In this post, we summarize the findings of our research paper “Mixed Abilities and Varied Experiences: a group autoethnography of a virtual summer internship”, which was accepted to the ACM Conference on Accessible Computing (ASSETS) 2021. This paper was authored by Kelly Mack, Maitraye Das, Dhruv Jain, Danielle Bragg, John Tang, Andrew Begel, Erin Beneteau, Josh Urban Davis, Abraham Glasser, Joon Sung Park, and Venkatesh Potluri.
As we, the authors, prepared for a summer internship and intern cohort in Washington at Microsoft Research, the COVID-19 pandemic hit and we were forced to switch to an all-virtual internship mediated via Microsoft Teams and email. We recognized that we were in the unique position of being a part of a team with mixed-abilities communicating in a fully virtual setting, a setting which is becoming more common in the post-pandemic era. So, we decided to reflect on our experiences establishing and maintaining accessibility this summer. Our work uncovered five key factors that influenced our experience: virtual in-accessibility, difficulty remembering access accommodations, conflicting accommodations, allyship, and power dynamics, on which we then used to offer recommendations.
We all were members of the Microsoft Research Ability Team, which encompassed about 30 full time employees and interns, a subset of 11 of whom participated in our study. Of these authors, eight were interns and three were full time employees, and five people were identified as being: hard of hearing, Deaf, blind, ADHD, and disabled via chronic illness. We conducted autoethnographic research, where we journaled about our summer meetings and communication practices and then reviewed the data multiple times, developing themes that were core to our experience as we went. We iterated on the themes, merging, adding, and removing themes through group discussions until we reached the five presented here.
Virtually induced inaccessibility
One experience this summer clearly demonstrated compounding technology-induced inaccessibilities. Jain, who is hard of hearing, presented a PowerPoint about his research to the group. Jain was on mute and started sharing his screen, which meant that he could only see his own video and the video of the person who most recently spoke. While we tried to alert him that he was still on mute, it seemed impossible to get his attention. Since we knew he couldn’t hear us, we tried waving our hands and typing messages in the shared chat. Nothing worked. Even his human captioner couldn’t get his attention. Eventually one participant made a paper sign that said you’re on mute. But even then it took a while to become visible because he had to speak long enough for his video to be prioritized and shown to Jain. This experience pointed out a cascade of accessibility problems with the video conferencing software, while sharing slides that disrupted the meeting.
In this example, we see the invisibility of disability and accessibility that was created because of the use of these virtual platforms. First, Jain had a complex setup that involved multiple monitors so that he could see captions, his presentation, and the Teams call. This setup was invisible to the rest of us, and so it was hard to understand why we couldn’t get his attention at that moment. Second, it was hard to see when accommodations were broken throughout the summer. So for example, Jain almost always used a captioner in meetings. The absence of a captioner would have been visually obvious to sighted people during in person meetings and accommodations could have been made to address the access issue like talking slower. Finally, it was hard to see the effects of inaccessibility, so for example Mack experienced severe motion sickness this summer that was triggered by several video presentations in our meetings. Again, while someone going pale or becoming physically ill is very visible in person it’s almost impossible to notice virtually.
Because of this invisibility of inaccessibility introduced by the virtual setting, we found that allies had to check in with disabled peers frequently to understand if and how to provide support. At the same time, a virtual setting created a new avenue for allies to provide support: back channeling via text messages on Microsoft Teams. Interns in particular used this feature to check in with disabled peers during inaccessible moments in meetings. At the same time, the text chat associated with each Microsoft Teams chat could be used to remind people of access norms, for example, saying “remember to say your name before speaking”. Finally, the chat could even be used to fix inaccessiblities, as Das reflected: “when the work anniversary video was being played without description, an intern quickly wrote down a short description of the video on chat … Six team members ‘loved’ this message and two others ‘liked’, including one of our interns who is blind.”
Difficulty remembering accommodations
Next we wanted to discuss the difficulty that we had remembering the accommodations for the group. Several accommodations during the summer required changes to group norms. For example: speak slowly, say your name before speaking, make PowerPoint presentations accessible and send slides ahead of time, and limit the motion from your camera or screen share. As Bragg reflected: “it becomes increasingly difficult to always remember all of the accessibility protocols during meetings as the number of disabilities grows. This becomes more difficult. If you are an occasional meeting participant and if the set of disabilities, or accommodations changes over time”, and Davis commented “I noticed each week that there was a solid attempt to say our names prior to speaking. However, as the meetings continued this practice rather quickly deteriorated.”
Conflicting access needs
However, simply remembering access needs wasn’t always enough, as sometimes access needs interacted or conflicted with each other. For example, Bragg reflected about issues with showing ASL interpreters in presentations: “we came up with a protocol where meeting presenters shared their screen which included both the pinned interpreter and the meeting slides. This enabled everybody in the lab to view the interpreter at a reasonable size while simultaneously viewing the presentation. However, sometimes this resulted in the slides, especially texts becoming prohibitively small to read.”
In another example, Davis describes the care needed to create an artistic video for the team: “I spent a considerable amount of time brainstorming multimodal sensory recordings that would be usable as by as many people in the group as possible, recording the ducks that you see on your screen here for example took over an hour and a half and comprise 37 separate recordings because I needed the ducks to be visible, make a sound and not have the camera move too much.”
Finally, we found that the power dynamics affected overall group adherence to norms. For example, the team manager consistently executing access norms led to better overall group adherence. Power differentials between interns and full-time employees affected allyship within the team as well. Mack reflected from an intern’s perspective, the reluctance to correct a senior team member for not following access norms. Bragg felt related tensions from a full-time employee perspective: “As a mentor to a person with a disability, it can be difficult to strike the right balance between shielding the intern from having to advocate for themself, and making sure that you are not speaking/advocating for them unwantedly.”
Reflections and recommendations
Based on our experiences, we have the following suggestions for teams with mixed-abilities to promote accessibility in online contexts:
- Have a group discussion around norm creation, looking at access needs of all individuals to look for synergistic opportunities or conflicts. Encourage all people to talk about access needs or ways they could work better, not just people with disabilities. This can help make discussing accommodations and needs the norm.
- Have a regularly scheduled time to revisit and update the norms. This serves as a refresher for the team, can help onboard new members, and supports people with fluctuating needs.
- When shifting to a new context (e.g., in-person to remote), explicitly consider how norms from the prior context might be transferred over and what new norms are needed.
- Because inaccessibility can become invisible in virtual settings, mentors, managers, and allies may need to perform more unprompted access check-ins with disabled team members.
- Create a list of access norms grouped by context (e.g., slideshow norms, meeting norms) to make them the most actionable.
- Curate basic disability/access information for disabilities present in the group (e.g., how to interact with an ASL interpreter)
- Develop a (potentially anonymous) feedback mechanism for people to communicate about if access needs are successful and being upheld or not.
- Apply norms consistently, regardless of who is in attendance at a meeting. This habituates norms and allows those with undisclosed disabilities to have their access needs met.
- Adopt a mindset of “reminding” rather than “correcting” team members if an access norm is not upheld
We see great opportunities for technology to support teams in reminding them about norms or taking on the work of some norms currently executed by team members, and we hope that teams with mixed-abilities consider these guidelines as a starting point for creating an accessible environment.