Global Accessibility Awareness - Supporting 1 billion

Everyone has the right to understand and be understood. By 2030, we want to have advanced the literacy and understanding of one billion people around the world. At Texthelp, we see a world where accessibility doesn’t have to get in the way of everybody leading more satisfying, productive lives and a world where nobody’s held back by age, language, difference or disability.

This podcast episode explores the challenges faced by the 1 billion individuals with disabilities worldwide and explore Texthelp's role in supporting accessibility through top-down leadership.

Join host Rachel Kruzel, RESNA Certified Assistive Technology Professional (ATP) and Higher Ed Specialist at Texthelp with special guest Mark McCusker, former CEO of Texthelp and Board Member of G3ICT, as they discuss accessibility and inclusivity.

Learn more about the common barriers learners and organizations face and effective strategies for implementing accessibility initiatives. 

Together, we can create a more inclusive world for everyone.


Rachel Kruzel (00:14):

Welcome to the Texthelp Podcast. I'm your host, Rachel Kruzel, higher education specialist at Texthelp and a resident certified assistive technology professional. Today we have a special guest joining us, Mark McCusker, the former CEO of Texthelp and a board member of G3ICT. G3ICT focuses on creating awareness and implementing the UN convention on the rights of persons with disabilities with a particular emphasis on the digital environment. Mark, it's great to have you here with us today.


Why don't you start off telling us a little bit more about yourself.

Mark McCusker (00:53):

I will, I will. So thanks Rachel. It's good to be here. So certainly I am the former CEO of Texthelp. Martin McKay is my successor. Martin was the CTO when I was running Texthelp and I ran it for 22 years. And when I stood down just over two and a half years ago, basically Martin obviously took over. But I also then took up a number of other positions, some of which were with assistive technology companies and for example, the VI space. Some were in broader education companies, generally all ed tech and some were not for profits in and around the ed tech and the ed tech space. So one of those organizations is indeed G3ICT and which basically has its foundations in USA but actually is a global organization.


And that came about through my connection with the IAAP, the International Association of Accessibility Professionals, and again, another global organization of which I am the chair of their, what's referred as a global leadership council. That's the council that determines ultimately the direction to top the strategy and direction of the organization. So I'm kept busy, so I do miss the Texthelp days and basically, but I have enough to keep me going.

Rachel Kruzel (02:17):

Thanks for sharing all that you're involved with. I'll say as a Texthelper, we miss you too, Mark.


But before we dive in today's discussion, let's start by you giving our listeners some context. G3ICT works at a higher level, often national, than the International Association of Accessibility Professionals, IAAP. IAAP is closely associated with Global Accessibility Awareness Day, which is what we'll be focusing on today. Now let's jump right in. In this episode, we want to shed light in the challenges faced by individuals with disabilities and explore ways to support them. So Mark, could you explain who the 1 billion refer to and why they need help in terms of accessibility?

Mark McCusker (03:04):

Yes. Well, I actually think the 1 billion is an interesting number. Broadly, it refers to the volume of people in the world with disability. It's actually understated. There's actually more people in the world with disabilities, probably closer, don't quote me, 1.2, 1.3 billion. And I actually think if you really want to scale the market, that number in itself is... it's probably understood if you think about the role of assistive technology because there's a huge chunk of aging population who don't actually fall into that disability category who actually benefit from assistive technology as well. So the reason I like the 1 billion number is because it transmits scale. But if anything, it's understated which actually gives you an idea of feeling for the sheer scale of the market. But it's fundamentally people with disabilities who need support and effectively that support can come in many ways. Often it's just simple non-technology support, but where it is technology type support, it'll very often be through digital technology and through a wide, wide variety of applications.


And essentially, if I link it back to G3ICT, G3ICT as an organization was really founded around about 2006 and built around the sort of the United Nations' Convention on Rights of Persons with Disabilities. And that actually was a stop... what it did was it established a fundamental right for people with disabilities that they should enjoy the same freedoms as everybody else. That's really what it gets down to. And G3ICT, if you can imagine Rachel, those freedoms a lot in that one statement, G3ICT at the time really created the focus on the digital aspect of those freedoms. And over time, that's what it's been doing. It's been trying to... seeking to promote the digital aspect of UN conventional of rights basically. But if you think back, if you consider that's where they were, how do they go about it?


