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Making Data Visualization Accessible with Tori Clark

March 18, 2022


Welcome to 3Play Media’s Allied Podcast, a show on all things accessibility. This month’s episode features Tori Clark and is about data visualization.

Tori Clark is a digital accessibility consultant at Airbnb. Tori has worked in the accessibility field for a decade, bringing her lifelong passion for disability rights to the worldwide web. Raised by public school teachers, Tori believes that accessibility education and awareness can be seeded at every stage of the product development lifecycle and loves to help that learning blossom. She specializes in UX for low vision and motor disabilities, lending her lived experience as a native user of Windows high contrast settings and Dragon NaturallySpeaking. Additionally, Tori founded an emerging nonprofit called Digital A11ies, which aims to normalize web accessibility at a grassroots level.

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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 Tori Clark, a Digital Accessibility Consultant at Airbnb. Tori has worked in the accessibility field for a decade, bringing her lifelong passion for disability rights to the World Wide Web. Raised by public school teachers, Tori believes that accessibility education and awareness can be seated at every stage of the product development life cycle, and loves to help that learning blossom.

She specializes in UX for low vision and motor disabilities, lending her lived experience as a native user of Windows’ high contrast settings and Dragon NaturallySpeaking. Additionally, Tori founded an emerging nonprofit called Digital A11ies, which aims to normalize web accessibility at a grassroots level.

Tori, we’re thrilled to have you join us to talk about making data visualization accessible. Thank you so much, Tori, for joining us today. We’re so happy to have you on Allied, talking about making data visualization accessible.

TORI CLARK: Yeah, thank you for having me.

ELISA LEWIS: To start us off, I’d love to learn more about you. Where did your passion for accessibility come from? And how did you get to where you are today, working for Airbnb?

TORI CLARK: So I’ve been doing digital accessibility for about 10 years, but my passion really started way earlier than that. My mother was a teacher, specifically a music therapist, at what’s called the Brennen Program, which has a lot of students with developmental disabilities between like kindergarten and 12th grade.

And just, it was really cool because already, even more significantly impacting disabilities like intellectual disabilities, they weren’t really stigmatized for me from a really early age. And then I myself ended up getting diagnosed with a genetic form of epilepsy when I was 9. And while the diagnoses were much later, I ended up getting diagnosed with other genetic disorders. So it’s just kind of always been a part of my life, and I wanted to take that to the web.

ELISA LEWIS: Thanks for sharing that. Can you tell me a little bit about your day-to-day work, and how data visualization plays an important role in your job?

TORI CLARK: Yeah. So currently at Airbnb, I’m not quite doing the same level of data visualization for customers that I was able to do at Wells Fargo, which is one of my earlier jobs. But what’s cool about Airbnb is, although we don’t make super complex data visualization for end users, we are a data-driven company. So we use it all the time when communicating with fellow coworkers.

So for me, it’s not just about making it accessible to the end user, but considering my blind and low-vision and colorblind coworkers, and making sure that they are getting the same access and understanding to what we’re doing in our day to day.

ELISA LEWIS: I’m wondering if you can define or sort of describe what data visualization is. Some people might just be thinking about graphs or charts when they hear that term, but what else does it or can it include?

TORI CLARK: Yeah, I mean, it’s funny, because I think exactly what you said. People just think of bar charts and line graphs when you say “data vis,” but really, all data visualization is visual representation of information. So, for instance, the map when we had elections and we’re trying to figure out who won which state with the electoral college, that is a data visualization. Any kind of data that gets portrayed visually counts.

ELISA LEWIS: Yeah, I think that’s a great example. And thinking back, the maps that you described are also incredibly interactive and moving, and I’m curious how that plays into accessibility of data visualization.

TORI CLARK: Yeah. It’s kind of funny because I think when data visualization gets interactive, people get scared because they don’t know what to do. But if anything, by making data vis interactive, it can become easier to make it accessible, because it’s letting someone have that kind of immersive experience.

And really, at the end of the day, it’s about making sure you understand what the point of the data visualization is, and using the appropriate roles and other types of information to communicate to screen reader users and those using refreshable Braille displays.

ELISA LEWIS: So I know I jumped around a little bit, asking you to sort of describe data visualization. Can you speak a little bit more about some of the challenges of making data visualization accessible, and share some examples of other potential barriers, you know, that assistive technology users or disabled users who are not using assistive technology may face?

TORI CLARK: Yeah. I mean, kind of at like a high level, I think the absolute biggest barrier is really a cultural one, and it’s that designers and engineers, and even UX writers who are creating this data visualization, they just don’t understand vision-related disabilities.

