In the ever-expanding arenas of home computing, business technology and Internet navigation, access to information is today more critical than ever.
ABILITY’s Chet Cooper and Liz Angeles sat down with Yahoo’s accessibility experts Alan Brightman and Victor Tsaran to discuss how the technology pioneer is changing the way people with disabilities connect with the world.
Liz Angeles: What does accessibility mean, in respect to the work you do at Yahoo?
Victor Tsaran: In a general sense, accessibility refers to the ability of people to access things. In the context of disabilities, however, accessibility means people with disabilities should be able to effectively accomplish whatever they need in their daily lives, whether that entails turning on a light or going on the Internet or dialing a phone number. At Yahoo, our primary focus is to make the Internet a better place, particularly in respect to the Yahoo! Network. We want our network to be accessible, usable and friendly for people who use assistive technologies.
Alan Brightman: Roughly half a billion people come to the Yahoo! Network every month, and many of those people live with disabilities. We don’t know exactly whom, because we don’t need to ask, and those labels don’t make any difference anyway. All we care about are those users who have particular needs—maybe they want information on this or that, but they don’t use a computer or see the screen the same way most people do. We don’t believe any of that should make any difference to productivity. Yahoo wants you to be able to come and use the same mainstream product everyone else does, so it’s up to us to design a mainstream product that’s as usable by everyone as possible. Once we’ve done that, we’ve created a better-designed system. If there are curb cuts on the sidewalk, that’s a better-designed sidewalk for lots of people, not just for people in wheelchairs. We’re essentially trying to build better sidewalks across the Internet.
Angeles: I know someone who has macular degeneration, and uses a computer screen with big letters on its display. How is Yahoo helping someone like her?
Tsaran: Our task as a web company is to make sure that our websites will adapt to whatever it is that your friend needs to accomplish and be adjustable towards her technology. We make sure our websites will listen to her adaptive technology and work with it efficiently. That’s the way accessibility should work. The site should be interactive, obviously, but should also allow users to adjust content in order to be able to interact with that content.
Brightman: The other thing we try to do is grab the lapels of people with macular degeneration who assume they can’t use a computer and let them know that they can. There are all kinds of ways to get online, to use a computer, to change your life in huge ways. But unfortunately too many rehabilitation professionals or medical doctors are unaware of that fact. A big part of what we try to do at Yahoo is evangelize for Internet access. Most people gain disabilities later in life. When that happens, some of the independence they used to have feels like it’s slipping away. We want to enable people to say, “I can do it myself again,” whatever that skill happens to be. It might be shopping, banking, socializing. You used to do it fine by yourself, and now you still can. You might just have to do it in a different way than before.
Angeles: How does the work you do at Yahoo differ from what’s being done at other online networks?
Brightman: Well, accessibility on the Internet is not really something about which to be competitive, because everyone should want to make their platforms accessible in different ways. But at Yahoo, we try to differentiate ourselves by virtue of our content—whether that be social content, or finding out how to buy a car, or finding out how your sports team performed last night.
Tsaran: There’s a big networking component at Yahoo. Online searching is just one part of what people do on an everyday basis, but Yahoo provides a way for people to share information: we give them a piece of content and then they can share that content with other people. Disability plays into this schema really well, because we want to make sure people of all abilities can access any content that interests them. If you can’t access the content, then you can’t do anything with it, right? But if the content is accessible in a way in which people can get to it with their assistive technology, they can take advantage of that content in the same way as people might who don’t use assistive technology.
Brightman: There’s a fair amount of “e-commerce” that goes on across the network. If I decide to open my own store and I make the doorways too narrow for wheelchairs to get into, or if I put stuff too high up on the shelves, suddenly I’ve put myself in the sales prevention business. So in respect to Yahoo, I’m not doing all of this accessibility stuff just because I’m a nice guy. I’m doing it because we want everyone to make maximum use of the products we offer. If I’m building a store for e-commerce, I want as many people to be able to get in that store as possible. If I don’t have what my customers might need once they’re in my store, fine. But at least they have the opportunity, like everyone else, to do the shopping.
Angeles: So if someone is, say, using the Yahoo! Personals or Instant Messenger, or is building an e-commerce site, in what ways is Yahoo making that easier for them?
