Sheri Byrne-Haber, Senior Staff Architect, Accessibility at VMware
Disability is the one intersectional identity that everybody is always pretty much guaranteed to have at one point in their life.
Sheri Byrne-Haber is a senior accessibility evangelist and sought-after writing and public speaking expert with a history of successfully architecting strategic global accessibility programs in a Fortune 200 environment, including deploying corporate policies, accessible digital property design, and remediation using LEAN and AGILE software development techniques, analytics, and maturity modeling.
Interview with Sheri Byrne-Haber, Senior Staff Architect, Accessibility at VMware
Transcript for Interview with Sheri Byrne-Haber, Senior Staff Architect, Accessibility at VMware
John Griffin: I'm John Griffin. I'm the publisher of Accessibility.com and your host for these Accessibility Matters sessions. I'm particularly excited this morning to be interviewing one of my favorite people in this business, Sheri Byrne Haber. Sherry is a prolific writer, blogger, an extremely knowledgeable voice across the Accessibility industry globally. She works tirelessly. She is indefatigable in her viewpoints and her correctness. and there isn't a spot on the Accessibility map in the last number of decades that she hasn't touched, influenced, or at the very least had opinion on.
So, Sherry, I'm very excited about having this conversation with you, because we both kind of grew up from the roots of this business. I in the publishing side of it and you on the more pragmatic and practical side of it. And the thing that is so fascinating as I've come to know you is that you have this complete perspective. Not everybody can play claim to that. Some people can see it from one side as Judy Collins used to say. Some people can see it from both sides now. and you are a perfect example of what I'm talking about when I say somebody that can see it from both sides now. So, let's start at the beginning. How did you arrive on the ground that you're now at? Where did it begin?
Sheri Byrne: So, I'm on my third career at this point.
John Griffin: Can't hold a job or I mean whether it was?
Sheri Byrne: You know I'm a lifelong learner. I've never really finished school ever. And so, I started off in computer science. Got my degree in computer science. Really enjoyed software testing. That was my thing. I was the kid who would take my parents vacuum cleaner when I was 4 to try to figure out what made it work. And about 10 years into that career, I was a software QA director at E-Trade and somebody asked me to be an expert witness in a lawsuit that involved whether or not software had been adequately tested. I realized that the software people didn't understand the law. The legal people didn't understand the software and there should be a pretty decent business for somebody who understood both and could act as a translator between those two worlds.
John Griffin: Yeah.
Sheri Byrne: So, I went to law school thinking that I was gonna practice intellectual property law. And my third year of law school, we discovered that my then five-year-old daughter was losing her hearing and so I never went into intellectual property. I went into advocacy for the deaf and then from there, I won a class action lawsuit against Blue Cross and kind of put myself out of business doing health insurance appeals for children and adults who are deaf, who'd been turned down for treatment. Because if Blue Cross can't beat you nobody else wants to waste the money trying. So, I was thinking about well what can I do that uses both my computer science degree and my legal degree.
Accessibility was really just got starting to get mainstream at that point and I'd also gotten an MBA along the way. So, I understood the business side of it. So, computer science law business, lifelong congenital disability, a few acquired disabilities along the way and then a parent of a child with a significant level of hearing loss. So that's how I ended up where I am today.
John Griffin: Wow. And you say you're uneducated. It's 2021, you've been there from the birth. What's different now?
Sheri Byrne: Well, what's different now is it used to be that you had to be an expert to put out a webpage. You had to be able to program in X Windows or then later on HTML or even later on you had to be able to use you know Dream Weaver. Now, anybody can put up a website in a matter of seconds. And if you choose one of the free templates and they abound everywhere and the templates not accessible, the chances of you making that website accessible at the end of the day are vanishingly close to zero. So, from my perspective, that's probably one of the biggest changes that's happened over kind of the last 15 years or so.
John Griffin: And, drop a little further down into that, because that's kind of an interesting criticism. That's obviously an unfavorable thing and you know it doesn't serve the purpose. But what's on the other side of that is what's different now that doesn't run against the grain but runs with it.
Sheri Byrne: So, I think there are technologies that have been created that if they had been accessible from the outset really would have been a boon to people with disabilities. For example, VR and XR or even to a certain extent AI based choices. And because those technologies aren't easy to make accessible, it's only a small percentage of them that ever make it that far. Then what happens is the people who need to use the system technology are limited to those areas. So, to give you an example, look at design tools today. We've got Adobe, we've got Sigma, we've got Miro, and although Miro now has an Accessibility team and is at least getting started on their Accessibility journey.
