S02E17: Molly Watt, tech accessibility evangelist

We are kicking off a new series of DE&I interviews. Our aim with these series is to chat with inspirational guests who can encourage us all to look at the industries we work in (media, comms and tech) from different perspectives.

Our first guest is Molly Watt, a passionate usability and accessibility consultant and motivational speaker, with a powerful personal story. Molly, who has Usher Syndrome, was born deaf and began to lose her sight at age 12. She credits technology with being the thing that transformed her experience of the world and enabled her to live a full and rich life. Molly specializes in assistive technology and design for those with sensory impairment and is the founder of the Molly Watt Trust, which raises awareness of Usher Syndrome. She is also an ambassador for Sense, the charity for people with complex disabilities, including deafblind people. Molly is considered one of the 100 most influential disabled people in the UK.

You should listen to Molly if you want to learn about accessibility in tech – what is it, why it matters and what you need to know about it. During the interview hosted by Tyto’s Senior Partner, Zoë Clark, she explains why accessibility must never be considered an add-on and highlights the importance of having an open mind, never assuming and of asking the right questions.

You can watch the recording on our YouTube channel here.


Zoe: [00:00:00] Hello everyone and welcome to the Tyto Without Borders podcast. If you’re listening to this you’re probably already familiar with our unicorn leader series where we interview leaders from unicorn companies and find out all about the issues and pain points that some of our startups face on their journey and how some of those challenges can be addressed through strategic marketing and communications. If that’s not the case and if you’re not familiar with the unicorn leader series, then I strongly recommend you have a listen it’s definitely there’s a lot to learn in there. But on to today’s show so I’m Zoe Clark, I’m one of the senior partners at Tyto and I have the pleasure today of actually kicking off the new series. And we’re going to be looking at a range of inspirational people from around the globe in this series. We’re going to really be focusing on the aim of simply giving us all something to think about. We’re going to be chatting to inspirational people who I think it’s fair to say will encourage us to look at the different industries that we touch on: media, communications, tech, etc, and from a very, very different perspective. People can listen to our shows on whatever their preferred podcast app is, and you can also watch the recording of this particular show on Tyto’s YouTube channel as well. And I should just mention that we’re going to be subtitling today’s session and publishing it along with a full transcript. So, with the housekeeping out of the way I am delighted to be able to introduce our first guest in the first series: Molly Watt. Molly, welcome, and thank you so much for joining us.

Molly: [00:01:38] Hello, thank you for having me.

Zoe: [00:01:41] Brilliant, so I think, given what I said about this series of being around inspirational people and really giving you something to think about and looking at our sector from very different perspective.And I can’t really think of a better person to kick off the series with really. Molly let’s just to give you, your proper introductions. Molly is a usability and accessibility consultant and a motivational speaker who, I think, is going to teach us so much about accessibility in tech and why it’s so important. Molly you’ll tell me a little bit more about this, I know, as we go, but you have Usher syndrome, where you specialize in assistive technology for design and design for those with sensory impairment. So you are also the founder of the Molly Watt Trust which raises awareness about Usher syndrome, and you are also an ambassador for Sense, the charity for people with complex disabilities, including deaf blind people. Have I got that all right? And maybe I think the best place to start would be with you giving us a little bit more background and telling us a little bit more about yourself and how you come to be so involved in this area and then of course we want to get into the whole topic of accessibility in tech and why it’s so important from your perspective.

Molly: [00:02:54] Oh, and yeah so it. It always makes sense for me to start from the very beginning, because that’s really where it all started and so as Zoe just mentioned, I have a condition called Usher syndrome. And, and what that entailed, is, I was born deaf and I was given my first pair of hearing aids at 18 months old. This is all those, and this was all that I had at this point deafness and you know you want to know what was down the road at this point, but my parents were devastated. It was our first baby girl after having two boys and to discover she was deaf, they were heartbroken. But went down the road of hearing aid technology, speech therapy and so by the age of six, I was able to communicate orally. Now that’s all down to choice and and and support really within the local authorities and stuff, so I do, I do think in in hindsight, I was pretty lucky and to receive the support that I did. So that was my first introduction to assistive tech , I was 18 months old I had my first pair of analog hearing aids, because that was what was available. Now I hated these. Mom and dad will tell me lots of stories about how I would hide them here, there and everywhere except for my ears. You know, behind the sofa or in the toilet because as you can imagine any 18 month old is it’s it’s alien stuff in your ears. You know, you just you just don’t want that. But I soon discovered having two older brothers and going to a mainstream school and eventually I realized that I needed these in order to communicate with my family and friends, and so I did come around to that. And I think I got to about sort of eight or nine years old, where I actually realized I could not be without my hearing aids and that was when the hearing aid technology started to get better and because at nine years old I received my first pair of digital hearing aids and because that was again what what became available. And I was actually the first child in Berkshire in south southeast England and southwest even. No, it’s southeast, ha. To receive the first pair of digital hearing aids at nine years old.

