Teaching Accessibility

by Mihir Trivedi

As a computer science student at MIT, I take many classes which tackle complicated and interesting problems from technical perspectives. I’ve had the chance to take courses on Operating Systems and Robotics that really challenged my understanding and application of the subject material. The course requirements, however, rarely mandate that we take a look at the impact of how we are building software or hardware in our classes. Generally, I write solutions for lab assignments in a manner that most quickly passes the test cases – without really caring about the downstream effects of code I write. The article Why Web Accessibility Is Important and How You Can Accomplish It (linked above) shows an aspect of development that is rarely touched upon in the classroom (aside from classes like 6.811 which make it a focus of design, but are not a curriculum requirement). 

The article overviews the multiple ways that web developers can easily integrate content into their webpages that minimally changes the design for existing users but provides a massive improvement in accessibility for users with visual or hearing impairments. Just a couple weeks ago in class, we had a great talk from 2 former PPAT students who are now engineers on Google’s Accessibility team. It was really exciting to see how much effort Google is putting into making all of its applications and devices accessible to those with a multitude of disabilities. Given that this is now a strong focus of major tech companies including Apple, Microsoft, Amazon, and many more, I believe all CS undergraduate programs should make accessible design a part of the core CS requirement. This doesn’t have to mean that a full class be dedicated to learning the principles of universal design – simply including a 1 or 2-day lecture on concepts like caption-tags or alt-tags (as described in the article) would at the very least expose students to concepts they can use later in academia or industry. 

Making this move in academia, especially in undergrad, will help speed up the progress of accessible technology in every application field. The more students know about universal/accessible design, the more likely they are to bring it up in design conversations in the future. Especially at a place like MIT which produces so many technology leaders, it’s important for our graduates to have a well-rounded understanding of the impact of their software.

Sound and Silence

by Ginny Sun

Dozens of beautiful women dressed in golden costumes stood on stage, performing on CCTV1 for China’s Lunar New Year celebration. As expected of any dance troupe featured on this show, the dancers moved completely in sync. But as my parents translated the TV announcer’s commentary of the dance into English, I was shocked to hear that the dancers were actually deaf. How could these children dance to the beat of the music, if they weren’t able to hear it properly? Although I watched this routine almost ten years ago, the dance still comes to mind from time to time, even inspiring the dance I choreographed for MIT Asian Dance Team this semester.

In “Sensations of Sound: On Deafness and Music”, Rachel Kolb shares her experience with music as a person who is deaf. She tells us that prior to receiving her cochlear implant, she’s never really heard music before. But that doesn’t mean she wasn’t musical—she simply experienced music in a different way. Kolb writes, “I remember enjoying the feel of my hands picking out the piano keys in rhythm, as well as the rich vibrations of the guitar soundboard against my chest.” She would march in time and observe visual visions through the flowing of water or clapping of hands. Thinking back to the dancers from ten years ago, perhaps it was through the mechanical vibrations of the speakers, or the visual rhythm created by their teammates, that allowed the group to create the wonderful cascades in their performance.

Kolb exclaims with slight annoyance that her friends and acquaintances would constantly ask her whether or not she could hear music, before concluding that a better question to ask is, “What does music feel like to you?” As someone who can hear quite well, I never really stopped to think about the answer to that question until now. As an exercise, I played some music, trying to tune out the sounds while paying attention to the physical effect of the sounds—the bass pounding in my chest, the drone of a monotonous rhythm, the high-pitched squeal against my ears. Although it was difficult to completely drown out the audible noises coming from the speakers, I now have a better understanding and appreciation for the various ways one can feel, interpret, and process music.

Referenced video of dance by the Chinese Art Troupe of Disabled Persons: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lD7SBgLvjqY

The Need to Provide Perspectives of the Groups You Are Trying to Represent

by Anonymous

Having a disability that isn’t obvious upon first inspection doesn’t just place the burden of the disability itself on you but often also the burden of trying to hide a major part of your life from the people around you. The Harvard Business Review discusses this in its article “Why People Hide Their Disabilities at Work.” Reading this article I personally found the title misleading and the content to be a mostly one-sided argument towards disclosing your disability. Of the entire article I only find one paragraph to truly be about the reasons for fear of disclosure, even though based on the title, I expected more of this kind of material. Though it includes a note on people having the right to disclose on their own time, it still ends with claiming the act of disclosure as providing “decreased stress and the ability to engage with your work, and your workplace, as your whole self.” This claim seems to try and be backed by some statistics on how people felt after disclosure vs. people who haven’t disclosed at all. To me, just seeing these numbers doesn’t provide any perspective from these people as to why they were hiding their disability in the first place, what prompted them to disclose, the kind of support system they had outside of the work environment, and many other factors that could affect these results.

