Q&A With Lori Samuels, Senior Director of Accessibility, NBCUniversal

Lori Samuels is the Senior Director of Accessibility at NBCUniversal. She leads strategic accessibility programs to institute best practices in inclusive design, provide training for software development teams, drive cultural maturity in disability inclusion, and fortify executive sponsorship.

Lori has had career roles in software engineering, engineering management, technical program management, and accessibility consulting — mostly for consumer and educational markets. Her passion for making technology work for people of all abilities started in 1993 when she was Director of Engineering at Broderbund Software.

She went on to start Intuit’s enterprise accessibility program and deliver the first-ever accessible version of QuickBooks. Prior to joining NBC, Lori led accessibility programs and initiatives at Microsoft, impacting products such as Bing, Cortana, Visual Studio, Microsoft Store, Azure, and Dynamics.

Lori grew up in Boston and moved to San Francisco just in time for the big earthquake in 1989. She and her family live in northern Utah, where they enjoy skiing, camping, hiking, and boating in the beautiful Wasatch mountains.

How did you get your start in accessibility?

I got started in accessibility way back in the last millennium before the Internet existed commercially. I was working as an Engineering Director at Broderbund Software – makers of The Print Shop (my baby), Where in the World is Carmen San Diego?, Kid Pix, Myst, Living Books, and lots of other cool (and cutting edge!) multimedia CD-ROM software products for the consumer and educational K-12 markets.

I had started doing some volunteer work at a computer lab in an elementary school in Berkeley, CA and we were experimenting with different types of adaptive keyboards and trackballs to enable kids with disabilities to enjoy playing computer games. The Americans with Disabilities Act had just passed into law a few years before in 1990, so more disabled kids were now attending public schools.

This volunteer work got me plugged into the emerging world of assistive or adaptive technology and sparked my interest in how we could ensure that our “mainstream” software products would work well with these various peripheral devices. The answer to that question actually hasn’t changed that much over the past few decades: Adopt and follow established standards when developing software in order to support assistive technology.

Accessibility standards have and continue to evolve as technology changes, but the concept is the same. We need to pay attention to standards such as the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) and follow them.

So now we’ve established that I’m very old and have been interested in accessibility for a long time! In this century, I’ve had the pleasure of starting up or working on large-scale, enterprise accessibility programs at Intuit, Microsoft, and now NBCUniversal.

It’s challenging for established corporations to implement accessibility in its culture. How did NBCUniversal achieve this?

It is challenging! I still hope to see the day when graduates entering the workforce to build the next generation of digital tools, experiences, and apps are already fluent in inclusive design principles and digital accessibility standards and practices. (Go, TeachAccess and Accessibility NextGen!) But we’re not there yet, so one of the bigger challenges is getting our product organizations upskilled in accessibility.

We can’t expect product teams to achieve accessible outcomes if they don’t understand how to design, manage, implement, and test for accessibility requirements on web and mobile apps. Upskilling requires both formal training as well as practice. We don’t get better at any new skill unless we practice, so I like to encourage teams to pick a few impactful accessibility requirements or standards to start learning and put into practice. Digital products will get better, confidence builds on the team, and curiosity and motivation tend to increase with these small successes along the way.

From a cultural standpoint, one thing I am very excited about is the convergence of accessibility and diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) strategies and programs. Historically, digital accessibility work has been done under the umbrella of Legal and Compliance, with some recent movement deeper into Product Development or user experience (UX) Design organizations.

And it’s true that much of the day-to-day work in digital accessibility needs to be done by groups working in UX Design, Content/Editorial, Software Engineering, Quality Assurance (QA), and Product Management. However, it’s equally critical to develop “cultural competency” in disability inclusion, to hire more people with disabilities, and to ensure an accessible workplace (both digital and physical environments, tools, etc.). DEI leaders are critical to this part of a holistic enterprise accessibility strategy.

We are certainly still in the process of working to improve in all these areas at NBCUniversal, but we have a strong partnership, collaboration, and support for disability inclusion and accessibility from our DEI leaders and practitioners. This makes it much easier to focus on the “How” of accessibility, not the “Why.”

A lot of companies have no idea where to start with accessibility. What’s your advice to them?

