Heather Dowdy, Director of Product Accessibility, Netflix

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In this episode, Chris is joined by Netflix’s Heather Dowdy for a conversation about her work in shifting the narratives that impact how people with disabilities and people of color with disabilities are received in our culture.

Heather is a child of deaf adults (CODA) who grew up on the South Side of Chicago at the intersection of race, disability, socioeconomic status, and technology. She became an engineer and eventually the first Director of Product Accessibility at Netflix. In that role, she sets strategy and helps her team use technology to innovate so they can delight members who have disabilities.

Chris and Heather explore:

  • Heather’s journey from Chicago to college and then Motorola, Microsoft, and now Netflix
  • Her vision of the future, one where we all recognize that no two people and no two disabilities are alike, but every person’s needs are met
  • What happens when a company’s stated purpose and the demand for profit collide
  • How Heather stays connected to her audience at Netflix to ensure she and her team are creating the most delightful experiences possible
  • How we can use AI to unlock greater personalization to meet people’s access needs and supplement their abilities

And much more!

010 Heather Dowdy: Engineering the Future of Accessibility

Heather Dowdy 00:00
Then it's like, “Oh, I don't have a disability. But I need you to complement my abilities here, too. I have an access need.” It kind of shifts it away to, like, we all have some sort of access needs. We all have things that can make us shine even brighter. So can we start to focus on those?

Announcer 00:17
Welcome to The Storied Future Podcast with Chris Hare, a show that provides the knowledge and inspiration C-suite leaders need to shift the future. Hear from experts, innovators, and purpose driven leaders who have harnessed the power of strategic narrative to create lasting change.

Chris Hare 00:34
Hi, and welcome to The Storied Future Podcast. I'm Chris Hare, and I'm glad you're here. Each episode I talk to C-suite leaders, experts, and innovators who have used the power of narrative to change minds, change behavior, and change the future. I've been looking forward to this episode for months, and you're about to see why. Today I'm joined by my friend, Heather Dowdy, for a conversation about her work and shifting the narratives that impact how people with disabilities, and people of color with disabilities, are received in our culture. Heather is the first Director of Product Accessibility at Netflix, where she sets strategy and works with engineers and designers to use technology to innovate so they can delight members who have disabilities. And earlier this year, Heather was appointed by President Biden to the United States Access Board. Heather is a CODA, a child of deaf adults, and she grew up on the South Side of Chicago at the intersection of race, disability, and socioeconomic status. She grew up surrounded by technology, the gadgets that helped her parents, and her desire to improve these gadgets was part of what inspired her to become an engineer. But the path to becoming an engineer was hard. As a Black woman pursuing a degree in electrical engineering, she bore the brunt of sexism and racism. But she persisted because she felt a deep calling to continue to be a bridge in her community between the deaf and the hearing worlds. In this episode, we explore Heather's journey from Chicago to college, and then on to Motorola and Microsoft, and now Netflix. And Heather talks about her vision of the future, a future where we all recognize that no two people and no two disabilities are alike, but where every person's needs are met. What happens when a company's stated purpose, and the demand for profit, collide; how she stays connected to her audience at Netflix, to ensure she and her team are creating the most delightful experiences possible; why it was important for her to share a story from her past with her coworkers, a story about a deaf family member who hadn't committed a crime, being dragged from their house by police; and finally, how we can use AI to unlock greater personalization to meet people's access needs and supplement their abilities. Let's dive in.

Heather, thanks so much for joining The Storied Future Podcast.

Heather Dowdy 02:55
Thanks for having me, Chris. I'm really excited just to talk about stories today.

Chris Hare 02:59
Yeah, me too. I've been looking forward to this for a long time. I'd love to start and just hear a bit about your childhood and what you were like as a kid.

Heather Dowdy 03:08
Well, I typically share that I grew up on the South Side of Chicago to two young black deaf parents. So I pretty much am a CODA, child of deaf adults. Shout out to the recent movie on Apple TV that's made that a familiar acronym these days. But in our home, I mean, I grew up at the intersection of race, disability, and socio-economic status, but also tech, and I didn't even know it. There are lots of gadgets in our home that helped us as a family, but also really helped my parents communicate with the outside world. I can even remember the smoke detector would be connected to a lamp that flashed, or even the alarm that my dad used because he worked at night at the post office. There was a particular alarm that he had, where he could put the vibrator underneath his bed to wake him up. So these are just everyday devices in our home. But as I got older and started to think about the contribution I wanted to make in the world and what I wanted to do, I eventually settled on making those gadgets because I understood what a difference it made in the lives of my family and friends.

