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Accessibility Strategies in Media with Lori Samuels

February 18, 2022


Welcome to 3Play Media’s Allied Podcast, a show on all things accessibility. This month’s episode features Lori Samuels and is all about accessibility strategies in media.

Lori Samuels is the Senior Director of Accessibility at NBCUniversal. Lori leads strategic accessibility programs to institute best practices in inclusive design, provide training for software development teams, drive cultural maturity in disability inclusion, and fortify executive sponsorship.

Lori has had career roles in Software Engineering, Engineering Management, Technical Program Management, and Accessibility Consulting. Her passion for making technology work for people of all abilities started in 1993 when she was Director of Engineering at Broderbund Software. She went on to start Intuit’s enterprise accessibility program and delivered the first-ever accessible version of QuickBooks. Prior to joining NBC, Lori led accessibility programs and initiatives at Microsoft.

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Episode transcript

ELISA LEWIS: Welcome to Allied, the podcast for everything you need to know about web and video accessibility. I’m your host, Elisa Lewis, and I sit down with an accessibility expert each month to learn about their work. Every episode has a transcript published with it, which can be viewed by accessing the episode on the 3Play Media website.

If you like what you hear on Allied, please subscribe or leave a review. Allied is brought to you by 3Play Media, your video accessibility partner. Visit us at www.3playmedia.com to learn why thousands of customers trust us to make their video and media accessible.

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Today, we’re joined by Lori Samuels, Senior Director of Accessibility at NBCUniversal. Lori leads strategic accessibility programs to institute best practices and inclusive design, provide training for software development teams, drive cultural maturity and disability inclusion, and fortify executive sponsorship. Lori has had career roles in software engineering, engineering management, technical program management, and accessibility consulting.

Her passion for making technology work for people of all abilities started in 1993 when she was director of engineering at Broderbund Software. She went on to start into its enterprise accessibility program and delivered the first-ever accessible version of QuickBooks. Prior to joining NBC, Lori led accessibility programs and initiatives at Microsoft.

Lori, we’re so happy to have you join us to talk about accessibility strategies in media. Thank you so much for being on Allied today.

LORI SAMUELS: Happy to be here.

ELISA LEWIS: To start, I’d love to know more about your background and how you got to where you are today. I know you have a computer science education and have worked in various accessibility roles at major tech companies prior to joining NBCUniversal. I’m curious if you could share a bit about your journey to your current role.

LORI SAMUELS: Yeah, absolutely. So yeah, at this point, my career stands several decades, so I’ve had a lot of different roles throughout the time that I’ve been working, mostly in the software industry, mostly in consumer software, actually, or software for the consumer and educational markets. So I’ve been a software engineer. I’ve worked on products that people know and love from the 1990s onward.

And so in that capacity, I’ve been a director of engineering. I’ve been in engineering management roles. I’ve been a technical program manager consultant, but I’ve always been interested in accessibility. Growing up, my sister has cerebral palsy, and I think I got an early sense of the discrimination that people with disabilities face. And as someone who worked in the tech space, I just wanted to do what I could to make that technology, those products accessible for people with disabilities.

So it’s been an interest for a long time, dates back to the 1990s before the internet even existed. But I got the opportunity in 2011 when I joined Intuit to basically volunteer to start up their enterprise or global accessibility program, working underneath their chief technology officer. And that was really the first time that I did accessibility at a bigger scale. That led to an opportunity at Microsoft to join them for several years, as it turned out, working in different product organizations on all kinds of aspects of accessibility. And then from that, at the end of 2019, I got this opportunity to move over to NBCUniversal as their director of accessibility, and it’s been great.

ELISA LEWIS: That’s awesome. It feels like it was really something that sort of had an early start to, and then the stars sort of aligned. So that’s awesome.

LORI SAMUELS: Exactly.

ELISA LEWIS: So, what was it like getting into accessibility from the tech world, and how does approaching accessibility from a technical perspective look different from a media or a nontech perspective?

LORI SAMUELS: I think this is a really interesting question. Of course, that just happens to be my experience, and people can come into accessibility from lots of different angles and experiences. But I think it’s been helpful for me because I do have a deep understanding of how products are built. I certainly don’t code anymore, but I understand that world.

I understand the pressures, honestly, that product teams are under to get product out the door, to ship new features, to kind of this constant– now with the advent of web and mobile development, there’s just so much going on in a product team. You’re gathering requirements. You’re designing interfaces. You’re coding that up as quickly as you can, and you’re sort of constantly on this train of releasing continuously.

