Salesforce: Creating opportunities for people with disabilities is crucial for business success

Salesforce's head of Accessibility Programs explains why accessibility is critical for business success and talks about what Salesforce is doing to create opportunities for people with disabilities.
Written by Bill Detwiler, Contributor

Businesses and organizations that don't make their websites, applications, communication channels, physical locations, and online working environments accessible, risk alienating large populations of customers and potential employees.

According to the CDC's U.S. disability figures, 5.9% of Americans (about 19.5 million people) are "deaf or have serious difficulty hearing" and 4.6% of Americans (about 15.2 million people) have a "vision disability with blindness or serious difficulty seeing even when wearing glasses."

Companies have made progress making their offerings more accessible to the 61 million Americans and estimated 1 billion people around the world with disabilities. 

In 2019, Amazon rolled out a Show and Tell feature for the Echo Show, which helps blind and visually imparied people identify household items using the smart speaker's camera. Earlier this year, Google announced Action Blocks, TalkBack braille keyboard for Android, and other accessibility tools. Samsung announced new accessibility features for its devices -- called Quick Reader, Scene Describer, and Color Detector. IBM launched the Equal Access Toolkit and Checker to help app developers ensure their software is accessible. Adobe launched macOS Voice Control for Adobe XD. UBank, an Australian online bank, released an open source accessibility kit to help iOS developers audit the accessibility of their code. This past September, Zoom, working with organizations like A11y Project, added new features to make video meetings conducted on its platform more accessible.  The list goes on and on.

However, there is still more work to do. According to an April report from Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF) 4 out of 5 stat unemployment websites failed mobile and accessibility tests. And as the COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated the digital transformation of business and work, it's crucial for companies to consider accessibility when designing products or workspaces. Leadership is key to that effort.

Earlier this year, I had a chance to talk with Catherine Nichols, Senior Director of Accessibility Programs at Salesforce, to talk about what her company is doing around accessibility, and why she thinks it's important for companies to have a single person spearheading their accessibility efforts. The following is transcript of our interview, edited for readability.

Creating an inclusive, accessible environment is a marathon not a sprint


Catherine Nichols is senior director of Accessibility Programs and leads the Office of Accessibility at Salesforce

Image: Salesforce

Bill Detwiler: There are a lot of ways technology has improved access for people with disabilities, but there's still a long way to go and there's a lot more that software developers and technology vendors can make their systems more accessible to people, whether they have visual impairments or auditory impairments or a motion impairment of some kind. What are some of the ways that you see companies are actually doing better than they were in the past, and what are some areas where they still have work to do?

Catherine Nichols: Yeah. First I'd say that it's a marathon, not a sprint, maybe even an ultra marathon. There's always the first step that we can take. And Salesforce is on this journey of accessibility for all. And from our perspective, we started about 10 years ago with a key focus on product accessibility. And then over the past couple of years, that's moved into our events, making sure events like Dreamforce, TrailheaDX are accessible. And then also our real estate portfolio. And excitingly, last year we started the Office of Accessibility, really doubling down on all of these efforts. And this is a cool story because it was a grassroots effort by Ability Force, which is our employee resource group or a quality group at Salesforce for people with disabilities and their allies. I'm actually the vice president of Ability Force at Salesforce as well. So they brought up the initiative that we should really have an Office of Accessibility to increase the accountability and transparency of all of our accessibility across Salesforce. And this was supported by our key leadership across Salesforce as well.

Bill Detwiler: And I think you were telling me before the interview that, like you said, it led to the creation of a new position there at Salesforce. Someone that could have a leadership role or responsibility, could be a primary point of contact within the organization to push these initiatives forward, right?

Catherine Nichols: Right. Yep. I'm leading up the Office of Accessibility and have some key members who are reporting into that group as well, focusing on compliance, on workforce development internally to Salesforce as well as external workforce development in our Salesforce ecosystem. And then our partnerships and communications as well. So one partnership that we have is with Disability:IN, where we received a 100 on the disability equality index, showing us as a best place to work for people with disabilities. Knowing that we still have a long way to go and areas to improve on, but it's a great start.

Having a leader who's accountable for accessibility efforts is key

Bill Detwiler: How important is it to have someone in that role? To have a single person who can help lead those efforts as opposed to it being spread out among different departments, whether it's the CEO's office, whether it's HR. Because there are a lot of stakeholders that have to be involved and have to be on board throughout the company. But is it important or almost just necessary to have one person to spearhead these efforts?

Catherine Nichols: I think it's really important to have one person spearheading the efforts, and up at the highest levels of a company. Bringing it to the executives and to the board level and really getting an overview of all the accessibility initiatives that are going on at Salesforce and creating one vision for what our company wants to be when it comes to disability, inclusion, and accessibility. We believe that we can be one of the most accessible companies in the world and that we can be a number one employer for people with disabilities, but that's going to take a cohesive effort. And you need a leader to bring all of those pieces together.

Bill Detwiler: You talked about a lot of these initiatives being driven from the ground up, from feedback that you received from your employees, from, I'm assuming, trailblazers, from the people who use your products. How did that process work, of getting that feedback and then doing something meaningful with it?

Catherine Nichols: Yeah. We have communities. We have a Trailhead Trailblazer community of disability topics where people come and share information on what they want to see from our products, ideas around our products for accessibility. So that's getting information from our partners, from our customers and bringing that to our product development teams to make sure they're seeing that information as well and designing with inclusive design in mind. Making sure our products are usable for everyone. And then yeah, we have employees too, who want to make sure that our events and our workplaces and now our virtual workplace environment is accessible so that they can do the best work of their lives and their careers. And now I'm kind of lost.


