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The Clientside Podcast

Making Content Accessible with Svetlana Kouznetsova

The Clientside Podcast

30 min Svetlana Kouznetsova

Svetlana Kouznetsova (Sveta) is an independent consultant and accessibility trailblazer based in New York.

Sveta helps regular businesses make their web, media, and events more accessible to the world's largest minority of 1.85 billion of disabled people. She is also a founder of Audio Accessibility providing consultation on improving communication and information access to 466 million of deaf and hard of hearing people worldwide.

Sveta is a book author and an international speaker. Her TEDx talk uncovers the benefits of high quality captioning access that increase audience and ROI for businesses. She has an MS degree in Internet Technology and over 20 years of experience in design, technology, and accessibility.

Sveta’s combination of personal experience with deafness and professional expertise with accessibility gives people valuable insight into the importance of accessibility.

This podcast was recorded using live chat, and voiced by a professional voice artist sourced by Music Radio Creative.

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Andrew:
Hey, everyone. Welcome back to another episode of the Clientside podcast, I'm your host, Andrew Armitage, and this is episode number thirty three. We're racing through this third season and I hope you've enjoyed my recent conversations with my guests. The Clientside podcast is sponsored by the digital agency I founded and run here in the UK called A Digital. You can find out more about the work we do by heading across to a adigital.agency.

Andrew:
So if this is the first time you're tuning in. Then thank you for joining me. It's great to have you with us ,for everyone else thank you for being here. Your support really is very much appreciated. Now today's episode is a little bit different and I've got a very special guest joining me to talk about the really important topic of accessibility. For websites to be inclusive building them in such a way that makes it easy for people to use regardless of their ability is not only the right thing to do, but of course it's also a legal requirement. But in the multichannel world that we live in, accessibility doesn't just apply to websites and it should apply to all of our content, whether it's written or recorded as video or audio. So my guest today is Svetlana Kouznetsova, and she's an independent accessibility consultant who joins me from New York.

Andrew:
Sveta, as she likes to be known, helps regular businesses make their web, media and events more accessible to the world's largest minority of 1.85 billion disabled people. She's also the founder of Audio Accessibility, providing consultation and improving communication and information access to 466 million deaf and hard of hearing people worldwide. Sveta is also an author and an international speaker. Her TEDx talk explains the benefits of high quality captioning and how it can increase your audience and return on investment. She has a master's degree in internet technology and over 20 years experience in design, technology and accessibility. Her combination of personal experience with deafness and professional expertise with accessibility gives people valuable insight into the importance of accessibility. Now, because Sveta is deaf, my conversation with her was recorded over instant chat and we've rerecorded that from the transcript with a professional voice artist. So at times it might feel a little bit like the conversation doesn't flow as naturally as it might normally do, but this was a fascinating discussion that carries a really strong message, so I do urge you to stick with it. So here is my conversation with Svetlana Kouznetsova.

Andrew:
So welcome to Clientside podcast, are you able to tell people a little about yourself?

Svetlana:
Yes. I’m an independent consultant living in New York. Originally I’m from Russia. I moved here to the USA when I was a teenager, so English is my third language. I was born with normal hearing to parents who can hear. When I was 2 years old, I contracted meningitis that took away all of my hearing.

Andrew:
Oh wow.

Svetlana:
I was already speaking native Russian by then, but I started to talk less and less and then eventually stopped altogether.

Andrew:
My sister was very poorly with Meningitis at a similar age.

Svetlana:
Hopefully there were no longer lasting effects from meningitis?

Andrew:
No, there weren't. Thankfully, but that must have been a very difficult time for you and your family.

Svetlana:
Honestly, I don't remember what it was like to become sick and lose my hearing. And yes, it affected my family more than me. I was only two years old. So who remembers something like that from that age? I actually thought I was born deaf. I was surprised when I got older and my family told me that I was born hearing like them. I asked them what happened, and they explained how I was sick, and that affected my hearing. Every time I saw someone coughing or sneezing, I'd ask my family if they were deaf, and of course, they said, no. I mean, how do you explain to a small kid about serious diseases like that?

