Sunish Gupta on Accessibility: Busting The Myths

Sunish Gupta, a trained engineer, suddenly became blind around eighteen years before he delivered this talk. As you might imagine this gave the term “accessibility” a whole new meaning for him. And luckily for us he has distilled almost two decades of hands-on experience in this insightful talk.

For many software and engineering projects accessibility still remains an after-thought, or an annoying set of regulations that need to be ticked off.

In this talk Sunish broadly covers two important topics related to accessibility. He covers how much technology has advanced in providing accessible solutions in various industries both over a period of centuries as well as in more recent years. The second is an insight into just how much of a competitive business advantage can be gained from focusing on accessibility properly — not just by being able to serve an additional group of people, but also through the collateral benefit everyone gains from that work.


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The talk, which was just before me, he was mentioning about radio astronomy and all that it really excites me all those things. And this is one of the radio antennas, by the way. So, of course, I walk into a lot of the meetings with, I’m basically electronic engineer, I worked in Silicon Valley. And about 18 years ago, I became blind. And I started looking into technologies for different disabilities. And it totally changes you mindset, how we should approach and design things for the disabled. And so when I walk into a lot of the IEEE meetings are IEE, they say, oh, what kind of antenna you made this? 

Today, I want to kind of cover some, give us a brief introduction about accessibility. And this is a great gathering. And thank you, Mark, for putting this whole event together for year on year in both sides of the Atlantic. Just give him a special applause to him and his whole team, you know, and he custom tailored this suit for me, [laughter]. So, of course, this conference is called Business of Software. And yesterday, we were debating what should we call it? I think it should be called BoSS, you know, Business of Software Systems, you know, because what everybody in this room creates is a systems of software, you’re essentially creating systems which happened to be software based, right?

So, you’re looking beyond the needs of the immediate development, you’re looking into the customer’s needs, you’re looking into the business needs, the technology needs, you’re looking beyond that you’re looking at the systems and the holistic approach. And yesterday, Dharmesh, also kind of alluded towards some of the concepts and Whitney yesterday talked about accessibility. 

So me and Hirmisha, we actually went to the same programme at MIT, the systems design management programme, which trains people to look into how accessibility of exchange people on using systems design approach, and apply it to their own domain of knowledge, whatever it may be. I kind of fell into this, you know, 18 years ago, and what I want to kind of give you some kind of glimpse of what this technology how far we have come, and how we can implement it together, so let’s kind of go through this. 

So it’s advancing? So accessibility, simply making sure that his systems are designed, which are accessible. So of course, you know, we all design software, hardware, devices, different kinds of things; around the home, for work. And we want to make sure that those devices also work for people with disabilities. And it’s, it is somewhat sometimes counterintuitive, that how would I design this something which somebody will not be looking at, or something who cannot hear or something, how can I make sure that this particular system can be used, for person who doesn’t have hands or fingers or cannot use them. So it becomes very challenging. 

At the same time, the definition of accessibility, we have to look from a how we can make sure the environment in which the user is using it, that that’s made accessible, and that’s made more usable and not just legally accessible or just making sure it has those kind of alternative ways of modes of operating it, understanding it using it, that’s what can make it more accessible. And then, of course, later definitions in accessibility. There are inclusive design concepts, I actually teach a course at Northeastern University on inclusive design and accessibility to the College of computer science, and where we trained computer scientists and engineers, how they can design systems which will work for everyone and across for all the systems and as you know, inclusive design and universal design. These concepts have been around for some time, but more in last, I would say six, seven years when this has taken more stronghold evidence is there but many of us do not know how to start, where to start and how to get to the deisgn stage, especially in this age when we do such high speed designs. 

So let’s see the next one. So, we all have seen this right, we all have seen the ramps around in our community. Of course, it’s primarily meant for people who have wheelchairs. But we of course, use in all these cases scenarios, we use it. So that’s the whole idea in the digital realm of things, where we want to make sure that our applications, our programmes, our interfaces, they work just as good for everyone. At the same time, when you design these, actually, every other user also benefits all the users community benefits from this one. And I’ll show you some examples of it as we go along.

