Hi, this is Tanner Gers, managing director at AccessAbility Officer, and you’re listening to Assistive Technology Update.
Hello and welcome to your Assistive Technology Update, a weekly dose of information that keeps you up to date on the latest developments in the field of technology designed to assist individuals with disabilities and special needs. I’m your host, Josh Anderson with the INDATA Project at Easterseals Crossroads in beautiful Indianapolis, Indiana. Welcome to episode 645 of Assistive Technology Update. It is scheduled to be released on October 6th, 2023.
On this the first Friday of October, we begin our celebration of National Disability Employment Awareness Month with an interview from Tanner Gers at AccessAbility Officer. He’s here to tell us about how they’re not just creating jobs for individuals with disabilities, but also teaching them amazing skills, and also allowing them to help make the internet and all aspects of it a little more accessible for all.
This is just the first interview in many this month that will deal with disability, employment, assistive technology, and other cool things. Make sure to listen to our show each Friday this month as we dig deeper into National Disability Employment Awareness Month for the whole month of October. As always, listeners, we thank you so much for taking time out of your day to give our show a listen. Now let’s go ahead and get on with the show.
Listeners, today marks the first Friday in October. Well, here in the States, October’s National Disability Employment Awareness Month. In honor of this, we’re going to feature guest stories and interviews relating to disability, employment, assistive technology, and how all these things intersect.
Well, to start off the month, we are super excited to welcome Tanner Gers from AccessAbility Officer to the show. They’re working to make the web more accessible and to train a new generation of AccessAbility folks, and assist them by finding meaningful and very important employment. We can’t think of somebody better to kick off the month, so Tanner, welcome to the show.
Pleasure to be back. Thank you so much for having me. Very excited to be here.
Yeah, I am too. Before we get into talking about AccessAbility Officer and all the great things that you all are doing, could you tell our listeners a little bit about yourself?
Yeah, sure. I was a “traditional” kid growing up. I was actually diagnosed ADD before there was ever an H when I was in high school. I was diagnosed hard of hearing. I was sitting in the sound booth with the big 1971 earphones on, and found out that I was essentially hard of hearing, but never really considered myself as having a disability until I woke up in the hospital totally blind as a result of an auto accident. A tree came through my windshield and impaled me in the face. That really put me on this journey.
What’s strange is I used to volunteer for Easterseals way back in the day in the Houston, Texas area, and I had never seen a blind person before until about two or three weeks before my accident. I saw this gentleman, this man, he crossed the street and I was just like, wow, I guess that’s just how they do it. A couple of weeks later, I woke up in that hospital, totally blind.
From there, I found Sport for the Blind, had fun with that. Got into digital accessibility in 2015, and across that or through that I learned about usability testing, digital accessibility testing. I helped build up a digital accessibility practice in the nonprofit sector. I helped build American Foundation for the Blind’s consulting practice. Went over to UsableNet, a private company for digital accessibility, doing some big time stuff.
Then all of that helped me really understand a couple of things. One is what does it take to run a successful digital accessibility practice? And two, what did it take to be a successful digital accessibility tester? For the first time ever, screen reader skills in today’s digital age are a competitive advantage in IT for digital accessibility. I thought, hey, why not turn this unique opportunity to give blind people jobs by training them to become digital accessibility testers, technical skill-based digital accessibility testers? That’s what we do today.
You just led me straight into the next question because I want to get onto AccessAbility Officer. Now, you already told me why it got started, but you have different services, but I want to start with the training component. I think that is super cool and what really sets this apart. Tell us about the training program and what kind of certifications and services and things are available through that.
Yeah, absolutely. It is an intense six-month apprenticeship program where for the first four months, we have a very technical digital accessibility training. Of course, we teach you about the laws and all the best practices and stuff, but essentially across Section 508 and WCAG 2.1, Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.1 AA, we teach you all the laws. We teach you all the success criteria, all those things.
But at the same time, while we’re delivering you that information, in another class during the week, we teach you the interactive workshop component. This is how we test against these success criteria. This is how we report on this success criteria. Here’s how we guide the remediation effort for these success criteria. This is how we make websites compliant. We do that within the first four months.
Then students who have passed the curriculum or passed that part can sit for final exams, both the trusted tester, which is against Section 508, and then the CAT 2.1, which is against WCAG 2.1 guidelines. Then after that, once graduates are successful with those two certificates, they’re guaranteed employment with us at AccessAbility Officer. They’ll work with us for several months, or however long it takes until they’ve got the work experience, the professionalism, the job readiness, the technical skills to step into the job day one and hit the ground running as a digital accessibility tester.
