An Interview With Fotis Georgiadis

We need to make it so that accessibility isn’t the hardest part of a developer’s job. Every developer I have talked to wants to do it but can’t slow down velocity and doesn’t have time to learn one more thing. Nor do they want to do it in a “kludgy” way or in a way that creates technical debt. They want to do it right, from the beginning. That’s why we have committed to the “shift left” and making it easy and reliable to do accessibility testing.

As a part of my series about “Big Ideas That Might Change The World In The Next Few Years” I had the pleasure of interviewing Preety Kumar.

Preety is the CEO of Deque Systems. She founded Deque in 1999 with the vision of unifying web access, both from the user and the technology perspective. Under Preety’s leadership, Deque has grown to be the trusted leader in digital accessibility. Offering tools, training and services to organizations around the world, Deque’s mission is Digital Equality — making the web and all digital assets accessible to everyone, including people with disabilities.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit. Can you please tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

Just like accessibility is beginning to gain traction today, similarly, the Internet was gaining traction 21 years ago when I got introduced to the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) and Section 508 standards. These are the standards and laws that help us understand what we consider to be accessible. At the time, Amazon was just 5 years old but was already changing how we shopped. It struck me as I was reading the WCAG and Section 508 draft working copies that the implication of the Internet not being accessible to people with disabilities would limit access to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. As a result of this incredible innovation and culture shift, people with disabilities who are unable to use the Internet and its full capabilities, are being discriminated against and left behind, unable to fulfill this basic hierarchy of needs in the same way everyone else can. Obviously, this is especially concerning during a pandemic.

Instilled in me by my mother from a young age, inclusion has always been important to me. I knew that if these guidelines and laws were going to make a real impact, following them had to be as easy as possible. As a developer at heart, I also know that dev teams are critical to practicing accessibility every day, ensuring inaccessible features don’t get developed in the first place. This is what led me and my colleagues at Deque to building automated tools to help dev teams find and fix accessibility bugs while they code.

Can you please share with us the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?

That is difficult. There are so many. I remember being at the National Federation of the Blind (NFB) conference and going for dinner after the sessions were over for the day. This was in the mid 2000’s. I saw a young man who was blind standing outside the lobby describing himself. He would start the description and then repeat himself over and over again. I realized he was trying to get a date. Dating sites weren’t too accessible to his screen reader so he found a way to get a compatible date by using the oldest way of communication. Not convenient but ingenious.

Well, the evening got even more interesting. Our dinner party included the technology leader from the NFB who happened to be an adventurous individual. It goes without saying, but he is also blind. We were in Texas, and it was a life-long dream of his to ride a mechanical bull, so we called around and found a place. We called ahead and cleared what would be required for him to ride the mechanical bull — signing a disclaimer and so on and so forth. When we got to the facility, the mechanical bull operator refused to let him on. Obviously, management hadn’t informed the operator of our pre-clearance. We had to threaten to have all 6,000 attendees of the nearby NFB conference to come and protest if they didn’t honor what management had cleared for us to do. The smile on our friend’s face while he rode the bull is something I’ll never forget. The “inaccessibility” of life and experiences we take for granted, is something he had to fight for. People with disabilities shouldn’t have to fight for access to fun, knowledge, job opportunities, growth, voting and all the things we take for granted in our increasing reliance on the digital world. The Internet and Mobile world have become so centric to our lives that it is really not an option to not have it be accessible to everyone.

Which principles or philosophies have guided your life? Your career?

I created Deque’s core values to reflect principles I hold dearly. They guide my work at Deque and everything else in my life. Very simply they are:

  1. Innovation with results that matter
  2. Deliver what you promise
  3. Can-do attitude
  4. Open, Direct and Respectful communications
  5. We care deeply
  6. We practice humility

Ok thank you for that. Let’s now move to the main focus of our interview. Can you tell us about your “Big Idea That Might Change The World”?

Making the ADA for the digital world a reality. Digital equality, to me, in so many ways is like the other movements such as human rights, racial equality and independence movements around the world. Self-sufficiency means independence. How can a person, in today’s world, be independent without being able to have equal access to the Internet? While this may seem obvious, removing obstacles to make it so is really the big idea. Gutenberg started the printing revolution by reducing the cost of printing books. We want to make digital accessibility a reality by reducing the cost of making digital properties equally accessible to all.

How do you think this will change the world?

Again, I think the printing press offers us keen insights of how this may change the world. Democratization of knowledge and reducing friction to accessing knowledge for people with disabilities will increase opportunities and contributions from people with disabilities. Frankly, diverse voices and contributions previously unheard will change society and I don’t think any of us know how. My prediction is that we will be able to look back and understand all the ripple effects it has.

Keeping “Black Mirror” and the “Law of Unintended Consequences” in mind, can you see any potential drawbacks about this idea that people should think more deeply about?

There are little downsides to the democratization of knowledge that I can think of.

Was there a “tipping point” that led you to this idea? Can you tell us that story?

I think the tipping point was hiring my first blind employee and watching him work every day using his screen reader, sitting next to him and watching the challenges he had to face to do the things I took for granted, like fill out a rental application when he moved to join Deque, filling out the form to get on payroll. Just everyday things that need not have been challenging but were impossible because of the way the applications had been developed or coded. I’m sure every developer on the planet would never create inaccessible experiences if they got to spend a day observing the challenges faced by people with disabilities in using their applications and websites.

What do you need to lead this idea to widespread adoption?

We need to make it so that accessibility isn’t the hardest part of a developer’s job. Every developer I have talked to wants to do it but can’t slow down velocity and doesn’t have time to learn one more thing. Nor do they want to do it in a “kludgy” way or in a way that creates technical debt. They want to do it right, from the beginning. That’s why we have committed to the “shift left” and making it easy and reliable to do accessibility testing.

What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)

I’ve been fortunate to have several great counselors in my life, though these five ideas would have been very useful in my early years:

  1. It is okay to pursue your dream.
  2. Bite off what you can chew.
  3. Trust your intuition and instincts.
  4. Get a good mentor.
  5. Sleep on it.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

Preety Kumar on Twitter:

Preety Kumar on Linkedin:

Deque Systems on Twitter:

Thank you so much for joining us. This was very inspirational.

Deque Systems: Preety Kumar’s Big Idea That Might Change The World was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

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