As someone with multiple “invisible” disabilities, I wish the article had included more perspectives from people with disabilities instead of just, in my opinion, pushing for disclosure. It does provide some of the types of resources that make it easier to disclose your disability within the workplace; whether it be getting to know your manager better, finding an ally, or joining an ERG (employee resource group), but doesn’t go beyond that. These resources are a hopefully useful incorporation to the article, but the simple inclusion of their names and possible benefit does not provide any first-hand knowledge of the kinds of experiences that the people using them have had in the past.

I personally have spent years working towards trusting a few people around me enough to talk about my struggles with disabilities and though I have had mostly positive experiences, I have still experienced some non-intentionally harmful responses as a result. An article like this would have been much more meaningful and beneficial to me personally if it included actual perspectives from people with disabilities instead of just relying on a few statistics from their own study to get their point across. Like we have talked about in PPAT, representation of yourself in the things you see/hear/read can have a large impact on the person intaking the information. I feel that this article fails in that regard by almost dehumanizing people with invisible disabilities by not providing any personal perspectives and simply relegating them to their statistics. The one person with a disability they do specifically mention doesn’t provide a perspective on his role as the “accessibility driver” of his team, but is rather described by someone else. The article says that “talking openly and visibly destigmatizes the topic and builds the sense that it’s okay to let people know your true self,” (quote from Kristen Doherty, the manager in inclusion and diversity at Accenture) but fails to accomplish this de-stigmatization by it itself not providing representation and open discussion from the people that the writers constantly reference; the group of workers with invisible disabilities. 

It’s Time to Disable Assumptions

by Allison Pinto

If you have a chance, I would 100% recommend taking some time out of your day to listen to The Moth podcast. The reason this podcast is so special, is it allows people from around the country to get up in front of a crowd and tell a story. The Moth then makes podcasts of these stories from different events and groups them into themes. The most recent podcast I listened to had the theme “Assumptions.” One of the stories was told by Steve Anderson, who was an actor who now works as the Director of Disability Resources at Hamline University in Saint Paul.

In the podcast, Steve tells the story of going out to drink with a few friends. After taking his friends’ orders at the bar, the waitress turns to Steve and asks “and what would you like?” and then proceeds to kneel down, put her hand on his knee and offer him “orange pop, brown pop or white pop.” He responds with “I was thinking something stronger, like a beer,” and everyone in the audience erupts laughing.

Steve did a hilarious job of telling this story and was able to make light of something that was so demeaning in a way that brought some awareness to the audience. And that’s just what we need more of, awareness. People in our society often treat those with disabilities in a demeaning or childish manor due to false beliefs and major misunderstandings about people with disabilities. So, we know this is a problem, but what can we do to change it? Disabilities need to be normalized, and I think that starts with our youth. Parents and schools should have the responsibility of teaching children that everyone is unique and different and that it is not ok to single anyone out or make assumptions about someone’s abilities simply because they have a disability.

Personally, I am trying to be more cognizant of how I view people with disabilities. Assumptions can be so dangerous and I have definitely made some in the past. Being in PPAT has made me realize that there are so many ways we can improve our society to make it more accepting of people with disabilities. I have already learned so much about the daily assumptions people make about people with disabilities and I hope I can help to dismantle some of those assumptions as I live my day to day life.

Reframing Disability for Universal Design

by Xiqing Wang

I read Microsoft’s Radical Bet on a New Type of Design Thinking by Cliff Kuang. It talks about disability as an engine of innovation, and outlines how Microsoft used this kind of thinking to reinvent their design process.

Before PPAT, I had heard of the term “universal design,” but I had never thought about how this concept involves people with disabilities. It sounds ignorant, and that’s because it is. As a person who can currently only think of one instance where she feels slightly inconvenienced – reaching the very top shelf at a grocery store – I would say that there isn’t too much of a mismatch between myself and my surroundings. I had never needed to think too critically about how design involves disability. 

“Disability is an engine of innovation simply because no matter what their limitations, humans have such a relentless drive to communicate that they’ll invent new ways to do so, in spite of everything.”

According to the article, in 1808, Pellegrino Turri built the first typewriter to help his blind significant other write letters more legibly. In 1872, Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone to aid in his work with people with hearing disabilities. In 1972, Vint Cerf started the roots of email to help him communicate with his wife, who was deaf, while he was away at work.

