Meryl Evans, digital marketing consultant, speaker, author, and presenter for AccessibilityPlus 2021.
Accessibility is not just digital, it’s also real life.
Meryl Evans, advocate and content marketer, has spent her entire career working to improve access to online technology and effective communication. Meryl Evans is a social media marketer, writer, editor, and public speaker. She is currently serving as Marketing and Captioning Specialist for Diamond.
You can hear more from Meryl Evans this October at AccessibilityPlus 2021.
Interview with Meryl Evans, digital marketing consultant, speaker, author, and presenter for AccessibilityPlus 2021.
Transcript for Interview with Meryl Evans, digital marketing consultant, speaker, author, and presenter for AccessibilityPlus 2021.
John Griffin: Welcome to Accessibility Matters. Thank you for joining us today. I’m John Griffin, and I am the publisher of Accessibility Matters, and also the publisher of Accessibility.com. So, if you’ve seen these sessions before, you’ve seen me talk to some varied persons of great interest, and knowledge and experience.
My guest today is possibly one of my favorite people to interview simply from this standpoint. The great part about my job is that I work every day with people that came into this industry in service to disabilities. They didn’t come into the industry like most of us do for profit, for economics, to use their educations, although they do some of that, but they came into it with a passion. They come into this business with a passion that drives them. It’s either personal, or it’s empathetic.
But in some way, shape or form, they have decided that it’s very, very important that they turn their lives over to an awful lot of work that drains them, that enables them in many different ways to find out and expand their knowledge. And sometimes they wind up making a few bucks. But the fact of the matter is that they’re not motivated by that.
They’re motivated by what they can do to make accessibility matter for those persons that need it the most. And sometimes, as in the case of this guest, you’re going to find out that she’s among those persons that need it the most. She’s met the challenges of disability and she has conquered them, and has put together a career that has lasted decades. She’s a remarkable person. Say hello to Meryl Evans. Hi, Meryl.
Meryl Evans: Hey, John. How are you today?
John Griffin: We’re good today. I usually like to try to start these discussions out, trying to find out -- I mean, you’ve been a very, very successful business person. And you’re honored in so many different ways by so many different people. Anybody that goes to your LinkedIn page and starts to look through your references and what they have to say about you will probably do the same thing I did.
They’ll sit there and they’ll get to about 10 or 15 of them and say, okay, [inaudible 00:03:05] I think I’ve got it -- I think I understand what’s going on here. But really, Meryl, how did you get here? How did you get to the ground that you’re standing on today?
Meryl Evans: The smart answer would be my parents of course, but I know that’s not what you’re asking me. So, I got here, when I went to college, my major was education. I never planned to be a teacher, but I love education so much that I pursued a degree despite not -- no plan to be a teacher.
And of course, everybody said, oh, you want to be a teacher for the deaf and all that. And I’m like, no, no, I don’t want to be a teacher. That’s not what I want to do. But I love education. But my first job out of college was with the federal government, I worked in FAA. And I happened to work in the distance learning department. Now, this was in the '90s, distance learning was nothing like today.
It was where you had two big TV screens, well not two but certain locations will have a big screen. And there will be people in that location like a class and they will have button devices that they will enter their answers in. So that's how distance learning was back then nothing like today, right.
So, over time, education has always been my passion. It happened to be a lot of my friends happened to be teachers or former teachers. There's just something about it that I love. Anyway, eventually, I worked for two fortune 500 companies and there was some educational aspect involved that one of I did tech writing, so we’re writing the manual to train people how to use things. I did a lot of marketing and process management. So, then in 2005, I happened to be doing a side hustle by accident. I wrote one article then it became two articles, so these were things was doing outside of my company job and it just grew from there.
So, initially, I was the writer with a little bit of marketing, not as much. And over time as I got more clients and more work, it morphed into content marketing before it had a name. I had the good fortune to meet, Hank Stroll. He is a publisher who passed away a few years ago. He did email newsletter, email marketing, before it had a fancy name. That’s where I learned about content marketing, email marketing, and my career morphed from writer to marketer.
I wrote many, many articles. That is education right there. I’m educating people on the topic I’m covering. I share what I learned. In the beginning I wrote a lot about the web design field and I had the good fortune to meet and interview many well-known people in web design, web standards, including Jeffrey Zeldman. I worked with Molly Holzschlag briefly. I was on the Web Standards Project. I felt like a kid playing in the … in the adult playground.