That is the goal. We will pay blind or otherwise disabled certified accessibility testers to work for us. But my passion is employment and our real goal is to help people find competitive employment outside of AccessAbility Officer, and successfully transition into that competitive employment with a successful case closure.
Oh, that’s awesome. Because you’re not just meeting the need of helping individuals with disabilities, get certifications to become more employable, but also making the web a lot more accessible seems to open up a lot of doors, and employment and other things as well. I’m glad you’re tackling both those problems at once.
Also, I just have to imagine that somebody who’s tried to access the web and found all the inconsistencies probably has a little bit of passion behind the work as they’re learning and doing it. Am I correct?
Yeah, definitely. I mean, we’re stakeholders in the outcome and I think that that does create a unique passion, a drive, and attention on the need here. I think what we can all suffer from at times is our frame of reference, our limited perspective on our world as it is seen through our own eyes or our own fingertips. I think one of the unique things about this is that we get a lot of passionate people who are coming from their frame of reference, and we really help them open it up to all disability categories.
We just did a round of testimonies from the most recent cohort of graduates, and that came through really, really clear how our students or graduates now are thinking about other visual components that don’t affect them. Flashing content, things that might be difficult for someone with a mobility disability or a cognitive issue like epilepsy or otherwise print disabled. Yeah, I think that not only do we have stakeholders in the outcome, but then we really have people who are sensitive to their own situation, which creates just a platform for empathy across disability.
Nice. Tanner, you offer some different ways for individuals to attend the class. Is that right? Kind of a self-paced and some other kinds of things. Can you explain those to me?
Yeah, absolutely. Great question. We really want to make work in the web better, and so we wanted to prove this model with people with disabilities, and we also wanted to give people the opportunity whether you’re in the corporate environment, whether you have a disability. We wanted to give everybody as much opportunity to improve their technical skills in digital accessibility. We do that in a couple of ways.
As you said, one of those is a self-paced environment. We’ve got pre-recorded lectures and workshops and all the information needed in order to be successful with the self-paced program. We actually have our first totally blind self-paced student going through the program right now.
We also have supported programs and comprehensive programs. Supported is the self-paced, but you get one-on-one coaching and mentorship from a lead instructor every single week to make sure that you’re getting what you need and that you’re actually coming through the curriculum, comprehending it appropriately. You’re doing everything as you should be according to a normal schedule.
Then of course, we have the tradition, what we originally started with, which was the full comprehensive program. That’s live lectures, live workshops, live one-on-one, LMS, the whole shebang bang, including one-on-one interaction with a totally blind screen reader who has both their trusted tester and CAT 2.1 certifications.
I think that that is one of the most unique things about our program is that we actually have people with disabilities who are certified in digital accessibility, teaching other people with disabilities. Hey, this is how I do it. You can do it too.
Nice. I bet that really helps with, oh, just addressing issues that come up. They probably have already encountered a lot of the issues that somebody might face, and that’s got to also help the student a little bit just realizing that like you mentioned, that frame of reference, that the person they’re talking to, at least has a much deeper empathy than somebody who doesn’t have any of that frame of reference. I’m sure that really helps in their learning.
I also really like the way that you do offer different kinds of ways to access the material. It seems like so many times, even in training programs with really great ideas, it seems like there’s one way to do it. When accessibility’s the point, I feel like there has to be different ways just because everyone learns so differently. Kudos to you guys for thinking of that and building that in from the beginning.
Yeah, thank you so much. Everybody learns differently. It’s like even from my own point of view, I could never read. The printed word, I just could not comprehend it. I could look at numbers, I could do that in my head anytime, any number. I could just look at it, see it, understand it, but the words, I couldn’t do it. It wasn’t until I lost my sight that I realized that I do actually love to read and I can comprehend books. I just have to do it audibly.
I learned that about myself. I wish I would’ve learned that about myself when I was younger because I would’ve fell more in love with learning and I would’ve been a much better student. It is very critical for us to provide the training, the curriculum, the opportunity in a multifaceted, multidimensional approach so that whatever your learning style is, we need to meet you where you’re at.
That’s great, that’s great. With the program, I love the way that you do hire folks on and give them that kind of job skills and everything, but still have that goal of them moving out there into the world to make everything more accessible. Be that working for private businesses, other organizations, governments. I mean, I’m sure the sky’s the limit, and luckily digital accessibility seems to be something that I don’t know, you see in the news a whole lot more, but I feel like it’s always when someone gets caught kind of thing more than, I don’t know, people putting it front of mind as much as it really and truly does need to be.