Zoe: [00:05:11] Molly, you don’t mind me asking just briefly stepping in. Roughly without putting too fine a point on it, what kind of year are we talking like?

Molly: [00:05:18] So, and so I, so I was… At 18 months old, it was 96 and so that’s when we first got my first pair of analog hearing aids because that’s what was available and then, when I was at when I was eight or nine. See the maths.

Zoe: [00:05:37] On fiveish, yeah?

Molly: [00:05:39] Yeah, yeah, so that was when yes digital hearing aids came about, and it was a big thing and, obviously, it was a groundbreaking new technology that was better quality of sounds and and I remember this day, really, really well because it’s the first time I had birds singing and leaves crunching and I remember my brother just looking at me really weird because I was so fascinated by stomping my feet around in the leaves and he was like “What are you doing?” Oh I was just mind blown because these leaves are crunching and I could hear these things, and so fast forward a few years and I get to the age of 12. The delightful hormonal years. And I basically started to struggle to lip read and as a as a deaf person for anyone who is deaf we rely solely on our eyes, whether it be lip patterns or BSL or ASL or whatever. And we are all so so visually orientated .So for me to start to struggle to lip read and see things in the board, I quickly felt quite isolated and I was exhausted and I got lots of headaches and it was actually my teacher of the deatf at the time and said “Molly, you might need reading glasses”. And this might be because it’s not unusual for for deaf people to get so tired because it’s so visually taxing.This will just relieve the the strain on the eyes and stop the headaches. Now, two of my friends at the time at school, but both wore glasses and, if anything, I couldn’t wait to wear glasses, to be like them. Oh, the irony. So I went to I went for a regular eye check. Yeah, the local optician where I live. And I was actually very fortunate, because the optician had actually been reading up on this condition and he has said to my parents “Do you know why Emily is deaf?” And they said “No, we were just told it was technical blip we don’t have any family history, it is what it is.” And he said, “I think, looking at the background eye, I think there’s something not quite right, and I think it might be linked to a deafness.” So of course alarm bells rang appointment after appointment and received the diagnosis of Usher syndrome. Now the eye condition of Usher syndrome is called retinitis pigmentosa, which is actually the most common cause of progressive blindness. And so that was sort of the first time at the age of 12 where I started hearing and seeing the word blind, so I just thought I have an eye condition, I wear glasses, I’m a bit clumsier than normal. I didn’t really didn’t think much more of that. They they had said to my parents, they said to my parents at this point “Molly shouldn’t experience too much of a deterioration and have vision until she’s in her late 20s early 30s.” Now, this was back in 2006 when I was diagnosed and I went from being partially sighted at the age of 12 to severely sight impaired, which is politically correct for blind at the age of 14. So that was a bit of a shock. Lots of things change very quickly, and of course the main question was how was I going to access the world around me and, of course in this day and age, thankfully we’ve got technology that has been able to sort of step in and help me, you know it got me through my education. School was not easy, by any stretch. But I got my GCSE, I’ve got my levels, I did get into university and that’s all with the help of technology, a lot of it being mainstream tools. And we’ve built in accessibility, and so I don’t know how much everyone knows about the built in. Mainstream accessibility features are available on all handheld devices and so like I either I mean Apple are pretty you know, they’re known for being really good for accessibility, and so I have like the whole Apple ecosystem. So back to your first question, so this is good, I fell into it, you know it kind of became my entire life because had I not been born in this day and age, where we have the tools and I would have really struggled with it. And I talk a lot about, in my keynote presentations I talk a lot about Helen Keller, and I hope, a lot of you have heard of Helen Keller. And the the main differences. There are two big differences between me and Helen Keller. She was deaf blind for different reasons, we don’t actually know why she was deaf blind. And she was born in the 18th century. Now so she had no access if she didn’t have any access and there’s pictures and she has a book and stuff which I would recommend you read in. But the way she used to communicate she always had a guide with her and and she used to literally touch people’s lips and voice boxes and to to hear what people were saying. Now in the day and age of covid I don’t see many people being very accommodating when it comes to people touching your face so actually I’d have been even more isolated this past year and I’ve never been so grateful for for the tech that I’ve got available today.And to be able to work and and so so with that said, I set up my own company, you mentioned the charity. We set up the charity back in 2009. 2011…2009… I always get those confused, but the Molly Watt Trust was setup to raise awareness of Usher syndrome. We’re not about the sympathy vote, we’re about what we can do with the right tools, so at the charity we fundraise for bits of text so Apple watches and Kindles. Things like that that can just help us be more independent and a part of society. We get people blogging or their experiences, they will on the website so if you google Molly Watt Trust and you’re interested in that go ahead. But I set u my company four years ago now, as a consultancy, to try and really help people design better experiences for for not just people like myself, but people in similar and also our aging community because everything is so centered around tech now and it’s just there’s never been a better time really to to really just get on board with it, and you know just be open minded and learn and go with the times and and and so… I’m sorry, I’ll let.

