November 22, 2022
Amplify Inclusion Podcast
Welcome to Amplify Inclusion, a podcast where we share authentic stories of inclusion in action.
Liz Davis, UX (User Experience) Designer, shares her personal story and how it has informed her approach to creating accessible technology. Listen now or view the full transcript below. To access closed captions, you must be logged into a Podbean user account.
Related Resources: Liz Does Design | Web Accessibility Initiative
This episode was co-produced and engineered by Subframe Sound with music courtesy of Nealle DiPaolo. This season is made possible thanks to generous support from the Fred J. Brunner Foundation, Enterprise Fleet Management, First Bank Chicago and members of the Aspire community.
Welcome to Amplify Inclusion. I’m Clare from the nonprofit, Aspire. Thanks for joining us for stories and conversation about disability inclusion. Today we’re wrapping up the season with the focus on digital accessibility. My guest is Liz Davis, a user experience or UX Designer at Bounteous. Liz has been a problem-solver since birth. She’s been a UX designer for over five years, and her life with a disability offers a unique perspective on design. I recently spoke with Liz to learn more about her story, and how it has informed her approach to creating accessible technology. Here’s our conversation. Liz, thank you so much for joining me today.
Thank you for having me. This is very exciting.
Yes, agreed. And it’s such an important topic that we’re going to be talking about today, we’re gonna dive into digital accessibility and thinking about how tech and access are interconnected. This is such a big topic, right? So we’re just gonna barely scratch the surface today.
Especially when we’re thinking about an increasingly virtual world, usability for all people has, it’s really never been more important than it is now.
Oh, for sure. And that increasing the divide further with technology between disability, it’s like, we’re at the beginning of a new tech era, and making sure that we don’t increase that divide. Instead, we use the tech to help bridge the divide.
Yeah, I think that’s a great way to put it, it’s a time for opportunity. So, I want to get into more about user experience and digital access in just a second. But first, I just want people to get to know you a bit. So I’d love to just start off by hearing more about you. I understand you were
born with your disability, and you’ve been a wheelchair user your whole life. So tell me more about your story.
Sure, yeah, I grew up in kind of rural Illinois setting. Most of my life, I was sort of the first instance people would run into with the disability, especially a physical one. And so that kind of influenced how I presented myself as a disabled person. And then recognize- using that to recognize, inherently like these biases in our surrounding environments, right? Like, so recognizing from an early age that maybe this environment isn’t made for you, especially when you have physical disability, you’re like- Oh, well, I physically can’t get into a space. You know, even as a kid, you’re kind of like- Oh, yeah, I recognize this as a problem. And so that’s kind of like the background knowledge of what built my, I would say, my empathy as a designer, and my understanding of systems as a designer. So understanding, understanding systemic levels at a way, kids might not at a young age, just inherently by being a wheelchair user. Right? So I’ve always had this tool to rely on. And one of the biggest things that my growing up experience, I would say, is not having a lot of disability role models in my life. Which, you know, when I was younger, I didn’t feel like was a huge deal. You know, I had other role models, or perhaps the younger me was like- I don’t need role models. And then as I got older and met more folks with disabilities, and moved to Chicago and found a great community there, understanding how my own view of disability was warped into this more ablest views than I had anticipated, and how I’ve grown from connecting with other disabled community members, and how much that has impacted me in a way that I wouldn’t have thought of years ago, you know. So, still on that journey, personally, but still much further in that journey than I was. So, using my platform as a designer, and in general to talk about how disability and technology interact. Even if it doesn’t directly impact me, it’s still a passion in that way. Because you realize- I’ve realized how much others have done advocacy for me in the physical world, and how I can help others with accessibility and technology.
You know, when you and I spoke before him, you mentioned a local leader here in Chicago, Karen Tamely, yeah, who you had a connection with. Tell me more about what that meant to you meeting Karen.
Yeah. And actually, we can, we can relate that back to technology too, because one of the big drivers of technology is community and communication. And one of the big things is more disabled people can talk to each other online more. And I on a whim, joined a disability group on Facebook, in 2014ish, 2015ish. That was for my specific disability. And through that Facebook group, I met Karen Tamely, who is a leader in Chicago. She’s now the president of Access Living, and she’s wonderful, and we have the same disability. And she took the time to, like, meet with me and introduce me and I don’t know if she meant to be a role model, but you know, was a role model for me and motivated me to pursue a lot of things, like helped open that door to a wider community and like, that’s a good example of how technology can be a positive. It probably changed the whole trajectory of where I was going at the time, just to know all these things existed. And meet someone disabled who I felt similarly to and felt a connection to.
