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Big Design Conference 2012 and Empathy

Last month I visited Dallas, Texas, for the Big Design conference. It was my second year as an attendee, but first time as a speaker. I was very honored that Brian Sullivan and other conference organizers gave me the opportunity to give a talk.

I appreciated it very much that organizers made sure that the conference was accessible for deaf attendees and attendees with other disabilities. All four keynotes and all presentations in one of four tracks were open captioned by a CART writer that was hired by Big Design. Deaf attendees were provided with sign language interpreters for other presentations they were interested in that were not captioned, as well as for some social events.

The conference started with an opening keynote, “Big Umbrella of Inclusive Design”, by Sharron Rush, the co-founder and Executive Director of Knowbility. She addressed the issues of web accessibility and encouraged more web designers to consider them when working on projects. I liked her use of the quote by John Slatin: “Good design is accessible design.”

Sharron Rush was also one of three speakers of the “Panel: Future of Accessibility”. It is important to consider customers with disabilities who make up the largest minority with $1 trillion in the USA and $4 trillion in the world.

I’m glad that organizers decided to include accessibility presentations in their conference because many web design and user experience conferences usually don’t include them, or if they do, they usually focus on people who are blind or have limited mobility, but often forget about deaf and hard of hearing people – many online recordings of their accessibility talks are not even transcribed.

For these reasons, my presentation topic was “Beyond Captions: Universal Access, Universal Appeal”. I signed in ASL during my talk and was voiced by sign language interpreters. While I can talk and lipread, I feel more comfortable using my voice only with some people in social situations, rather than at formal events in front of the whole audience – especially since English is not my first language (my native tongue is Russian). My talk was also open captioned for the whole audience to emphasize the point of universal access. The main focus of my presentation was to explain why it is important to make online media (podcasts, videos, webinars) accessible as well as live events via captions and to suggest solutions via transcripts and captions.

I was honored to be introduced by Jared Spool in the beginning of my presentation. He also helped me with my talk (along with other conference organizers). His organization’s website,, has transcripts for podcasts that can be enjoyed by anyone regardless of hearing abilities. Jared is one of a few user experience practitioners who understand the value of accessibility and actually make their information accessible.

When talking about accessibility, often disability laws are mentioned. While it is good to have laws, just following a checklist of requirements isn’t enough and their complicated technicality may be overwhelming. Increased awareness about reasons for universal design and empathy for people with disabilities are much stronger than laws and help more people get motivated to go far and beyond to make everyone feel included. That has been emphasized in all three accessibility presentations. That is what the economic model of disability is based on, as opposed to the social and medical models.

People are disabled not because of their disabilities, but because of the society that does not think of removing the barriers.

Big Design conference was also the first mainstream conference that I had attended where many presentations were open captioned for the whole audience on a second screen next to the screen with presentation slides. They benefit not only the majority of deaf and hard of hearing people who know little or no sign language or prefer captions, but also everyone else. It would be great if more events and conferences were open captioned regardless of whether their attendees have hearing or not. Even attendees with normal hearing would benefit from open captions if the language of speakers is not their primary language or if the speakers have heavy accents that are hard to understand.

Open captioned events would also give deaf and hard of hearing people more flexibility in registering for events at any time they want – without having to request communication access services (captions and/or sign language interpreters) in advance. Many hearing people do not realize how much they take for granted the ease of registering for any event without worries about communication access. I usually need at least a week or two to request communication access services for a small event and at least a month or more for a larger conference. Often I have to explain to the organizers new to deaf people why communication access is important and why certain services may not be reasonable for certain attendees in certain situations – which is often a very frustrating experience.

Here’s a great article, “Big Design 2012: Lessons in Accessible, Empathetic Design”, written by Karen Bachmann, a hearing conference attendee who also benefited from CART captions. If there are other articles about the conference which I could link to from here, let me know.

Also, if there are any mainstream events that are open captioned and if anyone wants to comment on benefits of captions, I would love to mention this on my website to increase awareness about captions and subtitles as universal access.

Big kudos to Brian Sullivan, conference organizers and volunteers, CART writer, and sign language interpreters for their great work!

Here are slides from my presentation (Slideshare – svknyc):


  1. You did a great job in your presentation, Sveta. I want to personally thank you for working for over one year on your presentation. You had support Jared Spool and Adam Polansky during the final stages of your presentation, too.

    A special note of thanks to Keith Anderson, who provided all of the music for the conference. We purposely left out music during your presentation, at your request. It added to the overall affect of your presentation, too.

    I hope you submit our talk to SxSW 2013 and other UX conferences. You did a great job!

  2. Sveta Sveta

    Thanks, Brian. Yes, I give credit to Jared Spool, Adam Polansky, and you as well as my family and friends for helping me with the presentation!

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