When Facebook Product Designer Ramya R. learned that her young son’s rare disease would hinder his mobility for the rest of his life, she despaired. Then, she set out to build an entire accessibility design team at Facebook. But she doesn’t do the accessibility work people might assume she does, given her title. Instead of making the Facebook or Instagram apps more usable for people with visual impairments and other disabilities, Ramya helps build the tools that employees within the company use every day to do their jobs.
In celebration of Global Accessibility Awareness Day, Ramya talks with us about her journey from being someone who didn’t know what “accessibility” meant to becoming a mother of a disabled son, a fierce accessibility advocate, and a champion for building accessible internal design tools.
A: I work as a product designer in the Systems Monitoring team. I design products that Facebook's software engineers use to identify and fix problems for critical services within the company. In addition to my Systems Monitoring work, I am building an accessibility team. At Facebook, several teams work on making products accessible, and we’re one of those; but my team is unique in that we don’t work on external-facing products such as WhatsApp or Instagram—we work on tools employees use.
Specifically, our accessibility team deals with an internal design system we use to design and build other products. As I started working with it, I realized there was an opportunity to make its components more accessible. So, I pitched leadership and the Design Systems team on prioritizing accessibility for internal tools. At first, the work was all about understanding what it takes to make a design system accessible, coming up with a vision, and getting the team’s buy-in.
A: I started in the design field about 10 years ago, but I’m guilty of not thinking about accessibility until about 2 years back when my son, Raghav, turned one year old. On his first birthday in 2019, I received a call from his pediatrician, telling us that Raghav had a rare genetic condition called Sedaghatian type Spondylometaphyseal Dysplasia (SSMD). There is no cure for this condition. In fact, it is so rare that Raghav was the only known person to be alive at the time of his diagnosis. For a one-year-old, Raghav couldn’t control his head, sit up or stand independently, hear, or track like typical kids do. As a parent, I wanted to improve the quality of life for my son. My husband and I assembled a team of researchers to find a cure for Raghav and other kids affected with this condition.
My son’s diagnosis prompted a lot of introspection and influenced how I think about design. I want the future to be accessible to my kid. My son is non-verbal, is at a high risk for seizures, and doesn’t have the dexterity to move physical objects. For a delicate kid like Raghav, the world out there can be very risky. For example: If my son encounters a fancy strobe light effect/animation on the internet (because someone decided that’s how they can make their website interesting) it could trigger a seizure, threatening his life. As a product designer, I want to make digital products accessible for my kid and for everyone else out there, today and tomorrow.
A: First, I acknowledged my ignorance as I became aware of the accessible needs for my son. Raghav needs accessible ramps everywhere he goes; so now, when I look at houses that have a million steps, I ask, “why isn’t there a ramp nearby?” That’s just one example, but there are more things I encounter every day that aren’t accessible or inclusive.
Once I got through that initial phase, I started wondering how I could change things instead of just complaining. Being a product designer, starting with digital technologies was an obvious place to start, but I also do a lot of advocacy. One of my goals is to make people comfortable with disability. Every person is going to experience disability at some point in their life, be it permanent, temporary, or situational. Some disabilities are visible, some are not. We have to accept, embrace, and include it as a part of our lives. I believe this is the first step towards change.
A: Permanent disabilities are obvious to most people. But so many people experience situational or temporary disabilities at times, and we don’t see them. Let’s use the scenario of attending to a phone call. A permanently disabled person doesn’t have the mobility to hit that tiny “accept” icon on the screen. A construction worker is unable to do that because they are temporarily wearing protective gloves, making it hard to access their phone. A person walking out of a grocery store with bags in their hands isn’t able to attend to that phone call either in that specific situation. The construction worker and the shopper don’t fall into the obviously-disabled category, but they have accessible needs too.
Not all disabilities are visible. People with color blindness, hearing impairments, migraine headaches, and learning differences may not be obviously disabled, but it’s just as important to keep them in mind while building products. A strobe light animation on a website can trigger a seizure for someone like my son, but it can also trigger a splitting headache for people prone to migraines.
The topic of invisible and situational disabilities is very relevant to building internal products. Most employees don't sit in wheelchairs or have more obvious tells. But they might experience problems that aren’t always visible, so it’s important to make internal tools accessible to everyone.
A: I started documenting use cases to illustrate why accessibility was important for internal tools. It is common for an on-call engineer at Facebook to receive an alert at one o’clock in the morning about a critical problem in their service. The engineer then gets on their laptop to look at critical data to get the service back up. In this scenario, the person is often operating under poor ambient lighting. This is a situation that needs accessible thinking.
With the use cases in hand, I gathered a small group of accessibility champions and developed a roadmap to make our design system accessible. The progress we made in 6 months reinforced accessibility as a priority within our team. With help from leadership, we were then able to form the Infra Accessibility team. The Infra Accessibility team is committed to bringing infrastructure products to their full, accessible potential, thereby enabling everyone to participate equally across Facebook tools. Our goal is to help teams build products that are accessible by a diverse set of people across all contexts. This was an 8-10 month effort, but we couldn’t have done it without our enthusiastic team.
The Facebook Infra Accessibility Team
A: Nothing is ever done. I see accessibility as a sustained effort that continually evolves. We have begun reworking our design system to be accessible to everyone. We’ve made our components keyboard-accessible, making those components usable by people with restricted mobility. We’re also working on adding screen reader support. That way, people with visual impairments can use sound to navigate through our interfaces. Next, we’re making sure the colors that we use in our products are accessible. Partner teams noticing our work have begun reaching out to make their products accessible. It’s started to snowball into something way bigger than what we started 10 months back.
A: Accessibility doesn’t stop with making a design system accessible. In the long term, we want to build an accessible design culture by building empathy, educating, training, and actively engaging with our community working across Facebook's family of apps and technologies. That’s where I want to get accessibility within infrastructure.
A: My thoughts on this are evolving, but I dream of a day when accessibility is a requirement for shipping digital products instead of an afterthought. I don’t believe in “compliance” and forcing people to do things. I believe in bringing about a culture change where people know it is necessary, meaningful, and the right thing to build accessible products.
This dream is one of the reasons I work for Facebook. Facebook's mission and values support building an accessible and inclusive culture. I know I am not the only person who will bring about this change, but I want to be a part of that effort. And at Facebook, we are well-positioned to be a leader in this space. I am confident we will get there one day.
Ramya has created her own path forward in finding a treatment for her son and in making the world more accessible. So what advice does she have for people beginning to take on steep challenges? “I have learned to be more kind and generous,” she says. “There are going to be good and bad days along the way, but it is crucial to put one foot in front of the other to make this world a better place for everyone.”
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