Tsaran: We make sure all modes of interaction, whether through keyboard or a mouse point-and-click input, will work fluidly with all of our websites. So, specifically, let’s say you use Yahoo! Messenger because you want to chat with someone. You should be able to type a message and read a message even if you don’t or can’t use a mouse. If you’re using Yahoo! Search and you don’t use a mouse, you should be able to find the edit field through keyboard use alone. And then, when search suggestions come up by way of our search engine, you should be able to read those search suggestions without having to click the mouse.
Brightman: And we make sure all Yahoo tools for site construction have accessibility built right into them, so that every site can adopt that accessibility. We don’t want accessibility just to be a special thing at Yahoo alone, we want it to be another performance criteria by which the quality of a site can be measured. And as we continue to create tools that are accessible, we make sure our engineers know about various kinds of disabilities, so our engineers can then test against those yardsticks for accessibility. That way we’ll always know we’ve built the best website possible—a website more people can use.
Angeles: You’re suggesting Yahoo is essentially trying to build a model for other companies to follow?
Brightman: In some sense, yes. I think anyone who’s been in a leadership position in terms of accessibility wants to share that knowledge, because if the tide rises, all ships rise. We’ve done some pretty tremendous things, difficult things, in the field of accessibility, and the last thing we’d want to do is keep our knowledge some kind of a secret. It’s online. It’s available to everybody. We can’t make sure you don’t see it. So everything we do, in some sense, has to be a model by definition, because it’s already out there as soon as it’s developed.
Angeles: What’s your opinion about user-friendly technologies like the iPad or iPhone?
Tsaran: When the iPhone 3GS came out, it came with built-in accessibility. It has a built-in screen radar for blind people. It has a built-in screen magnifier for people with limited vision. It has closed-caption support for people with hearing impairment. So it’s a device that comes with accessibility support tools built in. At Yahoo, we don’t create any hardware. Our job is to put Yahoo applications on the iPhone or, if people are viewing our websites on their iPhones, to ensure our websites work with any assistive technology built into the iPhone. And from what I understand, the same assistive technology on the iPhone is going to be available on the iPad, so that means the Yahoo websites will work with those tools as well.
Brightman: The iPad is basically like a Macintosh computer, but it’s a new platform. Around the world—and Yahoo is an incredibly international company, so we’re very aware of this—most people’s first experience with the Internet is by way of a cell phone, not by way of a personal computer. With this in mind, we have to make sure that, no matter what your model of cell phone, no matter what provider, everything we offer is accessible to everyone. We are working to cross-platform the world, essentially.
Angeles: But with all this cross-platforming and website linking, do you also track your users and what they’re doing? Are you tracking the kinds of things they like?
Brightman: There is no website of this magnitude that wouldn’t do that. What Yahoo wants to do, since we’re going to keep everything free to you by running advertisements, anyway, is provide you with the advertisements that are appropriate for you, that are actually useful to you. The only way we can know what might be pertinent to you is to ask the questions, “Where have you been before? What kind of places have you visited? What do you like?” Recently, since people are so worried about the kinds of information a company like Yahoo might collect, we’ve begun to say something along the lines of, “Here is our guess at the advertising categories that might interest you. Take a look at our suggestions, and if you don’t like them, you can change them.” So we’re essentially getting our advertisers to start targeting a profile instead of a person.
No one loves advertising, but if you’re going to get it, anyway, you might as well get ads that could potentially be useful to you. Every website collects information. The real issue is how to respect a person’s privacy when that’s being done.
Angeles: For people who are blind or who have low-vision, how do pop-up ads translate to reach them?
Tsaran: One way is through the use of text ads, because text ads can be read just like any other ads. Or advertisements can be spoken to you audibly.
Angeles: Can you then communicate verbally and say, “Skip ad”?
Tsaran: We use an assistive technology shortcut key to skip over the ad block. We make sure that that block is skippable.
The reason people don’t like ads is because, for the most part, ads are graphical. Text ads are easier to avoid and graphical ads aren’t accessible for people with vision impairment. But I think if we made graphical ads more accessible, perhaps people would say, “You know what? Ads are okay. As long as I know what’s in the ad, I can decide what to do with it. I can read it or skip it.”
Angeles: What are some goals for Yahoo that haven’t yet been accomplished?
Tsaran: A big dream of ours is to ensure that when people use mobile phones, they go to Yahoo and find that we’re the friendliest network out there. This is the big dream. There is a lot of innovation that goes into the field of disability accessibility itself, and we’re always working to make the most of that. How do you make dynamic content accessible? How do you develop interactive websites that expand things on the page or that enhance parts of the page and are continually updating? We’re now in a new era of dynamic interaction that has never before existed, so we need to be able to guide our users effectively and explain to them how best to interact with this new interface. It’s a whole new world.