But as I talk about that, let’s talk about some of the services that AccessAbility Officer offers to businesses, to organizations, to other kind of folks. Start us off by just telling us about the digital accessibility and compliance services, and what do you offer to businesses and others in this space?
Yeah, great question. We have three core business units. We’ve got our digital accessibility services, so everything like the traditional audits and the usability studies, but we also have a done-for-you service, so not like an accessibility overlay. We believe in people first, software for scale, so we have a done-for-you service, but it’s actually human driven.
We had an unfortunate customer this year get an ADA demand letter, and within two months, we were able to turn around the website, zero accessibility violations. That was completely driven by us on the backend, operating behind the scenes, communicating with them only when visual elements of their website were changed. Basically done-for-you accessibility, but the right way, not an overlay, not an AI solution, not dynamic accessibility remediation, just real deal human-driven accessibility work.
We have a done-for-you service, and then of course we have the training and certification, we talked about that already. We offer that for people with disabilities, as well as corporations, for individuals and organizational pathways.
Then finally, we have our staffing and recruiting. There’s not really a digital accessibility specific staffing or recruiting agency that only focuses on digital accessibility, and that’s what we do now, especially with the CAT program and we’re training people to do this. We’re providing the digital accessibility services. It only made sense when our clients started to ask us if they could hire, if they could work with our team that we started to create the staffing and recruiting service line too. Those are our three core offerings.
Awesome. Tanner, this is not completely off subject, but just for, let’s say if someone’s listening and they’re like, ah, you know, digital accessibility, it’s okay. People can get to it. Why is digital accessibility important to, let’s say, for-profit businesses, besides just staying in compliance with the law? Because I’m a firm believer that compliance is the floor, you always want to be a little bit higher than that. But why is it important to businesses to make sure that all their digital content is accessible?
It’s a great, great question. There’s so many, but I think it gets back to what we were talking about before, which is meeting your user where they’re at. Sometimes people don’t want to listen to that video content, and you know what, closed captioning is used by almost everybody now who has a site. Yet, a couple of decades ago, it was this inconvenient truth of something that we now had to do for accessibility.
The same thing is true for alternative text attributes and other components, but whether it’s SEO, search engine optimization, because Google’s better able to tag and index your website because it understands what these images are and it understands the relationship that it has in your website. Whether it’s that, like I said, meeting the users where you’re at. Is it brand? Social inclusion has never been more popular, whether it’s entertainment, it’s sports.
Using a socially inclusive brand is definitely going to be driving more traffic, more loyalty, especially with our younger generations, we see the stats, who are making employment decisions or employer decisions about their own values. Resonating with the younger demographics is going to be critical, and digital accessibility is going to be a part of that. You do not want to be a brand known for discriminating against people with disabilities.
Search engine optimization, brand, the meeting users where they’re at, and in addition to that, is just loyalty. People with disabilities, you probably know this, people with disabilities are communicative. They talk, and especially now when you’re ahead of the curve and you’re accessible and you can really create that loyal fan base, not only are they going to be sharing it amongst the disability community themselves, but they’re going to be sharing it with their friends and family too. If you want to have that kind of brand, then you need to be digitally accessible.
Awesome. I could not have said that any better. I completely and totally agree. Well, since it is National Disability Employment Awareness Month, I’m getting really good at saying that too. I always transpose two words. I’m getting much better.
Tanner, where do you… I know you’ve worked in this space for a little while. Where do you see the big gaps in employment for individuals with disabilities, and how do you think that all of us can work to better address those issues? I mean, I know there’s a worker shortage, and then you’ve also got this large percentage of the population who mostly want to work, but seem to be passed over. How do you think is the best way for us all to work together to, I don’t know, fix those two problems at once?
Yeah, it’s a tough question. I mean, people with disabilities, this is why we are doing some of the things that we’re doing, is that I know at the core of my being that digital accessibility has a runway. It’s just like electricity is everywhere and nowhere. It’s in the walls. It’s like how wifi is today. When we don’t have wifi, what the heck’s going on?
Digital accessibility is going to be the same way, but what won’t be the same in five or 10 years is people, it’s culture, it’s society. We’re going to be faced with those corporate stigmas. We’re going to be faced with those invisible barriers. But the real thing that I think that what companies can do today to make sure that… What I like to say is disability ready, is really change how they buy. Employment outcomes could be so much more successful if companies just understand how they buy affects their employees in ways that they don’t even understand.
