Sat. Jun 25th, 2022

When most people typically think about accessibility and assistive technologies, they think of consumer-facing applications. Products such as hearing aids and canes. Wheelchairs. Accessibility software on iOS and Android via smartphones, and on the Mac and Windows via desktops and laptops. The captains of the industry like Apple, Google, and Microsoft. Even physical world accommodations like disabled parking spaces and curb cutouts for the Blind and those in wheelchairs.

But Salesforce? The company indeed is big and well known, by those who run in the tech circle anyway, but they don’t have the cachet in terms of consumer awareness that many of their product-focused contemporaries do. Like Netflix, the ways in which they support accessibility and the disability community has heretofore been far less known to even those who track the industry closely. The truth is, like Netflix, the San Francisco-based company has done much behind the scenes, spanning several years, to further digital access and inclusivity—and they’re now finally ready for a coming-out party of their own.

What Heather Dowdy is to the Los Gatos-based Netflix’s accessibility efforts, Derek Featherstone is to Salesforce’s. And like Dowdy, Featherstone is new to the job; he assumed his role as Vice President of Accessibility and Inclusive Design in mid-January of this year. Featherstone’s technological beginnings are rooted in web development, as he built web-based resources for his students and colleagues during his time as a high school teacher in the mid-’90s. He would then start his own design and development company at the turn of the millennium before using his classroom experience, combined with his technical aptitude, to focus on accessible technology. His company was acquired in 2018, where he served as Chief Experience Officer. Then came the chance to join Salesforce and spearhead their accessibility work.

“To me, [joining Salesforce] was the perfect confluence of something where I could lead a team make some significant change for a company that has such strong core values,” Featherstone told me of his decision to join Team Salesforce in an interview conducted late last month over teleconference. “That, to me, was just really appealing, getting in and making some of these changes. [Having the opportunity] to help a company like Salesforce move forward was really very appealing to me, and something that I wanted to do and move forward with.”

My conversation with Featherstone coincided with Global Accessibility Awareness Day. While the tech industry writ large has been more outspoken about their commitment to diversity and inclusion vis-a-vis accessibility, it was admittedly surprising for me to learn about Salesforce’s feelings on the matter. They aren’t a consumer-facing outfit in the same ways Apple and Google are; it turns out, their opinions on accessibility and assistive tech run parallel to their peers. And like their peers, Salesforce marked Global Accessibility Awareness Day in a few ways. Christina Zhang, a senior manager for the ethical and human use of technology, interviewed Featherstone about his career and the need to keep making tech that’s more inclusionary in a blog post. Also, lead accessibility engineer Danielle Berg wrote a blog post similar in scope to Featherstone’s Q&A wherein she discusses why accessibility is important because, as she wrote, building more empathetic technology ultimately “leads to better user experiences for everyone” regardless of ability.

Accessibility, Featherstone explained, “speaks to a lot of our core values” at Salesforce. Its importance runs deep, starting at the very top of the company with chief executive Marc Benioff and percolating downstream from there. Featherstone said the reason is Salesforce’s foremost value is customer trust. The Salesforce brand is a proven commodity, a known entity. People trust them. That trust extends to serving disabled people.

“That’s [trust] something that is ingrained into the company, it’s a part of our fabric and who we are,” Featherstone said. “I’ve worked with lots of people with disabilities over time, that their trust in a [computer] interface is built upon how accessible, and how well executed, that interface is from an accessibility perspective. So people have trust in our products and accessibility forms a critical part of [building that] trust.”

When asked why the company decided to open up about their accessibility work, Featherstone reiterated “accessibility has been here for many years” and that Salesforce has “lots of people working on it.” The organization has accumulated a wealth of knowledge on the topic over time, and now felt like the right moment to share some of what they’ve learned and let the world know they’re committed to this work for the long haul. A few years ago, Salesforce opened what’s called the Office of Ethical and Humane Use, led by Paula Goldman. Accessibility is part of what the Office works on, Featherstone said, and is a “pillar” of what the team does. More broadly, however, the real impetus for Salesforce peeling back the curtain on its accessibility efforts is simply that, despite the industry’s ever-burgeoning embrace, accessibility remains very much a nebulous idea to the majority. “It’s important to always be talking about this [accessibility] because, in the industry in the public, [there are] lots of people that don’t even understand that accessibility is a thing at all, let alone understand that Salesforce is committed to committed to accessibility,” Featherstone said.

The other reason for Salesforce’s silence on this front until now is, frankly, Featherstone assumed his position only a few months ago. He’s still getting acclimated, still ramping up his vision for what he wants to accomplish. “I think anybody would say that [working on] accessibility is a journey. It’s not a destination. And so, you know, part of this for me and talking about accessibility is to underscore the fact that this is an important part of the company and that it does hold true to our core values,” he said. “For us to talk about that [sends] an important message. For us to share that accessibility is part of [our] customer success, that accessibility is part of trust, [and] that it’s part of who are as a company and aligns with the core values that makes Salesforce, Salesforce.”

Salesforce’s core values extend to recruiting and retaining disabled employees as well. The company’s hiring process prioritizes equality above all else, according to Featherstone. There are teams who work on diverse recruiting, as well as inclusive hiring training for recruiters. There’s also an advisory council that meets with the aforementioned Office of Ethical and Humane Use to facilitate better hiring practices. And of course, many employee resource groups, commonly known as ERGs, internally that employees from underrepresented communities can participate in and find support. Featherstone emphasized Salesforce doesn’t want to pigeon-hole disabled workers such that they expressly work on obvious things like accessibility. Accessibility certainly has a role, but Salesforce wants more disability representation throughout the entire organization, across many kinds of disciplines. “It [the machinations in place for supporting disabled employees] really does all fit together,” he said. “It’s something that we believe is important.”

As for the future of accessible design, Featherstone was succinct in his outlook: He hopes to see action. For Salesforce and for the technology industry writ large, he hopes people will keep pushing forward in moving the needle when it comes to accessibility and amplifying the disability community. The best path forward for this to occur is by taking what Featherstone described as “intentional, meaningful acts of inclusion.” Featherstone cited the increase over the last decade-plus in conformance with accessibility-based standards and guidelines such as WCAG.

It’s crucial to build things with intention that are inclusionary by design, so that exclusion by omission can be avoided. In technology, inclusion is far more than binary ones and zeroes, far more than mere code. Inclusion is about the people behind the code. That’s the important takeaway—prioritize people so that the product, whatever it may be, is made better. The iPhone, for example, is a richer and fuller product not simply because it reinvented phones and, by extension, communication. It’s richer and fuller because Apple purposely designed it to acknowledge a variety of lived experiences and perspectives via accessibility.

“My hope for the industry as a whole is that, that we’re doing this [working on accessibility] with intentionality—that we are doing it as early and as meaningfully as possible,” Featherstone said. “So that we are ultimately, as an industry, being more proactive and inclusive in the way that we approach technology.”



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