Zoe: [00:11:43] No, I mean what a story, you know? Even right there in the first few minutes it’s undoubtedly just incredible absolutely incredible for sure. I think there’s so many areas we could go into it with ideas swirling around in my head to ask you that, but I think if we just maybe we could just try and break this down a little bit, this whole area of accessibility in tech and try and gosh I mean just try and put ourselves in your world a little better. You can help us do that you know. Is there a way you can sort of break down a bit maybe some of the key and the sort of the main challenges you face or the main challenges you think the tech industry faces? Lke if you could maybe there’s I don’t know a top 3,4,5.

Molly: [00:12:23] Cool, so it sounds it might sound pretty basic, but a lot of it comes down to lack of awareness and when it comes to challenges so I am I just a deaf blind and without calling any of you ignorant, I’m sure a lot of you have gone “Oh, you don’t sound deaf or look blind” or whatever you know, and I, if I had a penny for every time I’d be insanely rich and I would not have to work. And that’s fine you know and it’s often because people just they’re not educated on it, and it is down to people like myself and others to raise awareness. So my main challenge in all industries really and I’ve worked across sort of the board with various companies trying to help them improve this but, when people think of accessibility, people do assume, and it will first people with disabilities and disabilities only that is a very small minority group. I have had, I have heard you know people say, well, people with disabilities aren’t going to use our website, or you know you know some like pathetic excuse like that. And because there are still people like this it’s a case of really break and going down to the bare basics and I’m really grinding down those stereotypes. For me personally, “Oh, you don’t sound deaf, you speak really well”, “Oh you don’t use sign language” and “Oh, but you’re looking straight at me, even though you’re registered blind”. So I have five degrees vision, so I have like a narrow you know,and it’s all like the the field of vision. And and I’ve got no peripheral vision. Now off the blind community at a very small percentage, around 8% of blind people that see nothing at all. And those that see nothing at all they’ll see light and whereas the rest of us we’ve got some vision, it might not be that useful but a lot of us actually want to utilize that vision we’ve got as much as we can. And thankfully, as I keep banging the drum about we’ve got the tools to do that the problem is there’s a lot of experiences out there that don’t work with the tools. So that’s why design is so essential for designers and and you know devops and everyone to fully understand. Those kind of gray areas are not kind of like pimp like treat it like a checklist when it comes to designing for accessibility, like, for instance, right I want my website to be accessible for all blind people, so therefore i’m going to make sure it’s fully compatible for screen readers who use. Well, actually not every blind person uses a screen reader. So you’re still not building a fully accessible experience for blind people. And you know you can’t just tick everyone off, you know it’s all about thinking about those gray areas so that’s really for my personal experience with the deaf and the blind categories, you know. There’s lots of stereotypical views on that, and many people disabilities face are in the in the other areas, we have motor impairments and cognitive and and one of the things that I find surprises people the most are The the level of crossovers between the disabilities as well. Because there’s a lot of things that I benefit from that actually those that are cognitively impaired benefit from. So things like high contrast and dark background with like text and the ability, like plain English things like that. Which actually plain English is great for someone whose English is their second language you know. So it’s actually not just about making it accessible for people with disabilities, it’s actually making it accessible for anyone and everyone and it’s about opening your mind to what accessibility actually means so that’s why I started talking more about inclusion.

