Tech in EdTech

Preparing Learners with Disabilities for the Workforce of Tomorrow

March 13, 2023 Magic EdTech Season 1 Episode 30
Preparing Learners with Disabilities for the Workforce of Tomorrow
Tech in EdTech
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Tech in EdTech
Preparing Learners with Disabilities for the Workforce of Tomorrow
Mar 13, 2023 Season 1 Episode 30
Magic EdTech

When it comes to disability inclusion in the workforce there are still many challenges to overcome. Education is only a part of the equation. Adam Spencer, President & CEO of AbleDocs shares his expertise on how the education system can prepare learners with disabilities to succeed in the workforce of tomorrow.

Show Notes Transcript

When it comes to disability inclusion in the workforce there are still many challenges to overcome. Education is only a part of the equation. Adam Spencer, President & CEO of AbleDocs shares his expertise on how the education system can prepare learners with disabilities to succeed in the workforce of tomorrow.

Title - Preparing Learners with Disabilities for the Workforce of Tomorrow 


00:00.00

Erin Evans

Hi everyone and thank you for joining us today for our next episode of Tech in EdTech. I'm Erin Evans. I'm our director of accessibility consulting here in Magic and I am based out of the United States. I’m very excited to introduce you to our guest today, Mr. Adam Spencer from AbleDocs. 


00:19.11

Adam Spencer

Hi Erin, great to be here.


00:33.93

Erin Evans

It’s great to have you here on our chat today. I'm really excited about this conversation and to give our listeners a little bit of background about you, Mr. Spencer. You are the president and CEO of AbleDocs and you have been a global leader in the document accessibility field for over fifteen years. Adam specializes in pdf accessibility standards, document usability, and more. He is also vice-chair of the standards council of Canada, responsible for the authoring of the ISO standards for PDF and PDF accessibility. When Adam is not at work he volunteers on several accessibility advisory committees as well as being a very active speaker at conferences around the world sharing his experience and expertise. He is also a new father to a young 15-month-old. So Adam thank you so much for joining us today!


01:15.45

Adam Spencer

It's an absolute pleasure and always great to chat.


01:17.29

Erin Evans

Yes, all right. So I just read through your official bio. But why don't you give us a little bit of background about you and your journey into accessibility and into the role that you're in today?


01:29.37

Adam Spencer

Sure! Um, I actually got forced into digital accessibility by my mother. Um, she was ah looking to find a resource to make documents accessible. Well, she was working at one of the banks here in Canada and was having a hard time finding a reliable supplier and suggested that I should take a look at it and my ignorant first response was I don't know the first thing about braille and she said no you idiot it's text-to-speech and I said neat. Ah, so I learned all that I could, and ah, made a first document accessible and provided that to someone on staff and he came back two weeks later and said it was the best documentary they ever read. Ironically, we couldn't do work for her or the bank due to conflict of interest rules. But um, that's what kicked things off almost fifteen years ago now, and um, I co-founded and ran a company for 9 years and then founded AbleDocs in 2019 and we're now the global leader in digital accessibility products and services, and when it comes to making sure that documents and websites are accessible. So we're really proud of what we've done. We operate in 7 countries around the world and 49 different languages and always trying to push the boundaries of what it means to be accessible.


02:50.19

Erin Evans

Well, I'm really having a hard time thinking that your mother would have called you an idiot. However, I am happy to hear that you know you know you know you've fallen into accessibility in some ways which is something that.


02:56.29

Adam Spencer

You don't know my mother? No. 


03:08.11

Erin Evans

Some of these different conversations. A lot of the people I've talked to haven't started out their careers intentionally in accessibility. But we've grown into it to help move the needle on accessibility. So I'm glad your mom pushed you for some support there.


03:25.39

Adam Spencer

Well, I think I think it's one of those things where there's an immediate expectation that people in accessibility have to have some form of ah connection to disability, and that just isn't the case. Accessibility is a vast spectrum as you know and I think one of the things that we do as educators in the space is teaching people what accessibility really means and that's a big part of my day-to-day job. The people that we hire are typically not coming in with an experience in digital accessibility. Ah, they're coming in wanting to learn and become passionate advocates which is fantastic.


