As part of the 11th Annual Global Accessibility Awareness Day (GAAD), we interview Jennison Asuncion, the co-founder of GAAD and Head of Accessibility (A11Y) Engineering Evangelism at LinkedIn. He tells the fascinating story how the idea for GAAD got its spark, why he decided to move to Silicon Valley, what he accomplished during his time in Toronto to accelerate digital accessibility, and also talks about some of the differences in the digital accessibility scenes of the Bay Area vs Toronto.
with Jennison Asuncion of LinkedIn
[Juan:] Hi, this is Juan Olarte from Digita11y Accessible. Welcome to our Accessibility 101 podcast series. We hope you enjoy today’s episode. I would like to introduce Jennison Asuncion. He will be our keynote speaker at the Global Accessibility Awareness Day event for Digita11y Accessible, taking place on May 19, from 10am to 2pm. Jennison, welcome, and thank you so much for being the keynote speaker. Can you tell us a bit about you?
[Jennison:] Sure, and thanks for inviting me Juan. And hello everyone. I am Jennison Asuncion, and while I live now currently in the Silicon Valley, I am proud to say that home, my previous home was in Toronto. So, which is where I started my digital accessibility career back in 2006. With RBC IT Accessibility Team, so big shout out to RBC, where I learned everything I needed to about accessibility enough so that I, in 2013, got recruited by LinkedIn to come here. And I am now head of “Accessibility Engineering Evangelism” which is a lofty title, but part of my role involves making sure our engineers, web, iOS and Android get the training and education they need as well as the day to day support that they need through things like office hours, and Slack channels and stuff like that. So I’ve got folks working for me who tend to that activity, I am also part of the accessibility leadership team here at LinkedIn to help guide our longer term strategy to make us the most inclusive platform out there.
Accessibility in Ontario vs The US.
[Juan:] Ah, that’s a lot. And I know, on top of being part of Linkedin and having worked on RBC, I know you have a lot, a lot more experience. So maybe Jennison, can you tell us a bit more between the difference of the Ontario scenes for accessibility and what your experiencing at the Bay Area?
[Jennison:] Right. So, when I was in the Ontario scene, I mean, you folks are so lucky in Toronto, to have such a vibrant scene, from an just enthusiasm perspective. there’s a, you know, you’ve got schools like OCAD University, who has the Masters in Inclusive Design, there’s Disability Studies being taught out at York. So from an academia perspective and I think there’s something at Ryerson too before I get in trouble. there’s a lot of interest from that end. I know from a startup scene perspective, there’s some work being done to get people more involved on the startups and accessibility. And you have so of course, have #a11yTO Which has its roots in something I started back in 2011. I started The Accessibility Meetup Group back in 2011 as well as Accessibility Camp. I think I started accessibility, The Meetup in 2012. I want to get this right. And the Meetup… Excuse me! The Meetup was in 2012, the Camp was in 2011. And I’m proud to see that The Meetup is still going strong in Toronto. And the Camp has kind of morphed into this large conference, conference, #a11yTO which is like a signature digital accessibility event in Toronto. I’d say like, the biggest difference, of course is the fact that the Bay Area is home to Silicon Valley. So, it’s just so exciting to be out here, where a lot of the you know, accessibility efforts are anchored at the large companies like Google, like LinkedIn and all the other big tech companies that are here. I would say that the one thing that does surprise in Toronto is given with AODA and things like that, one would think that there’d be a lot more jobs in companies in Ontario and also companies that are headquartered in Toronto and as well as you also have Kitchener-Waterloo, but I still have yet to see a lot of job postings and things that would suggest that there are a lot of people employed in the digital accessibility scene in the Toronto area, so that’s something I would say is a marked difference that I haven’t yet seen between The Bay Area and Toronto. So that while the energy is there, and there’s so much enthusiasm, and people want to advocate for accessibility, the number of actual full-time people working in digital accessibility in the GTA and by extension, Kitchener-Waterloo to me is still smaller than it should be.
[Juan:] That is an actual, very interesting thought. Would you attribute that to maybe the lack of a understanding for organizations here in Canada or in Ontario, really understanding what is accessibility and what you need to comply versus what is taking place in the States?
[Jennison:] To be honest, I’m not sure if it’s that or if it’s just companies in Canada, yes to your point maybe because there’s a lot more legislation and there’s a lot more activism in the US around digital access and inclusion. Maybe that’s why, as opposed to in Canada, maybe that’s partially why I think the AODA, I know it’s been strengthened, but I don’t know if there’s been as much enforcement of the AODA so that companies Ontario in particular, really have felt, how important it is that they need to make their digital properties accessible. I am not 100% sure but it has, it has puzzled me that it hasn’t been bigger. There hasn’t been bigger take up.
