September 23, 2022

How I build inclusivity as an accessibility researcher at Meta

By: Yao Ding
A headshot of Yao Ding with a soft colorful gradient background

Being an accessibility researcher at Meta means making an impact on products used by billions of people around the world. This opportunity to be hands-on with a community I care about drew me to Meta from academia, where I developed a passion for accessibility early in my career. After studying the effects of technology on older adults as an undergraduate, I was inspired to pursue a PhD focused on accessibility and universal design, followed by a postdoctoral program. I saw firsthand how technology empowers people with disabilities to connect and express themselves in new and different ways, and I knew I wanted to work with people driven by the same mission.

At Meta, I’m part of the Product Foundation Research team for the Facebook app and lead research on the Central Accessibility team. For me, a typical day in the life includes improving representation for the disability community that uses our products, raising awareness around accessibility at Meta, and partnering with world-leading academic institutions to share and collaborate on new research. After a decade in this field, the work is still incredibly rewarding.

Giving users with disabilities a voice

A key role as an accessibility researcher is to make sure that product decisions are informed through the participation of the disability community, which reflects a commonly heard mantra: “Nothing about us without us.” Conducting user research is one of the most instrumental ways to give a voice to users with disabilities. A recent example is how accessibility research helps increase disability representation in Avatars on Facebook.

Avatars are visual representations of users. They can be a user’s virtual embodiment in the Metaverse, or used as personalized stickers in chats and post comments. We want everyone—no matter their ability, background, or technology use — to see themselves in the Meta apps they use, starting with being able to self-identify with their Avatars. Through user studies, participants with disabilities told us that people want multiple Avatars. Some people want Avatars to mimic reality as much as possible, some want a more idealized version, and some want varied versions in different settings — like a reality version in social settings with family and close friends, a nondisabled version in gaming, or even a “superpower” version that can actualize things they cannot do in real life. Some wheelchair users, for instance, want the ability in the metaverse to climb mountains or ski, or simply the ability to overcome curbs and stairs. So, knowing that people wanted variety in the way their assistive tech is represented, we included 16 color options for hearing aids on Avatars in Facebook, based on feedback from people who are deaf and hard of hearing.

We’re also focused on innovating in other ways for accessibility, with design and research leading the way. I help run workshops for our Accessibility Labs, a platform for accessibility-focused innovation where people get together in cross-functional teams — from product designers and UX researchers to accessibility specialists and product managers — to ideate on novel solutions for people with disabilities. After workshops, I conduct concept testing with target users to evaluate the ideas and seek their feedback. I love having the opportunity to be proactive in the product life cycle, bringing together multiple perspectives where accessibility is considered early and as a focus.

Fostering internal community

Raising awareness of disability and accessibility in the research community within Meta is a big part of what I do. I’m one of the leaders of Meta’s Accessibility Champions program, which is designed to nurture and grow accessibility culture across all roles at Meta. In this voluntary program, champions from across Meta can systematically build expertise in accessibility so they’re better able to represent and advocate for accessibility within their product teams. There is also a mentor-mentee component to Accessibility Champions, providing more experienced Accessibility leaders like me the opportunity to guide and share their experience with people interested in learning more about accessibility, breaking down silos and building a strong culture of accessibility at Meta.

Supporting UX researchers newer to accessibility is a cause near to my heart, and there are many mechanisms at Meta to accomplish this. For the past year, I’ve had the opportunity to teach a quarterly course for UX researchers about accessibility foundations, best practices, and resources. I also joined an intern mentorship program to help expose people to accessibility and spark interest early in their careers. It’s incredibly rewarding to watch someone grow their skills during the internship and hear that they have “grown a lifelong passion for accessibility.”

Collaborating with academia

In addition to fostering an internal community, my team and I work to foster collaboration with external accessibility researchers. As someone with a background in both academia and industry, I enjoy having opportunities to bring the two together. With the help of the Academic Relations team at Meta, I am able to connect with prominent scholars in accessibility and support independent research at universities worldwide. I’m always looking for cutting-edge research in accessibility and projects that align with Meta’s projects and initiatives.

Recently, Meta and the University of Maryland (UMD) College of Information Studies came together to research triggers of photosensitive epilepsy. Meta provided funding to the Trace Center at UMD to support their ongoing work on developing ways to detect strobing videos and GIFs that might trigger seizures, and to develop an open source, scalable toolkit. Collaborating with leading academics and researchers and presenting our work at conferences — such as ASSETS — is a powerful reminder that I can make a tangible difference in this field I care deeply about.

This year, Meta is a sponsor of ASSETS 2022, which is being held in Athens, Greece, from October 23 to 26. We encourage anyone attending in person or virtually to connect with Meta researchers if they’re interested in collaborating or learning more about our work.