Teach Access: Teaching accessibility to tomorrow's builders
DESCRIPTIONTeach Access, a national coalition of institutions of higher ed, corporations (mostly tech-centered) and advocates with disabilities, will be conducting a roundtable with recent college students to discuss how the teaching of accessible design and development at the university level can help close the accessibility skills gap for the emerging generation of participants in the new digital economy.
- Ossama Ali, Teach Access Study Away 2019 Alum
- Zach Bohenick, Product Designer, Ford X, and Study Away Alum
- Kate Sonka, Executive Director, Teach Access; Assistant Director of Academic Technology, Michigan State University
- Larry Goldberg, Co-founder, Teach Access; Head of Accessibility, Verizon Media
ROBERT FRAWLEY: Hi, and welcome to Teaching Accessibility to Tomorrow’s Builders. My name is Robert Frawley, and on behalf of Sight Tech Global, I am so excited to have you join us. In today’s 30-minute session hosted by Teach Access, you’ll hear from Ossama Ali, Teach Access Study Away 2019 alum; Zach Bohenick, Product Designer at Ford X and also a Study Away Alum, 2019; Kate Sonka, Executive Director at Teach Access and Assistant Director of Academic Technology at Michigan State; and Larry Goldberg, Co-Founder of Teach Access and Head of Accessibility at Verizon Media.
Before we begin today’s session, just a couple housekeeping items. The session is being recorded and will be available post-event. If we have time at the end, we will use the Raise Your Hand feature and call upon attendees to ask their questions. For screen reader users, the keyboard shortcuts to raise your hand and lower your hand are Option-Y on Mac and Alt-Y on PC.
Throughout today’s breakout session, you can use the Q&A box to put in your questions. And if we aren’t able to get to them, we will answer them post-event in an email to you. And with that being said, please take it away, Kate.
KATE SONKA: Thanks, Robert. Welcome, everybody. [CLEARS THROAT] Excuse me. My name again is Kate Sonka. I’m the Executive Director of Teach Access. I am a woman, a white woman with medium length brown hair. I’m sitting in my office– home office. I have some artwork behind me. And the wall is gray. It’s a little bit dark, but that’s Michigan in the winter. And I’m joined by Larry.
LARRY GOLDBERG: Hi, I’m Larry Goldberg. I am a white male with a white beard, salt and pepper hair, sitting in a sun-filled living room in a suburb just outside of Boston.
OSSAMA ALI: Hey, I’m Ossama. I’m South Asian. I have glasses on. My hair is a little bit longer than I would like. I’m in my bedroom with a lot of artificial light.
ZACH BOHENICK: I’m Zach. I’m a white male. I have round glasses on. I have– I’m in my office right now. I have some books behind me and a painting and natural light. I’m in Clawson, Michigan.
KATE SONKA: Thanks. So just to give you all a sense of what we’re going to talk about today, really quickly, I’ll ask Larry to introduce what is Teach Access in a few minutes. And then I’ll talk through one of our programs, the Study Away. And then very specifically, I’ll be asking Zach and Ossama a few questions about their experience when they were students and participated in the Study Away.
And like Robert mentioned, if we have a few minutes remaining at the end, we’ll be happy to take questions. So feel free to ask those throughout. I’ll keep an eye on that, and we’ll try to get to those.
So with that said, Larry, can you in a few minutes– in a couple minutes, I should say, give us a sense of, what is Teach Access? Where did it come from? What’s the mission? Et cetera.
LARRY GOLDBERG: Thanks, Kate. Yeah. The really interesting thing that’s emerged over the past day and a half at Sight Tech Global is that one of the greatest barriers to accessibility of technology is the lack of education and awareness. And a coalition of universities and corporations and advocates for people with disabilities came together about three years ago and realized too many of our new hires at big companies like mine, Verizon Media, and other ones at Facebook and Google and Microsoft and so many other large companies realized that our new hires just didn’t come into our institutions well versed in the issues around accessible design and development.
