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For All Abilities

Mar 9, 2020

For All Abilities – The Podcast Episode Nine - Sheri Byrne-Haber - Digital and Workplace Accessibility 


In this episode, I interview Sheri Byrne-Haber - Senior Accessibility Evangelist. On the podcast, Sheri talks about her disabling and living as a person of determination. We discuss her career and the importance of digital accessibility. 

To connect with Sheri, please follow her  on LinkedIn (Sheri Byrne-Haber) or read her blog at   


Go to our website for information on our software that enables employers to support their employees with ADHD, Dyslexia, Learning Differences and Autism.

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Full Transcription from


Betsy Furler  0:08  

Hi, thanks for listening to the For All Abilities podcast today. I have a special guest with me today Sheri Byrne-Haber And Sheri could you just introduce yourself to our audience and I hope I pronounced your name correctly.


Sheri Byrne-Haber  0:24  

It's burn haber, but it's really easy to get wrong. So I'm Sheri Byrne-Haber.  I am currently the head of accessibility for VMware, which is I like to describe as the largest software company that most people have never heard of. We have I think, 29,000 employees and we're mostly owned by Dell, which people heard of. I have degrees in computer science, law and business and I've been working exclusively in the disability related area for about 15 years and For the last eight years, I've largely been focusing on digital accessibility.


Betsy Furler  1:05  

Awesome. Well, let's start this conversation. I like to ask people what they were like when they were a child. And so can you tell us a little bit about what you were like when you were a little girl and how that influenced the professional that you are today?


Sheri Byrne-Haber  1:23  

Sure, so I have a congenital mobility issue. I was born with clubbed feet and caifa scoliosis. And when I was a little girl that was about 25 years before the Americans with Disabilities Act was passed. So my childhood was pretty complicated. I've spent about 15% of my life in casts, either resulting from fractures or recovering from surgery. And when there were no curb cuts. That was a problem. You know, my mom's five foot nothing, so she couldn't take me to grocery store in my wheelchair with her For example, Yeah, wow, what? how different it was, it was really different. You know, I couldn't go to the movie theater with my friends. You know, I got scheduled for second story classes in high school with no elevator. The captain of the football team had to carry me up the stairs to get my diploma in middle school. Wow. So there are certain events like that, that really stick out in my mind that when you mention it to people that are less than, say, 35 they're like, that was legal.


Betsy Furler  2:33  

Right. And, you know, the scary thing about that, though, is even though it's shocking to hear that, you know, then I think back to my son who's 21. So when he was in middle school that was only nine ish years ago. And he was in a wheelchair for one of those years. And while they had an elevator, it didn't work most the time.


Sheri Byrne-Haber  2:58  

I litterally experienced That like two days ago, I was got to a retail store in a strip mall. And it was raised on a platform. So there were stairs to all the places and then in the corner there was, you know, one of those little retrofitted wheelchair lifts. And they couldn't find the key. And then the woman's even if we could find the key, it's probably broken. Seriously. This is a 2020. Lady.


Betsy Furler  3:26  

Right. And we went to about four years ago, we got this amazing opportunity to go to New York City with friend and her mom, and she's in a wheelchair. And the trying to get around New York City was much more difficult in the wheelchair than I ever expected it to be. Yeah. The things that we that you don't think of if you're not in the wheelchair.


Sheri Byrne-Haber  3:57  

There was a story that broke my heart. About a year ago about a young mother who died when she broke her neck she fell down the stairs in the subway system because she was trying to drag her kid up in a stroller. And you know, I think something I have a friend who works in accessibility and the New York Public transit system something only like 25% of the subway system in New York has a has elevators so but yeah, yeah, we just percent is unusable. The taxis don't like to stop for people in wheelchairs. I mean, I literally live in lift and Uber when I'm in New York, but I and I'm in New York a lot because that's where my mother in law lives. But there's really a certain level of privilege that's involved with that I can afford lifted. Right and and I feel pretty bad for the people who, you know, don't have those luxuries and are stuck with the default system that's presented for people with no money.


Betsy Furler  5:00  

so you encountered quite a few probably mobility challenges,


Sheri Byrne-Haber  5:09  

I guess for better lack of a better word when you're growing up as far as not being able to go to events and things like that because of mobility. What about college? college? I was so lucky. I live in the Bay Area. So I started college in Let me see 1980 I think, and I the only college I applied to was Cal. And because I knew that Cal was Roberts and Ed Roberts would have been at one yesterday it was actually Ed Roberts day so god bless you Ed Roberts, because without him, I might not have gone to college. And instead, you know, I've done 11 years of college so far I my family jokes, I do a degree every 10 years. My original degrees in computer science. I did software testing for a long time. Then I decided I wanted to go to law school practice law for a while, decided I didn't like lawyers, went back and did an MBA. And I'm currently working on a PhD in public policy. Wow.


