How to engineer for inclusion
Among engineering’s greatest promises is the remedy of inequality through technology, including designing technologies that are accessible to users with a diverse spectrum of ability.
With an estimated one billion people in the world living with some form of disability, the challenge is large, but the opportunity is larger still. At a recent School of Engineering event, a panel of experts in inclusive design examined the role – and, many say, the responsibility – engineers have to ensure equal access to the products and technologies they build. All agreed that when engineers design for disability, everybody benefits.
The panel included adjunct professor John Moalli, whose course “Dare to Care: Compassionate Design” challenges students to solve everyday problems people with disabilities face. It also included Adrian Rodriguez (BS ’16), a blind software engineer who designs interfaces that work for non-sighted people; and Allison Lettiere (MS ’21), who uses artificial intelligence to build assistive and accessible technologies and the president of Kids With Dreams, a not-for-profit that works with young people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. The program was moderated by Stanford lecturer Lindsey Felt (PhD ’15) who is deaf and wears cochlear implants. Her research looks at disability innovation in narratives of technology.
Stanford Engineering’s Engineering for All explores how engineering can become more inclusive in education and in design. Watch the full Engineering For All video series.
MODERATOR, LINDSEY FELT: Good evening everybody. It’s encouraging to see the School of Engineering paying attention to accessible design for the disabled community and beyond. Thank you to everyone who has come to learn more about how we can make technology and engineering more inclusive.
As an accessible practice that I wanted to model in this virtual setting, I am gonna provide a brief visual description of myself and invite the panelists to do so when they speak. I’m a white woman with long, light brown hair, I am wearing glasses, and a blue sweater. My Zoom background is a photo of Stanford’s campus oval with the main quad in the background.
I wanted to begin by highlighting the stakes of this conversation. According to the CDC there are around 61 million adults in the US who live with a disability. Roughly one in four adults, or 26% of people, identify as having some sort of disability. In adults over 65, these numbers rise to two in five adults who are disabled. These statistics don’t even account for children with disabilities, or people who become temporarily disabled through injury, illness, or the process of aging. What these demographics reveal is that the disabled community comprises the largest minority group in the US. In the world, we are estimated to be one billion strong and growing. Designing for this population is not a niche issue or a specialty cause, disability is a central aspect of human experience.
As a deaf person who proudly identifies as disabled, I wanted to offer a note on language for this evening. Naming disability can be controversial. You’ll notice throughout this panel that we are calling disability what it is. Disabled activists have worked very hard to reclaim disability as a word that holds space for an identity and a community with a rich culture and history. This rhetorical challenge – sorry, this rhetorical choice, challenges the medical model that views disability as an individual pathology or deficit, that needs to be cured, or fixed, through scientific or technological intervention. This notion of disability is woven into the fabric of design and engineering history and practices.
For example, Alexander Graham Bell’s invention of the telephone was originally designed as an aid to help his deaf students normalize, or correct their speech. But the telephone became much more than that as we all know. When we design for disability we all benefit. I myself wear a specialized device designed to cure hearing loss, the cochlear implant.
The day to day reality is more complex, though. Even with this device I rely on other technology, like a vibrating alarm clock, automatic captioning, and video conferencing like we’re all utilizing today that present a new set of access frictions. Through the cochlear implant and though these tools have fundamentally reoriented my engagement with the world, and my inclusion in it, it has helped me connect to a vibrant history and practice of disabled people hacking and remaking technologies for their own end, sometimes to make them more usable, but also as a mode of creative resistance. So access fundamentally determines the way disabled people’s bodies fit, more often than not, don’t fit in our built world. And whether we realize it or not, how disabled people meet the built world is often decided by engineers and designers.
So before we turn to our first question, please remember that we are not using the raised hand feature, please also ask questions through the poll everywhere tool, which will gather questions for us to discuss during the Q&A portion. So now, I’d like to get started and invite our panelists to share, what drew you to inclusive design and accessible technology, and can you talk about why this work matters to you? So how about we start with John?
JOHN MOALLI: Thank you Lindsay. I have brown hair, I’m wearing glasses, I’m a white male, and I also have a white shirt on with a blue vest. And my Zoom background are the arches at Stanford in the main quad.
It was actually a person that drew me to the field of inclusive design. A young man named Zack. I met Zack while I was volunteer teaching in a local high school, and Zack was wheeled into my classroom in a chair. Zack has cerebral palsy. I looked at Zack, and sadly like many people do I made some assumptions about his intellect purely based on my visual observations of his physical condition. When I did that I also decided that I really wanted to get to know this individual. As I got to know Zack I realized he had this powerful intellect. And that he was really no different than my students at Stanford, except he lacked a means of self expression. And I realized that the barriers that Zack faced weren’t the physical barriers, or any limitations that he himself possessed, but rather design barriers created by the built world, that made it difficult for Zack to interact. I was also inspired to move into this space by my teaching assistant at the time at Stanford, and her brother, who also has multiple disabilities.
MODERATOR: Thank you John, how about Adrian? You wanna take this question?
ADRIAN RODRIGUEZ: Yeah, I would love to. Thank you Lindsay, a little bit about my appearance. I’m a Hispanic, light skinned male with brown hair, and my background is Stanford from the Oval, excuse me, looking towards MemChu at sunset. How I got into disability.
So as Lindsay mentioned, I was born legally blind. To be more specific I have no light perception in my left eye, and my right eye has an acuity of 2,400. So I cannot see things that are near me, nor things that are far away, but I can perceive color and form, and so I can read printed text so long as it’s about 28 point font, and an inch or so away from my face. And so I generally use digital magnification. That being said, my introduction to assisted technology was a bit obvious.