Doing the bare minimum for compliance isn't enough

Bill Detwiler: Well, how important is, I guess, the balance between regulation when it comes to ensuring that people have access to work in the workplace versus, I guess, what's happening at a grassroots effort or just is being done voluntarily by organizations? Is there a balance there? Is there a... There are certain things that companies are required to do here in the States, whether it's through the ADA [American's with Disabilities Act], but that only goes so far. So where does, I guess, compliance and the regulatory framework help but then stop? And then what should companies be doing above and beyond that?

Catherine Nichols: Yeah. Compliance is very important and we do have, like you mentioned, the ADA, and it's coming up on its 30th anniversary in a few weeks. And it's a very important piece of legislation for sure, but there's a lot more that we can be doing beyond just the compliance and regulatory initiatives. And that can be for online experiences or in-person experiences too. So really making sure that our events like TrailheaDX virtual can be accessible via captioning, that screen readers and assistive technology can be utilized to engage in these events and in these online and virtual experiences. So yes, there's a compliance level that we have to meet but we want to go above and beyond that compliance level to really meet the needs of all of our employees and our customers.

Accessibility is critical for business success

Bill Detwiler: And in your experience in your role at Salesforce, is there a... Clearly a skeptic would say, "Well, we're only going to do what we have to do. We're not going to try to engage." And clearly that's not the position that Salesforce has taken and that we would hope most companies wouldn't in terms of wanting to engage a wide as possible audience that they could. So can you talk about some of the benefits that you've seen at Salesforce as a result of these initiatives?

Catherine Nichols: Yeah. It's just good business to include more people as your customers. There's one in four adults who have a disability. And if you're leaving out that entire population, you're leaving on an entire talent pool, market, customers, partners, just a great resource group to include in all areas of your business. And with a disability, we can all come into having a disability, whether permanent or temporary, at any point in our lives. So it just makes sense to design and include for all for your business.


Blind Institute of Technology

Bill Detwiler: I know you mentioned a few of them already, but there are some specific initiatives that Salesforce is working on right now. One of the ones you and I had talked about before the interview was the Admin partnership with the Blind Institute of Technology. Can you tell me about that and what you're doing there?

Catherine Nichols: Yeah. I love this partnership. So like you mentioned, we've partnered with the Blind Institute of Technology in Colorado, who are providing Admin Certification for their blind professionals and students. And the way that we're supporting this is providing on the job training after their certification has been completed, to provide real-world experience and to increase the success of employment for these blind professionals in their lives. And a cool thing that they're using is Trailhead, which is available anywhere and virtually, to provide this training and this certification program. And the Trailhead platform is accessible for screen readers, which are utilized by those who are blind or low vision. And we know that there's some areas that we need to improve upon in Trailhead for additional accessibility, but the feedback we've received from our partners thus far is that it's quite a successful program for our blind students.

Bill Detwiler: Was it something that was difficult to implement within the product? Was it hard to include this functionality within the Trailhead platform, or it wasn't that difficult. I'm thinking about companies who are looking to make their platforms accessible for screen readers or for other mechanisms to help people use the system that have any type of impairment. So what was the process that you went through to make sure that Trailhead could allow that kind of accessibility and to make it accessible to people?

Catherine Nichols: Yeah. The first thing I would say is, the best way to go about it is thinking of inclusive design from the get-go. Understanding that that's not always possible and that maybe companies are going now back and looking at how they can re-engineer their products, re-engineer their systems to be more accessible. And so we do have some offerings, once again, on Trailhead for developers and our partners to learn more about accessibility. And we have two trails. One is the learning the basics of accessibility of web design, and then the basics of accessibility in general. So you can take those trails on Trailhead and learn more about the design process and thinking of inclusive design and accessibility from the beginning, or going back and re-engineering your products to be accessible.


Salesforce Trailhead: Becoming an Accessibility Champion

Bill Detwiler: How critical is that to what your role is? To ensure that as products are built in the early stages, developers, admins, product managers, they're not making decisions that prevent the products from being accessible to people with disabilities.

Catherine Nichols: Yeah. I think it's really getting in front of these product owners and letting them know what the importance is of product accessibility and what they can get out of including all people and people with disabilities, too, on utilizing their products. So it's getting in front of these product owners, sharing what the best practices are and why they should be interested in developing their product with inclusion in mind which is, yes, a key part of my role and the role of the Office of Accessibility.

Build a business case for accessibility

Bill Detwiler: For other companies that want to create a similar role to yours, who want to do more of this, what would be the one piece of advice that you would give them?

Catherine Nichols: There are a lot of resources out there, and we've shared some publicly on our websites as well on the value of creating an Office of Accessibility for a business. The business case. And there's a strong business case out there. And I think that you can share that business case with your executives on what it does for their business to be inclusive of people with disabilities. From a good thing to do, an ethical thing to do, but then a best business case for that, too.


The Monday Morning Opener is our opening salvo for the week in tech. Since we run a global site, this editorial publishes on Monday at 8:00am AEST in Sydney, Australia, which is 6:00pm Eastern Time on Sunday in the US. It is written by a member of ZDNet's global editorial board, which is comprised of our lead editors across Asia, Australia, Europe, and North America.


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