Designing for the future you - deaffriendly founder at Tech Inclusion

Posted by: Staff Writer on July 29, 2017

Curb cuts, missed hues from Surface's facial recognition, CAPTCHAs, Alexa, and flubbed Starbucks orders were just a few topics mentioned at the Designing and Building Accessible, Inclusive Products panel last month.

All four panelists came to Seattle’s Tech Inclusion from vastly different walks of life. But their vision was similar: a world where universal access is a given and disability is celebrated - if not intentionally reflected within products.

deaffriendly founder Melissa "echo" Greenlee and co-panelists Sarah Higley, Shawn Henning, and Jack Nicolai, guided by moderator Melinda Brianna Epler, shared the experiences that shaped their careers.

For Greenlee, a gap in accessibility drove her to launch deaffriendly, a small organization that is putting thousands of businesses on the U.S. roadmap: “While there will continue to be many great technical advances in our time, I’m very invested in the human interaction between Deaf, DeafBlind, hard of hearing and hearing people. Nothing can replace human interaction.”

There are 48 million deaf and hard of hearing people in the U.S. -- all struggling to gain access to the world, to online content, to technology and to software.

When you design products, you’re really designing them for yourself because tomorrow you may have a temporary disability, you may be helping an aging parent or have a barrier you need to overcome. So really, you’re designing for the future you,” said Greenlee.

Similarly, before losing his vision recently, Shawn Henning had worked on a project of mapping New York City for people using wheelchairs to navigate the Big Apple. “The work echo’s doing is very important for those of us who do work on software or physical environment for people with multiple challenges,” said Henning, a senior project manager for Deloitte Digital.

Such personal anecdotes were among many woven into the tapestry of Tech Inclusion Seattle, a two-day conference, career fair, and startup showcase determined to bridge the privilege gap in the technology field.  

Embracing disbility among underrepresented groups in the tech field

Sharing the stage with sign language interpreters that worked around the clock, Change Catalyst co-founders Wayne Sutton and Melinda Briana Epler delivered the conference’s welcome address: “Our goal is to empower tech inclusion and diversity,” said Epler. “To make the tech industry look like this room.”

Epler housekeeping remarks among majority hearing people, described the respectful way to converse with a deaf person: by looking at them, not the ASL interpreter, while speaking.

Tech Inclusion Seattle hired four interpreters through deaf-owned Linguabee, and also provided CART (Communication Access in Real Time) services through White Coat Captioning.

Inclusive and accessible design are among many themes explored during the conference, which was sponsored by companies such as Amazon, Microsoft, Galvanize, Zillow, and Concur.

In fireside chats, panels, and 10-minute solo talks, the event also explored employment solutions, machine learning, access and opportunity, empathy and allyship, and creating inclusive work teams.

Change Catalyst co-founders Wayne Sutton and Melinda Briana Epler on stage with a sign language interpreter

Accessibility panelists reflect on broad spectrum of ability and disability

Whether living with a disability or not, all four panelists evangelize universal design.

Sarah HIgley, a self-taught software engineer, began her journey advocating for accessibility seven years ago.

“Soon after I went to a hack-a-thon put on by a mobility focus group, I started paying attention and seeing all these (access) issues,” said Higley. She promptly decided: “I don’t want to make something that people can’t access.”      

Currently, she works for Sitepen, which provides enterprise JavaScript support, training, and development - making sure that accessibility is built in. That includes creating content with meta information, such as writing code markup describing a heading as a heading, or a button as a button.

“Page structure needs to be obvious, marked up well, and machine-readable,” Higley said.

Whether products are websites or devices that power a smart home, the panelists identified a powerful reason for the tech industry to reach out to the disability community:

"People aren’t going to solve problems they don’t know exist," said Jack Nicolai, an accessibility product manager for Adobe Creative Cloud. "Artificial Intelligence (AI) is only as good as what you train it on. It becomes a self-reinforcing loop."

“Whether you have hearing loss or vision loss or whatever the case is, you should be just as eligible to able to express your creativity, to unlock these things inside of you that you want to express,” said Nicolai, who has over 30 Adobe products in his portfolio.

With corporations spending countless sums on research and development as well as focus groups to tap into consumer needs, sometimes a key group is missing from the product development equation.

“I would love to see more people with disabilities designing products,” said Greenlee. “So much time and money is wasted, when the experts are right in front of you. They are the experts at solving complex accessibility problems in their own life – we need to utilize that talent and hire people with disabilities.”

Speakers reflect on disability, role models, power of representation

In a solo talk about engaging students and onboarding employees with disabilities, Brianna Blaser described one of the most important questions one can ask an individual with a disability: “What do you need?”

“I think a lot of times people are concerned about addressing disability in a diversity conversation, because they’re afraid they will do the wrong thing or don’t know what they need to do,” said Blaser, a project manager for the University of Washington Access Computing – a program aiming to increasing participation of people with disabilities in the computing field.

In a fireside chat, Michael Carr, who has been using a wheelchair since an accident, discussed Amazon’s initiatives in working with employees or candidates with disabilities – such as redefining phone screens for candidates who can’t see a screen, or designing interviews for neurodivergent candidates.

He shared how a sudden disability can lead to a new search for identity. “I went from having lots of role models and knowing what kind of vision I had … to not having any idea what my life would be,” said Carr, a vice president of eCommerce Services at Amazon. “Discovering other wheelchair users who were climbing mountains and having careers showed me the power of representation.”

Similarly, Greenlee recalled a childhood with no exposure to other deaf children, deaf role models, or deaf peers; an environment which made her feel "very ashamed" to have a disability.

But no more, the proud Deaf entrepreneur declared. "We need to start exposing kids and people to the norm that disabilities are, really, a superpower. It's a different way of being in the world. If we expose our children to that idea in the beginning, it becomes the new normal."

aimee and echo stand in front of tech inclusion banner partially signing "Incusive"

*all photos credit: Aaron Roche

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