause we were both overly committed as it was. Joe was heavily invested in his network, in startups, and things out in the Silicon Beach or the Santa Monica area. And I was busy. I had my Adaptech Research Network work that I was doing. I had my day job at the bank.

I was running Accessibility Camp. I had started up a meetup in Toronto by 20, when did we start, in 2012. So I was fairly busy too, but we decided that this was something interesting to try at least. And so we said, okay, let's choose a day. So May 9th, okay.

And then let's just each of us contact our contacts and see what we could do. And so, in 2012, we launched GAAD, or Global Accessibility Awareness Day, simply based on us individually contacting people in different cities and saying, hey, would you be willing to do this? We also posted things to social media, which was still fairly early like, in the day, social media was. But we still did it, and there we started, and GAAD started, Australia, India.

We had stuff in Wales, in the US, and I know I'm missing countries, but those are some of the big ones. Canada, of course, I ran our first event, which was the launch event for the a11y Toronto Accessibility and Inclusive Design Meetup group. So yeah, so that's how it all started, just from a tweet that I responded to and a blog post. And then Joe and I just ran with it, and here we are. (laughs) - Yeah, and yeah, just for people that may not be familiar with Global Days, there are a lot of disciplines within the tech industry that have had to pick one day a year to celebrate that particular practice, and so, you kinda set that one up for this event.

And it then creates an opportunity for people to start, they host their own events- - Absolutely, absolutely. - around the world. So the point is it's more or less decentralized the ideas for people all around the world to get involved, host their own events. And then you provide a portal that kind of gives the overall agenda of what's available, going on in accessibility. - Absolutely, yeah.

So if folks go to globalaccessibilityawarenessday.org, right now, we're accepting events for next year. And Global Accessibility Awareness Day from our early days where we just chose a random date, we have now standardized on the third Thursday of May is when GAAD happens. And if I could just real quick, this year was our 10th running of GAAD. Can't believe it. But the one thing that Joe and I did is we launched this year the GAAD Foundation, which basically brings year-round energy to what GAAD started.

And the mission of the GAAD Foundation is to disrupt the culture of digital product and technology development to include accessibility as a core requirement. And that's a bit of a mouthful, but essentially, you know, we're tired of people saying like, oh, yeah, of course, we're thinking about accessibility. And then yeah, we're gonna add accessibility. And we are gonna disrupt the culture to make sure that accessibility becomes that first-class citizen alongside things like security and privacy.

And it just becomes an everyday piece of how people develop digital products and technology. Is it gonna happen overnight? Absolutely not, we're very aware of it, but we're gonna use the momentum of GAAD and all of the connections and things that we've made over the years through that. But we're gonna really be focused on reaching out to the larger community outside of the accessibility community and the community of people with disabilities. If we're gonna make this work, we need your average everyday Joe or Joanne designer, developer, product manager to be exposed to and to be thinking about accessibility. So if you go to GAAD, G-A-A-D, .foundation, that's our website.

And you can read about the different programs that we have underneath there that we're gonna be launching over the next couple of years that are gonna get us to that place where the everyday designer, developer, program manager, product manager, startup person, everyone will be exposed in such a big way to digital access and inclusion. - Well, I'll make sure that we also include the links in the show notes so that people have that available. - Thank you. - They'll be able to just click on that and be able to get that. And, Jennison, I wanna thank you for taking the time to just give us all this detail about your lived life, your work life, and community building life, and look forward to meeting you again in person when we can get back to that once again. - Absolutely, thank you so much. And for those listening or watching that wanna follow me on Twitter, you can follow me @Jennison, J-E-N-N-I-S-O-N.

And I also tweet accessibility jobs 'cause there's a lot more happening. But I tweet using @a11yjobs. And I also tweet events on digital accessibility using @a11yevents on Twitter. So that's just some more stuff I do to help people learn about what's happening out there. And you can always find me, of course, on LinkedIn. Happy to connect, happy to talk more.

- All right, thanks a lot, Jennison. Bye-bye. - Thanks, Joe, thank you.

2022-08-25 03:32

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