E07 – Interview with Sina Bahram – Part 1

Great conversation with Sina Bahram who focuses on Human Computer Interaction. We talk about achieving accessibility as a side effect as opposed to a goal in and of itself, and several great projects he’s been involved with.


Nicolas: Welcome to the Accessibility Rules Podcast. You’re listening to episode 7. This episode has been sponsored by patrons like you. I really do appreciate your support. I’m Nic Steenhout and I talk with people involved one way or another with web accessibility. This week I’m speaking with Sina Bahram. Hi Sina.

Sina: How’s it going?

Nicolas: Pretty good, yourself?

Sina: Doing well.

Nicolas: Good. Hey listen, thanks for joining me for this conversation about web accessibility. I like to let guests introduce themselves. So in a brief elevator pitch, “Who is Sina Bahram?”.

Sina: Sure. I live in North Carolina first of all, in Cary, which is in the Triangle part. I run an accessibility firm called Prime Access Consulting. We do a lot of work with organizations especially in the cultural heritage sectors, like museums, and non-profits oriented around that space but also with start-ups and universities and larger companies on digital accessibility, whether that’s web accessibility, iPhone apps, digital interactives that involve large touch interfaces in museums, and applying the principles of inclusive and universal design to that so those types of experiences and technologies are available to the widest possible audience.

Nicolas: That’s cool. I like the concept of digital accessibility as opposed to just web accessibility. I think that’s important. To get started, tell me one thing that most people wouldn’t know about you.

Sina: Let’s see here. That most people would not know about me. I think this is somewhat common in the tech sector that there’s this whole impostor syndrome, because you’re always doing a lot of things and you always look at other people doing such cool things, and you wonder “man, should I be doing more?”. I would say that much like many of my friends and colleagues I’m subject to that same thing where even though I’m proud of all the work we’ve done I always feel like we could be doing more.

Nicolas: I think that’s indeed quite common. I certainly can relate to that. We’re talking about accessibility. Obviously there are a lot of people that have a lot of different definitions of the concept of accessibility. How would you define that yourself?

Sina: I think it’s important to define accessibility in the context of two other definitions as well, which is: usability and inclusive design. I’ll define all three by way of giving you a full explanation. For me, I define inclusive and universal design (I use those terms interchangeably. Universal design is the more formal definition). I treat that as the concept of “building things for all audiences”, right? You’re including as many audiences up front in the design process all the way through implementation and testing as possible. This leads to things like having a ramp, but not only for someone who uses a wheelchair, it’s beneficial for a parent with a stroller, or people with luggage at the airport, etc, right?

Nicolas: Yeah.

Sina: But then we can take a subset of that, which is to say accessibility. Accessibility to me are those things that we do that specifically benefit someone with a functional limitation or just functional difference than the main audience that was considered. These are somewhat subsets of one another. There’s overlap there. But accessibility to me is the more specific things we do involving assistive technologies and things of that nature, where inclusive design and universal design are the principles that we apply to try frankly limit the amount of accessibility specific things that we do because it’s usable for everybody.

And then I mentioned usability. To me usability is that metric that we use to measure how well we’re doing. Are users less frustrated? Is the visitor to the museum able to access everything and get a content and happy and joyful experience. To me usability is trying to make sure those things are done to the best possible way.

Nicolas: Accessibility as a subset of user experience, really?

Sina: I think so. I think there’s overlap. I don’t know if it’s a perfect subset, but I do think there’s a lot of specificity that comes with accessibility when we talk about descriptions for someone who’s blind or we talk about captions for someone who is deaf. But a lot of those can be extracted out of accessibility and dropped in to the inclusive design category because if you have a roommate for example, and you want to watch TV and you can see and you don’t want to disturb them, you turn the captions on. That’s an inclusive design aspect all of a sudden, that’s not just for deaf and hard of hearing.

Nicolas: I like that. You mentioned a little bit of what you do in your introduction. How would expand on where your role falls within the work of digital accessibility?

Sina: We’ve been involve din a few projects now. My passion tends to revolve around a few different things that drive me. One is scale. Doing things that a lot of people can experience. When you’re working on making a particular museum exhibit accessible and you know over the course of a year a million people will walk through the door, that’s really meaningful. But I also think that the other projects that we tend to be involved in are those really push the forefront of computer science, human computer interaction, machine learning and just novel interfaces and using technology not only to make other technology accessible but also to enhance the accessibility and the inclusive design of the real world, the physical world. Any project that blends those aspects, we tend to be a part of. This can be stuff like MathML, and making digital mathematics accessible on the web, all the way to image description projects. There’s a project I’m involved with called Coyote and we’re trying to describe lots of digital and real life images. Anything that blends those different areas is where we tend to be excited about that kind of work.

Nicolas: That does sound quite exciting. Quite challenging as well, but we’ll get back to that in a little bit. What’s your personal experience of disability?