So it’s just a very fast-paced, challenging environment, and accessibility tends to kind of come in as, oh, here’s another set of requirements that you happen to have missed along the way. And I think the traditional approach of doing a big audit for accessibility and giving the team hundreds of bugs to fix is very daunting. So I try to look at integrating accessibility as proactively as possible into the process. You do sometimes need to identify where the problems are, where the gaps are in order to get that data, but really, accessibility works best if it’s started in planning, design, incorporated into functional requirements.

The developers understand how they need to code for that, and the testers understand how to test for it. So I think because I have an understanding of product development, it helps me understand how best to integrate accessibility into that process. So that’s been helpful. And I also have empathy for developers and product teams because they’re under a lot of pressure, and I do understand that.

ELISA LEWIS: Absolutely. Yeah, that leads nicely into a follow-up question that I wanted to ask you. One of the reasons we’re really excited to talk to you and have you on Allied is because, talking about accessibility strategies for media, you’ve worked at such a large media company, and I know that accessibility even at small organizations takes a lot of organization and coordination across teams.

So to see it valued and carried out at NBCUniversal is really amazing. Can you talk a little bit more about how NBCU is able to implement accessibility across such a large scale, and how do you kind of come in as an individual who understands that it’s important to bake accessibility in from the beginning, as we like to say at 3Play? And how do you really get that– how do you implement that at such a large organization?

LORI SAMUELS: Yeah, it’s fun and challenging. I think one of the things I really love about NBCUniversal is that I really get to work across different businesses. It’s really almost an umbrella over a lot of different businesses that operate pretty independently. So we have our parks business. We have news and sports and entertainment and film, and television. It’s a lot of fun because there’s such variety. So first of all, I really love it.

Secondly, I think a lot of the groundwork for my role was laid by the wonderful team and leadership at Comcast, which is our parent company, and Comcast has been deeply committed for accessibility for years. And I happen to have known Tom Wlodkowski, who leads accessibility at Comcast, for many years. In fact, he was a bit of a mentor to me when I was at Intuit and trying to figure out how to do exactly what you’re describing, which is, boy, how do you get everybody the do this when you’re dealing with a really large company? So it is challenging, and it does definitely take organizational skills.

I think part of it is understanding strategies and what I’m trying to do, what I’m not able to do, honestly, and where the ownership needs to reside. So I can’t do the work for teams. I need to help teams learn how to do the work on their own. So that’s the first premise, is that the teams need to begin to take ownership of this and what this looks like.

I think at a media company– and this has been really interesting for me. Media is different than working in a technology company in this key respect. So at a company like Intuit or Microsoft, the focus is really on product accessibility. It’s on making sure that the products work well, websites, mobile apps, even in some cases still desktop products. And there’s less emphasis– although it’s still a factor, but there’s less emphasis on media accessibility because it’s just not as big a part of the equation.

That sort of flips 180 degrees with a place like NBCUniversal where media is our business, and so it’s a huge factor. It’s a huge focus for accessibility. So I already came into a mature organization that understands closed captioning and audio description and has many dedicated resources and innovations happening in that space, and so there’s a great deal of maturity there. I think the part that I’m working on now is more focused on our digital experiences and products and websites and apps and even now in this case apps that run on your TV or your Xfinity box. So that’s the world to kind of bring forward now.

And I think in terms of how to organize this. A lot of what I do is advocacy, education, informing, and beginning to organize for it. So it takes time to build maturity. It takes time.

And I would say– and this is true in all the accessibility work I’ve done. There’s always a combination of grassroots work and leadership work. So you can’t do it well without both of those strategies moving forward in my experience. So grassroots means find the people who are excited about accessibility and work with them and support them. Make sure that they have tools and resources and a community that we sort of start to build.

And then the second strategy is leadership. So that’s about, again, advocacy, working with leaders who are– where this resonates and in strategic areas. So legal is a strategic area. Make sure that legal is on board. Make sure that– ideally your product and technology leaders. And again, so it’s really about having those conversations, helping to explain to leaders why this is important and then what it looks like to make greater investment in that space.

ELISA LEWIS: Thank you so much. Yeah, I think that makes a lot of sense, particularly finding the right people to form a cohort and really be the drivers of–

LORI SAMUELS: Exactly.

ELISA LEWIS: –accessibility. It makes a lot of sense, and it seems like every organization that does have a really strong accessibility team and commitment kind of started with that smaller group of really passionate people who are educating and spreading awareness. I watched your recent NBCU Academy video on improving news accessibility, and I’m wondering if you can talk about some of your media accessibility tips and things that news organizations should consider when they’re trying to make their content accessible.