04:06.83

Erin Evans

Yeah, and you know that's a really good segue into kind of the conversation for today you know, understanding how the education workforce is preparing people with disabilities but also just in general what is happening in education around accessibility. What people are learning and what needs to continue to happen in there. So for starters, um, is accessibility compliance enough to help people with disabilities find the jobs they need?


04:38.74

Adam Spencer

No, ah next question. No, I’m kidding. This becomes part of the challenge I think for many people who um, one of the things that that I have found is that those of us in the accessibility bubble. Those of us who are passionate and education based and wanting to teach people about accessibility. We forget that the majority of the population is just trying to do their job so they look at checklist compliance and say I've done my thing and now I'm done. You know it's the same argument with adding in ah, an overlay as an example. Well, we've made it accessible I can hear it on my computer, neat! Well no, yeah, absolutely let's cross that threshold now. it's the problem is it's from a place of.


05:34.13

Adam Spencer

They're not trying to do the wrong thing. They just don't know what the right thing is and it's that constant need to reaffirm that true accessibility is native to whatever the individual is going to interact with it's not - it's leveraging the content. And making it available to as many people as possible without providing ah a workaround. It's built-in and we can do that with almost everything now but we have to teach people who don't know and I think for those of us in the bubble, we forget that the majority of the world doesn't know that yet. we're passionate the rest of the world is just trying to get through their day and that's where that checkmark comes in but we have to continue and say the checkmark's important. However, true accessibility is well beyond that and really gets into the nitty-gritty of usability and barrier-free access.


06:30.33

Erin Evans

Yeah, and that's a really good point because a lot of the conversations that I am involved with are compliance versus usability right? And the compliance is alignment to the standards. Yes, technically this is meeting what this says but what is your user experience and to your point you know it's about the education of explaining how this does or doesn't work and really understanding that it's just, It's just a big place to be right? So there is a lot of different ways to approach it. Um, and I think the education piece is ah you know it's a really important part of the conversation as well because to your point we know outside of the bubble most people are like you said just trying to do their job. Do the best they can and it's kind of that once you know better, do better. But there's a lot of having to get to the knowing better first.


07:05.60

Adam Spencer

Absolutely.


07:29.57

Adam Spencer

Um, well and I think one of one of the things that I think those of us who've been doing this a long time, forget, we were in the same boat all those years ago, you know we didn't know better 


07:37.76

Erin Evans

Yes, but we didn't know better.


07:48.29

Adam Spencer

I remember the first document that we ever produced for a customer and I look back at that document and I'm appalled. It in no way, shape, or form should be considered accessible today. But back then it was the wild west there wasn't a standard, and there wasn't an understanding of what things needed to be in place from a laid-out um specification. It was, can I navigate this, can I hear it with a screen reader, you know the old, I need to make this JAWS compliant. But that's not a thing but sure let's go with that and I'm now looking back at the millions of pages that I've been involved with or overseen you see the transition from the early days of the wild west of digital accessibility. To where we are now where we can be having a conversation about checklists and standards and automated ah solutions for making things accessible. However, we've always got to remember that there's someone at the end of that document or someone at the end of that website that needs to interact with that content. Not just, can I hear it? Or can I manipulate it in some way that's going to work for me?


09:06.46

Erin Evans

Yeah, and I like how you talk about that first document you did which kind of segues into my next question for you which is the evolution and what you have seen, how the requirements and implementation has evolved, and clearly, that first document that you did at the time did its job. But it like you said if you were to use that same document today you would probably throw it away and start over. So talk a little bit about what you have seen and how those requirements have changed.