Zoe: [00:16:02] So tell us a little bit more about that, then, because I think like like you said, I think, the one thing that’s becoming apparent is when you’re when a business is trying to approach this area and think about it if there’s just absolutely no one size fits all box here or even any sort of category, you can define it into because, of course, every individual and their situation disability is slightly different so.

Molly: [00:16:20] Only and I think you know, unfortunately, that being said, it just means it doesn’t make the job any easier, you know but it’s I think it’s the same with any role in today’s age like we should be willing to be open minded and move on and you know there’s lots of things you know coming out of the woodwork that people are like “Right, okay, we need to maybe rethink this”. Like “How we work this or whatever.” It can be, I don’t want to be offending anybody or blah blah blah. And you know things like terminology, they moved on so much so when I talk about inclusion and opposed to accessibility and I start. So in my surgery like workshops in and keynote speaking and things like that and I try and relate it to every single one in the room, and so, sometimes I might ask people to think about their parents or their grandparents. And because and you may already thought this already, but like you know we’re all getting older, and we are all going to require something. So I think about my parents they’re in their 50s they are both iPhone users, but they have their text size set larger on their phone than I have mine, and I think that just speaks volumes because I’m registered blind. The bigger vision I do, the five degrees vision I do have is actually really good. This prescription is very weak, whereas my parents who are in their late 50s they wear glasses, as a result of older, right? Like where they’ve just gotten older. That prescription is very strong, but when they go to bed to read their emails or whatever they don’t have their glasses on, they would just rather have their tech size larger and it you know that it just relieves that that strain. So when we talk inclusion we’re not just talking about this moral agrees we’re talking about: Who else could we actually help when designing accessible products? You know let’s help our parents as help our grandparents, you know. Especially during the last year with covid my granddad lives up in Liverpool, which is four hours drive from where I live. And we had actually a lot because small disclaimer I used to work at Apple just as a specialist on shop floor. About three four years ago, four years ago, before I started my company. I got my granddad an iPad and because my oldest brother had moved to Spain and to train to be a pilot. And he was always calling us up to ask about Jack and we would say “Look, if you had if you had an iPad you can actually Facetime him to not only could you talk to him, you could actually see him.” Oh noes. Classic technophobe. Anyway, we picked one up for Christmas and we took it out there and I set it up for him, and now I set this iPad exactly how I have mine setup. So color preferences, large text… I showed him how to use it. Very usable, as you all know, like the iPads the iPhones quite self explanatory. Obviously it takes him a while to get used to it. But now we find even today they’re more likely to get hold of him on his iPad on Facetime, then we are on his house phone. And because you know he he just learnt how to use it and he reads the news on their BBC News and BBC Sport so you know, so he uses it from all thing, and he also does his online food shop. His mobility is so much worse and it’s gone downhill quite a bit in the past year. And so, for his his ability to go to the local shop and get some milk or whatever. He’s not able to do that, but he can jump on you know Morrison’s online and order it. So he’s just your average you know 82 year old who’s now actually seen that technology can really help him and his independence, because of course there’s an element of pride, isn’t it? With older people, they want to be independent, they don’t really want to ask for help, not everyone, but you know given him that given him the tool to actually do it himself and has been i’ve been so so grateful that we had actually given him this iPad ahead of coronavirus happening because he knew how to use it, so he wasn’t as isolated, as he could have been.

Zoe: [00:20:21] And I think the pandemic, you know, through life and all those kinds of issues, hasn’t it? It’s really been been a driver in that area, which is fantastic. So thinking about what companies can do, then, on this issue, would you have any sort of top tips or any thoughts on what companies can do to make maybe one of their products more accessible, but also their workplaces and their environments?