And, you know, I think it makes it this insurmountable issue, but just digging into that a little bit, at the end of the day, blind users can still benefit from data visualization. I even know of people who, when it comes to college classes or K-12 classes, they’re doing 3D printing so people can feel the data visualization.

Now, obviously, you can’t really do that on the web, as cool as that is, but that doesn’t mean you can’t describe the shapes and the trends in as objective of a way as possible so people can get the gist of what’s going on.

And then there’s also color blindness, which is one of the most common disabilities. It affects 8.5% of people, and yet, a lot of people just don’t understand that they can’t use color alone in these bar charts, in these line graphs, that you do have to provide some other means of communicating information.

And then finally, I’d say, the biggest, biggest issue is when people are creating these more interactive data visualizations, and even maybe they are trying for keyboard accessibility, sometimes they will go in and put a tab stop on every single point.

And then basically, that means that someone has 1,000 tab stops to get through a graph, or they have to find some way to exit out or they’re going to basically get trapped in a graph, which I don’t think anyone wants for themselves.

ELISA LEWIS: Thank you. You know, you mentioned that 3D printing is a really great way to make data visualization a little bit more accessible, kind of in the non-web world. But on the web, what are some core principles to making data visualization accessible?

I know just kind of in the marketing space from my own experience, a lot of the time, it’s like great, we’ll just put alt text on there, but that can be kind of tricky with some more intricate data visualization, and doesn’t necessarily give the same level of information. So yeah, are there core principles that you would recommend?

TORI CLARK: Yeah. So when it comes to static images, I feel like a lot of people are still under the assumption that alt text should only be 125 characters or less. That is just an outright myth. In fact, Eric Eggert, who is the Director of Accessibility at Knowbility, he just came out with an article on his personal site talking about how there is no character cap for alt text.

You should be as brief as possible, but if it needs to be long, it needs to be long. And I think the most important thing is, you need to be able to communicate the information that is shown and the trends and the shapes that happen as you go through from the front of the graph to the end.

ELISA LEWIS: Are there any other common myths or misconceptions that you think people should know about, other than the length of alt text?

TORI CLARK: Yeah, so I think another really big myth in accessibility is that blind people should just use tables, and some people think that tables can be an alternative to data visualization, but they aren’t. They aren’t communicating the same information.

And the way I kind of like to describe it to people is, if the table was enough, you wouldn’t have made data visualization in the first place. And then it becomes even more complicated when the data visualization is with a table with like 1,000 or more values. There’s no way someone can get through that. There’s just absolutely no way.

And I think another really common myth is that when you’re dealing with color blindness and something like a circle chart or a bar graph, I think people are under the assumption that in order to be accessible to colorblind people, you need to have patterns. But I actually really am against that approach because it leaves out people who are multiply disabled.

So when I was at Wells Fargo, we actually did some work around trying to understand the cross-section of what if someone is low vision and colorblind. And so what we found is that we can use spacing and alternating contrast, while still being a good contrast against the background.

And by providing the appropriate spacing, it was something that was easy to consume by both colorblind users and low-vision users. And we actually had user testing to support that, which was really awesome. I call it the traffic light principle.

Colorblind people, people, they’re like, oh, well how would you ever know what to do at a traffic light if you don’t know the difference between red and green. And it’s like, well, but one’s on top and one’s on bottom, so that still is me. You are not using color alone.

ELISA LEWIS: Yeah. I think that’s a really great point, and that’s a really helpful example just that people come across in their day-to-day to kind of realize why it’s so critical to have multiple modes of representing information. And I think that’s true for data visualization, and you know, of course for really all content out there.

So despite being considered the universal standard for digital accessibility, WCAG, or the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines, hardly reference data visualization, besides, of course, their recommendation to add alt text to charts.

Accessible data seems like a really integral and probably growing part of digital accessibility. Are these current standards enough to make this happen, and what would your recommendations be to maybe expand upon these standards if they’re not sufficient?

TORI CLARK: Yeah, so I definitely agree that there isn’t quite enough in the current WCAG guidelines to cover everything that’s important and meaningful about data visualization. One thing I like to talk about, though, is like the spirit of WCAG. And so even if it’s not an outright violation based on the wording of the standard or the criterion, you can still kind of look behind it and be like, why was this created?

And so there’s actually an interesting standard called Sensory Characteristics 1.3.3, and it’s related to use of color, but they just felt use of color deserved its own, 1.4.1. Like, it just was that important, which makes sense. You know, 8% of people have color blindness.

But it says that you shouldn’t use shape or position or anything alone to communicate instructions. Now, it’s very specific, and in order to fail it, it’s very difficult. But if you just think about the concept itself, like don’t use any types of shapes or anything on its own, you can understand the spirit of that and say, well data visualization is shapes. It is lines.