None of the tools are fully accessible, which means we have nobody who's blind or who has a significant dexterity issue in the design space. Then when you don't have people with disabilities in that space, people don't think about people with disabilities as customers and it's kind of unfortunately a self-fulfilling prophecy. So, in order for the technology to be accessible, the tools have to be accessible, but we shouldn't be retrofitting them to be accessible. We should be making them accessible upfront.
John Griffin: Yeah, at the very concept as the microprocessor was that which made all of that possible. You know, the next step is to move in through the evolution to complete the task. Do you think that we're at a moment now where there's a lot of warmth and good discussion ongoing in the voice of society in general towards democratization of Accessibility? Do you agree with that?
Sheri Byrne: You know, actually, I probably don't. Accessibility is not something that we should look at as a charity thing. It's not something that people do because it makes them feel good about their work. It's a business decision and it's a business decision that will pay off if people invest in it. So, I don't particularly enjoy seeing Accessibility as a feel-good initiative. I think there's a lot of inspiration forms associated with that. It's like patting the person with the on the head and it's going, ‘Oh, look we made this work for you.’ That's not what people with disabilities want at the end of the day. We want Accessibility built into everything. You know from the outset.
People should be doing it because it should be ingrained into the way things are done. And we don't see Accessibility taught in college. It's not part, there's not a single program in the United States that you can tell me that requires that somebody in a computer science program take an Accessibility class before they graduate. I think if we built it into those programs then 10 years later people would be asking themselves, ‘Well, why didn't we always do it this way? Tell me again why we were doing this so backwards? Why we weren't thinking about customers with disabilities?’
John Griffin: That's a great point. Education is the best opportunity to really promote the advancement. Why are universities and teaching institutions so behind on that?
Sheri Byrne: Well, curriculum tends to be a little bit stodgy. Some people, the professors want to use their textbooks and there aren't really a whole lot of textbooks on Accessibility out there. It's more digital material. Accessibility is as much art as it is science. And so, that means that you don't just have a straight computer science program. You can either make it compliant or you can make it really what people with disabilities want. And of course, I always want and teach the latter form, but it's like design. You can do it or you can do it well and there's a big difference between those two things.
John Griffin: There are people that are investing deeply in it. You know, and they're leading in the hiring and the development and innovation. Whatever innovation we do have is coming from some people at the at top of the pyramid. Who are the winners? Who are the who are the people that are doing that?
Sheri Byrne: Microsoft, Google, and Apple are probably the most well-known names in Accessibility. Microsoft funds AI initiatives related to Accessibility. Apple created Siri initially for Accessibility. So, they've been doing, I'm using my hearing aids right now paired to my iPhone so I can hear your voice clearly. That's something that Apple has built into their operating system now. So, I'd like one day for VMware's name to be mentioned in the same breath of those companies, but our initiatives are a little bit younger but we're trying to catch up quickly.
John Griffin: How about Amazon?
Sheri Byrne: Yeah, Amazon does a good job as well. AWS, is pretty good. The Amazon store when you get into a store that's got millions and millions of products that that are dynamically changing and going in and out of stock all the time. And they're going in and out of stock based on what the third party vent a merchant is doing and not necessarily what Amazon's doing. That's pretty complicated to keep accessible. But given those levels of complication. Amazon does a pretty good job.
John Griffin: Yeah, they seem to be anxious to do that. I mean obviously it's good for business. It's good for anybody's business if they participate and get involved in it as far as they can get. Because the size of the market. There are very very few industries or markets or media opportunities that can say without failure of the statement, that they have a 65-million-person mark. If you sell toothbrushes, I guess you can say that, but the audience for the deliverable of Accessibility is whatever the demographic is for disabilities. That's what's out there.
Sheri Byrne: Well, disability is the one intersectional identity that everybody is always pretty much guaranteed to have at one point in your life for another. If you're not disabled now, chances are you will be. Either temper situationally or have a longer-term disability as you age. The other thing honestly that I think is driving some of these decisions is all the litigation that's going on. So, we're anticipating 4,000 ADA lawsuits over digital Accessibility in 2021 alone. The number just keeps on going up and up and up and I think there's a significant percentage. The majority of them I believe are again retail outfits.
So, retail organizations are at a particular disadvantage from the perspective of the lawsuits because we're in the middle of a pandemic. I'm somebody who's blind. I don't drive. I can't take public transportation. I'm really not supposed to do ride sharing. How do I get my groceries? Well, you order them online. But what if you can't order your groceries online, because your grocery store hasn't made their ordering process accessible. That's a lawsuit waiting to happen at this point especially in the states that allow for financial damages in addition to injunctions.
