Cyndi Wiley is the Digital Accessibility Lead for Iowa State University’s Digital Accessibility Lab. Equipped with everything from screenreaders to Xbox consoles, the Lab helps students and faculty create, advocate for, and consume media that is accessible to users of all different abilities.
In this interview, Cyndi and I chat about how disability is a social construct; what the phrase “Nothing About Us, Without Us” means; why users need to be paid for accessibility testing; the distinction between accessibility and usability; whether accessibility diminishes a video game’s difficulty; how to test video games for accessibility; and whether video games are a civil right.
Stream the audio edition of this interview below or from Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Amazon Music, Spotify, Overcast, Pandora, Pocket Casts, iHeartRadio, TuneIn, RadioPublic, or the Internet Archive. Click past the jump for a transcript and links to resources mentioned in this episode.
- Cyndi Wiley
- ISU’s Digital Accessibility Lab
- International Association of Accessibility Professionals (IAAP) certification
- Teach Access
Voiceover: Welcome to the Polygamer podcast, where gaming is for everyone. Join us as we expand the boundaries of the gaming community.
Ken Gagne: Hello and welcome to the Polygamer podcast, episode number 124, for Wednesday, April 20th, 2022. I’m your host, Ken Gagne. We have talked about accessibility on this podcast before, it’s a podcast about diversity and that means making it available to everybody, such as transcripts for the podcast, and also accessibility for video games, whether that is adaptive controls or captions, or colorblind modes, et cetera. We have had guests on the show to talk about that from, very often the nonprofit sector, organizations like SpecialEffects that are working to make games more available to more people. But what about the academic side? We’ve had a lot of academics on this podcast talk about the history of gaming, but what about the accessibility of gaming and digital media, more broadly? So today we’re going to be having that conversation with the digital accessibility lead for Iowa State University, Cyndi Wiley. Hello, Cyndi.
Cyndi Wiley: Hello, Ken! Thank you so much for having me.
Ken: Thank you so much for giving us your time! I’m really excited to have this conversation. I was passing through Iowa just last month — I drove through Des Moines — and if I had known I was just 20 minutes South of my next podcast guest, I certainly would’ve stopped and said hello.
Cyndi: Well, I actually live in Des Moines, so you missed me! Sorry. A lot of people do pass through Iowa, but we’ll claim that as the pass through, flyover state, I’m good with that.
Ken: Well, next time; I know better now.
Cyndi: Next time, absolutely.
Ken: So you are at Iowa State University, as I mentioned you are the digital accessibility lead, you work in the Digital Accessibility Lab. What does that lab do?
Cyndi: Yeah, the lab at Iowa State University, we started in 2019. I was able to get some startup funds from the student technology fees. The students decide where that money goes and have a say in that so I was very fortunate to get $25,000 to buy equipment and my department, Information Technology Services, sponsored furniture and a space. Space on college campuses could be difficult to come by so I was very grateful for all of those things, and the Digital Accessibility Lab was born. We had started in a small 200 square foot office space with five stations. We had an Xbox station for gaming, an MSI Trident computer and Oculus Rift S VR headset. And then some typical assistive technology like screen magnifier, software for screen reading, a refreshable braille display.
Cyndi: This year we were able to move into a space that was four times larger so it’s really nice when you have more than one person in a wheelchair, be able to be in the same room at the same time with everybody else, so we’re very fortunate to be able to move into that space. And things that we work on, we work with faculty and staff, and it’s a space for students to come in and experiment with some of the assistive tech that maybe they haven’t had a chance to try out yet or game together. We have an adaptive gaming set up with the Xbox adaptive controller and also the Logitech adaptive controllers that are switch controls that we can connect to anywhere, really.
Cyndi: We also research gaming and promote accessible gaming with faculty that we are working with on some of their grants. We’re working on a National Science Foundation grant, we’re working on some other types of grants that I can’t disclose and some I can because they’re in different parts of their process. But we promote accessibility with games that are being designed and developed by faculty and their research teams, and also are able to guide along the entire process.
Ken: Often when I’ve had previous guests talking about the intersection of gaming and accessibility and education, they are speaking from somewhere like New York University or somewhere in Chicago. Why is there a Digital Accessibility Lab in Iowa?
Cyndi: That’s a great question, because I live in Iowa, that’s my simple answer. But I really do take what’s happening on the coasts and in some of the larger, more prestigious institutions, I really look at them as models. So NYU, great model for accessible gaming and accessibility, and art and design. Same thing if we flip to the West Coast, there’s a lot of great things happening in different places. There’s not a ton in Iowa, we’re just smaller. Our school has roughly 30,000 undergraduate students and 6,000 graduate students, so fairly large size. It’s a state school, public school, Research 1 so we have a lot of research and innovation happening.
Cyndi: Our full name is Iowa State University of Science and Technology and I think there’s a lot of really great research going on in Iowa, and particularly at Iowa State and some of the other universities as well, of course. This is where one of the first computers was born so a lot of people may not realize that the ABC Computer was born here at Iowa State University. So we have this history, but a lot of it is sort of hidden because we’re in Iowa. And like I said at the beginning, we might be a drive through or a flyover state, but next time, if anybody listening is driving through, look us up.