When I was attempting to enter school, I was born in El Salvador, and so there weren’t many options, and the one that remained was actually the American School, and in order to enroll in the school we had to be evaluated, and the evaluation consisted for me, essentially, of the question of oh can your child read to us what’s on the board? What’s written on the board? Obviously I couldn’t, and they asked, can your child read to us what’s written on this paper in front of him, in regular font. And my answer to both of those questions was no. And so the answer to enrolling me was no.
I’ve come to understand obviously they didn’t have the resources but I think that the lasting impression it made is that the difference between being able to see something and being able to grasp something is kind of the same in the eyes of our society. And in the absence of technology to bridge that gap is essentially the same. And so when I entered school, I initially walked into my first day of class, eventually in public school, in America where we found refuge, so to speak. I walked into school with a monocular, a handheld telescope in one hand, and like one really bulged pocket, and a handheld magnifier in the other. And so it was, literally, had to kind of switch for every task, and it was obviously tiring. And so that was my introduction. This was before CCTVs were portable and before we had this whole movement of accessible tech, and so it was from that moment that I got interested and have gone on to trying and close that loop.
MODERATOR: Wonderful, thanks Adrian. Okay, Alison, how about you?
ALLISON LETTIERE: Hi, thanks Lindsay. As a visual introduction, I’m white, I have pink hair, wearing hoop earrings, and a white sweater, and have the same background as John, where it’s the arches at Main Quad.
And in terms of how I got into assistive technology, largely it was from different parts of my life, partially from my cousin Daniel, who was diagnosed with autism when he was really young, and we grew up together with trips to the pool, and doing things with our grandparents, and I think I quickly caught on to things that maybe came easily to me. Like making new friends in the park were potentially more drastically difficult for him, and I think in a way that the world was not structured to make it easier. And I think there’s that experience simultaneous with my mom who’s a pediatric physical therapist for kids with disabilities, and so I’d always go to her work, and really became friends with a lot of her clients. And would just hang out, and so I think having this experience as a child, and then growing up to see that the disability community is like one of the largest marginalized groups in our country, really spurred this interest in just becoming more involved. And so my aunt, who actually is my cousin Daniel’s mom, when I got to Stanford she said, you really should look into this thing called accessibility or assistive technology. It would really go well with interest in computer science. And so I found that it is something that I was very excited to learn about and there are so many exciting ways to build any type of accessible assistive technology.
MODERATOR: Great, okay, so I’d like to move into the next question. Though I’m curious to hear the group speak to some specific examples of either your own disability innovations, or your work in inclusive design as an ally. What kinds of problems or situations might have motivated this design in the first place?
So how about we begin with John, you teach an undergraduate course called Dare to Care; Compassionate Design that is very popular with students. What are some examples of inclusive design that have come out of your class, or the student projects. And can you tell us a little bit about how the students work with members from the disability community?
JOHN: I would love to. So, the main thrust of the class as was mentioned in the introduction is to teach students about the engineering design process by challenging them to solve problems confronted by people with disabilities. And we do that by bringing guests with disabilities into the classroom and having the students interact with them directly. Last fall, we had a young woman in her ’20s who is blind, and she told the class about a problem that she has, that in hindsight, is foreseeable, but really is not obvious to people that are sighted. And that problem is when you’re a blind woman, how do you tell when you’re menstruating? Especially if it’s in the beginning or the end of your cycle and you’re not regular, how do you do that?
Now there are apps out that blind people use, something an app for example, called Be My Eyes. And this app, if you’re a blind person, and you’re having trouble seeing something you can go onto the app. And a complete stranger will go in a video conference with you and help you determine what’s in front of you, or what you’re seeing. Well, obviously, simply from a privacy perspective, you couldn’t use an app like that. This young woman often relied on her mother or her partner, to help and assist, to determine if her cycle had started. This is a really challenging problem.
But the students really latched onto this, and came up with some very creative solutions, and I recall one specifically that was based on PH. They really made some interesting looks like and feels like prototypes. And they really, really did a wonderful job, and again this was a problem I think when they first heard it they just thought, wow, as a sighted person this is something I never even would have thought of. But they were able by interacting with this woman directly to experience some empathy, and understand that this was a problem that they would really like to tackle.
MODERATOR: Wonderful, thanks for sharing that story John. So how about we turn to Alison? So, examples of your work on inclusive design and the kinds of problems and situations that might have motivated this in the first place?
ALLISON: Yeah, I’ve gotten the privilege of being able to work on a lot of different projects specifically related to vision, and I think that’s been an exciting part of my educational career is being able to like learn about computer vision related tasks and apply that specifically to accessibility, and so one of the things I’ve been able to work on is in the iPhone there’s something called VoiceOver, and that is it’s a screen reader, and it can, you can navigate the different items, so it can read text or images and provide image descriptions.
I think going along with what John was saying, where there’s a lot of issues that you may not anticipate, but just how our world is structured as a very sighted place, if you have a receipt that someone sends you a picture of, to be have a reimbursement and maybe you have a Splitwise account, that immediately becomes an issue if you have a visual impairment. If you wanna understand what are the per line item parts of that. And so one of the projects that I was able to work on is exploring images with VoiceOver. And so let’s say you land on a photo of a receipt, and you can move through the different items like a table, so going row by column, the table headers, and being able to describe a person’s position within a photo. So like what we just did, where we provide a visual description, now an iPhone can do that for you, and say oh, there are three girls sitting on a log, or something like that. And so that was a really cool project to be able to work on and just adding an accessibility.
And I think throughout this acknowledging that, I have to work very closely with people who would need to use this feature, ’cause I do not share the same experience as them. And so I think that’s been a really important learning experience too, is how to make sure that everyone is included in the design process, and not just sighted people.
