As part of the 11th Annual Global Accessibility Awareness Day (GAAD), we interview Kara Zirkle, an educator and consultant at Dell. Kara has been in the field of accessibility for a long time, starting while still in college at George Mason University. She’s always had an interest in technology, especially with assistive technology and Section 508 coming into the conversation. From there, her career path has chosen itself and allowed her to work in government, non profits, corporate, and accessibility service companies. Within that, she’s been able to focus her career on accessibility as a Subject Matter Expert (SME), across all of these areas and it’s her passion to be able to really integrate accessibility into the infrastructure of the business and the enterprise to be able to make it more accessible for everyone.
with Kara Zirkle of Dell Technologies | Dell Digital
[Juan:] Hi, this is Juan Olarte from Digita11y Accessible. We hope you enjoy today’s episode.
Today we have Kara Zirkle, she is an educator and consultant at Dell. Kara is going to be one of our presenters at our Global Accessibility Awareness Day taking place on May 19, from 10am to 2pm. Kara, welcome, and we’re very happy to have you here.
[Kara:] Hi, thank you Juan, I’m very happy to be able to present for this.
[Juan:] Excellent, Kara, can you tell us a little bit more about yourself?
[Kara:] Sure, I have actually been in the field of accessibility early on. I started actually while still in college, wanting to do more with assistive technology, and Section 508 kind of started to pop up a little bit. And I’ve always had an interest in technology. From there, my career path has kind of chosen itself, and it’s allowed me to work in government, non profits, corporate, accessibility service companies, you name it. So, within that I’ve really just been able to focus my career on accessibility as a Subject Matter Expert (SME), across all of these areas and it’s my passion to be able to really integrate accessibility into the infrastructure of the business and the enterprise, be able to make it more accessible for everyone.
Kara’s Role At Dell
[Juan:] That’s excellent, thank you so much, and Kara, at Dell, what do you currently do?
[Kara:] I am a Product Manager for the education track. So, with that, I am helping build our Education Accessibility Champions Education Program. We also oversee some things
such as our internal website as well as various different ad hoc webinars and things, but I’m also a consultant. So, with that as a SME, I help with building a program around accessible multimedia or accessible documents for Dell, as well as help across various different other teams to answer questions around accessibility, focusing a lot on that of procurement and other areas.
[Juan:] That’s great, Kara, and quick question for you – So, right now, you mentioned about the procurement topic. At any of your other jobs did you also have to deal with procurement, or has it only been at Dell?
[Kara:] Oh, no, it’s something I’ve worked on for a long time. It actually started when I was at George Mason University, back in about 2007. I was one of the first hires for Web Accessibility Specialists there and part of that was, we were to build an accessibility program at the University. And I was looking at that of web accessibility and procurement. So, we started there actually building out an enterprise committee that would look at not just accessibility but also, security, integration, compatibility, as well as procurement. just to make sure that we were really, checking off all the boxes that we were following. So, when we would purchase something, it would be compatible and usable across the board. And I was able to take the knowledge that gained there as that project that we kind of started from the, from the ground up and use that at various other universities as well as accessibility services. and now here at Dell.
Procurement Process and Accessibility Checkpoints
[Juan:] Oh, that’s amazing. I love the fact that you’re actually putting accessibility in the same group as security. I think both of them are super important. So, Kara, when you’re working with other organizations, or, within the procurement process are there specific, specific checkpoints that you have to add in order to ensure that organizations meet accessibility requirements?
[Kara:] Oh, that’s a loaded question but the short answer is yes. You know it really starts with educating the employees that are looking to purchase software, or even you know, design and development services around incorporating accessibility and making sure that they are looking at vendors that can provide the business need, but also, the accessibility need. But then it’s also working with the vendors themselves and educating them to where, do they know what a Voluntary Product Accessibility Template is, A VPAT for short? If they don’t, helping them understand what the customers are going to be asking them for and how that provides
insight for them. You know, from there, it’s just a lot of questions around if they test with individuals with disabilities, do they have accessibility as part of their priority? Is it in their SLAs? There’s a lot of different questions that you can build from there.