Ken: I am a big fan of digital history and computer history. I had not familiarized myself with the ABC Computer before.
Cyndi: Yeah, that’s definitely one of our claims to fame. Another one is the first fax was sent from Iowa State University, so there’s some little hidden gems around.
Ken: Well, clearly I need to do more homework. I think you touched upon this a little bit, but you are helping Iowa State University students and faculty have access to equipment and technology, and thus make their own information more accessible as well. Are you focused primarily internally or are you also looking at how to make the broader industry more accessible as well?
Cyndi: Both and. We needed to start from somewhere so we started internally of course. With the research that we are participating with faculty, getting our expertise and our name out there has certainly helped. We produce scholarship. I am a professor of art and design, and human computer interaction, as well as my position in Information Technology Services, and that has been really eye-opening for me to see firsthand what our students are encountering in their digital lives.
Cyndi: We use a learning management system. We use Canvas and so students are… For every class that they have, they have a Canvas site and so our lab will work with our Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching to develop training, to empower faculty to design their digital course materials in more accessible ways. I would love to say that you could just hit the easy button and it’s done, but it takes time. And so for us, we have adopted the model of empowering faculty, staff, and students, in creating their own accessible materials, because that just broadens the reach.
Ken: At a previous job I was a web producer at an ophthalmology and otolaryngology hospital, so our audience were those with visual and hearing accessibility issues. We were building a WordPress website and my manager asked, “Is there just an accessibility plugin we can install?” No, like you said, there is no easy button. There is no easy mode for this.
Cyndi: Exactly and there are some companies out there that are involved with website overlays that actually want to be the easy button, but they really do not work. They do not work well, so if something is too easy, it is too good to be true.
Ken: I have not heard of overlays before. I’ll have to look into that so that I know to avoid them.
Cyndi: Yes. I bet you’ve seen them though. If you’re on your phone or if you’re on a laptop, desktop, if you see the little blue accessibility icon with the person in white in the middle and you press that, usually that’s an accessibility overlay. So that is something to be aware of.
Ken: All right, I’ll keep an eye on for that. Now can students at Iowa State University take courses from the Digital Accessibility Lab?
Cyndi: Beginning this summer, yes. Because we are adding, at the graduate level, a certificate in digital accessibility that is within our human computer interaction program. So I’m going to teach the inaugural first course in the summer session, online.
Ken: That’s an exciting development. I’ve heard of digital accessibility certificates outside of academia. A friend of mine who used to work in web development earned one as part of their training, I think from IAAP, does that sound right?
Cyndi: Yep. Yeah, IAAP is one of the larger reputable places that… There’s a few different certificates that you can earn and they’re really good. They allow somebody to really dig deep into the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines or WCAG as they are lovingly known as for the abbreviation, how to make sure something is accessible, how to test it and then how to make recommendations to make something more accessible, that isn’t.
Ken: What is different from the IAAP versus what students will be learning at Iowa State University this summer?
Cyndi: Yeah, good question. It’s an academic program within one of our departments and so we balance theory with praxis. So students will have already been admitted to the human computer interaction program and that was an area where we felt that we needed some more education in the accessibility sphere because students typically have not encountered digital accessibility. I went to school in the nineties, I was an art major and I ended up in graphic design after that, and I had never heard of digital accessibility. Wasn’t a huge thing for us at all. And as the web grew and the internet grew, and computers, and now cell phones and smart devices, the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines is now on version 2.1, updated just a few years ago. There was a 1.0 version that came after the ADA was signed into law in 1990 or ’91, and then updated in 2008, where right before iPhones, iPads became really, really ubiquitous.
Cyndi: Then the next iteration was 2018 of the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines, and a lot had changed in those 10 years. One of the differences in the other certificates is having accessibility integrated in with your educational experience. The idea is somebody’s not really going to be able to say, “Oh, Iowa State has a certificate. I’m going to just do that.” We’re not going to offer the certificate separately as a program, if that makes sense? It’s going to be with current master’s degree students in HCI, Human Computer Interaction and/or PhD students who are already enrolled. It’s a complement to their education. It’s something that we noticed was missing and wanted to make sure that accessibility was a part of human computer interaction.
Ken: Since you’re not necessarily waiting for the next iteration of the WCAG guidelines, you’re perhaps going to be more on the cutting edge of accessibility?
Cyndi: I would hope so because at Iowa State, innovation is one of our motivating guidelines. Strategic plan always has innovation along with our programs so I haven’t… And there may be other grad programs that are focusing on accessibility. I haven’t heard of them yet, so as we dig deeper and talk with more folks, maybe we’ll discover them. There are some undergraduate programs that are focusing more on accessibility and digital accessibility. I’m involved with a nonprofit group called Teach Access and the premise of that group is to have academics, companies and also organizations like advocacy organizations, all working together to promote the idea that we need to be teaching accessibility within higher education. And making it more prevalent so that people in STEM, graphic design, people that have some power over what something looks like and how it functions, are learning about what accessibility is, why are we doing this and who to involve?