I was admittedly a little awed. I had no idea.

Knowing, now, that many inventions that make my life immensely easier – the elevator, the curb cut, the telephone, email, etc. – may never had existed, but for considering disabilities, reframes the way that I think about much of the world around me. It’s pretty incredible to think that in empathizing with others, people create things that we might never have created ourselves. By designing with disabilities in mind, not only are products more “universal” in the sense that people with disabilities can also use them, but whatever design aspect that made the product “universal” may actually make that product better for all other common consumers.

“Microsoft is starting with the analogues. They’re seeking out the disabled and the different, confident that they’ve already invented exactly the solutions that the rest of us need.”

One of the design frameworks typically used is built around assumptions of personas who might use the product. This doesn’t necessarily apply to PPAT, since we have specified clients whom we are tailoring projects toward. However, it is interesting to think that the previously mentioned design framework doesn’t consider the fact that humans and their capabilities are constantly changing. I believe the ultimate goal of the article is to highlight the notion that in bringing a set of users that live lives differently from most people – one example being users who have disabilities – inclusive design can reveal what is most user-friendly to the most amount of people. This, in turn, yields design that can accommodate not only different types of people, but also the different changes that those people will undergo in a lifetime. That sounds like truly “universal design” to me.

Legislative Acrobatics

by Mihir Trivedi

In his NYT Opinion piece The Blind Man’s French Dog Problem, author Adam Linn tells the story of an issue he encountered with disability regulation when traveling abroad in France. The issue Adam faced is telling of larger political and legislative issues regarding disability and the interaction between individuals with disability and the society we all live in. 

Adam begins his piece with an overview of the issues he runs into in New York City – repeatedly harassed at establishments across the board, even though NYC regulation allows seeing eye dogs in all situations. Hoping Paris would be better because of their strict service animal laws, Adam is disappointed upon his arrival, finding the apartment rental company charging him hundreds of extra dollars for his seeing-eye dog. The issue turned out to be one of politics more than disability – Adam soon found that the strict service animal laws only apply to French dogs, whereas Adam and Nadia (his dog) were American. To get around this rule, Adam is given a fake identification for himself and Nadia that identify them as French, finally allowing Adam access to the places he would have been otherwise denied because he is American. 

Adam’s experience is representative of a broader perspective on the interaction between individuals with disability and legislative power. From our readings in the Cook and Hussey Textbook, we learned that disability exists in many contexts – one of which is the Institutional Context. This covers “economic, legal, and political components, such as government-funded services, legislation, and political regulations and policies” (Cook and Hussey 43). In the case of Adam’s visit to Paris, the legislation and political regulation failed him as his accommodations for disability were impacted by nationality. As he explains in the piece, “I was angry because being blind is rarely my problem; my biggest frustrations stem from the fact that there is always some person in a position of power telling me that I’m not quite right.” In his case, the French government offloaded their legislative differences to Adam, who had no involvement in the French (or American, for that matter) legislation on the requirement that seeing eye dogs must be French to receive benefits. 

This experience brings up the question for all students studying assistive technology and disability regulation – whose responsibility is it to ensure people with disabilities don’t have to jump over lines drawn in the sand? In societies where accommodation seems to be haphazardly allocated, can we do a better job of ensuring our legislators understand how poorly written regulation has adverse effects on people with disabilities?

Technology for all

by Andrea Bolivar

The reading lists various ways in which Google as a tech company is working to both improve current products for people with disabilities and to create new technologies to allow people to navigate the wider world. The article focuses on a particular Google employee who has limited vision due to a rare eye condition known as Choroidal Osteomas. As a young child there was no accessible assistive technology to help her get through reading in school. She is now a program manager for accessibility for Google’s Chrome software, and she is working to make Google’s products more accessible for people with disabilities. For example, in March Google maps was able to add a wheelchair accessible option when customizing a route.

I sometimes don’t realize that a specific product is really not accessible for everyone until I take a step back. After reading about Googles strive to achieve accessibility for everyone, I started to think about my own computer and how it’s really not accessible to people with low vision, low mobility, or other disabilities that one may have. Which is why I was amazed by visiting the computer lab at the Boston Home. My team is working with Tina from the Boston Home, and this past week we were also able to take a tour of the Boston Home. Each computer station in their computer lab was unique since it was tailored for someone with a specific disability. For example, one of the sections had a massive computer screen to help people with low vision. There was also another section that didn’t have a mouse, but instead had a trackball (a computer mouse for people with limited hand mobility). There was also another section with a screen that seemed to have a filter on the screen to help dim down the brightness. The Boston Home was able to create and adapt computers to fit the needs of their residents since computers currently are not a one size fits all piece of technology.

