“Consider a Career in Accessibility”: Sheri Byrne-Haber, Senior Staff, Accessibility Architect at VMware (Video + Transcript)

March 17, 2023

Sheri Byrne-Haber (Senior Staff, Accessibility Architect at VMware) talks about what accessibility is, how it fits in the overall software development life cycle, and how to prepare for a successful career in accessibility.


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Angie Chang: I have with us today Sheri Byrne-Haber, who’s a Senior Staff, Accessibility Architect at VMware. She’s a prominent global subject matter expert in the field of disability and accessibility, and known for launching digital accessibility programs at McDonald’s, Albertsons and VMware. And she writes a popular blog called “This Week in Accessibility”. Welcome, Sheri.

Sheri Byrne-Haber: Well, thank you so much, Angie. I’m really excited to be here. I always like to drop the Sheri’s secret fun fact before I start events like this, which I was the first Girl Scout in the US to get a badge in Computer Science coming up on my 45th anniversary of that event this August. I’ve been doing tech for a long time.

Sheri Byrne-Haber: I did my first degree at Cal in computer science back when it was, you know, 90% guys, and I was basically the diversity in the room. Been doing this for a long time. Went and got a law degree 10 years after my computer science degree, then did an MBA 10 years after that. I’m here today to talk to you about why access. Yeah, Go Bears, Angie <laugh>. Why accessibility, what it is.. Okay, so the the brief 50,000 foot version and why it is a great career, especially for women.

Sheri Byrne-Haber: When most people think about accessibility, if they’ve heard that word, accessibility means making stuff work for people with disabilities, that’s kind of the TLDR version. They think about visible disability. You might think about somebody with a prosthetic arm.

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Sheri Byrne-Haber: This is actually me practicing in my wheelchair on my Olympic range at home. I’m trying to qualify for the 2024 Paralympic games. People with service animals. People with hearing aids. Something that you can see. Accessibility has to take care of a lot more things than that.

Sheri Byrne-Haber: First of all, we have to deal with hidden disabilities, disabilities that aren’t obvious, that can’t be seen. That might be, I tell people all the time, you see me in a wheelchair, you assume, you know what my disability is, right?

Sheri Byrne-Haber: My real disability is type one diabetes kicks my ass on a daily basis. It interferes with everything I do. My wheelchair is just a way to get around. And I’ve been doing it for a very long time.

Sheri Byrne-Haber: You need to think about hidden disabilities. And some examples of hidden disabilities include Millie Bobby Brown, who’s deaf in one ear. Bono wears tinted sunglasses because he has a glaucoma. It’s not a rockstar affectation.

Sheri Byrne-Haber: Neurodiverse statuses. Mental health issues. The reason why all of the colors in Facebook are blue is that it’s the only color that Mark Zuckerberg sees. When you’re thinking about disability for starters, you really have to broaden the definition to make sure that you’re including both visible disabilities and invisible disabilities.

Sheri Byrne-Haber: Then you need to add two different types of disability. A permanent disability might be a limb difference, but if somebody tears their rotator cuff temporarily, they’re gonna have the same disability as somebody with a limb difference. They’re not gonna be able to use their arm or situationally you might be holding something that prevents you from using an arm.

Sheri Byrne-Haber: When you take permanent plus, temporary plus situational disabilities and, and look at it from both the visible and the invisible perspective, you’re talking about 30% of your potential users. And accessibility is about making technology work for that 30% of users.

Sheri Byrne-Haber: Okay, so what do accessibility testers need to learn? First of all accessibility testing is a lot about interacting with assistive technology. You may have heard from other people talking about software testing as a field that automating is the greatest thing ever because then you can just push a button and repeat all those tests and not have to do anything that requires manual intensive interaction. It’s not so easy to do with accessibility because only about 30% of the tests can be executed in an automated manner by inspecting the code.

Sheri Byrne-Haber: 70% actually require being able to interact with the assistive technology. And so that includes things like screen readers which is what the woman in the middle graphic is using. She’s listening to her iPhone, tell her what’s on the screen in front of her that she can’t see. Some other forms of assistive technology are not using a mouse. Using alternative input devices like keyboards touch pads you know, those graphics pens things of that nature captions, magnification.

Sheri Byrne-Haber: Then we get into a little bit more obscure, slightly less used assistive technology that would include things like sip and puff devices, which is how people who are quadriplegic interact with the internet. Obviously speech recognition is becoming more and more popular and, and actually better and cheaper than it used to be in the past. Once you know how to use assistive technology, you have to learn about the accessibility guidelines.

Sheri Byrne-Haber: There’s something called WCAG, which stands for Web Content Accessibility Guidelines. The version that’s just about to come out is version 2.2. And that is a standard WCAG that has been adopted pretty much globally. Anywhere that you have a law that requires inclusion of people with disabilities, usually it references one of the WCAG versions, not always the same version. That’s would make things too easy, right?