[Juan:] I actually agree with you, I think perhaps AODA needs to have a bit more teeth in order to reinforce the mandates. I want to go back a little bit in terms of the Accessibility Camp, well actually I met you at one of the meetups. That’s how I first met you met you, and obviously going to camp. But I know once you left the Toronto scene you started the accessibility meetups at the Bay Area. And maybe can you walk us a little bit what make you say Okay, I’m leaving the accessibility scene here in Toronto. I’m going to go work in the Bay Area, I think it’s going to be important for me to also start something here?
[Jennison:] Yeah, I mean, from a practical perspective I needed an excuse, to meet other people who work in digital accessibility here in the Bay Area. And in the absence of any community, that stuff is important to me that there be a place for people who are interested in digital accessibility to come together and whether it’s through the monthly meetup or whether it’s through camp, I think that’s important to have that opportunity to network I saw the power of it myself when I first went to my Accessibility Camp event in Washington DC, back in 2009. And I just, it was magical, to see people who came together who were just enthusiastic, they weren’t all necessarily working in digital accessibility, and that’s part of what makes both The Camp and The Meetup that important. Because you get people who either who work in accessibility 100% of their time together with people who don’t work in it at all, but who are really passionate about it, or who might do it, like maybe voluntarily. And then you get them together, with end users with different disabilities or impairments So there’s a really interesting mix and the buzz that that that happens, whether it’s at The Meetup, or whether it’s at the camp, it’s just something that is, to me it’s like I said, it’s magical, and it brings the energy, and of course you know, people connect, and there’s so many opportunities to collaborate and to partner that happen at these events. So, it to me it makes it all worth it.
[Juan:] I agree. I think it’s sort of magical, getting people meeting from different parts of the world, or even from the city organizations to talk about accessibility, and how we can help people with disabilities and that’s great.
The tweet that sparked GADD
[Juan:] Now with that, I do have one last question, which is going to be about Global Accessibility Awareness Day. How did it come to be? You started The Accessibility Camp here in Toronto, The Bay, as well as The Meetups. You also are one of the co-founders for the GAAD event. So, I would like to hear more about it.
[Jennison:] Back in 2011, my co-founding partner Joe Devon wrote a blog post in November, after Joe’s dad just had really bad experiences using a banking website. Joe’s dad was getting old, and as people age, you know, his hearing and his vision were starting to deteriorate. And so Joe watching his father trying to struggle using the website, got him to writing this blog post. And so Joe wrote this post, just basically saying that, you know, developers need to have a better understanding of accessibility. At minimum they should learn, like, what a screen reader is, they don’t know any of that stuff. And there needs to be a day, a global day, where this can happen. Now keep in mind, as I mentioned before that I had started, the Accessibility Camp in 2011 and The Meetup in 2012. So I had already been interested in that kind of stuff. I’d also helped start the Accessibility unConference in Boston in 2010. And so I already was into this kind of like community building, if you want to call it that, or industry building. So Joe published that blog post and his blog post, which he keeps, he mentions really didn’t get that much viewership. But one of the things it did is it sent out an automatic tweet that basically said, you know, Joe Devin published this blog post what was it? Accessibility Needs to go Mainstream Now. I think it was what it was called. And so the blog post was auto tweeted on this random Saturday in 2011, in November, and I just happened to be home. in my in my apartment in Toronto, downtown Toronto. And there was no like, there’s no reason why I should have even seen that tweet and I just happened to. So I, I activated the link, and I read the blog post. And I was like wow, this is amaze…, like look at this like, on the heels of camp, and unConference in Boston and Meetup in Toronto, here’s this blog post and so I responded to Joe. And yeah, the rest is history. So that was in 2011. Excuse me, I’m getting all the years mixed up. Yes, this was in 2011. So I had not started The Meetup, yet. The Meetup actually started, in 2012 as part of the first Global Accessibility Awareness Day event in Toronto, and it was thanks to Uta and her crew. And at that time, it was at, at OCAD, Where we did that. Ya, so that’s where it started. Joe and I got on the phone in 2011. And we kind of just talked about it, he and I didn’t know each other. And we just chose a random date. We said, May 9, let’s try this out and then Joe and I just called people in different countries and friends of ours. I made some phone calls to people like Shilpi Kapoor in India, and folks in Wales and Australia, just random people and said, could you run an event on this day, on May 9. Fast forward, we ultimately moved the date from May 9, because that was conflicting with holidays in Europe and it is now on the third Thursday of May. And so if you go to the website: accessibility.day, you can read up about all the different events that will be happening, for the day! So that’s how it started, It was just totally by total accident. You know, the blog post, the auto tweet. Me actually seeing the tweet go live and then responding to it and then Joe and I kind of coming together. And interestingly, you know, from a purely Canadian perspective Joe Devon is originally from Canada. So this is a Canadian born, if you will.
[Juan:] Yeah, I didn’t know that. I thought he was from the States.
[Jennison:] Yeah, no. So and Joe, at the time was a developer in Los Angeles.
[Juan:] Interesting. Ah Jennison again, thank you so much for taking the time to speak to us about Global Accessibility Awareness Day and for being part of our event. I really appreciate it.
[Jennison:] Thanks for inviting me.