And in thinking about this, we thought our best leverage for trying to repair that problem is to go to higher ed and see if we can get some partners in the world of universities to begin teaching accessible design development in some mainstream, perhaps required courses across computer science, web design and development, human-computer interaction, user experience research. We needed to reach out to the next generation of designers, developers, and creators so that we can systemically and systematically really increase the nature of technology and how it’s designed for accessibility right from the get-go.
So we began that process, and over the past three years, we have gathered together a tremendous coalition. You can see all the people who are involved so far at xraccess.org. I’m sorry, teachaccess.org. You’ll hear about XR also.
Add Teach Access has been going [INAUDIBLE] and intends to scale up significantly over the next year and even five years with some major planning going forward. Kate can talk to you a little bit more about that. And most importantly, talking to Zach and Ossama who really are carrying that torch forward having experienced what Teach Access is trying to do. And we’re looking to take what Ossama and Zach have experienced themselves and spread that widely. So thanks, Kate.
KATE SONKA: Thanks, Larry. So just building off of what Larry said, we have a variety of projects that we work on to work towards this goal of introducing accessibility to higher ed students for now and looking into the future where we’re finding ways that we can begin to reach students K-12, and then of course internationally as well.
But out of that, we have done things like faculty grants where we’re providing small stipends to faculty in the United States to develop curricular materials where they can introduce these basic concepts of accessibility. We have some partners working on hiring tool kits. So that’s for companies specifically to think about how– when posting a job, are they including language around accessibility to try and attract students with that knowledge?
And then one of– the big project we’re here to talk about today is our Study Away. And so in concept, this is similar to a study abroad if you’re familiar with that where students are immersed for some number of days– in this case, it’s a week– in an experiential learning opportunity where they’re really getting hands-on experience, in-person experience with a topic.
In this case, the Teach Access Study Away travels to Silicon Valley out in the Bay Area, of course. And throughout the course of a week, students are visiting different companies each day. Sometimes they’re able to fit in two companies based on the day.
But the idea here is that students are seeing the campuses of these companies, learning, what does the accessibility landscape look like? Getting to meet the members of the accessibility teams, being able to ask questions about any number of things, hearing from teams about projects they’re working on, challenges they’re facing, that sort of thing.
We have successfully run this program twice. The first one was in 2018. The second one was in 2019. And you’ll hear from Zach and Ossama in a minute about their experience. Very unfortunately, we had to cancel 2020 due to ongoing pandemic– the ongoing pandemic. For 2021 we’re looking at, how can we do this virtually? So it’ll look a little bit different, but we’re excited about that.
In terms of who travels out there, in both years we usually have around 25 to 30 total students coming from somewhere between six to eight universities and colleges. And those are spread around the country. And then accompanying faculty.
I went out with some students from Michigan State University who were part of our Experience Architecture program, which is the UX program that we have on this campus. And yeah.
So with that said, to give you kind of a context, the context around what the program is– oh, actually, what I should add. So we have these 30 students coming from, like I said, anywhere between six to eight universities. Throughout that week, students were put into small groups with students from other universities.
And wherever we could, we tried to engage in some cross-disciplinary work. So for example, students who are maybe UX majors, if they were computer science majors, or we’ve had students from several different types of backgrounds. We tried to mix that up just to really create some interesting mixtures, give people a chance to learn from each other, and increase their network with peers from other institutions while they’re also meeting industry partners.
So in those small groups, students were working on projects. So my first question to Zach and Ossama will be if they can describe what the projects were that they worked on throughout the course of the week when they were out there in 2019. So whoever wants to handle it first.
ZACH BOHENICK: I can go first. So our project was– our team members each had a family member or a close friend who had Alzheimer’s or another form of dementia, and so we wanted to address that. With our project, we called it Helping Home. And it was a nonintrusive monitoring system using IoT devices and sensors. It was all conceptual, but it was to assist in the caregiving of patients and loved ones with Alzheimer’s and dementia.
And so with the project, we continued work after as well, which was a great experience, working with Google. We got to present at Google with the home team to talk a little bit about the project and the potential with it and stuff. And so that in itself was a great takeaway as well and experience.
