The mirror of empathy


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The past few months have caused many of us to reflect, speak up and start sometimes uncomfortable—yet, necessary—discussions. First looking in the mirror, then grabbing the arms of our friends, family, neighbors and coworkers and asking them to do the same. That has also extended to the people we do business with.

For example, some have been critical of companies that have released empathetic statements showing support for ending inequality, while at the same time not having addressed inequality within the walls of their own companies. A great way for organizations to address that is to ask the right questions.

Do we have a diverse employee base? Do we have employee resource groups that help create a culture of diversity and inclusion? What’s our community outreach like? Who’s on our board of directors? What are our accessibility policies?

No one’s perfect, but that reflection in the mirror is staring back at us, waiting.

Now what?

Diversity needs access

The question of accessibility is an interesting one. If you’re a company that creates software, web applications or other web technologies, but you don’t dedicate time and resources to proactively create access for users with disabilities or other challenges, are you unintentionally limiting access?

Because the first step toward diversity is access – for everyone.

Just last week, for example, a tech company unveiled new audio functionality without considering how it would affect users with impaired hearing or vision.

Now the company has a decision to make as it looks in the mirror. After all, is there a more real or tangible way to show the world you care about diversity than by building it into the very thing you’re selling?

That’s why you need a diverse set of stakeholders who can vet your products and services, and speak to their cultural implications. Because, if you overlook a population that uses your products or solutions, you’re essentially denying them access. If it’s a key piece of functionality, you need to make sure you open the door as wide as possible.

Over the last three years, Hyland has made great strides in this area. I myself am grateful 100 percent of my job is now focused on accessibility. Meanwhile, we’ve launched initiatives like voluntary product accessibility template courses for software testers, third-party testing with the Cleveland Sight Centers and an employee resource group for accessibility.

There are many other exciting things happening, too, for example:

  • Developers can now reference internal best practices and other documentation as we build our new platform and modern apps
  • I provide guidance to our Design System team, allowing development to leverage our specified requirements to create reusable and accessible components
  • Product owners now have a reference guide on how to incorporate accessibility testing and acceptance within their teams
  • Teams can request dedicated accessibility audits on their apps from user experience resources
  • Members from Workday’s product accessibility have offered us their insights on challenges and successes of building an accessibility program (Spoiler alert, Hylanders!)

Access for everyone

Lots of great stuff and yet … is it enough?

I myself have no disability to speak of. Corrective lenses give me crisp 20/20 vision, I can tell the difference between green and red, I go for a run every weekend, play guitar whenever I want and can hear these keys as I type.

OK, my hearing is a little shot from years of playing rock ‘n’ roll and listening to abrasive noise pop, but it’s still largely intact.

As we move from a world of physical boundaries to virtual ones, what is the responsibility of software and web-app developers as we blaze new territory toward information access?

This moment has a lot of us thinking, reflecting. Our desire to empathize with others has led us to this pivotal moment where we can affect real change in our personal and professional lives.

Empathy in and of itself is an undeniably powerful human emotion, for a moment. Then life happens, new problems arise and before you know it, you’re too distracted to empathize. Life simply goes on … for some.

For others, a lost moment could be an eternity. My job is to make sure that never happens. My goal is to make every moment spent using our solutions an opportunity – for everyone.

In his famous letter from the Birmingham jail, Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.”

While we’re having these fundamental discussions about diversity and inclusion, I say we expand the conversation to the tech world. I would love it if, every day, when we look in the metaphorical mirror, we see someone who is figuring out ways to expand the bounds of technology to give access to all who are looking for it. Because diversity needs access.

Joe Shearer is a graduate of Kent State University and a research analyst specializing in product accessibility and compliance.
Joe Shearer

Joe Shearer

Joe Shearer is a graduate of Kent State University and a research analyst specializing in product accessibility and compliance.

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