Sina: I am blind. I have some light perception in left eye but for purposes of functional definition, let’s go with fully blind, I travel with a cane, I read braille, I use a screen reader, etc, etc. I had a little more usable vision as a child and so I would be able to read larger print these kinds of things. I have an innate understanding of some of those visual concepts like colour or occlusion or parallax, these different things that are sometimes difficult to grasp if you’re fully blind and have been since birth because it’s always explained through metaphor as opposed to innate understanding.

Nicolas: Yeah

Sina: But I lost a little more vision when I was 7 or 8 and so therefore you can assume that from that point on pretty much fully blind. That’s definitely affected the way I interacted with the world and the way obviously the world interacts with me. One of the ways I chose to deal with that was.. I remember making a rather explicit decision. It was a rather… It’s one of those weird points. Usually we don’t think of our lives as broken apart into this “oh, THAT moment, right there, where I made a decision”. But that’s what happened with me, and it was at a very young age. 8, 9, 10? Something like that. And I remember just deciding that I was not going to be upset or frustrated by the situation, by the lack of being able to see, and instead just going to go on! Not only make the best of it, but totally not let it bother me. For whatever reason, that decision has stuck with me throughout schooling and academia and into the work that I do.

Nicolas: I think that having spoken with a lot of people with disabilities, that seems to be a common experience. There is a turning point, a moment when things click and you just go forward. Not that it necessarily makes it easier or easier, or you don’t experience frustration along the way but it’s just a different way of thinking about yourself.

Obviously being blind you have a keen interest in accessibility for people who have vision impairments, but how did you reach a point where your thinking about accessibility was in terms other than “just for the blind”?

Sina: We should step back for a second because I have a keen interest visual related accessibility things and accessibility in general obviously because I’m a user of such technologies and approaches. But I spent a lot of time trying not to be the blind guy in HCI or accessibility. When I was in graduate school, I did everything other than Human Computer Interaction: bio-informatics, I looked at protein folding, thought about picking a law degree, computer security, you name it. If it was not accessibility, that was where I was. Then what happened was I just grew so increasingly frustrated at the utter lack of novelty and rigour that was brought to I would say 95%, 98% of the work being done in the space.

And that’s not a disparagement of the accessibility field, it’s just a state of where the whole kind of thinking was around these types of things. To me very simple, they were very targeted, not well… In other words they were either maybe only for beginner users or only for advanced users and nothing in-between. Just all these problems, right? And so, I got in to it! I just kind of sighed and I said “look, this is something I obviously care about, it affects me, and if I’m going to want it done right, I’m going to need to do this myself”. That sort of cliché line. That’s what got me into accessibility and Human Computer Interaction. And when you study HCI, you quickly learn that there’s many sensory differences and limitations. Whether it’s lack of ability to hear or see or process text even though you can see it or process emotions of other folks. Whatever the case may be, there’s a huge spectrum. This led me to study inclusive and universal design which is to me just such a far superior way of thinking about just a framework, a conceptual framework about achieving accessibility as a side effect as opposed to a goal. Because what I started finding was when you go to folks and you go to them with an accessibility centered request or ask “this website doesn’t work with a screen reader” or “your mobile app… XYZ”. You can imagine all of the things that come up as complaints. What happens is that either you get a defensive reaction. You’ll occasionally get a very positive reaction. But it centers the conversation. It focuses it on yourself and your particular disability or need. It doesn’t necessarily move the field forward or the thinking of the person on the other end forward.

What I was interested in, and I think honestly what I’m still interested in, is I would love to work myself out of a job. I don’t want to be doing accessibility and inclusive design. Some people are very scared by that prospect. “Oh my goodness, I’m  scared of automation, I don’t want to lose my…” You know those are very reasonable concerns, but for me I would love to not need to do what I do. Now the downside of that is I happen to find the most incredible group of colleagues and friends in the museum sector that I will always foresee myself playing with them in one way or another. But it doesn’t necessarily need to be accessibility and inclusive design.

Nicolas: It’s funny you say that because I’ve used that line several times. “My ultimate goal is to put myself out of a job because my job wouldn’t be needed anymore”.

Sina: Absolutely.

Nicolas: It’s maybe utopia but I think…

Sina: We need good goals to strive for.

Nicolas: We need good goals, yeah. Whether they are achievable or not in our lifetime, that’s another story.

Which hurdles did you face personally? How did you work on that in your path to get where you’re at?