So while it wouldn’t be a violation, at the same time, in spirit, it kind of is. I do think that better standards need to be created, but I think the accessibility of data visualization is so much in its infancy that it’s really hard to create some new standards. There is a lot of talk, for instance, around interactive sonification and data sonification. And it’s such a neat idea, and Highcharts is doing it right now.

But the problem is, you also need to pair that with education for blind and other vision-related disabilities. Otherwise, they’re not going to understand what that sonification means. It’s too limited to communicate the same information. So while I do think that there need to be more standards, I think people need to do more work on what alternatives actually count.

ELISA LEWIS: With the lack of written guidelines, you know, you’ve shared some really great insight here, and I certainly am interested to learn more about the sensory characteristics guidelines that you mentioned. But I’m curious, what should individuals prioritize, in your opinion, when trying to make data visualization accessible?

So you know, when you’re building a line graph or a bar graph, or maybe putting together a slide deck or presentation with data visualization, what can individuals do to make this more accessible?

TORI CLARK: I think the first part is color, just making sure that you have good color contrast. And as part of that, labeling becomes the next step. And in some cases, like I said, with the spacing of bar charts, with a grouped bar chart, you might be able to put a legend horizontally with three points in the legend, and then in the grouped bar chart, it follows that same order.

But with stuff like line graphs or pie charts, you really just need explicit labels, and whether that is like a line pointing to it in a static image, or a way to interact with the image where on focus or on hover, it exposes what the data is and it exposes that label.

And then I think for more complex– not just more complex data visualization, but more complex coding of like these more interactive graphs, really understanding keyboard-only accessibility is really important. So screen readers use keyboards, but when I’m saying “keyboard only,” I’m really talking about stuff like a switch control, which doesn’t really use stuff like tab keys and arrows.

It goes systematically through everything that can get focused and then let someone interact from that point. And so one concept I talk a lot about is keyboard fatigue, and you don’t want to be creating an interaction that somebody gets stuck in, which I spoke about a little bit earlier.

And then finally, I think, for more complex data visualizations, the first question you need to ask yourself is, why does it need to be this complex. Sometimes, it will need to be. But there are many cases where I’ve seen something like an enneagram, which is one of those weird star charts with like overlapping sections.

And really, for the information it was communicating, it could have just been a bar chart. I know it doesn’t look as cool, but I really like to think about those with cognitive disabilities, because, one, many people, myself included, do better with data visualization than with tables. So that is a better alternative and accessible option for people like me, but if you keep overcomplicating simple information, then it loses its meaning again because it’s just too hard to digest.

ELISA LEWIS: So I know that you yourself use high contrast settings for access needs among other technologies. If you’re comfortable sharing, I’d love to learn more about your experiences and some of the barriers you’ve experienced relating to data visualization or web accessibility more broadly.

TORI CLARK: Yeah, so I’ll start by sharing what high contrast settings are for me. So I know not a lot of people are familiar with it, but there’s something– it used to be called Windows high contrast mode, and it’s been around since Windows 95, so nothing new. And basically, it has four preset themes which will override colors on your entire computer and also on your websites.

Now, in my case, I don’t actually use it for high contrast. Because I had got a concussion two summers ago, I do it to kind of dull down my entire computer, or I get really, really bad migraines and have to completely remove the screen altogether. So I do like a medium gray on a dark gray, and just kind of mute everything so it’s easier for me to handle working on a computer.

But also, that means that if there are certain SVG graphs, I might have issues where all of these colors are now imperceivable, especially if it’s using like some sort of background code. So I think it’s really important that people understand high contrast mode. But outside of that, it’s really easy to make an accessible graph still for a user like me, because as long as you’re doing that explicit labeling, that directly helps me.

You know, my technology isn’t in the WCAG either, much like data vis. So we’re both kind of stuck in a rut, I guess. But there are a lot of WCAG criteria that do help support better data visualization and better options for high contrast.

ELISA LEWIS: So I want to shift gears a little bit and talk a bit more about some of your work experience and consulting. So I know you’ve worked for some really big name companies. Can you share how accessibility consulting works?

TORI CLARK: That is an excellent question, and I think it is one that everyone keeps asking, and everyone also keeps answering differently. So what I can share is, I’ve worked mostly for companies, and also for like a couple of startups when I was a freelancer, where accessibility consulting really meant I was one of the only ones, and I was helping build a program.