MODERATOR: Absolutely, all right, I’d like to give Adrian a chance to share his experiences as well.
ADRIAN: Totally so, my experience is primarily centered around enabling other people to create accessible digital experiences, and so I frame my story in terms of trying to access prints in front of me, and prints on a blackboard, where it’s happened that now most information lives in our pockets, and the care we’ve taken to create those experiences, have been really light and really nonexistent compared to the care we’ve taken in constructing our physical world. And, that’s led to a lot of strife, a lot of compatibility, which Lindsay just exemplified, and I think that what it’s gonna take to ultimately try and improve as many digital experiences as possible, is to involve disabled people in their creation.
Unfortunately right now, a lot of, it’s like how do you make something in 3D when you see in 2D, right? That’s sort of what the, I’ll even go farther to say that the proper analogy for a blind person, for example in trying to create a user interface is trying to get someone whose world is in one dimension trying to create something in two dimensions. Where the one dimension is hearing synthetic speech just basically tell you the equivalent of black text on a screen, and trying to take that paradigm and create a rich graphic interface.
It’s a hard problem, and I think that it’s gonna take new tooling, it’s gonna take manipulatives, and things that you can feel to bring, whether it’s responsive tactile screens, or something along those lines, and so I’ve been thinking a lot in that direction, and my work has thus far culminated in a course called tactile computation where we try and simultaneously build some elementary algorithmic skills, and some introductory web development skills using tactile aids, primarily. It’s like the course really, your success in the course depends really whether or not you can understand those manipulatives.
And our leading model for the class is a tactile Rubik’s cube, where we basically just teach the solution in terms of the basic controlled structures of computer science where one case presents itself as this thing, another case presents itself as, as a ‘while loop’, ‘for loop’, what have you.
And the other piece of the course is to try and conceptualize user interfaces through touch, you just there’s books available of tactile user interfaces. And then going backwards from there, we’ve been my colleagues and I’ve been working on creating basically some equivalent of like Legos to try and assemble user interfaces as an input mechanism to try and create user interfaces.
And so in my opinion, I agree that’s the key is trying to, 1) figure out a way to make two dimensional interfaces observable to someone who’s blind, and then in turn, make them constructible to someone who is blind.
MODERATOR: That’s fascinating. I think that sounds like a really out of the box way too, out of the box thinking approach to this and I think it so goes back to this idea and this question about when engineers are working on inclusive design or assistive technology, who are they really designing for and I think you’ve sort of flipped that on its head to think that it’s not so much about showing or fixing but really trying to create a better fit with environments, right and what we have. And you know, one example that kind of comes to mind is this stair climbing wheelchair, right. This is cited or touted as like this very hip, or high tech hack.
But disability advocates say that this is actually called a disability dongle, which is a well intended elegant, yet useless solution to a problem that disabled people never knew they had. So I’ve just been kind of thinking about this, because it’s been some attention drawn to this issue. But I wanna now move to another section of our discussion here. And get us to think a little bit together about if a designer wants to build products that are designed for inclusion, especially for the disability community. Where should they start? At what stage of the design process should we be thinking about access? So I’m open to whoever wants to take this question first.
JOHN: I’ll start it Lindsay. I think if there’s anything I’ve learned on my journey in terms of inclusive design, it’s that the designer needs to start this process at the outset, it needs to happen from the beginning.
Now, that’s not to say that we shouldn’t make an effort to go back and modify designs that weren’t initially accessible or inclusive. In fact, in the CS space they do it all the time, right. There are pages that were created long before this was a hot topic that that people go back to and edit. But in reality, it’s a hack, right? It’s a fix. So it’s very important that this is done from the outset. How do you do that? Well, I think it’s important to become familiar with the fundamental tenets of universal design in your space.
So if you’re doing mechanical design, or product design, there are some rules, some guidelines that were established a few decades ago. And you can search for universal design on the internet and you’ll find those pretty readily. In the coding space, there are groups that have outlined principles of what coding should look like. There are very specific guidelines on web content and accessibility.
But whatever your space is, become familiar with those basic ideas and then understand really that, that as a designer, we’re not trying to design a product that absolutely works for everybody, right. Because there’s no product that exists that works for every human without some sort of adaptation. Rather, what we’re trying to do as we go through this process, is have a goal where we extend the utility of what we’re designing so that it reaches as many users as possible and in a de minimis way, takes away from the richness of that experience. And again, we do that by following a process and also recognizing as you heard Adrian say earlier that design begins and ends with the user.
So we all know that we’re designing for the end user who uses our product, but it’s important in this process to have them involved in the beginning at the outset so they can help us define our objectives and constraints. And I think more and more people are beginning to realize that if you’re going to design a product for someone with a disability, then you need to have a person with a disability either on your team or you need to be seeking input directly from people with that disability.
I would like to point out from a design perspective, you heard Catherine say in the beginning that I’ve been teaching design at Stanford for more than 15 years, I haven’t altered the fundamental way that I teach design. It’s really what do we do as part of the initial process in terms of getting those appropriate inputs and designing with empathy?
MODERATOR: That’s a really powerful message and really useful advice. Thank you, John.
ADRIAN: I totally agree. Oh, sorry. Go ahead, Lindsay. I was just gonna jump in.
MODERATOR: Do it, please.
ADRIAN: Thank you. So I totally agree with what John is saying. And I think that to put it in a broad terms, in a broad term, it’s about not letting your hard skills outpace your soft skills by too much. Which is to say that a lot of these like underlying fundamentals to for instance interface design, are really grounded in at least, for creating graphical user interfaces They’re really geared at graphic design.