Anyway, couple years ago, I guess my career was at a standstill. It’s like I’m not growing, I don’t know what to do. I work for myself and it’s tough because it’s hard to get clients when you’re deaf, and you’re not comfortable with the whole business development thing. Anyway, I started making videos and they were about captions, they were about being deaf, they were about how important diversity is and how to include people with disabilities which so many companies overlooked.
And slowly I started posting more and more on LinkedIn and I noticed people were more interested when I was sharing my experiences as a deaf person or what I learned about accessibility. So, my own experiences and from meeting people and they loved those posts, and so I started doing more of that. So, we’re coming full circle. So, I’m back into education, but instead of being a teacher in terms of a classroom, I am doing it through writing, through speaking now. I’ve been doing a lot of speaking in the last year and a half, two years. So, that’s how I got here.
It all clicked in 2019 when I attended my first AccessU conference in Austin and Haben Girma was there. Joe Devon was there, the co-founder of Global Accessibility Awareness Day. And I was presenting the lunch 'n' learns and I will say I found my people, I found -- This is what I’ve been looking for.
But I was like, but where do I go from here? I don’t have the desire to be a web developer, I don’t want to learn all the fancy stuff like forms and ARIA. It makes me bananas. So, I’m finding -- I’m kind of mixing marketing and education and accessibility in one package. And that’s when I found things are working well for me, and I enjoy it and people are benefiting from the information I share through my own learning. So, I am a student simply sharing what I’ve learned with everyone.
John Griffin: Your opportunities have progressed continually and successfully along a path. So, you’re not one of the disabled that would qualify as being called held back as a result of lack of accessibility. It sounds to me like you took what was there and made the most of it. Is that a fair statement?
Meryl Evans: Definitely. Very fair statement. I was very fortunate. I had parents who stayed on top of technology. Now my parents were not IT people, they were not people who work in mainframe or any of that. They were just caring parents and my staunchest advocates who they -- read anything they heard about advancement. They heard about cochlear implants in 1984 and they took me to a clinic in Los Angeles to see if a cochlear implant would be good. And I was a teenager at the time that unfortunately there were not enough channels. Meaning it would not be powerful enough for somebody with my deafness.
So, we moved on from that, but my parents found other ways to open the doors for me. In other words, they found uses for technology that were not created with deaf people in mind. For example, I came home from camp when I was 12 years old and I was so relieved to be home because I did not like summer camp, sleepaway camp very much. And the best part was coming home to a brand new Apple ][+ computer. It did not even have lowercase letters. It was all caps. So, it was screaming at me all the time before screaming became a thing with uppercase.
So, they bought that because they thought it would help me somehow. They may not have known exactly how, but it did. I did educational software on it. I played games on it. Okay. Maybe they didn’t have games in mind, but it made me comfortable with the computer I got familiar with the diskettes … they, you know this was a floppy disk when it was this big… Eventually I got a modem, a 300 baud modem, in other words, it was slow.
Anyway, eventually, I found Bulletin Board Systems and I started learning about them. And back then you had to call on your phone. So, the modem was connected to your house phone, your landline phone and you use software to dial the number that hosted the Bulletin Board System. What is the BBS? A BBS is basically pre-internet. So, it was software and a phone. And it’s before Prodigy, before America Online started sending everybody a million disks. So, I used that to login to Bulletin Board System. For the first time in my life, I could have a conversation with people without anybody’s help, without my parents’ help.
So, I was emailing, I was joining forums, much like the forums you see today like Slack, except on a BBS. I could chat live with people and it just gave me so much freedom to be able to communicate on my own, no misunderstanding because it was all typed, no speaking. And it happened to be how I met my future husband. I used to be embarrassed to tell people this, but now I’m pretty proud because it was before internet dating was cool. So, that’s one way that -- [crosstalk]
John Griffin: You’re an early millennial.
Meryl Evans: Yeah. So, that’s one way the computer has been great for me. Eventually, Prodigy came along, America Online came along and expanded that world. I also learned a little bit of BASIC programming. I had a book called "Kids and the Apple." It was Apple, as in Apple Computer, not the apple fruit. So, I learned BASIC and I still have that book. That’s how much it meant to me. That’s how much I’ve learned from it. So, I thought, oh, maybe I want to be a programmer when I grow up.
Well, in high school, I took computer literacy, which I loved and then I took computer math which I hated and said I’m done, I am not going to be a programmer, forget it. It just wasn’t my thing. So, that’s where my parents were, they just always kept an eye out for technology that might help me in some way.