So in that sense, it’s really important to always keep your eye on the prize, which is inclusion, but to also understand that some people will only care about compliance. I was very fortunate, though, to work for Wells Fargo, which had already done a lot with accessibility, and it was really cool to see existing processes, and figure out how I can still fit in and shape things and pave new ways to move forward.

So if I have to provide an exact answer, I’d say that accessibility consulting is about understanding the needs of the people that you’re working with, and understanding where the gaps are, where processes are failing to address accessibility, even if they’re trying to, and to find a better way forward by integrating accessibility rather than always making it something done after the fact.

ELISA LEWIS: And when you’re working as a consultant or as a contractor, I would imagine that you typically have a finite amount of time. How would you recommend someone make lasting and impactful changes in a limited time, and maybe, if it’s helpful, like what would be the things you would prioritize?

TORI CLARK: Yeah, so I kind of feel like there are two things at play. So on the one hand, you really need to focus on making a cultural shift and a cultural change, and sometimes that can be done on teams or in groups.

But sometimes, it is just the hand-holding, one-on-one time that you have to spend to get that cultural change. But the second part, and I think this is missing from accessibility programs in general, is you have to give time for capacity building.

You know, there are a lot of questions that if you have eager workers who care and want to do good, providing them with the way to learn on their own where they feel safe and like they’re getting the correct answers– because you can’t always trust Google, but providing that by creating a wiki or HelpDocs, you know, finding a way to let people help themselves, or even build some of that knowledge sharing themselves– that is the best way to make lasting and impactful change.

ELISA LEWIS: And while we’re talking about your recent work, I would love for you to share a little bit about the non-profit that you founded, Digital A11ies.

TORI CLARK: Yeah, so I’m really excited to talk about this. Digital A11ies is something that I’ve been thinking about almost since the beginning of my career, but it wasn’t weirdly until the pandemic that I just was like, now is the time to launch my non-profit. But Digital A11ies is an emerging non-profit, and we’re paving the way toward a more inclusive web.

And really, where this idea came from is, in this accessibility consulting, like in my day to day, I just see so many gaps. And while I am able to address them, I don’t really feel it’s fair that only large businesses get to have accessibility. And I feel like no one has really tried to take accessibility and inclusion to the grassroots level.

And that’s really what I’m trying to do by creating learning opportunities that anyone can access, and just really trying to get the word out there, because I do believe in the power of the people. And if people understand how inaccessible something like Facebook is, for instance, then they can put pressure on, say, hey, we really want this and we’ll use this because we want to be accessible.

ELISA LEWIS: Yeah, that’s really exciting, and congratulations. I think that you’re totally right. We’ve made a lot of advancements with accessibility, but we’re still in this place where education and kind of the importance of accessibility just continues to be a huge need.

And I think a lot of the time, it’s also, in addition to the access, really showing how great accessibility is for a business and for all users, not just those who we think of as more traditionally needing access. So really excited to follow your journey, and wish you much success.

Before we wrap up, do you have any sort of final pieces of advice or anything else that you would love to share with our listeners?

TORI CLARK: Absolutely. I feel like a lot of people think that accessibility is a field that’s, not to be funny, but not accessible to them. And it is absolutely accessible if you are willing to learn and willing to like really put in the work to understanding the needs of disabled users. I mean, I just look at my own journey, where I was first exposed as a digital communication specialist to all of these different assistive technology users.

And I just realized that I couldn’t just be a communication specialist anymore, and it kind of feels full circle, because actually, in order to start doing freelance, I also was working as a 3Play Media contractor back when they were just starting. So I was like one of the first people to actually work for 3Play Media, and while I obviously have a lot going on and don’t work as a contractor there anymore, I’ve taken all of the lessons I learned even through 3Play.

And like right now, I work on video accessibility, and I am the one who knows all that information at Airbnb. And I’m consulting and helping people understand the importance of audio description, of closed captions and what you need to include in closed captions. So while it is daunting and it does take a lot of work, it is absolutely something anyone can get into if you’re willing to put in the time and just really understand and care about people.

ELISA LEWIS: As we wrap up, where can our listeners find you and connect with you online?

TORI CLARK: So I’m very available on Twitter @cymbrygirl, which is spelled C-Y-M-B-R-Y-G-I-R-L. I also can be found on LinkedIn if you search for Tori Clark. And we also have a website for our non-profit. It’s Digital A11ies, and the two Ls in “Allies” are 1s. So that is digitala11ies.org.

ELISA LEWIS: Awesome. Thank you so much, and thank you, Tori, for taking the time to join us on Allied today. Really enjoyed chatting with you, and like I said, excited to continue learning and following your journey as well.

TORI CLARK: Thank you, and just thank you so much for having me. This was wonderful.

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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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