And yeah, that does mean that if you want to actually build an empathetic interface, that you need to understand human culture. You need to go down a few rabbit holes and maybe it means you need to spend a sabbatical learning about typography and spacing and color. But at the end of the day, all those things have affordances and people and I think that there’s a hierarchy of among technicians to minimize those things and to create a complex system sometimes just for the sake of complexity.
And a lot of times the interfaces are then built for the convenience of those systems as opposed to the people that use them. That’s overwhelmingly the case at least in enterprise software in my opinion, which is not as important as consumer software arguably, but still like represents a ceiling for users in those spaces. And so, like John mentioned right like in the mechanical engineering for instance might be you need to go check out some furniture.
I give an analogy for graphical interface and graph G wise, but I think that the principles are the same, right. That you still need to care on a cultural level as much as you do at a technical level. And the last, my last additional thought there is that disability is absolutely a condition of sorts, it is a, you can’t quite you can quantify it, you can measure it but it’s as much a condition as it is a culture.
And so how I describe the culture of typography, the culture of color, there is a culture of disability. And I think that’s something that is still being defined, just because the anthropology there isn’t as developed. But that is also something I would say to developers to consider that there might be maybe you’re working, I’ll give one concrete example, to close, which is Screen reader permutation. Oftentimes, whether or not you use one HTML tag with another determines how the screen reader actually reads the page as you’re traversing it.
Well, in one case, you might have the screener say you’re an element, one of N two of N. In other case, you might not get that of N reference. And I’ll tell you, that’s a cultural thing. Whether or not you enjoy it or don’t enjoy, have met security. In these are things you wouldn’t know unless you sort of, like, dipped your head into the culture and asked around. What do you guys like? And so that’s, that’s my thing.
ALLISON: Yeah, absolutely. I totally like, totally agree with all those points. I think building off what both you were saying where you have to start from the beginning, from a mechanical engineering perspective even, it is much harder to put a ramp on a building after you’ve built the building versus designing it to just have a ramp.
And I think that is very applicable in like every realm of engineering, especially from a computer science perspective, building something structurally to have accessibility built into it, like testing out your websites, or any of the apps you build to make sure that they are screen reader accessible is something that once you learn how to use voiceover, or any other screen reader, you can do on your own as an engineer. And that should just be a fundamental part of the development process. Because even if you don’t have a specific, explicit accessibility features, that’s a way you can make sure that your design is accessible.
And I think a really good example of a place that was built with the ideas of universal design where generally you can build something with the intention of having a place for people with disabilities, but it ultimately benefits everyone is the Magical Bridge playground in Palo Alto, if y’all want to look that up, it’s a beautiful playground and really looked at the problem of this playground that was available had A). Woodchips, so was even though it was actually like okay with the disabilities guidelines set by Palo Alto, you could not use a wheelchair through these wood chips and a mother of a child who lives in Palo Alto, said, I’m going to fix this and so she designed this playground, to have all different types of escapes if you have sensory overload issues or different ways of making sure that every surface, the slides have a place to slide your wheelchair down next to you. So you can go down the slide and your wheelchair would be there when you get to the bottom.
And so there are a lot of ways that these considerations are awesome too for all children. And so I think I just empower you to challenge engineers that might be on your team to to think like, oh, maybe they’re trying to solve the hardest problems and that is something that motivates them. But like, actually, these problems are interesting and like, challenging and exciting. And I think that viewing them as these exciting, innovative problems is also a really incredible way to get started on finding solutions.
MODERATOR: That’s fantastic. Yeah, I think this goes back again to ideas. When we design for disability we design for everybody by the, that’s the notion of the curb cut effect, by the curb cut effect was designed and implemented by disabled activists in Berkeley, so that they could get their wheelchairs from the street to the sidewalk, but we all benefit from them. Now, people who are pushing strollers, dollies, bike, so this is really an ideology that I think is, is really important for us to consider.
And I also appreciate all of you talking about and inviting us to think about access beyond just a checklist, or as compliance, right, especially something that comes after the product is designed. And that you’re encouraging us to move forward to think about it as actually a fundamental and actually a creative design principle that can inspire us to do something completely different. So thank you for these great examples.
So I’m going to move on now and ask us to think a little bit about the connection between accessible design here at Stanford. So I’m going to share some examples here, the Stanford’s department of neurosurgery and electrical engineering has successfully developed a brain computer interface for people with movement disorders and neurodegenerative conditions to communicate, Project Archimedes at the Center for the Study of Language and Information has worked on facilitating communication to and from computational devices and disabled users. They work to develop eye tracking technology and word prediction software. And then finally, this is not an exhaustive list but professor Emeritus of electrical engineering, John Linville pioneered the Optacon reading device for the blind. But these are all innovations that have come out of Stanford that have real resonance for the disabled community and beyond. And 20% of Stanford students from across all schools are registered with the Office of Accessible Education and 1/3 of these students have multiple disabilities.
So how do you, so clearly this is deeply meaningful work that resonates with the student community as well. So how do you think that we can incubate these kinds of ideas and approaches at Stanford in a meaningful and maybe even more importantly, a sustained way? Who would like to take on this question?
ALLISON: I can take on this one, yeah. So I think something really important is to understand that there’s so much exciting technology coming out of Stanford, and that really needs to transfer to the way that Stanford interacts with the student body. And so I think, knowing that, like, the Office of Accessible Education OAE, it is an office that needs a lot of resources to be able to actually provide maybe captioners every class, I think that’s something to acknowledges that bringing people into an engineering field, which is sometimes really daunting, especially at Stanford requires that the university is going to like financially support whatever needs are there. And so I think that is a really important start is thinking about, like, how do we make sure that funds are allocated properly, to be supporting marginalized communities in a lot of these different fields? And I think, in terms of maybe what needs to change is just acknowledging that sometimes Stanford can do better in terms of interacting with their students. And there’s room for growth in terms of supporting everyone. So yeah, start.
