This interview is a little different than most. See, Svetlana Kouznetsova is an accessibility consultant who’s also deaf. Our interview was conducted completely using Google Docs. The voice you’ll hear on this episode is Erin, my wife, who graciously agreed to do Svetlana’s side of the conversation. Svetlana’s story is an interesting one. We talk about how she immigrated to the US from Russia, and what it was like growing up deaf there vs. in the US. We also discuss the importance of accessibility at events; why it’s a must and not just a “nice to have.”
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Intro: This interview is a little different than any other episode I’ve done for this show. You see, Svetlana Kouznetsova is an accessibility consultant who’s also deaf, so our interview was conducted completely using Google Docs. The voice you’ll hear on this episode is Erin, my wife, who graciously agreed to do Svetlana’s side of the conversation. Svetlana’s story is an interesting one, so we are excited to tell it, my wife and me. We talk about how she immigrated to the United States from Russia, what it was like growing up deaf there versus what it’s like here with the accessibility act that was passed here in the United States. We also talk about the importance of accessibility at live events, and why it’s a must and not just a “Nice to have.” This is a conversation that I’ve had with people about transcripts for this show. While it’s an added cost, I feel having them is incredibly important. I was convinced of that, by the way. That wasn’t always my position. But now that I have them and now that I’ve seen the impact that they’ve made, I know that they are incredibly important so that my show can reach everybody. So we’ll get into all of that in a minute, but first, a word from our sponsors.
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Joe Casabona: Hey, everybody. Welcome to another episode of How I Built It, the podcast that asks, “How did you build that?” Today my guest is Svetlana Kouznetsova, and she is being voiced by Erin Casabona, my wife because Svetlana is deaf. She is a user experience and accessibility consultant that helps people make their products, media, and events accessible. We’re going to start with the interview now as it was typed out in Google Docs. We’re going to read this verbatim. Erin, are you ready to go?
Erin Casabona: I’m ready.
Joe: All right. Hi, Svetlana. Thanks for joining me on the show today. Why don’t you tell us a little bit about who you are and what you do?
Svetlana Kouznetsova: Hello, Joe. Thanks for having me. I’m an independent consultant specializing in user experience and accessibility. I work with business owners, media producers, corporations, event organizers, and educational institutions to help them make their products, services, and events user-friendly and accessible. I’m also a founder of Audio Accessibility and provide consulting and training to media and event producers on how to make high quality captioning and other types of communication access for media and events. I’m an international speaker and an author of a book, Sound Is Not Enough: Captioning as Universal Design. It’s currently undergoing the second edition. Last year, I gave a TEDx talk about captioning access, and I’m based in the NYC area.
Joe: Great. I’m a big participant in the WordPress community, and there’s been a big focus on accessibility over the last few years, especially with the latest version of WordPress and the new editor. I’ve also been getting transcripts of my show done for the past three years, and I’ve seen a big jump in audience since launching them. Is this something you find is common? The more accessible a website, podcast, or event, the bigger the audience?
Svetlana: Well, WordPress events became more accessible because of my initiatives. Originally they were not accessible, so I started advising organizers in NYC about how to make them accessible via interpreters and captions. I also gave three presentations, one local in NYC at a meetup, one at a WordCamp NYC, and one at a WordCamp USA. Without my initiatives, I don’t know if they would be accessible, or maybe would have become accessible later. Also, their editor has accessibility problems, and I hear stories of how accessibility folks resigned because Gutenberg was published without accessibility considerations.
Joe: Gotcha. So you’ve helped bring live captions and interpreters to WordCamps, and they’re generally at every event now.
Svetlana: Yes. I’m glad more event organizers are following my advice and recommendations. I also have a team of captions providing live captions at events, and offline captions and transcripts for videos and podcasts.
Joe: Can you talk a little bit about the importance of having these services available to event and online content?
Svetlana: When planning events, it’s important that not just events themselves be accessible, but also to make event websites and event recordings accessible. It’s a huge project that will benefit from services of an experienced consultant. That’s also why event organizers contact me for consulting to ensure that all bases are covered and that there is a budget ready to cover accessibility expenses. It’s also important to plan event accessibility as early as possible, not close to the start of an event.
Joe: I know that budget is often a concern for both events and podcasts. For example, I didn’t have transcripts for the first year or so of this show because I couldn’t afford it. Do you have any advice for folks as far as cost goes, either through getting funding or doing things on a shoestring budget?
Svetlana: I would say that accessibility is not charity, and it is a cost of doing business. Like with any business expenses, you will need to consider return on your investment. If people can spend on other things like advertising or renting a venue or hiring certain specialists, spending on accessibility expenses is no different. You would need to have experts to help you with accessibility in the same way you hire experts to help you with other things.
