A truly thought provoking conversation about data and accessibility with an amazing Software Engineer and Accessibility Expert & Advocate, Larene Le Gassick.
“My name is Larene and I am a software engineer who has become a bit of an accidental accessibility specialist / advocate.”
I’m pleased to say that I have started to use Whisper to transcribe podcast episodes, so it is fitting that the first episode with a transcription is Larene’s! Scroll down, after the quotes, to see the full transcript.
Some resources shared by Larene:
Writing alt text for data viz: https://medium.com/nightingale/writing-alt-text-for-data-visualization-2a218ef43f81
Do No Harm Guide – centering accessibility in data viz https://www.urban.org/research/publication/do-no-harm-guide-centering-accessibility-data-visualization
GitHub Data Viz Accessibility repo: https://github.com/dataviza11y/Why-We-Exist
Book: How to lie with statistics by Darrell Huff
Book: Storytelling with data by Cole Nussbaumer Knaflic
Smart People Listen to Taylor Swift: https://collegerover.com/campus-library/news/78/best-songs-for-studying
Be My Eyes with AI: https://tink.uk/adventures-with-bemyai/
“It wasn’t until I joined the software industry and my first client had a requirement to build a web app that was meant to be accessible, compliant to something called WCAG, which is the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines or some standards around making sure
that the website is accessible to people with disabilities. And when I joined that client, that was the first time I heard about it. I was like, WCAG, w-w-what, what is this? And that was when it dawned on me that, oh, there’s this whole discipline in the web that is completely related to why my dad really struggled to use the internet and all of these things that he used, like screen readers or the assistive technology that helps him to use the computer, which reads out the screen.”
“Now I’m trying to, I guess, make that lived experience of knowing someone with
disability and trying to make that as accessible as possible to people who build software because that is the bit that is most important, I find, to talking to people about accessibility,
gets them on board. But having them really understand it is bridging that gap of showing how people with disabilities use the internet and use various devices and things like that.
So trying to close that gap and raise that awareness and share that knowledge as much as possible.”
“I’ve shown videos of people with screen readers trying to use someone’s website. And that’s, that’s kind of the moment where it really hits home for a lot of people. It’s like there is a lot of work to do and it’s much more complicated than they think, but it just, it makes it real and makes it a problem that you can solve.”
“There was no mention of accessibility in any sort of university education when I was going through.”
“I was thinking back to high school of like, when was there ever any kind of teaching about disability in general? And I can’t remember any mention of it in any kind of physical education even, or sciences or biology at all. there was, my memory is terrible, but I can’t really remember being taught about disability in kind of high school or primary school. Other than the token, hey, here’s a person in a wheelchair picture, maybe in a book somewhere. Maybe one paragraph on disability or something.”
“But the most popular statistic that is shared about disability is that, you know, if you don’t consider accessibility in the web or in mobile apps, you are excluding at least 20% of folks who might have some form of disability.”
“But the number one thing that I wish people knew is to, when you’re sharing an image of
a chart or something like that to add alt text or text description of the chart.
And a person that I’ve had that I worked with in a kind of unofficial data vis accessibility
working group in the last few years, Amy Cesal, she’s written a really great article
with a template of like, this is how you can write nice, concise, useful text description
of a chart.”
“A cool thing is that data vis is already a form of accessibility. it’s turning a spreadsheet of data into something that people can consume and especially people who prefer visual ways of understanding stuff. So yeah, it’s all interrelated. So it’s really, really cool.”
Linda: Welcome back to another episode of Make Me Data Literate.
I’m really excited today to be going back to, in a way, the roots of my research and PhD back several lifetimes ago, where I did a lot of work in usability and accessibility. And this is something that has really attracted me to Larene’s work. So welcome, Larene, thank you for coming.
Larene: Thank you so much for having me, Linda. It’s great to be here.
Linda: I’m very excited. So can you tell us who are you and what do you do?
Larene: So my name is Larene and I am a software engineer who has become a bit of an accidental accessibility specialist slash advocate. And most recently I’ve just joined the accessibility team at Canva, which is really, really cool. Yeah.
Linda: That’s awesome. I’m so fascinated to hear you say that I’m accidentally there by, you know, just fell into this role? And I hear it a lot from various people that, you know, they’re never quite intended to end up here. How did you accidentally become an accessibility specialist?
