From left to right, Jennison Asuncion, Engineering Manager, Accessibility, LinkedIn; Megan Lawrence, Accessibility Technical Evangelist, Microsoft; Mark Lapole, Lead Product Manager, Accessibility, eBay; Sarah Herrlinger, Director, Accessibility Policy and Initiatives, Apple; and Jeffrey Wieland, Director of Accessibility, Facebook.

The 2018 AFB Leadership Conference kicked off this week in Oakland, CA with a technology panel, moderated by Jennison Asuncion, Engineering Manager, Accessibility, LinkedIn. The panel consisted of Megan Lawrence, Accessibility Technical Evangelist for Microsoft; Mark Lapole, Lead Product Manager, Accessibility at eBay; Sarah Herrlinger, Director, Accessibility Policy and Initiatives at Apple; and Jeffrey Wieland, Director of Accessibility at Facebook. Here are some shared insights on how these companies operationalize accessibility, engage with assistive technology users, and improve opportunities for persons with visual impairments.

Sarah Herrlinger from Apple said, "We're always trying to ensure that those who use braille as their primary access method have the best possible experience." She went on to explain Apple's Everyone Can Code program which uses a series of game-based, structured puzzles to teach code. Recently, she and her team had the opportunity to go to the Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired (TSBVI) and introduce faculty and students to Swift Playgrounds. It's an iPad app for first-time coders that makes getting started fun and interactive. The students' eyes grew wide when Sarah's team unveiled the drones and then told the kids they were about to fly the drones.

To answer many a disbeliever, Sarah told them, "Oh no, blind people CAN fly drones."

The students spent time learning code to build a program that would control the drones. Sarah described one students's delight at feeling the drone leave his hands and take off. With regard to creating an inclusive environment, Sarah said "We want to make sure that no child in the classroom has to hear, 'Sorry, that experience isn’t accessible to you.'"

Sarah concluded with explaining how Apple has been trying to up-level the conversation about accessibility and bring it into the mainstream. For example, "The inclusive emojis we proposed are not just an Apple thing; they would be a standard part of the emojis available across platforms, so we hope that’s accepted" by the Unicode Consortium—the non-profit that reviews requests for new emojis.

If you have accessibilty questions or comments for Apple, there are a couple of different routes to use. Accessibility@apple.com has a whole team that is staffed specifically to answer questions and fast-track bug reports. Sarah encourages people to contact companies with their questions, ideas, and concerns by saying, "Even one comment from one user can create a whole new feature."

Microsoft's Megan Lawrence was also part of the panel to offer suggestions and insight from her company. Her mention of SeeingAI got an excited "whoo-hoo" from the audience. SeeingAI is a free app designed for the low vision community, that harnesses the power of Artifical Intelligence (AI) to describe people, text, and objects. She said, "You have the ability to recognize faces and get feedback like '40-year old woman smiling.'"

"And by the way," she quipped, "do smile, it makes you look younger" (according to SeeingAI!).

Megan also spoke of Microsoft Translator which provides teachers with the ability to generate subtitles and transcripts easily. She explained that Microsoft is focused on making sure students have the power to access tools in the classroom, when and how they need them. Megan and her team are also working with the University of Illinois (U of I) engineering school—building on the University's already excellent services for students with disabilities—to make sure that the entire curriculum is fully accessible to students with disabilities. An additional goal of program is that every student coming out of the U of I will have some exposure to accessibility principles.

"We know that for people to be ready for the university programs, we have to teach them in high school," Megan said. Ninja Camp, Microsoft's pilot program for 9th and 10th graders who are blind or visually impaired, will offer an immersive, weeklong adventure to give kids experience with accessible programming.

What’s the best way for people to communicate user feedback to Megan and Microsoft? Their Disability Answer Desk is where customers with disabilities can get support with Microsoft Office and Windows, including product issues, accessibility questions and use of assistive technology. Organizations can get help with accessibility questions, issues with Assistive Technology, or product conformance questions related to Section 508, WCAG 2.0, or EN 301 549 regulations through Microsoft's Enterprise Answer Desk. Microsoft also offers the Accessibility User Research Collective, a group for people with disabilities who want to be involved in the iterative design process and get paid for their time and efforts.

Mark Lapole from eBay also spoke at the tech session. He said they chose to make their accessibility guidance documentation open source and share it with the community. "It's something we take very seriously," he said. "Let's help each other out, share our processes, and learn more each other. Ultimately, it benefits all end users."

eBay has also ramped up its usability testing. His team is launching a beta program that allows people to have an early pass at a product before the official release to provide usability and accessibility feedback. He also stated, "We include language about accessibility whenever we hire engineers or designers."

Mark and his team can be reached at accessibilty@eBay.com.

Jeffrey Wieland from Facebook says companies should understand that "if we are going to build a really global product, it’s important that we reflect the diversity that exists in the world." Regarding employment, Jeffrey said, "One side of the equation is how do you find candidates for the roles? The other side is how do you prepare people with disabilities to succeed in the role?"

Facebook has an accommodations program, and an Employee Resource Group (ERG) for people who work at Facebook and self-identify as having a disability. The ERGs are voluntary, employee-led groups that foster a diverse, inclusive workplace aligned with organizational mission, values, goals, business practices, and objectives.

"We’ve all faced the challenge of preparing our colleagues to better understand accessibility principles in order for it to manifest across entire product space," Jeffrey remarked. "But most people have had very little exposure, and some [job candidates] can barely offer a basic definition of what accessibility means."

Jeffrey asked, "How can we better prepare students to learn about accessibility during their degree programs?" Along those lines, Facebook has started working with some of the larger accreditation programs that determine what gets taught as part of the core curriculum across the US.

"We’re also launching a new professor grant program for teachers who want to incorporate accessibility into their coursework, and need some support." The program is starting with 20 individual grants for professors; the grant process is taking place this spring, to get them resources in time for the fall semester.

To find out more, visit Facebook.com/help/accessibility. There you'll find FAQs as well as a contact form.

Our sincere thanks to all panelists and participants whose energy powered this informative and insightful first session, "How Leading Tech Companies Are Raising the Bar for Blind and Visually Impaired Users" at the 2018 AFB Leadership Conference (AFBLC2018). If you're at the conference, use the AFBLC18 agenda to make the most of your time at the conference.