LORI SAMUELS: Yeah, absolutely. Yeah, it was really lovely. We had NBCU Academy– is essentially a way to help journalists or people who are interested in getting into to journalism and news– is just a really wonderful resource. So I was thrilled when they reached out to me and said, we’d like to do a piece on accessibility.

So certainly, there’s really two pieces to this, I would say. On the accessibility side, you want to be thinking about things like if you’re doing a video and no matter where you’re posting that video, you want to make sure that you have captions because otherwise you’re excluding folks who are deaf or hard of hearing. So captions just have to be done and done ubiquitously everywhere for media.

Other things, though– I mean, you may be including images, and so you want to make sure you provide a text description of that image if it’s meaningful to the story. And even just with your text, you want to make sure that your text is clear language and that people with cognitive disabilities can understand it, and it’s straightforward. So those are the considerations, I mean, just at a very high level on the content of the news itself.

I think the other piece that is important is making sure that disability shows up more in the news, that it shows up not as a disability story always but getting the perspectives of the disability community. How do people think about any number of topics– politics, health care, entertainment? We want to see disability showing up more in our news content and getting respectful conversations with the perspectives of the disability community. So that’s another aspect, is having news cover more stories that includes disabled perspectives.

ELISA LEWIS: Absolutely. I think that that’s one thing that isn’t always mentioned in what it means to be accessible, but that’s a really good point, that there are certainly multiple pieces of it. Accessibility can look like many different things, and there are so many facets to what makes an organization and its products and programs accessible. Can you talk about how NBCU approaches accessibility from both an internal and an external perspective? And if possible, I’d love to learn about any specific programs that you can share with us.

LORI SAMUELS: Yeah, sure. So one of the things I’m really thrilled about is– and this is just a general statement. I think we are beginning to see the convergence or collaboration happen running between diversity, equity, and inclusion teams and leaders and practitioners and accessibility practitioners.

Now, I would say that there are many companies who still haven’t kind of figured out the disability has to be part of your DEI efforts because disability is the largest strand, largest minority in the United States. We know these things, right? At one point, some billion people on the planet. So we can’t be inclusive and diverse unless we’re including disability in that.

So I was very happy to see that NBCU was already very committed in that space. They understand that, already had some programs in place when I got here a couple of years ago, already had an employee resource group– we call it My Abilities– and very focused on disability inclusion. So awesome work already happening in that space. What I’ve really loved is the ability to tie those holistic threads together and keep our efforts coordinated. So if we’re driving for certain inclusion in disability space, we also look at the accessibility. How do we have to make sure that that’s all aligned?

And it’s just well understood here and well-supported, which makes the work that I do much more focused on the how rather than the why. It’s exhausting when you have to make the case for accessibility. I’ve lived that. It’s hard.

It’s hard because it’s discouraging, right? We want companies to recognize that they need to make their products, their services, and their content accessible to everyone, and to have to kind of constantly make that case is hard. So I think, first of all, I’m lucky to be in a place that acknowledges and understands the importance of accessibility.

Some of the challenges or the opportunities, I guess, have been finding ways to coordinate efforts across these many businesses and different organizations, essentially, within our company. So what I’ve done– well, we’ve basically created certain forums and councils and working groups that pull together appropriate folks from different groups.

So for example, we have this great standards and policy council around accessibility that brings experts who work with the FCC and regulatory affairs together with our media and technology and operations leaders, along with myself. And so when we’re looking at improving closed captioning, audio description, that’s a wonderful forum to brainstorm and get feedback and find out where we need to make some strategic investments and improvements. So that was really the genesis of our work in live audio description, for example, for special events and for the Olympics and Paralympics. So that’s just been a great way.

We’ve got some other cross-business forums and working groups kind of set up, which allows us to coordinate our efforts, keep some governance in place around it at a big scale. So that’s been really helpful, just having those programs, again, where we’re tying together designers. Or we’re getting the media and technology and operations folks together to talk specifically about accessibility. It’s been really, really helpful. I like having these– that’s one way, also, to scale and to make sure that the right folks are at the table for those conversations and then roadmap the plans.

ELISA LEWIS: Thank you. And I know you mentioned the Paralympics, and I know that NBCU recently announced programming for this upcoming 2022 Paralympics Winter Games. Are you able to share a little bit more about that with us?