Andrew:
Did that make it harder to come to terms with as you grew up?

Svetlana:
For me deafness itself has never bothered me, but the main frustration has been the communication issues. I was raised to speak and lipread, but lipreading gives only 30% of visual information. My family was discouraged from using sign language with me and many people think that everyone who’s deaf knows sign language. But actually the vast majority of them don’t know sign language. Very often it’s because they are hard of hearing and can communicate somewhat well, or people who are late deafened adults who can still speak. In other cases they might have been raised orally using spoken languages like me. So I didn’t actually know sign language until I was 7 years old when I started school.

Andrew:
And I suppose those communications issues are what have led you into your specialism in web accessibility?

Svetlana:
Not exactly. I never thought about this, actually.

Andrew:
Oh, interesting.

Svetlana:
Age 7 is a common age for Russian kids to start school irrespective of whether they’re deaf or not. So when I was 7, I started going to a school for the deaf which is where I learned Russian sign language, which became my second language. It was easy to communicate, but I didn’t feel I was getting a good enough education. I had to skip a year and was younger than other kids in my class so I didn’t really find it challenging enough, so I asked my family to transfer me to a regular school which they thought was a crazy idea!

Svetlana:
They asked me how I would be able to communicate and I said I could talk and lipread, right? They said that I was used to people speaking slower to me at my deaf school and I wouldn’t be able to handle fast paced communication in a regular school, but I insisted on it!

Svetlana:
So I was transferred to a regular school where I was the only deaf person after having spent 4 years in a school for the deaf. There’s no doubt it was really challenging, but it opened doors for me. For example, learning English as a foreign language wasn’t offered at schools for the deaf, and if it wasn’t for learning English, then I wouldn't be speaking to you today!

Svetlana:
So English was my third language; it was British English, by the way but I didn’t realize this until after I moved to the States.

Andrew:
So you had the ambition, but you felt constrained in those early years by school, which of course, is meant to open those doors for you.

Svetlana:
That's right. I would get confused with the language differences. Why the 'u' is missing in the word color or why 'apartment' was used instead of 'flat' and so on. I thought I'd been taught poor English in the Russian school and then pronunciation is different, too. I missed a lot in classes and as I said before, you can only get about 30% of the content by lip reading. So I learned mostly from textbooks and was lucky to have extra help from teachers during their office hours and then from my family at home. There were two subjects that I found particularly difficult, one of which was a new subject added to the school curriculum, so there wasn't a textbook to follow. It was about art history. So how could I follow that in class?

Svetlana:
Another difficult subject was literature, which had a lot of interactive discussions that I couldn't follow. But of course, they were important to pass the class.

Andrew:
Sure.

Svetlana:
So my mother suggested that I take a tape recorder to those two classes. You know those tapes? Old fashioned tapes?

Andrew:
Yes, I remember tapes

Svetlana:
And you had to rewind and use a pencil. That was long before the internet. So I'm old.

Andrew:
We're both in that category if we remember tapes.

Svetlana:
Yes, my mother and I got permission from my teachers and I took the tape recorder to classes and then took them home. My mother listened to them and made handwritten notes to help me, which would provide with about 5 to 7 hours content a week. Every week for 2 years.

Andrew:
Wow, that's incredible support.

Svetlana:
That's why I feel annoyed when people complain about how difficult it is for them to caption and transcribe videos and podcasts when there are so many more advanced technologies available today.

Andrew:
Right. And that absolutely makes sense, then, because it really isn't that difficult.

Svetlana:
Yes, not difficult, but more work and absolutely possible.

Andrew:
Of course.

Svetlana:
Then it was time to think about universities, and I attended American universities, and of course, English was my third language. But on top of that, I had to learn American Sign language, which was my 5th language. It wasn't easy for me because I couldn't understand the interpreters in the early years and then once again found myself missing a lot in classes just like I did in school. The universities could at least provide me with speech to text access, but for various reasons it wasn't available. That's how I started to realize that not all deaf people are the same, and not all of them have the same communication needs. I thought the only way to access classes was through an interpreter.

