December 6, 2022

Q&A with Jonathan Lazar, professor, University of Maryland College of Information Studies

By: Meta Research

In this monthly interview series, we turn the spotlight on members of the academic community — and the important research they do — as thought leaders, collaborators, and independent contributors.

This month, we’re spotlighting Jonathan Lazar, a professor at the University of Maryland (UMD) College of Information Studies. As a faculty member affiliated with the Human-Computer Interaction Lab (HCIL), Lazar focuses his research on information and communication technology (ICT) accessibility for people with disabilities. He has coauthored or edited 14 books about human-computer interaction and ICT accessibility, has been granted two U.S. patents for his work on accessible web-based security features for blind users, and was recently appointed director of UMD’s Trace Research and Development Center, which works to improve access to digital technologies and content for people with disabilities.

Lazar has collaborated with Meta through workshops and conferences, including hosting a 2022 UMD/Meta Roundtable, “Interactive Accessibility Showcase: Impactful Collaborations Between the University of Maryland and Meta Accessibility Research.” In this Q&A, he shares his passion for making the world a better place by bringing accessibility research into real-world applications.

Q: What sparked your passion for making the world more inclusive?

Jonathan Lazar: My journey started at UMD’s Human-Computer Interaction Lab. While I was an undergraduate student, a professor invited me to an open house at the lab. There, Ben Shneiderman was speaking about the ways we can use technology to improve quality of life. I fell in love with these ideas — how this type of research and development can, for example, make technology accessible for people with disabilities, or empower grandmothers to email their grandchildren, or reduce medical errors. Nearly 30 years later, I’ve come full circle — I’m a faculty member affiliated with the HCIL and a part of the great history of human-computer interaction efforts at the University of Maryland.

Q: What does it mean to make digital experiences accessible?

JL: Technology is a tool for life, so people with disabilities need to have equal access to what happens online, from commerce to education to employment. People often think of accessibility only in terms of websites and web accessibility standards, but it’s more complex than that. Compliance with web accessibility standards is the floor for access, not the ceiling, so my team works not only on web accessibility, but more broadly on inclusive and accessible design for documents, software applications, hardware, and operating systems. We need to strive for a higher level of usability and inclusive design that truly meets the needs of users with disabilities.

Q: What are some of the challenges you’ve faced during your research career?

JL: It’s challenging to move technology companies and society toward a born-accessible model of development. Imagine building a house and then renovating it to accommodate someone with a disability versus building an accessible house from the start. Not only is retrofitting software for accessibility more expensive and complex than the born-accessible approach, but this way of building is inherently discriminatory. When digital environments must be retrofitted to become accessible after they have already been introduced, people with disabilities get access at a later point in time. That’s a form of discrimination, and that’s neither inclusive nor fair.

Q: What projects have been most rewarding to work on?

JL: We’ve worked on so many exciting projects at UMD’s Trace Center. First, we are focused on educating people about the need for accessibility and innovating to make accessibility happen. It’s a joy to not only teach students and work with technology companies — turning them into accessibility advocates — but also to collaborate with policymakers to drive change at a regulatory level. The U.S. government has cited our research to shape regulation several times, including in regulations relating to airline website accessibility. We also drive technical outcomes by helping build tools that millions of people use, such as working with Adobe to improve PDF accessibility. There are so many great people to collaborate with at the University of Maryland and in the greater community.

Q: Can you tell us a bit about your collaboration with Meta?

JL: The best part about industry, and Meta specifically, is the opportunity to amplify our work by doing things at scale — this drives impact for billions of people. If my team can help technology companies move toward greater accessibility, that’s a meaningful difference. At the Trace Center, we are deeply interested in societal change, and we really care about outcomes, not just outputs — we won’t just write a paper and consider that the end of the process.

Our collaborations with Meta are just starting but include a recent roundtable with UMD and Meta, and ASSETS, the annual accessibility conference that I chaired in 2021 and for which Meta has been a longtime sponsor. We’ve also previously worked with members of the accessibility team at Meta, such as Yao Ding, who is equally passionate about inclusion.

Q: What’s one thing you wish people knew about your research?

JL: Accessibility is innovation! So much of the technology that everyone uses today started as an innovation for people with disabilities, from video captioning to e-books to voice recognition to word prediction. When we build for accessibility, we build better products that benefit the broader population in new and incredible ways. It’s worth noting that we already have the capabilities and knowledge to solve many of the accessibility barriers that currently exist. There are many areas that still require innovation, and we want to move toward a born-accessible model in the future. However, many of the accessibility barriers that people with disabilities face today can be solved by applying knowledge that already exists!