Chris Hare 04:32
When you were a kid, was there something that you dreamed up that didn't exist yet that you kind of dreamed of creating eventually?

Heather Dowdy 04:39
It wasn't anything net new, but I constantly dreamed of improving things. And that was just me thinking about how to make things better before I knew what an engineer or an inventor did. I mean, I would daydream about, like, how to make a faster lawnmower, or how to make some of the kitchen gadgets in our house more accessible. But to me, it was just like, How much could I push this? You know, it's not good enough yet.

Chris Hare 05:14
And how did your family and your parents really shape your personal narrative, and then what you believed was possible for you to achieve?

Heather Dowdy 05:23
Well, it really a lot had to do with my dad, in the sense that he really pushed me not to take the easy way out. Because before I settled into a career in technology, I thought, well, I'll just be a sign language interpreter. That's what I do for my family anyway. That makes sense, right? I think I'm good at it. And he was just like, that's not enough. Like, you need to really push yourself, you need to really challenge yourself and dig deeper. And then he also really instilled in me the importance of thinking positive and believing in myself. And I didn't know it then, but that would become super important, given the field I would choose later on.

Chris Hare 06:09
So when you left high school, how did you make the decision to go into engineering? And I know we've talked before, you kind of encountered some friction when you got to college.

Heather Dowdy 06:17
Yeah. But the part that I don't, or haven't shared, is how I got sort of bamboozled a little bit into taking up engineering. My best friend's dad had shared with me that there was an engineering summer program for high school students at Chicago State University, and that they would pay me to learn. And so the other part of my childhood is that I've been a hustler since day one. And so when he said paid to learn, you know, for a sophomore in high school, where you can't really get a job in the world yet, I was like, okay, I can do that. Right? Just because that was naturally who I was. I grew up orchestrating these very lucrative garage sales from our parents. Every year, I sold icy cups in the summer. So I worked with my grandparents on the weekends when I was like 10 and 11. So I was like, okay, I can make some money. And I get to this program with my best friend, and I fell in love with it. We ended up making a corded telephone. We spent that summer soldering electrical circuits. And I'm laughing because if I showed that phone to my kids today, they would have no idea what that is. But it was a game changer for me, because I understood that we were creating something that allowed people to communicate, to connect. And that's when I started going, Okay, let me really look into what engineering is. And it just all clicked up for me. And so I went to University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. And as you mentioned, it wasn't an easy ride for me, in the sense that I was a black female in electrical engineering at the time, and there weren't many of us. I was with my best friend, so it was great. We were taking the same classes together because she was also in engineering. But I did run up against some friction from a white woman who was a dean at the time, who didn't think that I deserved to be an engineer, that I would be better suited to major in Korean studies just by her looking at me. And then there was a black man at the time where I shared what she said. And he thought, well, you know, who told you you’d being an engineer anyway? And so, as I mentioned, really having to dig deep as to why I wanted to do this, and not because it's cute, it's sexy, or I'll make a lot of money. I truly wholeheartedly believe that I was doing it to support more people that looked like my parents.

Chris Hare 09:04
Do you recall what that felt like to hear that and take that into yourself? And do you recall, like, how you responded to that?

Heather Dowdy 09:12
Yeah, it was shocking. It was hurtful. It was a gut wrench. It was a gut wrench to not feel like I had found an advocate in the minority engineering department, which was the black man that I had told. And at that time, it was the fuel I needed because younger Heather was like, Look, I will show you. You say I can't do something. Okay. Let's not talk about it, let's be about it. And that's exactly what I did. And I'm really glad that I stuck with the real reason why I got into this field.

Chris Hare 09:52
So what I'm hearing is there was this just determination that was built into you. And that drive that was also fueled by people telling you you couldn't do this, right? How do you feel like being from the South Side of Chicago and your community there, which was a very special community and a unique community, shaped you for your life's work?