MODERATOR: Yes, absolutely. Adrian or John, do you want to jump in?
ADRIAN: Yeah, I’m happy to share. So I concentrated in human computer interaction. And I found that the curriculum was, you know, ultimately pretty thin on human computer interaction. You know, I learned a smattering about synthesizing graphics and, you know, creating the wearables but like, there was no thread between, between those courses or more broadly, my curriculum, to really like to give me what I felt was like a true basis in creating this livable technology. And I think that on some level, Stanford is limited by academia as a whole, which is obviously limited by pedagogy.
And so I think that, you know, really what’s missing, I think, from a curricular perspective is, is ultimate, I think, like, they’re trying to like to think about whether something is accessible. And I think that it will break down to basically just like, conceiving and developing instead of personas, you know, it’s like, does your design work for persona A or persona B. And I would hope that, you know, that that’s, that’s a theme that you would carry on, that would just like, you know, sort of, like, you know, for us as creators to be judged against, you know, that consistent standard, just like the style of our code is judged, as you know, in a somewhat consistent way, especially in the beginning, right, as opposed to being like kind of a, you know, a specialized, you know, track that you can take on it maybe at a high level as you get exposure to obviously bringing it upfront, I think would be a major benefit.
That being said, I think culturally within the university. You know, I think that making disability, something that is more constant and less ad hoc would be really beneficial. One way, I thought that this could potentially function as if there were a dedicated event at the beginning of each quarter where every disabled student and every professor, you know, they all meet, and it’s a recurring thing. So regardless of whether you have students who have a disability or not, you attend the event, and it just sort of keeps, keeps the presence of disability at the forefront. And it, you know, as opposed to it being now it’s like, okay, like professors in the beginning of each quarter will get a set of letters from accommodating students. And I think that that’s sort of, you know, again, keep a reality as present as it should be.
MODERATOR: Absolutely. Thank you, Adrian. Those are really important recommendations.
JOHN: I’d like to expand on that a little bit. Because what I heard Adrian saying is that there’s a need for the creation of a disability design community at Stanford, and I think part of that could be a space, a dedicated space where people that are interested in disability design could get together and share ideas. Lindsay, I think both you and I understand as we teach in this space, that the students are very, very interested, you know, classes are oversubscribed. And so I think there could, there’s opportunity there, there are some great classes in the CS [Computer Science] space, there, certainly classes in the PD [Product Design] space.
But I think there could be more in terms of maker oriented classes. But I also think that in order to, to just foster this, this energy, because it’s there, that we need to create a sense of community. And part of that is, you know, we all know, and love Stanford’s philosophy on diversity.
And disability, I think is, is an important part of diversity that’s often forgotten. And you, you heard Adrian talking about disability as culture or disability as ethnicity. And indeed, that’s true. And so we need to encourage more students that have disabilities to become designers, and to get into the design space, because ultimately, that’s what will really drive the creativity here. And I already talked about, you know, recognizing the need of having input of people with disabilities into our designs, but, let’s drive and encourage and excite people that have disabilities to become designers.
MODERATOR: That’s a really important sentiment. And I just wanted to add to this as well, I think, as a student going through higher education, but I also really appreciated it with having mentors, people to look to, and I think this is something too, to that we could encourage right, especially for prospective students coming into this space, having folks at the faculty level who can model that work too, who also share that same lived experiences. I think that’s really crucial, and something that we can continue to work on together in this community. So…
JOHN: That’s a great point, Lindsay, I think that’s a great point. I mean we want the faculty to mirror the student body from that perspective, right? I think that’s a wonderful point.
MODERATOR: Absolutely, thanks. Okay, so I think we have time for me to ask one question, and then we’re gonna turn to the Q&A, I believe. So, its been really heartening to see a real upswell of interest in the engineering and tech community around accessibility and inclusive design, but as we’re learning we have a long way to go. So, I think it would be a nice moment to reflect on what are some concrete steps, actions, or resources that you would recommend for folks in the audience to bring back to their own engineering, design, technology practices for domestic spaces, and make them more inclusive and accessible, but what can we do to help close the access gap? So, maybe Alison, yeah?
ALLISON: Sure. I think that there’s maybe a few different avenues here. One is from a teaching perspective, one thing that kind of builds on with what we were talking about in the last question is, if you’re a professor or a TA, acknowledging that someone’s accommodation is not just a bare minimum that you have to meet, it should actually be like how am I going to help this student succeed. Because that can be an avenue for them to actually enter this industry and I think that it confronts to this excuse of a pipeline problem that’s often used. It’s more so like actually how do we fix this and build a community where people are empowered to enter into a new field. And then, in terms of design practices, kind of harping back to the idea of like, try out your technology with a screen reader, like on the iPhone it’s a triple click on the side button. And you can open up a screen reader and see if like, your app works.
And I think too, trying to acknowledge that what you built might not be perfect, and not giving up on that. Because its like, oh my gosh this is not accessible at all, what’s the point of fixing it? Acknowledging that there’s like always someone who may be able to like, become a customer because you’ve made your design accessible. And I think having this type of conversation, that we’re having, with your employees is a really important start to getting people thinking. Because I think, oftentimes accessibility is not something that people are even thinking about, and that’s the problem. It’s like it’s not even on people’s minds to make their technology better. And so, I think that’s the first step, is having a conversation about, like, this might be a problem, confronting the problem, and then deciding, okay, we have the resources to fix this, let’s do that.
