What the ADA anniversary means to me

Blind accessibility consultant Christina Granquist shares how designing for disabilities shaped the new voice assistant in the U.S. Bank Mobile App.

6-min read

I started losing my vision when I was 17 and was completely blind by age 23. Some people assume that my other senses have heightened as a result. I like to tell them that my hearing still stinks but I sure am getting good at tasting cake! ;) 

In all seriousness though, going blind was definitely a huge life change for me. I had to re-learn how to use my computer, do laundry and cook without vision, all while wrestling with questions about my new identity. Over time, I learned to adapt, and through the help of some disability friendships, began to feel at home in my skin again.

Congress passed the Americans with Disabilities Act to ensure that people are treated fairly regardless of any physical or cognitive disabilities. With the 30th anniversary of the ADA coming up on July 26, it feels like the perfect time to share a little about the work my team at U.S. Bank has been doing, and how much being a part of it all has meant to me.

Of course, as anyone with a disability can tell you, the ADA is about what businesses have to do. What they should do is another matter.

Work with a purpose

I used to work at a university, as a researcher in a low-vision lab. I really loved it – until the funding for my position started running out.  

Looking for work when you’re blind, frankly, sucks. Despite having confidence in my own abilities and experience, after more than six months of searching and mulling over how best to disclose my disability to hiring managers (better to share it prior to my interviews, so they wouldn’t be caught off guard when I walked in with my guide dog? Or should I not acknowledge it at all, to ensure that I at least got my foot in the door?), in the end, it didn’t seem to matter either way. After many, many rejections, I began to think that I should go back to school for a graduate degree. My thinking was that maybe employers might have an easier time looking past my disability if I had some letters after my name.  

In the midst of putting out grad school applications and stressing about bills, I was contacted by someone at U.S. Bank. He had remembered me from a study I participated in and saw the value of the work I had been doing. He thought I might be a good fit for their team. Not long after that, I joined on as an accessibility consultant. 

The two years since then have been incredible for me, both personally and professionally. 

Designing better experiences for everyone

At U.S. Bank, the Accessibility team falls within the User Experience department, and the job of an accessibility consultant is to advocate for the experiences of customers with a variety of disabilities. We do this by making sure accessibility principles are incorporated throughout the whole project lifecycle, and it’s been really cool to see how that has resulted in better products not just for people with disabilities, but for everyone. We do this in many areas throughout the company, and a perfect example is our most recent one – our new voice assistant.

You’ve likely already heard about the Smart Assistant – it was the biggest release in our Mobile App all year. What you might not know is that for the year and a half before that, the Voice team, in partnership with their accessibility consultant, worked relentlessly to create a better and more inclusive experience than anything else that was out there.

Voice technology might be the hottest new trend thanks to things like Siri and Alexa, but to tell you the truth, it has been around in the blind community for a long time now. Much of the early considerations of voice technology were designed with blind consumers in mind, and blind and disabled people in general have been consuming web pages via audio output for decades through the use of screen reader technology. *Spoiler alert* I used a screen reader to write the article you are reading right now!

The Voice team understood this history and very intentionally embraced design considerations from the disability community. I have to give a couple of my colleagues a lot of credit here. Carissa Merrill was the accessibility consultant on this project, and she tirelessly pushed to ensure that disabled people were included in the team’s usability studies. That’s where Kim Herrema, the Voice team researcher, came in. Due to my background in running inclusive studies, as well as my own personal relationships, I was able to connect with many people in the local disability community who were excited to be a part of creating this with us. Kim was able to include participants with cognitive, learning, visual and physical disabilities into her in-person and in-home studies. 

When you want to create the world’s best voice assistant, what do you do? You go to the people who know that technology best, and you ask them to help you make it. That’s what U.S. Bank did, and I’m really proud of that. I should add, this type of approach is not exactly common. A lot of companies know this is smart, but U.S. Bank is at the leading edge of actually putting it into practice. This is a huge deal. By ensuring they included folks with a variety of disabilities into their studies, the Voice team not only gained important feedback about the usability of their product, but they proved to disabled customers that their feedback and experiences matter.

And they made a better product. For everyone.

  • The inclusion of larger text was a consideration intended to benefit low vision customers, but it’s also great for many older adults, or frankly any customer viewing the screen from farther away.
  • The prioritization of clear and precise responses was an important consideration for blind users (who can’t rely on a screen’s visual context), but it is a feature any multitasker navigating the app can enjoy.
  • The inclusion of a text input option to compliment the voice input option was another feature for people with disabilities, but it’s great for allowing any user to switch from using the microphone to using the keyboard when they are in a noisy environment.

It’s worth pointing out that this isn’t nearly the first time that things originally invented for disabled people later found broad use. When you have a minute, ask Siri about TV captioning, the sports huddle, audiobooks and the typewriter.

The Americans with Disabilities Act is a wonderful piece of legislation that I benefit from every day. But laws only lay out what we “must” do. What I think is so great about being a part of the User Experience field is that we get to speak for what we “should” do. Many companies think of accessibility as a requirement, a box to check to protect themselves from litigation. There is a quote I read once that says, “Diversity is being invited to the party, but inclusion is being asked to dance.” I feel very fortunate to be a part of a company that doesn’t just settle for what is required.  And more than anything else, I feel proud to be a part of a team of passionate people who don’t have to look past my disability to see my value, but rather see my value as is, disability and all.

Written by Christina Granquist of U.S. Bank.