OSSAMA ALI: Yeah. My group project was focused on educating designers and developers on the different types of colorblindness and how to make their products accessible to people with colorblindness, and how to pick accessible color palettes. So it was similar to tools like the color [INAUDIBLE] analyzer, but we put our own educational spin on it, really trying to educate the designers and developers in how they could build for different types of colorblindness.
KATE SONKA: Thank you both. And just to build off of that a bit, do you recall in your groups– I know it was a year or so ago– the other majors or the other things that people were studying, the other students in your groups?
ZACH BOHENICK: Yeah, I think it was– it was diverse. It was a mix between– like, we were the UX designers, I guess you could say, because we were Experience Architecture. And then we were paired with a lot of computer science-focused individuals, mechanical engineering. I think that was it on my team, actually. I was thinking it was more diverse than that. I’m sure there there. I felt like there was more variety there, but yeah.
OSSAMA ALI: Yeah, I think it was pretty similar for me. I was the UX person, and then there were a few majors that were I think computer engineering or software engineering. And there might have been another researcher as well.
KATE SONKA: Perfect. Thanks. So now kind of expanding it out into the program in general. So we were out there for a week, but we were driving around in a van together to all of these companies every day.
We did add on a day where we visited San Francisco so you could spend some time there, where we also visited the San Francisco LightHouse for the Blind. So you got to interact with some people there. Kind of just thinking about the program in general, the first question I’m interested in asking around that is what was most surprising about just the program in general, your experience?
ZACH BOHENICK: Well, for me, I think what was most surprising was how collaborative everyone is across– Teach Access seemed like a catalyst to bring everybody together. But in the broader sense, you see in this discipline of accessibility, everybody– like, their hearts and minds are all devoted to the same cause.
And seeing that where you think– you think of Google and you think of Facebook and you’re thinking about the next product that they’re announcing and stuff. And then you get to see this side of accessibility focus, and you see everybody knows everybody. Everybody’s collaborating across this goal. So that was the most surprising thing for me, and it was rewarding as well.
OSSAMA ALI: Yeah, I’m with Zach [INAUDIBLE]. I was surprised at how collaborative everything was. It was also really nice to see how many different types of majors and roles are available for people in the accessibility. So there’s many types– like, there’s designers, researchers, developers. They all have a very major part or role in developing and building accessible environments. So I think that was really neat to see.
KATE SONKA: That’s great. What were you most excited about? Maybe even before going out, and then once you were out there, after you were out there. Did it change what you were most excited about?
ZACH BOHENICK: I’m going to let Ossama go first.
OSSAMA ALI: I guess in general before we went out, it was very exciting to know that we were able to visit companies like Apple, Google, Verizon. You always hear about these companies, but you don’t really know what exactly the culture is and what goes on behind closed doors. So being able to get the inside look was very exciting.
Once I got there, I was even more excited about being able to network with the people that I worked for there, being able to ask some questions I had about accessibility. Like Zach said, they’re very open to discussing accessibility, and it was very nice to see how much they want to impart their knowledge on you and how much they want to make you feel like it’s an open environment. So that was very exciting. It didn’t seem like it was too overwhelming at all. Everyone was very open, and yeah, it was overall a great time.
ZACH BOHENICK: Yeah, I agree 100%. Seeing– like, for me, seeing Apple, seeing Verizon, seeing Google, it was– you know, Walmart, LinkedIn. I mean, that was incredible. That was just– you see this– you know, you think of them as like a fairy tale land, you know? Silicon Valley, especially being in the Midwest in Michigan.
And then you get to see it in person and you think, wow. OK. I could actually contribute to this, you know, these companies and the types of things that they’re working on. So that was most exciting for me for sure.
KATE SONKA: Perfect. What was your favorite thing? If we haven’t already gotten to that through some of the things you were saying. What did you– what was your favorite part about the experience?
ZACH BOHENICK: Yeah, go ahead. Go ahead.
OSSAMA ALI: [LAUGHS] Well, I guess one thing that really stood out to me that I think was a good way to look at the whole program was just that this program was the first introduction to a lot of students for accessibility. So being able to show them the opportunities that were available is very important, I think.