Larene: That’s a great question. I haven’t started to kind of say that until recently, but I’ve been talking to a lot of folks lately about how I’ve gotten into accessibility and it feels quite accidental now that I think about it a bit more.
But so firstly, my dad is blind and pretty deaf. So that was kind of my initial introduction into accessibility, but I didn’t know it as I was growing up. And it wasn’t until I joined the software industry and my first client had a requirement to build a web app that was meant to be accessible, compliant to something called WCAG, which is the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines or some standards around making sure that the website is accessible to people with disabilities.
And when I joined that client, that was the first time I heard about it. I was like, WCAG, w-w-what, what is this? And that was when it dawned on me that, oh, there’s this whole discipline in the web that is completely related to why my dad really struggled to use the internet and all of these things that he used, like screen readers or the assistive technology that helps him to use the computer, which reads out the screen.
And yeah, since then it’s just been learning at a very fast pace and the beginning of kind of advocating for it at every client or every company that I was a part of and in the community as well, realizing how important it is. Yeah, so that’s how I got into it. I don’t know what would have happened if I didn’t join that company that asked to do web accessibility.
Linda: That’s fantastic. I love it. And it’s that moment, isn’t it, when you recognise how relevant and useful this is that that you become passionate about it, which is of course the core of my educational philosophy that if you give kids things in context and make it relevant and meaningful, then it takes off. And that’s, it sounds like that’s what happened to you.
Larene: Absolutely. That’s it.
And yeah, so now I’m trying to, I guess, make that lived experience of knowing someone with disability and trying to make that as accessible as possible to people who build software because that is the bit that is most important, I find, to talking to people about accessibility, gets them on board.
But having them really understand it is bridging that gap of showing how people with disabilities use the internet and use various devices and things like that. So trying to close that gap and raise that awareness and share that knowledge as much as possible.
Linda: Yeah, it’s making it personal, isn’t it, that really makes it relevant? It’s like when you find a restaurant that does really good gluten-free stuff, that you talk to them about it, there’s always someone in their family or someone close to them, has celiac disease.
Linda: Okay. Yeah. That’s why you’re really good at it.
Larene: Yeah. And, and yeah, it happens a lot. I’ve shown videos of people with screen readers trying to use someone’s website. And that’s, that’s kind of the moment where it really hits home for a lot of people.
Larene: It’s like there is a lot of work to do and it’s much more complicated than they think, but it just it makes it real and makes it a problem that you can solve.
Larene: Because you understand exactly how it impacts someone rather than just the concept and the theory of accessibility.
Linda: Yeah, yeah, that’s a key moment. So what did you have to learn to do this work? Was there something missing from your formal education?
Larene: Absolutely. There was no mention of accessibility in any sort of university education when I was going through. I also didn’t study software engineering. When I went to uni, I studied something called mechatronic engineering, which had a little bit bit of software in it, but most of my software I kind of learned after university and accessibility was definitely one of the things that, yeah, I just learned by conference talks, amazing people in the accessibility community sharing, being generous with resources and online courses and yeah, a lot of YouTube.
And back when I first started, there wasn’t a whole lot of resources.
And it’s been awesome that there has been much, much more accessibility stuff that’s been shared online. And it’s becoming more, at least more awareness and more well known. There’s been accessibility resources around for, since the web started, but it’s just kind of been missed until the, until maybe the last five or so years has become at least a little bit more popular, which is great.
And yeah, so it’s a lot of the generosity of the accessibility community. And these days, there’s a few courses online that are really, really good as well. And I also give a guest lecture at my old uni in their – in a course I never did! – their web development course on accessibility.
Linda: Oh, that’s awesome.
Larene: Which, yeah, I hope helps at least raise awareness.
It’s very difficult to teach it in a one hour lecture. I spent a lot of my life learning it. So, but at least it gives the students something to Google when they hear about it again, hopefully when they join the workforce. But I was thinking back to, yeah.
Linda: Just raising the issues so that they’re at least in their heads.
Larene: That’s it, that’s it.
And I was thinking back to high school of like, when was there ever any kind of teaching about disability in general? And I can’t remember any mention of it in any kind of physical education even, or sciences or biology at all. there was, my memory is terrible, but I can’t really remember being taught about disability in kind of high school or primary school. Other than the token, hey, here’s a person in a wheelchair picture, maybe in a book somewhere. Maybe one paragraph on disability or something. Yeah.
