Interview with Emily

Today I’d like to welcome Emily Ogle to the show. Emily is an accessibility advocate and strategist who lives and breathes accessibility. She’s an expert in WCAG and VPAT. She trains people on accessibility using exercises she designed to provide perspective. She works with teams to remediate accessibility issues.

She is also the Senior Accessibility Designer at CVS Health, and that’s just my condensed summary of her LinkedIn profile. Emily, can you tell us more about yourself?

Yeah, absolutely, so I have a lifelong relationship with advocacy. I have lived with disability, so advocacy is something I’ve kind of born with because I was advocating for myself. And then, you know, that became like a super focused passion of mine, and as I learned more about accessibility, my passion grew, and I took an interest in getting into the field specifically.

I wanted to work 100% on accessibility, and I’ve been super grateful to have the opportunity. It’s really rewarding to be able to work, advocate for people in the workplace, and living out compassion from 9-5, even though it’s not- accessibility is not a 9-5.

So one of the reasons I asked Emily to be on the show is because I want accessibility to become mainstream, and Emily is an expert at relating the importance of accessibility.

Emily, to someone listening to this episode who isn’t aware of why accessibility is necessary, why is accessibility so important?

So we saw a lot of examples in the pandemic. When the pandemic started, it kind of exposed some gap in how people with disabilities were given the information or not being able to access the information about the safety protocols, people wearing masks in doctor’s offices, and that was my experience is that I really struggled to understand my doctors during the pandemic.

And then it also exposed- the pandemic also exposed the fact that working from home is much better for people with disabilities. And a lot of people turned out to like working from home and there were all sorts of tools being used. So there was- you had Zoom, we had Teams, you had Google – I forget what the streaming conferencing tool for Google is called, but some tools are more accessible than others and I find Teams to be more accessible than Zoom.

Zoom is more accessible to people who are blind. And so the opposite had to kind of- in order to not run afoul of like regulatory affairs, they had to make sure that they were using accessible tools.

And this also opened up the world for people with disabilities because corporations could no longer say, oh working from home isn’t a reasonable accommodation, and so I really like how- like the pandemic even as stressful as it was, it kind of opened the doors in a lot of ways for people with disabilities.

And for me, one of the most important aspects of accessibility is independence and privacy.

How did you start working- or how did you come to start working at CVS, and how do you currently help CVS?

Yeah, so I first need to disclaim that none of what I say here is representative of CVS, or my thoughts are my own; they’re independent here.

And I have started at CVS about a year and a half ago, and when I was exploring looking into other ways of employment, I liked that there was a design element.

At this point in my career, I had my hands on strategy, training, online courses, and auditing. I had done just a lot of little things, but I hadn’t done design yet, and I had been design adjacent but not actually within design.

And so I felt that it was a new way for me to learn and add to my bucket of skills, and in CVS, what I- I’ve really enjoyed about working for CVS is that it’s really shown a commitment to accessibility.

And the- I am embedded on a design team, and I am one of 50 designers, and so CVS has really shown a commitment to accessibility. And what’s been great is seeing kind of like people make that connection in their head like, Oh yeah, if we design it this way that’s going to be confusing for people or it’s going to be difficult for them to navigate.

And it’s been great because I can get kind of ahead of the design, and so there’s been a lot of reactivity in my career previously where we’re auditing things that have already been created; we are educating on things that have already been created.

And this time, we are designing before it’s created and preventing accessibility issues and creating more access at the outset, and that’s been really meaningful for me.

And another thing that I do a lot at CVS is mentoring because, you know, I don’t have that training background. I don’t have that mentoring background.

And so with so many people, we have such a diverse set of skill sets, and so it’s been really nice to mentor people and just help level them up, help support them because, in the accessibility space, we don’t have a lot of professionals as an industry.

And so I feel I need to start building and helping people level up and just start spreading so that as more and more companies recognize the need for accessibility, there are enough professionals to meet that need, and so that’s the another important part of what I enjoy at CVS.

And I think that also gets to your training right, like one of your specialties is training, and you have designed exercises specifically so that people can relate and better understand accessibility.

What’s one aspect of your training, one exercise that really begins to change the way people think?

