Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Open letter to the United States forensics community: seven minutes isn't enough to cover product accessibility, importance of narrative authority and listening to minority opinions

Dear forensics community in the United States,

This is Joseph Lee, a blind student studying communication studies at California State University, Los Angeles and a member of that school's forensics team. First, thank you for giving me many opportunities to present my stories and hear others' speeches at many tournaments, including 2018 AFA-NIET and 2018 NFA Nationals.

I would like to bring awareness of a topic discussed at an extemporaneous speaking round at 2018 NFA Nationals. Specifically, I would like to bring up several concerns regarding the question about product accessibility not only from the viewpoint of a student, but also from the position of someone who can speak about this topic: an internationally certified screen reader expert and one of the advocates for accessibility as part of Windows Insider Program from Microsoft.

At the 2018 NFA Nationals, during the semi-final round of extemporaneous speaking (a limited preparation event where students research about a topic for 30 minutes and present a seven minute speech), one of the questions asked was, "how can tech companies make their products accessible?". I later found out that two competitors spoke at length about this topic, with one competitor I talked to mentioning product design as one of the possible routes to make products accessible. During the course of our discussion, I asked the student to consider human factors as another possible route for answering this question, and I requested that we should start a dialogue with this student's team and the director of forensics regarding product accessibility. After reflecting on this topic, I decided to write this open letter in hopes that we can have a community-wide dialogue about not only this topic, but also one or two ethical concerns regarding extemp event.

The reasons for bringing accessibility question to your attention are twofold: seven minutes isn't enough to discuss a complex system that is accessibility, and this raises a serious question about who is a proper narrative authority to speak about this matter. Although I do understand that extemp speakers may not have thought about certain aspects of accessibility or might not have personal experience or know of someone who've gone through this, I believe that we should start a community-wide dialogue regarding these two issues in order to provide more truthful picture and to seriously think about the power of advocacy by those who do have actual experience and are considered more accurate narrative authorities.

First, I would like to address the notion that accessibility is a concept that can be examine in the span of seven minutes (or for that matter, researched in half an hour). I would like to first point out what accessibility actually is and what it involves, then address some misconceptions that could arise from this.

Accessibility is commonly defined as ways of making things accessible to a greater number of people. In the context of technology, it usually means providing alternative ways to let people from diverse backgrounds (disability, language, etc.) use technology more effectively. A more accurate way of defining accessibility, given the present circumstances, is  a collection of systematic approaches, methodologies, attitudes, and practices employed to allow more people to reap benefits of technological advances.

One key concept to note from the above definition is "a collection of systematic approaches." Accessibility is composed of a set of interrelated components that are engineered to work together to achieve beneficial outcomes for many people. These components include attitudes and assumptions, product design and research, accessibility standards, laws, norms, users, developers, user experience, environment, human factors, and others. More specifically:

* Attitudes and assumptions: in order for accessibility to even be discussed, one must have a set of attitudes and assumptions that value the needs of those who cannot access technology due to many reasons (for example, visual impairment). Some of the helpful attitudes include willingness to listen to feedback, willingness to ask tough questions about user experience, willingness to collaborate and so on.
* Product research and design: with the attitudes and assumptions in place, one can then look at ways of making things accessible through products. But that's not the end of the story.
* Human factors: these include what users want to see from a product, looking at expectations, outcomes and so on. These factors determine what kind of assistive technology will be developed, including screen readers, refreshable braille displays, AI-powered products and so on.
* Accessibility standards: one cannot talk about accessibility without mentioning standards, procedures, and foundations somewhere. These include Section 508, WCAG (Web Content Accessibility Guidelines), accessibility recommendations from W3C (World Wide Web Consortium), human interface guidelines from companies such as Apple and Microsoft, as well as technologies and concepts such as WAI-ARIA (Web Accessibility Initiative - Accessible Rich Internet Applications), Microsoft Active Accessibility (MSAA) and others.
* Collaboration between users and developers: collaboration plays a big part in designing accessible solutions, with users providing feedback to developers who in turn let users test solutions early.

These components and others work together when producing accessibility solutions. Some of the example accessibility solutions include:

* NonVisual Desktop Access (NVDA): an open-source screen reader that was developed by a community of volunteers coordinated by NV Access.
* Seeing AI: an app from Microsoft that describes text and images via artificial intelligence.
* Eye Control: A Windows 10 feature that allows people to interact with computers via eye gazes.
* VoiceOver: a touch-based screen reader for iOS devices that opened the door for touchscreen access for screen reader users.

All of these solutions have one thing in common: they showcase what happens when accessibility system components work together to achieve beneficial goals for users and society, including listen to feedback from actual users, taking user expectations into account and so on.

Unfortunately, due to the nature of extemporaneous speaking events, the concept of accessibility as a system (thus making systems theory applicable to this construct) cannot be explored in a span of seven minutes. It might be possible that competitors may have personal experience with this topic or know someone who is an active user of accessibility solutions, thus providing clearer picture on how tech companies can make their products more accessible. But limiting people's exposure to the concept of accessibility through an extemp prompt is, to me, unacceptable. Although discussing this topic in an extemp round could lay the foundation for a dialogue afterwards, forcing students to research a topic that is too vague (as shown through the above explanation) not only jeopardizes the truth, but opens the door for misrepresentation and furthering a well-known misconception about accessibility: a one-time solution when in fact accessibility is an ongoing process.

Second, not only forcing students to research a vague topic in the span of half an hour is unacceptable, it becomes a concern when it is presented by a student with no knowledge (or limited knowledge) about this topic. This is evident when competitors bring up facts and ideas that could lead to misrepresentation, especially when they are not really a narrative authority on this subject. After talking to one competitor who answered this question with one of the points being product design, it became clear to me that it would have been better if an actual accessibility advocate provided an insightful criticism as to why tech companies are not providing more useful accessibility products.