Heather Dowdy 10:14
Well, it reminded me again as to what my ‘why’ is, and continues to be, knowing that I had a whole community at home. My parents were very active in what is a pretty sizable and large black deaf community on the South Side of Chicago. They were part of community organizations, and I remember going to the meetings. I remember all of the social gatherings with their friends and family. And for me, it gave me a very strong foundation as to what the needs were, because as a CODA, you kind of have a foot in both worlds, the deaf world and the hearing world. And you are a bridge in a lot of ways, a communication bridge. But it can be more than that. You know, sometimes even in interpreting, I'm going beyond what the speaker is saying, to make sure that I give context as to what the rest of the audience is picking up just to make sure that my community is included. And so that reminded me that there were people that I wanted to champion, that I grew up that I knew were constantly being overlooked not only for their disability, perhaps within our own black community, but also because they were black even in the disability community. And it's like, where do you fit in when you have an intersection, and the socio-economic challenges on the South Side of Chicago were and continue to be real. When I think about how the majority of our friends and family work at the post office like my dad, because historically, just requirements and rules around hiring people with disabilities. And it's great because they were able to find a place, but at the same time, even today, when I think about employment, and how it really has been stagnant for decades, almost over 30 years, for the disability community, I think about my friends and my family and how they got to work at the post office. And I also think about how they deserve to have more choices, just like you and I do in terms of where they want to work.

Chris Hare 12:33
I guess I'm struck by the fact that it just seems like you have this really strong sense of a mission or a calling from the time that you were young. Did you ever feel this kind of inner, like, Hey, I just want to go do my thing, versus the sense of calling that you had? How did that shape up?

Heather Dowdy 12:50
No, I didn't. And I think about that now that I'm older, and I wonder if I should have. Because I think the misconception a lot of people have is, like, you can work squarely in your purpose and it still be extremely hard. You can champion a group of people, a community, and it still have friction in terms of even the people that you're championing. And so there are so many days where I'm like, Hmm, maybe I should just be like a regular engineer. Like, why do I have to be so extra? But for me, I didn't have that, I’m just not wired that way. When I see a need, particularly a human need that I know can be solved, it just really fuels me to keep going and don't stop, and more importantly, to make sure that I empower my community along the way. So it wasn't like I was wanting to do this for me for accolades. Because obviously you can get to a certain point with accolades and status and be like, Okay, this is good enough. But it was like, No, we've got to empower the disability community and particularly those that I'm connected to. And so that is what continues to drive me.

Chris Hare 14:07
Yeah, I love there's so much talk about, you know, finding your passion and your work and do what you love, etc. But the root word, I think, the Latin word where passion comes from, is to suffer. Right? And so it's that, what's that thing you're willing to suffer for? Right? And then you learn to find joy in the middle of that. But I also hear what you're saying is, it's not like you have this willing, excited audience all the time in life when you go to try and empower others. There's friction there. You're not always accepted even within your own community, etc. Am I hearing you correctly?

Heather Dowdy 14:42
Yeah, absolutely! I love how you put that, because it's so interesting and something to be tussled with. The whole idea that you do what you love and you'll never work a day in your life. This is hard work, shifting narratives is hard work. And I realized early on that if I'm doing this for the praise of people, I will never get really far because that like goes up and down. There have been people that I've been trying to support yelling at me on support calls. And you really have to come from a place of what really are they saying that they aren't saying. And what they're saying is they're frustrated. Experiencing inaccessible products, or just inaccessible environments is equivalent to a micro-aggression, like constantly going up against a micro-aggression. And so really understanding all of that, and sort of trying to take myself out of it as much as possible, is super important. But even in shifting narratives, there are people in the community that don't believe that I should be representing disability at all. Who’s this black woman talking about disability? She currently doesn't have a disability, so she's a champion. Or she's black, she doesn't look like us. And for a lot of people, the narrative around disability has been white and male, or white. So what do we do with this intersection? What do we do with these expanding narratives that truly seek to be inclusive and shift the way that we approach accessibility and disability inclusion in multiple ways?

Chris Hare 16:30
Yeah, I almost wonder just kind of reflecting back on your experience at college with the professor and the dean. Potentially that was almost, as painful as it was, some form of a gift in terms of preparing you for the being told that you're not enough that would come down the road, right? Because it sounds like that's just a continued part of the journey, right?

Heather Dowdy 16:51
Yeah, I actually heard a sermon piece this week that really struck a chord with me in talking about a story in the Bible, David and Goliath. And how David should actually thank Goliath, because Goliath didn't come to destroy him, Goliath actually introduced him to himself. And so having that grit from the South Side of Chicago has been a thread in my story. And remembering where I come from, and the people who still remain there that shaped me, and whose needs still need to be advocated for, and who I want to continue to work alongside to empower.