And then as I mentioned, there’s a whole different– there’s a lot of different roles that people can do with the accessibility in those companies. Like, researchers, developers, and designers. And a lot of times, students may not know exactly what they want to do after graduation. And just giving them just insight, showing the roles available to them, and how they could have an impact on different teams like Apple, Verizon, Facebook was very nice. It kind of just gave me an idea of where I could be impactful at, and it showed me how different majors can collaborate together to work and make stuff more accessible.
ZACH BOHENICK: For me, I think that my favorite thing was the takeaways after. I mean, I don’t think that I could be where I am today without having had this experience. Not just in my current position, but in my designs, in the ability to problem solve and design thinking, thinking accessible, creating accessible solutions as well as making things more usable.
It ties into the books I’ve decided to read and the network I’ve created. And so just in general, that’s probably my favorite thing is the aftermath of it. You know, the takeaways and how it’s pushed me forward in this direction.
KATE SONKA: That is actually a question that occurred to me while we were– while you were both talking, was how did– I mean, Zach, you kind of got at that, how it’s impacted your work. Because something that we look at in Teach Access that we’re fond of saying– credit goes to [INAUDIBLE] of Adobe– is that what we have is a few people that know a lot about accessibility. What we’re looking for is a lot of people who know a little bit.
And that’s not to say that we still absolutely won’t need and don’t need experts or that we won’t need– continue to need experts in accessibility forever. But it would be great for a lot of people to know at least a little bit.
So in thinking about that, how did your experience with Study Away impact where you are now or what you’re doing or how you’re approaching the work that you’re doing, and so forth? As much as you’re able to share based on where you’re at.
ZACH BOHENICK: I think on one side, it’s in every design that I’m working on now, you know? It’s just something that once you get it, once you have that aha moment and it clicks and you’re like, OK, everything needs to be accessible. Like, that’s just what needs to happen.
So then you learn– the next stage is then learning how to connect with your coworkers and reach an understanding of not just to say, hey, I know everything about accessibility, step aside. But it’s, hey. Here’s why this is important. You know, this is why– this is why I’m doing this. This is why I’m asking these sorts of questions I think is super important.
And taking the lessons from the Teach As– excuse me– Teach Access trip has armed me with the right tools to get to that understanding with everyone on the team. And the goal is to try to get everyone, like you were saying, to have a little understanding. So if I can help, that’s a win for me.
OSSAMA ALI: Yeah, I’m in a similar mind where if I know about accessibility, I can definitely impart the knowledge onto other people [INAUDIBLE] about accessibility. I’m fortunate that I work with a group of people that know a lot more about accessibility than I do, so that’s really nice. But I think the whole program in general, the idea of teaching students about accessibility– and no matter where they end up, having those students be able to be educators about accessibility in their own different teams that they work in is very important.
And I think it’s really nice to be able to have educators of accessibility in different products and different teams. So I think that’s just where I got really lucky where I get to be a part of a team that already knows a lot about accessibility, so yeah.
KATE SONKA: That’s great. And I do want to remind everybody, our attendees, if you have questions for any of us about Teach Access, the organization, or specifically for Zach or Ossama about the experience they had at Study Away, please feel free to submit those. And I see one coming in. Let me just read that quickly. But Larry, do you have any questions or comments before I get through these?
LARRY GOLDBERG: Well, I just want to mention that looking at Zach and Ossama and the experiences they had, anyone who’s got any pessimism about the world today, about accessibility’s future, just look at what these two individuals are saying and have accomplished, and then multiply that by a million or more, because that’s what our ambition is in Teach Access. And we’re going through a strategic planning process right now to scale up so we can replicate that kind of experience that Zach and Ossama had for so many more students. And that’s really our major goal.
KATE SONKA: Thanks. So the first one I think might be more of a statement, but it’s from Dan. And it says, also small NGOs make inclusive technologies. We are waiting to visit in Europe. And there’s a link there for tactileimages.org. It looks like that’s a place you could learn more about remote teaching, individual learning, and image accessibility. So that’s what we’ve got.