Accessibility can be an overwhelming topic and it’s very common to not know exactly where or how to start. Context is important of course, but generally, it’s helpful to consider some of these initial steps:

  1. Digital Accessibility happens in two different contexts and the approaches are somewhat different so it’s important to understand these first:
    • Fixing accessibility in an existing product (website, mobile app): For these, we have to gather data first to know how many accessibility problems exist. That’s often done with an external accessibility audit/assessment/test and that can be a helpful starting point. But if you don’t have the budget for an audit, there are steps that a product team can take on their own to identify common accessibility problems. My wonderful friends Jen Smith and Natalie Patrice Tucker and I did a talk on this topic at Microsoft’s 2021 Ability Summit. Make sure to start by testing a representative sample of the website or app – it’s not necessary to test every single screen or page. You’ll find problems soon enough!
    • Creating a new product from the start – this is the best time to incorporate accessibility. When we get to include accessibility requirements right from the start, we’ll be able to deliver a usable minimally viable product (MVP) or V1 of a product. Even if some tradeoffs are made along the way, this approach will always result in a better user experience. Or, as I like to say, “You can’t test your way to great user experience – you have to design your way there.”
  2. Even if you’re starting work on accessibility as a result of legal action against your company, try to adopt a proactive rather than reactive mindset. Don’t approach accessibility as a quick fix (looking at you, overlay companies) or a project that will have a start and end date. Rather, get advice from experts if needed, but look at ways that your company can begin to adopt accessibility standards as requirements in your product development and content creation processes as you work to fix existing products.
  3. If you need to look at accessibility at a big scale, take at least a rough inventory of your company’s digital properties (websites, web apps, mobile apps), and work with business stakeholders to apply priorities to which ones you want to tackle first for accessibility improvements.
  4. Take advantage of low or no-cost training and resources to learn more about accessibility and how it applies to your work – whether as a Content Creator, UX Designer, Front-End Web or Mobile Developer, QA Tester, or Product Manager. One great thing about the growth of accessibility as a practice over the last few years is that there are a ton of great articles, blogs, resources, and training to help everyone get started on their accessibility journey.
  5. Engage people with disabilities in your user research and usability testing. Hire people with disabilities to work in your product organizations and be part of the creative process. Listen and learn from people who are experts in using assistive technology.
  6. Work on securing executive leadership support which will translate into budget and resources to support the work of accessibility. This may take some time, but you can be confident about accessibility advocacy with leadership both because it’s a civil right and it also happens to be good for business as well (reduces risk, expands the customer base, positive brand impact).

You’re an advisory board member of Deaf Kids Code Foundation. Tell us about that.

Deaf Kids Code promotes technology, computer science, and design thinking skills as an innovative tool to empower deaf and hard of hearing students socially and economically. Their founder, the amazing Shireen Hafeez, reached out to me on LinkedIn over four years ago and we’ve been fast friends ever since. Deaf Kids Code provides free interactive workshops to Deaf middle and high school students all around the country to inspire them to see themselves as creators and makers of technology.

We have collaborated with the National Technical Institute for the Deaf, Microsoft, Comcast, Dell, Khan Academy, Amazon, and Google among others to drive inclusive education, career opportunities, technology innovations, and professional mentoring to support the Deaf community. The organization and the people who do the work are truly the best, and I’m honored to play a small part in supporting their work.

What is an accessibility barrier you would like to see solved?

Oof, this is a hard one to answer because there are so many barriers both in the digital and physical worlds. I guess I’d have to say negative and indifferent societal attitudes are the ones I’d like to see solved because I believe that would lead to more action on and commitment to accessibility.

Disability is so often not even seen or acknowledged, or when it is, it’s perceived as entirely negative or tragic. Non-disabled people often can’t imagine the idea of disabled pride, joy, sexiness, and excellence. But all that very much exists in the disability community and should be celebrated.

Media plays a huge role here. Media shapes perceptions, it both drives and reflects cultural changes. I think we are at the beginning of the authentic disability representation in the media movement now and I’m excited to see it grow.

Films such as Crip Camp, Rising Phoenix, Run, Peanut Butter Falcon, and shows such as New Amsterdam, La Brea, Ordinary Joe, Special, Ramy, and many others are featuring authentic stories and casting of disabled characters. This is a rich area for growth, and I am hopeful that media will continue to do more to normalize disability as nothing more (or less) than part of the lived human experience.

Each of us can play a part in advancing disability inclusion and accessibility. Examine our own biases. Read books and watch programs written and produced by people with disabilities. Follow disabled voices on social media. Learn how to make the emails you send and the content you create in your own daily work accessible. If everyone takes even a small action every day, the world will become more accessible!

"You can't test your way to a great user experience — you have to design your way there."

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