April 27, 2020

The Chaos Within – Empathy in Accessibility with Caitlin Gebhard

by joeyphoenix

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Note: The Chaos Within Podcast is trying to become more Accessible! Scroll to the end of this page to find the audio transcript. The Chaos Within uses Otter.ai for transcriptions, and you probably should too.

If you’ve designed something and you have excluded a lot of people, you haven’t thought about how to make something accessible, what you’re communicating is ‘I don’t know’ or ‘I don’t care’ about this group of people.

Caitlin Gebhard

Caitlin Gebhard joins Joey Phoenix on the podcast today because she’s got a line into a field that people just don’t spend enough time thinking about – namely, accessibility – or, in broader terms, the extent to which a work can be interacted with and/ or comprehended by its audience.

Accessibility = Empathy, and she’s here to talk about why that is, and what people can do to make the world more accessible, and by extension, more inclusive. 

Caitlin Gebhard is a graduate student at NYU where she is several months into a degree in Integrated Digital Media – and if you’re not sure what that is, because I didn’t, it’s a field of study at the crossroads of technology and art that aims to teach students to engage with technology in a creative, critical, sustainable, and ethical manner. 

She also works in production at Harvard Business Publishing, where she spends part of her time doing QA for digital products to make sure they are accessible. 

You can hire Caitlin for Accessibility Consulting by sending her an email at cfgebhard@gmail.com.

Mentioned in the Podcast

NYU’s Integrated Digital Media Grad Program
Harvard Business Publishing
World Health Organization
Tru-Color Bandages
Audio Description
Facial Recognition Software
Tiger King

Hosted by Joey Phoenix, The Chaos Within is a podcast celebrating the weird, the wild, and the creative – featuring makers, doers, artists, and oddballs exploring the unknown and tapping into their creative energy.

The Chaos Within is produced by Creative Collective and is available on Apple Podcasts and Spotify.

The Logo was designed by Anton Presents, the intro music is by Paul Senn (psenn@thetau.io) using the Theta-U Creative Circuit System, and the outro music by Chris Wilson Sound using one of Joey’s maternal Grandmother’s haunted music boxes.

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Audio Transcript

Joey Phoenix 0:05
The Chaos within is a podcast celebrating the weird, wild and the creative, featuring makers, doers, artists and oddballs. Exploring the unknown the tapping into the creative energy.

The intro music is by Paul Senn, and the outro music is by Chris Wilson Sound.

In the beginning, there was chaos. I’m your host, Joey Phoenix.

Joey Phoenix 0:26
Caitlin Gebhard is a graduate student at NYU, where she is several months into a degree in integrated digital media. And if you’re not sure what that is, because I didn’t, it’s a field of study at the crossroads of technology and art that aims to teach students to engage with technology in a creative, critical, sustainable and ethical manner.

She also works in production at Harvard Business Publishing, where she spends part of her time doing QA for digital products to make sure that they are accessible. She joins me on the podcast today because well, she’s one of my closest friends, but also because she’s got a line into a field that people just don’t spend enough time thinking about – namely, accessibility or in broader terms, the extent to which a work can be interacted with and or comprehended by its audience. We’ll take a deep dive into what that means very soon, but for now, welcome, Caitlin.

Caitlin Gebhard 1:13
Thanks, Joey.

Joey Phoenix 1:14
I’m really excited to have you on the podcast. This has been something that before I met you I had never ever thought about. I’m pretty sure like most of the world. So what is accessibility? And why is it so important for companies to pay attention to? Many don’t have any idea why.

Caitlin Gebhard 1:31
So accessibility is basically making your product art experience as usable as many people as possible, but it’s designing things for people that might not interact with the world in the same way that we do. And that’s really hard to keep in mind. We tend to design and build things for, for ourselves, we tend to have a really hard time not thinking about…about people who might not speak the language as well as we do, or might not be able to see or hear, or even more complicated things like not use a mouse or keyboard might have a very limited range of motion or might not have the same cognitive processing abilities that we do.

It’s just…it’s thinking about others in a way that we tend to not. And it’s really important because when we don’t think about that we’re excluding people. And that could mean that someone can’t use a social media platform. They can’t talk about their experiences. They might not be able to visit a museum and see art that we take for granted. And so it’s part of it is an economic issue. It’s knowing there are users that you might not be reaching.

But a lot of it is just trying to include as many people as possible in the conversation, and a part of the world. a lot of companies don’t really care because it seems really expensive. It’s why do we need to have extra layers of testing that just takes more time for why do we need to design something a certain way? It’s, it’s just going to be more expensive to build it that way.

Or even, like things like our users don’t have disabilities, which I heard several times in my line of work. You know, people getting an MBA, don’t have disabilities. We don’t need to make our business products accessible.

The WHO said, it’s a really common quote, everyone will experience a disability at least on some their life, everyone, and whether that’s a temporary one like you’ve broken arm or you’ve got your pupils dilated, you can’t see. And that’s the other side of accessibility, that the temporary isn’t permanent. It’s really everyone.

