As a part of Amara’s Leading the Way in Accessibility effort, we are writing a series of blog posts to highlight people who have dedicated themselves to improving accessibility. It is our pleasure to start off this series by recognizing a lifelong accessibility advocate, Svetlana Kouznetsova.
Svetlana was gracious enough to join us for an interview and share a bit about her journey towards fostering accessibility through her work.
Read on below for the full interview. Amara’s questions appear below in bolded text:
For those that aren’t familiar with you and your work, could you please introduce yourself?
I’m an independent accessibility consultant and trailblazer who also happens to be deaf. I was born and raised in Russia before moving here to the States with my family. I’m bilingual in Russian and English, fluent in ASL (American Sign Language) and know basic RSL (Russian Sign Language) and French. I have learned a bit of other languages. I was raised oral using spoken languages and didn’t start using sign language on a regular basis until after I became a college student. I wore hearing aids in the past. Now I hear with a cochlear implant. It helps me mostly with environmental sound recognition, so I still need to rely on visual access.
My professional background is in design, technology, and accessibility. I provide consulting services to businesses on how to improve accessibility of their web, media, and events for the world’s largest minority of 1.85 billion disabled people.
High quality captioning access is one of my several specializations. As someone who was raised using spoken languages in Russian and English and learning a bit of other languages, I have relied a lot on text to access aural information – via reading print materials, communicating in writing, or watching captions.
I did not have captioning access on TV until I was around 15 years old when my father brought home a captioning decoder. We were so amazed by this magic box that made captions appear on almost all TV channels! Since then I cannot imagine my life without captioning access!
Later I learned about live captioning access at some deaf events that were also beneficial for me as someone who is not a native sign language user. Even being a fluent ASL user now, I still prefer captions for many situations.
Attending my hearing sister’s college graduation that was live captioned to the whole audience made me realize that live captions should not be limited to just deaf events. So I started consulting media producers and event organizers on optimal captioning access. It’s a necessity for 466 million deaf and hard of hearing people in the world, including myself. I also specialize in web accessibility and advise businesses on this. I have given presentations internationally for over 10 years on various accessibility topics.
What does “accessibility” mean to you, and why is it important?
For me, accessibility is equal access for disabled people. While it benefits everyone, it’s a necessity for disabled people. It enables us to function on an equal footing with others.
How can everyday people help to improve accessibility in their
Many think that technology can solve all accessibility problems. I think there are great technologies that help many deaf people. Some examples are hearing aids, cochlear implants, speech to text applications. However, they would not be beneficial if they are used the wrong way. For example, auto captions may be used as a starting point, but cannot be left on their own. They need to be edited by humans to follow best quality standards. For certain situations where a lot of complicated content is used, a trained human captioner or a qualified sign language interpreter is necessary. I’m also often asked about an auto tool that instantly fixes accessibility for all websites. I’m sorry to say that there’s no magic solution – if there was one, it would have been implemented by now.
The most important thing that non-disabled people can do for disabled people is to ask them directly for advice, to listen to them, and to follow their suggestions – instead of making assumptions and decisions for them. Also, what works for one disabled person may not work for another person. We have different experiences with disabilities and different accessibility needs.
What’s one thing you wish more people knew when it comes to accessibility?
When it comes to media accessibility, there’s a common misconception that captions and subtitles are the same thing. They are not. Basically, captions are speech to text access for deaf people with additional accessibility elements while subtitles are translations from one spoke language to a written language native to hearing viewers and not fully accessible to deaf people. I wrote more about this to explain why subtitles are not deaf-friendly in my recent article on why subtitles are not accessible to me as a deaf person.
Also, captioning is more than just adding text. There are quality standards that make it easy to read and follow captions. Captioning is an art. It may sound easy, but you need an intuition that you only develop with experience. Anyone can write a book, for example, but not everyone is a professional writer. Even professional writers work with editors and designers to make their books look more professional and easy to read. For those reasons I advise media producers and event organizers on optimal captioning access and provide quality check.
What does a more accessible future look like to you?
I hope that in the future accessibility will be treated as a forethought and something that would be second nature for everyone in every project and every area of life.
What are some of the things that excite you about accessibility?
While technology doesn’t solve all accessibility problems, I’m still excited about certain tools that I use. For example, I love hearing with a cochlear implant. While I cannot understand speech without visual cues, for me it adds a rich spectrum of sounds. While auto captions are still not mature enough to replace humans, I’m excited that this technology is getting better and better. I’m using speech to text applications more often now than before and find them beneficial in informal situations. I’m also thrilled that more people are interested in learning sign language. I appreciate it when someone makes an effort to communicate with me in sign language instead of asking me if I can lipread them.
What has been your experience with Amara?
I’ve been familiar with Amara since they first founded as Universal Subtitles. As someone who advocates for high quality captions, I generally recommend only professional services and discourage people from using auto captions or crowdsourcing, especially for professional content. As with auto captions, crowdsourcing if not done right may also result in low quality.
However, there are situations when crowdsourcing may be beneficial. That’s when I recommend Amara and YouTube. Amara started crowdsourcing before YouTube added that feature. I don’t know what’s the plan for YouTube regarding community captions that were removed this fall, but if needed, community captions can still be used with Amara.
My TEDx talk was captioned in English by the event organizers and subtitled in other languages by translators who participate in Amara. I cannot vouch for the quality of translations in other languages except Russian, my native language. I was really happy with the quality of translation in Russian. I can see that Amara users take quality translation seriously.
When it comes to translating content about accessibility and disabilities, I personally think it’s important to ask disabled experts about proper words on this topic. For example, many Russians often still use “deafmute” (глухонемой) to describe us and even translate as such from the word “deaf” in English. They also often translate “non-disabled people” as “healthy people” (здоровые люди) – for example, in Stella Young’s TED talk. Those outdated words in Russian give me an unpleasant feeling as a deaf person. When a Russian translator did subtitles in Russian for my TEDx talk, I appreciated her asking me for a review of her translation to ensure that her translation of certain words is appropriate.
For organizations that want to improve accessibility in their workflows, but don’t know how, what would you recommend?
Accessibility is a very big field with many specializations. There are many accessibility guidelines developed for various industries. For web accessibility, the W3C would be a good place to start with. W3C is an international standards organization that developed web accessibility guidelines. They offer a lot of good information, but it may be overwhelming for those new to web accessibility. So it’s best to have a dedicated accessibility team or to hire an outside accessibility expert – depending on the size and structure of an organization.
I help organizations with accessibility strategies for web, media, and events. Here’s my information.
There are 3 options: do nothing, do everything yourself, and let experts do it for you. We know what happens if nothing is done – a lawsuit or losing customers to disability friendly competitors, and a bad reputation on top of it. It’s possible to do everything by yourself, but like with any other field, you need experience and training. Accessibility is a huge undertaking and not something you can learn or do overnight. So the best solution would be to hire an accessibility expert to help your organization.