[Juan] That’s actually very good. So, when you mean whether it’s building on their SLAs, what happens when, and you mentioned about the education portion of it, which I think is really important for both employees as well as those organizations trying to sell you products. But if they don’t have it within the SLA, do you have a specific template you can use, and pretty much guide them to it or that’s when the education takes place, and you’re going to be looking at your organization type of needs?
[Kara:] I would really start with working with your Procurement and your Legal to have contractual language built into the contract itself, and that becomes your template. There are still templates that you can create around, a series of questions to be able to ask vendors whether it’s more of an RFI and information time period to find three to five vendors to then
be able to cut down to what’s the top two, and then ask another series of questions from there. But when it comes to SLAs, it’s really more the criticality of the issues themselves. So, if it is a severe, you know, issue in regard to what we define as accessibility, you know, high and critical issues are usually what we see that create an issue for individuals with disabilities to where they cannot achieve what they set out to do. And in that instance, is it equal to you know, individuals not being able to achieve, you know, submitting a form or whatever else it might be for that SLA, finding those equals across the board, you can still, identify and use that, regardless of whether there’s a template in hand, for that specific SLA.
[Juan:] That’s interesting, and then, so, we talked about a little bit about SLA’s as well as the procurement process. But when dealing with different organizations, you’re going to have big and small. Now, usually the smaller organizations are going to be more accommodating in terms of trying to meet your needs. But how do you deal with those big organizations? Let’s say Microsoft, which already has huge programs and may be more difficult for them to try to make their products accessible to your standards, because obviously, they’re also working on accessibility, but they may not be there in all areas. Is there specific language that you have to go or if you guys already are in talks, and accessibility hasn’t been part of that process, how do you bring that up?
[Kara:] It’s really one that you bring it up just as easy as what you would asking me about security. It’s just knowing to bring it up, is really the part of what we’re asking is, do you know to bring it up? Do you know how to bring it up? Do you know some of the questions
to ask? You might be the first company to ask the question about accessibility to a vendor, but I can promise you, you won’t be the last. You know, accessibility, WCAG – the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines has been around for 20 plus years now, so, it’s one of those, if a company is not aware of accessibility, how ever you ask the question, then that shows a red flag of some sort of where they keep it as a priority.
Accessibility Questions For Vendors
[Juan:] That’s interesting. So, in terms of questions for our listeners out there,
what are the top three questions they should be asking their vendors, to try to qualify them in terms of whether or not they have a product, which is accessible or not?
[Kara:] Before I would even ask the question, I would look on their website to see if they have an Accessibility Statement. If that statement is public, then you already know they have some awareness and some due diligence. If they don’t, then that would be one of the questions that I’d be asking is do you have an Accessibility Statement or point of contact that I can talk to? If it’s going to be for a product, then a VPAT – Voluntary Product Accessibility Template applies, then asking if they have that would be a good question just because, they don’t know what that is again, accessibility has been around. It kind of gives you a little bit of an insight on their awareness. You know, another question I would look at is, do they do user testing with disabilities? These are some common questions that you can ask that apply to things that designers may already be doing is user testing. It’s just, are they incorporating another layer of that? Those are some quick questions that I would think of, but there’s a lot of things that we can do around accessible procurement.
[Juan:] Yes, that’s important. I believe that user testing is super important, especially when they look at different types of disabilities. My question is how you deal with vendors that only concentrate on people who are blind and only use screen readers? Oftentimes, I see that’s the only thing that they try to do, and they neglect other type of disabilities. If you deal with them, how have you been able to bring that up to them, to ensure that they have to have their VPATs, or the specific checkpoints made for different types of disabilities?
