At Knowbility, Sharron Rush Leads the Fight for Equal Technology Access
The Forrest Files: October 13, 2020
Since 1998, Sharron has been a leader in raising awareness and skills around the issue of access to technology for people with disabilities. Her work at Knowbility includes policy review, performance analysis, technical consultation, and training development for private and public companies, government agencies, and schools.
Her technical expertise, understanding of the barriers faced by people with disabilities, and strong communication and training skills have contributed to her leadership position in the field.
Rush has served as an Invited Expert at the W3C since 2007, developing and applying global accessibility standards for their Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI). In 2014 she became co-chair of the Education and Outreach Working Group at WAI.
In addition to her work at Knowbility, she has also been involved for the past 15 years with the SXSW Community Service Awards. Asked about her involvement in this portion of the event, she replies:
“When the awards started out they were the Dewey Winburne Awards. At that point, they were focussed on Austin-based projects, and usually held in tandem with another SXSW event, on the Day Stage or one of the evening parties. It was my recognition as a Dewey award winner that really put my issue of tech access on the SXSW map. We got to organize panels around the topic and really raised our community profile. I will always be grateful to SXSW for that recognition.”
In the US, approximately how many technology users face some kind of accessibility challenge?
It’s hard to say about “technology users.” Isn’t that everyone these days? Nearly 20% of the population is documented as having a disability but many people who are elderly and those with temporarily disabling conditions aren’t in that number. Also, not all disabilities impact technology use. A wheelchair user, for example may have no problem at all with “inaccessible” web sites. So when you include injuries, aging and temporary disabilities, 20% seems about right. That means more than 55 million in the US and 1 billion people globally.
Will this number expand or contract in the years ahead?
It is likely to expand as disability is often acquired over time. As people live longer, they are more likely to lose capacity to see and hear or to receive injuries that cause disability.
The summer of 2020 brought a very powerful emphasis on all things diversity, equity and inclusion. Should the concept of accessibility also be part of this urgent DEI discussion?
Most diversity and inclusion initiatives have not extended the concept to include people with disabilities. There is a foundational concept of “nothing about us without us” among people with disabilities, meaning of course that those voices must be heard as institutions plan for inclusion. Disabled people may need technology accommodations, including captions, audio description, and assistive technologies that must be budgeted for. As you plan your remote working strategies, have you validated the accessibility of your communication and collaboration tools?
And it goes both ways. The tech community, including accessibility advocacy, is overwhelmingly white and male. . I was recently shocked at the lack of diversity in the speaker lineup of a couple of accessibility symposium events organized by organizations that I respect. I had higher expectations and was not shy about letting them know that it was disappointing. Recently, four women of color shared their experiences as accessibility practitioners in a very white community. Here is the archive of that conversation. An org doing intersectional diversity work is the Center for Minorities and People with Disabilities in IT.
Have either of the two major presidential candidates addressed accessibility?
Not really — other than Trump making fun of people with disabilities. Biden talks widely on inclusion and ensuring keeping the Obama assurances of health insurance for people with pre-existing conditions but neither seem to have made it a strong part of their campaign.
Are there any elected officials who have been particularly receptive to the accessibility movement?
Unfortunately, disability is not a widely recognized demographic group in the political sphere. Disability takes many forms and crosses age, gender, race, and cultural groups. That makes solidarity statements tricky. So while a few folks like Tom Harkin and Tammy Duckworth have been outspoken on general disability issues, they are the exception. Elizabeth Warren was a special education teacher early in her career and her Presidential campaign had strong policy statements related to disability but those do not seem to have been strongly adopted by the current campaign. Grassroots efforts like ADAPT’s REV UP Texas and the Twitter campaign #CripTheVote are working hard to bring the community together as a political force, as is the AAPD (American Association of Persons with Disabilities.)
At a national or international level, is there any one figure who is recognized as the leader of the accessibility movement?
Well there is a difference between accessibility in the built environment where people with disabilities — Justin Dart and ADAPT come to mind — had strong leadership roles. The digital accessibility movement on the other hand has largely been led by standards makers like the W3C and advocates for Web Standards like Molly Holzschlag and Jeffrey Zeldman and company. The W3C and Tim Berners Lee’s famous quote have influenced the digital accessibility movement tremendously. “The power of the Web is in its universality. Access by everyone regardless of disability is an essential aspect.” So the leadership focus shifted a bit as digital accessibility became more important. Of course there were always leaders with disabilities like the late great Dr. John Slatin moving the mission forward but if you are looking for the “one figure” of digital accessibility it is likely to be TBL and he does not have visible disability.