I have several. When I’m doing exercises that are designed to kind of make people think, I shy away from like empathy exercises. So I don’t do exercises whereas like you are sitting in a wheelchair for a day. It’s not meaningful and at the end of the day, people are not still in a wheelchair.

What I prefer to do is to take something that people are already doing every day and then just put that accessibility lens on it. And so people are already using their phone and they’re already sending text messages every day, but then it’s like, okay, texting was derived from TTY technology.

You are using technology that was originally created to help people who are deaf and hard of hearing. And then just kind of helping that to sink home that they get a lot of benefit from it as well.

Something that they use every single day, take for granted; even my dad sends text messages these days.

And then there’s also Alexa or Siri or any other kind of personal assistant there- that is a tool that can be used for people who may have blindness and they- we might use it to say, Alexa, turn on the lights or Alexa, create a grocery list for me.

But while we’re saying that just because it’s convenient, it’s actually reducing a lot of cognitive load for people who struggle to maybe write things down to stay focused on something.

And so it’s yet another tool that has kind of become day-to-day for us, but it has opened up a world for other people. And then there are some other ways to relate. So you have the digital accessibility, which is like texting and such, but you also have physical accessibility. You have wheelchair ramps.

Wheelchair ramps are often used by parents who have a stroller, or they are used by people who are just moving a grocery cart. And when you go into a grocery store, most often, there is automated opening doors.

You walk through those, you don’t even think about it, but those automated opening doors really help people who use wheelchairs because it gives them much easier access.

And during the pandemic, I like to relate that these accessibility tools like an automated opening door made it safer because I wasn’t having to put my hand on a doorknob; I could just walk in, and I didn’t have to worry about germs that I added another layer of the convenience and the usefulness of something that was designed for people with disabilities in mind.

I love that you make training a point of emphasis, I was just thinking about how you were saying you leveled up- you’re leveling up everybody’s game, but you’re doing it at scale so- because I think what we need to do is we need to get out of this like we are reliant upon sourcing to an accessibility expert and instead start- if everybody starts learning about accessibility, this becomes much more doable, much more quickly right.

Because then everybody’s thinking of it, and it’s not something where it’s like, oh you’ve got a problem what do we do it’s like no, you make it a part of your process, you integrate it, and you’re also being more considerate.

And it’s not like everybody has to be an expert like yourself. It’s just that they start, like you, said, leveling at their game.

Um hm, yeah.

Did you want to add anything? Any comment to that?

No, go ahead.

What is ableism?

So ableism is a form of discrimination that is specific to people with disabilities, and it can be really just everywhere. Disabilities is still one of those areas that people don’t really understand the nuances, and so they participate in ableism.

And one example that is quite common is when people see others like a wheelchair user, and they rush to open the door for that wheelchair user, they rush to help, or they push the wheelchair, and they are participating in ableism because they’ve taken away that person’s agency to make that decision for themselves.

And then ableism is also reinforcing stigmas around disabilities. And so it is saying things like you’re my inspiration. You are doing things like I would do on an everyday basis, but you’re disabled, so you are inspiring. And it’s very infantilizing to people with disabilities when they hear, congratulation you did it and like yeah, okay I did it.

And it has the effect of invalidating people’s experiences, especially when you get into that like I will pray for you, go you- you did a good job because it may have just been their life, their entire life.

I’ve been hard of hearing my entire life, and I remember someone once saying, I’ll pray for you and I was like, oh, okay, you do you, that’s weird okay, but it makes it seem like it’s like something that you don’t want and the reality is when it comes to disability everyone can come in and out of disability.

And so ableism is reinforcing stigmas, and it is isolating people, and I have unfortunately dealt with ableism myself and in the workplace and in just random situations.

I went to New Zealand a few years ago, and that really just kind of highlighted for me how far apart some countries are in terms of where they are in being accessible.

New Zealand is not as accessible as the United States, and there was one part where we were watching a video because we had a really long drive, and the video wasn’t closed captioned.

And so I was like, hey, I guess I’ll just look at my phone for this 3 1/2 hour drive instead of being able to participate like everyone else, so I was excluded at that point.