[Kara:] Asking the question how they do accessibility testing is great because sometimes, you know, I’ve seen a VPAT that you just shown automated testing done because there is a section
within a VPAT that asks you what is your testing methodology that you use? So, if it only shows automated testing or only shows manual testing or perhaps only shows I have a screen reader,
then you automatically know it’s not incorporating all areas so that we might be missing low vision, such as zoom text, or we might be missing Dragon NaturallySpeaking. So, there are some quick, easy ways that individuals can learn to look at a VPAT to identify how well the testing might have been done. And if you can’t identify that, then it’s really going and asking the companies who have tested this, have you tested internally? There could be some bias to that, even though they don’t mean to. Or are they using a third-party company to do that testing? Because that’s ultimately what the customer’s going to be looking for is, if I’m going to a company to say, do you have a VPAT for this product? Let’s say Microsoft or Adobe because they have all of their VPATs on their websites. I’m not having to look for it. I’m automatically searching on their page, and I can access that. But then let’s say I don’t know who created that. If they can say, we used Company X to do all of our testing, then I now know there isn’t a bias and there’s actually updated information. So, there’s also the testing report behind that, that I could maybe ask the next step of, is there a roadmap to the areas that aren’t accessible yet? So, as long as you start to identify questions to ask any answer given, will allow you a next question to ask to be able to kind of go down the rabbit hole.
[Juan:] I really like that answer. So basically, what I’m hearing from you is to make sure we have a VPAT, or the company has a VPAT. Second, obviously is that VPAT is going to be public and it’s going to outline what company helped them with that evaluation. And after that, for those elements that are not accessible, for them to have an actual roadmap in terms of how they’re going to achieve accessibility, Correct?
[Kara:] That is the ideal situation. When I’ve been on a customer side asking the question, working with a lot of software vendors. If I can easily access a VPAT then I have a window view into how accessible that might be. Or how inaccessible or partially, right. And then from there, I can say, okay, if you have these areas that are not yet accessible, what is your roadmap and how soon do you think that there could be more accessibility built into it? So, if I’m looking at a year contract and they’re telling me it’s going to be five years before it’s fixed then I have a red flag to where then I can actually identify, well, what can some accommodations be in this case? Is it going to be a required application for someone to use as part of their job? Then it gives me more information on my end to know what to do, for the employees that I’m working with in the company that I’m with that’s purchasing the software.
[Juan:] Oh, that’s an excellent question. So do you also have, because I guess at this point, you’re going to have to work not only with the vendor, but with the internal client, which is going to be part of your organization, whether or not somebody who is going to be performing
a specific job or utilizing the application is going to have a specific type of disability. In that case, if you don’t identify somebody having a disability, but you may think that eventually maybe there could be somebody with a disability or it could be, somebody who may be able to utilize specific features. Do you bring that up? Or do you guys create exceptions within the procurement process?
[Kara:] I’ve brought it up before. Like I said, you know, I have a lot of various different backgrounds. So, when working in education, it’s commonly known as an EEAAP, an Equally Effective Accommodations Action Plan. Sometimes the action is changed, but it’s essentially asking the vendor, okay, we know that these are not going to be accessible, so what’s an accommodation that you can provide as an interim. So then that way that documentation can then sit with maybe your disability services. If it’s for students, it can maybe sit with your HR. If it’s an accommodation for an employee and you’re really asking the vendor, what can you do for us? We want to use your program. It is maybe one of the more accessible out there, but it’s still causes some barriers. So, what can you do for our users to still be able to do something? Maybe it’s an accessible PDF that provides text rather than a financial application that’s not accessible. Can it still port out an accessible PDF? I’m just making an example there, but what are some alternative ways? Publishers is a great example because publishers, textbook publishers, you know they have a lot of learning management systems now that go along with the textbooks themselves, and not all of those courses are made accessible and doing so some topics are a little more difficult than others. And there was one publisher that would ask this question of what can you do to make it more accessible as equally effective? They offered the images for a 3D printer that could allow the universities to print the 3D image of that table or charter graph for a statistics course. So that was an effective EEAAP that was provided from a vendor to a university to still allow individuals access. And what happened was when that 3D image was passed out to the entire class, not only were those individuals with disabilities able to have a tactile feel, but individuals who were better visual learners finally had an aha moment that was able to connect the storyline of what was being taught with that of the graph because they were able to see it. So, it actually benefits far more sometimes for your learning environments than just supporting individuals with disabilities.