Betsy Furler  6:18  

Wow. So you, you excelled? academically?


Sheri Byrne-Haber  6:22  

I loved to learn and part of it was that I was just steered naturally towards that because of my lack of ability to do physical stuff.


Betsy Furler  6:31  

Right, right. So how did you get into the world of accessibility?


Sheri Byrne-Haber  6:38  

So, I'm about 15 years ago, I was an advocate for the Deaf. So if you Google my name, you'll see a lot of things associated with insurance appeals and cochlear implants and things like that. So I did some contested special education plans for children who are deaf and a few children with autism. And I sued insurance companies for failing to provide adequate coverage to people who are deaf. They were being turned down for hearing aids. They were being told one cochlear implant is good enough. You don't need to hear out of the other side. Right. First total BS.


Betsy Furler  7:14  

Right as a speech pathologist i that is I feel


Sheri Byrne-Haber  7:20  

Its like  that was just yesterday, actually, that there were so many issues with getting hearing aids covered by insurance. I mean, I still think it's there's quite a gap in that area. But there is a lot of it is because the difference between self insured plans and traditionally insured plans. So fully insured plans get to go to the insurance commissioner get to use state law, self insured plans with which bigger companies tend to have don't. So there's still a third of the people in the US who are on self insured plans that can't avail themselves of state laws mandating hearing aid coverage, but I did get united healthcare, to start Covering hearing aids, and I got all the insurers in the US to start covering bilateral cochlear implant. That's


Betsy Furler  8:08  



Sheri Byrne-Haber  8:10  

So after I put myself out of business with that, and my personal motivation for doing that was because of my own daughters hearing loss. I thought what can I do that ties my passion for disabilities in with the computer science degree that I originally had. And accessibility was just starting to take off then that was maybe a couple of years after the target lawsuit had been resolved. And that's how I got into digital accessibility. And I've been doing that ever since.


Betsy Furler  8:43  

That's great. Tell us about your what your workday looks like as far as what accommodations do you use?How does all of that personally affect you?


Sheri Byrne-Haber  8:58  

So my accommodations I have glaucoma, I've had both of my lens. Inside my eyes. I do use magnification. And I use a screen reader sometimes for things that can't be magnified. Which is good because like when I had my last eye surgery I couldn't see for three weeks. And if I hadn't been able to use the screen reader, I would have been completely hosed. So it was it was quite fortunate. All the buildings that I worked in are pre ADA. They've all been retrofitted. So VMware has an enormous campus in Palo Alto. They all have elevators, but I've been working with our facilities department to do a few other things like reorganizing the kitchen so I can reach the coffee from my wheelchair, and right and changing a few things in the cafeteria. You know, it's little stuff like that, but the little stuff, they're kind of like micro aggressions, they really start to add up for our After a while, and so being able to fix a few small things definitely helps my stress levels at work. Right. Right and, and makes you able to do things for yourself. instead of always having to ask somebody else Hey, can you grab that? Everybody? Everybody thinks, Oh, just ask people always will want to help you. And it's like, Yeah, but I don't always have, you know, I don't want to ask necessarily don't want people, right. Sorry. For me, this is not a pity party. Right.


Betsy Furler  10:30  



that's one of the things about accommodations that I think is so important for employers to think about is that it's not it's not that people don't want to help you or, or you don't want help. It's that we all deserve to be able to do things on our own time and be able to use our strengths rather than having to waste even if it's 30 seconds. Getting somebody else in that kitchen with you to grab that mug for you. Right? But


Sheri Byrne-Haber  11:05  

it's 30 seconds 20 times a day. Exactly right. You know, and then you're starting to you're starting to talk about, you know, real mindshare about things you have to think about. And real time in the end, you know, first in the country, the country that's made the most accommodations in, say the last two years is the United Arab Emirates. And they took the phrase people with disabilities and changed it to people of determination.


Betsy Furler  11:34  

As I've read that, that's so beautiful.


Sheri Byrne-Haber  11:37  

I absolutely adore it because I don't think there's any phrase better to describe me than a determined person. Yes. And and so I really love that.


Betsy Furler  11:48  

Yes, that's so great. And but you're right about the the amount of time that having to for instance, having to look for the curb cut or what For the one elevator that works, cannot just it's frustrating and it's literally a time waster. But you also have a lot of mental energy.