And it’s not a fun feeling; it’s kind of like, it’s very isolating, and so I am very passionate about identifying ableism when it occurs, explaining why it’s ableism and what we can do instead.

And so an example that I go to is the word or the phrase tone deaf. Tone deaf has a literal meaning which means that you can’t differentiate between pitches, frequencies and music.

People use it colloquially a lot as oblivious. This was an oblivious comment or this was an oblivious action, but they used tone deaf. And so they’re using a disability to identify something as that.

And we also see this a lot with like picking other people’s disabilities and saying they’re having a moment. Oh, this is- I’m just having an OCD moment, it’s my OCD, when they’re not- they don’t have OCD.

OCD is actually a really debilitating mental illness, and it’s not something to be trifled with.

And then sometimes people- I’ve heard people say, oh, I’m having an ADHD moment.

Well if they don’t have ADHD, it’s not appropriate. And so what really, what they can say instead is I’m having a hard time focusing today, that’s really what they’re trying to get at.

And then the other thing that I’ve experienced is people kind of complimenting me or thinking that they’re complimenting me by saying oh wait, I forgot that you’re hard of hearing. And it’s like they’re saying oh, you are so normal that I forgot that you’re not normal.

And it’s like, well, I never forget that I’m hard of hearing and the specific example that I’m alluding to here is when I was at a work meeting at my- in my previous role. And we were having a team meeting- a team outing and we went to an extremely loud restaurant and it became very clear that it was gonna be impossible to hear.

And then the person who organized this said oh yeah, I totally didn’t think about what you need; it’s kind of like this is a result of you forgetting that I’m hard of hearing because that means that you didn’t take my environmental needs into consideration.

And so yeah, there’s lots of ways to be ableist. Building empathy is a huge part in helping people be aware of potentially abling- ableist term potentially ableist situation. It’s not ever going to be perfect, but we can make progress a little bit at a time that would be wonderful.

As you were describing everything, I was thinking of the whole time I could have- I had examples in my mind where you can- I mean, it’s just so easy to think of examples where on social media, right, someone is called an inspiration. And we know why they’re called an inspiration, it’s because they have a disability and they’ve done something, and yet people call them an inspiration.

What are- how can we practically reduce the ableism that goes on?

I think being exposed to diverse populations is going to be the best way. At CVS alone since we do have such a large team of accessibility professionals we also have a really diverse team of disabilities.

And so at CVS, I’ve been exposed to people who need reduced stimulation, who can’t handle or, you know, they need more streamlined content presentations, and I’ve been really fascinated by language accessibility.

And so I have never really been exposed to the world of language accessibility where we talk about English kind of like a default, talk about real estate as we’re talking about white space, but then when you add Spanish- translate to Spanish becomes a completely different world and I think that people need to understand the human being next to them.

One example that I think of a lot are sometimes in, like, say, a smaller office environment, you have people who maybe chat a lot to the side. And they- everyone has collectively noticed this one person over here takes a lot of time off. That person just takes a lot of time off. People start grumbling because like well how come I’m not getting that time off, but that person may be taking that time off due to a hidden disability.

And so having, if there were some understanding that just because somebody’s taking a lot of time off doesn’t mean that they are unreliable, doesn’t mean that they are not doing what they’re supposed to do. And then when people start realizing that they can start kind of re-checking themselves.

Another example of ableism that I’m hopeful people are kind of learning to break away from a little bit more is an assumption about who should be using accessible parking.

There are many stories of people who appear able-bodied being harassed for using accessible parking, and they very much earn or not even earn, they very much are entitled to use those accessible parking spaces.

And as more stories like that get circulated and people start realizing more and more that, hey the what I see isn’t what I get necessarily. The only time I will ever really make a comment about someone in the accessible parking spaces is when they park on the yellow line because they are directly blocking access to the vehicles themselves.

I don’t make any assumptions about who is in that vehicle, what their experience is, and that is because I have been exposed to many different perspectives, and so I’m able to pull back on that ableist assumption.

And so it’s really about exposure. And being- making it relatable, and women or people who have autoimmune disorders, they experience what’s called like the spoon theory where there have been times when people will say everyone has the same 24 hours in their day and people with autoimmune disorders don’t have the same 24 hours.