“The need for employers to accommodate workers of all abilities to work from home is a promising advance for the employment and learning inclusion of people with disabilities.”
Deaf and blind Harvard Law School graduate Haben Girma was previously a keynote speaker at John Slatin Access U — and she has also spoken at SXSW. Have her accomplishments helped push more attention to the importance of accessibility?
It was her appearance at SXSW that inspired us to ask Haben to Keynote at AccessU. She is so amazingly forthcoming about her experiences and brilliantly articulate about the challenges. We knew the AccessU attendees would gain perspective from Haben. One of the most compelling things about how he approaches her life is that she simply won’t accept that she “can’t” do something — anything! Her academic and career achievements are well known but are by no means all she has done. From being a fine salsa dancer despite her deafness to being an accomplished surfer despite not being able to see, she requires people to see beyond her disability. When Haben shares her life stories the understanding becomes clear that people are not inherently broken by “disability.” Rather people become disabled by environments and expectations that exclude them. When we build environments — virtually or actually — that fail to consider the broad spectrum of abilities, it is those environments that become the disabling factor. Haben is a joyful messenger of that fact.
The pandemic has seen a dramatic rise of platforms and apps to assist work-from-home employees. Are any of these platforms particularly good (or not-so-good) in terms of accessibility?
Zoom took an early lead on accessibility of conferencing platforms but Teams is gaining on the accessibility front . Zoom collaborates with Rev.com for automated captioning during meetings. I am still not overly impressed with auto captions however and Knowbility meetings and webinars still insist on a live captioner. Many of the LMS (Learning Management Systems) systems are scrambling to meet accessibility requirements. My advice to anyone who wants to be proactive about supporting disabled remote workers is to ask for a VPAT (Voluntary Product Accessibility Template) before buying or subscribing to any collaboration or communication tools. It is not 100% reliable but at least you’ll know if accessibility has even been considered by the vendor.
How does the accessibility calculus change if the work-from-home mindset of the pandemic stays in place as a relatively permanent innovation?
The need for employers to accommodate workers of all abilities to work from home is a promising advance for the employment and learning inclusion of people with disabilities. Even when the US experienced record low unemployment rates, people with disabilities who were ready and looking for jobs were unemployed at the alarming rate of 67%. Barriers for people with disabilities to work traditionally include travel to and from an office; the need to navigate within an office setting; the need to ensure an accessible work environment both physically and digitally and all that is involved in overcoming those barriers. If we can get accessibility integrated into remote collaboration and communication platforms, many of those barriers become irrelevant or disappear entirely.
On the other hand, there are tech support resources available in person that may be harder to implement remotely. It will take planning and commitment to realize the potential but work-from-home is a very promising scenario to improve employment opportunities for people with disabilities.
The video game industry has enjoyed a significant spike in sales and popularity during the pandemic. How does this industry rate in terms of its focus on accessibility?
Typical gamers who play for sport and fun have been fairly open to accessibility, with prompting for years by our friends at AbleGamers. I’d give them a solid C — since there is still considerable resistance or ignorance about inclusive game design. I loved the fact that an Apple Design Award winner in 2017 was the game of Blackbox, fully accessible to blind users. Since then accessibility is a factor in determining Apple’s annual Design prize which I think is pretty cool. As kids have to learn from home — and even in typical classrooms — computer based learning has become a huge part of learning resources. We have seen gamification of learning applications become increasingly common. This has been the subject of quite a bit of research but accessibility is too often overlooked. Now, since in-person supports (and “alternative” formats) are not as readily available to kids with disabilities learning from home, the direct accessibility of these applications has become critical. The issues of game accessibility in edtech may be subject to legal mandates and scrutiny. That could have impact across the industry
With the new Quest 2 from Oculus, virtual reality seems like it might get another push. Are most VR headsets designed with accessibility in mind?
I think the trend is definitely in that direction since awareness of disability access and potential has grown. But no, headsets are generally not built with accessibility as a foundational consideration. The disability advocacy community however is strong and vocal so there is steady improvement. Access to technology by people of all abilities is a complex design challenge since disability occurs across different senses to different degrees and in different combinations. A virtual reality must address access considerations that occur in the typical built environment reality as well. Promising trends are the fact that the industry is listening to people with disabilities and bringing the disability perspective into design processes earlier. In May 2020 Apple acquired NextVR, and with Apple’s traditional accessibility leadership, I am watching that with great interest and optimism. There is impact here in education as well. This five minute read by D2L was written in 2018 but still quite relevant about the impact of VR on learning for people with disabilities.