Andrew:
So all of this has led to you having a particular focus on audible disabilities, but of course, wider accessibility challenges as well.

Svetlana:
I also learned about the ADA, Americans with Disabilities Act and my rights as a deaf person. Before that, I tried to adapt to the hearing world, but I realized that I had the right for reasonable provisions under law.

Andrew:
And I don't know what year we're talking, but my guess is there are a lot of gaps and shortcomings. And, of course, opportunities.

Svetlana:
Most of my education was in the 90s, and while I was at another university, I did have access to speech to text services, and eventually I became fluent in American Sign Language. But even now, I still prefer captioning access for most situations. I also went to graduate school where I got a master's degree in internet technology, so I have a design and technology background. I worked as a web designer and that's how I stumbled on web accessibility.

Andrew:
Oh, OK.

Svetlana:
I didn't plan on it at all, even though I had been deaf almost all my life. I worked with a developer who taught me about clean code and how it is important to make code leaner and easier to maintain. So I researched more on clean and semantic code. That's how I stumbled on web accessibility because it's based on having semantic code.

Andrew:
And at the time, the web standards movement was just really becoming the standard.

Svetlana:
Yes, it was. Also during that time, I was researching different types of captioning access. So I learned more about web accessibility and speech to text access. I realized that there are so many issues with accessibility, not just in physical spaces, but also online. 98% of online content is not accessible.

Andrew:
98%! That high still.

Svetlana:
Yes, it's very high, unfortunately. There are improvements here and there, but very little on the whole.

Andrew:
And is that based on devices or the basics around writing good accessibility into code and web pages?

Svetlana:
Web accessibility is not limited to just coding, but also content design, structure, etc.

Andrew:
True.

Svetlana:
So it's a responsibility of all team members and not just developers.

Andrew:
And of course, not all disabilities can be seen and don't always appear obvious.

Svetlana:
That's part of what I do to help organizations to become more proactive with accessibility and to encourage them to engage all of their team members in accessibility.

Andrew:
So things like motor skills, vision and, of course, hearing all impact on what makes an accessible UX.

Svetlana:
Yes, even if they have an accessibility expert or an accessibility team, everyone on the team is responsible in their own ways. So that's how I eventually became an accessibility consultant.

Andrew:
Yes, and there's no one person in a web design role. It's a team responsibility.

Svetlana:
Accessibility is an ongoing issue.

Andrew:
And of course, a legal requirements as well, which I think for many people is overlooked.

Svetlana:
Yes, there's a legal aspect of accessibility.

Andrew:
It's strange how companies will often go the extra mile. To make their buildings accessible, but not necessarily their website.

Svetlana:
Yes, but honestly, I don't like it when organization's decide to make their products and services just because of legal requirements, even in physical spaces. There are many aspects that aren't accessible. I still hear complaints from wheelchair users about this even now, so issues happen both in physical and digital spaces.

Andrew:
Sure. But adding things like handrails seems to be more widely accepted than improving website accessibility. Perhaps it's more obvious, more tangible.

Svetlana:
Based on my experience with accessibility, organizations tend to make experiences accessible only if they are mandated by the laws or if those experiences benefit non-disabled people. I repeat my favorite quote by Plato. "Good people do not need laws to tell them to act responsibly while bad people will find a way around the laws". I repeat this quote all the time because nobody is immune from a disability.

Andrew:
So is the slow progress because of the law primarily or a lack of understanding by those commissioning websites and digital products and services or both? Or is it even among developers and agencies?

Svetlana:
Many people think accessibility isn't important until it affects them. I would say it's the lack of awareness mostly.

Andrew:
And I suppose as you just said, people don't recognise it until it affects them, so it doesn't become a priority for them.

Svetlana:
Yes, but even when non-disabled people want to make experience accessible, they often do it without consultation with subject matter experts and do it based on incorrect assumptions about our needs.

Andrew:
What might a typical answer be when you challenge companies on their website accessibility?

Svetlana:
There are situations where I was offered a wheelchair or braille print when I explicitly asked for access to audio via text.