I never -- I didn’t even have a TTY growing up. That’s because to use a TTY, the people you’re calling had to have a TTY too. It’s just like texting. When I text you, you’ll be on a phone. Well now texting can go to an email and all that. But people had to have a phone to text each other. Same thing with the TTY, both people have to have a TTY to type to each other. So, it’s like both people have to have a landline phone to talk to each other. Right?
John Griffin: Right.
Meryl Evans: There was no need for a TTY in my life because nobody in my life had one in my everyday life. And I was home so I didn’t need one to talk to my parents. Eventually, ADA came in 1990 and that’s when the relay service became a federal requirement and went national. That’s when I got a TTY, not 1990 but in my first job out of college.
That’s when I got the TTY because I could finally call people regardless if they have a TTY through the relay service. And I also had a pager, that way people would page me with a number, and I would call them back on my TTY through the relay service. So, that is one of many ways technology has helped me.
John Griffin: So, from that beginning, you recently -- I recently read a piece that you published. And it started out by saying accessibility is everyone’s responsibility. That’s not the first thought you’ve ever had concerning accessibility, but that’s the most recent thought that you’ve had. Explain how you came to that conclusion and how you expressed it so eloquently that it really resonated. It is everybody’s responsibility. Somehow that’s happened.
Meryl Evans: Accessibility is not just digital, it’s also real life. I can give you a perfect example that happened to me this week. So, I had to get tested for COVID so I can go to an event this weekend. I wasn't exposed. I just needed to be proactive. So, I scheduled online. I have no problem doing that. Well, sort of. So, they send you a text saying we’ve confirmed your appointment. Well, the very next day, I heard from some people that the pharmacy was behind on its test result. And I absolutely needed to have the result by Friday.
So, I moved up my test by a day at their recommendation. So, I got back online and I scheduled a new date, a new appointment for my test. And then I canceled my first one. I didn’t want to cancel until I made it first, in case they had no slots. So, I got the message, my new appointment was created and then I got another text message that my appointment was canceled, but it didn’t state what day or time so I didn’t know if they were talking about the first one or the second one.
Technology needs to be specific; information needs to be specific. So, I went back online, and I confirmed my appointment was still there. Great. Awesome. The day of the test that morning, I get a text message from the pharmacy with a link, it was a link to a video showing the process for the drive thru testing and it was captioned. Yay. Great. It was a great video, but there was a lot of information, and I didn’t memorize it. So, I tell my spouse I think I can do this myself. I know it’s drive thru. Oh, by the way, I’ve lived by the pharmacy for 20 years and I’ve never used the drive thru.
We know why. Okay. But I have to this time for the testing. And that’s when my spouse was like let me go with you. I’m like no, no, I got the video, I know what to expect. How complicated can it be? We get there, there was three or four cars in front of us, and we waited 30 minutes. Apparently, everybody was getting tested and there were no cars behind us the whole time. So, they must have had a scheduling snafu or something like that. But anyway, I digress.
So, we finally get up there. Whew, yay. And then I rolled down my window and I said I am here for COVID testing, here’s my unique code. Blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. I have no idea what she said because at the window, it’s a glass window. It’s reflecting so bad; you could not see inside at all. Between the lighting and the glass window, I couldn’t see her. The whole time she’s talking to me through the speaker. So, honestly, I can’t hear that. So, yes, my spouse ended up going with me, thank goodness for that because even after reading the numbers twice and I was louder the second time in case she couldn’t hear me, she still didn’t understand me. So, my spouse had to do all talking. I mean, at my age, I shouldn’t have to depend on someone else to do something like this, but that’s what happened.
So, eventually, I get my test, I do my thing, I’m looking at the box because I can’t remember what you’re supposed to do -- It wasn’t obvious. So, I’m looking at the box, there was no instruction. So, I kind of pull out my phone to watch the video again. Meanwhile my spouse was picking up prescriptions while we were there. So, she disappeared and coming back, back and forth and I’m telling her it’s so frustrating because I’m like I’ve done the swab, I’ve got the tube, what am I supposed to do here?
So, I’m getting -- I haven’t felt this frustrated in so long. It was the first time I felt agitated in God knows how long. Anyway, eventually, she came back to the window long enough for us to ask her the question. So, she gestured to me, I was able to see her enough... And we finally got it in the bag and took off.
So, as you can see, something that’s been happening for more than a year now is still not accessible. And one of my friends who’s blind reported he couldn’t register for COVID testing online without somebody’s help. So, it was happening two different ways. One, online for a blind person, one is at the drive thru for a deaf person. Obviously, we have a long way to go. You would think something like COVID, they would think of these things by now. It’s been long enough.