Sheri Byrne-Haber  12:12  

Yeah, it's mental energy. But let me tell you another story. So I used to work in San Francisco. And you know, wanting to be environmentally friendly. I used to drive to the San Bruno BART station and then I would take verda to the city. Well, first of all the elevators in the BART system are all more than 50 years old, their original the company's gone out of business, when they need parts they have to be like custom crafted and it takes them three months to get the replacement part. So when it all later goes down, it's it's frequently down for three months. Why and the thing is, they only tell you when the elevators in the station are broken. They don't tell you when the elevators in the garage are broken. And so I had so many fights with them because I would get to the BART station and I couldn't get I would get to the parking garage. And then I wouldn't be able to the station because I couldn't get out of the parking garage. And I finally gave up and and decided to drive into the city every day. And so I refer to that as as a disability tax. There's just so many things that people with disabilities actually have to pay for, in either time, energy or money or sometimes all three, that people without disabilities don't even think about.


Betsy Furler  13:27  

Right, right. And then it also gets into the


how privileged are you and can you afford those things based on time, energy and money? Right, so I


Sheri Byrne-Haber  13:39  

have three degrees I am reasonably well paid and so forth. You can write but I had parents who fought for me before idea and IEP existed for a long time they went to the school board meetings, they harassed my teachers, right? They were really, really proactive, you know, and they spoke English. And they were well educated.


Betsy Furler  14:01  

Right? Right,


Sheri Byrne-Haber  14:03  

which is one of the reasons why I went into advocacy for the death because I realized how many things I lost out on as a kid, even with that advocacy. And I got everything that my daughter needed. She She has significant hearing loss to be successful. She's doing a PhD in audiology right now. And I was a lawyer and I speaking English is my native language and so many people out there don't have that privilege. And so I fought for those kids. Because I one for my own. Haha.


That's incredible. So tell us tell my audience a little bit about digital accessibility, just kind of like a, you know, a summary the background behind it. And really just anything you want to say about that. I I think that there probably many people in my audience that don't know much about digital accessibility.


Sure. So my sound bite for digital accessibility is that you know, Stephen Hawking if he were still alive, wouldn't need to be able to use makes digital accessibility is about making things work for any disability or any combination of disabilities, because you never know that somebody is going to have Parkinson's and epilepsy, for example. There, there could be any combination. So people with disabilities sometimes use what we call assistive technology. If you've ever done pinch to zoom on your phone, Congratulations, you've used assistive technology, that that's a magnification tool to interface between themselves and the software, either a website or an app usually. So it does take something that you can't do or perceive and turns it into something that you can do or perceive. So for example, people with vision loss us back to vacation, people with who are completely legally blind because vision loss is on a spectrum, right frequently use something called Screen readers and screen readers are usually built into the operating systems but not always. And they take the visuals on the web page, and they converted into sound. for the, for the blind user, people who are deaf use closed captioning. So that one's really straightforward. But if you don't do the right coding on the web page or the mobile app, for example, if you leave out descriptions of pictures, even though the screen reader might nominally work, the content won't be equivalent to somebody who's blind because you're not describing the pictures. You know, I have a map app, for example, like, I don't want to name names, but just say a ride sharing app that's got maps, you have to have a text equivalent of that map for people who are blind because they're not going to be able to look at the map and go, Oh, that taxi is closest. Right, right. And then people who don't have good Hands control will use something called a switch. Sometimes people have carpal tunnel can't use mice, so they use a keyboard in order to be completely digitally accessible. You have to work with a keyboard, you can't require a mouse or touch because you can't assume that somebody can actually reach out and touch the device. They may have it fixed frame attached to their wheelchair that may be their care provider up there for them. voice control is another good one that's starting to get more and more advanced AI recognition of speech with varying different accents. So that's a few examples of assistive technology. There's a set of guidelines called WC Ag and they stand for Web Content Accessibility Guidelines. And if you are following the guidelines that are in version 2.1 level, double A which is just a fancy way of saying The three levels a double A and triple A double A is the middle level. That's the standard that most courts and the government systems use to determine whether or not something accessible. So 50 rules, you follow the rules, you're probably good to go if you're breaking any of the rules, depending on how important you're either making something hard for somebody with a disability or you're completely blocking them altogether from using your website or mobile app.


Betsy Furler  18:27  

Yes, great explanation. Thank you.