Cyndi: It’s a very active group, Teach Access. Silicon Valley companies are involved, some other companies, a lot of different academic institutions across the US. We are talking about expanding internationally, maybe in another year or two. We have a faculty grants program that is ongoing, where faculty can apply for a grant to teach an accessibility module within one of their courses and get some money to help them do that. If they need to purchase assistive technology, or if they need to purchase an Xbox, if they want to do accessible gaming or cover summer salary, then that’s what that grant would help. Our goal is to reach a million students by the year 2030, so we’re on our way, but not there yet.
Ken: Wow, that is amazing. I had not heard of this group, but they are at teachaccess.org and on Twitter @teachaccess, I’ll include links in the show notes. One of the common themes I’ve found in all the accessibility research I’ve done recently, both on your own writing and on Iowa State University’s website, is the slogan Nothing About Us Without Us. Can you elaborate on what that means?
Cyndi: Yeah. We have this printed really largely on a huge poster in our lab. The origin of the phrase is still sort of a mystery, but it became popularized by James Charlton. He had heard a couple of South African disability activists speak and they said that phrase, “Nothing About Us Without Us.” When Charlton wrote a book called Nothing About Us Without Us: Disability Oppression and Empowerment in the year 2000, was attributed as the first book to provide a theoretical overview of disability, oppression, and what the saying Nothing About Us Without Us encompasses, as a motto or even a manifesto, is the idea that disabled people and people with disabilities, depending on if you use identity first or person first language, that we need to be included.
Cyndi: In the context of games and gaming, we need to be involved in the entire process from idea, design, development, to having access to play and recommending changes all along the way, to keep accessibility in mind from the beginning. So nothing about us is referring to people with disabilities, and then basically if you don’t have people with disabilities involved, don’t do it. Get us involved.
Ken: But not as free labor either.
Cyndi: Yeah, that’s a great point. Yes, not as free labor. One of the things that we’ve been working on at Iowa State in the lab is to pay the regular Information Technology Services wage to student workers. We also hire graduate assistants as well. And it’s really important, thank you for bringing this up, to not just ask, “Hey, you have a disability, will you test this for me?” No, because my expertise needs to be worth something of value if we’re going to contribute, and for that value to be fair and equitable.
Cyndi: The unemployment numbers for people with disabilities is astronomically higher than the typical unemployment rate here in Iowa. It’s about, it’s almost 11% as opposed to the 4,5% of unemployment for typical folks, so there’s a huge gap. So for student workers in the lab, I was very intentional about advocating for a higher wage to match the students that were working on coding or building a web app or something of that nature. Because if we’re not paying equitably, then it says to people that have disabilities, “You’re not worth as much.” And we are worth as much and our experience, and our knowledge, and time is to be valued.
Ken: Does that mean that in the short term, it’s more expensive to make things at accessible?
Cyndi: I would say if… So you have a project going on, you have a game that you’re designing, if you have not considered accessibility at all, yes it will be more expensive to have to redo things. If you add it into the process all along, it probably will add cost because it’ll add some more time, it’ll add some more expertise. If you’re gathering data, if you’re doing usability studies, that needs to be paid for. So yes, it will add some cost and it’s not something that should be considered an add-on cost, it’s something that just needs to be integrated into this is what it costs to build a website. You have to do a certain amount of work, testing and making sure you test with people with disabilities as well.
Ken: Right, and it’s cheaper in the long run because you don’t have to go back and do it later. You are going to expand your audience and you’re also going to avoid lawsuits.
Ken: With all those long term benefits, how come there is, nonetheless some resistance to incorporating accessibility? Or maybe it’s not even resistance, but just negligence?
Cyndi: I think people and companies just aren’t as aware as they could be, not being taught in higher education, for those of us that have gone that route, not being taught in a community college setting or in any training for coding or for graphic design, about digital accessibility. There’s just a lot of naivete and ignorance. And not ignorance in a pejorative sense, but just, you don’t know about it, you don’t know it’s a problem. So unfortunately a lot of change does happen because of lawsuits. I never like to start with that because I feel that we should be making things accessible because it’s not only the right thing to do, but more people are going to be able to use your product and you won’t have to go back and tear it down and remediate, spending a lot of hours and time and money in that process. So the focus changes a little bit.
Ken: It’s true because the statistic that I’ve often seen quoted, let me know if this is still accurate, is that roughly 10% of Americans have some form of disability. And very often they’re invisible, such as neuro divergence, or for example, my mom who has multiple sclerosis, you don’t know what people’s life experiences are.
Cyndi: That’s right, and the percentage is about 20%. I think we’re doing a better job of diagnosing those invisible and sometimes hidden disabilities like cognitive and learning disabilities, as well as the physical disabilities, so it hovers around 20%. On college campuses, it’s going to be about that same number. You get a representative data point from students on a college campus, and for our college campus, we gather data if students choose to self-disclose. So if a student doesn’t want to disclose that they have a disability or may not know they have a disability, then the reported percentages are going to be a little bit less, but the number is going to hover around 20%.
Ken: The Digital Accessibility Lab’s website says that the number of students with disabilities entering college is increasing. Is that tying into what you’re saying about more people identifying or diagnosis getting better? Or does it actually suggest that college is becoming more accessible?