09:38.68

Adam Spencer

Um, well I think one of the biggest things that has happened is, we've evolved an ISO specification for PDF Accessibility. We have a definitive code as to what is accessible versus what isn't. We've seen the same thing with website accessibility and WCAG but WCAG’s more of a because of the way that web technology differs from document. We can say definitively you have to do this or else in PDF and ISO 14289 is something that we've worked on very hard internationally. Um, it's known as PDF UA for universal accessibility and you've got the industry leaders sitting around a table saying if we have this, what should we do? And getting that international perspective at both levels from ISO and the W3C is a really fascinating way of pushing the standards forward. We want to make sure that we're doing the best that we can but technology always changes. You know one of the cool things that that we get faced with every day is, a designer has come up with X or a developer has built Y. Now we have to figure out how we make it accessible. What do we do? And solving for that is the constant challenge. Otherwise, it's a horrendously repetitive process, um and mind-numbing comes to thought. But you're able to so to challenge yourself by saying, this isn't just standard content. We now have to try something else and bring it forward at ah, an international level and say do you agree with how we're doing this yes or no and I think it's one of the things that really stands out in the accessibility field is the cooperation between competition. Our biggest competitors in this in the field are some of my closest friends.


11:44.21

Adam Spencer

Because we want to make things better and the reality is there is so much content and that's created on a daily basis. We're all just wanting to solve for accessibility and making barrier-free access to content because there's too much water in the ocean you know it's okay, we're getting through it a page at a time but it's ah it's a great community that is constantly looking to push forward and I don't know of another industry like it.


12:13.78

Erin Evans

Yeah, I think that that's a really good point because you know I often talk about the people that, in a traditional system, that you would see as your competitors are really just coworkers and colleagues, right? We're all like you said looking for the same progress forward and want to do the good work and supporting that change in evolution.


12:38.14

Adam Spencer

Absolutely.


12:50.77

Erin Evans

So let's think about that from an educational perspective right? So when we think about how accessible documents access accessible web pages or apps or whatever are used in the education space in the elementary, middle school, secondary schools, and higher education space. What does that look like how are we currently supporting our learners with disabilities to successfully move out of the schooling environment and into the workforce environment?


13:09.90

Adam Spencer

I might be controversial here. Ah, however, I don't think we're doing a great job. The reality is that what we have seen from students leaving the education bubble. I'll go back to the bubble Ah, there's so there's been such an effort to make sure that learning the content is the priority, not preparation for life in the real world. 


13:33.14

Adam Spencer

And the reality is when someone leaves that education bubble, the types of support that are available to an individual in the real world are less than what they've received in an education environment and so when we see different adaptive technologies being utilized in school - that's great for making sure that the student is up to speed with the content curriculum. But what we haven't seen is an equal reaction from the business world. And so, you know, a bank or a government body or a healthcare provider - they don't have the skill set to support an individual with those different disabilities at the same level. And it's not that they don't want to, it's just they don't know that there there's a difference in how they approach I hate to use the word “accommodation”. But that becomes the reality. So when we're looking at making content accessible, when we see these different either adaptive technologies or different formats being used in education, I think EPub is a great example. EPub has a good following within the education sphere, doesn't exist in the real world nobody's creating EPubs. So why are we trying to create a new way of interacting with content that isn't going to be adopted in the wider spectrum of content production? And that to me, creates a shortcoming for people transitioning from the education sphere into the real world because they may not have the skill set that they need to do their job and they also may not have the ability to elaborate on what they need to be successful in their job which then creates that perpetual boundary for people with disabilities to enter the workforce successfully at the level that that they deserve to have because of their knowledge base. So that to me, creates a disconnect between what we see in education versus what we see in the real world, and that to me is a grave concern.


16:03.22

Erin Evans

So when thinking about working with students in the education sphere with disabilities and let's pretend that we've gotten to the place where the content that they're learning is always accessible, and that is no longer a barrier for them. What other things do you think need to happen with those individuals to help them to help support them from the people working with them and also again you know from those workplaces, from what is going to happen when they get out of school and transition into that workplace? What are the things that we can do as humans working with them to so to add those supports in?