John Griffin: The pandemic provided a lot of opportunity for persons with disabilities to advance, join the workforce, save in some cases, the workforce because they were adaptable long before they need -- the world asked everybody to be adaptable. They were problem solvers long before businesses thought well, we really need to get somebody to solve this problem.
Apparently, the pharmacy in your local area that you went to never gave a thought to making their service accessible. And that’s a very good illustration, as you suggest that it’s everybody’s responsibility. Let me ask you something. Across the career that you’ve had you’ve seen, you know, as Judy Collins used to say, back in our day, Meryl, you’ve looked at life from both sides now. Where is accessibility today? You have an insider’s view. You use it. You need it. Where is it today? What’s your view on it?
Meryl Evans: In some ways the pandemic has helped us and in some ways, it has shown we have a long, long way to go. I’ve never answered your question about why accessibility is everybody’s responsibility. Well, that pharmacy story was an example. It has nothing to do with web development. It has nothing to do with design. It has to do with processes. And whomever is responsible for that is not in IT. Too often people think accessibility, digital accessibility falls under IT or web design, web development, that kind of thing. They don’t think about the physical aspect of it. So, that’s one.
Wheelchairs. Are the doors wide enough for the wheelchairs? Are the sinks and the desks low enough for them? That kind of thing. So, accessibility hits all parts of our lives and that’s why I recently gave a presentation targeting marketers, and I said yes, accessibility is your job too. It’s your responsibility as the marketer. You know why? Because you’re the one who posts content every day. You’re the one posting content that customers will see.
Web development is simply putting up the framework, but you’re putting the words in front of people. So, if you post that image on social media, or on your new blog post, and there's no alt text, you’ve left out people who use screen readers you’ve left them out. They’re not going to know what the image is. If you post a video on your website or your social media, and have no caption, you’ve left out anybody who relies on caption and transcripts.
So, that’s how marketing has responsibility. That’s one example. Sales. Sales people sales people have a responsibility too. That’s because the produce a lot of documentation. They produce presentations. And those presentation have images. Those documents are often PDF, and PDF is not easy to make accessible. So, that’s why accessibility is everywhere because it touches all of our lives in some way or some form.
John Griffin: Okay. We’ve talked about the bad side of it, but what about the good side of it? You know, there’s a new respect, there’s a whole new environment now. The voice of society in the last couple of years, and I say a couple of years because the pandemic is now really truly well into its second year. The business environment has -- they didn’t shut down. Wall Street didn’t close. Industry didn’t close. But out of strife usually comes innovation. And the innovations that applied to our society in the last several years have not gone unnoticed. And business is beginning to ask itself, okay, what are we going to do to change the playbook?
Well, the playbook has been around for 100 years. The last Industrial Revolution was about 100 years ago and it followed a pandemic. And it included several world wars, a couple of world wars, wars that could have been world wars. There’s all kinds of things that have taken place when the sit-in started back in the early 70s to get civil rights for the disabled. It’s now 2021, and all those civil rights are not in place. But there is a lot happening.
What about what’s happening? Where do you see -- I mean, you made a statement to me, you said I used to be strictly a phone person, but now I’m eyeball to eyeball with people. I know you’ve joined Joe Devon Diamond and you know you’ve expanded your business. None of that happened because you were anonymous. It’s happening because you’re in the mix as we like to say.
Meryl Evans: Yeah. I can thank the pandemic for that. To continue my thought about how the pandemic is affecting accessibility, so one of the biggest things that came out of it was a video, what we’re doing right now. Before the pandemic, I don’t think I’ve had five video calls from 2005 to 2020, 15 years. I did not have five video calls. I’ve had phone calls, but it was more like a few times a year, not any more than that because my clients are all wonderful and we knew how to communicate. We found a way to communicate with each other that allowed us to be effective. And a phone call is not the most effective way for me.
When the pandemic hit in March of 2020 and Zoom became the it word, the buzz word., But there was no captions. There was no captions on Zoom, there was no captions on … Microsoft Teams was starting to gain steam but there was no captions on that. Google Meet was not free at the time, it was part of Google Workspace. So, I didn’t have access to that.
Then one of my colleagues, one of my clients, somebody from one of my clients, they started having monthly calls, monthly meetings, and then another monthly lunch. And they wanted to include me. And she found -- I don’t know how she found it, but if you use Google PowerPoint, Google Slides. If you use Google Slides and you present, you can turn on the captions. So, it had a built-in caption feature into the presentation.