Cyndi: Well, I would like to say that college is becoming more accessible, but I don’t think it is yet. I think we’re in a place of, we don’t really know why. There’s not been a definitive answer out there that I’ve seen yet, and maybe it is, and I’ve missed it. But some higher ed is becoming more accessible in some spaces on some campuses, and some just don’t know about it yet, or simply are relying on the accommodation process. So what we do at the Digital Accessibility Lab is, if we can work with faculty to produce course materials that are accessible from the beginning and students claim less accommodations or use less accommodations, I think that would be great. I still encourage students to claim their accommodation if they need it, because it is protection for them for…
Cyndi: There’s always going to be somebody who doesn’t fully understand what having a disability is like and how it affects them. So preemptive designing materials with accessibility in mind, versus accommodations that a student has an accommodation, it’s documented. They go to something like a student accessibility services on campus, and they have an accommodation that is given to their faculty person. That either they have to give to that faculty person on paper, in person, which can be nerve wracking and a shaming process in some cases, or it gets emailed to the faculty person electronically. It can create a lot of discomfort and anxiety for students that have disabilities to approach a faculty person to say, “Hey, I need this from you.”
Ken: No, I can appreciate that. I had a student who was clearly having academic challenges and when I pulled them aside, they said, “Oh, well, I live off campus. It’s difficult for me to get on campus to use the computers here. And my own personal computer is too old to access Canvas, our LMS,” et cetera. And I said, “Well, that all sounds true but I also think you could have resolved that months ago and we’re this deep into the semester, so what’s really going on?” He ended up telling me that he had recently received a diagnosis that made his academic challenges all the more difficult, and he hadn’t told anybody because he wanted to do it on his own. We encourage the society of individualism where you don’t ask for help, and unfortunately, in this case, he did need help and wasn’t willing or able to ask for it, until pressed.
Cyndi: Yeah, and that happens a lot. Students don’t want to ask for help because they’re like, “Nope, I’m going to do it. I can do this,” and oftentimes it is late in the semester when a student realizes, yeah, I need some help, and a recent diagnosis may have happened. Once thing that I don’t know that students actually realize, is that they do not have to share with a faculty person their actual diagnosis. They can choose to like that student chose to with you, but they do not have to. It’s the same for employee accommodations. I have a workplace accommodation here at Iowa State and I work with HR. It’s documented, on file, that good stuff.
Cyndi: I do not have to disclose what my actual disability is with my supervisor. I just need to disclose that, okay, I’ve worked with HR, I have the appropriate paperwork and here is what I need. Fortunately, my supervisor is fantastic, our department has embraced a work-flex program. Our whole university has actually just put into policy, a work-flex program for staff and that is very, very good news for other college campuses that have staff with disabilities as well. It can be accommodating to everybody. If you have kids that you need to pick up or take to school and you have flex time, that’ll help a lot. You may not have a disability, but maybe you can still have some work life balance with that schedule.
Ken: I have worked for employers who see their employees as means to an end, and I’ve worked for employers who see their employees as people first, and the difference is striking. It’s really important to find a place that respects their employees because if you can’t do your job as a human, you can’t do your job as an employee.
Cyndi: So true. Yeah, if it’s hard to just get up in the morning and get to work, and whatever work you’re doing, everything is equally important, yeah, it is hard. If you’re just having trouble getting somewhere and then when you get there, if you have trouble navigating the space, then that’s difficult too.
Ken: Well, unfortunately with this pandemic, I’m not going many places anymore. That’s partly because a lot of things have moved online in the last two years, academia being one of them, a lot of teaching has started happening online. Would you say that the pandemic has made a clearer case for the need for accessibility?
Cyndi: It has. What we were seeing at Iowa State and a lot of other campuses, I’ve heard from colleagues that work smaller colleges, larger colleges, any size, really, it fast forwarded the need for accessibility because of the digital technologies that we were using to conduct class, work, like a lot of other industries. I recognize the privilege in that. So I have broadband internet access, both on campus and in my home. For some students that were in rural areas of Iowa, they didn’t have internet access and a lot of faculty just assumed that they did. So for access and accessibility, we’ve now realized, oops, yeah, this is important, we need to have the internet too, so Iowa is funding some initiatives for rural broadband, which is good.
Cyndi: And the stronger case that I saw for accessibility mainly had to do with adding transcripts and captions to videos. So our in-person classes that had been happening historically and traditionally, we’ve had online classes as well for a number of years, but people that taught in person and never taught online, it was a huge transition for them. Faculty were struggling, students were struggling. If you didn’t have a good microphone, if you didn’t have steady internet access, it was super hard to just complete an assignment or stream a class live. So I think immediately we began to see those stronger cases for captioning, and accessibility happening. We were able to then utilize some of the emergency funding for COVID to apply that, to having captions along with our technologies for streaming, and that helped a lot. It’s not perfect, but we were able to work with our procurement department and get accessibility included in all of our software contracts, adhering to the WCAG guidelines.
Cyndi: We also spearheaded writing a digital accessibility policy for our campus. A lot of campuses do not have a digital accessibility policy and so there’s no way to track anything that’s happening, any issues. Just make a clear case for what is expected of staff and faculty when we are producing digital things, digital materials and products. So the timing, COVID, the pandemic has been terrible and the stronger case for accessibility gives me hope that we are hopefully emerging out of this, hopefully in a better place, but I don’t know. It’s also been hard for people with disabilities and COVID because immunocompromised faculty had a hard time coming back to teaching in-person. Iowa was one of the states that did not have a mask mandate so we’ve had some issues, still ongoing.