16:45.80

Adam Spencer

I think a lot of it comes back to, ironically, education. Um, when when we think about how we teach students without disabilities. It's preparing them for the expected workplace. You know if you go to be a lawyer or a doctor or an accountant or an engineer, you take a curriculum that's designed around preparing you for the workforce. I don't think most educational environments have that stepping stone that prepares students to enter the workforce. You may know the curriculum which is great but you may not know how to get what you need from a technology standpoint or ah, ah, an educational position to the potential employer. We want employers to say yes because the person has the capability of doing the job. They may do the job in a different way to get to the same result but I don't think we teach students well enough. There's still that underpinning of don't, how do I say this in a way, we want people to be judged based on their merit not based on their need for an accommodation, or the employer thinks that they're hitting a checkbox saying we're hiring enough people with disabilities. That should be irrelevant, people with disabilities are people they're people that's the most important part and whether you need a ramp to get into the building or you need ah a braille display to read the content. To me, there isn't a difference. We're all people and I don't think there was an old school thinking in training people with disabilities to say look I celebrate my disability but you're now doing a good job by employing me. 


18:51.50

Erin Evans

Right.


18:52.70

Adam Spencer

No, you're a person and I think that that bridge between the education sphere and the real world is not bridged well in the majority of cases.


19:04.56

Erin Evans

Yeah, and I think that that's you know what you just said about again accessibility not being a checkbox, It's not a checkbox that you've hired X amount of individuals with a disability. It is about that equality and that equity of hiring the right best person for the job that you need them to do. It doesn't matter how they do it and what you know if you need to give them support. It's no different than supporting a new person coming into a role who doesn't have that experience right? It's just about, to your point everybody's human. Being a good person and making sure that you're providing those supports and the content and the information in the same way you would for anybody else whether they're able-bodied or disabled or however they appear and come into that workplace.


19:50.68

Adam Spencer

Exactly and again I think I don't think enough, I don't think enough people, who are advocates and understand that bridging, have had the conversation with educators at a level that supports people with disabilities entering the workforce in a way that promotes their ability - not focuses on their disability and I think that's ah, a big gap that we continue to have.


20:27.69

Erin Evans

So what are some recommendations or thoughts that you have on closing that gap from the perspective of the business? Not the advocates because I think the advocates are there doing that work right? But let's think about it from the business or from the Education system. What are some ways that those gaps can be closed?


20:52.61

Adam Spencer

Um, well I think I think up-training students to recognize what more of the mainstream adaptive technologies are going to require as well as making sure that the adaptive technology builders whether they're software developers, or product makers, they understand how content is going to be provided to them, from an accessibility lens. So when we talk about Digital Accessibility, we rely on these specifications but very few adaptive technologies actually comply with interacting with that content so we need to have the educators pushing for standardization because then it makes it easier for content creators to ensure that their content is accessible. From an employer standpoint having the conversation with the individual saying what is it that you need to do your job better? It's not an overwhelming accommodation or cost or issue for a large organization or even a small organization. But there's a continued fear, uh-oh! What are we going to do? What is this going to cost? And that's how business thinks and for me, not dismissing but not breaking down that fear and it's fear of the unknown where we're humans, we fear what we don't know, but we've got to break through that and we've got to do that from an education standpoint by arming our students with the knowledge to educate their potential or current employer saying it's not a big deal all I need is this. Please don't save your document as an image that would be super helpful I mean we're not, we're not talking big steps here ah but  I don't know if that type of education is provided in the education environment to prepare our students going forward so that they're their best advocate and that's a big part.



22:56.42

Erin Evans

Yeah, and I you know I hear you say advocacy a lot and I think that that's a huge part of it. You know, the students today, I think have are resilient. I mean I think kids are always resilient but even just thinking about you know the last couple of years and the pandemic just as an example and the amount of work that it takes to stick with all of that and the resiliency that is involved there. And I think also it's a mindset change in the business world and education world but the business world especially to say it's not that much of a challenge for us to do this but kind of circling back to where we started. We don't know what we don't know and once we do know we just need to do better and it it is not an overnight shift as you as I'm sure you're aware right? But I think that's also the biggest.