Molly: [00:20:43] Yeah so I mean a lot of it, I would say it involved inviting someone like me in. Better training, better awareness. But then also kind of interactive workshops and stuff so you get people actually using their products with assistive technology so they get a first hand experience of what it’s like using their website using you know magnification or voiceover or something like that, so they get first hand experience. But that said, there are tools and resources as a an add on, a Google add on called Silktide, and S I L K T I D E and what that does is it you can apply like a like a filter with certain conditions and so like if you say what tunnel vision, like me, it applies like a layer with that template on it. So if you go on like BBC News or your local news station, or whatever online and then you can add this and then what’s really good about it is you can overlap, more than one so, for instance, if I’m dyslexic and I’ve also got tunnel vision, I can turn those two on. And what you’ll see is the letters jump around a little bit. The important thing about these tools to understand is that they’re not 100% realistic, and you know it doesn’t 100% you know like show everybody or not you’re not going to come away and go “Right, I know what it’s like to be blind now.” It nothing will ever like you know pinpoint that experience, but the idea being is for you to understand some of the challenges that can be hard when someone’s got a few things going on. But it is, though, that the Silktide is a is a really good place to start in terms of where, if someone is starting out and wanting to understand a bit more, some of the challenges. Empathy is one of those big things like actually getting people to have that hands on experience so that then they can think on be like right okay. So when it comes to choosing color palettes and things like that. Oh, maybe I should check check that webaim.org. That’s really good for checking color color palettes and things like that, when designing. But honestly it comes back to awareness, like a lot of it is getting people to think and and be open minded and ask the right questions. Like reach out to real life users, usability sessions… I would also also say it would be really, really good for company to consider like actually have real life users use a website. And you assess you know have that experience but don’t don’t just invite disabled users. Invite anyone and everyone, so you get a combination, so when we’re talking about inclusive, we want, we want your average users your average “Joe’s” quotation mark. And then invite some with cognitive impairments or vision impairments, and so it like a whole mix, because what you’ll find just by watching someone use your product or service or your clients whatever you learn you’re literally looking through someone else’s eyes, at this point. So obviously you may you may have designed something and think “Oh, tthis is really good” but it’s not until you watch someone else use it with with their tools and their own set up that it really opens your eyes, excuse upon. But yeah so those are a few tips. So I would say resources, so Silktide, webaim.org. And there’s a few sort of if you go on WCAG guidelines and 2.0 2.1. There’s a new guidelines come out, I think. And then also encourage them to look into awareness training and usability labs and things like that, like get real life users involved. I would always encourage that like early on in the process, and all the way through as well. And just don’t don’t consider accessibility, as an add on. Because honestly it just costs more money to go back and fix things. And have it in your mind every step of the way and and it’s the same with recruitment and things like that. Have an open mind, you know. Ask the right questions, don’t ever assume. That would be my main thing. It’s just asking questions I’m always more I’m more than happy to answer questions. I would much rather that than someone assume my needs, and you know I’m pretty sure most of the people are the same with that.

Zoe: [00:25:14] Wonderful. Molly, thank you so much! I think you’ve summed it up nicely there, I think.

Molly: [00:25:19] No problem.

Zoe: [00:25:20] It all together, I think those resources that you mentioned and certainly we’d love you to share those with us, and so we get them down correctly and we’ll obviously add them to the recording from what have you from from today, but thank you so much for just giving us a bit of an insight into all of that. I think you’ve absolutely undoubtedly raised all of our awarenesses on the kind of considerations, there are around all of this. And it’s I think it’s going to have sparked a number of thoughts and questions in all our listeners minds for sure, so thank you. I think that’s probably all we have got time for for the first episode of this new series today and, but you can definitely find out more about Molly and about all the work that you do, am I right? On your website mollywatt.com and of course I know you’re around and about on all the usual social media channels.

Molly: [00:26:05] Twitter, yeah. I have a Twitter @mollywatttalks. T A L K S.  Molly and a Watt with no s. M O L L Y.  Watt. W A T T.  Talks. T A L K S. But yeah please, by all means reach out if if there were any follow up questions after today. But yes, thank you so much for having me today, and thank you for taking the time to listen.

Zoe: [00:26:32] Yeah, not at all. Thank you so much. So thanks to everyone for listening as well, please, we always you know really welcome any any listeners comments and thoughts off the back of these sessions, and also, we are still looking for nominations for other upcoming speakers in this series, so please do drop us a line on all those usual channels with all those thoughts and ideas. Thank you very much!

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