NM Dayton can easily point to the proudest moment of their career: Using voice-to-text to submit code as a software engineer working on Google’s Voice Typing in Docs accessibility team. It was a full-circle moment for NM, who is disabled as a result of multiple sclerosis and rheumatoid arthritis, and relied on these accessibility tools while learning to code in school.
Now, NM is the technical program manager for Google’s web and mobile accessibility standards, where their job is making sure that Google’s products are accessible for people with disabilities. At its core, accessibility is about reducing barriers that people with disabilities face when using digital products and web-based services.
“There’s so many aspects to digital accessibility,” NM says. “It’s a very broad field, just as disability is a very broad category and identity.”
In the United States, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) guarantees access to public and private spaces for people with sensory, cognitive, and physical impairments — and that includes being able to easily navigate and understand content on websites, mobile applications, or other electronic-based information. Accessibility touches pretty much every role within tech, so whether you’re interested in becoming a developer or UX designer, it’s a skill set you can’t ignore.
In honor of Global Accessibility Awareness Day, here’s how NM got their job working at Google in accessibility standards, what makes it so rewarding, and ways that all developers can think about accessibility in their own work.
What got me interested in the job
“I took a Java class because a boy in my high school told me I couldn’t do it — joke’s on him. I always really enjoyed learning about technology, and I had a knack for problem-solving. I was constantly thinking of ways to get over the hurdles that I ran into.
I’m disabled myself as a result of multiple sclerosis and rheumatoid arthritis, so I use digital accessibility tools in my daily life, like Select-to-Speak and Voice Typing. College was really the first time I needed to utilize these tools as my disabilities presented themselves. I had serious issues typing my papers during my senior year of college, and I couldn’t afford my own copies of voice-typing software.
Frankly, getting my CS degree was really challenging for me. In hindsight, I wish that I had known the full extent of my disability and could have asked for accommodations. Working in accessibility now and understanding all of the assistive tech options, I look back at my time in college and things could have been a lot easier for me.”
How I got in the door
“I showed up to the Google info session for internships my second week at Wellesley College. Technically, it was only open to sophomores through seniors, but I decided to sit in the back and take notes for the next year. I arrived a little early — totally by accident — and helped the recruiter set up the projector. At the end of the info session, everyone rushed to the front to hand in their resumes, and I tried to sneak out the side door. The recruiter flagged me down and invited me to a resume review session the next day.
I ran to my dorm, quite literally Googled ‘how to write a resume,’ and I ended up interning with Google for three summers in a row. My whole life changed. And it was that on-the-ground experience of contributing to massive products and understanding what that process is actually like that really was so pivotal for me.
It’s really no exaggeration that Google Docs Voice Typing allowed me to graduate college. When I had the opportunity to join the Docs, Sheets, and Slides accessibility team that made that feature, I just jumped at the chance. Submitting code through voice typing was, at that point, the proudest moment in my career.
The most important piece of advice I have is: If you see a door, even if the door is locked, check if maybe you just have to push instead of pull. Maybe you don’t have to listen to the sign on the wall. Sometimes taking a different path can change everything.”
What I actually do every day
“I lead all content changes to Google’s web and mobile internal accessibility standards — so I get to touch everything. I’m partnering with product teams to evolve those guidelines, factoring in external accessibility standards, doing our own research, and a whole host of things that go into that process.
Accessibility engineering can be tough; it’s a lot of debugging, a lot of cross-platform and cross-team work. In my work on standards, I am helping write guidelines that are going to impact products with more users than I can count. What can kind of help you get through the slog is just having that North Star of: These are the people that I’m providing access to through my work. That’s a really huge motivator for when things get tough.
In any form of engineering, you’re going to have those days where you can’t figure out that bug, or why something weird is happening. Why does this work on this browser and not that browser? Those sorts of things are really common in the accessibility space. Having that internal motivation is really helpful. I’m getting my master’s in disability studies right now, because it helps me in my career to just have a more extensive knowledge of who I’m building for.
One of the most interesting things to me about working in accessibility is that things are always changing and shifting. I think you can always do better, because there’s always a user who has an access need that you hadn’t even thought of before — and that’s one of the reasons why it’s so important to include disabled people in this work.”
Here’s what you need to get started
First things first: You don’t have to be part of a dedicated accessibility team to start implementing accessibility into your work as a developer.
“The best way to incorporate accessibility into a product is from the very beginning,” NM says. There are lots of technical resources that you can turn to that are just a Google search away, like the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG). There’s also a checklist created by The A11Y Project, that you can reference to gauge whether your product meets the WCAG criteria. For mobile app developers, NM recommends Google’s Accessibility Scanner, which suggests accessibility improvements for Android apps.
Of course, “you need to make sure, obviously, that you have solid software engineering skills under your belt — then start looking into accessibility fundamentals,” NM says. Not sure where to start? Our pro skill path Learn how to build websites will get you started with HTML and CSS, the building blocks of web design, and introduce you to responsive design, which is fundamental to making websites that are usable on different device sizes and screen readers. From there, practice putting your skills to work with these HTML and CSS challenges.
Reading firsthand accounts of people who are using accessibility tools is another way to learn about what hurdles people hit while trying to access different products. (You can find real stories about how people with disabilities use the web on the Web Accessibility Initiative website.) “You can’t do accessibility right if you’re not thinking of who you’re building for,” NM says. “And that’s really the same for engineering in general.”