Ken: But the things that you have been able to do, like the additional captioning that you use the emergency funds for, in theory that’s stuff that should’ve been happening all along and we hope it will continue even after, if ever this pandemic is over.
Cyndi: Absolutely, that’s the case that I made and leadership at our university is very supportive of the ongoing fund for a digital accessibility toolkit. So some tools to put into faculty’s hands, some tools to put into staff people’s hands who are working on websites. Those tools don’t pick up everything as manual testing would, so having a policy in place allows us to be able to schedule audits and manual testing, just to make sure that our materials are compliant and hopefully going above the minimum. Being able to advocate for some things to be centrally funded has been really powerful, and to have leadership’s support and their buy-in of, yeah, this is very important, let’s do it, has been crucial.
Ken: We’ve been talking a lot about accessibility. In the graduate course I used to teach, I would introduce my students who were developing their own websites, to the concept of usability. What is the relationship between those two concepts?
Cyndi: Yeah, these are two separate things, but should be integrated. Going back to the ADA, the Americans With Disabilities Act, it actually only requires minimum amount of compliance. So if something is accessible, okay, yep, that meets the ADA, or in digital accessibility, maybe it meets the minimum WCAG, 2.0, single A for the minimum instead of double A, going above minimum. So it will be accessible, but it may not always be usable or it may not always be usable in a way that is actually easier.
Cyndi: An example of this for a physical environment would be, our library has reconfigured its entrance. It’s minimally compliant with accessibility, however if somebody drives to campus and parks in a disabled parking space, it’s actually really far away from the accessible entrance of the library. For usability, it’s not as usable, but it’s minimally compliant with accessibility. So we need to balance those and make sure that again, we’re involving people with disabilities to share their experiences, right away.
Ken: That’s a really interesting example you just gave about the disabled parking spot. I was taught in what little I know of usability, that when you make something accessible, you inherently make it more usable as well. Is that not always the case?
Cyndi: No. I would say that’s not always the case. I can make a website and I can make it accessible, whether it’s usable or not will depend. If I make the website and I’ve made a target audience of college students, because that’s in my world, it’s not going to ever be 100% fully accessible to everybody. If I hear that statement from other people, I’m like, “No, it’s not. It’s just not. It’s not going to be 100% accessible for everybody.” But our goal is to make it accessible for as many people as possible, including those with disabilities.
Cyndi: So if I do a website that is HTML5 correct, it’s going to be accessible for the most part, but if I don’t pay attention to usability, the colors may just not be directing us in a good visual hierarchy. Or if the type size is too small within that, or too large, there could be other things that just make it not as usable, but it could be rated as accessible.
Ken: Interesting. The example I’d once been given was analog and it was referring to the curbs at street corners, where when you put a ramp so that people don’t have to step down, but they can roll down, then that makes it accessible for wheelchair users, but it also has benefits for other people, such as somebody pushing a stroller or riding a bicycle. So I think that was the example they gave, where, when you make something accessible, it expands its usability. But to your point, that’s not always going to be the case.
Cyndi: Yeah, not always, but the curb cuts, that’s a great example of it working in that manner. People with strollers, bicycles, roller blades, skateboards, scooters, whatever, and wheelchairs. I always like to ask students sometime during the semester to pay attention to some of the curb cuts and where they’re located. Are they close to the door, are they not close to the door? Is that door a door with stairs or is the accessible entrance all the way in back of the building? Related to the usability, where does it work? Where does it not work? Also with curb cuts, a lot of students will think that… Well, people just in general, but the students that I ask will think that the texture to them is so that somebody doesn’t slip, but the texture is actually for people who use canes to have a tactile feedback of, okay, I know I’m at a curb cut now.
Ken: I did not know that, interesting. As we discussed, there is no easy mode for accessibility and there are tools that can make accessibility testing for websites easier to conduct, such as WAVE or Siteimprove. What about for video games? What tools do you use to test the accessibility of a video game? Or are there any?
Cyndi: Yeah, for video games, it aligns with WCAG and also the 21st Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act, which is a law that also applies to video games, it’s telecommunications access and video programming. But for testing video games, if they have closed captioning, then we have a test for that. There’s not really, to my knowledge, any automatic testing yet. I know that Microsoft has developed the Xbox Accessibility Guidelines that align with WCAG and that’s been really helpful to go through as we are testing games and researching them for accessibility.
Cyndi: There’s certain things that we look for that are kind of the low hanging fruit, like the closed captioning. Is it there or is it not there? If it’s there, okay it’s more accessible, but for a lot of games, they’re really tiny, so if I’m on a console and I am more than three feet away, on a couch, from a TV, if it’s small, I still can’t see the captions. But they’re there so it’s accessible, but not usable, so that’s another example of that. Things related to color contrast, we do have some tools that we can use for color contrast testing, that we can bring into games as well. Type size, type choice. There’s a lot of manual testing that goes into video games.