Joe: Gotcha. I think that’s a great point, especially on ROI and other event costs. If we look specifically at podcasting or creating online videos for a minute, those are pretty cheap to do. Pick up a microphone and start recording. So, what tips do you have for those folks?
Svetlana: Anyone can do transcripts and captions, but for formal media, it’s strongly advised to hire experts who are well familiar with quality standards. It’s not enough to transcribe. You need to know many guidelines to ensure that people who depend on access via text have a comfortable reading experience. Cheap solutions do not always guarantee good quality. It’s hard for me as a deaf person to follow poorly formatted text in the same way that it’s hard for people to listen to poor audio. High-quality captions and transcripts are as important as high-quality audio to provide optimal experience.
Joe: I have a follow-up question regarding this. I’ve heard different answers on this question. When you do transcribe something that is pre-recorded, should it be a verbatim transcript, or should it be cleaned up for readability?
Svetlana: What do you mean, pre-recorded? Like, podcasts and video recordings?
Joe: Yes, exactly.
Svetlana: Text needs to be verbatim, word-for-word of everything you hear, plus speaker IDs and sound descriptions for transcripts. Text needs to be broken down into paragraphs. For captions, they need to be chunked into one to two short lines with logical, grammatical breaks.
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Joe: To your previous point, how can we have proper verbatim transcripts as well as something readable?
You would need to hire experienced specialists. That’s why I offer those services by a team of captioners and transcribers who work with me. I also offer editing services to clients who made captions and transcripts themselves but need to get feedback from me on quality assurance. I also educate on captioning and transcribing quality guidelines. Some experience and expertise is needed to create good quality captions and transcripts. It’s not something that you can learn overnight.
Joe: I see. So, what are some tips? Maybe a checklist for someone like me who does podcasts and online courses to make sure my courses are properly accessible? What are the steps that I can take myself before hiring someone like you?
Svetlana: It’s a long list of guidelines, that’s why I provide consulting on this. But the major tip I give is not to turn on auto-captions or have speech technologies take care of auto-generated text. If you use automated tools, you will need to clean up to make sure that it’s properly transcribed and has proper grammar and punctuation at a minimum, and also add speaker identification and sound descriptions.
Joe: That’s a great point. I’ve heard other podcasters basically say they upload their shows to YouTube and then use the auto-generated captions, but I’ve always felt that the auto-generated captions fall short unless you invest some more time into cleaning up, and at that point, you might as well hire somebody to do it.
Svetlana: Yes, you’re right. It’s a very bad idea to turn on auto-captions and to think it’s a solution to the problem. Another thing I wanted to note is that I spent seven years in regular schools as the only deaf person. I did not have any formal access to services and learned mostly from textbooks. I had difficulties with two classes because one had discussions, and another one didn’t have a textbook. The solution was to have them recorded, with teacher’s permission, of course, and then have my mother transcribe them at home. She transcribed in verbatim an average of seven hours of recordings every week for two years. She did it using low tech tools, paper, and pen, so I get frustrated when I get complaints from media producers and how hard it is for them to make their media accessible using more modern tools in the 21st century. I went to school long before we used computers or the internet.
Joe: That is incredible. If you don’t mind me asking, have you been deaf for your entire life?
Svetlana: No, I was born with normal hearing like my other family members. I lost all of it when I was two years old after contracting meningitis.
Joe: So, you spent seven years in a school without help outside of your mother helping. Did you eventually go to a school with more available to you?
Svetlana: Long story short, I’m originally from Russia, so my first language is Russian. I spent the first four years in a school for the deaf where I used Russian sign language, but I wasn’t satisfied with the education there. I asked my family to transfer me to a regular school where I spent seven years. I also learned English and French as foreign languages. Mastering English allowed me to attend American universities, and I got a masters degree in internet technologies. It was at universities where I finally got access via interpreters and captions, but even with interpreters, I could not understand them in the beginning because I didn’t know American sign language even though I knew written English well. I had to learn American sign language as my fifth language in order to be able to use sign language interpreters. The majority of deaf and hard of hearing people don’t know sign language and rely more on captions. That’s how I learned about TV captions, and eventually live captions, and became a consultant in that area. I also didn’t have access to information on TV when growing up until I was around 15 years old.
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Joe: I’ve always wondered how different American sign language is from non-American sign language, and I guess it’s very dependent on the spoken language. Is that accurate?
Svetlana: ASL is totally different from Russian sign language, just like spoken languages are different. ASL is even different from British sign language, and even more different than American English is different from British English. I can understand both American and British English, but I cannot understand British sign language. Their fingerspelling is also different from fingerspelling in ASL. Fingerspelling in BSL uses two hands, while fingerspelling and ASL involves one hand.
Joe: I had no idea. I know most of the alphabet in ASL and can definitely spell my own name, but I just assumed that since it’s the same letters, it’s the same signs.