MODERATOR: Great. Yeah, that really deeply resonates, right? Think about, let’s even ask the question about how can we make this accessible? John? You want to take this one?
JOHN: Sure, absolutely. I think that oftentimes in terms of accessibility, companies, people, designers, they get caught in I think what Allison was talking about, in terms of a sort of checklist mode. And really what they’re focusing on is the regulatory perspective. But there’s so much beyond that.
I like to teach students that of these different reasons that we should have inclusive design, the regulatory aspect is certainly there, but it’s the empathy, it’s the right thing to do. It’s really designing for, again the largest audience that we can for our product. And you’ve all heard the numbers now, so you know that there’s actually a market there. That quite frankly is underserved.
So, I think if we get, can move away from the regulatory aspect, and just build this into as being a fundamental part of our design process, and consideration that’s part of our culture at our companies. That is an incredible step to take and by the way, there is absolutely no doubt in my mind, that students that you will be hiring from Stanford, now and in the very near future will be demanding that you do this. The same way that they’re demanding diversity across all other spectrums.
ALLISON: I think Adrian, before you hop in, I had one other point to build on to what John was just saying about regulation. I recently was attending a lecture where one of the guest speakers said, “Regulation is where fun goes to die.” And I thought that was a really cynical perspective on things that are actually quite important as like, our fundamental, like reviewing this as the baseline of accessibility. Why is that where fun goes to die, if that’s the bare minimum? I think, we need to move away from that mindset, that these are things that are making it harder to design. Acknowledge that a lot of these regulations are important for people to be able to access technologies. And so, having that mindset shift is like, fundamental to actually doing anything that will have a lasting impact.
MODERATOR: Absolutely. All right, Adrian.
ADRIAN: I know, I totally agree with those points. I think that, you know, we talk about closing this gap and I think that one obvious place where I see a closing of the gap is in bridging design with accessibility. I think that right now having a disability is this great thing that isn’t an extra thing that companies need to care about, it’s more, I mean it’s obviously a necessity but I think that it also causes some harm, right. Because I think that that separation lends itself to like a footballton ideology of a solution, so I think that instead of saying, oh there are these new standards that we now need to meet.
I think that if design and disability just become one and the same, everyone will win. And I do think that ultimately, good design is just about meeting constraints, constraints whether they’re manufacturing or whatever they are, values of the user. I think that we just need to shoehorn or we just need to kind of fit disability into that core design process. And I think that one way that companies can align around it, you know in the corporate world is to start to measure and consider how just good design period, which will hit a lot of cases for standards, right? A lot of the standards right now that exist for digital content is really visual design, it’s really contrast ratios and font legibility, things like that.
And also like paradigms of traversability, things like that. And if we start to see how open these paths through a product, can turn into basically just fewer support tickets, which is a huge load on companies, is support, right? Especially if you’re a growing company, deploying new products, you are gonna spend a significant amount of time just trying to push users through, responding to emails, so on and so forth. And I think that’s a very clear key result there, is to for investments in design to translate into less support time. And again so, I think that once we start to see design as a way to minimize the support load, then it becomes like a more core value, and also like the language around, the disability oriented language around it, starts to disappear which as much as I say we need to consider the culture of disability, I also think that we need to find a way to not see it as a separate thing, is what I was saying.
MODERATOR: Okay, great. So, I am now going to pose some questions from the Q&A, so thanks to all of you who have submitted some questions. So, one question that came up, and something that we haven’t really talked about much as of a panel at this point, is intellectual and developmental disabilities. So, one individual wanted to know—What is being done to allow people with moderate to severe intellectual disabilities to be included digitally?
ALLISON: So, I think a lot of it is just acknowledging that oftentimes, like Facebook or Instagram, or things that like everyone wants to use, or things that everyone’s going to want to be on. And so I think having sub communities oftentimes within these social media platforms is really important, I think too, acknowledging from a children perspective there’s features that you can use during education where you like lock an iPad into a certain mode to help focus. And so there are different features you can do, but I think one thing is acknowledging that people with intellectual developmental disabilities oftentimes want to use the same things, like why would they not want to use the same things that we all get to use? And so I think that’s important too, is to create spaces on like Facebook or on your Twitter feed for spreading like, positive information to support the community.
MODERATOR: Great. Okay, if anyone else wants to jump in on this, Adrian I think that you want to.
ADRIAN: Yeah I think one interesting idea is so by an analogy, a blind person is able to access content through a screen reader in many cases, and where the screen reader is basically acting like a filter between the visual contents and something they can understand. I think that if we, to begin, apply a similar approach to intellectual disabilities to try and think of what’s the right filter that we can design to make content, you know, accessible, to someone with intellectual disability. You know, I don’t know necessarily, it’s not my area of expertise, but there was one really interesting student project when I was an undergrad, where a classmate of mine used, I believe he name was Catalin Voss, hopefully I didn’t just make that up, but he used Google Glass, and it would basically just use facial recognition and it would just be explicit about emotions that it was seeing, right? So it would just, as opposed to leave it up to interpretation, it would say, this person is happy, sad, right? It was a simple filter that went a really long way. So I’m interested to see what sort of other filters we could use to onboard more people.
ALLISON: Yeah, another one beyond that is having some type of language device, so maybe your iPad has a like speech app on it, I think that’s an interesting accessibility question too, is oftentimes these are the most expensive apps in the app store, that your app that allow you to communicate instead of using your voice where you click on different icons, maybe one is for a verb or a noun, these apps cost maybe hundreds of dollars and so, that also begs the question of, should it cost hundreds of dollars to be able to communicate in a way that most people get to do for free. And so I think that’s a question too, is that I think a lot of times technology is for people with IDD are really expensive, and so that’s a bridge, like a barrier that we need to eliminate.