Linda: It does remind me when I just, as I was leaving academia, I took, I ran somebody else’s software engineering course and I was overloaded so the deal was that I would just run the course as is and use all their resources and everything and the textbook had was a 640 page textbook. It had half a page on usability and nothing at all on accessibility and inclusion. So I’m not surprised to hear you say there was nothing in your formal education. Sad but not surprised.
Larene: Yeah, it’s funny software at the end of the day is about people sometimes. Yeah, we forget. Yeah.
Linda: Yeah, there are so many of the problems in the tech industry are political, not technical, socio-political. So do you use, do you collect data on the interactions people have with your systems and stuff like that? Is that part of what you use to do your work?
Larene: We don’t collect data so much on, I guess, people using it live. There’s ethical considerations on, it’s probably not a great idea to kind of collect disability data, as we would maybe other analytics. But there are, and I wish there were more, but there are lots of studies on like, not lots, sorry. There are studies out there that collect data by survey of, you know, screen reader users, like what software do you use, kind of like web browser, web browser data, like what software do you use, what operating system do you use so that we can make sure that that we cater to and test on the most used combination of systems and absolutely for kind of accessibility strategy and stuff and raising disability awareness, so a lot of using a lot of kind of disability research data to I guess it shouldn’t be used to convince people because you don’t want to maximize like if you’re maximizing the number of people your app work for that is the is what why we’re here at the first place is why we’re excluding people in the first place. So I absolutely don’t encourage people to use data to like, oh, this is, you know, we should prioritize this because it impacts as many people.
Linda: Yeah, we’re reaching 90% of the audience. That’s enough.
Larene: Yeah, yeah, that’s it.
Linda: We’re excluding 10%, but who cares? It’s only 10%. Not a good attitude.
Larene: That’s it. That’s it. But the kind of most popular statistic that is shared about disability is that, you know, if you don’t consider accessibility in the web or in mobile apps, you are excluding at least 20% of folks who might have some form of disability.
Larene: So the the number, we use the number, yeah, because it’s usually higher than what people think. And, but, yeah, it’s just a number that is used quite a lot in kind of talking about web accessibility. Again, there’s not enough research to know exactly what that number is, so it’s give or take. But it is a number to begin with. And then there, it’s also a growing cohort of people as well as we are an ageing population.
Larene: More of us become disabled and so that number will get larger.
Is there anything that you wish everyone knew about data?
Is there something that would make your work easier if everybody understood this thing?
Larene: I’m gonna relate it back to accessibility, of course.
But the number one thing that I wish people knew is to, when you’re sharing an image of a chart or something like that to add alt text or text description of the chart. And a person that I’ve had that I worked with in a kind of unofficial data vis accessibility working group in the last few years, Amy Cesal, she’s written a really great article with a template of like, this is how you can write nice, concise, useful text description of a chart.
If you can share that link afterwards, I will pop it into the show notes. so that people can find it.
Larene: Yeah, yeah, love to.
And so I’ll say what it is. It’s, so if you’re, the template is, you want to say what the chart type is. And then, so the template is chart type of type of data where reason for including chart. I’m looking at a visual representation of the template where you fill in the gaps. But for example, you know, bar chart of, I don’t know, puppy tail lengths, because where taller dogs have larger, longer tails or something like that. That was a terrible example to come up with off the cuff.
Linda: I don’t know, I now have puppies in my head so I’m good with that.
Larene: That is not scientifically backed, I’m just making stuff up. (laughing) Yeah, you include the context or the reason why you’re including the chart so that you can give people who can’t see the chart the kind of the same takeaways that you would people who see the chart, like why are you including the chart is the most important thing and what do you want people to take away from it rather than the pedantics of the chart itself but that does change depending on what context you’re working in.
So you might want to describe it for longer if it’s an exploratory chart where you have a lot of data on it, and the person consuming the chart is going to do some exploratory and finding out of information for themselves rather than just taking away the reason why you use the chart.
And the other tip is always include the raw data in a CSV or a table. So that’s the summary of Amy’s article.
Linda: I love that because one of the things I teach when I teach visualization is that it’s like any form of communication, before you create the visualization, before you even design it, you have to think about what the message is, what are you trying to show, what is the point of this visualization or this graph or this chart. And we often don’t do that. We just do the kind of mechanical, it’s continuous data, so it’s a line graph, done. I was like, yes, but why?