Yeah, I think that’s a great way to put it. Because, you know, when we’re thinking about how tech access is for everyone, let’s think about the new gateways new pathways that a virtual
world has opened up, like community building that you’re just you’re mentioning now, and just another reinforcement for why we have to think about accessibility and making sure everybody can make those community connections this way.
You mentioned that as a wheelchair user, from your perspective, it allowed you to notice where there were a lot of gaps in user access. So I wonder, you know, can you share some examples as a wheelchair user? What are some things you’ve- you ran into in terms of tech inaccessibility, and navigating the world?
I’ll bucket it in the two- I usually think of it in two instances. And the first bucket, so to speak, would be kind of what is still technology, but maybe not what we think of in technology, like, for example, an elevator is technology. But when we’re saying ‘Tech’, we usually don’t mean elevators. Like anything like that is like the first wave of technology and seeing how inaccessible some of those things are kind of gives us a preview of the newer generation of technology, whereas tech becomes more involved in our lives. And so early part of my life, realizing that not everything has an elevator. Like a big thing when I was younger was my mother made them put an elevator in our middle school, because they didn’t want to do that. They want to just put me always on the ground floor, which is not good for social inclusion. It’s a whole different topic. But that’s a good preview of like, what could happen with current technology. And so growing up with those experiences, and being like, well, you know, most places don’t even have button doors, anyway, next time you go to a gas station, just notice how pretty much every gas station never has buttons. And it’s kind of with that assumption that disabled people don’t drive. At least that’s what it tells me. Seeing that stuff in the environment and being like- Well, they obviously didn’t think about me or consider me in this environment.
People often when they think of tech accessibility, they’re thinking about, you know, a computer on your desktop or your laptop. And they’re thinking about website design. But when we’re thinking about user experience, there are computers and machines everywhere, right? So to help people get in that mindset, can you first help us set the stage with maybe some digital access terms? Let’s start there. And then let’s talk about what are some of those different computers that exists in our world.
So we’re going to kind of move into that second bucket of tech I’m talking about, which is sort of like you’re not thinking about elevators or automatic buttons or, you know, older technology, but things like kiosks, or digital interaction to like, do things as mundane as pay for your parking ticket, or place orders in restaurants, or even technology in conferences, or mobile apps, like it’s that type of wide next generation, application of technology that is kind of the field that’s up and coming that people think of when you say technology, or ‘tech’, the tech industry. One of the things we’ve talked about defining is what UX is. And UX is short for user experience. And user experience is like the big umbrella of how people interact with technology, and how we structure and design things. Whether it’s an app, a website, a kiosk, a sidewalk even, all that is into this field called UX. And it’s how we design how people interact with it and how we make it easier, or
sometimes harder for them to use. And so in this context, usually we’re going to be talking about UX is like the user experience of, of an app itself. So the buttons you use, the interfaces you use, and how we think about those things and what, how we design them, because it’s important to remember that every piece of technology you interact with, has been designed for someone. And if you can’t interact with it, it’s probably because it’s not designed with you in mind. And as a UX person and a disabled person. It’s that I see so many users that blame themselves, when they can’t use something. And having both identities there and being like, it’s not your fault. It’s whoever made this’s fault. And you see this a lot with older folks as well, or they blame themselves for not being able to use technology. And a good UX person is going to be like, it’s not you, it’s the interface. We’re not our users. We’re hired to help them. And that’s a good mantra to think about UX.
That’s great, Liz, because, you know, it made me think of the Social Model of Disability, right? And how do we flip that- it’s not the person’s problem, it’s the environment. It’s the tool.
Yeah. And you, you know, honestly, when I first learned about the social model of disability, you know, that there was a model of disability and there was one called the social model. And when I read that definition, I almost like fell over because I was like, this is UX. And I remember like looking around like, there’s no one around me and I’m reading this in some like alone on a computer, I’m like- this is UX!
The way you described it perfectly really mirrored that. And I think that’s a good connection for people to make.
Because it gives some make- creates some accountability too, right?
Exactly like everything in our environment is made- roads, buildings, everything is designed by someone, and those designers and who practition, those things should be responsible for making sure that we think of who’s going to be using them. And when we relate it to disability, you know, we think about how the medical model for so many kids, and I say kids, because it was myself included, how much emphasis as a kid growing up in the 90s was about walking, and how important it was to walk and be normal, to the point where I would like, almost verbally fight with my mother about going to physical therapy, because I didn’t like it. And it was this idea that you had to fit into that model of ‘normal’, which is the medical model. You have to learn to use the thing and be the way it dictates then you realize the social model, which is like it’s okay if she just uses her wheelchair, because that’s what’s easiest. And if she can’t get somewhere with her wheelchair, it’s because they need a ramp, or would they need to provide access. And it shifts the responsibility from the individual to the environment, the society, or the application itself. And that’s a big- makes you feel less alone, especially as a disabled person to realize that it’s not your fault. And there’s no amount of gumption or grit, or effort you can put into
overcoming that obstacle. It’s a community effort. It’s not on you as the individual, which I think is a big game changer for a lot of disabled people.