23:42.90

Adam Spencer

No.


23:49.10

Erin Evans

One of the biggest challenges is it takes time. It takes continued effort, and it takes that resiliency to just say we're doing better and we're doing it one step at a time.


23:59.83

Adam Spencer

I think you know your reference of the pandemic, we pivoted as a society, as a global society, immediately. We had to, I mean I remember getting a phone call from one of our clients the day after we locked down out of fear.


24:19.29

Adam Spencer

What's going to happen? We have to make these reports happen. We're fine. We work remotely. We have systems for this, everyone's safe, no change. In the education space, there was very much panic, then pivot - because we're used to in-class learning.


24:24.21

Erin Evans

Right? right.


24:38.82

Adam Spencer

How do we support someone with a disability if we can't have their ASL interpreter sitting next to them? You know what, What do we do? and you saw technology adapt. Zoom and Teams immediately put um, captioning in ASL options. Well, not immediately - it took some time. But they reacted because that's what we needed as a society accessibility was supercharged through the pandemic in in my opinion because everything was forced to be digital. You couldn't have an in-person accommodation. Everything needed to be accessible from the start. Now, not that everyone did that but that became ah an incredible inflection point saying you need to do better with your content because that's how the majority of people are going to interact and we've seen a slow ah I'll call it a slow burn back into the office.


25:05.61

Adam Spencer

But the reality is, hybrid is here for a very long time if not forever and it's not as scary as it was, and having accessible digital content accelerates an organization's ability to provide access to content whether that is an education lens - making that content accessible for students in any way they choose to read it or interact with it, and we find solutions to things when we're confronted with challenges. That's human nature that's what we do. You say no, we'll say we'll find a way and that's the great part of what we are as a species.


26:16.91

Erin Evans

Yeah, and you know going back to the comment about in education there was a moment of panic and then a pivot. I will say that panic was short-lived um at least in what I saw through my son. My son’s school because within a week they had figured out a way to get classes to continue in an online environment. Then, you know, over the summer it broadened into a more robust place but to your point, it's that resiliency of humans the problem solving that is within us as people, that can help us move forward and I think pulling that back to the accessibility space nothing is ever going to be perfect for any one of us. Um and nothing is ever going to address all of the needs of every single person. So when we're talking about living in our accessibility bubble and doing the best we can do we know that we know in the bubble there's always room for improvement and we're always working forward to figure out what's going to happen next. What's the new thing and how are we going to make it accessible and how is it going to work? And so I just wanted to kind of get your closing thoughts on what you see in the next five years or so as new technologies emerge existing technologies and content deliverables like pdfs, epubs just standard HTML content where you see things going in the next few years?


27:39.53

Adam Spencer

I remember I'll go back to when I got into the industry again, and I figured out, I thought, that we would solve this thing within 5 years I'll be out of work in 5 years because you know the big guns are going to come along in the technology space and just solve this I mean it's not hard. Um, boy was I wrong fifteen years later but that to me presents what's amazing about what we do in accessibility. We're constantly looking for what's next. How do we solve for that? We've we've been working on a massive AI interaction with digital content to try and better understand how authors produce content so we can ensure that what they're producing is accessible. It goes a step beyond what we have seen is the quote-unquote “easy buttons” in accessibility. You know the dreaded overlay there.


28:39.70

Adam Spencer

There is going to be a push based on legislation and litigation that will force organizations to continue to make their content accessible but we have to do it in a more sustainable way. You know, we need to be thinking about how we're generating things to be accessible from the start and I think what we've seen is that graphic designers and web developers and authors are coming out of school with at least an awareness of accessibility. They may not be experts but they're aware. And that awareness breeds innovation. So in 5 years from now, you know, people I remember ten years ago people said PDF is dead. Nobody's ever going to make pdfs. Okay, yeah, hold my beer watch this.