And then the next question, maybe Larry, you could take this one to begin with. Comes from Tabitha. The question is, are companies able to involve their interns in the program?
LARRY GOLDBERG: Oh, yeah. For sure. We hire interns at Verizon Media, as do the other major companies. And our group on accessibility have consistently hired interns, particularly during the summer, and gotten them involved in accessibility. And in fact, every new employee at Verizon Media goes through an accessibility training.
And some of the– all the interns, when they come in during the summer, are exposed to accessibility. And if it catches their imagination and excitement, they can do a deeper dive while they’re within our organization, either on campus or virtually. So yeah, we definitely target the interns to fill their heads up. Because as Zach said, once you’re exposed to this subject matter, it’ll never leave your mindset.
KATE SONKA: Yeah. Thanks for that. And we have seen students who have been involved in the past, whether through the Study Away program directly and/or who are working with teams who know about Teach Access come back and want to get involved. So in particular, I’m thinking of one student who was a grad student, and now he’s working at Microsoft. And he’s become very involved with Teach Access. So we do see that students want to– as they graduate and become working professionals are interested in continuing to be connected, which is great.
There’s another question here from John. How do students get signed up with Teach Away– or the Study Away? So at this point in time, the way that we have structured it is that any university who is a member of Teach Access– and certainly, I encourage everybody, if you’re interested in what we’re doing, please visit the website, teachaccess.org, and you can get more information there about all the things that we’re talking about.
But for universities who are members of Teach Access, the Study Away program is open for them to bring students or include students in this program. So that’s where it’s a little bit smaller in terms of scale, because we have, I think right now, somewhere around two dozen or about 25 or so universities that are active members in Teach Access. So we’re pulling from those universities and encouraging those universities to bring students.
And then it’s really up to each individual university on how they want to handle that. So in my case for Michigan State University, I did attach a credit-bearing option for students so that they could actually get credit that would show up on their transcript, and so forth. Not every university is structured that way or wants to handle it that way. And so it’s kind of left to– left to their own devices in terms of how they want that to look. So that’s how it’s been.
With this new kind of approach for 2021 and going virtual, we’re really excited about the idea of scaling it up. So as we mentioned before, it’s been limited in that we’ve had about 30 students plus the faculty, and then all of the Teach Access members, industry partners.
Just from a logistical standpoint, most of the companies can’t accommodate a group larger than that in their spaces. But with the virtual option, we’re really hoping that all of the member universities are able to encourage as many students as they probably can encourage to participate for this coming spring, because it will be virtual. It will be on Zoom. So obviously, we can handle a bit more that way than in person. So–
LARRY GOLDBERG: And I’d like– if I could, Kate, just encourage any student who’s watching right now, you are a client of that university, and you should be– if you’re interested in this program, please reach out to your professors, your department chairs, and encourage your university to join. Because as much as we love the direct student connections, to have the university embed this in their curriculum is the ultimate goal. So we can touch many, many more students if your university is a member of Teach Access. So go to the website. There’s information about how your university can join.
KATE SONKA: And I’m also going to put this into the chat, but I’ll say it out loud. If you’re interested in getting more information, if you look at the website and have questions, if you’re a university, definitely if you’re a company who’s on here interested, if you’re a disability advocacy group or non-profit, we’re very welcoming.
But if you have questions, there’s an email address you can contact. It’s email@example.com. And you can send a general inquiry there, and then we will get back to you if you’re interested in joining or learning more.
I think that handles all of the questions. There are just a couple follow-up comments from Tabitha about how to get involved. So I think we’ve answered that. We have just a couple minutes left. I’m curious– oh, another question just came in. OK. So from Donna. Is there any possibility of Canadian universities participating? This is a great question.
At this point in time, we have not brought in or haven’t had any Canadian universities. And Larry alluded to this earlier, but Teach Access as an organization is starting– has already started the process of some really substantive strategic planning that will take us through end of March. So it’s really going to be in-depth, thinking about how we can really scale up.