I think something else important to note here is that access to technology is not mandated under the Americans with Disabilities Act.
They’re not written into the Americans with Disability Act, which I think is a big misnomer that some people have, because that came out in the 90s. And I wouldn’t call myself an expert on this or a lawyer, but tech is not covered under that and in what we think of as tech now, because it just didn’t exist in that same space.
So WCAG (Web Content Accessibility Guidelines) is that sort of the current like gold standard for appearance?
Yeah, for especially regarding like screen-reader support, and the overview of like the technical application of accessibility, that’s where anyone should direct most people to getting started on what that means in the tech world. And they have different levels of accessibility in it. And they
have different like guidelines, and they’re updating them constantly. It’s a collective of professionals being like, this is the standard. And anyone who is good at accessibility will tell you that no guidelines are perfect. And you need to test with people who are using the technology. And anyone who says any different is wrong. You need to test with people too.
That’s a great tip. Because we yeah, we can create parameters informed by user experience. But it has to be combined with that lived-experience perspective in real time, I think that’s really important to note.
So, you started to talk a little bit about some great examples of things in our environment, kiosks, self checkout, at restaurants, all these different ways we’re interacting with computers. And I wondered if you could maybe give a couple examples of digital accessible features. So you mentioned screen-reading as one way that someone can have greater access to tech, can you give some examples of other ways that technology might be adapted for access,
For sure. So everyone has their own type of tools to access technology, and everyone takes different approaches, right? You know, we have magnification of text. It’s one everyone can relate to, like you just zoom-in the text on your phone- that’s an accessibility feature. Text-to-talk is an accessibility feature. Being able to have text read to you is an accessibility feature. One thing stands out to me too, is just using your phone with one hand and not having access to the other hand, I would consider accessibility because not every app, if you look at your phone, you can always manage with your just your thumb and one-handed, there’s people who only have
one hand, just assume as a technology person, someone’s going to be accessing your tech with something other than a mouse and keyboard. You can’t change yourself to fit something that wasn’t built for you.
Well, and the things that you’re saying right now are making me connect back to some other things you and I have talked about, which is sort of as you’ve started your career in the tech world, noticing, not a lot of other people with disabilities, not a lot of other disabled folks in the tech world, right? And those perspectives aren’t always at the table. So any insights there in just thinking about some of the things you’ve noticed about representation in tech?
Yeah. Anyone can be disabled of any type of intersectional group. And so tech has a big problem with that in general representation. And so when we focus just on disability, you know, from my lens, I’ve very rarely worked with someone else in a wheelchair. And most likely not on my direct team. I’ve worked in companies that had other wheelchair users to my knowledge, but not someone on my direct team. So it’s always that lens of like, you come in primed to look for, who are they leaving out? For me tech was a tech was a path to independence of like, I can do this, you know, at the time “despite my disability,” and I can be successful because I naturally thankfully had tech-leanings, for my skill-set. And when you kind of get that far, you’re like- Wait, I thought everybody would have this idea, where are the other disabled people at? And then you kind of break it down a little bit more and see how there are barriers in employment, in general to disabled folk getting jobs. And so, it’s clear the structure of jobs, and how we hire and how we think about having people on our team will leave out people with disabilities. And that is something I noticed when I started working in tech, is there’s these perspectives of people who are designing things, designing with your own biases, your own lens. You’re not gonna think about someone like me who’s a little too short to reach the kiosk that you put on a counter to check into a movie ticket place. And that was a big thing. I remember noticing and being very passionate about and just sort of like a survival aspect of like, it starts out with like, I don’t want to be left out on this. Oh, now I’m seeing ever- a lot of other people are being left out. And I’m the one here. So let’s make sure everyone’s thinking about someone.
Yeah. And I mean, I would imagine, Liz that it’s probably somewhat conflicting for you at times to be the voice at the table and being able to kind of share your lived experience and not wanting the weight of being the perspective of the disability community, right. So is that something that weighs on you?