Trajectories of Happiness by PPAT

by Jeba Sania

In this blog post, I wanted to write a little about my own personal reflections and thoughts to different parts of Laying Martin Jr’s Modern Love entry “In a Charmed Life, A Road Less Traveled”. Martin writes about how he and his wife, Linda, coped after she suffered the functional loss of her legs after a car crash while on vacation.

I think it should be mentioned that Martin is a songwriter and a successful one too – a little online research revealed that he had written for numerous singers and even Elvis Presley’s last recorded song. The entirety of his writing – even the less glamorous, and harsher realities of the adjustment period post accident – evoked images of a long and romantic New England summer. The title itself was a nod to celebrated American poet Robert Frost. Our life is perfect even if the journey to this point in our happiness is a little unconventional.

This reminded me of the graph (because MIT students prefer graphs to make sense of the world) Kyle drew for us in the first few days of class. He drew the timeline of his personal life, a timeline of his vision loss, and his resulting happiness over the years. Kyle showed us that how happy he was in different points of his life had less to do with the progression of his disability than it had to do with his normal everyday life. It seems like plain common sense now but even though we push this idea of “no one part of my identity defines all of me”, sometimes it’s easy to forget that it applies to everyone. 

I think I just hadn’t really thought of the intentional phrase “people with disabilities” too deeply before PPAT. Which is BTW different than the phrase “disabled people”. The first simply indicating a descriptor added on to a noun (we are all people first and foremost!) and the latter connoting a different type of person altogether.

Likewise, even though Martin and Linda emotionally and logistically struggled at some points – their marriage is as blissful as ever: Martin recalling the first time he saw Linda in an orange dress and how his adoration has not once wavered since. This makes me want to hear from Linda’s perspective as well, and I was hoping that I would find some snippets on the web. I wondered what her initial reactions were and what her reflections looking in hindsight. 

One part of the story that struck me deeply was Martin’s evident guilt when he wrote about unknowingly driving by his own family in the freeway when their car had collided. You think that when your loved ones are in danger, you would know. As if you’re connected to them by a heart string or that the universe would give you a sign or even a heads up, but it doesn’t and it didn’t for Martin and it  probably didn’t for so many of us too. Similarly, when Martin talks about Southwest Airlines, shopping in NewBury street or roaming through Italy, it feels like he could be talking about any one’s life.

Their struggles, their guilt, their wins, and their bliss are all parts of what makes this enchanting story so deep and personal and so human. 

Accessible Design in the Digital Age

by Jierui Fang

In “7 Things Every Designer Needs to Know about Accessibility”, Jesse Hausler covers the many accessibility hazards that digital product designers can fall into when they unknowingly perpetuate existing, inaccessible design patterns. I thought it was interesting, however, that he chose to focus on digitally based design as the default. While digital as an emerging new medium for design is pervasive and I couldn’t imagine surviving long without my smartphone or laptop, it was strange that he made no mention of other, more tactile rather than visual, design factors.  The topics he covers range from color coding and minimalist forms to default outlines.

Hausler frames designing for accessibility as simply a new set of constraints to consider, which I think is an extremely effective way to reduce an unfamiliar space to a mindset that designers will be familiar with.  This summer, I worked with a senior designer that was especially passionate about accessibility, and designing with her was a great learning experience as she continually pointed out elements in my design that were pitfalls, such as certain icons that were too intricate for the visually impaired or my tendency to color code with red and green.  Having that experience made me realize how important it is to cover these topics in design curriculum, and that designers often aren’t aware of existing tools to assist them with accessibility constraints. Through my mentor this summer, I discovered chrome extensions that can visualize how websites would look for different kinds of color blindness, subscribed to A11y, a weekly accessibility newsletter that covers different topics in web accessibility, and now have recently learned about type hierarchy and contrast ratio guidelines through Hausler’s article. 

The article rightfully calls out the tendency of designers to design for other designers.  I’ve noticed this in the popular shift towards minimalism in design, which I find to be slightly insidious.  While often a simple way to signal “good design” to other designers, less is not always more in my opinion. Minimalism shouldn’t simply be slapped onto to all situations and with no constraints.  The traditional standards of what is “good design” need to be redefined to also include the value of universal design. It is important that as we move into the digital age that people are not left behind with the products we design.