An interview with Joe Devon, co-founder of Global Accessibility Awareness Day

by: | May 15, 2024

This Thursday marks the 13th annual Global Accessibility Awareness Day (GAAD). It’s an opportunity for all of us digital builders to reflect upon our work and pledge to make the experiences we create more accessible and inclusive to all.

Headshot of Joe Devon. Joe smiles slightly facing the camera, crossing his arms while wearing a plaid collared shirt and navy sport coat.Speaking of reflecting, I vividly remember when I met Joe Devon in 2020. The GAAD co-founder was giving a talk on digital accessibility, titled, “Accessible by default.” The idea was that everyone should, by default, be able to take advantage of the same information and experiences available in our digital universe — regardless of any physical or cognitive disabilities.

It resonated. Accessibility was a passion of mine because of the struggle I’d experienced with my father after his spinal cord injury.

Turns out, we had a lot in common. Joe’s experience with his aging father had similarly inspired his accessibility activism. I didn’t know then that he and I would forge a friendship — and that he’d become a trusted partner for our team of app accessibility experts at ArcTouch.

“Any digital product needs to be accessible. And mobile apps are right at the top of the priority list.”

We’re so grateful for Joe, and I’m thrilled to share our recent conversation about the state of digital accessibility. A lot has changed since Joe penned this blog post that spawned the first GAAD in May 2012. Joe, who started his tech career as a web developer, looks back at the origins of GAAD and shares his thoughts on the app economy, the onset of AI, and the industry’s shifting perceptions about accessibility.

What led you to become so passionate about digital accessibility?

Well, I’m always thinking about what’s ahead with technology. Back in the early 2000s, I read a few blogs and books from a developer named Mark Pilgrim. He’d written, “Dive Into Accessibility.” That was the first time I heard of accessibility. Not too long after, I came across a video of Victor Tsaran, then a technical program manager at Yahoo, who is visually impaired. It showed how he used a screen reader to read the Yahoo homepage — and that blew me away. I had never heard of a screen reader. I thought, “If I’m on the bleeding edge of tech, and I’ve never heard of this, then the average developer probably hasn’t heard of it either.”

It just sort of percolated in my mind that we needed to make people more aware of accessibility. I later did some work for American Idol – and at the time, there was a blind contestant, Scott MacIntyre. We worked on making the American Idol site more accessible and talked a lot about it on the team.

You’ve also written how your dad was part of your inspiration.

Yes. My dad experienced so much in life — and accumulated so much knowledge through his experiences, his work, and his insatiable curiosity. He survived the concentration camps in World War II, and later served as an advisor to the Israeli minister of economics. And he helped build the diamond industry in Israel. He spoke 11 languages — and was fascinated by the universe and its scientific marvels. He was also intrigued by my technology work, and I loved sharing the latest gizmos and stories about my work with him.

As he aged and started to lose both his eyesight and hearing, he struggled with using the Internet, especially with banking. This was a man who commanded respect when he walked into any room. You could tell this was someone special. Yet he couldn’t do online banking. For him to have to ask for help with banking — that just felt like he was being deprived of a civil right.

Of course, I understand that banks are private entities, but you can’t really survive today without banking. So there’s a public service component to accessibility. That’s ultimately what prompted me to write that blog post proposing that we create a day for digital accessibility awareness.

How has GAAD evolved over its 13 years?

Well, it was pretty viral from the first year. Importantly, my WordPress blog auto-tweeted every post — and my initial blog post caught the attention of Jennison Asuncion, my co-founder who’d been building a community in the accessibility space. Those first few years were about getting people on board — sort of like pushing a train to start. But by the third year, we were running to keep up with the train.

In 2017, Apple invited Stevie Wonder to give a concert on the Apple campus, and they launched a full week of accessibility training at all Apple stores.

Thanks to the leadership of Jenny Lay-Flurrie, Microsoft has also celebrated in its stores, announced the Xbox Adaptive Controller, and made an incredible Super Bowl commercial about it.

Yahoo created events in the first year of GAAD. Amazon, led by Charlotte Riggle, has turned the day into a month of internal celebrations and training called GAAM. Another year, Twitter’s Gerard Cohen enabled the GAAD logo to appear when anyone used the #GAAD hashtag. We stopped counting when we reached 220 million people! I wish I could call out all the companies who have done something for GAAD, but the list is too long.

Now that there’s more awareness of accessibility, has the objective for GAAD changed?

I don’t think we’re done with the awareness. About five years in, I keynoted at a PHP conference, and I said, “Who here has heard about accessibility? Raise your hand.” About half of the audience raised their hands. So developers at least know what it means. But there needs to be more awareness in organizations. And not just awareness that it exists, but an understanding of how big it is in terms of market size.

WHO estimates that 1.3 billion people live with some form of significant disability. However, those who need accessible digital experiences represent a much larger segment than those with diagnosed disabilities. Then there are the billions of people who have some form of visual impairment — whether it’s needing glasses or other vision issues. And in America, half the population is over 40. The millennials are 43 this year. And once you hit 40, you need to start making your fonts on your phone bigger, need more color contrast, and your needs advance from there. There are those with cognitive disabilities. The pandemic has probably impacted a lot of people. I know young people that have been horribly affected by the schools shutting down. It’s affected them cognitively. So you’re talking about a huge percentage of the population that accessibility impacts.

