There are 60 million people with disabilities in the U.S. There are more than 10 times that number around the globe. Yahoo!’s Accessibility team wants to make sure that every one of these individuals is able to use Yahoo as their web site of choice. That will only be possible, of course, if every corner of our network is fully accessible.
While we still have work to do toward that end, we did reach a significant milestone when Yahoo India launched an Accessibility Lab in Bangalore. It is modeled after our Sunnyvale lab, which has demonstrated a variety of assistive technologies to hundreds of Yahoos since it launched in 2008.
Our Accessibility Labs are important tools for engineers who can’t imagine life with a disability. The reality is that not everyone can use a mouse, type on a keyboard, or see the computer screen. We simulate that experience so our developers can learn how to think about users with disabilities during their product development process. We have screen readers to help them understand the experience of a blind user, single switches and onscreen keyboards for physically disabled users, communication devices for kids with speech impairments, etc. More and more Yahoo products are being designed and developed in our Bangalore office, so it became clear that we needed to enhance our ability to train engineers and designers there.
Also, as a global company, we are keenly aware that commercial screen readers are generally out of reach for most blind people living in developing countries. So we’ve sponsored the non-profit NV Access Foundation, which is working on a free, open-source screen reader. Our support will help them improve web features for NVDA for Windows, making it easier for visually-impaired users around the world to browse the Web – especially when they encounter Web 2.0 technologies. And by making NVDA’s screen reader a better product, we’re also helping all the web developers who use it as their testing tool.
Victor Tsaran is one of those people who leaves people with a long lasting impression. He grew up in a Ukrainian orphanage and is now a talented computer engineer in the U.S. He’s an accomplished musician and songwriter. And he also happens to be blind.
Victor runs Yahoo!’s accessibility program. He helps make it easy for people with all kinds of disabilities to use our sites. When I first met Victor, I had the same naïve reaction most people have – dumbfounded by how he could crank open his laptop and be fully self-sufficient reading email and surfing the web. That’s because I was clueless about all the remarkable ways that people with disabilities use technology.
Victor’s made it his mission to educate our designers and engineers, helping change their assumptions that accessibility somehow requires sacrifice or compromise. On the contrary, Victor argues that accessible design is better for everyone. Just as curb-cuts were designed for wheelchairs, they’re also a great convenience for strollers, luggage and shopping carts, right?
But driving the point home sometimes means making someone walk a mile in his moccasins. Enter the Yahoo Accessibility Lab, which has been toured by more than 75 product teams to date. It’s filled with a wide array of assistive technologies – screen readers, onscreen keyboards, interactive Braille displays, etc. When Yahoos arrive, they’re told they’ve just had a stroke and can’t type with their fingers. They’re given a rubber ball and asked to type their name. Um… Next, they’re fully paralyzed. “OK, try to send an email.” Uh… After they’re introduced to the technology solutions, they watch videos of disabled people in action.
All this leaves developers making accessibility a goal before they write their first line of code. It’s why anybody can access rich features and tools on products like Yahoo Sports, My Yahoo!, Yahoo Finance, Yahoo News, Yahoo Search, Yahoo Messenger for the iPhone. It’s why third-party websites that are inaccessible in their own right are now entirely accessible via the new “favorites” area on the Yahoo Homepage. Victor has helped Yahoo make enormous strides since joining us four years ago, but there’s still more to come.
We spent some time following Victor with a video camera to not only understand his work, but to appreciate his daily experience. Commuting by train. Playing guitar. Making lunch with his wife Karo Caran, a fellow student from the Overbrook School for the Blind. We watched as sighted people had their first awkward interactions with him. He laughs when he describes how often people raise their hands when he asks questions during his new hire orientation briefings. Well-meaning commuters sometimes escort him to the wheelchair zone on the train platform. It took me a while to realize he’s not offended by questions like “Did you see my email?”
Spend any amount of time with Victor and you realize that his blindness doesn’t really make him all that different from anyone else – except that his computer talks to him. Really, really fast.
Sometimes being friendly pays off! Watch what happens when a purple, talking mailbox shows up on a street corner. The Yahoo Mailbox surprised New Yorkers on a sunny afternoon in Brooklyn and Manhattan and made a bunch of new friends along the way. Thanks to all my NY friends, it was great talking to you and can’t wait to meet the locals in Chicago. Follow me to find out where I’m off to this summer at facebook.com/yahoomail.