It naturally felt easier to do that in the work environment, too. But it also means that, like, that’s not me all the time. Right? Like, there are times especially if it’s a stressful week, or if it’s like, if I speak up now, is my job position going to be in jeopardy? That’s the- that’s the other side of the labor of like, not just being able to have the energy to say it, but do I have- how far can I push and still be safe? And the other part of that is like, being the sole person in the workforce of- if I speak up about all these issues, am I going to be seen as a problem or an advocate? And I’ve been very lucky in my career that I’ve been employed in places where that’s celebrated. But it’s definitely not the case for everybody. And it’s probably hurt me in ways that I just don’t realize, honestly. It’s a hard thing for people to confront their own biases when they’re like staring at you. And sometimes people don’t want to deal with them. And tech is still in the sort of like, it’s, I
would call ‘hustle culture.’ There’s an expectation that, overall, you need to work, work, work, and get the job done. And I think some places are better than others about just overall addressing, like the mental health of working, and are you working too much? Are you taking breaks? Like places are realizing that now, which is great, but that it’s still a very tech-centric view of like, productivity over people sometimes. And any employment place that’s really focused on that could hurt their disabled employees more than they realize. Because we’re already trying to usually keep up with what we view as normal based on what is not the disabled-normal. And so it’s, it’s good to be aware of how that culture can impact disabled folks, just in general.
Oh, yeah. I think that’s a great point, Liz. And it’s both your noting sort of an industry culture, and then it zooms down to specific workplace culture, too, right, within companies.
And I wonder, in your work with people, with clients- what are some of the most commonly overlooked aspects of digital access, or perhaps the roadblocks that you most often run into?
Hmm, yeah, I think that’s interesting, especially now, because accessibility is a very big topic in our industry. And then you have to realize, like, there’s a whole community out there of people that you’re not saving, you’re including, and that’s the big gap that the tech industry sometimes
has, is this idea that using tech to save the world is kind of the backbone of this is like, your tech is not saving someone your tech is including someone and that’s the same thing with accessibility. And that’s a big roadblock. And so, tech is sometimes a lot of being like accessibility first, which is great, because it used to you know, if you were asked me this a year or two ago would have been like, accessibility coming in at the end is a huge overlooked aspect as well. And I think the industry is becoming a little more smarter than that now, because it costs so much money to go back and fix things. I’ve been in several projects or just aware of things in the industry of like people who had to go back and like, make everything accessible because they didn’t start out the beginning.
Let’s talk about that for a second. Because I’d love to leave people with some other tips you would have for things, individuals or businesses- what can people do?
First, take a second, okay, and don’t try to solve everything at once. The second thing is, is figure out what disability resource in your community you can contact, because that’s the number one thing I see people doing wrong is they don’t even talk to people with disabilities. They’re just like, we’re gonna make it accessible. And I’m like, Okay, have you ever spoken to a disabled person and been aware of it? If the answer is no, start there! You know, start at WCAG. Look for those guidelines, they’re a good source for starting to dig into that rabbit hole of accessibility. And be wary of experts that promote quick save solutions. They say they can fix something immediately. Don’t trust that. That’s kind of like our top three tips is like- talk to a disabled person, look at the guidelines- start there, they have resources- and don’t trust
anybody who says that they can fix it overnight. And those are the biggest problems I see in the industry right now.
And I think that third one really does connect to what you were saying before with there has to be forethought.
It has to be prioritized in the planning process, or else we’re risking higher costs. More time, right, more effort to be able to undo things rather than do them right the first time around.
Well, it’s been such a pleasure talking to you, Liz and getting to know you, I really enjoyed this and just really appreciate the work that you do. It’s so important. And it’s- I kind of think of the UX designer role as like the superhero kind of behind the screen. Because you know, it’s so important, and your advocacy and your perspective is so important. And I’m hoping we can kind of finish by hearing you give a little bit of a sort of a visual picture, like when you think of an inclusive, usable tech-world. What does that look like to you?
Yeah. Yeah, I’ve been thinking about this a lot, honestly, because technology changes so rapidly. And I think it’s sort of a myth to think something can be fully usable, and hit every case. And that’s one of the cruxes that people fall into and get frustrated by. And so my, my actual picture of a full usable tech-world is one where disabled people are part of that process. And how that looks in the tech way is, there’s multiple ways to use things. And that is what I imagined as a full usable tech world is something that gives me multiple ways to engage with it, and multiple ways to adapt it to myself.
Thank you to my guest, Liz Davis. Today marks the final episode of our fifth season of Amplify Inclusion. We look forward to bringing you all new episodes in the new year. Thank you for your support, and for choosing to be a part of the inclusive movement with Aspire. Please stay connected with us at AspireChicago.com And don’t forget to rate, review, and subscribe to Amplify Inclusion. This episode was co-produced and engineered by Subframe Sound. This season is made possible thanks to generous support from the Fred J. Bruner Foundation, Enterprise Fleet Management, Firstbank Chicago, and members of the Aspire community.
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