Brightman: My goal would be that whenever there are conversations happening at high levels anywhere about web accessibility or about users with disabilities, someone in that conversation is saying, “Where is Yahoo? What is Yahoo’s view on that?”
Yahoo has so many users that if we just impact a small percentage of those users, that’s still a very formidable number of people. In light of this, we are playing an ever-increasing role in things like the Federal Communications Commission’s recent broadband plan for accessibility and the United Nations human rights convention on the rights of people with disabilities. Let’s make Yahoo more and more a part of these conversations so that, to the best of everyone’s abilities, these issues are handled well.
Chet Cooper: What is Yahoo doing with the convention for human rights?
Brightman: Well, we’re evangelizing like crazy the importance of full accessibility and rights for people with disabilities. It was really important, even symbolically, for the United States to become a signatory to that treaty, but where I’d love for us to play more of a role is in underdeveloped countries, where the rights of people with disabilities are consistently trampled.
One of our biggest stories has been the success of the Yahoo Accessibility Lab. We opened it a little over two years ago, and just about every executive has been through it, not to mention all sorts of product teams and developers. They wonder about our work with disability accessibility, you know? In a sense, it’s like, “Well, who are these folks with disabilities, anyway? Why does Yahoo care? Is this a philanthropic thing?” And of course it isn’t. So we kind of give our visitors a little context.
For example, we put our engineers through some disability-based simulations at which they will inevitably fail. We have people attempt to write their names on-screen after being “paralyzed” from the neck down. Half of them will try to do it with their noses. They’ll go through this wonderfully frustrating, really enlightening experience. Then they’ll work alongside Victor on some accessible devices by which a person with a disability can better access the Internet. So these people walk out of the lab after about an hour and tell us they’ll never see the world, particularly their own workstation, the same way again.
The beauty of the lab is that it has become a very dynamic, popular place to invite other companies and thinkers. Google has been in our lab, Netflix has been in our lab, Mozilla has been in our lab and, most recently, a group of about a dozen nine-year-old Girl Scouts was in our lab. Sons and daughters of Yahoo employees will often ask if they and some of their classmates can come check it out. We love that. Most kids haven’t yet learned what things are taboo. They notice disabilities and are curious, and we want our engineers to notice.
A year ago we opened our second lab, this time in India, because so much development is going on now in that part of the world. It’s interesting to see how these kinds of efforts have really gotten into the DNA of the company. Disability accessibility is no longer a special thing that Victor and Alan do. It’s what we all do. And that’s really where we wanted to be.
Cooper: I’ve talked to Adobe many times and have asked them, “Why don’t you default everything as accessible in your products? Why does a user have to go through a certain menu item and then go down and select something to make the program more accessible?” I’ve never quite gotten a good answer.
Brightman: Oh, it’s getting better, believe me. I was having dinner with some Adobe people last night, and they’re well aware of all the criticisms that are leveled against Adobe’s products in that arena.
Tsaran: To their credit, Adobe has done some pretty innovative things. It made PDF documents accessible and really advanced the accessibility of Flash media, which is big on the Internet. When it comes to technology, it’s not so easy to just flip a switch and make something accessible. I can only say that Adobe is trying hard given the resources it has. The best we can do is appreciate the positive stuff Adobe does and be less concerned with the negative things.
Brightman: If you can maximize accessibility in your site, that site rises in the search lists. If I have a video with closed captioning in it, that captioning doesn’t just have to be for people who are deaf. It is also there as metadata, so I can use it to search video. If all of my images have text, it’s beneficial for everyone, and suddenly people are saying, “Hey, this accessibility stuff has got a nice advantage for search engines.”
Tsaran: Increased accessibility benefits everyone. If you want to make your website run faster, you can use cleaner coding standards, and that will make the site more accessible. You want your site to be more searchable? Make your code closer to accessibility standards. So accessibility is pretty much in everything we do, and it makes sense from many angles—performance, usability, access, and so forth.
