Accessibility Isn’t a New Coat of Paint: Chris Higgins on His Film ACCESS

Podcast with Chris Higgins, a writer and filmmaker based in Portland, Oregon and Brandy Schillace, EIC

Chris Higgins Profile PhotoOn today’s podcast, Editor Brandy Schillace speaks with Chris Higgins, a writer and filmmaker based in Portland, Oregon. His work has appeared in The Atlantic, This American Life, and Mental Floss, and his most recent book is The Blogger Abides. In this episode, Chris shares his work on a film called Access. It stems in part from a kind of awakening, what Chris refers to almost as a “conversion experience” as he and colleagues attempted to design digital meeting software that would be accessible to those using assistive technology. So often, Chris explains, accessibility is an afterthought, a ‘new coat of paint’ on a product. In fact, real accessibility must be built in, must take all people and all modes of access and ability into account. It demonstrates that our problems of access are structural, but also that they are fixable—we can address them, but we must start from the beginning and see with new eyes. Listen in here at Soundcloud, and read the transcript. And we recommend viewing the short (15 min) film itself: ACCESS.

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BRANDY SCHILLACE: Welcome back to the Medical Humanities Podcast. I’m Brandy Schillace, Editor in Chief of Medical Humanities Journal. And today I have with me Chris Higgins. Now, Chris Higgins is a writer and filmmaker from Portland, Oregon. He’s worked on a number of projects, including a film that we wanna talk to him about today on Access which, as our listeners will know, is part of the theme that we’ve been addressing this year, and very timely it is too. Welcome, Chris.

CHRIS HIGGINS: Thanks, Brandy. It’s great to be here.

BRANDY: I would love to hear a little bit more about you, just for our listeners’ sake, about some of the work that you’ve been doing in addition to the film Access, and then we’ll talk more about that.

CHRIS: Sure. Well, first up, my pronouns are he/him. I’m Chris Higgins from Portland, Oregon. There are many Chris Higginses, but I’m the one with the dot com. I think of myself as a writer, and out of that has come everything else. These days, basically, I’m a filmmaker, and in some cases, a photographer professionally, and a podcaster and so on. But when it comes back to it fundamentally, I am a nonfiction writer, specifically. I write magazine profiles of people and so on. In a previous life, I did a lot of software development. That was what we call paying the bills.

BRANDY: [laughs]

CHRIS: [chuckles]

BRANDY: I’m freelance myself! I have a deep understanding, Chris.


BRANDY: I’m with you on this.

CHRIS: Delightful. Yeah. I mean, we could talk about some contract information later.

BRANDY: [laughs]

CHRIS: But yeah. I mean, that’s what we’re gonna talk about today: how those things overlapped and kind of create an opportunity for me to be exposed to accessibility firsthand in a software context and then to be able to make a film about it, because people who had software kind of money were providing me as a freelance documentary filmmaker—which is not something you go into for the cash, let me just tell you—to make a film about it, right?

BRANDY: Right.

CHRIS: And then what the impact of the film is and what I take away from it. And right now, oh, boy. Yeah. [chuckles] Yeah.

BRANDY: I know. Times are really challenging. And it’s interesting. As our listeners might know, we previously interviewed Alice Wong, who’s a disability activist. And what comes out of that conversation is that what’s happened kind of through coronavirus and through the problems of racial inequality that are suddenly writ large, is that people who didn’t used to have to think about these things suddenly have to think about these things. But accessibility is an issue for people in Disability Studies every day. It’s their livelihood. It’s what happens. It’s how you wake up in the morning and how you go to bed at night. And so, I think that it’s really made it very visible in a way it didn’t used to be.

CHRIS: Yeah. And the lived experience—I don’t identify as a person with a disability—but the lived experience of a person with a disability who is being told to stay home and to rely on, for example, visual cues when navigating a public space, if they go into a public space, you know, I believe listeners can imagine how difficult that might be. Or auditory cues: like being told to do something, walk in a certain direction, only go in this direction on this aisle, that’s not gonna be possible for all people.

BRANDY: Right. And, of course, add to that all the other limitations of accessibility that we already have. And while we’re talking about that, I should just remind our listeners that we do provide transcripts of our podcasts that’ll be available on the blog. I always forget to say that until the end, but that will be available after our talk today.

So, Chris, tell us about how was it that you first sort of came in contact with this concept of accessibility through sort of digital spaces?

CHRIS: Yeah, so I’ve been working on and off for years, making web-based software. So, you know, not like Google Docs, but that kind of thing, if you will. And my last day job actually was with a company called Lucid Meetings. And Lucid Meetings was and is a company in Portland made by a couple of friends of mine with whom I’d worked for, I don’t know, 10+ years. And they said, hey, you know, go for one last rodeo [chuckles] with your day job thing before you go full-time freelance, and help us with this web software we’re working on. And so, they have a meeting platform. They’re all about the idea of meetings online, which, by the way, is very crucial right now.