LORI SAMUELS: Yeah, absolutely excited to. Yep, it’s coming up right now. So both the Beijing Olympic and Paralympic Games, the Winter Games. So for the Olympics, we will be providing audio description for all of the prime time Prime West and Prime Plus broadcasts, which is exciting. All of those livestreams and replays will also be available on our NBC Sports and NBC Olympics and Peacock, so excited to share that.

Paralympics– all the broadcasts will have– and what’s on cable for USA Network and the Olympic Channel will have live audio description. Shout-out to our wonderful partners at Descriptive Video Works for the talent that they bring to the table to make all of that happen and to our amazing technology and operations teams that have just now make this part of their standard operating procedures, which is just a wonderful evolution and something we’re very committed to going forward. So that’s work that we’re proud of, that we’ve been recognized for, and I really can’t thank the people enough who do that work in broadcast still.

ELISA LEWIS: Absolutely. I would also encourage all of the listeners who have not heard audio description to certainly turn it on. I think it’s great to see that audio description is being provided more and more, and it’s really interesting being around people when they kind of hear it for the first time. It’s pretty impactful, and it’s also really great if you’re trying to multitask.

LORI SAMUELS: Exactly. Yeah, I would say just a– so audio description, for folks who may not be familiar, is spoken audio that describes the visual context of what’s happening when there isn’t dialogue. And typically, that’s done in a scripted movie or television show where it’s a little easier to figure out what those insertion points for that additional visual context would be.

Much, much more challenging, as you can imagine, to try to do that in a live environment where lots of things are happening. You’ve got announcers, and especially in sports. But we’ve done this for the Macy’s Day Parade and the Christmas tree lighting and various other special events and our musicals as well. So yeah, so I agree with you. Definitely check it out. You can access that on the secondary audio on your television or turn it on your mobile app and check it out.

ELISA LEWIS: I also wanted to ask you how accessibility at NBCU has evolved over the years. How did your position come to be, and was there always someone working on accessibility?

LORI SAMUELS: Yeah, so again, I would really credit the work done by the Comcast team to kind of pave the way or set up the foundation. Certainly, accessibility work has been happening for a very long time at NBC. We’re a broadcast company.

We have a close relationship with the advocates and the groups that work with the FCC that govern closed captioning and audio description. So we’ve certainly tried to be leaders in that space, and so that work certainly predates my time at NBCUniversal. And again, that’s why I say we have a good maturity, and it’s well-practiced.

What I think, a couple of years ago– actually, it probably dates back to about 2018. There was a recognition that, again, we need to kind of focus more on the digital products and experiences, websites, mobile apps, the ways that we deliver our digital content specifically as another area to focus on in accessibility. So through leadership conversations with Comcast and NBCUniversal, the decision was made to create this role to come and bring in someone to lead that effort inside NBCUniversal. And that was the opportunity that was created, and I jumped at it.

ELISA LEWIS: Awesome, and what does your team look like now? And where do you see it going in the next few years?

LORI SAMUELS: So we’re just beginning to grow that. It’s been– as you might imagine, challenges with COVID. I joined right at the beginning of 2020, and the world changed tremendously for a company that’s focused on media. And film production stopped. Television production stopped. The parks closed. So it was a rough time to get through. Fortunately, it looks like we’re mostly to the other side of that. So honestly, there were some constraints initially just in terms of what we could do.

But nevertheless, we still moved forward and did a lot of internal advocacy, so just starting to kind of build out what that team is going to look like, a central team plus the corresponding roles within the different businesses in product and design and engineering and all of that. So kind of mapping that out now. We’ve got some support from vendors at this point that are helping teams with trainings and audits and usability feedback from the disability community. So we’re excited about the work that we can accelerate in 2022 and beyond.

ELISA LEWIS: Yeah, it sounds like there’s definitely a lot of opportunity for growth, and I know, certainly every across every industry but, I’m sure, particularly at a media organization, there’s been just so much over the last few years that’s kind of been put on hold or new barriers that needed to be navigated. So it’s exciting to feel like we’re– like you said, for the most part, kind of figured out how to move forward. So very excited about.

LORI SAMUELS: Yeah, well, definitely. And I would add that the pandemic has certainly demonstrated the importance of digital accessibility. And I do think– of course, it’s uneven. But I do think a lot of companies are recognizing that– higher ed, K through 12, government agencies. There’s a recognition that this digital accessibility thing is pretty important because otherwise we can’t fully participate in society, and that’s what the Americans with Disabilities Act is all about. So I think that those dots have been connected. Hopefully, that will continue to lead to more action and more investment on everyone’s part to make the digital world more inclusive and accessible.