You know as Domino's found out in California. They've spent 5 years fighting an Accessibility lawsuit that would have cost them $38,000 to fix their app to make it accessible. And instead, they've spent probably a million and a half on litigation. And you know what? At the end of the day, they're gonna have make their app accessible. It's just a matter of how much do they waste in legal fees before they get it done.
John Griffin: It sounds like, I'm speculating, but it sounds like we're kind of a watershed moment. If you look back in history and I love to do this. The last great industrial revolution that we saw followed the pandemic in 1918. Of course, it was helped by the First World War, but at the same time Instrumentation, automation, everything changed. Including the playbook for retail, including the playbook for organizing and managing personnel and staff and companies and so on and so forth. And we just blew up economically in this country and then shared that across the world. In my view and I may be wrong. I hope I'm not. This feels very very much like a transcendent moment that the reality of what you just described.
The pain of being disabled and it's not like we have an insignificant number of persons involved in that. This isn't several hundred people. We're talking about a gigantic demographic. Suffered through the pain and inconvenience and unfairness of the pandemic in ways that so many others didn't incur. I was locked down in my house too, but if I had to get to the doctor, I could do it. On public transportation if needed, there were so many different attributes that you could do if you had the capability to do it, that the disabled were shut off from. So, it doesn't shock me that lawsuits are going up. Are we at a turning moment now, or is it possible that we're gonna see 10 years from now something we don't see today?
Sheri Byrne: Well, I hope we are, because I don't think the direction that we're going in is particularly sustainable. A lot of people don't realize how closely disability is tied to sustainability. When you have health insurance tied to employment and people with disabilities can't necessarily hold down a full-time job, then they have to stay in poverty in order to get, the State or the federal government insurance. And then, instead of being taxpayers, they're relying on services from the government.
If we wanna shift that into a more positive perspective, we need to make sure that people with disabilities, especially children with disabilities, get the same education as any other child. Same opportunities in college as any other college student. Get them graduated at the same rates and get them gainful employment. And then they turn around and pay taxes. But we can't do that unless the education tools are accessible, unless the college laboratories for example are accessible and the workplaces have to be accessible. So, Accessibility ties into the entire socioeconomic good of the entire country, but a lot of people don't realize that. And it's funny that you should all the things that came after the first pandemic and the first World War. A lot of people don't realize that health insurance actually came from the Second World War.
John Griffin: Yeah.
Sheri Byrne: And that's 70 years later it's turned into this you know disaster for profit-based system that we have in the US, that's like nowhere else in the world. Nowhere else in the world do people go bankrupt over healthcare costs. In the US, it happens about 25% of the time, the last time I did the research. That was actually the research that I did, my research project for my MBA program was on health care-driven bankruptcies.
John Griffin: So, brings you to the fact of, there are obviously failures and in terms of the recognition of it. I mean it took Judy Heumann 30 years to chase down the ADA and finally get that pushed onto paper. Is the ADA sufficient or does it need a review?
Sheri Byrne: Well, there are things about the ADA that are suboptimal. I'm old enough that I remember life before the ADA and life after the ADA. Anybody who's under the age of 35 really only remembers life after the ADA.
John Griffin: Yeah.
Sheri Byrne: So, one of the issues is that there really only two methods of trying to get anything resolved in a dispute. You can either make a complaint to the Department of Justice or the EEOC if it's a job-based employment issue or you file a lawsuit. There's no ombudsman. There's no inspection for example that happens. People don't get inspected and recertified. I did a talk last year on IAAP about how many things can go wrong in a workplace after an occupancy certificate is issued. But once the occupancy certificate is nobody ever thinks about it ever again unless somebody complains and complains quite loudly.
So, I'm not a fan of the amendments that have been filed by the more conservative side, from the House of Representatives on, oh you're required to provide 6 months’ notice and the person has 6 months to fix it. I don't think that's the solution either. They've had 31 years to fix it. Another 6 months, you know the damage is already done. When I struggled to attend my daughter's junior high graduation that damage was already done. The bell was rung. And at that point, the ADA had existed for about 24 years, but they didn't think about people in wheelchairs attending outdoor graduations.
So, I think there needs to be a balance between the two. And I think somehow, we need to do something about how this has turned into a cash cow kind of business for a few law firms that have built their entire practice around filing ADA litigation. Yes, it's a good idea for people to be compliant, but we shouldn't be making lawyers rich off of it either.
John Griffin: We had a conversation several weeks back with a guy, with a lawyer, who Among other things is was talking about leading at the top, leading from the point in terms of disability. And we speculated that it really in some ways and I kind of agree with this. I think this is an important way to go with this. When 9-11 occurred the nation took a welcome look at never again and it wasn't too much longer after that happen while the smoke still hadn't cleared that we established a Homeland Security Cabinet Post. And gave that authority to the Homeland Security to secure our borders, secure our nation. No more Jets flying into high rises and this is not gonna happen again. Low and behold, it hasn't happened again.