Well, there's an interesting thing. They do operate at a very high level. So the title suggests they're connected to the UN, they're not actually UN funded organization, but they have significant influence comes from the UN. And that fact, they sit on a number of committees within the UN that are very influential in terms of policy. And what G3ICT did and continue to do is they have really a number of divisions and one is advocacy, one is basically policy. Those are two that perhaps you tend to associate with UN. And within those divisions, they have a strategy for each one of those divisions in terms of what it's going to do. And policy, as you can imagine, is seeking to influence policy throughout at a very, very high level, at governmental level. And advocacy is basically seeking to create the capacity to deliver digital accessibility.


And if you go right back to that UN convention, that UN convention was ratified, I think it was ratified by 180, 185 different countries. And effectively G3ICT are going through a process of saying, "Okay, here you are. You've signed up for this. Now what does it actually mean?" And what they've been doing for the first perhaps 10, 15 years of their existence is basically all about awareness and creating awareness of what actually this means, helping countries understand what their obligations are, introducing one country to the next to try and make shared learning, best learning practices, et cetera. There's an interesting dynamic changing in the marketplace now actually. And this is interesting, because we as a board of G3ICT, we're looking at this right now, is that we feel that there is a shift in the market and the market is now moving, not away... it's not that the awareness is done, but countries are now starting to move towards implementation.


So they've got the aware... "Okay, now I understand what I have to do. Now let's focus on how I go about actually implementing it." And that's the kind of a shift in the role of G3ICT going forward. And you're going to see some things change over time as we start to sort of targeting that particular type of service to countries. So essentially its role is changing, the market is changing, but the actual scale of the problem hasn't gone away. And that has to be... we have to be completely honest about that. I actually think the guys in G3ICT, hugely super, super, super motivated and they basically will just keep going and they will keep going until they solve this problem. But that might be a hundred years.

Rachel Kruzel (08:00):

That's great to hear though, that you're just committed and passionate about this work.

Mark McCusker (08:04):

Yeah, we absolutely are. Yes. Okay, so that's the 1 billion or actually as I say, more than 1 billion. But Rachel, let's throw the ball back into your court. You're a higher education specialist and you firsthand experience working with students with disabilities. Perhaps you could share some of the common barriers that they face in the education system.

Rachel Kruzel (08:26):

Sure, Mark, I'd be happy to. Barriers that students encounter are often the results of the way that our educational institutions and the digital environment students are learning and working in are built every day. The most common disabilities of the students I worked with were ADHD, learning disabilities, mental health based disabilities. But I also worked with students who were on the autism spectrum, were blind or low vision, deaf or hard of hearing, had physical disabilities, chronic health conditions. For the learners who had learning disabilities or ADHD commonly, their disabilities really impacted their ability to read or write or engage with course content effectively. If we can ensure that course content was created accessibly, such that it was able to work with the assistive technology that a student used, they could more effectively gain access to their course readings, for example. For others implementing a piece of AT, assistive technology, such as speech to text or dictation tools to support their writing process or implementing a tool that supports the complexity of note taking during a course lecture, these were game changers for those learners.


Those students were able to engage with their course content. They could more effectively write or take notes and they truly could show what they had learned. We weren't grading them on their disability, but instead what they had actually learned. And this is true for students with what we would consider those lower incidents disabilities, are ones that tend to occur less often in our society. I'm thinking of our students who maybe are blind or low vision, deaf or hard of hearing. For them, ensuring that content was accessible was almost more critical in some ways. For students who are deaf or hard of hearing, having make sure that they're captioned or their content was captioned and/or having transcripts was really critical since these students really couldn't hear or gain access to course content any other way. Or for our students who were blind or low vision, we had to ensure that that content that faculty were distributing or campus was distributing was made accessible so it could be accessed with a student's assistive technology that they so needed to use every single day to interact with the world around them.


Outside of course content, we also thought about that wider campus community such as faculty, your staff who might have disabilities, as well as those community members who might come and visit us on campus or come to events on campus, we wanted to make sure that those environments were accessible as well. Really whatever they interacted with, whether it be content, systems, our websites, really needed to make sure that these constituents could effectively interact with it. One of the things that I took away from my role in higher education is that when content's made accessible from the start or accessibility really is thought about from the inception, we're really engaging in these inclusive practices.


And during my time I worked with hundreds of faculty members. It was one of the biggest joys of my time there in addition to working with students. But many of them said the sentiment to me that when they were more aware of the reasons for ensuring that their course was made accessible, that their classrooms were accessible, that their content was accessible, it ultimately made them a better teacher and a better kind of resource for their students. And it really shaped their lives, not only sort of in the classroom and on campus, but outside of that as well. When they were in the community, when they were on committees, when they were... those practices really carried with them outside of the classroom, which I thought was really great to really start pushing that work to make our whole world more accessible.