JOHN: I agree with that Alison, I do volunteer work with teenagers that have intellectual challenges and some of them are unable to speak. But it has been amazing to me how much an iPad and an app on an iPad with icons, for I’m happy, I’m sad, this is my pet, have empowered these children and it’s really fascinating.
And so where I see a tremendous opportunity here, actually is in collaboration, right? And so, the same way when Lindsay talked in the beginning about the mind writing, right? The collaboration between the neurologists and the electrical engineers, I think there’s a real opportunity in this space for collaboration between people of widely variant areas of expertise to create apps that can further empower people with developmental disabilities to enhance the way they interact with the built world.
MODERATOR: I think you’re touching on some really important points, about cost too, right? That in many ways these devices that are designed for the disabled community are even more prohibitive based on cost and the disabled community really struggles with employment and tend to struggle also with poverty. So, when we’re thinking about doubly marginalized communities, like this then it really begs the question, why is it that the technology that we’re designing for, why are they so expensive?
So that cost and negotiating cost seems to be a really important issue that designers should have at the forefront of their minds, and also the ability to disseminate these technologies, right? As well. So this is a really important conversation for us to continue to think about. So I’m gonna turn to our next question here. So, an individual in the audience wanted to ask what sources are available to learn more about specific issues faced by people with different types of disabilities? So for example, if you’re designing for touch screens, or phones, or doors or any other type of device, how can an engineer learn about accessibility issues with a given type of device.
ADRIAN: I would point them to the web content accessibility guidelines, there are a lot of really good resources that, I think they are a good distillation, you know obviously, it’s just a starting point, not a destination. Like we’ve mentioned, but I do think that they do break down and give realistic examples of like, the recommendations.
MODERATOR: Yeah, the one thing that also we need to think about and something that you mentioned early on in our panel, Adrian, is that, again going back to the culture of disability, right? So when we invite disabled folks into the design practice and development phase, we need to also think about ways to invite folks from different sub-communities right? So, it’s not just enough to have one representative from that community, right? You want to consult with, like your preferences, like my preferences as a deaf person might vary to another person, right? And so, it’s really important to gather a lot of information about those preferences, right?
ADRIAN: Totally, you know I’ll admit, pointing to the standards is probably the worst answer I could have given. One thing that’s funny, and I really appreciate you returning to that point of culture, I’ve noticed on TikTok, just an enormous number of disabled creators, shocking. Especially blind creators, and so on some level like, you know unless you’re consuming content or unless your brother is blind or your aunt is deaf, you know it’s hard to really I think like be on the pulse of like that culture.
And so I think that maybe that’s the recommendation, is to you know, the lightest introduction and maybe most meaningful instruction is to try and seek creators, or try and seek entertainment or content that is just produced by people who happen to have these conditions that you want exposure to.
ALLISON: Yeah I totally agree that social media is a really great way, I think Twitter is like an awesome way to get into like communities and thinking what they need and I whenever I release a new feature there are a ton of people on Twitter reacting to what’s working and what’s not working or putting a blog up online, and I think just finding a community related to whatever you’re working on on Twitter, is a really great way to get into people’s perspectives, they’ll share articles, or share their personal experiences, maybe it’s like a 20 minute video of how they use some device with a touchscreen and that’s like a really great way to understand before you get started on the design process.
JOHN: Yeah, I agree with that Allison, and I think it’s especially important because you can end up, it’s interesting, right? I remember an early discussion I had with Adrian, and he told me how when face ID first came out, it was disabling for him, right? Because how does he know, he’s blind, he can’t tell if he’s looking at the screen in the right way, right? Whereas other things like Uber, were hugely empowering to him, right? And so, I think it’s important to get that information, you know, at the outset and going through these groups on social media is a great way to get some of that input. And there’s also, you know you can identify all sorts of needs that way and in the same way I gave the example about the young woman who was blind and the menstruation challenge I mean there are so many challenges that the abled community doesn’t often think about that we can collaborate and solve, and again it’s almost always the case that when we solve problems like that, we benefit everybody.
MODERATOR: Just on that note there, there was actually more of a comment here that I think echoed this idea of collaboration. So someone noted, would it be possible to make Stanford a showcase for disability access? For example, get the Cantor and Anderson museum, to embrace accessibility for disabled individuals such as audio descriptions for the blind, perhaps the schools of engineering could spearhead that and there was a nod to you, John as maybe someone who could help do that work.
JOHN: If there’s one thing I’ve learned by teaching in this space and having students with disabilities coming into the class, clearly Stanford has done a wonderful job with accessibility, but as Allison said earlier there’s still, and these examples point out, there’s still much work to be done, much much work to be done.
MODERATOR: Yes, absolutely. Okay so, we have time for a few more questions. So this is a question about acquired disabilities in aging, and temporary disabilities, so in other words, people who are disabled for a shorter period of time either due to injury or illness or aging. Are there any specific design considerations that come to mind for these groups?
JOHN: I think it’s really interesting to note that, as you were suggesting, Lindsay is that by virtue of aging, all of us at some point are gonna be part of this community, and so certainly that’s a motivator to encourage design in this space and the temporary disabilities, you know, I certainly learned by interactions with students, that students that were injured, either in sports or some other way at Stanford and all of a sudden had a mobility challenge that they learned that there are elements of the campus that weren’t as accessible as they could be. But I think the aging phenomenon, there was an interesting study put out by the National Academy, you know 12 years ago that said the United States is woefully unprepared for the challenges that are gonna be faced by the aging Boomers as they lose their vision, as they lose their hearing, as they face mobility issues, and again you know, when we think about designing for people with disabilities, we’re actually gonna be designing for our aging population as well. So they’re also going to benefit.