Larene: Yeah, that’s it.
Linda: If it’s part of the template that you’ve got to put it into the alt text anyway, then maybe we kind of force people to think about that a little bit more.
Larene: That’s right. That’s kind of like my secret. And it’s also forced me to, I haven’t always written alt text for charts. This is a learning in the last few years of like, oh, this accessibility for data vis, it’s like, what is this? This is a tough problem to solve. And it’s kind of not really been been considered a whole lot before the last few years, at least in my worlds anyway.
Larene: Yeah, writing alt text and forcing people to think about it after they’ve done the chart gives you an indication of like, “Do I really need to have this chart? Is this really the right chart?”
Larene: am I just doing, like, some flexing?
Larene: A cool thing is that data vis is already a form of accessibility. it’s turning a spreadsheet of data into something that people can consume and especially people who prefer visual ways of understanding stuff. So yeah, it’s all interrelated. So it’s really, really cool.
Linda: Yeah. And it’s a developing skill, isn’t it? When you first start doing alt text for images, whether it’s charts or other images, it’s kind of like, what do I even say? And this is kind of the fear of being confronted with a blank text box and like what do I fill this with? But as you do it more often I’ve tried to make sure that I do it every time and so I’ve been doing that for a couple of years now and I find the alt text flows much more easily now because I’m just in the habit of doing that. It’s translation really from one language to another isn’t it?
Larene: That’s it.
Yeah, it definitely is. I still struggle sometimes to work out what is the right alt text to write for images, but it does does get easier with practice and and now with the the popularity of AI and yeah.
From a, I guess, there are issues with automating alt text with AI, but at least to help someone to get started to write alt text, like to solve that blank canvas problem and to say maybe people who write alt text at a time is giving a good start and giving something to work with and then you can kind of go, “Oh, that wasn’t quite right. I’m going to change this alt text.” Of course, with a lot of caveats and a lot of messaging around.
Linda: Oh yeah.
Larene: Yeah. Yeah.
Linda: Yeah. No. I’m reminded of a scene from a Terry Pratchett book, Thief of Time, where this group of beings is trying to take a canvas and artwork apart, you know, paint fragment by paint fragment to discover where the value is, what is what is the art and that that feels a bit like the AI approach to images and the AI approach to alt text. There’s a green patch and there’s a blue patch. What are they?
Larene: Yeah, yeah.
Linda: Missing the nuance.
Larene: Yep, yep, it definitely is. But and I was kind of like very against like using AI for alt text. But something I found out was some folks with cognitive disabilities actually can’t write alt text very easily at all, no matter how much they try or practice. So having AI to generate some text is really, really helpful and so makes them able to include others as well. But yes, lots of asterixes and big pain. What What should the alt text be?
Linda: Like all the other problems in tech, it’s a complicated socio-political problem and there’s no pure answers.
Larene: That’s it.
Big grains of salt everywhere.
Linda: Yep, absolutely. What are the worst data mistakes you’ve seen?
Larene: Axes that don’t start from zero.
Of a chart that is. So yeah, I tried to think of some examples recently and I mean my world again is all around kind of accessibility mistakes, but I will. I do want to talk about, I guess, my favorite book of all time in case other folks haven’t read it. How to Lie with Statistics by Darrell Huff. That was when that was my light bulb moment of, oh my goodness, like how, like this is how all the fake news happens. This is how we twist things and this is like, and it’s such a common problem more, almost more often than not in these kind of days of social media. So that was a really enjoyable book to read, to kind of be able to be aware of, like just to question kind of everything you see, which is a bit sad, but, (laughs) but and yeah, and that relates to your amazing book, Raising Heretics of, you know, asking questions whenever you see, whenever you see a chart and going, hmm. (laughs)
Linda: That’s it, I mean, it’s an essential skill if we need to be doing that to, you know, not only to spot deliberate lies, but also sometimes it’s just mistakes. And, and if we don’t challenge things, then mistakes can go unchallenged and unnoticed and cause a lot of harm.
Larene: Yeah, that’s right. And I love that you said, yeah, that people unwittingly do it and a lot of the mistakes are easy to I’m sure I still make them in but being able to stop and go, “Hang on, this feels wrong. This doesn’t seem to be quite right. Let’s have a look at this again and just taking time.”