More important, if you look at this graph with the concentric circles, even if you’re emphasising only for the primary and targeting accessibility for the disability group, you will notice that we can make sure that the same system also benefits people from other groups, whether it’s across cultural, the ageing population, and there are about a good 1 billion people around the world who are either disabled or seniors who could benefit from such technologies. So that’s a huge number, which cannot be ignored. It’s a increased market, addressable market, which definitely will bring more revenue and bring in more profits to your thing. And also improve the usability for all the other people also.

So we’ll kind of go through some see how we have benefited through last in a couple of centuries from different technologies which have been developed.  How many of you know what is the S-curve, say aye, right? So if you know what’s S-curve, right, so that’s a very popular concept and innovation of technologies. At the beginning stages of the S curve when the adoption is barely happening. At that time, a lot of these innovations, which I’m going to talk about, they kind of started with, they were primarily meant for people with disabilities, but essentially, it started benefiting other populations, also. So that’s what this is all about. And I’ll show you examples of these ones. 

So these are some of the examples through which different people with visual impairments throughout the time, these devices, these technologies have been developed. And they have definitely benefited those core groups. But it of course, translates into better products and better new ideas of interacting with the environment, and introduces new ways of communicating and so forth. So this is a similar kind of examples where it’s showing you the photographs of recording machines, all those things were initially developed by these innovators and entrepreneurs. 

Is it moving forward? The slide deck? Yeah. Okay.

So as you can see, some of these technologies, which, when I became blind in 2001, and two timeframe, soon after that, I started looking to technologies for visually impaired I was focusing on more at that time. And I looked into how we can make sure these technologies, whether it’s text to speech, are using optical character recognition, all these technologies were there existed, but it still lacked beyond the very, very basic functions, you know, so we we developed some technologies, and I was fortunate to work with Ray Kurzweil on developing the world’s first portable reading machine for the blind. 

And it was a great project where we sandwiched together a PDA attached to a digital camera, how many have heard of PDA, personal digital assistance, [laughter]? So that’s something which probably are sitting in our drawers or had been tossed out right long time ago. So those so that was a state of the art in 2004, right before this pre smartphone era, of course. And, but that was the best thing available, we sandwich using a digital small digital camera. And this is using all the consumer technologies available at that time. So the challenge was to to bring a cost effective product, because this was very expensive to make. But now the same technology and same capability now exists in in our iPhones because now you’ve transferred the same code into making sure it’s there’s an app available for iOS and Android. 

So technologies have moved quite dramatically in the last couple of decades. We have more power in our hands, then what went to the moon, we should take advantage of that. We should utilise that we should not be undermining the capacity, the capability of these technologies. And yeah, this is what I was basically talking about, is the reading machine for the blind. 

So this one is showing the apple, voiceover these are technologies, which have been introduced in last, you know, within last decade, and more is to come, of course, you know, and as you get more power in the hands, by using more of the mobile and cloud solutions, it’s going to enhance people’s lives. People have to come out of the comfort zone, whether you’re disabled or not, and you’ll be able to interact in so many different ways we can’t even imagine today. So if we do not take advantage of whether it’s for disabled or not our audience or users, I think you’ll be left behind. We should deploy these technologies into our design methodology. But how do we do that? That’s the challenge. But we will look into some future aspects of how these changing technologies are changing in the future. And these are some of them already, here. 

They are, these are some of the latest products, which have been introduced in last, you know, few years. But it’s really a game changer because every two/three years, we see some new innovations, and which really benefit and we see that mainstream population benefits more than just the disability population. So this is for all the technologies which were developed for the hearing impaired. Some of these devices have been around since you know, from last century, the inherent technologies were developed at that time. And then of course, there was the closed captioning. And those kind of technologies also benefited a lot of the people with hearing impairments. But of course, we all use these in different situations where you could be situationally disabled, anybody could be that you could be using in a noisy subway, you cannot hear it, but you can definitely see the closed captioning, that helps. So we call them situationally or temporarily disabled situations where it benefits everyone. So that’s, again, some of the new technologies which are, have recently come about and are making a big difference and big impact amongst all the populations.