Cyndi: From the coding perspective, there are things that can be made easier, things that you can remap controls so that you can change what a particular button on a controller does to suit your own custom gaming experience. And that would benefit a lot of people and people with disabilities that need to remap something. A typical controller assumes that you have two working hands and all 10 fingers, and that’s not the case for everybody so we like to test also with different types of people with different types of disabilities. But the automatic automated testing that exists for websites and for learning management systems and other things, isn’t there yet for video games. I think that’s okay because those automated testing tools is a good place to start, but we can’t rely solely on automatic testing. They’re only going to pick up maybe 40% of all accessibility errors, then the rest needs to be manually checked.
Ken: Still it’s a good head start for people to get at least that 40%.
Cyndi: It is because that 40% is really imperative and can make the difference between somebody being able to access something and not access something, and be able to move through the experience if it’s a game or a website.
Ken: I didn’t even realize that there were accessibility guidelines for video games, but if I understood you correctly, it’s actually required for them to have captions?
Cyndi: It does fall under the CVAA, which is that 21st Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act, which includes audio description as well as captions and subtitles. And there’s a lot of nuances to that law. It was signed in the law in 2010 so it’s been around a while, but it does relate to websites that are broadcasting videos. For us at a college campus, if we broadcast our commencement exercises, then we need to have captions happening live, so the CVAA applies to that as well. There’s some gray areas as it applies to video games, but yeah. And again, people that choose to add accessibility features are doing so, probably not because they’ve heard of the CVAA, but because they’re adding it in because their users are requesting, or they’re like, “Yes, we need to do this,” or for various reasons. I would love to say that every game studio is doing that, but they’re not yet, so.
Ken: Well, I think this sort of answers my next question, which was, I was reading on your website about how there was a lawsuit against Domino’s Pizza, which describes itself as a tech company that sells pizza and whether their website or apps needed to be accessible. And the Supreme Court of the United States in October, 2019, ruled that yes, they do need to be accessible. And in your words, you wrote, people who are blind or experience other types of disabilities, deserve to order pizza. It’s a civil right.
Ken: So my question was, are video games also a civil right? And it sounds like that’s been answered by this CVVA back in 2010.
Cyndi: Yeah. The Domino’s case was really crucial and important. The Supreme Court actually refused to hear the case, thereby upholding the lower court’s decision of ruling in favor of the plaintiff, who was blind and couldn’t order the pizza that he wanted to, using Domino’s website. So with the Supreme Court saying, “Yeah, no, we’re not going to look at this because we’re going to uphold the lower court’s decision, the Ninth Court,” Domino’s, I think, is still working on appeals, but their websites still are not accessible. For businesses that have a physical location, the lower court defined this as a right to equal access. And that’s what the ADA is, equal access. So in this case, are video games also a civil right? If we are defining equal access as a civil right, then yes, video games should be a civil right.
Ken: That’s interesting because people need to be able to eat, whether it’s pizza or something else, they do. I guess you could argue that play is also a basic human right. People need to be able to engage in something other than work, diversion, relaxation, and video games are a form of that, just like pizza’s a form of food.
Cyndi: Exactly, yeah. So it comes down to not only leisure time, but if we’re using video games in classes and we’re requiring them to be used, and we’re requiring employees to be trained through video games, then they absolutely must be accessible.
Ken: That’s true, you’re right. I mistakenly pigeonholed video games into just a leisure pursuit, but they are important in a lot of other ways like empathy games, which teach us about life experiences beyond just our own. I understand that you are working on a game called A11yCats. What can you tell us about that?
Cyndi: So A11yCats uses the numeronym A11Y which is a stand-in for accessibility, the number 11 in the middle of that is the 11 missing letters between the letters A and Y, and it’s often pronounced alley or ally, and so we’ve applied it to A11yCats. The name of the game is A11yCats Arcade, it’s an irreverent reverent adventure in accessibility. We live by the mantra of Nothing About Us Without Us, but we also like to bring humor into some things that we do. You don’t often see that on a college campus, of something that the university is doing that has humor intentionally embedded within it. But we’re designing and developing it right now, and I can’t let too many cats out of the bag, pun intended, or bad dad joke, whichever, but its focus is to bring awareness to disabilities so I would categorize this within the genre of a serious game because it’s not just for entertainment, but it is to bring awareness to disabilities.
Cyndi: We have nine cats that have different disabilities, some are visible, some are not visible, hopefully reflecting the diversity of people as well. The idea originated, the alley cats originated from a group of folks that were just doing kind of cool stuff and they’re like, “Hey, we should be alley cats,” and there was a shirt that was designed. Carie Fisher is the person that designed the shirt. I have, I don’t know, three or four of the shirts, and they donated the proceeds to different disability charities, and they’re still doing that. So on Twitter, Twitter’s fantastic, right? We were just reaching out, “Hey, you’re doing cool stuff. Do you want to talk to me?” So that’s what I did with Carie. I was like, “Hey, you’re doing cool stuff. Tell me about the A11yCats design. I have an idea, if you would like to be involved, in making it a game.” She was very gracious and said, “Sure, let’s do it,” so we’ve been working on that for a little bit, so hopefully that will be out this time next year.