Yeah, for going through all that, and I think digital accessibility is becoming a bigger and bigger deal. As as each year passes,


Sheri Byrne-Haber  18:42  

especially in California, so California, January 1 2020, the ccpa just kicked in the California Consumer Protection Act, and there are actually references in there to accessibility. So all the court cases in California have come out with Pro accessibility, this is largely honestly been lost driven. The rules for the government procurement, which is called section five away have existed for 16 years. But they largely weren't enforced. The government continued to procure inaccessible software, despite the rules saying that they couldn't. And so people with disabilities got fed up and started filing lawsuits. And they're winning 98% of the lawsuits. And the 2% that are losing aren't losing because they have bad cases, they're largely losing because they don't have great lawyers. So there were 2300 lawsuits filed in 2019, and also in 2018. So this is a problem. That's not going to go away until people start getting the message that if the rules apply to them, either through state law or federal law, that they have to make their websites accessible,


Betsy Furler  19:55  

right, and it's it really excludes a large Number of the population when companies don't have an accessible website, so I think many companies I, I, I also have a software that helps employers support their employees with ADHD, dyslexia, learning differences and autism, really lots of other disabilities as well or conditions as well. But that's kind of the focus of it. And so many companies so many business people have said to me, Oh, we don't have any, any, any employees with disabilities, or like, we don't have any customers with disabilities or Well, I was about to say some things. Some companies will try to say we don't have any customers with disabilities, it's like, yes.


Sheri Byrne-Haber  20:43  

Well, or no, you don't, it's a catch 22


Betsy Furler  20:46  

or maybe you don't because they can't get into your get onto your website and use it. 


Sheri Byrne-Haber  20:50  

Exactly. And, and you know, you you think about going like, let's say I'm a Product Owner, and I go to the the general manager of the company. And I say, hey, I've got this great idea, but we're going to block 18% of our customers for being able to use it. Yeah. But imagine actually trying to present that to a decision maker the night that you were out of your mind. But that's exactly what happens when people with disabilities can't access software. Anything that goes out to in today's day and age, that's not digitally accessible. That's not following the guidelines in what CAG 2.1 level double A is automatically blocking 18% of their potential audience.


Betsy Furler  21:33  

Right. And I would, I would say that's a minimal minimum, because then there are people out there who


aren't aren't counted in the numbers precisely. 


Sheri Byrne-Haber  21:44  

That's a census number, the actual rate much higher. If


Betsy Furler  21:48  

I say disability,Oh, go ahead. 


Sheri Byrne-Haber  21:51  

I was just gonna say the estimate globally ranges between 15 and 20%. Depending on you know, the country that you're in haha Developed Countries typically have higher rates of disability, because of better health care, you know, they're right there saving people, but the people who are saved in the healthcare system potentially have disabilities going forward.


Betsy Furler  22:14  

Right? And disability is the only minority group that we're all going to be a member of, if we


Sheri Byrne-Haber  22:19  

exactly I tell people in my introduction to accessibility class, there are two groups of people, people who are disabled and people who are going to be disabled. Right,


Betsy Furler  22:29  

right. And especially when you look into I'm very into cognitive disabilities and cognitive accessibility as well. And that incorporates really everyone at one time in their life or the other has brain fog or has had an illness that decreases their cognitive ability or their cognitive acuity at the moment. And it's so important with our world being so digital now. That that people are able to access the information and I mean, that's our whole life is digital now.


Sheri Byrne-Haber  23:07  

So there's an update coming to WC ag that specifically for cognitive disabilities. It's called the Kocha task force or Kocha. TF is sometimes how it's abbreviated. And I'm hoping that the coca updates will be coming with the next update in WC AG, which is 2.2, which is coming in November. I'm keeping my fingers crossed. I haven't heard anything official yet. So two point 10 progress. hoga is in progress. Hopefully they'll converge. That would be great. Yeah.


Betsy Furler  23:39  

Um, well, if members of my audience would like to connect with you or get more information from you, how can they find you?


Sheri Byrne-Haber  23:47  

So I have a pretty extensive medium blog, I blog on accessibility and disability related issues. I try to do it twice a week. And so you just need to know how to spell my last name which is b y r and E hyphen h a b like boy er I'm the only burn haters on the planet are either me or my children are hard to figure out which one is me and you can I have is my fully accessible blog where I transfer all of my medium articles over to medium is kind of sort of accessible. is completely accessible.


Betsy Furler  24:29  

Awesome and any spell Sherry with an eye correct. Aaron and I


Sheri Byrne-Haber  24:34  

the the most obscure of the 14 Spelling's my parents could have possibly


Betsy Furler  24:42  

well, awesome. Well, I am so glad that we connected and that you agree to be on the podcast today. This is fantastic. And thanks so much. And I'm sure my audience will be connecting with you.


Sheri Byrne-Haber  24:57  

That sounds great. Feel free to Reach out. I always love to talk to people who are as excited about this field as I am. Or Kristen and joining the field. I've written several articles for people about how to get into accessibility.


Betsy Furler  25:12  

Oh, that is fantastic. Yeah, I might. I'm going to try to link one of those in the show notes.


Sheri Byrne-Haber  25:18  

I'll send you a link. Perfect.


Betsy Furler  25:21  

Awesome. Well, thank you so much. Thanks for having me here. 


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