So these kinds of devices, believe it or not were there in the last century also, except they were hardwired, hard made, there was no software involved. But it has again, now that we can take advantage of our smartphones, as well as new capabilities and battery technology, it can really dramatically improve the lives of people who have physical limitations, whether it’s upper body or lower body limitations, but it can enhance people’s lives in in various facets. One great example I see is that how many of you have known predictive text, right, which when we text, it gives you a predictive text? That technology essentially was developed in the 90s for people with physical challenges so that they can properly select the on the screen. The next possible next best possible, what are you going to select. So those can technology’s benefits everyone, and some of the new ones later to whether it’s related to thought controlled type systems or whether it’s the exoskeleton, all these kind of things will make a big difference in anybody’s lives.

So, anybody is familiar with this kind of this kind of flow which is a standard No development process, the waterfall we call technically. But nowadays, we adopted to more of these ones, using more of the user centric design processes. And that’s where I think the changes a lot of the processes and a lot of how fast you want to design how fast you want to develop, how fast you want to go to market. So it changes the way you want to do things. But again, if you try to look into who are the stakeholders in usability, these are the typical stakeholders, right? 

When you are designing, you want to get feedback from users. And it’s a very, very iterative process, of course. So you want to make sure you’re getting at the requirements stage, when you’re trying to determine what is it you’re really trying to design. And then next time, when you come about have a few prototypes, you show it to them, you select from your prototypes, then you keep on refining your prototype until you get it right. So that’s the whole idea of the design process. So all these stakeholders are relatively well defined, they are well within reach. They can be done with using different agile or Scrum or whatever methodology you’re using for your design. It can be deployed literally easily. 

What happens now, if you want to design for accessibility? I consider accessibility as a, like designing a usability for people with disabilities, right? For now, just for a few next few minutes, forget about the laws, regulations, and what guidelines exist out there. But focus on you want to make a great user experience, your same product, your same device, what you’re developing your same software, same interface, but you want to make sure that that works for people with disabilities, how would you go about doing that? 

So these are the typical stakeholders and accessibility. Notice how different it is then what we were looking at for the usability process, right? So in this one, it says new ones. One group, I’ve called it innovation circles, which we will talk in this next slide. But essentially, we are introducing these new technologies, these new guidelines exist out there, there are new regulations, there are new kinds of users, it’s not easy to get access to. So it just gets a bit complicated and a little bit dicey to how to make sure you can integrate this in on a weekly sprint cycles or sprint development processes. 

This is what I want you to kind of think about a little bit why accessibility design seems so complicated, right. And of course, you know, it’s obvious from the previous diagram that that’s the way it is. It is because it’s not so intuitive how we can implement this in our cycle. And that’s what we have developed these systems and processes. And that’s what even my startup, the Easy Alliance, what we have been working on. from MIT, we’ve been putting together how we can do this efficiently. There are a lot of players out there, what differentiates us is that we have taken a very user centric approach from day one. And we involve user experience as our core goal to achieve. Of course, you also achieve compliance and those, like Whitney was talking yesterday thing about our project and accessibility, the WCAG, it’s the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines. They are the de facto standards published by the W3 organisation, the World Wide Web Consortium. So those guidelines are somewhat I would say dated, because by time it trickles down, and it’s has its final version released, it’s already you know, five, six years in the making. So those guidelines are somewhat not a perfect yardstick to start looking into your accessibility, but still, it provides a good benchmarking way to look at it. 

If you look deeper, one more level in the innovation circles and accessibility. These you UAG and these ones refer to again, some of the guidelines put out by W3C, the user agent guidelines, and a tag the authoring tools accessibility guidelines. So these are the tools you can imagine whether they are browsers or they are the programmes or the CMS systems content management systems which you use, those things also should be accessible so that people with disabilities can not only use that, but also it automatically has those capabilities in there in those software’s tools so that when the output is created, it has those built in functions that you required. 

And of course, you need feedback from people with disabilities just like in your regular usability processes. You want feedback from different users throughout your design cycle, right from the beginning, all the way to the final test and acceptance. In accessibility. Also, you want to get feedback at strategic points. So when we were looking into how we could make sure that because it’s quite impractical to expect that a company with a, let’s say, 25-30 employees to have a full time accessibility person on board, and it would be very inefficient cost in and it won’t be cost effective to have people with disabilities to give them testing, feedback and all that. So we were looking into holistically how we can solve this problem. So we are trying to develop an ecosystem in within our EasyAlliance organisation to make sure we have these testers on board available to give testing feedback, we have consultants who can offer advice in terms of how to go about in right from beginning of the strategy to where to infuse your design, what to make changes what not to do. And again, this has to be done in your high velocity organisation, which is not so easy to do. 