Part of the problem has to do with lack of awareness about accessibility in the forensics community, and in extension, the public. Long ago (as late as late 2000's), product accessibility was seen as an afterthought by developers, with the public paying little attention to accessibility in general. This is slowly changing: with products such as VoiceOver and Seeing AI, awareness of accessibility has increased.

However, that appears not to be the case with forensics community, or if there is awareness, it is rare. Although it was great to see impromptu accomodations being met (such as verbal time signals) at national tournaments (for which I want to thank you from bottom of my heart) and with my communication analysis paper having to do with an actual accessibility product, it remains the case that we have to see people struggle to answer a question about a concept they themselves might not be aware of. Perhaps talking about how tech companies can make their products more accessible may have been an easy question to answer, without hearing it from an actual user of assistive technology, the extemp presentation loses its potency.

The concept of extemp presentation potency and narrative authority also brings up a related issue: strategy. Because some students are taught to answer questions that seems easy (if pressed for time), they might choose a topic that is actually the hardest one for them unless they themselves can serve as effective narrative authority. For instance, a question about an issue that competitors are not aware of may actually serve to limit their analyses, which would cause students to either repeat themselves, copy someone's words without checking validity, or pick another topic while preparing for the one they chose initially. Just because accessibility of tech products might seem easy (because it appears to deal with technology), when we examine the context of the question at hand, it is actually talking about attitudes and practices, not algorithms and product launches. Hence narrative authority is important: not only it allows people to choose a topic that they ACTUALLY KNOW, but also opens the door for INSIGHTFUL ANALYSIS.

Some of you might question my ethos in this letter and why I keep mentioning narrative authority and accessibility as a system. To many, I'm seen as a blind competitor with a white cane and a special device on my shoulders. But my outside forensics credentials include:

* A leading international authority on NVDA screen reader through NVDA Expert certification, code contributions, translations work, and conference organization.
* One of the leading authorities on BrailleNote, a braille computer used by blind people around the world and the device I use as a notecard during impromptu rounds.
* A Windows Insider with expertise in accessibility and screen reader development collaboration.
* Being featured on numerous articles and podcasts, including Microsoft's Windows Insider podcast series.

Are there solutions? Of course  - some are short-term, while others are long-term, some of which will require change in attitudes and more awareness. The first solution is to make sure students can be given a chance to present their stories and insightful analyses in extemp events through questions that actually reflect topics people can relate to. If a question that is too vague such as product accessibility is presented, and if it turns out all three question options deal with vague subject areas, then students have no choice but to choose the question that seems to be easiest to unpack, only to discover later that they don't know what's going on. Thus I would like to suggest that we go through more scrutiny when choosing extemp questions, especially at national tournaments such as AFA-NIET and NFA Nationals.

Second, we need to get a dialogue going regarding awareness of accessibility in forensics community. Accomodation letters for students that need accomodation is not the complete answer to the question on lack of (or rarity of) accessibility awareness. I'm hoping that the 2018 NFA Nationals extemp question on making tech products more accessible would spark a dialogue regarding this matter, because it is time for us to start addressing inherencies that would not give folks such as disabled students a chance to utilize their narrative authority and power, and in extension, give them a chance to listen to stories from other competitors.

Most importantly, we need to make sure that we get away from an attitude where extemp can (and sometimes should) exclude minority opinions. Talking about important issues in seven minutes is a good way to raise awareness about an issue (albeit briefly). However, this forces students to prioritize expectations versus narratives that should be heard, especially from proper narrative authorities. The question of product accessibility may allow awareness to take place, although perhaps through certain lenses. As it stands, we have lost a chance to become better informed advocates for people with disabilities such as myself. I'm hoping that this can change in the future.

Forensics is a great (and an interesting) venue where we can have a multi-way street conversations about issues that impact us, the community, and society at large. But I believe it is important for us to evaluate our attitudes, especially when dealing with an event that could have been used to offer deeper analysis, and I do not want to see extemporaneous speaking event lose its place through vague questions that only serve to present misguided or incomplete analyses. The question, "how can tech companies make their products accessible" from 2018 NFA Nationals semi-final round is an example of a question that could have become more informative if people did know what they are presenting to the world.

As we return to the question given today, "how can tech companies make their products more accessible", my thesis would have been that it ultimately comes down to attitudes and human factors, because: accessibility is a system; attitudes have power; and importance of keeping users, their expectations, and feedback in mind. I do understand that this may come across as a minority opinion to some, it is still a potent case because it comes from someone who actually knows what he is talking about, thereby can offer insightful analysis. I'm hoping that this extemp question and this open letter could serve as a foundation stone for a long overdue dialogue on awareness of accessibility in forensics.

To competitors who did answer this question at 2018 NFA Nationals, if I misrepresented your viewpoints, I'm really sorry.

To teammates of these competitors, please spread awareness of accessibility through this activity at your school.

To directors of forensics, please recruit more students with disabilities and give them a chance to share their stories with the wider community through coaching, careful research, and networking opportunities.

To extemp judges, please be considerate when contestants present minority opinions that you may not necessarily agree with, and please give people (especially minorities) a chance to advocate for themselves and others like them through half an hour of research and seven minutes of presentations.

To leaders of AFA, NFA, PKD, Phi Rho Pi and other organizations, please do something about issues (especially ethical issues) raised by students and coaches regarding extemp speaking event so we can make it better and inclusive for many competitors.

Thank you.

Joseph Lee
Student and forensics competitor, California State University, Los Angeles

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