When Accessibility Is Personal: A Q&A With AudioEye’s Sarah Kinneer
Sarah Kinneer, a Solutions Engineer at AudioEye, believes that accessibility is the right thing to do. Striving for accessibility is significant to her. She has faced these barriers herself as someone who is neurodiverse. This article shares her point of view on the accessibility.
What was the accessibility magnet in your life?
As a disabled person, advocate, friend and veteran educator of children with disabilities, I have experienced firsthand both the challenges and indignities of inaccessible experiences and the joy that an excellent inclusive and accessible experience can evoke. Participation is critical for all people. I vividly recall the absolute heartbreak I experienced in my early teens when told I couldn’t go on a youth group outing that I was excited about because the leaders of the youth group were not willing to make the effort involved in creating an accessible experience.
The takeaway for me at the time was that I was something other people had to “deal with” — that I was a problem and not worth the time and energy it took to enable me to participate successfully. This is exactly what we are telling disabled people — maybe not with words but certainly with actions — when we aren’t willing to put a little extra effort into accessibility. It is a clear statement: “You aren’t worth it.” For me, accessibility means just plain being fair to everyone, and a really tough fact of life is that humans just aren’t always attuned to other people’s needs. Fair is that we all get what we need.
With Covid, why do you think accessibility is not only important but now urgent?
As a Certified Professional in Web Accessibility, a certification conferred by the International Association of Accessibility Professionals (IAAP), my mind jumps straight to digital accessibility and the fact that the Covid pandemic forced many people who otherwise might not rely solely on technology to require digital access — for school, for work, for socializing, for entertainment, for everyday living needs — to require that digital access. The thing is, though, accessibility was just as urgent and important before Covid as during it — only a whole lot fewer people realized it was! Before Covid, plenty of people experienced the same lack of digital access as during the pandemic. Working from home was not suddenly “invented” because of Covid — it’s been around a long time, although not necessarily properly utilized as an alternative for those who needed it. The fact of the matter is that our lives have been transitioning into the digital universe for a long time now, and it’s tragic that it took a pandemic for many people to notice that the digital universe is not nearly as accessible as it should be.
Over the past two years, what innovation has impacted your life?
A grocery delivery app has been my saving grace throughout the Covid pandemic! As someone who falls into a high-risk category, being able to stay home and stay safe has been priority No. 1 for me for over a year now. My apartment’s property management company gifted each resident with a subscription to a popular grocery delivery app when the pandemic began — that service has kept me fed without requiring that I take risks I should not be taking and without the anxiety that doing so would have produced. While it isn’t a brand-new innovation, it was my first experience with it, and I’m pretty sure that even once I get the vaccine and can venture to the store safely, I might just keep using this app for the convenience factor!
There is so much that technological innovation can do in the accessibility world, and I firmly believe that to make a meaningful impact, we must embrace and encourage innovation — we really can’t afford not to. Take, for example, the fact that over 500,000 new websites are published every day. Depending upon which statistics you’re using, somewhere between 350,000 and 495,000 of those sites are inaccessible. How can the relatively small community of accessibility professionals possibly keep up with that kind of demand? Traditional methods have clearly not solved the problem, so what will?
There is no argument that accessibility needs to be planned for at all stages of the development process, but what happens when it isn’t? What happens when well-meaning developers were never taught that web accessibility exists, let alone how to effectively implement it? In these cases, businesses may need to either redesign their sites entirely or fix the existing ones. Both are time-consuming. Both carry a financial burden. Both often require expert guidance and additional training. All too often, busy web developers intend to update the site and make needed changes, but then are pulled in every other direction only to realize that accessibility was pushed to the back burner. Even more often, web developers have no idea where to start.
Maybe because I grew up in the Detroit metro area, the word “innovation” seems indelibly tied to the automotive industry in my mind. Way back in 1913, Henry Ford faced a problem. Clearly, people were interested in and saw the benefits of automobiles, but they were costly and time-consuming to build (very much like traditional accessibility solutions). To solve this problem, Ford rolled out the assembly line. Almost magically, the 12-hour fabrication of the Model T plummeted to one hour and 33 minutes. The result: Millions of people who could never have dreamed of owning a “horseless carriage” could suddenly afford a Model T, and Ford was able to meet that demand. Over time, systems were refined, and the process became better and better. Look up some recent resources on automation in the automotive industry — it’s fascinating to see how far we have come from Ford’s first assembly line — innovation in automation is now actually leading us into newer territory with custom builds and away from the classic assembly line model!
I believe that what we need most in the digital accessibility world is an understanding that we must be able to scale up to meet the ever-increasing demand for accessible digital experiences. We must embrace technologies, including automation, that will allow us to quickly remove access barriers and get digital content to a minimally accessible condition right away across hundreds, thousands, even millions of sites and apps — and then continue to make progress from that point. As with any technology, this needs to be done thoughtfully. It needs to be done with the input of people with disabilities. It needs to be done in ways that truly enhance the usability of the site and do not add additional barriers. It needs to be done with care, and the results need to be tested and validated. We would never design a car without first determining what car buyers are looking for, then press a button at an automotive plant, walk away, and never test the results — the same goes for web accessibility. I am proud to work at a company that embraces innovation while remaining dedicated to ensuring quality results, and the best part of my day is always when I get to meet with end users to discuss what they need, or test out a feature that we’ve worked together to improve. We can, as a community of accessibility professionals — through our collective efforts, creative genius, and fantastic innovation — create an accessible digital world, and I can’t wait to see what’s coming next!