And a task that may take someone else 5 minutes perhaps takes them longer. And so calling out- let’s say I see something like that on LinkedIn, I see a post like that on LinkedIn, I try to comment. I try to say, hey you know this is a different perspective and they can do what they want with it.

But what I take away from that is not only telling this person that there’s a different perspective, but other people are seeing my comment, potentially and maybe taking that into the back of the mind and going, okay I’m going to keep that in mind when I see that in front of me. There’s no one way to do- to be battling accessibility, or you don’t wanna be battling accessibility- ableism.

Some of like we are talking about just not making assumptions based on- just because we think we’re interpreting something one way, it doesn’t necessarily mean that’s the case.

And one of other thing is microaggressions.

One, what are microaggressions? And can you also talk about microaggressions towards people with disabilities in and out of the workplace?

Yeah, so microaggressions are kind of like subtle digs, subtle statements that kind of try to invalidate disability or use disability against you. I, unfortunately in my last job prior to CVS, I dealt with a lot of microaggressions. And I have- I’m not shy about the fact that I’m hard of hearing- I’m not shy about saying I need these things in order to be successful in communicating.

And one example of a micro question was- I was really having a hard time concentrating on international calls. And so I was trying to convey like these calls are exercise in concentration; they are, you know, I put a lot of energy even if it’s just a half-hour call, it takes up a lot of energy to try to keep up with it.

And this person- what she said was, it’s not your hearing, you’re just not paying attention. And that really stuck out to me because I was like, not only am I not paying attention, I’m like paying so much attention that it is just very draining.

And then she then proceeded to invalidate by saying, we all have problems with international calls. And I was again, I was like, well yeah, but I really have a problem. I literally can’t hear certain sounds. And so when you have people who maybe using English in certain different sounds than you normally might, yeah it’s a challenge.

And then the one microaggression that I had already kind of alluded to earlier was forgetting that I am hard of hearing. And when we were starting to kind of like be together in the same places, but with caution, masks were an issue for me. And I said, can we procure clear face masks so that I can read lips while we are working together; that is a need for me.

And this person came back to me and said, you just need to be fine right here. You’re not having any trouble understanding this conversation right now. And I was like, it’s going to be a problem if we don’t have face masks.

And then there was the- we were talking about like going to a park, maybe just kind of having lunch together. And I said, well, it’s a windy day. We really need to avoid, if possible, windy days because wind- when they knock on my hearing aid, it could sound like I’m in an airport tank, it’s really loud, I cannot hear.

And again, it was like, well, that shouldn’t be a problem. I mean, we’ll just not face the wind. It was the constant doubting of what I was saying was true.

It was a pushback of things that ultimately didn’t matter, like what did it matter to this person if we found a spot that would be away from the wind, why did that matter?

And then, like- so people with disabilities can experience microaggressions and that I have people who is sent that they get like a cushioned spot in an office. Like, they get the prime spot because that happened to be the area of the office that has the most room for their wheelchair to maneuver. And you might have people who make comments like, well like I wish I were in a wheelchair so that I could have that spot too.

And so it can come in many many forms, and obviously, microaggressions are not unique to people with disability.

People of color experience microaggression, and what they might experience is someone trying to touch their hair. And it’s seemingly innocuous, but we run into consent issues with it, I didn’t give you permission to touch my hair.

And so some of the questions we might ask for people of color, like if you ask like a black woman, how many children do you have, and you don’t make that first question, do you have children?

You’re kind of making an implicit suggestion that you just assumed she has children because of stereotypes about black women having children. That’s just the- in the wild example that I’m thinking of.

But another one for people with disabilities is that they are asexual. And I say this, and I’m actually- a literally an asexual person. And I say this because people assume that people in wheelchairs, people who may not come across as sexually attractive, are asexual; they don’t have relationships.

And so microaggressions can come in the form of the surprise, oh you you have a partner that’s really, oh okay. And it’s just kind of a theme of people doing everyday things that takes others by surprise. And it’s interesting the different ways that people make comments, and they’re not keeping their unconscious bias in check; they’re not even aware of it.

As I am exposed to more and more perspectives, I have more and more ways of checking my unconscious bias.