Let me give some numbers to this. Most companies today have less than 10% of people with disabilities identified in the workplace. That means that twice as many people, you have twice as many people at your organization right now, half of them are not identifying as they’re having a disability. If 18% of the national population in the United States has a disability and you have less than that on average, identifying as having a disability, you’ve got a problem. You’ve got a culture problem, you’ve got an executive problem, and you’ve got a procurement problem.
Why is procurement so important? It’s because people are making purchasing decisions, buying multi-year software deals, locking them into agreements, and at the same time, unknowingly locking themselves out of hiring people with disabilities. Because when they get on the job, they can’t do the job. I know you’ve heard it dozens and dozens of times. I have too.
People get hired by a company that wants to hire them, they want to do the right thing, and they get there, and then they start the onboarding process and the benefits aren’t accessible. They can’t choose their own health insurance. They can’t even log in, check in on the clock, they can’t even check their own pay stubs.
Then we get to training. The training materials aren’t accessible. Then they get through that, the workplace isn’t inaccessible. Their applications at their desk are just not accessible to them. Historically, bias has taken precedence, but now technology is contributing. If we really want to make a difference, we have got to be starting thinking about how we’re buying as companies so that when we’re ready to start hiring, we are already disability ready. We have the applications in place, we have the onboarding, the training, we have the benefits, the payroll. How we’re buying as a company is holistically inclusive. That’s one thing that we can do today.
No, I could not agree more. I’ve talked to people about accessibility and stuff, and I always just use the analogy, is it easier to build the foundation before or after you build the rest of the house? It’s like it’s always easier before, so just build it in, otherwise, if folks can’t get to your application, you’re never even going to know they exist. Yeah, like you said, once they get in, if all your stuff’s not accessible, then you’re already way behind and it’s not fair to them, not fair to you, and just wasting time for everybody.
Well, I think I’ve got a little bit of time left. Can you tell me a story about somebody who’s maybe been through your training program and certification program and maybe how it all went for them?
Yeah. I love telling the story of Ellen. Ellen was in our first cohort, just really a passionate person. At first we were like, oh my gosh, it’s going to be really difficult to work with Ellen. Then she leaned in. She started taking the constructive feedback well. She started to apply it into her practice. She graduated with both of her certifications, totally blind, getting her trusted tester certification and CAT 2.1.
There are very, very, very few people who are getting their trusted tester cert and are totally blind, very few people. Ellen was one of the first to do it. Then she started to improve her communication skills, her professionalism. Today, she is our lead accessibility tester. When we first met, we were like, oh my gosh, how are we going to do this? Today we’re like, how are we going to do this without Ellen? She’s a core critical component to our team, and she is the perfect model of what someone can be if they lean into it and really go for it. Super proud of Ellen.
That is awesome. That is awesome. Well, Tanner, for listeners who want to find out more about AccessAbility Officer, everything you all have to offer, what’s the best way for them to do that?
Yeah, I mean, you can check us out at AccessAbility Officer. That’s Access and then A, like accessing someone’s ability. AccessAbilityOfficer.com. Of course, we’re on LinkedIn as well, and that’s probably where we’re most active. AccessAbility Officer.com, and on LinkedIn.
Awesome. We will put links to that down in the show notes. Tanner, thank you so much for coming on today for, well, just discussing employment a little bit to kick off the month, but also just to tell us about the great things that AccessAbility Officer is doing. Not just to make the world a little bit more accessible, the internet and everything else, but to also train the folks to be great testers. I think that’s just such a great idea in doing the training program, helping folks find jobs in that space in order to improve that space at the same time. Very, very, very cool. Thank you again.
Thank you. Pleasure to be here.
Do you have a question about assistive technology? Do you have a suggestion for someone we should interview on Assistive Technology Update? If so, call our listener line at (317) 721-7124. Send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org, or shoot us a note on Twitter at INDATAproject.
Our captions and transcripts for the show are sponsored by the Indiana Telephone Relay Access Corporation or InTRAC. You can find out more about InTRAC at relayindiana.com.
A special thanks to Nikol Prieto for scheduling our amazing guests and making a mess of my schedule. Today’s show was produced, edited, hosted, and fraught over by yours truly.
The opinions expressed by our guests are their own and may or may not reflect those of the INDATA Project, Easterseals Crossroads, our supporting partners or this host. This was your Assistive Technology Update, and I’m Josh Anderson with the INDATA Project at Easterseals Crossroads in beautiful Indianapolis, Indiana. We look forward to seeing you next time. Bye-bye.