So Mark, let's dive into the Texthelp experience. Can you explain how Texthelp supports accessibility and inclusivity?

Mark McCusker (12:03):

Yes, I can. So effectively, Texthelp essentially always has been dedicated towards supporting students... actually not just students to be fair, anybody with a disability. And we will tend to make solutions that will... assuming the content is accessible, will actually bring that accessibility, content to life for that student, depending whatever their disability is. Now, how do you do it? Well, you'll often hear people talk about top-down management and basically we talk about it in Texthelp as well. Personally, I actually think that that's not the right term because top down management implies a hierarchy. Every company has a hierarchy. If you've got a boss, you've got a hierarchy. And essentially, so therefore you have a form of leadership. The quality of that leadership may vary from company to company. To me, and this to me is what Texthelp is all about - it's all about culture.


And what I would say about how we do it in Texthelp is that the culture at every layer of the organization is driven by the same passion exists at every layer of the organization wanting, understanding that there are challenges here but wanting to make this better. And I think that is the key to how you go, how Texthelp go about that. And a comparator I would give you Rachel, is one of the things that... I don't know if we're going to come to this in our discussion basically, but in terms of organizations, not necessarily in education, not even tech, a lot of organizations are now... they're becoming increasingly aware of their responsibilities from an accessibility perspective, but they don't actually know. It's like a mountain. They look at a mountain, they think, "How on earth am I going to get up there?" Now the solution is actually to start in small steps and work your way up in small steps.


But sometimes when you're standing facing that mountain, it is difficult to know what to do. And actually one of the things, the classic sort of business model for all of these things basically says, "Okay, the first thing you do is measure where you are and then you sort of do the small steps and you measure where you are and you constantly measure." But even that's difficult. How do you actually measure where you are? And if I can link myself, link this back to G3ICT for a second and IAAP, there are various maturity models that exist in terms of allowing you to assess where you are in terms of from an accessibility perspective. The good ones start with culture and they look at the culture and they look at the culture and they look at the culture at every level of the organization.


And they will give you an assessment, usually some form of grading from one to five, five is excellent and one is... they never use the word term poor because that's too disheartening basically, but could do better. But the principle is very sound. So effectively I think that what Texthelp have got right and worked really, really hard to keep right is the culture and the culture within the organization. Does that resonate? Does that make sense?

Rachel Kruzel (15:20):

Mark, you're speaking my language. Given my work with digital accessibility that I did for 10 years in higher education, everything you say really rings true. Cultural buy-in really is crucial for any organization's work around accessibility initiatives. Could you discuss some of the common barriers that organizations face when trying to implement accessibility initiatives and how they can overcome them? You mentioned the mountain, which I think is very true and taking steps at a time, but what else is there?

Mark McCusker (15:50):

Well, if you think about sort of accessibility, there's a whole load of things because organizations are complex things and you tend to think, "Oh, my organization does this." But you forget, for you to produce something going out the door, there are maybe 20 functions that exist. And when you look at your organization, you break it down into what those functions are. You've got everything from procurement right away through to some sort of legal thing basically. And what you have to do, my personal view is you start at the top and you basically get signed in at the top. Now there's a common theory that says that what you should do is you appoint the champion and the champion then is the person who goes and makes this happen. That's usually the terminology. I actually think there's more to it than that.


I think that if you appoint a champion and that person just disappears down a rabbit hole, basically is not seen for another six months basically and then comes back with a report, you've probably failed. And I actually think what you need to do is, this has to be something at the top level of the organization that everybody gets. They may not be absolutely involved on a day-to-day basis, but they have to get it. They have to know, understand why we do this and why it's important to do this. If you've got that, the rest will follow. And no two companies will follow the same path, but you will find that it permeates down your organization. And if you think about the values of your organization, those values permeate down and people will react and people will see what's coming.


So essentially start at the very top, you have to get buy-in at the very top. Without buy-in, I think you're doomed to fail. And then you basically... but if you've got the buy-in, it will happen and it will take time. I think sometimes organizations underestimate the length of time or the scale of the task. Now if you're a product organization, if you're a Texthelp type organization, the reality is if you build accessibility into your design process as opposed to trying to retrofit, it is always better. But if you think of an organization who's never been down this route, clearly they can't build accessibility yet because they have to retrofit because they're not ready yet. So they have to... basically, there's a learning curve that you have to go through. There's training that has to be developed for people at all levels of the organization.