Ken: Excellent. You described it as a serious game, which is not a term I’ve heard too often in the last, to be honest, 20 years. The first time I heard it was when some students in Massachusetts were working on a game called MassBalance where they could invite players to balance the Massachusetts State budget. Games have evolved a lot in the last 20 years, terms like empathy games have emerged. So what is a serious game? And has it changed since I’ve last heard about it?
Cyndi: Serious game is a genre all on its own and means that a certain game that has been designed as a serious game, will use traditional game mechanics to learn or teach something, or experience something that is not purely for entertainment, whether that is digital or analog, or a combination of both. I think what’s happened with serious games is that it’s become interwoven in some ways, and it’s crossed into the education sector more, it’s morphed into Edu games, you mentioned empathy games. It’s become some other things, but at least in academia, it still exists as a genre in of itself.
Ken: And just because it’s serious, does that mean it’s not fun?
Cyndi: Right, exactly. Our A11yCats Arcade irreverent reverent adventure in accessibility is a serious game, but should be fun and should be humorous. So yeah, it can be a misnomer, serious game has to be not fun, but no, a lot of them are fun.
Ken: Well, good. I look forward to having fun with A11yCats.
Cyndi: I will let you test.
Ken: Oh, wonderful. That’s obviously going to be a game that has accessibility baked into it. There are some other good examples in the past few years, like Celeste, which is a hard as nails platformer, but it has options that make it available and accessible to a variety of gamers, of abilities and skill levels. And then there are games like Dark Souls, which some people have objected to the introduction of accessibility features, claiming that the challenge of the game is what makes it so popular and if you make it easier and more accessible, you actually dilute the game itself. Cyndi, what’s your response to that?
Cyndi: My response is get over it. I mean, that’s obviously my opinion, of course. I say that because you can still participate without turning on the assist mode in Celeste and other Soulslike games. Miyazaki designed the games to be difficult, and you need to explore the territory. You need to explore by the mechanic of dying, it’s a built in mechanic that you die in those games, and then you start the level over, unless you didn’t reach a certain checkpoint and then you have to go back a little further. You won’t lose the whole game, but it’s encouraging this idea of repeated gameplay. It’s encouraging failure already, so it’s encouraging difficulty with your progress in the game that is dependent on what you uncover and what you come across.
Cyndi: I mentioned the assist mode, so the assist mode for games like Celeste can help move a player along, they can adjust the difficulty. A player might choose to change settings to less difficult to get through a particularly challenging part, and then may set it back a higher difficulty level. It puts more control on the player side with the ability to toggle on and off certain features. For this genre, Soulslike genre, navigation is a big part and having accessibility features for larger text and good color contrast are important. Having a map that you can see that you can zoom into and it doesn’t lose resolution, is important.
Cyndi: Reading level can also affect game difficulty. Many games in this genre have these cryptic messages as part of the mechanic, so keeping the reading level at elementary school level is important for accessibility. It depends on your target audience though, right? If you are going for a more adult audience, then maybe it’s more than an elementary school reading level. Yeah, I think that gamers get really aggressive about this topic and I want the ability to be able to have that control. Esports is a whole other area too, where if you do change game settings, then how does it change the competition? That’s certainly an ongoing conversation to, but for a game like Celeste, I want to be able to make the changes I need to do, to be able to play.
Ken: Yeah, it’s certainly a form of gate keeping because when… These are one player games, especially, like Celeste, how does it affect one person how somebody else chooses to play the game?
Cyndi: Yeah, that’s the argument, right? Of if I’m playing Celeste and I’m at home, I’m not affecting somebody else’s gameplay. I hear the same argument in the LGBTQ community. What am I hurting by being gay? Who am I hurting by being gay? It’s my experience. And to talk about empathy games, we have, in the gaming industry and also in user experience, human computer interaction, graphic design, interaction design, we have misused the word and the idea, the concept of empathy altogether, and the old adage of step into somebody else’s shoes. We can’t.
Cyndi: We are never going to be able to fully understand someone else’s experience. We’re not them and they are not us, and that’s been a problem. So we’ve gotten this education and training of empathy, but how do we actually feel empathy? It should be a mutual experience. We can’t study somebody or involve them in a usability test and all of a sudden build empathy with somebody by observing them. It’s just not going to happen.
Ken: But that’s not to diminish the value of what we’re doing, is it?
Cyndi: I think it can diminish the value if it is done in a way, like some games are disability simulators. I think that’s damaging to the disability community because if I’m simulating being in a wheelchair and I’m not actually in a wheelchair, I can just get up and walk away any time. That’s that sympathy and pity. I’ve heard a lot of students walk away and say, “Oh, thank God I’m not blind,” and that is not really what we’re going for. So that’s where we get it wrong.
Ken: Well, in one of your online writings, you noted that disability is socially constructed. Can you elaborate on that?
Cyndi: Yep. So there are two models, one is the medical model and one is the social model of disability. The medical model is a little bit older and something that we still kind of hold onto as a society. The medical model focuses on somebody’s impairment or impairments, and often this means that these should or could be fixed. So it actually causes focus on people’s, our own morbid curiosity of what’s wrong, “What’s wrong with you?” Or, “Oh, I see you’re in a wheelchair, how’d that happen to you?” That’s the medical model of focusing on somebody’s impairment.