So if you’re more aware of what you’re implying through how you’re acting, your behavior, and what you’re saying, it’s going to reduce the microaggressions that take place.

Two more questions before you go, I want to tap into your expertise on VPATs and overlays. So when it comes to VPATs, can you just 1) explain what the VPATs are and then 2) if they’re helpful and then do you see the VPATs- the term VPAT coming up more in the private marketplace when it comes to procurement?

So first of all, VPAT stands for Voluntary Product Accessibility Template. And it is an auditing tool to create an Accessibility Conformance Report. And so WCAG has all sorts of criteria; WCAG is the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines.

And Section 508 is the US regulatory body that put federal requirements on federal agencies on what they need to do to be accessible. And the VPAT is- happened to be easier to say than like ACR or Accessibility Conformance Report, so most people are- they are meaning the conformance report when they are using the phrase VPAT because ultimately the VPAT is just a template, it’s just a literally just a tool to guide you through the auditing process showing accountability for each and every single criterion.

So I have been seeing more and more references to, like I just kind of like a base understanding like, hey, this VPAT thing kind of important, I need to ensure that we have a VPAT.

Procurement is one of those areas that’s still running behind. There’s more acknowledgement that you need to have accessibility expertise embedded in development and product and design, but you also need it in procurement.

And just so I’m using plain language, procurement is the process of contracting with vendors and contracting with third parties. And companies they- when they are looking outward like, hey we need to be accessible for our customers, and so they start working on making their website accessible or their products accessible, but they forgot to look internally. And there’s actually this gigantic law called the ADA, American with Disabilities Act that stipulates that employers cannot discriminate against their employees.

And so companies are often forgetting to procure internal tools that are accessible. And so one example that I have is WebEx versus Teams. WebEx has a lot of limitations when it comes to closed captioning. There’s no speaker identification, the captions all run together, they stop frequently, and they’re just a challenge for me.

And if a company continues to use WebEx, they are, in fact, discriminating against me. And so procurement what happens- what I see a lot within procurement when people are attempting to engage about accessibility, they ask about the VPAT. Because the VPAT is the most common thing that they- it’s one of the most common things that you see when you just Google accessibility.

But they don’t necessarily have a fundamental understanding of what that VPAT means. So I was like, can you send us a VPAT? They get sent the VPAT okay, box ticked, they sent the VPAT.

But they have no idea how to look through the VPAT and be like, okay, they’ve stated here that they didn’t really have good keyboard accessibility. That major, major critical aspect of providing access is keyboard access. Like keyboard access is a big domino if you don’t have that, a lot of other domino’s fall.

And so there’s a really a need for people who are in procurement who know how to interpret accessibility questions and know how to interpret accessibility deliverables and also how to ask for them.

There were several times in my previous role where they would- we would get a question of how ADA compliant are you? It’s like, well VPATs aren’t a part of the ADA. And when it comes to digital accessibility, the guidance from the ADA still is a little bit unclear; it’s not explicit.

And so whenever I see that, I’m like okay, I’m actually getting this question from someone who is not an expert. And so I’m like, they’re probably asking me about the VPAT, but I also know it’s going to be fairly surface level; it’s not going to be a deep dive into the discussion and the gap and how we are going to remediate any gaps.

And so we still have a long way to go when it comes to procurement.

You bring up a really good misconception about VPAT so VPATs only address accessibility- the only account accessibility that doesn’t- just because you have an Accessibility Conformance Report it’s only an accounting of your product or services’ accessibility. It doesn’t actually mean that your product or service is accessible and I think that a lot of people lose that.

One more question on the topic of website accessibility. There are these quote-unquote solutions, they’re commonly referred to as overlay widgets that their stance is, hey look like if you install our widget, it’s going to make your website either WCAG conformant or ADA compliant or close to it.

Can- what is your opinion on overlays?

So I feel like I can draw overlay- the topic of overlay conversation back to ableism because overlays treat accessibility and in downstream visibility as a one-stop shop, a quick fix.

And accessibility, you know, like levels A and AA of a WCAG alone is like 38 criteria- I think it’s more cause now there is more criteria. And there have been times when I have been sitting in a room we are looking at design, and we are trying to figure out what to do to make something keyboard accessible.