And one of the elements of this planning is how to do– how to incorporate international universities, international partners, and so forth. So at this point in time, we don’t have Canadian universities as part of it, but our goal is that at least within the next year or so, we will have a very clear pathway of what that looks like.
And there’s another question. Is there– to try and reproduce this in Spanish-speaking countries? I think– yeah. Tied to the involving international partners. We have a few ideas on how it might look, so we’re going to be exploring that. But certainly, if there are additional questions we haven’t gotten to about what we’re doing, please feel free to send an email to info@teachaccess. And with that, are there any closing comments that anyone would like to share? Zach, Ossama, or Larry about anything we’ve talked about?
LARRY GOLDBERG: I love hearing from Zach and Ossama, so I’m going to cede my time.
OSSAMA ALI: I just want to say last year when I went to Teach Access, it was one of the most amazing experiences I had in college. So if there are any students that are watching this, I would encourage you to get involved. And if there’s any programs that teaches accessibility, try to learn more about it and try to join them.
ZACH BOHENICK: Yeah, I would mirror that. And I’ve been talking to a lot of freshman in college, and I’ve just been trying to direct them toward Kate at Michigan State, just telling them, hey. Learn about this. This was a great experience. So I try to recommend it to as many people as I can.
And it’s really just the ground floor. I mean, from here, you open yourself up to a whole network of amazing people, working on some awesome projects where Ossama and I had the great invitation from Larry to go down to New York with XR Access. And that was an incredible experience, and we continue to be invited and have the opportunity to join different things. So it’s an incredible experience.
KATE SONKA: I’m sorry. I had myself on mute. Trying to answer a few more of these questions here. And I probably won’t be able to get to all of them since we’re one minute over. But please feel free to send those to firstname.lastname@example.org. We would be happy to answer those questions for you.
But with that said, thank you, everybody, for joining us. We really appreciate having you here today. It’s great to be able to share the work that we’re doing, and definitely, I’m always happy to hear from Zach and Ossama. So with that said, though, I’m going to turn it back over to Robert so that he can take us out.
ROBERT FRAWLEY: Great. Thanks, Kate. Well, thank you all for attending the session. This was really great and really exciting. I wish when I was back in college I had this. This has been really cool.
And just to let you know, this session will be available post-event on demand. It’ll be added to our YouTube channel. And we’ll also have it on our agenda. So look for that in the next couple days, and we’ll send an email to all of you, notifying you when that is live. And with that being said head back to the main stage session. Just go to sighttechglobal.com/event, and we’ll see you next time. Thank you.
KATE SONKA: Thanks, everybody.
ZACH BOHENICK: Thanks.
LARRY GOLDBERG: Nice job, everybody. Really nicely done. And I’m going to head off to another meeting. So good to see y’all.
KATE SONKA: Thanks.
OSSAMA ALI: Bye, Larry.
KATE SONKA: Good job, everybody.
LARRY GOLDBERG: Bye.
KATE SONKA: Make sure you put this on your resumes. I’m going to pause [INAUDIBLE].
There we go. And stop. Yes. You guys are awesome. Make sure you put this on your resumes. And we’ll talk to you soon. And Zach, let us know when Ford’s ready to join.
ZACH BOHENICK: I’ll let you know. Yeah.
KATE SONKA: OK.
ZACH BOHENICK: I’ll start working– I’ll start working with the XA club with– here in Ford. We’ll see.
KATE SONKA: Yeah.
ZACH BOHENICK: Because Bailey and– you know.
KATE SONKA: And Kate [? Waylan. ?]
ZACH BOHENICK: And Kate, yeah.
KATE SONKA: Yeah. I’m trying– I haven’t talked to Bailey. I should talk specifically to her too.
ZACH BOHENICK: We should just have– we should have a group chat. Just schedule that.
ROBERT FRAWLEY: Let’s do it. I love it.
ZACH BOHENICK: That would be good, because they’re all [INAUDIBLE].
KATE SONKA: Great.
ZACH BOHENICK: Awesome.
KATE SONKA: All right. All right. I’ll see you guys later. Bye!
OSSAMA ALI: [INAUDIBLE]