Brightman: One of the big misconceptions about website design is the idea that, if we have to add in accessibility functions, the website itself will be more expensive to produce and maintain. That’s just not true at all, particularly if you’re building a product from scratch. If you start out with accessibility as part of the design, that accessibility is just another part of what you would normally do to build any website. The misconception is that the implementation of those functions is going to be more expensive, but the only case in which that would be true is if we’re dealing with some really advanced, hard-core site that pre-exists, and somehow we have to add accessibility onto the site after the fact. That’s a lousy way to design stuff, but sometimes it’s inevitable.
Another common misconception among web designers is that if they have to make a website accessible, those alterations will ruin the aesthetic of the site. But that’s ridiculous. A lot of tools already exist in your computer that you might never use. They’re actually built into your computer, whether you’re a Mac or a PC user, and if you need them, you’ll invoke them. If not, you’ll never notice them. None of them ruins the aesthetic.
Tsaran: The important thing here is the element of choice. There’s never going to be one design that’s going to make everyone happy. So what we aim to do is offer people more choices. If you go to the Yahoo home page, a link on the right side reads, “Page Options.” If you pull that menu down, it’ll give you the opportunity to change the colors of your page. That’s just a little thing, but it’s one more way to say to the user, “If you don’t like our colors, you can change them to the ones you do like, and we’ll give you a couple of choices that our designers have put together.”
Brightman: I would say that in the last two to three years, there hasn’t been a new “How to Build a Website” book that hasn’t included accessibility. So the topic is definitely out there. If you’re taking web curriculum courses and they don’t have accessibility as part of the course, it’s a bad course. If I went to architecture school and tried to graduate today without knowing about accessible architecture, I’d flunk. You cannot imagine somebody submitting an architectural plan that wasn’t accessible, and that’s the place we want to get to in computer usage as well. We want to get to the point where it’s inconceivable that you would build a website that doesn’t have accessibility, not only as a part of it, but also as not a big deal. It’s just there. It’s not the “special” class anymore. It’s a good mainstream product.
Cooper: What kinds of advancements are being made in online video content and accessibility?
Brightman: That’s a huge issue, actually. Roughly two-thirds of the video content online is user-generated videos. Unlike the one-third that was previously broadcast and had to have captions by law, this user-generated stuff goes online and doesn’t have to have captions.
In a nutshell, I worry about the deaf teenager who shows up at school one morning and finds all of his friends are talking about a YouTube video they watched the night before—a video he couldn’t hear and that wasn’t captioned. So immediately this kid is feeling further and further behind his peer group. There have been different efforts underway to try to make machines figure out what it is that people in these videos are saying.
We’re still so far away from doing transcribing in a reliable way and, to me, that’s one of the last huge accessibility problems online. As the Internet expands, there’s only going to be more and more multimedia, more and more video, and I think deaf folks are going to have a harder and harder time of it if we don’t make some advancements soon.
Angeles: Captioning is pretty tricky. I used to be a court reporter, and it took me a long time to train to do real-time transcriptions. We have so many homonyms and different word usages in the English language.
Brightman: Exactly. Internationalization is another form of accessibility, in a way. If I make something that’s really terrific, but only people in the United States can take advantage of it, then it’s not accessible to the rest of the world. Internationalization in many ways has become increasingly more automatic—programs and innovations are “rolled out” to everyone, across the world, on day one. And accessibility for people with disabilities is getting there.
Brightman: I like that! We can use that. Give me an audio file of that! [laughter]... continued in ABILITY Magazine
Excerpts from the Kathy Ireland Issue Feb/Mar 2011:
Kathy Ireland — Interview
Blind Fishing Boat — New Fishermen Take the Bait
Yahoo — Expanding the Digital Highway
Heart Transplant — An Uncommon Cardiac Connection
Sean Forbes — Not Hard To Hear
ABILITY Best Practices Award — Sprint
Gunshot Wounds — Bullet Points
Articles in the Kathy Ireland Issue; Humor — Love Hurts; Ashley’s Column — Back in the Saddle; Sean Forbes— Not Hard To Hear; Gunshot Wounds — Bullet Points; ABILITY Best Practices Award — Sprint; Blind Fishing Boat — New Fishermen Take the Bait; Yahoo — Expanding the Digital Highway; Rehabilitation — Hitting New Strides; Terri Cheney — A Plea for Innocence, growing up Bi-Polar; Kathy Ireland — A Model Businesswoman; Heart Transplant — An Uncommon Cardiac Connection; Leigh Brill — Excerpt From A Dog Named Slugger; ABILITY's Crossword Puzzle; Events and Conferences... subscribe