CHRIS: Their concept around meetings actually was very anti-video. And I remember having long discussions. They were like, we don’t believe that adding lots of little postage stamp videos onto a page improves the quality of the discussion in most cases, right? We feel the discussions are most facilitated by often text or speech or some combination of those things. And so, they have very different ideas than other platforms like your Zooms and your Webexes or whatever about what an online meeting is. To them, it is a structured conversation. And so, at some point, it came around that we had to do two things: internationalize, meaning translate into multiple languages, both the user interface and all of the text in the application, and also reach an accessibility milestone. It’s a bit difficult to measure when you say, oh, my software is now accessible! But there are tests, right? And so, there was a client who required these things. And this is a, by the way, is a very small company. At the time, I believe there were three, maybe two full-time employees and me and maybe another half-timer. It was very small. So, essentially, what that meant was if there was a meeting, we were all in one room. And so, if there was a meeting, we were all in that meeting.

BRANDY: Right.

CHRIS: And so, I was doing the internationalization part, which was mostly a contractor. And I’m just dealing with the linguistic problems of right to left languages in an app that was designed to be left to right. Interesting, but not nearly as interesting as what I would hear from the coffee room, which is where we’d sometimes do a meeting. We kind of had cordoned off one part of the little room. They were over there having these calls, and it was like there was a conversion experience happening.


CHRIS: Like the other employees who were my old friends, right, are sitting there and saying, “Maybe we’ve been missing something for a decade of doing this, right? Maybe we’ve been fundamentally thinking about this a little bit wrong.” And so, they essentially made this…. Their consciousness was raised in that they said, the product that we’re making, they always knew the product they were making was not entirely for themselves, but they had not intentionally said, “I’m going to make a product, a meeting product, that is designed for people who have disabilities specifically.” But it’s designed for everybody.

BRANDY: Right.

CHRIS: Now, they had thought through basically everything else that you could think of: does it work on this kind of computer? Can you work it on a phone? And this is back when making things work on a phone was kind of hard, by the way!

BRANDY: Right.

CHRIS: You know, early, kind of early 2000, I think was like 2013, ‘14, ‘15 this stuff kind of began. And the process took a long time. It was complicated. They rewrote the entire application stack from the bottom up after they learned about accessibility. And they were so energized by this work. They said this makes this thing fundamentally better for everyone, including ourselves. And it is so vital that other people know that this exists, this is a concept, and that, boy, we would’ve been better off to have known this concept from the beginning, right, when we were first building it so we wouldn’t have had to rebuild it. It’s not a coat of paint situation.

BRANDY: Mmhmm.

CHRIS: It’s a blueprint situation, right? You can put a coat of paint on there, but that coat of paint is not going to really fundamentally help. And to their credit—

BRANDY: Right. And I wanna say right now just to interrupt. That, I feel like we could highlight audible things, [laughs] that would be our call out, right? You can put a coat of paint on it. That doesn’t necessarily increase accessibility in a real way.

CHRIS: Yeah. And so, moving along at a touch here. I reached the end of my days at the company and rode off into the sunset. But before I went, they said, listen, we wanna give you a grant, because this work that we have done is so important to us that we want the rest of the world—and we mean the world—to have their consciousness raised as well. And I said, oh, OK. So, you want like a documentary about how you all did this in your product. And they said, no!

BRANDY: [laughs]

CHRIS: We don’t even wanna be in it. We just want you to go out and make a film that gives people the empathy to understand what it is to be a user of assistive technology and to be someone who has accessibility needs. Because that’s the important thing. It doesn’t matter that, you know, like Lucid Meetings is an important product, in my opinion. I like it. I use it.


CHRIS: It’s not in the movie. It’s not mentioned in the movie.

BRANDY: Right!

CHRIS: It is mentioned in the credits. It’s like, they gave me a grant. But, it was a very genuine thing, right? So, I said, great. And being a long-term nonfiction writer, I did the thing that I thought I was supposed to do. I went and interviewed experts, and I said, “Tell me about accessibility.”


CHRIS: And they did. I interviewed like a dozen people and I did all my stuff, and I had this half-hour long video. And I went to an accessibility conference in Denver, and I showed a rough cut. And everybody in the audience who were also experts said, “This is terrific, but this is a movie about accessibility experts speaking to other accessibility experts.”

BRANDY: Ahhh. [laughs]

CHRIS: You have, I’m sorry, sir, but you have failed! And the thing you need to do is somehow build empathy. Building empathy is what matters. Because no one, if you don’t believe—and I mean believe in the sense of having a value—that this is important, you’re not going to do it.

BRANDY: Right.

CHRIS: I mean, maybe if you’re sued, yeah. But, you know, threat of lawsuits is not something that inspires people.

BRANDY: Right.

CHRIS: Like fundamental values are what inspire people to do work differently. So, I threw the whole thing out, which had taken me several years to make—

BRANDY: [laughs]

CHRIS: —which had taken me several years to make, and all of the money.


CHRIS: All of the money was done! But I was like, okay. I did not succeed. I’m doing it again. And I went, and I found Cory Joseph. And Cory Joseph is a local—well, at the time he was local; he has now moved multiple times—he’s a technology professional with a visual disability. And he just volunteered. He said, “I volunteer as tribute. Why don’t you depict a day in my life? And I will narrate for you.” And I’m not a big fan of having people with disabilities have to explain their disabilities to you, you know?