“Promising trends are the fact that the industry is listening to people with disabilities and bringing the disability perspective into design processes earlier.”
The continued proliferation of artificial intelligence (in all its many forms) looks to revolutionize society in the years ahead. How does accessibility fit into the AI conversation?
The potential of AI to address specific disability needs is tremendous. It fits easily into the conversation about AI enabled technology personalization. In 2018, Microsoft pledged $25 million to AI research for projects to improve the lives of people with disabilities. As I understand it, the initiative is run like a pitch competition and has funded a number of promising initiatives. On the other hand, there is a real risk of promising more than AI can deliver. For example there are a number of AI empowered “overlay” products that promise to make a website accessible with a few lines of code. It is an engineer’s approach to a human centered problem and so far the results are disappointing if not downright deceptive.
In your mind, is accessibility designed into most new technology systems? Or does it tend to be an afterthought?
No it is still not integrated. More developers are being told they must address accessibility but there is little real commitment, it is more of an obligation. I don’t think that is an effective way to change the paradigm. We need training for accessibility to be integrated into preparing web and computer science professionals. When accessibility is perceived as part of “inclusive design” and is understood as a creative design challenge, it brings people to the issue with more energy and innovation in my experience. A good example of this is the XR Access initiative, funded by Version to support a research lab at Cornell University.
Over the last decade, Austin has emerged as an international hub for technology startups. Do you find that startups are particularly focused on accessibility?
No — and a few of my board members would like to see Knowbility create a closer relationship with startup incubators and accelerators. If any out there are reading this, we’d love to provide some basic accessibility background and techniques training.
Is there a high-profile tech company that exemplifies best practices in terms of accessibility. Is there a back-story for how this company’s adoption of these practices?
Apple has long been a leader in accessibility, not sure what the back story is. But probably the most widely known is the fact that Microsoft gave lip service to disability access for most of its early days and was widely criticized by the National Federation of the Blind and other disability advocates. But when Satya Nadella became CEO in 2014 the fact that he is the father of children with disability completely changed the commitment and the results of product development there.
Are there any countries / regions of the world that are significantly more advanced than the US in terms of accessibility?
The US was the first country to pass a specific Disability Rights law — the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990. But of course technology was not used in the same way at that time and was not really mentioned. Nevertheless, the concept of equal access is pretty strong in the US and self-advocates continue to move the cause forward. But US politics is so dysfunctional now they have been unable to update the law. So in terms of government mandates, laws, and policies, Canada, Australia, and the EU (and probably others I am overlooking) have surpassed the US in recent years.
How did you first become involved with this push for increased accessibility?
Sorry, it’s kind of a long story. I got an AA in Computer Science in 1979 and worked doing code repair (COBOL and Fortran were my specialities) and other boring tech jobs for a couple of years before realizing a life of code was really not for me. I did bring those programming skills to all the other jobs I held — computerizing inventory and HR tasks and learning HTML as soon as I knew about. I went back to school and got a Conservation Biology degree at UT, graduating in 1994. My first job out of school was at Easter Seals helping them modernize their works program through which people with disabilities were employed in creek clearing and landscape jobs for City and County contracts. So this is mid-90s Austin as our city was being remade as a tech hub. The Easter Seals CEO was tech entrepreneur Steve Guengerich. I wondered — why not build an employment program for people with disabilities in tech, it certainly beats creek clearing in the hot Texas sun. But the barriers inherent in the design of so many websites and software applications kept getting in the way.
A former teacher at UT was Tonya Browning whose PhD advisor, Dr. John Slatin, was a blind English professor who founded the Institute for Technology and Learning. In talking with both of them, we came up with this idea to engage the tech sector in this issue by means of a community collaboration. We called it the Accessibility Internet Rally (AIR) and it was an effective way to engage the tech sector in the issue and after a couple of years led to the founding of Knowbility.
Who (or what) inspires your passion with regards to accessibility?
I was raised in a military family with seven siblings. It was easy to see that things were better for everyone when the needs of all were considered. Dad was a World War Two vet and both parents had strong belief in FDR style Democratic works that created broader opportunities for all. I came of age in the late 60s, early 70s and learned from the example of leaders like Dr King that citizens had to hold our government accountable for the promise of the Constitution and that we all had had a stake in the struggle to expand civil rights to include everyone. I marched, I protested and I supported rights of black Americans, women, farmworkers, and conscientious objectors. I actively opposed the wars that betrayed our stated principles.