29:35.47

Adam Spencer

There are more PDFs created every day than web pages. It's not going away. It's understanding what we're doing with the content to make it as accessible as possible and stopping the trend of - it looks pretty I no longer need to worry about anything else because it looks neat. No, it's how are we going to interact with it. And seeing where technology is going, where innovation is pulling us with I'll go back to AI. Do I think that solves accessibility? No, but do I think it enhances it over the next five years absolutely we just don't know where yet, and as we see with web technologies improving. You know everyone thinks that 3D is the next thing. Okay, but digital interaction with that content. How do we make it accessible and one of the biggest one of the biggest kicks that we've had in this space is, unfortunately, the major technology providers firing their accessibility teams over the last quarter. It was so shortsighted to not recognize that this is the team that's actually driving innovation with how we interact with things differently - not just is it pretty and I think we'll see that get back to reality as soon as those products are no longer accessible. We're having that correction now.


31:05.58

Erin Evans

Yeah, and you know you said a lot of great talking points in there I think one of the things that sticks out to me is that, for all of us that do work in accessibility, none of us are experts in that  and we're constantly learning. We might have expertise in one area or no more but I learn something every day that's one of my favorite things about working in accessibility because there is so much out there and you know that community spirit that supportive spirit and then to your point of you know oh the PDF is dead. No actually, It's not and it's not going to go away so to your point, what do we do? How do we work with it? We can still make it functional and pretty but accessible as well and what does that look like, and how does that evolve?


31:55.56

Adam Spencer

Um, I think where we continue to see new blood in the industry. It's a good thing but too often people jump to call themselves experts. You have experience, you may not be an expert yet.


32:12.95

Adam Spencer

And that's okay, we've tried to rush through like even with and I'm not knocking certification as a benchmark, certification is fine but I mean I remember when I started, Adobe used to run a course and you could be an Adobe certified expert in pdf accessibility and my response was why do I need that I do this every day. I helped write the standard for this I don't need to write a test to tell me I'm an expert I've got enough experience to know. But I mean we see that on our team and it's fine but know your place. You have experience in doing something and that's fine, but we don't need to rush to get the badge. We're trying to look at how we make things barrier-free and that to me is the badge of honor when we've we've accomplished that step even one page at a time we're making that progress not my Linkedin profile now says I have X it's that's ego, that's not actual capability as far as I'm concerned.


33:21.42

Erin Evans

Yeah, and going back to the big tech companies that may have fired their entire accessibility team I know one member of one of those teams Andrew Hayward had said a long time ago at a CSUN conference I attended that you don't have to be an expert to be an advocate and that really stuck with me because it's not it is about spreading that message getting the education out helping others and doing what you can all I need you to do is not save my pdf as an image explain why show them how to do it and then follow up right? that's. That is a step you have made a change by explaining that and making that sustainable within your organization or within your school.


34:06.82

Adam Spencer

Yeah, well, and the champions in education. They're the front line but with an asterisk. They also need to be pushing themselves not this is how we previously made sure that someone with a print disability was able to interact with content. That needs to be a two-way conversation between the industry and education and what can we learn and what can we do better to make students more capable with their preparation for the next step in their lives. Um, and I think you know even the we all work in silos go back to the bubble I don't know why today is such a bubble theme but um, that education bubble is educators talking to each other. We did this? Okay, but have you looked outside and asked someone else because we're seeing things change much faster than in that closed loop of a given industry and that takes leadership from the education side to look outside and say what else can we do? How do we make this more sustainable for us?


35:21.80

Erin Evans

Um, yeah, it takes a village. 


35:21.66

Adam Spencer

Um, takes a village absolutely. Professors sending out handwritten quizzes to their students 5 minutes before the test. It's like well that's not going to work. You know we've got to change the process.


35:36.57

Erin Evans

Um, no, we've evolved from there thankfully. 


35:40.96

Adam Spencer

exactly, exactly.


35:56.33

Erin Evans

All right, Adam! Well, thank you for your time and to our listeners. Thank you for joining in today. We've really appreciated having you Adam we look forward to staying connected and we will share our next podcast with you in a few weeks. Thank you, everyone.


36:00.96

Adam Spencer

Thanks so much Erin.