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Actions Speak Louder Than Words

Reading Embodying Empathy by Whitney Hess made me want to share my personal experience – not just as someone who cares about user experience and accessibility, but especially as someone with a profound hearing loss.

I had a pleasure finally meeting Whitney in person last fall after reading her inspiring blogposts for a few years, and seeing her again at a recent conference in Baltimore. And I was also honored to have her attending my talk there. When Whitney was discussing about her plans to do podcasts, she did not question my request for transcripts and even went beyond by asking me about transcripts for iTunes – she was the first person ever asking me that!

There are many times when people tell me how sorry they are for my hearing loss without actually doing something to make it easy for me to communicate with them or access their information and feel fully included. That is one of major pet peeves of mine and many deaf/hoh people. Unfortunately, it’s not just many regular people, but also many user experience practitioners, and even some accessibility professionals.

I would like to mention a few good examples of web and UX professionals who actually do something to make aural information accessible for which I’m very grateful. Jared Spool and his UIE team make sure their podcasts are accessible. They also sponsor transcripts for recordings of IA Summit. HFI started providing good quality captioning for their videos. I was delighted to see a great example of an accessible video in last year’s UXMas series. I enjoy attending some web and UX related events and conferences (online and offline) with full communication access via captioning and/or sign language interpreting services (NYCUXPA, IXDA, IA Summit, etc). Big Design 2012 was the first mainstream conference I attended that offered open captioning on a second screen for keynotes and some presentations.

There is so much of audio and video about web and UX that is not accessible via captions and transcripts – how can professionals like myself enjoy them if we cannot access information other ways than just via audio? It’s understandable that many people are not aware of this need, but what bothers me most is when some UX people question it when being asked to make their information accessible. And there are many interesting events that I cannot attend if they are organized by volunteers and have no sponsors to pay expense of communication access services or if I find out about them at the last minute notice as it takes time to arrange communication access (for these reasons, I hope to see more events open-captioned in future).

Many assume that just turning up volume or providing slideshows or summarizing aural information is good enough, but it is not. Even small details do matter to us. And many assume that transcription benefits just a small number of deaf people. Actually, there are 50 millions of people in USA who are deaf and hard of hearing. And just being able to hear is not enough, it’s also important to be able to access and interpret aural information. So it also affects people who are foreign language speakers, people with learning disabilities and those in noisy/quiet environments that limit their access to audio – they make additional millions of people that cannot be ignored either. And search engines are deaf, too. For these reasons, I created my Audio Accessibility website and give talks at events and conferences to spread more awareness about captioning as universal access and other communication access options.

There are so many examples of inaccessible aural information that it would take forever to talk about them, so I would share a few here (and linked articles are worth to read in details because those negative statements about deaf/hoh people is what we hear so often):

  • A Google employee who works as an user experience professional, shares his videos about UX in Vimeo that does not support captioning despite my suggestions to use YouTube instead. He said that he does have videos in YouTube with auto captions without realizing that they are not of acceptable quality. When I mentioned that to him, he made an excuse about not having time or resources for quality human-made captions.
  • I was invited for an interview for an information architecture position a few years ago, and the potential employer refused to hire an interpreter for me saying its my responsibility which is not true. All employers are required by the ADA law to provide communication access to deaf employees. He told me that his lawyer told him he was not required to provide access for “just” one hour interview. I was not sure whether to laugh or cry. I told him that I was on my way to a wedding of my hearing friend who decided to provide TWO good quality interpreters for the WHOLE day without me asking her, and it is not even required by the law since it’s a personal event. I normally don’t cry in public, but his attitude made me burst into tears on my train trip from NYC to Virginia. When my friend thanked me for going all way for her wedding, I told her no it was thanks to her that I enjoyed the fully accessible weekend as the only deaf person among 200 guests not knowing anybody except her family after such a horrible experience with the potential employer.
  • Organizers of an international web design conference decided last minute to cancel interpreting services for their conference a few years ago and told me that I could attend their presentations for free without interpreters. They made a huge assumption that I would somehow “benefit” from their talks without realizing that it would be a waste of my time not understanding anything and that they also violated disability laws of both countries (ADA in USA and DDA in UK). I found it really ironic because some of their talks were about accessibility! I rather pay like everyone else, but get the full and equal access to information. They realized their mistake and kept interpreters. Also, none of their post-conference videos are captioned. Needless to say, I have never attended their events again since then. What kind future of web design is if it is not accessible for so many hundreds millions of people with disabilities?

I’m hoping to see more user experience professionals embodying their empathy for people with disabilities, not making assumptions about them and especially not questioning their requests for accommodations or making up excuses about money or resources. After all, isn’t their job to ask about their experiences and make sure they are enjoyable? Besides, Whitney says that empathy builds empires. That’s true!

Published in User Experience

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