Braille Monitor                          October 2018

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Networking that Empowers Innovation: Accessibility for the Blind through Facebook

by Monica Desai

Monica DesaiFrom the Editor: President Riccobono introduced this presentation with these words: "This next speaker represents an organization that has also never appeared on this stage: Facebook. [cheers] Yeah, thumbs up to that. Facebook has become more than just a platform for connecting people. It also provides information of various sorts, businesses use it for innovative approaches, people now stream everything from television to Federation conventions on Facebook. And as blind people we have a deep interest in working to make sure that when new features come out on the Facebook platform that they're accessible. They've never appeared here before, and we hope that by being here today it's the beginning of a long relationship to make accessibility a priority and to bake it in to everything that Facebook does. Here with us today we're happy to have the director of public policy from Facebook, Monica Desai."

Thank you so much, President Riccobono, and to the National Federation of the Blind for inviting me here to speak today. I really appreciate the opportunity to speak with you about accessibility on Facebook, particularly with respect to people who are blind or have low vision.

My name is Monica Desai, and as President Riccobono mentioned, I'm director of global public policy at Facebook, where I focus on issues involving online communication services—our video products and accessibility in particular. Prior to joining Facebook I spent over a decade in senior positions at the Federal Communications Commission, including service as the chief of the Consumer and Governmental Affairs Bureau which develops all policies and rules in connection with accessibility issues, and as chief of the FCC's Media Bureau which has oversight over broadcasters and cable companies and which oversees captioning policies. I was previously a partner at the law firm of Squire Patton Boggs, where my practice included counseling clients on accessibility issues.

Though I became acquainted with the National Federation of the Blind while I was at the FCC, I learned to really appreciate the National Federation of the Blind when I began counseling clients on accessibility issues. In particular, we did work with the National Federation of the Blind when we did a consultation on a new product for a manufacturing client who came from China, who sent engineers from China to work with the NFB and others who worked with a prototype product. It was amazing to see the impact of the input that was given by this organization in terms of the comments and how they were reflected in the product. We really appreciated that.
Today I want to speak with you about Facebook and about our accessibility ethos, how we're using artificial intelligence and machine learning to make the platform more accessible, about our navigation assistant tool, our Teach Access Partnership to promote teaching accessibility and best practices in higher education design and computer science programs, and some of our initiatives to promote an inclusive workforce.

With respect to our ethos, our mission is to bring the world closer together, and that means everyone. Accessibility is a core part of that mission. Consider, for example, that on Facebook one in ten people use the zoom feature on the desktop browser, 20 percent of people increase the font size on iOS, and over 100,000 use screen readers on mobile devices to view Facebook. We want to make it possible for anyone, regardless of ability, to access the information and connections that happen on Facebook. One of the key ways we are promoting accessibility on the platform is by leveraging artificial intelligence and machine learning services to power accessibility technology for people who are blind or have low vision. In 2016 we launched automatic alt text or AAT [cheers], a feature that uses object recognition to describe photos to people who use screen readers. Thank you for the cheers; people worked really hard on that, so thank you. [cheers, applause]

In December of 2017 we launched a face recognition tool that can tell people using screen readers who appears in their photos in their newsfeed, even if they aren't tagged. Every day people share over one billion photos on Facebook, and through research we have done with the vision loss community, we knew that users of screen readers engage with photo content and that they desired more context for a photo's content. But the traditional mechanism for describing photographs to people with vision loss was the use of alt text, which typically requires that the content creator supply a secondary description on a per-photo basis. This is both time consuming as well as an uncommon user activity. To address this challenge we built the AAT and face recognition accessibility tools. Our goal was to greatly improve the experience that people with vision loss have with this commonly shared media. AAT can currently detect more than 100 concepts, such as the number of people in a photo; whether people are smiling; physical objects like a car, a tree, a mountain, and other objects; and today about 75 percent of photos on Facebook now have at least one image identified by AAT.

We're honored that AAT was awarded the Federal Communications Commission Chairman's Award for Advancement in Accessibility in 2017 and the American Foundation for the Blind's Achievement Award for 2018. [applause] Using this technology people who use screen readers will know who appears in their photos and their newsfeed. As Facebook continues to improve its object and face recognition services AAT and face recognition will continue to provide more descriptive narratives for visual content.

I also want to call out how important feedback from our users was in developing AAT. When building AAT, we ran multiple rounds of user research to refine the experience. This included one-on-one interviews with users of screen readers to test out early prototypes and a two-week experiment on Facebook with follow-up surveys to users asking for feedback and sentiment. We learned from survey results that people want to understand more about what people are doing in photos, so we updated AAT to understand more about people's action in photos. It's our hope that this deployed product experience demonstrates the importance of AI for enabling better access to content across the web for persons with disabilities.

We strongly believe that AI is the future of improving additional interaction experiences at scale, whether they are visual in nature or otherwise. As AI systems get better at understanding images—video, audio, and other media—Facebook believes that more novel and robust innovations in accessibility will follow.

I also want to spend a minute touching on Navigation Assistant. In October of last year we introduced Navigation Assistant, a feature designed to improve navigation for people who use a screen reader or keyboard shortcuts on Facebook or on desktop web. When activated, the Navigation Assistant can be used to jump to different sections of the current page, jump to other pages, or jump to accessibility resources. For example, the sections of the page in Navigation Assistant list the landmark regions that are on the current page, and the screen reader user can move the keyboard focus between the sections in the menu by pressing Enter or Return. The Navigation Assistant can be activated from any page on Facebook. It's our hope that Navigation Assistant will make navigating Facebook on the desktop simpler and more predictable.

Next I want to touch on our participation in Teach Access. We want to also try to drive innovation in accessibility that extends beyond Facebook. That's why we are proud to be part of the Teach Access Initiative. Announced on the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act in July of 2015, Teach Access brings industry, academia, and advocacy together to create models for teaching and training students of technology to create accessible experiences. This initiative includes (among others) Facebook, Yahoo, Google, Microsoft, Stanford, MIT, and Georgia Tech. The challenge we identified is that accessibility is not often taught in computer science, design, and user experience degree programs. So Teach Access launched an online tutorial covering best practices for accessible software design in order to advance accessibility training in higher education. And we're honored that Teach Access has won a Heroes of Accessibility award from Knowbility and received an honorable mention for the FCC Chairman's Award for Advancement in Accessibility. [applause]

Finally I want to touch on our workforce and initiatives through our workforce initiatives. Disability inclusion is critical to our mission. Hiring a workforce that is diverse and inclusive is important in order to build products that are diverse and inclusive. That's why we have a dedicated program manager focused entirely on driving awareness and engagement for our current and future employees with disabilities. We have a dedicated recruiting team and a unique alias for receiving resumés via our outreach efforts to resources and organizations that represent candidates with disabilities. We have a robust accommodation process for candidates and provide training to all recruiters in this process, and Facebook has a formal accommodation program for employees who need any accommodation of some type. We also have a dedicated group that is focused on diversity programs, one of which is dedicated to disabilities. So for people who have disabilities, who have family members with disabilities, or are interested in the space of disability, this is a place for them to collaborate and talk about their experiences.

So let me conclude by thanking you for inviting me here again to speak, and I look forward to collaborating with you in the future. [applause]

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