I was working with one tech company, and I went through some of the statistics with his team, and I remember he said, “Oh my God. I understood this is the right thing to do, but until you presented that business case with the statistics, I did not understand how foolish we were to ignore this massive population.”

[RELATED: Read more about the business case for creating accessible apps.]

Many conflate those who have a disability and those who would benefit from accessibility. How do you explain the difference?

I’ve had clients who have been reluctant to pay for “accessibility” work or features. But when we explain what those features are — things like screen magnification and font scaling — some of them admit they use those features. People who don’t consider themselves “disabled” often benefit from accessible designs — and if not today, they might later. The curb-cut effect definitely applies to the digital realm: accessibility can benefit everyone.

When GAAD started, you mostly focused on web accessibility. Since then, the app economy has exploded.

Yes. We don’t talk about it as web accessibility anymore. We just say digital accessibility. Any digital product needs to be accessible. And mobile apps are right at the top of the priority list. There’s no question.

What’s the biggest surprise that you’ve experienced since starting GAAD?

There have been so many good surprises. One that comes to mind was when my co-founder Jennison was invited to co-keynote at a GAAD event in Denmark with Sir Tim Berners-Lee, who invented the World Wide Web. I don’t really get jealous — but I’ll admit to being a little envious! Berners-Lee is a hero to me. His vision ultimately gave me and many other developers their careers. That he had even heard of GAAD was amazing to me.

Sir Tim Berners-Lee presents they keynote address on a large screen at a GAAD event in Denmark in 2017. The captions on screen show him saying “Whatever country you are in, all use the same WCAG. You don’t have to do accessibility from 0.”

Sir Tim-Berners Lee keynotes a GAAD event with Jennison Asuncion in 2017 (SOURCE).

What’s your hope for GAAD as it continues to evolve, thinking 10 or 20 years from now?

Our mission is to change the culture of digital product development — to make accessibility a core value. And I want to model it after how agile methodology changed our culture. Another issue we’d like to change is to simplify the web. In the ’90s, anyone could see the source on a web page, and you could learn how to code by seeing what’s in front of you. Today, it’s really difficult to view the source on a web page.

Even though most sites have the same components, they’re all customized and overly complex with lots of CSS and JavaScript. That complexity makes it more difficult to offer accessible experiences. There’s no reason that today we can’t make this all simpler.

How would you grade the industry’s progress when it comes to digital accessibility?

That’s a tough one. I’d say that we’ve progressed kicking and screaming — but it has progressed. There are accessibility teams within a lot more companies than there used to be. I think getting sued is probably the strongest motivator for many. And the laws related to digital accessibility are getting even more stringent.

Meanwhile, there’s a wonderful organization called The Valuable 500, which encourages CEOs to pledge to make their organizations accessible. So, we’ve come a long way. We’ve progressed, but it hasn’t been easy. [Note: ArcTouch parent WPP is part of the Valuable 500]

How would you describe your biggest challenge or frustration today about accessibility?

The complexity involved in making something that’s accessible. I’m starting to build a new website for my company — because I haven’t been an active developer for a while. So, I’m getting back into the weeds to see what it takes. And it’s a much bigger pain than it should be.

What is our industry getting right when it comes to accessibility?

More and more CEOs are beginning to see the importance of accessibility and taking action to change the culture internally. We’re not there yet. But a lot of influencers and leaders have started to pay attention to it.

How could digital builders improve when it comes to accessibility?

For one, we need to do more accessibility user testing with disabled people. That makes a huge difference — because you can’t really understand if your product is accessible without putting it in front of different types of users.

Also, the way we, as an industry, audit and certify products for accessibility doesn’t align with the world of agile. We are certifying that a digital product is accessible once a year or every couple of years. But many digital products are being updated in two-week sprints.

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How will AI impact accessibility?

The accessibility community can help AI researchers build much better models, and the result of those models will be much better assistive technology.

In many respects, AI is tied to accessibility and the disabled community. Because AI is trying to emulate being a human being and our varied abilities. And there’s a spectrum for everything.

Take eyesight as an example. Some people can see a bright room versus a dark room. Some have a little vision or 10% in one eye. The same is true with hearing. It’s all over the map. And if we want artificial intelligence to be right, we need it to understand the variety of human abilities. Only then can it truly augment our abilities. AI researchers who are not engaging with our community today are missing out on creating the best models.

At ArcTouch, we really appreciate having you as a friend and partner. How could we help champion accessibility further?

Ben, you and the team are doing great work. It’s nice to see ArcTouch is 100% committed to digital accessibility. I can’t think of anything more you should be doing — except maybe persuading all your clients to build fully accessible apps and websites!

We’re trying! Thanks so much for your time, Joe.

About ArcTouch

ArcTouch has been creating lovable apps for companies of all sizes since the dawn of the App Store. Contact us to learn more about our accessible product design and development services.