One of the things I’ve always been fascinated about is how people come to be involved in digital access work. Sometimes it can be a personal experience relating to disability, while for others there is a ‘light-bulb’ moment where a profound need to work in the field appears unexpectedly. One person that fits the bill for the latter is Jason McKee, Chief Marketing Officer at Accessibility Shield. In this interview, Jason discusses with me his passion for digital access, reflecting on accessibility in the Coronavirus era, the work he is undertaking with his company in the USA – and chainsaws!
Scott: Thanks Jason for the opportunity to interview you. First up, what led you to work in the area of digital accessibity?
Jason: A few years ago I met with a client who was blind. We were meeting for a marketing campaign but the gentleman was using his screen reader when I entered the conference room and the sound stopped me in my tracks. He was listening so fast I couldn’t make out the words. He went on to tell me about how he accessed the web and how inaccessible it was. After that meeting I started to research accessibility and 7 days later I formed Accessibility Shield with my partners.
Scott: From that experience, what made you decide to put your efforts into starting Accessibility Shield?
Jason: Learning how Assistive Technology accesses the web challenged everything I thought I knew about technology. And realizing how this issue was not even part of the conversation for most tech companies made me realise this was a rare opportunity. I had the chance to be part of a nascent movement, one that would do good in the world. Starting a business is hard work, but this was a chance to build a company whose mission was involved in Civil Rights and I could not pass that up. Within a few weeks I was attending conferences and meeting the inspirational people who make up this industry. They inspired me and if you’re inspired you can do anything.
Scott: Is it difficult to market accessibity as a concept?
Jason: I think it poses unique challenges. It’s not something you can market with traditional techniques such as price or convenience. I learned early on my job was to educate. I found that if I told the story of accessibility, how it all started and what it means in the big picture I could get business owners to pay attention. I like to talk about how Steve Jobs was influenced by accessibility (even if he didn’t know it at the time), and how the Internet itself was built by a man who was deaf and looking for a better way to communicate (Vint Cerf).
Scott: Accessibility Shield offers a real-time accessibility assessment which sounds very innovative. Could you tell us a bit about the process?
Jason: We pride ourselves on our commitment to leveraging software to solve problems. A lot of accessibility issues require manual assessment. However, once that work is complete our platform provides an “at-a-glance” view of accessibility that no one else provides. My team is passionate about delivering practical, efficient solutions at low cost and that has set us apart in an industry that is still trying to figure out how to make accessibility a viable option for the average business owner.
Scott: Do you have many people with disabilities involved with your work?
Jason: Yes! And it’s something all accessibility companies should do. We are proud to announce that we have just created a program in our home state of Pennsylvania that provides employment for disabled individuals. The program is funded in part by the government, which allows us to train the individuals to become certified User Testers. This provides our clients with the clearest picture available of how their website is used by the disabled. We created the program and the certification and are in talks to expand it to the federal level. It is carving out an entire new industry that provides a service for clients as well as new career choices for the disabled.
Scott: When people think about the tech sector in the USA, it’s often associated with Silicon Valley or New York. How have you found it working outside of these hubs?
Jason: This is a great question. I was listening to a special forces soldier interviewed on a podcast the other day. This guy was a war hero and he said one of the things that bothered him was that because he was an elite soldier with all these medals people put a lot of assumed value in everything he said. This was a problem, he said, because people get blinded by the labels and stop trusting their own judgment. I think this same thing happens in the tech world. If someone is from Silicon Valley there are often assumptions made about their abilities. This is a trap we all fall into from time to time but it highlights the need for scrutiny and common sense evaluations. Great ideas come from a variety of places. It’s the old don’t judge a book by its cover argument. It’s our responsibility to look beneath the veneer of companies. I’ve talked to many companies with all the pedigree and none of the punch. I much rather prefer being the underdog with the great idea. I come from humble beginnings and my home city is blue collar so maybe that’s why but it’s something I take pride in.
Scott: With new technologies emerging beyond the web what do you think the future holds for work in this space?
Jason: I’ve heard you speak about some of the potential in Virtual Reality and I think that industry holds promise for the kind of innovation that can bring all of us into the next phase of digital opportunity. And there are new ideas applied to existing tech, such as specialized web browsers, which I think will bring some exciting new experiences. Some of this we work on in-house and it’s very promising. But the thing I get most excited about is the idea I haven’t heard yet. Somewhere there is someone working on an innovation that will improve all of our lives. This is what keeps me optimistic in challenging times – knowing the human spirit of innovation will continue to drive us all forward. This is also the primary reason why we need accessibility today. If a child born in India has the idea that will move us forward but also happens to have a disability that child will not be able to develop that idea. An accessible web gives the human race the best opportunity to improve the world. We still live among ignorance, hatred, violence, oppression, wasted resources, planetary climate consequences and a million other things that need innovation. We need to do a lot better than we have been doing and that means all hands on deck. The current web excludes more than 1 billion people and that is unacceptable.
Scott: The Coronavirus has had a major impact across the world and changing how we work. What do you see are the implications for the profile of accessibility?
Jason: I was at CSUN in Anaheim when the virus became real for most of us here in the US. There was a lot of fear and panic at first, but before long it became clear that this pandemic, as awful as it is, will have a silver lining. In all crisis there is opportunity and in this crisis the opportunity is to have a discussion about how we expect the world to live via the web when the web isn’t accessible for 20% of us. When I think of the people isolated at home, living with a disability that makes it impossible to order groceries or communicate online I am reminded of how important our mission is. This is our chance to educate the world on accessibility because the consequences of an inaccessible web are staring us in the face. We need governments and private industry and innovators all to treat this issue with the respect it deserves. It is not going to be easy but it is possible and that is what I work on every day.
Scott: Outside of digital access, what do you enjoy doing in your spare time?
Jason: Well, since the virus outbreak I’ve been at our cabin in the mountains of West Virginia. It’s been nice to be able to get outside and what I’ve learned is that I love clearing trails. We ride ATVs and clear fallen trees and build bridges so when I’m not working on accessibility I’m running a chainsaw and I love it!
Scott: What advice would you give to someone that is looking to get into the digital access space?
Jason: I would encourage them to get involved in the community. You and I met at OZeWAI in Perth and we’ve had so many great conversations since then. Accessibility events all seem to be full of great people and I think the easiest way to get involved in this industry is to meet some of them. It really isn’t like working in any other industry and I am forever grateful I was given an opportunity to get involved.
Scott: How can people get in touch with you?
Jason: Email is best: [email protected]
Scott: Jason, thank you very much for your time and insights.