And also you have to think about, are you going to initially focus on the digital only environment? Are you going to focus on the built environment? Built environment is a whole additional area for discovery. And so effectively put your plan together, small steps, get buy-in from the very, very top of the organization, train everybody as they go. Actually I'm a fan of data. I think you should measure how your progress as well and just measure progress as you go and accept that this is not something you're going to solve probably in six months. It takes longer. And cultural, if you're an organization that's never done this, cultural change doesn't come in six months. Cultural change can take years to do. But if you get there, it's super worthwhile.

Rachel Kruzel (19:06):

Mark, those are excellent points. So many companies think that this work happens overnight, but in actuality it's an ongoing process which is never really finished or ends.

Mark McCusker (19:16):

That's right.

Rachel Kruzel (19:17):

As someone who's been at the forefront of institutions that I've worked at trying to move the needle on digital accessibility and heading up some of these efforts, being part of a group working to engage the practices, as you mentioned, along with years of working with assistive technology that give individuals more equal access to the world around them, I've seen firsthand how the solutions at Texthelp can really enhance the accessibility of users. I mean, Read&Write can read out loud course content, websites, written content really to support those learners where their disability impacts their ability to read. This could be individuals with learning disabilities or dyslexia, ADHD, autism spectrum disorder, even mental health, we've seen a benefit. Likewise, there's tools built in that can help learners engage more effectively and comprehend materials, dictionaries, highlighters, vocabulary lists. It's got tools to help declutter webpages and allow for manipulation of the visual layout or the way that text appears on screen, font, foreground, background, color, lines, spacing, size of font.


And we also have tools that can provide kind of a color overlay on screen to help users track and follow along with different texts or the cursor on screen. Likewise, we've got dictation built in too which can help content creators, learners, really help them dictate their content wherever they go, wherever they're creating that. If we look at OrbitNote, very similar to Read&Write, but strictly for PDF files, it's going to provide very similar tools as Read&Write. But in addition to those reading supports come annotation tools, which can again support the comprehension and interaction of understanding and learning and digesting what's in that PDF file. What I see most often though when it comes to accessibility with OrbitNote, especially working with educational institutions, is that capability of the built-in optical character recognition scanner. If students or users come across an image-based PDF file, they're able to... with a click of a button, be able to get access to that file, the content in that file, and be able to engage and interact and read that file.


Likewise, if we put the tool into the hands of content creators, faculty, staff, they can be the ones to really move the needle forward on accessibility at their institution or at their workplace, ensuring that those things that they're putting out, they're able to be accessible and digested by their colleagues. Thinking about Equatio, really is how to help those content creators not just create digital math and STEM-based content, but also make it accessible, which is exactly what we're talking about today. It's really going to directly impact a faculty or a teacher's ability to ensure that what their students are consuming is accessible. If content needs to be remediated or made accessible after it's created, those professionals in charge of that work, Equatio can help them with that, make it easier, make it more time effective and efficient, sometimes even lowering that expertise needed that sometimes we see with higher level math and STEM-based content.


And then when this tool gets put in the hands of students, I mean those students are going to be able to gain access to course content more effectively by having it read out loud, have those UDL tools built into Equatio, allow them to create content in a way that works best for them. Whether that be things like dictation, writing recognition, prediction, thinking more broadly in some ways, less educational, but more content creation. I'm thinking about ReachDeck, which can really help those content creators specifically around website development, make sure that our content or the content that they've created is accessible through a digital audit, while also then giving users guidance on what may not be the most accessible content on their website and where they can do better.


Likewise, there's a tool built in there too, which can help content creators ensure that the complexity and the language used of the written content that you're distributing is able to reach the most amount of people possible. The average reading age across countries and across the world is much, much lower than people think. And with a larger focus on cognitive accessibility over the last few months and years, this is an area that we really should all be paying more attention to. And that's just four tools that Texthelp has. We've got tons more in the portfolio, Mark, across all of the different countries that we work with and interact with too.

Mark McCusker (23:35):

We absolutely do. But listening to your talk, Rachel, takes me back. I can remember PDFs and PDFs in the early days were just... they were torture, they really were. But the technology has moved on and you've got all sorts of capabilities just to bring the whole thing back to life basically. And I still think today you still get a fair number of inaccessible PDFs and just... I would tend to encounter them myself just in my own daily work basically. But the technology has improved, the AT has improved significantly in terms of what it offers, that type of inaccessible content is now just brought to life.

Rachel Kruzel (24:19):

I couldn't agree more, Mark. Before we conclude, let's discuss the role of the International Association of Accessibility Professionals, IAAP, and its collaboration with G3ICT. Could you explain IAAP'S focus and the work that they do to promote accessibility and inclusion?