Joey Phoenix 4:06
What I’m hearing you say is that it requires a great deal of empathy.

Caitlin Gebhard 4:11

Joey Phoenix 4:13
And, and so right now it’s especially important because I feel like, well, the world has gone online. That’s not a secret. And many people are still not having these conversations, despite the fact that there’s actually no or very little in person interaction that’s happening. And so what are some of the key ways that companies can practice that empathy and transition their web presence to be more comfortable?

Caitlin Gebhard 4:39
There are lots of technical guidelines for things like be logical in your web design, make sure things like titles and headings are actually coded as such. You have images, make sure you have alternate descriptions, but it’s really talking to people and including people and how you test But also how you design things from the beginning is really a large part of making things accessible.

It isn’t making one thing to rule them all because there is no one thing that is accessible to absolutely everyone because that’s that’s not how people work. Something that works for someone who’s blind isn’t necessarily going to work for someone who is deaf. So it’s creating options. So if you’re building something or creating something, it’s making sure you have different options for people to experience.

Joey Phoenix 5:31
What are some examples of what that would look like? either in the world like in a theater or digitally?

Caitlin Gebhard 5:37
So one of the things I’ve talked about in one of my classes actually is movies and TV because right now we’re all stuck inside and we’re all bingeing Netflix all the time. One of my professors is blind and he loves TV, the second side like everyone else that is trying to binge Tiger King and watching things on Hulu and Some TV shows and streaming networks are really great. And they provide something called audio description.

So he has the option to turn on the audio description for a movie or TV. And that’s extra audio that describes what’s happening in the scene. So in addition to the dialogue and the sound effects, so it has a much fuller experience of something that we think of as very visual. Or someone who’s deaf, there’s the option to turn on closed captioning, which is a text at the bottom of the visual describing what’s happening usually dialogue. Actually, most people are probably familiar with closed captioning, or I watch pretty much everything with closed captioning. Even I call hearing things like podcasts. Having a transcript available is very helpful. Because even if someone Someone might be deaf and be really interested in an interview, and they would be able to read it if they had the option or maybe Someone who doesn’t necessarily speak English natively or very well, they might want to go back and read what’s happening in the podcast.

Joey Phoenix 7:09
Definitely food for thought for me, as well. I was actually gonna ask you that question about what does the podcast look like for the hearing impaired? So the transcripts? Yeah, thank you.

Last week, we were chatting, just catching up. You mentioned that this professor of yours, the one who is blind, and about a bad experience, he had a negative experience. He had gone to a local movie theater, and what had happened to him there and why that’s just another thing we never think about during the day happened to him.

Caitlin Gebhard 7:37
Alright, so like I said, he loves going to movies and seeing TV shows. And he asked for the audio description for the movie. You can get this a separate device that comes with headsets and it’s the added audio description for the movie in the movie theater. The person at the theater was not paying attention and didn’t notice that he had his cane, which is his usual signal of “I’m blind, please interact with me in this way.”

The person who wasn’t paying attention gave him the audio for someone who’s hard of hearing, which is just the louder version of the audio in this device, which is useless for him. It’s we have all these options available. But if you’re not paying attention, you’re not providing the right experience for someone. If you have signals like a cane, or implants or wheelchair or something, those are signals to say that, hey, I’ve got this disability, those are ignored. And that’s not even, that’s not even mentioning invisible disabilities, which we don’t have, we haven’t even harder time thinking about.

Joey Phoenix 8:48
So this is something that I would say the broad public just never gives any thought to. What were the things that are brought to your attention andwhy are you studying this?

Caitlin Gebhard
What really helped is working at Harvard Business Publishing, my manager was very involved in accessibility and designing accessible experiences. And so I was brought to conferences and shown webinars and took classes. And a lot of them were taught by people who have various disabilities. So they would talk about their experiences and hearing about it more and seeing, oh, these are, these are gaps. These are real people. This is important. This is not just them to check a box. Yes, I’ve made this accessible. It’s, this is impacting real people I was ignoring, it has to be an intentional choice.

Joey Phoenix 9:48
It sounds like you can’t just do this on the top end. So you have to build it from the ground up.

Caitlin Gebhard
And yes, thinking about it from the beginning, is really the only way to do it. Otherwise, you’re kind of retroactively adding all these little hacks to make it pass the accessibility check. But that doesn’t mean it’s actually usable. As there was this really great conference that I went to a talk that I went to sort of announcing a lot of these now, just add this JavaScript tool to your website, and it will help you pass 90% of all Web Accessibility Guidelines.

So that’s 90% that’s that’s an A That sounds great. But his analogy was that if the ramp to a building is only 90% of the way to the building, you still don’t get in the door. And I thought that was a really great way to think about designing for accessibility where you can, you can make most of your website accessible and like, that’s great. But then if you you know, you just don’t have the time or energy or money to describe the images on your website. Someone who can’t interact with your website virtually, is still not getting that full experience. They’re still missing a lot. contents are, they’re just not getting in the door.