Svetlana: No. Fingerspelling in ASL is totally different from fingerspelling in BSL.
Joe: Good to know. Now, before we get back to tech and accessibility, I’m curious. Do you think that you had access to more services here in the United States– And is “Services” the correct term– Because of the government regulations here in the United States?
Svetlana: Generally, yes. But even here we still have to fight for access despite the ADA, or the Americans with Disabilities Act, being around for almost 30 years. It was passed in 1990. Sadly, many businesses violate laws, and there is an increasing number of lawsuits lately. I have never understood why some businesses would try to fight for exemptions from laws instead of investing into accessibility from the beginning. People with disabilities make up the largest and most ignored minority of over 1.3 billion people in the world. This is the market size of China.
Joe: I have seen some of that myself. My mom is wheelchair-bound, and luckily these days, perhaps due to lawsuits, many places are accessible. But a good example is my old apartment complex. My mom couldn’t come visit me because I was on the third floor of the apartment complex, and I had no elevator.
Svetlana: Yes. It’s hard if there are older buildings that make it hard to be accessible, but there are also many different solutions. One thing I wanted to add is that there are specific terms that disabled people don’t like, like “Wheelchair-bound.” Many wheelchair users don’t feel they are bound to wheelchairs. They treat wheelchairs as tools that help them move independently.
Joe: Thank you for that clarification. I’ll keep it in for the lesson. My mom doesn’t seem to mind and uses the term herself, so I didn’t think much of it. But thank you. So let’s get back to the very big number you mentioned as we wrap up here, there’s a big benefit to being accessible aside from the fact that you should, or you’re required to, and that is more visitors or attendees and people coming to your events. Can you give us a general idea of ROI or attendance improvement for accessible events and content?
Svetlana: I wanted to share some irony. As a foreign-born myself, I noticed that people tried to help me with translation from English to Russian even though I know English well because it’s easier for them to use spoken language than to communicate with me in writing. I feel they are resistant when I ask them to write down in English, yet some who know Russian are trying to translate to me from English to Russian. I have no problem speaking Russian if it’s not part of translation, so it’s frustrating when non-disabled people seem to be more willing to help non-disabled foreigners with translations even without any prior request while we deaf people are frustrated with resistance from non-disabled people when we ask them for same language captioning access or sign language interpreters. Especially when it comes to interacting with disabled people in their own country. Besides, accessibility benefits everyone and not just people with disabilities. For example, wheelchair ramps and elevators benefit parents with baby strollers. Captions benefit people in noisy environments. Voice-overs benefit people who want to listen to books while traveling, and so on.
Joe: As a parent of a two-year-old, “Yes” to ramps and elevators. But you’re right, and I know several people who enjoy this show because we have transcripts and they prefer to read instead of listen.
Svetlana: Yes, agreed.
Joe: So you’ve provided lots of great information today on top of a wonderful story, but I do need to ask you my favorite question. Do you have any trade secrets for us?
Svetlana: I don’t think I have any to share. I think making things accessible is not a secret.
Joe: I love it. Thanks so much for joining me today. Where can people find you?
Svetlana: I have a page on About.me/SvetlanaKouznetsova, and I also have a Twitter account, @svknyc.
Joe: Fantastic. I will link those and everything we’ve talked about in the show notes over at HowIBuilt.it/147. Svetlana, thanks so much for joining me today.
Svetlana: My pleasure. Thanks for having me.
Outro: Thanks so much to Svetlana for joining me today, and thank you to my wife Erin for doing the read along with me. Svetlana’s story, like I said at the top of the show, is a very interesting one. I think that she was able to provide us with a lot of good information surrounding accessibility in general terminology, the differences between things like American sign language and non-American sign language, I’ll say. She gives us a lot of really good stats and information, so I think that there’s something for everybody here. Of course, the transcript for this episode and every episode is embedded directly on the episode page. You can find the transcript and everything that we talked about over at HowIBuilt.it/147. Thanks so much to our sponsors, Ahoy! Cloudways and Pantheon. They make the show happen, and without their support, I’d have a really hard time doing most of what I do for the show. So, if you want to thank them, definitely check them out. If you liked this episode, be sure to subscribe over at Apple Podcasts, leave us a rating and review if that’s your thing. As we round out Season 7 and the rest of the episodes for 2019, I am looking towards 2020, and I have a lot of really great things planned, but I want to hear from you. If there’s a topic you’d like me to cover, a guest you think that maybe I should have on the show or just a general question that maybe I can answer here on the air. Head over to HowIBuilt.it/feedback. It’s a simple two-field form, your email address so I can respond and the feedback field. So again, if you have a topic, a guest, or a question for me, then head over to HowIBuilt.it/feedback. As always, thanks so much for your support. Until next time, get out there and build something.