Linda: One of my big things is if it looks really neat, you should be really suspicious of it ’cause real data doesn’t look really neat.
Larene: That’s a good one.
If it’s real. – Too clean, what are they doing?
Linda: Yeah, exactly. But also things like a lot of the errors we see in charts or a lot of them misleading things we see in charts are actually the defaults of the spreadsheet packages and things, you know, most spreadsheet packages don’t start at zero by default.
They start at, they do the range of the data as the Y axis. So if you have numbers up sort of all up around 100, it won’t start at zero, it’ll start at 96 or something. And sometimes that’s the right thing to do if you wanna really look into the fine differences between them, but if you wanna actually show the magnitude of change, then starting at zero looks very different to starting at 96.
Larene: Yeah, that’s it.
And that reminds me of an example of graphics cards companies.
Two companies were, or one company was doing it at comparing their graphics card stats to another graphics card company. I won’t say who it is, but it was on a website called Tom’s Hardware and It looked like this graphics card was so much I don’t know what said it was but so much better than the other one based on this like two column bar graph and the numbers were three thousand six hundred and forty two and three thousand six hundred and fifty, And it started from 3000.
Linda: Yep, that’ll do it.
Larene: Yeah, and it’s like, oh, that looks really impressive.
Linda: Oh, wow.
Larene: That was a pretty deliberate misuse of some data. some data. But a fun one. I was talking with a friend the other day. I don’t know if you saw a bit of a, I think it was a bit of a viral tweet or TikTok with Taylor Swift fans.
Linda: Don’t think so.
Larene: They said, this was, I was chatting with some teenagers, they, And they said, “Oh, I listened to Taylor Swift, therefore I’m smart.” Because they… I don’t know.. an organization called College Rover released some studies that the people who listened to Taylor Swift got the highest GPAs.
Linda: Oh, wow.
Larene: And this was a survey with 100, 1,025 students ages 18 to 23.
Linda: Oh boy.
Larene: And they studied what they were listening to while studying. And that just got completely taken out of context. So many, so many TikToks and Instagram reels and whatnot. I’m sounding my age. These young people.
Linda: New fangled social media things.
Larene: Yeah, these social media things. And yeah, I just just a family member shared this with me and I was just like, did they, they didn’t publish what the people who got low GPAs listened to. I bet they’re the same because Taylor Swift is just a really popular people, popular, popular people, popular person that everybody listens to. They left out some data, I think. So I thought that was a bit of a fun, fun kind of this is just how like stuff gets spread. That’s not true, but this one has less less kind of critical impacts on society.
Linda: Yeah, it’s funny that one, looking for correlations and things. I remember hearing about a study of a department store and they found that, you know, they were looking what do people who buy lingerie also buy and they found what 95% of people who buy lingerie also by lollies, so we could maybe do something around that. And then when they looked at the whole data, they found that 95% of everybody buys lollies because the lollies are where? At the checkout. You’ve got to be really careful and go, what other explanations could there be for this? So what does the whole data show? And that’s why I like your point too, when you were talking about accessibility of graphs to say, not only have the alt text, but also have the raw data there, whether it’s in a table or a CSV so that people could actually look at it for themselves. And there’s a very intense reluctance to do that. There’s a kind of, sense that it’s proprietary and it’s my research and it’s kind of like, gollum, my precious. It’s counterproductive, I think, in the long term.
Larene: Yeah, that’s right. It’s kind of telling of of like if they’re not willing to share the data. It’s a bit of a litmus test for, well, actually it’s not really malicious. They probably just didn’t think to share it or the Excel spreadsheets really messy and they don’t want to upload it.
Linda: That is the natural state of the Excel spreadsheet.
Larene: But that’s funny because I did go looking for immediately the spreadsheet of the Taylor Swift survey. I wanna see for myself like how did they come to this conclusion rather than just doing like pretty charts, which didn’t have alt text. But that is still the norm, unfortunately, but we’ll get there.
Linda: Yeah. It’s a work in progress.
Larene: That’s it.
Linda: So I guess that answers the question of have you ever seen data deliberately misused, that example of the graphics card there?
Larene: I honestly don’t know if that was deliberate. I think people just–
Linda: Well, you know what, it is the default of the spreadsheet to do that kind of access, but they use it to their advantage, which makes you kind of squint suspiciously. What do you look for? So you look for the y-axis, what else do you look for when you’re trying to figure out the credibility of a graph?