Andrew:
Totally unhelpful. And in your case,

Svetlana:
Like when I was on a plane and asked a flight attendant to let me know of any oral announcements, she handed me an emergency instruction in braille. I told her I'm deaf, not blind! Answers can vary depending on whether it's a company or an individual.

Andrew:
Right, of course.

Svetlana:
Some may say they don't need accessibility until the end of the project, while others will ask me if there are any automated tools to fix all this.

Andrew:
But at the end, it's a complete afterthought, isn't it? And automation, I guess that's a bit like expecting Google Translate to understand the context of written language.

Svetlana:
I say the best way to create accessible experiences is to be proactive with accessibility and to work with experts to ensure optimal accessibility. Yes, you were right about the example with Google Translate, automated tools may be good for informal situations. For example, I may use auto captions for my informal conversations with family and friends, but they're not acceptable for professional content or presentations.

Andrew:
So it's really vital that you're introduced to a project sooner rather than later and crucially, being included in the process so those responsible for the design work can appreciate real situations that you face and find appropriate ways to address them.

Svetlana:
That's why I provide consulting and training to organizations around captioning and transcription best practices. I can then do a quality check of their speech to text output. More and more websites use overlays, and it's a very bad approach too. It doesn't help disabled users and only makes their experiences worse. It's a hot topic in the accessibility community. Accessibility overlays just aren't acceptable. Websites and apps can only be truly accessible with clean semantic code and other accessibility elements if done from the start.

Andrew:
Video is obviously hugely popular on the web now, and there's a lot more of that type of content. Does that make up a lot of the 98% of inaccessible content you mentioned earlier?

Svetlana:
Yes, and it's worse when videos have auto generated captions. Captioning is more than just adding text. It's an art that is best done by experts. There are certain best practices and proper formatting to follow.

Andrew:
So there are lots of popular services such as Rev. We use Sonix.ai For our podcast transcriptions, and another app I use for video transcriptions is MixCaptions.

Svetlana:
My TEDx talk explains this point in more detail, too. There's this expression, you get what you pay for.

Andrew:
If I'm captioning videos I've recorded, I can't stand misspelled words or poor grammar.

Svetlana:
You can use auto generated tools as a starting point, but they need to be cleaned up and properly formatted. It takes experience and expertise to make it look professional and easy to read. It's like working with a book author and publishing a book without working with a book editor and a book designer.

Andrew:
So I'll make sure the content is accurate, but perhaps to ensure they're properly formatted, there are other things I should be doing as well? Is it enough to simply correct the words that are transcribed?

Svetlana:
No. Accuracy is not enough. The same goes for captioning and transcription. That's why my services are also used to improve the readability of captions and transcripts. There are certain accessibility elements to be considered for captions and transcripts, and they need to be properly formatted for better readability. It's like making a book look professional and easy to read.

Andrew:
Sure.

Svetlana:
Quality is important for all types of accessibility needs. Automation may help in some ways, but it's not to be used as a standalone application, or to replace the value of using experts.

Andrew:
Yeah, I agree. I mean, how can companies be encouraged to make these important changes to enhance the UX of their products and services?

Svetlana:
More awareness. That's also why I have been giving presentations worldwide for over 10 years to help organizations and individuals better understand the importance of accessibility.

Andrew:
I mean time is always at a premium, so I guess this is about showing them the experience they're creating, perhaps unknowingly. Are there any tools that exist that can highlight that? Or does it really come down to being told where failings are through consultation?

Svetlana:
There are always tools that can help, but as I mentioned before, they cannot be used as a standalone tool. It's always advised to work with an accessibility expert.

Andrew:
I'm thinking that in a corporate environment where, perhaps rightly or wrongly, a case needs to be made or sign off is needed. How can that be made clearer to decision makers? Does it come down to showing ROI or the experience or the legality of their site or service?

Svetlana:
People with disabilities make up the largest minority of 1.85 billion people in the world. That's the population size of China and EU combined.

Andrew:
That's a big minority, though it's a huge audience to exclude.