[Juan:] I love that example, that’s a great example of how accessibility not only helps people with disabilities, but also helps everybody else. That’s great. That’s great.
What Does An Accessible World Look Like
So, Kara, have a few other general questions for you. What does accessibility mean to you?
[Kara:] Accessibility, in a perfect world, is everyone has the ability to independently achieve,
anything from the Web regardless of their disability. A lot of people think accessible means
because it’s on the web, they can access it. But if we look at that generic term, third world countries, rural areas with poor Internet, the web is not accessible to everyone, regardless of a disability. But let’s take that definition and apply it so broadly that individuals with disabilities are no different than those in rural areas. When we are trying to use the generic statement of what is accessibility, what is accessible, mean and truly make the web an accessible place for everyone.
[Juan:] That’s great, that’s great. And the reason I’m saying that’s great is because my next question will be how do you think accessibility can help the world? So, I think our portion of
it was answered, but do you have any more thoughts on that?
[Kara:] No, it’s just we have a long way of going and as technology you know, evolves, there’s always going to be something new that we can do. I look forward to seeing what another 5, 10, 15 years is going to look like.
[Juan:] For sure. Now, what can individuals do to ensure their own organizations are accessible? Knowing that there are just a few people that are going to be able to really have the decision-making? But what can a regular person do to try to help people with disabilities?
[Kara:] Start becoming an advocate. I mean, asking the question, is your product accessible? Or is my website that I’m designing and developing accessible? Start using some automated tools
to check for accessibility. Start reaching out to companies to get manual testing involved. It only takes, one person to be able to make a change. It’s just you going to voice it enough to be able to make it be heard.
[Juan:] Yes, for sure. And I just want to go back because obviously you have a lot of experience
working in multiple organizations. Maybe if you can talk to me a little bit in terms of how accessibility has changed or even the perception of accessibility has changed over the last 15, 10 years?
[Kara:] You know, accessibility. You know, 15 years ago was so unheard of. A lot of a lot of companies didn’t have an accessibility individual. It was hard to find someone that had accessibility knowledge. If anyone was doing anything, it was only testing. Federal Government,
they have something called a Trusted Tester Program because there’s so many federal governments here in The States that, if one is testing and that same application is used across five other government agencies, why do those other four or five have to test? If you have a Trusted Tester Program, then they can test one and be used across the system. So that’s a lot of what was looked at originally was just testing and it was testing for accessibility. But when accommodations were thought of or when Dragon NaturallySpeaking to add to that testing and things like that were thought of, it was not as easily integrated because it was 15 years ago. If we look at it today, you know, we have more individuals speaking out about their disabilities,
being proud of it. Which is a great thing to see because it’s becoming, it’s becoming equal in that instance to where, if someone chooses to self-disclose, that’s one thing. But having the ability to not have to self-disclose because you can still access everything on the web is a very beautiful thing because ultimately, we, if someone needs an accommodation, that accommodations should truly be something for captioning, should maybe be an accessible document, could maybe even be sign language. Something that is truly an alternative
to what the web is providing. And 15 years ago, we didn’t have that option. Today, we have more accessibility built in to where more people are able to access what they need the first time around without having to ask for a secondary option.
[Juan:] I love their answer, Thank you so much.
Kara, I really appreciate you being here with us,
and I look forward to your presentation.
[Kara:] Great thanks, Juan. I look forward to it.