Sheri Byrne-Haber: The EU, Canada, Australia, the us India, some countries in Africa, they all use WCAG as the standard to determine whether or not you’ve made something accessible enough. That is, that, you know, the majority of people with disabilities would be able to use it just as if they didn’t have a disability. These are the two basic things that entry level accessibility testers focus on.

design build test all thru lens of accessibility

Sheri Byrne-Haber: What do they do once they know how to do all that stuff? Well, they participate in designing, building, and testing software, but a hundred percent through the lens of accessibility, not whether or not does it work which is the functional side of the fence, but does it work with assistive technology that people with disabilities are likely to use? And do those people, are they having an equal experience? Okay.

Sheri Byrne-Haber: Those are the two things that the lens of accessibility provides for an accessibility tester. Other than that you’re participating throughout the entire life cycle, just as if you were a, a designer, a builder, or a tester. You’re just looking at it with a very particular point of view, okay? Women are really well represented in the accessibility space. There’s five times as many women in accessibility as there are women in non-accessible roles, just traditional straight up software testing you know, analytics coding, program management, things like that.

Sheri Byrne-Haber: It’s actually a good place to be because there are other women that can help you support your careers who have been there and done that. And you, you may get a better level of, of understanding from getting mentored by other women than you might be by getting mentored by somebody who doesn’t have the lived experience that you do trying to survive in your career. Okay?

Sheri Byrne-Haber: There is a significant demand for accessibility testers. Unless you work for Elon Musk, chances are you are not gonna get laid off, and that’s because the demand for accessibility testing is being driven by regulations and litigation, especially in the us. So the Americans with Disabilities Act require it, it, the language of the law itself doesn’t require accessibility, but it requires equal access. And the litigation, and we have about 4,000 plus or minus cases per calendar year in the US is focusing on WCAG as that standard to determine whether or not something’s accessible enough.

Sheri Byrne-Haber: As long as there’s laws and there’s long as there’s litigation, there is going to be a demand for accessibility testers. And right now we’re in a place where colleges are not turning out a lot of people skilled in accessibility testing because it’s not required as part of the computer science program. You barely even touch on it if you’re in a graduate HCI program. This is something that’s very much self-taught, and to be honest with you, it’s also very much passion driven.

Sheri Byrne-Haber: A lot of people get involved in accessibility because they have a personal experience with the disability. Again, don’t make assumptions. People see the wheelchair and they’re like, ah, I know why Sheri got into accessibility. Now, I actually got into accessibility because I have a deaf daughter and my deaf daughter you know, experienced a lot of issues when captions weren’t made available to her.

Sheri Byrne-Haber: There a lot of times there’s this, like I said, personal connection that makes people passionate about being in this space. Keep in mind disability is the only dimension of DEI – diversity, equity, and inclusion – that everybody is guaranteed to experience at one point in time or another in their lives. Unless you die getting struck by lightning, never having broken a bone in your life, chances are at some point in time, if you’re not disabled right now, you are going to be disabled.

Sheri Byrne-Haber: When you’re working inaccessibility, you’re working to make the make the place better for your future self. That’s a, that’s another way to look at it if you don’t have a personal connection to disability currently. Okay. being disabled is actually a bonus when you’re working in the field of accessibility, because not only are you bringing the things that you learned about screen readers and, and other assistive technology and the things that you learned about WCAG, you’re bringing lived experience.

Sheri Byrne-Haber: And that’s something that’s very valuable for this type of work. The other thing is work from home has been a thing for people in the field of accessibility. Long before the pandemic 30% of people with disabilities can’t drive. And so work from home is critical, especially if their disabilities prevent them from being able to commute or make it harder or more expensive for them to commute.

Sheri Byrne-Haber: Other than the usual, you get paid well, it’s a fun job. You get to make the life lives of other people better. But this is, this is somewhere where we’re having a disability and being willing to talk about that disability actually helps. And if you need to work from home or if you would benefit from to work from home it’s something that the accessibility managers in the world are very accustomed to.

Sheri Byrne-Haber: There are a broad range of employment opportunities government and education anything attached to federal money, okay? Including money that passes through states and cities and counties has to be accessible. There are strings attached, and those strings are called Section 508. Universities have to make things accessible. Hospitals have to make things accessible. Courts, anything municipal, anything federal, all has to be accessible. The nonprofit space also wants to be accessible because they don’t wanna say, oh, we’re here to help out this group of people, but hey, you people with disabilities, you get in the back of the line. There is typically you know, NPR has somebody dedicated to accessibility. Washington Post, New York Times, they all have accessibility specialists. Those aren’t exactly nonprofits, but it’s places that you see accessibility thought about where you might otherwise think that it wouldn’t be addressed.