Svetlana:
Not to mention additional users who are families, friends, co-workers, etc. So companies will miss out on a significant market. Even if they are not sued by disability groups or individuals. They may lose millions of potential customers to competitors who care more about accessibility.

Andrew:
And of course, it's not just companies, either. There are legal rights and national communication issues such as we've seen through the pandemic.

Svetlana:
Accessibility benefits everyone, and not just those who are disabled. I would rather focus on how accessible experiences benefit more people and not just users, but also businesses. Accessibility is good for businesses and a necessity for millions of disabled people.

Andrew:
So where might a company start with their accessibility? If people are listening to this and wondering how accessible their site is or even other elements of their business, what would you recommend to them to improve their situation? Because speaking to your web agency or other suppliers might not be sufficient. That's surely just passing over the problem to someone else?

Svetlana:
Think about how ramps benefit not just wheelchair users, but also parents with baby strollers and workers pushing carts, and how captions benefit not just deaf people, but also people who are foreign language learners or are in a noisy place. I would say the earlier a company starts with accessibility, the better. I encourage more organizations to be proactive in accessibility.

Andrew:
And it's up to them to challenge and encourage it with their agency as well.

Svetlana:
Accessibility is not charity. It's the cost of doing business just like any other business operations. The earlier an organization invests into accessibility, the easier it will be for them to maintain a high degree of accessibility for their audience.

Andrew:
Yeah.

Svetlana:
Another thing to mention is that accessibility is not a one time thing, but an ongoing process. Just like with any other business operations.

Andrew:
In your experience, are there generally quick wins that can be found if a company starts an accessibility audit, for example?

Svetlana:
Yes, there are guidelines called WCAG, the web content accessibility guidelines. They have various success criteria and specific requirements. There are some tasks that can be fixed quickly, while others can take more time.

Andrew:
And I know there are a number of automated tests that can be run against those standards, but again, as you've said earlier, the automation is only a start point and it needs to be supplemented with human consultancy and feedback.

Svetlana:
Yes, but automated tests are also coupled with manual testing and also testing with disabled users. Automation cannot solve everything.

Andrew:
No, and I suppose that's a big challenge in that many will feel automation is enough, and they can say they've at least made a start. But in reality, there could be a lot more to consider.

Svetlana:
It's easier and cheaper to consider accessibility from the start than to wait until after a project is done and then implement accessibility in the end.

Andrew:
Absolutely. Otherwise, you're building in technical debt before a project even launches.

Svetlana:
I don't discourage automation because it does facilitate the process, but it also needs to be coupled with human labor. The key is a good accessibility strategy.

Andrew:
Which I presume should be defined by the experience you want people to have rather than standards, but to use the standards as a guide for a minimum best practice.

Svetlana:
Yes, exactly. It's always good to go above and beyond when possible, rather than just follow the guidelines and assume they're satisfactory. Besides, technologies and accessibility needs change with time, and so do the guidelines. For example, WCAG was first implemented in 1999 and has been through several revisions. Guidelines aren't set in stone and are constantly evolving.

Andrew:
And that will be another area that automation won't be able to keep up with as well as a human.

Svetlana:
Yes, that's right.

Andrew:
Are there any particular references you would recommend for listeners to find more specific information? WCAG would be one, of course.

Svetlana:
Well, my resources, of course, about.me/svetlanakuznetsova is my landing page as I have several websites and resources, so it's easier to start from that page.

Andrew:
And of course, you have a book of your own.

Svetlana:
Yes, my book is called Sounds is not Enough; Captioning as Universal Design, which is available in both paperback and e-book formats. There's also my TEDx Talk, which is on YouTube.

Andrew:
Well, we'll add these links to the show notes that will go alongside the transcript. It's been fascinating to talk to you, and I think that statistic that 98% of online content isn't accessible will surprise a lot of people.

Svetlana:
Yes, although not to me because I have experienced this firsthand myself all the time.

Andrew:
And I think, as you said earlier, people don't plan to get a disability, be it through birth, illness or accidents. It could happen to anyone.

Svetlana:
Yes, that's right. Many think you are either born with a disability or get one at an older age.