Larene: Yeah, I guess I kind of look for, I guess the first question I ask is, is, you know, why, why are they, who’s published it and why have they included it? And so, yeah, with the graphics card example is very, very obvious that they’re trying to sell more units. So that’s why they included that chart. But yeah, big question of why. And yeah, that generally teases out a lot of the other questions are like, oh, you know, who did they, like, what is the methodology? Who did they, I find it really interesting, like, how they conducted the survey or the research or like,
Linda: were they’re standing outside a Taylor Swift concert?
Larene: That’s it. Yeah, that’s it.
Like, a lot of data is very American centric, a lot of science is very American. I don’t know if that was the right term to use like, you know, in states centric or North American centric.
Larene: And, yeah, I found that a lot of disability data and a lot of web data
a lot of web data in general is a very North America centric. They’ve just been doing it for a long time and they’ve got a lot more people and a lot more money around there, around that I guess. So, but yeah, a lot of it falls down when it comes to talking about disability and accessibility globally, which there is not a whole lot of data on, but something interesting that I found out. I don’t know the exact stats, but I think 80% of folks who will have a disability will
be in developing countries.
Linda: Oh, wow.
Larene: Out of all disabilities. So that’s, yeah, that’s intersectionality in action, right?
I hadn’t even thought of that.
Larene: All these studies we’ve done on disability that have been English and Western centered, do they even apply anymore?
Larene: And that was a study from a white paper from a company called the Valuable 500, which is a, they help, I guess they’re an organization that represents companies who are committed to digital accessibility. Right. and they do a lot of research and stuff and awareness raising. So yeah, I read that recently and I was like, oh my goodness. Like what have we missed?
Linda: So much more to think about now.
Larene: Yeah, yeah. And I think the first example I thought of that it was also like usage of devices and a lot of people use iPhones. If you were to look at Western English-centered kind of research, but then you go globally to, I think Google funded a lot of this research, you go globally to China. It’s like, oh no, nope, nope. Android is the most used device by far in the world.
Linda: Oh wow.
Larene: So just from sheer numbers. So yeah, a lot of Western centric research has informed a a lot of developments in technology and in the web and web standards. And it’s hopefully, if it hasn’t already time to time to start to turn that around. And yeah, look at things at a more global level.
Linda: Super interesting because it’s so hard to think outside our own experience and our own viewpoints. And that’s one of the problems with accessibility, right? When you have teams that that aren’t diverse and you don’t happen to have a Larene on your team who has a dad who needs these accommodations in the system and you don’t know someone who’s gluten-free and therefore you don’t cater for it or you don’t know someone who has mobility challenges which I had until recently and I started noticing all of the, you know, how much further you have to go in order to access the accessible things like the ramp. It’s just a lot more work. Like that seems wrong. But did I think about that before I was mobility impaired myself? No, it just hadn’t crossed my mind.
Larene: Yeah, yeah, yeah. And I’m the same. Organizing meetups and didn’t think to include vegetarians or gluten free meals until the first person said something, which, yeah. Yeah, everyone’s always on, in accessibility, everyone’s always on a different part of the learning journey and everyone learns different things at different times and I find something that I hope changes a bit in the accessibility community is really understanding that and not kind of going, “Oh, you know, why didn’t you…” like, it’s frustrating that things aren’t much, much better today. But I think there’s a bit of a tendency to, because it is a really sensitive topic and it impacts people in, you know, really critical ways. But we, I think, I find tend to have a way of kind of like calling people out and being really quite negative for people who may forget their alt text or something like that, like doing that kind of public criticism. And I used to do this myself as well and found out it’s not a great way to help make change. And so just being really encouraging all folks who are like, I’m learning, I’m still learning new things every day. And as long as we’re doing a little bit better than yesterday, we’re making progress in not just accessibility, but any field, right? Like same with the important work that you’re doing in science education.
Linda: That’s it. One step at a time, isn’t it? You can’t. And as I said to you before we started, it’s a marathon, not a sprint.
Larene: That’s it, that’s it.