Sina: There’s the obvious thing. If you grow up with a lack of vision, there are several different elements to that from social interactions at school to obvious things: If you are frankly of any age, and you’re with a friend and the friend can see. You go grab a cup of coffee, you have the person behind the register ask “what will he be having?”, or something along these lines. These types of social things that occur. Those can be very frustrating. Again, going back to that decision, I chose to not let that really affect me as much. It depends. If I’ve been flying for 8 to 12 hours and I’m getting to the hotel at midnight and I’m frustrated, sure, yeah. I might be a little more snippy than usual. I really do try to avoid those types of things bother me because they really do come from a place of ignorance. And the problem, and it doesn’t matter if this is fair, and it doesn’t matter whether this is right, those are things that we need to change societally and from a framework point of view going forward. It’s going to take a while. But when you have a negative reaction to such things, in my opinion, the negative reaction is order of magnitude worse than the positive one that you have. This makes it kind of discouraging but it’s true. It’s going to stick with folks and it’s not going to improve their interactions with other people with disabilities going forward. That’s one aspect of it.

The other challenge of course was that I happen to be interested, you can tell the geek early, science and math, and astrophysics and computers  and things like this at a young age, right? That meant that in school I would take math course and science courses and AP or advanced or whatever. That was definitely a challenge. Convincing the school system that “yes when you’re doing 5 by 5 metrics multiplication no, you can’t have that on an audio CD, are you kidding me?”. Little things like that. Yes, you need braille or accessible textbooks. Or you do need to be able to have access to diagrams that convey certain concepts. Because tactilely feeling them is helpful in this situation. Things like that.

The usual things as well. I had a high school teacher. I was taking calculus in high school and I always use this example because I guess I hold a grudge or something. I remember. I got a 70% or an 80%. I don’t remember what it was. On the exam. Now, I had the exam perfectly correct. 100% of my answers were right. Obviously thought I aced it. But she took off 20 or 30 points because I didn’t draw pictures to show my work. They were related rates problems. Sink faucet drips into  a basin and you have to draw a little diagram to show the rate of flow. I just did all the calculus in my head and wrote down the answers. I remember that sort of thing, and thinking “wow, what an incredible anti-example of teaching and education”. I bring that the work that I do. You want to really do the opposite of that. Which is that if people have different kind of abilities sometimes the standard ways that we have to measure what someone knows or how we should interact with them or whatever the case may be, those need to be re-thought. And in my opinion augmented and improved. I think a lot of folks in society are doing that. They’re thinking about those kind of things now.

Nicolas: I think we’re seeing that more and more. I have been around the independent living movement and disability scene since mid 1990’s and looking back, I think a lot has changed. There’s still a lot of room for improvement but, we really shouldn’t ignore all the advances we’ve made.

You spoke a little bit in your earlier response about the way you approach or answer to tricky situation situations. Positive is better than negative. You said that in kind of a way, it paves the way for other people with disabilities to come behind you. How much of a responsibility do people with disability have in making sure that their interaction leaves other people with a better chance of having positive interactions?

Sina: The technical answer is: None. They don’t have any at all. Everybody is… They’re not beholden to your other disabled peers. If you’re of Asian decent you’re not beholden to your other Asian peers to represent. But what ends up happening is, at least for some folks, and I’ve talked with other people about this, I think that you do have a choice. You could chose to view the world not as a closed system. It’s a large system, but it’s still a closed system. We’re all on the same planet. You could view your role in that as just “you can do what you want and it’s about being happy and fulfilling yourself”. And there’s nothing wrong with that. I just actively chose, as do several people I know, from all different walks of life, disability, disabled, non-disabled, etc. To have positive interactions with people. And that doesn’t necessarily mean positive interactions just because you’re disabled and so therefore they should be having better opinions of disabled people in the future. It just helps every time. I tend to do a lot of travel for example. Last year I was on the road 225 days, 230 days. I’ll go to a hotel and I always try to sweet talk the person behind the desk “you got any upgrades available? I’d really love a suite”. That old adage “you catch more flies with honey than vinegar” I mean, it works. It does work. You’d be surprised how often they’re like “yeah, you know what? No problem I got you”. I think that people respond. There’s a quote by Maya Angelou that I use in some of my talks. She says “people will forget what you said, and people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel”. I think that emotional memory is something worth harping on and worth using if you feel that you want to make the world a better place for either yourself or others. That’s just one way I chose to do it.

Nicolas: I like that quote. It’s pretty good.

What’s your greatest achievement in terms of accessibility, web or otherwise?

