Empathetic Leadership Opens Doors

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Board Chairman Rich Schwerdtfeger will lead Knowbility’s first Accessibility Leadership Symposium in May of 2017. The Symposium aims to address the rapidly changing landscape of digital communications by providing global leaders and executives in accessibility with an opportunity to exchange tactics, discuss challenges, and work on solutions in a collaborative setting.

On that note, creating an interactive, discussion-based environment is a top priority for Rich and the organizers of the Symposium.

“We’re not necessarily going to have a few experts dictate to people on how you should do things,” Rich said. “Instead, one of the things the conference is going to do is bring accessibility leaders from all over the world to share their experiences and input on how they address some of the key issues in accessibility. We want to learn from each other and build an expanded network of executives that work together to solve problems, hopefully making the whole accessibility process a lot easier.”

The Symposium will take place May 15-16, the days leading up to AccessU, Knowbility’s annual accessibility teaching conference. Knowbility selected Rich to be this year’s keynote speaker for AccessU for which he plans to discuss the merits of empathetic leadership.

“There needs to be a renewed focus on empathy at the top of corporations which, to me, means a degree of leadership,” he said. “What I see often today is that because accessibility has been so much of an issue driven by litigation, we forget at the top of the companies that there are real people involved at the end of the day, people that are impacted because there aren’t equivalent accommodations for them to do their jobs.”

By regarding accessibility as an issue that only affects a few individuals rather than a priority that must be consistently considered, companies devalue their employees and leave their customers vulnerable.

“These individuals are important,” Rich said. “We don’t allow them to reach their full potential because we don’t provide accommodations for them in the business and we don’t enable our information and communication technology. The question we always get is, ‘Well they only have one or two blind individuals.’ Okay, but you just made it impossible for that person to do their job because you don’t value them as a large enough demographic to support them. At the end of the day, you’re also saying you don’t value your customer because you’ve now put them at risk.”

Due to a lack of time, money, and empathy for the employee and the customer, accessibility features are often left on the back burner until legal issues force a company to rectify them,  prompting a quick and patchy fix. Instead, Rich argues, companies should take the time to consider all of their potential users from the get-go.

“Nobody wants to take ownership of the problem — the people that have deployed the system don’t want to take ownership, the management doesn’t want to take ownership of it — but at the end of the day, if we just at down and thought, ‘This is an important video, it’s required for users, why can’t we just take the time and get it captioned so that they can go use it?’” he said. “We need to have that change.”

Still, he understands that these aren’t small challenges, especially for large corporations working to stay competitive on a massive, global scale.

“I do have some sympathy here because one of the challenges we have here at large companies is you’re being pressured to deliver things faster and faster and faster. That’s a huge amount of pressure,” he said. “This is one of the issues we hope to discuss at the conference. ‘How did you address accessibility in an agile work environment? How do we quickly make sure that content is accessible and get it out of the building?’”

An empathetic approach to leadership also means reframing the relationship companies have to accessibility features. For example, avoiding litigation shouldn’t be the sole reason companies decide to take the extra step of incorporating accessibility into the initial planning process of new products or software. Putting focus on accessible design has also proven to be a marker of success over the last few years.

“You look at some of the successful companies now that have invested in accessibility and have made accessibility important, they’re doing very well,” Rich said.  “One I can point to is Apple, another one has recently been Microsoft. For example, if you take an iPhone today — the latest iPhone that came out — when you receive a voice message and you tap on it, it writes the whole transcript for you. So if you’re in a noisy situation and you can’t hear the recording, you’ve got all the text. Is it perfect? No, but it’s good enough to get the gist of the message and that puts you ahead of the game.”

Having worked for IBM since 1990 where he began as a contractor before transitioning into research, Rich is no stranger to the innovation and application of accessible technology.

“In fact, in the 1990s at IBM, we pioneered some of the first voice recognition systems for mobility impaired people for both command and control and dictation,” he said. “Now we’re starting to really see this become mainstream today in everything we do.”

Beyond addressing specific accessibility issues, tactics, or solutions, Rich hopes the symposium will help build a strong network between global accessibility leaders, facilitating progress on a faster, more efficient scale.

“At the end of the day, the leaders are the ones who set the cadence in large companies on what gets done,” he said. “If the leadership is there and they know they have the vehicle and tools — we’re basically expanding their own toolbox on how they can address issues better. To me, this is the first of it’s kind. We’ve never had anything like this before in the industry and it’s needed.”

Find out more information on the Symposium.

For sponsorship and registration information, contact Jessica Looney at jlooney@knowbility.org.

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