ELISA LEWIS: Absolutely. What would you recommend for other media organizations that want to implement accessibility? It does seem that NBCU is unique in that they have someone like you, and I’m not sure how common your role is at other media and news outlets.

LORI SAMUELS: Well, I don’t think we’re unique, actually. I do try to connect with colleagues in the media space who work in accessibility. I’ve had great conversations with folks at Disney who do an amazing job, Netflix as well, BBC. I work closely with my colleague at Sky who does accessibility over there in the UK. So I think there is certainly focus in the media space.

So I’d say, as far as other media organizations, just really to understand that accessibility goes beyond closed captioning and audio description for your content. It really goes into making sure that your websites, your mobile apps, your TV apps, all the experiences that you put out in front of people are really designed and built with accessibility and disability inclusion in mind, understanding how people with disabilities interact with content, how they consume it, using assistive technology or other considerations to help make that content more accessible.

For example, even just things like being able to zoom the text in an article that you’re reading on your phone or maybe on your laptop– that’s a really important thing for folks who are low vision. They want to read your content. They want to understand it, but you have to make that content accessible through the interfaces that you provide. So I think that’s really my advice, is make sure that web and mobile and TV experiences themselves are accessible, so they can get to all that awesome content.

ELISA LEWIS: Do you have any suggestions or advice? I know a lot of organizations think about accessibility in terms of digital compliance or even compliance in general. What would your advice be to kind of move past thinking about it in this way?

LORI SAMUELS: Yeah, that’s a great question. I do think there’s a sense in some companies that we just need to approach accessibility as a compliance problem. But the companies that are being really successful with accessibility have moved beyond that into really focusing on the usability of their experiences and their content. So certainly, the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines are awesome. They have so much rich information there to help us understand what are the critical things to focus on when you’re delivering content or building an experience, a digital experience.

So WCAG’s great. But the ultimate test, I believe, of whether accessibility is working or not is whether people with disabilities can use your product. I mean, it sounds simple, but I think we have to get more feedback from the disability community. We need to hire more disabled people to work on our products and work within our companies, and it’s just important to get that feedback, get it early.

Generally, people are really happy to give you some feedback. Just make that effort and focus on usability as your true measure of success. If you’re just starting out in accessibility, just learn and listen, and there’s so many awesome resources out there to learn. And I think advocacy really starts from where we are, and we just have to take it forward. We just have to meet teams where they are and take them forward.

ELISA LEWIS: Yeah, I think that you made a great point about including individuals with disabilities in not only building the products and services but also testing it, providing feedback. Really, at the end of the day, it’s about being able to use it, like you said. As we wrap up, do you have any final pieces of advice that you’d like to share with our listeners?

LORI SAMUELS: I guess, I’d say to anyone who’s interested in accessibility, it’s been the most rewarding, fun, sometimes frustrating, but just deeply rewarding work that I could do. It’s just amazing to be able to work in this space. I’m so excited about the growth of accessibility, how many roles are opening up.

So if you don’t know much about it, learn about it and get in and help, whether you’re a designer or product manager or a developer or really in any role. Accessibility has to be driven into the employee ecosystem, too. It’s not just customer-facing products or experiences. We want to make our workplaces more accessible.

So wherever you are– and even simple things like checking your emails or your slides or your documents for accessibility. Those tools are available to us now, and just even doing that is– what can you do to make the world more accessible? Everyone can do a little part, and if everybody plays a small part, I think that we will succeed in making the world more accessible.

ELISA LEWIS: Thank you. I think that’s great advice. I think that oftentimes people think that it’s all or nothing, and I think you made a great point that there are a lot of little ways to make a big difference. And you have to start somewhere and can continue to ask questions and learn and grow and build upon that. So thank you for sharing that. For our listeners who would like to connect with you and follow your work online, where is the best place to do that?

LORI SAMUELS: Sure. Yeah, you can certainly find me on LinkedIn and/or Twitter at @LoriSamuels18 or email me at lori.samuels@nbcuni.com.

ELISA LEWIS: Great. Thank you so much, Lori. Really appreciate you being on the podcast and sharing your accessibility knowledge with us today.

LORI SAMUELS: Thank you for having me.

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ELISA LEWIS: Thanks for listening to Allied. If you enjoyed this episode and you’d like to help support the podcast, please share it with others, post about it on social media, or leave us a rating and review. To catch all the latest on accessibility, visit www.3playmedia.com/alliedpodcast. Thanks again, and I’ll see you next time.


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