Cyndi: The social model is all about disability being caused by how society has chosen to organize itself. For example, meeting the minimums of the ADA does not necessarily mean something is accessible, or accessible as it can be or usable like we’ve talked about. The example that I gave earlier of our campus with the accessible entrance to the library on the far side of the building from disabled parking, this is an example of something that’s been socially constructed, because people have chosen where to put the accessible entrance and where to put the parking, that is not focused on the person.
Cyndi: In terms of digital accessibility too. For a course that has digital materials, like a PDF file, a lot of faculty will just scan a PDF of a book and that turns out to be an image and it’s not accessible for those with visual impairment, certainly, but it’s not really good for anybody, because you can’t really zoom in, it loses resolution. A screen reader can’t read it because it doesn’t recognize it as text, so that would be a socially constructed disability that, if the PDF were an actual text file, then somebody won’t experience disability with that file, hopefully.
Ken: Well, thank you. I was trying to, on my own, think about what it might mean to be a socially constructed model. I think I got it right because we build our society with a specific model of human in mind, but bodies and abilities are all different shapes and sizes, and we don’t do a great job of accommodating anything other than that one mental model.
Cyndi: Yes, exactly.
Ken: We’ve been talking a lot for the last hour about accessibility of websites and video games, and I want to be respectful of your time, but I have one last kind of a big question to ask you. Which is on your website, you wrote that underlying all your research is inclusion with a focus on digital accessibility, LGBTQ+ issues, racial equity, anti-racist pedagogy and social justice. Everything that you just named in that list is nothing that I was raised with. I’m curious, how do you get to have those value? Why is this your calling? Why are you the digital accessibility lead for the Digital Accessibility Lab at Iowa State University? Why was that your calling?
Cyndi: Yeah. I grew up in rural Missouri, so this was not on the list of what we were taught or how we grew up. And I like how you phrased it as my calling because I really do feel like this area is where we need more work and we need more attention to. So for me, I want to use my voice and the privilege that I carry to amplify the problems of people on the margins, which include myself. I think what happened really was I came out as lesbian, grew up thinking I was really, really different, grew up not being able to read very well, and I compensated with the classroom and I was able to do fairly well in school, but socially I crashed and burned. And so it has been a personal journey for me to accept who I am and how I am, and how I interact with others, and also to learn from other people what’s important to them.
Cyndi: And why does dominant culture get to decide things that are relevant me? There’s some ways that I fit within dominant culture and there’s some ways that I fit in the margins, and so I can skirt back and forth. I kind of liken it to code switching in a way, but it really is what I said before about empathy, is that I cannot step into another person’s shoes. I’m not going to know what it’s like to be a man because I haven’t been a man. I’m not going to know what it’s like to be somebody else from a different race because I’m white and I carry a lot of unearned skin color privilege with that. So if I can use my story and my voice to talk about these things, reaching different students, having conversations.
Cyndi: And not bringing people over to my side, that’s not what it’s about. I don’t need people to agree with me and I don’t need to disagree with others, I’d like to just have a civil conversation about it, have a civil discourse. We’re so decentralized, not only in our campus here at Iowa State, but our country is kind of decentralized as well. And I want to recognize everybody’s humanity and have my humanity recognized too, and not forget that we’re dealing with other people. It’s been a long journey from rural Missouri to Des Moines and Ames, Iowa. But to have the focus and attention on digital accessibility and the other issues of social justice, those feel pretty big and I’m never done learning.
Ken: Well, I really admire your willingness to have those conversations, both with me and with your students and your peers, because it’s not your job to educate people about your life experiences, but you’re nonetheless using those experiences to help make a more accessible world. I really admire that.
Cyndi: Thank you very much, I appreciate you saying that.
Ken: For those who want to follow you or your work online, where can they find you?
Cyndi: I am everywhere online. A lot of times I go by the moniker of Dr. Meowface because I like cats and dogs. But Twitter, LinkedIn, Instagram. I’m on Twitch, but I don’t really do anything except watch other people on Twitch. TikTok I’m not participating fully in that as well, but yeah, you can find me by my name, Cyndi Wiley or Dr. Meowface.
Ken: Excellent. There’ll be links to those in the show note at Polygamer.net. And also I should’ve asked you, how can listeners help either with accessibility or with the Digital Accessibility Lab?
Cyndi: Yeah, that’s a good question. I think for users to help is just to, when you notice that things aren’t quite right on a website or in a game, like it doesn’t have closed captions or something’s too small, send them a message. Send the company a message. Tweet about it. Post a picture on Instagram about it and tag it, that can be really helpful to broadening the conversation about that. And for the Digital Accessibility Lab, since we’re based within the campus, just keep a watch out for us and for some presentations that we may be part of or games that we build, like the A11yCats game, and test those out, play them, and let us know what you think about them.
Ken: Fantastic. Well, I look forward to that game and also to hearing what comes next from you and from Iowa State University. Cyndi, thank you so much for your time.
Cyndi: Thank you, Ken. It was a pleasure.
Voiceover: This has been Polygamer, a Gamebits production. Find more episodes, read our blog, or send feedback at polygamer.net.