Linda: Yeah, calling people out is so counter productive, but the reason I started using alt text was, I remember Michelle Playfair posted that she was using a little Twitter bot that would remind her if she posted an image without alt text, it would send her a DM. And I was like, oh, that’s useful, I’ll start using that. And it really annoyed me the first little while. But after a while, I got into the habit And I was consistently using alt text. And then when I swapped over to Blue Sky recently, and they have a setting in the preferences where you can require alt text for your image. So you can’t post it. So you don’t get the kind of retrospective thing of the bot, which is why it was annoying. You had to go delete it and repost it.
Larene: Oh yeah, lose all the likes on it already.
Linda: Yeah, but Blue Sky, you post it until, if you set that setting, I don’t see why you wouldn’t make that setting compulsory, except now I’m thinking about it. I’m thinking about you saying that some folks can’t easily write alt text. I’m like, oh, see these things that I just don’t, that I’m not aware of. And there’s things that a lot of us are not aware of, you know, we all have things we’re not aware of, I guess, is the point.
Larene: Yeah, yeah, there’s so much, there’s so much to know. And that’s why it’s, it’s not something that can be done by one person alone and no one person can be an expert in all of it. So it’s yeah so important to work in a team and work together and help each other out and we’re going to forget things and we’re going to make mistakes and
Linda: yeah and to include diverse voices.
Larene: Yeah exactly, exactly. And yeah talk to the people that it impacts, most importantly, and get get them involved and work alongside them.
Linda: Yes. Yes, rather than trying to impose things on them and go, look, I made your life better. And they’re like, did you though?
Larene: Did you talk to anyone?
Linda: What is it that excites you about data?
Larene: Oh, I think there are just so many things that we can do now that we couldn’t do even like one, two years ago. And it’s all because of data, right?
All the stuff in machine learning and AI. And I did my kind of honors thesis
in machine learning and AI a long time ago.
So I’ve always kind of been a bit skeptical of the hype everything like that. But I do see, like, despite the hype that, and all the kind of negative things that comes along when stuff is hyped up, like, like, crypto and NFTs and all that. There is a, well, with machine learning and AI being popular now, there are a lot of amazing things that are coming out of it. Unfortunately, probably also a lot of bad things that are coming out of it.
But I think there’s a lot of good discourse around ethics and being responsible. So that’s really exciting for me. And machine learning has a lot of great accessibility uses. There’s an app called Be My Eyes, which was or is an app where you can sign up to help blind folks or low vision folks who send an image or a video and asking for “Hey, I need to know what this thing is. Can you help me describe it?”
Linda: Oh, nice.
Larene: Yeah. And yeah, you get a notification and you look at the image and you tell them what it was. Usually medication or clothing colors or like, “Hey, is this outfit what I think it is or stuff like that, but a lot of medication and labels and things. But again, that’s still asking for someone to support where now Be My Eyes is, I think trialling a beta of Be My Eyes AI, where they’re using AI to help folks to… iPhone has a lot of this built in already as well like OCR and recognition of labels and things but it’s really exciting to be able to have improvements like that to help people who wouldn’t otherwise be able to do the thing. So that’s really cool.
Linda: Yeah and a lot of this is only possible because of the amount of training data that we now have available, like all of that junk on the internet suddenly has a purpose.
Larene: Yeah, so yeah, that’s one of the more happy stories I’ve seen recently of how AI is helping accessibility. There’s been a lot of like false starts and there’s a term coined, I can’t remember who it was, but called disability dongle, which is inventions or what you mentioned before, made by folks who are trying to solve a problem for people with disabilities without actually talking to them or
Linda: right, yep
Larene: but there are a lot of opportunities and now we have the it’s a really exciting time the intersection of like the technology being good enough us having enough data and and and I guess it’s those two things and and hopefully a lot of the social political understanding and awareness and responsibility now to really build a lot of really exciting new technologies in the accessibility space or just in general helping making human lives better space.
Linda: That’s a beautiful hopeful note to end on. Thank you so much, Larene. This has been a wonderful conversation and I can say I’m going to have to go back through it and make some notes about things I need to think more about. and take more notice of, which is you know, a really good sign.
Larene: Thank you so much for having me. I really, really enjoyed this chat. And thank you for all the incredible work that you do in science and education. And yeah, I’m always up for having a chin wag about accessibility. So if you ever wanted to catch up, let’s do it. I’ll send you all my links and stuff in my notes.
Linda: Oh yeah, that’d be fabulous. I’ll pop them in the end in the episode notes. Thanks again, that was fabulous.
Larene: Thanks, Linda.