Sina: I’m proud of a few projects that I’ll talk about in brief because it’s really hard to pick one. I’m really proud of the work that we did with the Canadian Museum for Human Rights. This is up in Winnipeg and I would argue that this is the most inclusively designed and accessible museum and/or institution on the planet. It was not through lack of trying. We spent years on that project. It was just such a beautiful group of people to work with over there. They adopted inclusive design and accessibility early. I was very good friend with the executive producer on that project and so any technology piece that went through him, went through me for an accessibility touch point or check. Every digital interaction has a screen reader build in. Zoom and screen enlargement. Tactile markers on the floor so that you can feel with your foot or cane to know that right above that tactile marker is where the keypad is and where a braille label tells you to plug in your headphone. Bluetooth support. You name it… Not only ASL, American Sign Language, but also QSL [Quebec Sign Language]. Audio description on every piece of media. Captions all the time. Multi-lingual because English and French, right? All of that. That’s where they started. That was our baseline goal. And it went up from there, to things like tactile replicas of photographs, etc. That project I think was just a really living embodiment of all the stuff that people talk about in terms of inclusive design and you get all these benefits if you design it upfront and accessibility is kind of a side effect that just fall from it. We proved that true, so I’m really proud of the Canadian Museum for Human Rights work.

The other 2 things that I’ll talk about briefly are, one is the work I did with Neil Soiffer firm, a company called Design Science at the time. They make a popular plugin called Math Player. That displays mathematics on the web and also one that lets you author mathematics in things like Microsoft Word. It’s used a lot in universities and educational environments. What we did was we were just tired of math being inaccessible on the web. Any of my friends can go look up an algorithm on wikipedia and they can get a rough understanding of it by just browsing the screen. This was really frustrating, not being able to have that ability. Or to just learn about some cool physics thing online and you want to go read about it. You may not understand passed the second paragraph because you’re not a physicist. But you can at least see the equations and see what people are working on. And I didn’t have that access. So when Math Player is in, Math Player 4, we designed a system that allows you to interact with mathematics. You can navigate the maths. You can zoom in and zoom out, navigate by different chunks and things of that nature. We spent just literally years how to say certain things. Do you say “X over Y”, or do you say “the fraction with numerator Y and X denominator Y”, something like that. That was just really impactful not just because it opened up the world of mathematics for folks who are one generation after me. I would have just loved that in high school, to be able to do that. But it also had an influence on the industry because even though we begged folks like Freedom Scientific, the previous owners of Jaws to implement this kind of support. Until we presented that work, there was no traction. And then all of a sudden what happened 6 months later, you see the largest by market share screen reader implementing math support, even after ten years of all of us clamouring for it. I think that was something else I’m super proud of.

The last one I’ll talk about is the Coyote Project. Coyote is this project that we developed in collaboration with the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago. By the way, another group of just… I sound like a broken record at this point but… I’m lucky I get to chose who I work with these days, so I only work with awesome amazing people. The MCA  Chicago people are no exception to that rule. They are just wonderful. They said “look, we are making a new website we want it to be accessible from the ground up”, that’s why they brought me in. But then they said “oh, and BTW, we have something like 13,000 to 15,000 images and they are going to be on the site. So what’s the game plan there?” And we go through having the discussion “are they decorative or not?”, and they pushed back and they said “no! They’re not decorative and they’re not decorative because we’re an art museum. We’re not the museum of Contemporary come-find-when-our-hours-are on our website. It’s an art museum. That’s what we’re putting on. Our content is the art that we’re putting on the website”. So that needs to have descriptions. We wrote this software tool. It’s a cloud-based workflow tool to facilitate people from all over their organization, all over the museum, to author descriptions of the art. We would pop up and image and you would have a cue. “You have 100 undescribed images”, that kind of thing. Kind of gamified it a little bit. We said “ok, author a description”. Is it a short alt description, is it a longer description? Is it in English or French or Chinese? So we had to have multiple language support. Also we allowed for multiple descriptions of images. Because it turns out if you’re look at museums, most descriptions are authored by, and this is not a disparaging statement, it’s just actually true, middle-aged white women. That’s the population that works in museums. If you think about the lens through which visual language and visual things are described, you might think to yourself “hah! A 22 year old man of colour might have a very different opinion of this historical house in Baltimore in his neighbourhood than a middle aged white lady that works at a museum”. This is just reality.

Nicolas: Fascinating!

Sina: Why not facilitate that? It can support multiple descriptions from multiple authors. It’s a concept we call multiplicity of voices. That project is something that is gaining some traction right now. Other museums are starting to adopt it. It’s gotten decent coverage.  Had a little moment of fame in the New York Times and Chicago Tribune and that kind of thing. It’s one of those things where I want to push that forward because I am tired of dealing with this image description problem. I want to solve that problem and move on to other things. That’s our attempt at systemically solving that problem.

Nicolas: Fantastic. Thank you. Those three projects really do sound liek it’s making a real and significant impact on people’s lives. That’s something to be proud of.

On that note, I’m going to wrap up this segment of our conversation for this week. Sina, thank you for your fantastic and candid answers to my questions.

Sina: Thank you for having me.

Nicolas: We’ll finish our chat next week. Thanks for listening, and until next week, that’s all!

Before I go, I want to thank my patrons once again. And remember, if you need a hand ensuring your site’s accessibility, I’m available. Contact me on my website at http://incl.ca

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