CHRIS: Like that’s not the job of…. [laughs] You got enough other stuff you got to do in your life. But Cory said, “Listen, I’m in. So, ask me anything.” So, I did. And the product was a film called Access. And the point of Access was to have a film that was short enough. It’s about 13 minutes long.

BRANDY: Mmhmm.

CHRIS: We’re about to make a 10-minute cut to make it even shorter. But to make something that is so short that you could tell your supervisor or whatever, “You can watch this in one quarter of your lunch break, right? And it might help you out just to understand what is accessibility? Why do I care?” And the way to do that is to sit with a person who is actually trying to achieve tasks, trying to navigate the city, trying to access information on a phone, and then saying very specifically, “Okay, now that you’ve watched this, what now?”

BRANDY: Mm, right.

CHRIS: “What are you supposed to do now?”


CHRIS: Because I wanted there to be a clear call to action at the end.

BRANDY: Mmhmm.

CHRIS: And to a great extent, the thing that’s resonated the most with audiences is Cory says two primary things. One of them is, I am not asking for a different thing to be made for me. I’m not asking for a thing to be adapted later for me. I’m paraphrasing here. He’s saying, I want the thing to be designed having thought about people like me or lots of kinds of people from the get-go, right?

BRANDY: Right. True inclusion.

CHRIS: Inclusion. Right. So, inclusive design is a different thing than accessibility. But still, they are very, there’s a serious Venn diagram overlap, right?

The other thing he says is, imagine that you are someone who has to make a thing, a podcast, for instance. What would be a reasonable thing that you have to provide to make sure that anyone can actually access that podcast? Well, what if they cannot hear?


CHRIS: Well, you might provide a transcript, right? So, when I made a podcast for nine months every day, I provided a transcript every day. And that’s because that value became so instilled in me that I realized it was immoral for me to be a creative person putting work into the world that was fundamentally inaccessible to people who didn’t have certain physical characteristics, right?

BRANDY: Mmhmm, right.

CHRIS: And so, the assumptions of media, of things like podcasts and films and so on, are often that you are, you know, you have perfect sight and pretty perfect hearing and perfect proprioception and all these sorts of things. And it turns out that as somebody who makes films, makes podcasts, does writing, and even does photography, that all of these things are adaptable to people with disabilities as long as you just think about it a little bit first.

BRANDY: Right.

CHRIS: So, that’s it, really!

BRANDY: So, I just wanna ask really quickly: what was the call to action at the end of the film? Sort of what was the takeaway? Was it just that? Was it, hey, you need to think about this at the front or? You know, I’m just curious.

CHRIS: In Cory’s words, he used the phrase, “imagine if.” He said, you know—I can’t recite it any longer—but I had just asked him at one point. And I said, what would you like people to know having watched this film? And he sat there for a good minute, which when you’re doing an interview, and somebody just sits back and kind of like waits and then just delivers a soliloquy, right? Then you know it’s pretty gold. That would be one reason to actually watch the film, by the way. It’s at It’s free. Everything’s free. There’s no ads. There’s no nothing.

BRANDY: We’ll supply the link in our blog post.

CHRIS: Right. Sure. But what he said was, imagine if the person who’s trying to use the thing that you’re making, imagine if they’re a little bit slower to use it. Imagine if their Internet connection is kind of flaky and broken. Imagine if they’re using a very old like a BlackBerry, for example, from 10 years ago. Imagine if flashes give them migraines or seizures or just hurt. Imagine if they can’t see. Imagine if they can’t hear. Imagine these kinds of ways of being when you’re designing the thing, when you’re in that sort of thinking phase about, okay, how am I gonna present this film or this podcast? And having imagined that, have that imagination and that, basically, empathy inform how you build.


CHRIS: Not what you build, but how you build it. Because it’s a moral imperative.

BRANDY: Yes. Chris, this is really a wonderful chance to discuss these things, because I have to be honest. You know, I’m in publishing. We have the journal. We have the blog. We have the podcast. And up until this year, we did not provide transcripts. We didn’t even provide transcripts for our video content, even though they already existed. They just simply weren’t linked. And so much of that is oversight. And I could almost compare it to the way racial privilege works, right? You don’t see it.

CHRIS: Right.

BRANDY: You simply don’t realize that you’re missing something. And so, I love this concept, that just imagine. Take a moment to reflect, to think, to imagine a different scenario than the one you find yourself in. And I think that is really an incredibly moving and exciting way to hopefully change the world, you know, a little bit at a time.

So, to our listeners, just to reiterate, we’re going to go ahead and put the link up for that video as well as the transcript to this conversation. And I hope to have you on again, Chris. I think there’s so much more to talk about and to discover not just talking about this particular issue with the film Access, but other work that you’re doing. So, thank you so much for joining us, and we really appreciate this viewpoint on accessibility and really, as you point out, the moral imperatives. Thanks again.

CHRIS: Thanks for having me.

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