And it’s something like, does focus go here, focus go there, do you use your arrow keys, do you use your enter keys. And with an overlay, you’re not getting that conversation, you’re not getting that thoughtfulness.

You’re getting kind of a band-aid, but it’s not even a sufficient band-aid. It’s making a lot of assumption, so again, ableism is about assumption. And so overlays are making the assumption that there- somebody who needs a screen reader isn’t actually using a screen reader so here use our screen reader that maybe isn’t as fast pace that you might want, isn’t maybe a female voice or a male voice or robotic voice.

They are making the assumption that if you have low vision, you just need words that are in high contrast. It’s not a case of you need words magnified to 600%.

It’s not a case of- they don’t consider that like people with low vision may need just like an isolated view where they have a focus view that tones in on content and help them to keep the rest of it out.

What I found interesting was I saw one overlay with like an ADHD mode. And I’m like wow, ADHD is super complex – so many different ways to have ADHD. And what this one did was just walk a line of text across the screen or highlighted a block of the screen and it made like this huge assumption about what ADHD entails.

And it’s really kind of consulting because it’s really complex. Neurodivergence, in general, is really complex. There is no one-stop shop, and so overlays that are promising to- that are promising compliance, I feel like they are- they’re seeing an opportunity like you’re gonna have a lot of companies that don’t know accessibility, go back that procurement gap where we’re missing accessibility expertise in procurement.

And if you have someone procuring accessibility services who don’t know much about accessibility themselves and you have this like flashing lights, bells and whistles tools like, oh, problem solved.

And so overlay companies, I think, really saw an opportunity to exploit that- to exploit the fact that we still have such a lack of knowledge about accessibility in general.

I think it’s really unfortunate because their marketing machine- I wish that the accessibility community, in general, could have quiet use that type of marketing machine to like as you’re trying to do mainstream accessibility.

Because I think that, like, a missed opportunity on the accessibility industry is in how we talk about accessibility, in general. We’re not talking about necessarily in a way that people are actually hearing it, and so yeah, that’s my thoughts on overlays.

With overlays, I think what has been particularly difficult is they have- they have infiltrated education and so people believe what they are saying, and they just don’t- people have-

I think have a hard time believing that someone would lie just outright and like 100% lie and that- but that’s what they do, and they get away with it because you know they’re really playing on the different gray areas.

But in some cases, they’re not in some cases it’s very obvious, and you know people like Karl Groves and Adrian Roselli have done a great job of pointing that out.

But you know, we just don’t have- I think with you mentioning the accessibility community. You know, nobody is ripping off people by selling software and able to make that amount of profits where they can just continually buy ad space. So it is a problem, but ultimately, they will fail.

Emily, one, thank you so much for being here. Thank you so much for taking the time. Do you have- is there any final notes or any messages or anything else you’d like to say before you close up?

You know, I really enjoy being able to talk about accessibility. I love it, and I love sharing my passion, and I get a lot of meaning from it. And I just wanna share out what I- because I’m hoping that with every conversation that I have about accessibility that it is making someone think.

It’s making someone stop and think, and a light bulb goes off in their head, and that’s been like the most rewarding part is seeing, people see the need, see the humanity behind it and embrace it.

That is wonderful to me to see people embrace it. I kind of feel like a proud Mama bear when someone says, hey, I made this accessibility statement over here, and they listen; small win.

And then there are some big wins, but it’s been- it’s really been a rewarding journey, and I appreciate the forum to talk about my own experience.

Well, I really, I’m so appreciative that you’re here, and mission already accomplished because I learned every time I listen to you. It always helps me.

How can people contact you? Or also, are there any resources that people can find to learn more about you?

Yes, I’ve actually written an article called, Let’s say the word disability. It’s about people’s tendency to try to replace the word disability with others, and so I’ll send that link to you, Kris.

And I’ve also done webinars, I did a webinar on how to create accessibility training when you are actually just training on accessibility. And I’ve also done a podcast with Joe Gavin and, of course, you can also find me on LinkedIn.

I generally will accept requests from anyone, and I look forward to hearing from additional people.

Okay, well, again, thank you so much for being here. All of the links will be in the description.