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Interview with Michael Malver

Michael Malver

Accessible360 periodically showcases a digital superuser with personal insights into the digital landscape and assistive technology. By getting to know them, we learn more about the importance of digital accessibility, borrow their knowledge, and gain insights into important personal preferences.

Michael Malver, Accessibility Engineer

Would you tell us a little about yourself?
I have been using adaptive technology for over 30 years to access computers. I graduated from the University of Minnesota with a Bachelor of Arts in music therapy, and later obtained an AAS degree in computer programming. I spent 14 years doing help desk work and was adjunct faculty for two years at St. Paul College, where I taught a course in introductory Java programming. My interest in working as an Accessibility Engineer, a career which ensures websites are usable to people who are blind or visually impaired, came out of the challenges and successes I experienced while using mobile apps and surfing the web.
What are a couple of your favorite websites or mobile apps? Why do you like them and what, if anything, makes them particularly accessible?
I tend to interact with the world through my mobile phone rather than through a computer. Although it is possible to accessibly surf the web with a phone, without a Bluetooth keyboard, the experience can be a bit clunky. As a result, I tend to prefer mobile apps over websites. The app I use most is a podcatcher called Downcast. I believe it is accessible both because the author paid attention to documentation Apple provided regarding accessibility, but also because when there are accessibility issues, he is receptive to suggestions from his customers. Target has done an excellent job making its app accessible. There is an extremely basic app called “our groceries,” which I frequently use. because it has a simple-to-use interface and allows multiple people to easily create and modify lists.
How is digital technology critical to your daily life? Or how does technology improve your life experience on a regular basis?
I don’t think I would be as successful as I am today were it not for digital technology. Between my mobile phone, Amazon Echo Dot, Braille display, and computer, the amount of books, both for leisure and professional use, which I have access to is greater than ever before. I access some material through resources designed specifically for people who are blind or visually impaired (BARD, which is the National Library Service for the Blind, and Bookshare) while others I can access through Kindle books or the iTunes store.

There is an app called BlindSquare, which I can use to hear the names of buildings and streets as I walk to a destination. There is a model of Instant Pot, a popular pressure cooker, which comes with an app that allows an iPhone user to both control the device and read the temperature, pressure, and time for the food being cooked. Due to the willingness of many companies to accept digital payment, I rarely need to handle paper currency, but when I do, I can select from three different apps on my phone to identify paper currency. I also have multiple app choices for product identification, the ability to read printed documents, and the ability to have the environment around me described.

What assistive technology do you use when visiting websites or mobile apps?
I use a screen reader which enables me to operate my PC, and a second screen reader so I can operate my iPhone. I also use a device called the Braille Edge for reading books and taking notes. Though it has the ability to connect through Bluetooth to either my phone or my computer to show me in braille what is displayed on my screen, I do not use that feature often, as for me, listening is faster.
Can you name some companies or non-profits that have given you the technology support you wanted, either supplying tools or training when you needed?
I used to find out about technology through the American Council of the Blind (www.acb.org.) and the annual convention they hold each summer. Now, with so many adaptive technology companies on social media, as well as resources such as www.aph.org, www.afb.org, blindbargains.com and applevis.com, I am constantly discovering new resources to learn about what is available to me. It is wonderful to have access to so much information, and to see new software and hardware being developed so rapidly.
What are the most important accessible elements you look for in each website or app you use? Or what are the most common accessibility blockers you find when using websites or apps?
When I approach a website or app, I assume it will be accessible, because Microsoft, Android, and Apple, as well as the World Wide Web Consortium, have all developed accessibility standards. I expect the app will be accessible, and edit fields, slider, and buttons will be labeled. I assume pictures will have appropriate descriptions, and items which need to be clicked (other than buttons and labels), will be identifiable to my screen reader as items that can be interacted with.

The biggest blocker for me when working with apps and websites is items which are not appropriately labeled, or which are implemented in such a way that my screen reader can’t identify, or in some cases interact, with them.

If you could change one thing about the way all websites and apps behave or operate, what would it be? And how would that one change affect the way you use them?
I would make it impossible for a designer to place an item on a form that accepted user input unless that item had an appropriately implemented label to go along with it. It is extremely easy to build a form in such a way that a sighted user will have no problem knowing what information is required in each field of a form, yet screen reader users will be unable to know what to type in the form because the screen reader is unable to tell them. If I could make this change, applications (everything from simply signing up for a site, to applying for a new bank account, to applying for jobs) would be more accessible.
Can you imagine an assistive technology that you would find useful but does not exist today?
Off the top of my head, I can’t imagine a new type of adaptive technology. Personally, I think that’s fine, because there is a lot of work we need to do with technology that already exists. Android, Apple and Microsoft have demonstrated that screen reading technology can be built into mainstream products (i.e., tablets and phones), and that such screen reading technology can give people who are blind access to touch screens. The 21st Century Communication and Video Accessibility Act mandated that devices such as cable boxes, televisions, and mobile phones provide alternative techniques for people with disabilities to access their displays and interact with the device. Accessibility needs to find its way into consumer electronics; from entertainment systems and microwaves, to music synthesizers and thermostats.

Thanks so much, Michael! We really appreciate you taking the time to answer these questions and educating us on the importance of digital accessibility!

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