Mark McCusker (24:38):

Absolutely. So IAAP actually was acquired by G3ICT in 2016, I think. Was it? And ultimately, up to that point, IAAP was basically an organization that focused on professional certification. And we offer a number of certifications, CPACC, CWA, ADS. We're driven by... the whole industry is driven by acronyms by the way. But we have a number of... as I say, a number of qualifications. When we were acquired by G3ICT, it created a credibility layer because suddenly we went up a layer and the awareness of what we do as an organization, whatever IAAP does as an organization, went up at the same time. So what IAAP does is it is a slightly unusual organization that it is made up of two types of member. You can have a single individual who is quite often a consultant, an accessibility consultant, are working in the field of accessibility somewhere, and you have an organization like Wells Fargo.


But they're all there. So in many ways you can say those are strange bedfellows. But matter of fact, they're driven by a common goal and they're trying to solve... they're aware of their responsibilities from an accessibility perspective. They're trying to solve those and meet those responsibilities. So IAAP delivers professional certification in and around accessibility. There's an interesting thing happening in the marketplace actually around them. Because I think the dynamics of all this is going to change. And what's happening is that basically for professional certification, generally speaking, you need to have had a number of years of experience having worked within the field and you have to have passed the relevant certification exams and then you get yourself certified. The problem with that throws up basically is that essentially there are a lot of people who don't have the time, the years of experience, but they need the knowledge.


They want the knowledge. And I think the dynamics of the market are going to change. Now I'm certain they're going to change. So the certification, which is a really fast growing piece of the IAAP business will continue to grow. But there's another layer of the market is going to mature, which is simply knowledge and passing on knowledge, someone that may... that knowledge allows someone to make a... help them understand how to make digital site accessible, et cetera. It could be a component of something that's covered in CPACC. But it doesn't mean that that individual is necessarily going to go on and do the full certification, but they're acquiring the knowledge. And I think that's starting to merge as a trend. So IAAP currently delivers the professional certification. In the future, I suspect it'll continue to deliver that, but it's also going to deliver knowledge.


Other things that it does, it's ultimately a networking organization. The whole point is that we connect people together. The professional certification is sometimes a method used for doing that, but it's a great opportunity to basically for one, to network and understand and learn best practice, et cetera. And there are other things that we do. We run a variety of things, webinars, et cetera, same as Texthelp run as well obviously in and around accessibility. And we've got a whole GAAD program and agenda as well. So there's a lot going on. It's fast growing organization. It's in a good place, I must say. And I'm very, very pleased with where it's going.

Rachel Kruzel (28:19):

That's great to hear, Mark. I have tons of colleagues that work in the accessibility space who find IAAP just incredibly valuable. The credentials are great. They've been able to network, like you talked about. You've built a great community. So thanks for sharing your insights into the work on that.

Mark McCusker (28:38):

I'll throw one other thing. There's a thing in IAAP called Connections. It's a community sort of Listserv thing. And it's brilliant. I kind of lurk on it. Basically you can throw anything in there. It could be anything to do with policy right through to your technical HTML question and someone will answer that question. And it's a wonderful, wonderful service.

Rachel Kruzel (28:59):

The shared knowledge of many is great, for sure.

Mark McCusker (29:02):

It absolutely is.

Rachel Kruzel (29:03):

So as we wrap up today's discussion, let's recap some of the key points. So today we've explored the challenges faced by individuals with disabilities and the importance of accessibility. We've learned about the Texthelp experience and the top-down leadership approach or more so what Mark mentions, this idea of kind of cultural leadership around accessibility that really has driven success in creating accessible solutions. We've also gained insights into the strategies and approaches that organizations can take to overcome barriers and support accessibility. And lastly, we've discussed the role of IAAP and their work in promoting awareness and implementing accessibility initiatives. Before we go, here's one thing to know, accessibility is not just a necessity, it's a fundamental right for all individuals regardless of their abilities.


Now it's time for one thing to think about. Consider a specific aspect or challenge related to accessibility in your personal or professional life, and reflect on how you can contribute to making it more inclusive. And finally, one thing to do. Take a proactive step towards accessibility by educating yourself, advocating for inclusivity or implementing accessibility measures within your sphere of influence. Mark, thank you for joining us today and sharing your expertise. It's been a truly enlightening and fun conversation.

Mark McCusker (30:28):

I've enjoyed it, Rachel. Thank you very much indeed.

Rachel Kruzel (30:32):

And thanks to you, our listeners, for tuning into this episode of Texthelp Talks. Remember, together we can create a world that is more accessible, inclusive for everyone. Don't forget, subscribe to Texthelp Talks on your preferred podcast player or streaming service to catch the next episode. Thanks again. Goodbye.