Joey Phoenix 11:03
So Important and I, I really appreciate your perspective. And I’m even learning a lot and thinking myself like, Oh no, what have I been not doing even in like naming images or even in this podcast, so like, definitely a list myself myself to like remember things later, for sure. Someone mentioned last week that I, there was a visual medium that I had mentioned on the podcast, but it didn’t go on to describe it. And like how, like people that are listening to the podcast wouldn’t know what it looked like. And that’s something that a person who is blind would not be able to understand at any time without that description.

Caitlin Gebhard 11:40
It’s always an ongoing process. And I think making the effort is important too, and important to recognize when people try.

Joey Phoenix
Absolutely. So let’s talk about your program at NYU and how, how your perspective has changed having lived in New York City, and especially now And you’re living there during this really absurd time in history.

Caitlin Gebhard 12:07
Oh, it’s bizarre. It’s so quiet here.

I guess first for my program, because everyone keeps asking me like, What? What is IDM? And what is this program? It’s technology. It’s art. It’s media like what is what is that? Actually? What are you doing? It’s actually it took me a really long time to figure out how to explain it because some people are doing virtual reality or augmented reality. Some people are doing website design, some people are doing these huge installations using LEDs and stuff, and it’s really cool. Some people are doing accessible design to some something that I’m looking at.

I’m also doing research projects on how do you design a new program for a university and really what the program is, it’s learning the process of designing something, and why it’s important to think about it carefully. So the design process is generally search, build something, test, build it again, and then start over and looked at. And think about it carefully. I mean, what are the consequences of what are you building? What is whatever you’re building, doing to the world? And what are you telling and communicating, through your work.

So in terms of accessibility, if you’ve designed something and you have excluded a lot of people, you haven’t thought about how to make something accessible, what you’re communicating is, I don’t know or I don’t care about this group of people. There are other technologies that we use. Right now I’m looking very closely at facial recognition technology, which is a little dystopian when you think about it. But I’m looking specifically at how is technology is by excluding people of color. Not necessarily on purpose.

But as a consequence of racism in the technology industry, there just aren’t a lot of people, there’s a huge disparity in people of color working in technical fields. And so, with the absence of developers and testers is just a data set. Missing is a great example of a soap dispenser has automatic soap dispensers, the little, you know, it, see something there, you put your hand out without soap, they people with darker skin just get ignored by the soap dispenser. People of color are not involved in the development of this item. It’s telling this group of people that you don’t matter, you don’t need to wash your hands. It’s making me feel a little bit sad about how tech technologically advanced Our world is because in a lot of ways, it’s perpetuating a lot of societal issues in ways that…

Joey Phoenix 14:59
The story of the band-aids… I’m sure you saw, yes, that for the longest time, there was only one color band-aid and people of color didn’t have band-aids that match their skin tone. And I like that sort of thing. And like I am a very white human and like, there are so many things that I don’t think about. And I have the privilege to not think about it. And like, the more I learned, the more I see it, the more I’m like, wow, this is not okay. And I feel like you’re doing the work to find out all the ways that existing structures are not okay, and figuring out ways or helping to figure out ways that we can actually consider people that have been ignored. For a long time. I don’t know what the term is, is the invisible population or people that are never considered for studies or is there a word for that?

Caitlin Gebhard 15:52
Not that I’m aware of, but there should be

Joey Phoenix 15:54
There definitely should be because like I because like even me, I tend to think of myself as a relatively enlightened human. There’s so much that I’ve never even thought about. And I think like, if we can start having these conversations and being like, hey, like fix your alt text as a start, and then hope that other people actually start doing the work and building things from the ground up that include every human as much as possible. Or at least like, as you put it, you can’t account for every person, but you can try.

Caitlin Gebhard 16:26
It’s really trying to unlearn the idea that technology is a panacea for societal issues. It’s not, it won’t be unless we make it that way. Or try to.

Joey Phoenix 16:42
So I also hear… a little birdie told me that you are will do accessibility consulting for the right people. Is that true?

Caitlin Gebhard
That is true.

Joey Phoenix 16:51
I’m going to include in the show notes, your email address, is that okay?

Caitlin Gebhard 16:55
That is absolutely fine. And I am happy to talk to anyone about making any experience more accessible. I’m not an expert. I’m happy to have a conversation about it.

Joey Phoenix 17:10
Caitlin, thank you so much for sharing your insights. This is incredibly important, especially right now and I really appreciate you.

Caitlin Gebhard 17:17
Oh, thank you. I love I love talking about this. And I think it’s important for people to, to also start talking about it.

Joey Phoenix 17:31
That Chaos within is produced by Creative Collective. Creative Collective connects creativity, community, and commerce across the North Shore. As a collective of creative professionals, small businesses, organizations, and individuals. They coordinate a series of events, traditional and non-traditional marketing initiatives, resources, and best practices to define why creativity matters and all aspects of life. In the beginning, there was chaos. Then you make it yours.

Transcribed by https://otter.ai