Because the idea was, if you’re presenting in person, you could have the slides up with the captions. So, whoever is attending could see the caption. So, she -- they basically took it to the computer screen. And it went well, it worked out and that’s one of my articles that I wrote on video call. For the most part, I was looking for similar solutions. Just like I mentioned before, my parents bought an Apple ][+ computer and it was not designed for the deaf. It was designed for many things. But the deaf was not something they thought about. But my parents, they saw it could be a tool for her somehow.
Anyway, so it goes along those lines, I was looking and researching all the software, different options. And slowly and surely more and more speech-to-text software came out that could be made into captions. Eventually, Google Meet came out with captions. And then Zoom did, but you have to have a paid account to get it. Now, accessibility should never be a paid thing. It should be part of the free application. Zoom makes their money in many different ways.
Yes, even if the technology is expensive, the captioning technology is expensive, but it will make them a profit in the long run. But they’re still getting ahead of their competitors by making accessible product completely through and through. Virtually everything came -- all the video platform started coming out with captions and eventually, thanks to a petition, Zoom made it available on free accounts, but it’s not available anywhere else yet. It's coming, but for the time being, they said that anybody who needs captions for accessibility to fill out this form they put together and they will give you access to captions. So, that’s how I got it on my account.
Now, I meet every week with one client. I have probably at least five meetings a week now on Zoom with captions or on Google Meet or whatever I’m using. And again, this was non-existent before the pandemic. So, now I’m getting to meet with the people I work with face-to-face, it’s like you’re in the room with me. I know we’re not in the same room, but it’s the next best thing. It’s better because it’s quieter. If we go to a restaurant or a meeting room it’s going to be loud. I can hardly go to a restaurant anymore because they have gotten so loud. I can’t hear the people I’m talking to.
So, in a way Zoom have made meetings more accessible than ever, better than in person. Because with in-person meetings, I’m still dealing with a roomful of people. With in-person meetings, I could be in a room full of 10 people, and because there are so many people, my eyes are playing ping pong like watching a tennis match or a ping pong match, I have to figure out who’s speaking, find them, who’s speaking find -- I don’t have the ability to tell where the voice is coming from, so I got to use my eyes a lot.
The other issue, there might be one or two people in that room who I can’t lip read at all, because they don’t enunciate clearly enough. So, that’s called mumbling. When you’re a mumbler, your lips are not making shapes enough for me to read your lips.
The truth is an avid lip reader only catches one-third of what’s said. One-third, not two-thirds, one-third. That’s a lot of missing information. With video meetings, I had a meeting -- I met somebody from Japan, he was born and raised in Japan. So, he has what is an accent to me. And they speak differently so lip reading is not exactly the same as somebody whose first language was English. And I couldn’t understand him. I couldn’t lip read him that well, but I had the caption to help. So, I’m able to listen better because of captioned video.
So, that’s where the pandemic has helped us. It also helped many people with disability who don’t have the mobility to go to an office. It takes them an hour to get out of the house, and then get to the office, those people as well. But also, people with anxiety, and goodness knows the pandemic has probably aggravated that for a lot of people, unfortunately. They’re able to work at home, a lot of them may not even have the video on because of the anxiety and I understand completely.
I’m a better listener if I can lip read and follow the caption. But in some cases, some people don't want the video on and I respect that because I don’t want anybody to be miserable trying to talk to me. So, you have to compromise so I give in a little bit too. Anyway, so this is again where the pandemic has helped. But of course, it has shined a big spotlight on the problem. Suddenly, companies were having to do more business online, even if you’re a retailer that was open throughout the pandemic. You have more people ordering online, and they will go pick it up, or it will be delivered. So, they depended more on online and of course customers, if they can’t do what they need to do on your website, it's not accessible.
So, according to research that I’ve read 80, more than 80 percent of companies have said they are now working on accessibility. I know there’s still a lot of problems, but it takes time. People forget. Sometimes the passionate accessibility supporters forget it takes time. It’s not something you can do overnight. I slowly learned something new every day, and I’m getting a habit of it. When I started doing alt tech for images more, I can’t tell you how many times I forgot, and kicking myself, deleting the posting and doing it again. It took time and that's simple, that's simple stuff. We're talking complicated websites and designs because they’ve already built it. When you’ve built something without accessibility in mind, it’s going to be more work to retrofit it, than when you bake accessibility into your process from the get go. So, hopefully, now companies are baking it in, but it takes time to bake it in.
John Griffin: What you just described is exactly what we started out to do in this discussion. We wanted to be able to listen to your voice and be able to say and that is why accessibility matters. Thank you.