IT Professionals with Disabilities Build Access Themselves
Artur Ortega has seen many developer tools come and go in his nearly 30 years in the IT industry. He is a visually impaired software architect who has previously worked for companies such as The Telegraph and Yahoo. Now head of platform architecture for Babylon Health, Ortega says what drew him to the field was his connection to technology before he went blind at age 17.
“Back then, computers were, for me, the only real option for accessible access to information, books, etc. he says. “It was the early days of text-to-speech, and so, for me, it was a natural avenue for my profession.”
Ortega then studied for a master’s degree in computer science. He says those early days, however, were marked by the same cycle he now sees when it comes to accessibility: two steps forward, one step back. First appeared simple text editors – easy for a screen reader, a tool that allows a blind user to read back what is on the screen, to manage it – then integrated development environments ( IDE) arrived, the majority of which weren’t accessible.
With tools like Microsoft Visual Studio, other issues have also arisen, namely that the browsers used to input code are themselves not accessible. Ortega says part of the reason these cycles repeat themselves is due to the lack of visibly disabled IT professionals in the industry. “We have these similar cycles where developers, because the tools were probably not usable, never knew of other developers being disabled.”
Artur Ortega (pictured) says the industry needs more visibly disabled IT professionals
You can go your own way
One of Ortega’s industry colleagues is Saqib Shaikh, a Seattle-based visually impaired engineer at Microsoft. He says, in his personal opinion, while the industry has made progress on accessibility over the past 20 years, there is still a long way to go. “There have been some great people in the industry who have worked on accessibility and educating people,” he said. IT Professional“Yet I still hear of people being denied jobs because the apps they need aren’t accessible.”
Ortega agrees, saying it goes beyond the tools used to create programs and into a software developer’s own workflow. From ticketing systems to architecture and diagram boards, Ortega points to specific tools like Atlassian Jira and Confluence where he says “modernized accessibility” leaves product usability missing.
One Shaikh created is Seeing AI, which continued to be part of Microsoft’s offerings. Launched in 2017 for English users and recently updated to include five more languages, the app was designed during a corporate hackathon. It’s appropriate, says Shaikh, given his approach to life as a blind man, he is similar to a hacker; it solves personal accessibility issues as they arise.
“That’s when I thought, ‘You know, my being blind is part of who I am; being in emerging technologies is what excites me”. You bring those two things together, and there was this natural intersection of “how do we use artificial intelligence (AI) to help people who are blind?”.
Billed as a “talking camera for the blind”, Seeing AI has multiple channels to help a user accomplish tasks such as reading short texts, using a bar scanner to identify products, describing faces people and correctly identify the currency. There are also preview channels, which allow users to identify a color in their space, or facts about their current surroundings.
“I wanted to blend in”
As for how Ortega gets around accessibility barriers in his daily workflow, he uses tools like the NVDA screen reader alongside the Eloquence speech synthesizer, which allows him to listen very quickly. This combination also reads every piece of code he’s working on, so he doesn’t have to worry about his tools trying to make a coherent sentence from his technical work.
Despite the myriad of tools at their disposal, Ortega and Sheikh repeatedly return to the need for more people with disabilities in the industry. Figures from the US Department of Labor show that the unemployment rate for people with disabilities is about double that of people without disabilities. People with disabilities at all levels of education were also much less likely to be employed than their counterparts without disabilities. Additionally, for those working in the IT industry, 37% feel uncomfortable disclosing their disability at work for fear of discrimination, according to research from the National Cyber Security Center (NCSC) and KPMG.
Asked about previous mentors, Sheikh says that while identifying with a disability is “very personal”, his aim was not to draw attention to himself. Early in his career, for example, he chose to reveal his blindness at the final stages of any application process.
“I guess it’s just my nature,” he explains. “I just wanted to be part of them. I wanted to blend in.” Now, though, he hopes employers understand that people with disabilities have a skill set of incredible value to the IT industry.
“Someone who lives day to day with a disability is probably an expert in their own situation and probably has a toolkit of workarounds that you can’t even imagine.
For Ortega, the message is similar. The more people with disabilities you hire, he explains, the more likely your products are to be accessible and the more positively the cycle can evolve.
“Just walking into the office and other engineers seeing that you have a disability means they’re thinking about the software they’re creating. I had a situation where I walked into the office and other engineers I didn’t know approached me and apologized for the inaccessible software they had developed.
His response – accompanied by a laugh: “I agree – you have the option to change it too. Now.”
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