So these are some of the challenges which I was myself facing throughout this time. Even when I was looking through different systems way back when in 2009/10, when I was going to school at MIT, even their systems, whether it was the library systems, whether it was their procured software for the Career Centre. And any school for that matter. All had definitely many issues, you know, again, instead of you know, making sure you take the legal route, it’s better probably to be more proactively work with designers, work with developers. So I was able to develop some unique curriculum, which I’m teaching currently now at Northeastern and I taught that before at Tufts University. Which really should be the hallmark of every computer science or engineering programme to make sure that every design meets those requirements, not just in terms of basic legal requirement, but more in terms of the user experience, experiential requirements.

So these are the some of the ways by which you can make sure your systems is designed in the holistic way approach. Now, I would pick one of your volunteers, if you can read me the first point. 

[inaudible submission]

Basically, you got to understand where you stand. So whatever your current version of your software is, you need to make sure you fill that gap, and you understand that gap and understand how you can fill that gap. That’s what it’s about. 

Second point? [inaudible submission] 

Okay, so, that’s basically you want to make sure the earlier you you include these things in your roadmap, what I meant to say is that in your requirements stage, you begin to look into these things, the more cost effective it will be, because the later you let these design elements, slip into the next phases, the more expensive and just like with any other feature, whether it’s a security usability, privacy features, even activities has the same thing the more you delay in implementing it the latest stages the more tough it becomes to fix it. So, you want to fix it and defy those bugs right at the earliest stages in the design cycle,.

The third one please? [inaudible submission] Okay. So, you want to understand what are the exponential gaps, what are the compliance gaps and getting a feedback from the users as well as the proper way and if you may not have the capability in your organisation, but if you can have one or two evangelists in your team, could be anybody could be the IT manager could be one of the test engineers whom service very much capable and passionate about doing it should be assigned to do it and they should be reaching out to the outside groups, you know. 

And there are some current industry trends which are, which have become in mode last few years. One is of course, all these technologies are maturing: mobile and cloud technologies. We take it for granted. Whether we do all sorts of online, shopping to  half the life or probably even more than half of our life revolves around on the net, whether it has to do with work, home, education, gaming, it all revolves around it. So we have to make sure that those devices and interfaces are being used also by people with disabilities. Because imagine, you could be in, let’s say, a remote part of India, or you could be even in rural US where for anybody to get to the main city, a big city is tough to get to work is tough. If they can work from home, if they can do things while they’re home, that’s a great great benefit, not just a luxury, but it probably becomes an essential things in life. 

And more lately, the technologies for the are emerging all the time, there are newer ways of doing things are coming out of the labs. And they are being very quickly adopted by the board by the companies as well as by users by the early adopters users. The issue is the regulation, even they are not able to catch up so quickly, the guidelines, the laws, they’re not able to catch up. US key designers, US key stakeholders should take a lead in making sure, yes, you know, we can do it, we should be able to design it. And I think I am giving a workshop tomorrow at one o’clock and that’s what my goal is to kind of give you a sense of how you can start doing about them. And today, we talked about more about the why we should be doing it, and what is accessibility, but I want to give give you a glimpse of how we should be going about doing that. So please do sign up, and the lets see what is left here.

Those are the kind of the primary takeaways. What I would say from this list is one of the most important, you know you think about, including accessibility at the early stage of design. And don’t think about as a threat. Think about as as a more business opportunity. How would you think about missing out on your 30% of your addressable market? So that’s what you’re missing out already, you know, so if you cannot sell to these 30%, or even for that matter if you’re a company like a B2B company, business to business, and your customers deal with consumers, if they can reach out to a wider population, if you in your company, your employees can work, they may or may not be disabled, but their user experience definitely improves. So I would encourage you to reach out to me, and you’re welcome to join the workshop tomorrow. And if not, definitely we will love to even chat with you and also, feel free to hook up on LinkedIn. 

Thank you so much.

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