Andrew:
So it's unfair that people should have to face those challenges when the technology and doing the right thing should make the difference.

Svetlana:
Many don't think that most disabilities happen during their lifetime like it happened to me.

Andrew:
Yeah, it's about actions been more important than words, isn't it?

Svetlana:
Yes. Another thing that bothers me is when non-disabled people talk about accessibility and us disabled people, while not making their content accessible to us. They tend to talk about, for, and over us, rather than include us and consult with us.

Andrew:
That consultation and engagement is really important.

Svetlana:
They don't own the experience with barriers; we do. There's this quote in the disability community, 'nothing about us without us'.

Andrew:
From what you're saying, you'd welcome those questions and the consultation with open arms. But do you think people are afraid of that? Are they worried they might offend you by asking questions that appear insensitive?

Svetlana:
Yes, consultation and engagement are so important, but there's still a broad lack of awareness. To answer your other point on being insensitive, I'm not self-conscious of my deafness, but there are people who are. Everyone's different. I cannot hide my deafness anyway, because that's just how I communicate.

Andrew:
But breaking down the stigma and being open to that engagement will benefit everyone, as you've said.

Svetlana:
Yes. That's part of the reason why I do consulting and speaking; to spread more awareness and to help organisations with improving accessibility of their products and services.

Andrew:
Great. Well, we'll link your resources into the show notes on the podcast page.

Svetlana:
Sounds good. And it's advised to use a transcript on a separate HTML page and add speaker identifications.

Andrew:
As you know, we transcribe the show. We do that automatically with Sonix.ai, and then it is checked and edited by a human. But I know you've mentioned that could be improved.

Svetlana:
Yes, I saw this. Being accurate isn't enough, though. Formatting is another story. If you see my TEDx talk, you'll see what I mean, and I explain why accuracy isn't enough.

Andrew:
Yes, I'm hearing that from you, and I'll definitely look closely at how your TEDx talk has been captioned.

Svetlana:
You can write a book without grammatical mistakes, but if the book is not properly formatted, it's hard to read. Same with captions and transcripts.

Andrew:
I don't say we get everything right, but we do make an effort to make things as accessible as possible. But like most things, there's always other things to try and more to learn.

Svetlana:
I am glad to see that your podcasts have transcripts. It's a good first step.

Andrew:
Well, we'll look to wrap things up there. It's been a fantastic discussion, and there are certainly things that will take a closer look at as far as our own accessibility and of course, with the work we do with our clients.

Svetlana:
It's been a pleasure talking to you.

Andrew:
So massive thanks to Svetlana for joining me and sharing some really valuable insights that raise awareness of how accessibility can, and should be built into your digital content. Now I appreciate, as I said at the start of the show, the conversation will have come across in a bit of a different way, but naturally, we wanted to show how, despite the challenges of accessibility, digital content can be made accessible with only a little bit of extra work. It's absolutely staggering to think that 98% of online content isn't accessible.

Andrew:
You know, a lot of the videos I see are captioned, although not necessarily captioned well, I think there's far too much reliance on automation. Yes, there is some extra time involved, but if you watch Svetlana's TEDx Talk, which I highly recommend, she says that 80% of people who use captions aren't deaf. So this isn't just about accessibility. And according to DigiDay who Svetlana also quotes in her talk, 85% of Facebook videos are watched while muted, and 90% of captioned videos are watched to completion. So creating accessible content is much more about inclusivity and maximising ROI, which means accessibility needn't be a cost, but absolutely brings a benefit.

Andrew:
So we'll add the links that we've mentioned in the show to the show notes page, which you can find for this and all of our previous episodes at adigital.agency/podcast. Thank you for joining me today. Don't forget, please like and subscribe to the show, and if you can take a couple of minutes to leave a quick review, then that would be hugely appreciated. I'll be back in a couple of weeks time with the next episode. Have a Great Week, and I'll see you soon.

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Accessibility is not charity. It's the cost of doing business just like any other business operations. The earlier an organisation invests in accessibility, the easier it will be for them to maintain a high degree of accessibility for their audience.

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