Sheri Byrne-Haber: There’s lots of accessibility consulting companies all the retail operations on the internet. If you’re selling in the us it has to be accessible or, or you’re probably going to get sued at one at some point in time. And then, as I mentioned, healthcare is another big field. For each one of these areas, you’re still taking the same domain knowledge that you have on assistive technology and the WCAG guidelines, you’re just applying it to one of these vertical markets. It does not take a whole lot to get started. It doesn’t, being in the field of accessibility does not require a college degree. There are apprenticeship programs for people who wanna get started in accessibility. There’s quite a few resources that are available for free or for low cost online.

Sheri Byrne-Haber: You don’t have to go out and get a college degree in accessibility. In fact, such a thing does not exist. What you have to do is you have to care enough to go learn about all this stuff yourself, invest time, go to meetups, talk to people who are already in the field. I think of accessibility today as where Quality Assurance (QA) was, you know 35 years ago when I had just graduated from Cal 35 years ago for QA, there were no degrees in QA. There was no Six Sigma. These things didn’t exist. You had to apprentice yourself basically to somebody who was really, really good and, and learned from them. And now you can get a degree in QA. You can get all kinds of certifications in QA.

Sheri Byrne-Haber: Accessibility today is where QA was 35 years ago in terms of how to, to, you know, get your foot in the door for the career, so to speak. You can easily evolve from accessibility into more senior careers. A lot of people who spend three to five years in accessibility will then move on to design or UX or UI and front end development, because you will learn a lot about these three things as you’re doing your accessibility testing work. And so if, if this is, if you’re interested in these three areas but don’t have the time to go back to get a degree or go to a boot camp or something else, you can use accessibility as a way to get into the door for some of these other careers, there are I’ve got here a list of some starting points if you’re interested in accessibility.

Sheri Byrne-Haber: Siri was actually invented for people with disabilities. And the iOS voiceover, which is kind of twined with Siri is the screen reader. If you don’t have an Apple platform, then NVDA is a free screen reader that you can use on Windows. Spend an hour not using your mouse. Lots of people can’t use mice. I can’t use a mouse because I’ve got pretty bad arthritis in my hands. That will give you a pretty quick perspective on what it’s like to be a keyboard only user.

Sheri Byrne-Haber: There’s a couple of places that you can register to be a crowdsourced accessibility tester that will help you learn more about how to find bugs, how to report bugs what is it that people are looking for. Most major city centers have a Lighthouse for the Blind, or Center for Independent Living. They usually have ways that they can point people to learn more things about accessibility. And we’ve got meetups all over the place.

Sheri Byrne-Haber: Thanks to the pandemic, most of the meetups are actually now hybrid. If the accessibility group in Orlando is meeting up, you know, it doesn’t matter you live in Portland, you can still go because they’re, like I said, largely hybrid these days. I wanted to give people my contact information.

Sheri Byrne-Haber: I have a website, which is sheribyrnehaber.com. It’s got a free archive of all the blogs that I’ve written over the years about accessibility. There’s probably 200 or 250 articles on there right now. If you don’t see something, ask me because I’m still writing, I’m not writing quite as much as I used to but I get a lot of my ideas from people pinging me and saying, well, what about, you know, how do you make a toast message accessible?

Sheri Byrne-Haber: One of my most popular articles I ever wrote came out of a question that somebody gave me on LinkedIn. And if you use that QR code, it should take you to my LinkedIn profile. I don’t use Twitter. LinkedIn is my only form of social media but I love to connect with people who are interested in accessibility, and you can always ask me questions.

Angie Chang: Thank you, Sheri. That was a really informative talk and accessibility. I love all the resources and the, the the knowledge you dropped on us today. This is the last talk of this career track. Thank you so much for being a part of ELEVATE and for everyone who’s still here with us after two days of nonstop talks, developer workshops, networking, meeting recruiters.

Angie Chang: Thank you again. Networking is gonna start. We’re gonna have some fluid networking, so if you’ve seen Everything Everywhere All At once, it’s gonna make some sense to you, or I think it makes sense to someone who’s in that movie. It might be something else to you. I’ll see you in networking. Thank you Sheri, for being so open and willing to connect on LinkedIn. And yeah, I’ll see you on the other side. Thank you.

Sheri Byrne-Haber: Much. Okay. And I just answered the one question that came in about IAAP certifications. Disclaimer, I’m on the certification committee. I actually help write the test. So yes, I believe that they’re worth worthwhile. They are standardized. They’ve been around for going on seven years now. But they’re not cheap, right? It’s $375 to take each of the tests. Plus, you know, if you wanna sign up for a membership, that’s another a hundred bucks.

Sheri Byrne-Haber: If you can’t afford the IAAP memberships, another path you can go is with the US Federal Government. It’s called Trusted Tester. It’s free, it requires a significant investment in time. Took me about 120 hours to complete it. Most people actually go faster. I had to struggle to unlearn everything that I knew and only respond in the way the government wanted me to respond. That was really hard to do. But if you’re new to accessibility, you should actually be able to get your Trusted Tester certification faster.

Angie Chang: Thank you.

Sheri Byrne-Haber: Thanks everybody.

Angie Chang: Thank you.

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