So, when you pull your assets together and you put somebody in front of the cabinet and in the cabinet and in front of the president with authority over other departments of government. The only thing he's accountable for she's accountable for or answerable for is as security of the mission. Things can change.
Sheri Byrne: Many other countries have cabinet level positions specifically related to disability.
John Griffin: Yeah.
Sheri Byrne: I know Canada has one. Pretty sure Israel has one as does the UK if I remember correctly. And in fact, in Israel, they have deaf members of the Knesset. They had their first person sworn in using sign language a couple of months ago.
John Griffin: Yes.
Sheri Byrne: So, I think If you have somebody with a disability who understands the lived experience, understands what the problems are and works to solve the issues across the health care education and all the different systems that people with disabilities touch over their lives. You're gonna get hopefully a better experience at the end of the day. And I think it's really incumbent that that person has to be a person with a disability. We don't want people without disabilities doing this work for us. Because that tends to not involve us and then that tends to result in kind of suboptimal sorts of different things that just don't work for people with disabilities, because they didn't anticipate what it was that we actually needed because they didn't ask us.
John Griffin: Well, they also are in a position where it's tough for a civilian to lobby them when they really, I use the expression all the time. My grandmother taught me this. You never know what things are like until a hammer hits your thumb. The disabled are much, much better qualified to adjudicate on what's right and what's wrong when it comes to regarding Accessibility.
Sheri Byrne: Joe Biden administration has done an outstanding job. Don't get me wrong. WhiteHouse.gov launched on the day that Joe Biden was sworn in and it was accessible. And not only was it accessible, but it was accessible to the 2.1 version of the standard and not the 2.0 standard that's required. When Obama was president, we were leading the World in Accessibility and things stagnated. And now we're playing catch up. So, redefining underrepresented communities to include people with disabilities. Previously underrepresented minorities only focused on gender and people of color.
John Griffin: Yeah.
Sheri Byrne: So even that change has made a pretty significant difference. But yeah, there's always more that can be done.
John Griffin: Oh yeah. If you were starting all over based upon what you've learned and where you've come from. What would you choose as your first step forward?
Sheri Byrne: Starting over at what? Starting over in the corporate Accessibility job.
John Griffin: Yeah, at if you were in a position where you had to go all the way back to the beginning. And you know what you know now. What would you do first?
Sheri Byrne: So, be VMware is my 4th corporate Accessibility job. I took my one biggest learning that is not obvious to people who don't work in this field is that companies that don't have disability ERGs will not be successful in their Accessibility programs. So, ERG employee resource group. Accessibility teams are usually fairly small in terms of the number of people versus the number of employees in the organization. And unless you have people talking about Accessibility when you're not in the room when the Accessibility teams not in the room, you're not gonna succeed.
How do you get people to talk about Accessibility when the Accessibility team's not in the room? Hire more people with disabilities. How do you hire more people with disabilities? You have to have a disability Employee Resource Group because that's the group who will know all the things that have to be changed to make an organization feel, make people with disabilities feel like they belong in an organization and not that they're out on the fringes. So, that was actually the first thing that I did when I came to VMware, was I started a disability employee resource group. And we had 800 people at our last meeting.
John Griffin: I'd say that's off to a fairly good start.
Sheri Byrne: Well, we're two years in, but what I'm saying is it was it was definitely overdue to do that. We had a lot of people who were not comfortable self-identifying because there wasn't a disability ERG and they didn't feel protected. They did not feel psychologically safe and our self-identification rate has doubled in the two years that that group has existed.
John Griffin: Yeah, that's kind of standard I mean with the anonymity factor of don't have to reveal gets involved and people are afraid to announce where they're from or anything.
Sheri Byrne: Right, and 70% of disabilities are hidden. I use a wheelchair. I have an insulin pump. I can't exactly hide that I'm disabled. So, I just own it. But I know people with dyslexia, people with autism, people with anxiety who definitely don't wanna make that known unless they need to for some reason.
John Griffin: Yeah, because they're afraid that if they do, they'll be singled out as a problem, quote unfair.
Sheri Byrne: Exactly.
John Griffin: Yeah. Well, you've taken this conversation exactly down to the reason for it. And it's because Accessibility matters. And it matters why. It matters how. It matters what. And this short, brief interlude that we've just taken absolutely demonstrates why Accessibility matters. I'm really very grateful for you taking the time to share your perspective and thank you.
Sheri Byrne: I appreciate the invitation. Thanks.