Which is all a long way of saying that I came to this work from a civil rights perspective and an appreciation of the potential for technology to transform lives. I did not expect it to take so long to get to an acceptance of accessibility. What keeps me going is the fact that nearly every equal opportunity relies on technology access in the modern world. You can’t have equal opportunity in education, employment, civic engagement, social activities or even artistic expression without equal access to technology. And people with disabilities are still denied equal access.
Which of your many accomplishments at Knowbility are you most proud of?
The Accessibility Internet Rally (AIR) got us started and remains the beating heart of the organization. It is a fun, friendly web competition that approaches accessibility from a place of creativity and joy. The infrastructure of the program led to all the consulting, advisory, and training services we continue to provide. But in a time when accessibility is too often approached from a regulatory compliance standpoint, I am proud that Knowbiltiy has approached the topic from the standpoint of equality and inclusion for more than 20 years. It has inspired a generation of dedicated advocates who work for agencies, big tech companies, government agencies and other consultancies.
“Beyond the primary civil rights aspects, the evidence is clear as well that natively accessible tech improves the experience of all users and lays a foundation for unanticipated and innovative uses and extensions.”
What is the biggest challenge that Knowbility currently faces?
Keeping our voice clear and relevant around all the noise that has been generated in the accessibility field. Knowbility is a nonprofit and shares the funding challenges of many in our sector. I recently wrote about the inaccessibility of many philanthropic efforts. As well, few funders understand tech access as a “basic need.” With shrinking sponsor resources we have turned this year to crowdfunding in support of our signature AIR program.
Accessibility was not a well-known issue when we started. Hardly anyone spoke about it as a basic human right. But legal action has significantly increased and raised the issue profile. There is now exponentially more competition from self-proclaimed experts to help companies meet accessibility goals. Knowbility’s NPO status precludes the kind of multi-million dollar stakes that venture investors have provided to others. Many of the for-profit efforts are truly knowledgeable and expert but many more of them have shallow experience and can mislead companies trying to find solutions. We walk a fine line when encountering companies that tell us “Access Experts XYZ told us this was the answer but we got sued.” We have a responsibility to our mission to ensure people get a full picture and are not just being sold a quick and dirty “solution” by people who may fully believe in their position but lack depth of understanding that comes from years of practice and the lived lives of people who experience those barriers every day.
Has our society seen its watershed moment yet in terms of accessibility? If not, when do you think that moment will come and what will it look like?
Ironically this pandemic may bring that watershed moment. When the dust settles from this hugely disruptive event, it will be hard to deny the need to ensure a digital world that is navigable and usable by people of all abilities. Beyond the primary civil rights aspects, the evidence is clear as well that natively accessible tech improves the experience of all users and lays a foundation for unanticipated and innovative uses and extensions.
If readers are new to this concept and are interested in learning more about accessibility, what resources do you recommend?
Go to the source — the place where the standards are made! The Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) at the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) was founded by Tim Berners Lee. I co-chair the Education and Outreach Working Group there and our work is a website full of free and reliable resources from tutorials to video demos to testing methodologies and tools. And of course we at Knowbility host the famous Accessibility Internet Rally (AIR) program where you can get hands on accessibility training and then use your new skills in a contest making an accessible web site for a nonprofit group. Learn accessibility from a place of creativity and joy.
How do you see accessibility evolving over the next ten years?
The best case would be if the concept of accessibility became obsolete. The pandemic has shown that people can quickly adapt their tech to current need. We have greater clarity about how people can use technology to work and learn and effectively collaborate in remote settings. it was bumpy, but we are getting there. That fact has put accessibility in stark relief. Reasons for disallowing people with disabilities to work from home rang hollow. As we all moved to perform critical tasks remotely, accessibility could no longer be something to be considered “in the future.” We are building smart cities and broadening the digital platforms for civic engagement. In that reality, accessible inclusive design becomes as necessary as it has been for decades within the built environment.
Marshall McLuhen said “We shape our tools, and thereafter our tools shape us.” Studies show that AI and XR often reflect the bias of the designer. Tech use changes how the human brain functions. My hope is that as a society we address not only racial and cultural bias, but also our tendency to privilege the able bodied experience in the tech we build and use. From having to consider access for a marginalized group, my hope is that we start to really design for full inclusion. Accessibility would then be an outdated concept as broad user scenarios would become integrated into what is understood to be good design.
Hugh Forrest serves as Chief Programming Officer at SXSW, the world’s most unique gathering of creative professionals.
Forrest is also serves on the Board at Knowbility.
He also posts frequent interviews on Medium with innovators and thought-leaders from Austin, across the United States and around the world. Browse here for the full list of these interviews.