MODERATOR: Great, so another question that aligns in some ways with this conversation, so oftentimes there are many family members and caregivers that are working with and living with disabled folks, so this individual wanted to know, how can we involve or design for caregivers and their needs, caregivers of folks or children with disabilities.
ALLISON: That’s a super good question, I think it’s really important just to acknowledge from the get go, that there are so many other components to an individual’s life. And so, I guess that begs the question of like, do the technologies that exist right now, in serving people with disabilities, also serve their caregivers, and I guess also a broader issue right now is how do we compensate caregivers for people who live at home, and I think that’s been something that’s been interesting to witness, through Kids with Dreams this past year, there’s a lot of parents in Silicon Valley and the Bay area, parents of kids who now have transitioned to Zoom learning, away from their Special ED classroom, that responsibility has fallen a lot on their parents, and so I think from a school system, that the support has to come from there, acknowledging, oh how do we help these parents?
And it’s oftentimes not I think the Special ED department who needs to provide that actual support, it’s whoever’s the supervisors of the department, the school board, but I think acknowledging that there’s a lot of resources that are needed at a school level to help parents just make sure that especially right now, that their students are able to keep up with their other classmates.
JOHN: I think Lindsay from, again from the collaboration perspective, if so let’s say I’m a designer and I’m gonna start looking at that space, right?
So there’s a mobility or an intellectual or a challenge that a child is facing, and I want to design a product for that. Well clearly the caregiver, the parent, is someone who needs to be part of the input on that design team, right? And that’s, again it’s something that we may not think about initially but if you think about that whole process, and you know, the parent might tell you, well gosh I could never do that and you know, this is an issue that I would face if you designed the product in that particular way. You know, there’s a very interesting book written by Sara Hendren called What Can A Body Do? And she actually talks about that as being a parent of a child with a disability, and a designer herself, and I won’t be a spoiler but if you read that book, I think you’ll find it to be very fascinating.
ADRIAN: Yeah, if I were to add anything there is that, every disability obviously has a lot of moving parts around it and so for example, one thing that comes up a lot when I help with daily care, is guide dogs, and in the context of blindness is okay, a lot of students are inclined to create technology, in attempts to replace the dog, in the same way that there might be some tension between people creating apps for maybe a caretaker of someone with advanced diabetes or some other condition where the inclination might be, okay how do we replace the caretaker? When in fact the more important question is how do we further enable the caretaker or the service animal? And so I think that’s a worthwhile wrinkle in the conversation of designing for caretakers.
JOHN: And because of Adrian’s input, Lindsay, we actually had that as a challenge in the class, which is what can you do to further enable the guide dog, you know? And we learned that the dogs can’t necessarily see colors, right? So if you’re talking about traffic lights and if it’s red or it’s green, you know what could you design to further enable the dog in the situation like that?
MODERATOR: I love that, so what did you guys end up coming up with?
JOHN: Oh, the students did some really amazing things in terms of sensors that the dogs could wear, students actually designed sensors that were designed to monitor the dogs health, you know if the dog was stressed. Yeah, really really fascinating.
MODERATOR: Yeah I think this really goes to this idea of interdependence and collective care that the disabled community really relies on, right? Not being in isolation and working in tandem with, whether its nonhuman entities like a dog or prosthetic tools, or canes or these devices, they’re extensions of ourselves in many ways. And so, sometimes we don’t necessarily want to improve those extensions, we learn to adapt and live with those extensions. Okay, so I think there’s time for one last question and then we are going to wrap up. So a popular question that people seem to want to know more about. Are there metrics or any tools that you would recommend tracking to demonstrate or measure the impact of accessibility practices. So in other words, I think what this question is asking is how do you know that the accessibility design is succeeding or working? How does one measure that?
ADRIAN: Like I mentioned before, I think the key is actually support tickets, so if you’re a software company, you know, you have an inbox that gets bombarded with emails, and I think that if you want to be rigorous about it you would see like how does, lets say we implement, we redesign a page from first principles to meet as many standards as we can, which likely will replicate the regular user experience, you know I would wager that in every case that you’ll see fewer support tickets.
ALLISON: I think too, having people on your team that use that technology is like kind of a weird way to frame it, as in like they need to use it to do specific tasks, but then you’ll know if something’s not working, it’s because you want to support your team members and make sure that everyone is contributing equally to your product. Especially if someone is using that product in their day to day, like using their phone to do every personal task if you’re building a new accessibility feature into their phone, it better work. And so I think that’s a good way too, is making sure your team is diverse and that’s a really good way to make sure that you actually are fitting needs immediately before even deploying a new product.
JOHN: Right and, another aspect of that, Lindsay is what I referred to earlier, so if you’re looking for metrics lets not forget to look at the hiring metrics, right? Because you’re not gonna get an awesome student like Allison or Adrian coming to your company if they feel like that your design for accessibility program or design for inclusion is lacking or nonexistent or, that’s something that they’re focusing on. So, disability as an element of diversity, I think is really really important. And you can also look at in the last 14 months what companies have been spending as they adopt their own internal DEI programs and certainly ability should be a metric that’s actually included in those programs, as well.
MODERATOR: Okay, so sadly it looks like we have come to the end of our time together. There were some really fantastic questions that we didn’t get to unfortunately, but I would like to thank our panelists, John, Adrian, and Allison and you, our audience for taking the time to join us to learn about the role technology can play in making our built environments more accessible. You’ll receive a survey within a few minutes, and we would love to get your feedback. Thank you again to all of you and have a good evening.