Chris Hare 17:35
I'd love to dive into what you're currently doing at Netflix. But first, you know, you've talked about some of the narratives. I know there's so many different areas where your passion and your willingness to suffer for the mission has taken you. What are some of the areas that you've focused on in the past around justice reform, around education, and in any other areas that have been a part of your focus in the past?

Heather Dowdy 17:58
Yeah, after college, I went into mobile accessibility with mobile devices, really exciting time. And so from there, I went into web accessibility, and then AI accessibility. And now I'm in the entertainment field focusing on accessibility. But the main thread there was really wanting to always be in terms of the next frontier when it came to accessibility. And it's been really great to be able to look back and just think about all of the progress that's been made through technology when it comes to accessibility. There's a lot more that needs to be done, for sure. But I remember, like, the pager days or, well, before the pager days in terms of difficulties accessing or contacting my parents if I wasn't at home, to the pager, to nowadays, I'm able to use a video phone and video conferencing to connect with my parents in our natural language, in American Sign Language, which is a visual language. And I just think about that progression. And that's why I love launching accessible products so much because you really do start with trying to meet a need, and then being able to get that feedback and see it, literally to see people use that product.

Chris Hare 19:24
So today, you're at Netflix and you're the Director of Product Accessibility. Are you the first person in that role?

Heather Dowdy 19:33
Yeah, at Netflix, yeah. This is the first dedicated role in accessibility at Netflix, which is really exciting because it felt like not just a win for me personally, but a win for the community, the disability community, that I'm so connected to. So the fact that accessibility was becoming more on display in entertainment is super exciting.

Chris Hare 19:57
And what is your mission at Netflix and your day to day? What does that look like?

Heather Dowdy 20:01
So for me, I really do focus on setting the strategy for how we leverage technology to innovate and delight members with disabilities, and connecting them to their next favorite story or game. And my day to day varies quite a bit. But I work with our engineers and our designers, and really just help them think through how we can really stay connected to what our members’ needs are. But also how we might do something a little bit different, what the accessibility considerations are. So that includes consumer research with members, or doing design reviews, or actually testing different projects. And so it's really exciting that no two days are the same and that there are so many passionate people at Netflix that have already been doing accessibility work before I got there. But we get to come together and strategize and really gain some momentum and be very intentional about what we deliver.

Chris Hare 21:09
Can you talk about some of the specific experiences that some of the people in your audience go through when it comes to streaming media? And then what are some examples of ways that you have or are making entertainment more accessible?

Heather Dowdy 21:23
Well, what a lot of people don't know is that there are multiple ways to watch content. And so for our members who are blind, they will listen to audio descriptions that give a visual description and explanation as to what's happening. And so at Netflix, we've won awards for the quality of our audio description, and really working with the blind and low-vision community on guidelines to make it more inclusive. An example of that is there was a recent write up in the Wall Street Journal just on the audio descriptions for Bridgerton, which are pretty steamy. And there are people that don't have disabilities that listen to the audio descriptions for Bridgerton, because they are pretty steamy. But we were able to include things in our guidelines for audio description, like the texture of characters’ hair, you know, there's the color of their skin tone, just a lot more to really bring in our members into the story and the content. And so audio descriptions is a great way to watch content, whether you're blind or not. But the pain point is that throughout social media and streaming providers, it can be hit or miss when it comes to which content supports audio description. And what we've done is really try to focus on how we can expand what we offer, the languages in which we offer audio descriptions, as well as closed captions for the deaf, so that our members are really included in even some of these international hits and stories that go viral at Netflix. So you probably have heard of Squid Games, for example, out of Asia. Well, making sure that we have audio descriptions and closed captions for the deaf in these other languages allows folks to be able to be part of this conversation that's happening around content. But when I thought about and heard about the pain point of not being able to quickly tell which content has the accessibility support that you need, what we did starting in May – and you'll see when you go on to Netflix on TV, and web, and mobile – is we started to add icons in the description of each title. So there's a an icon if it supports audio description, and an icon if it supports subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing, which was an important pain point that we solved, because before that members would have to actually play a title and then either be delightfully surprised or disappointed as to whether or not it was accessible.

Chris Hare 24:20
So you and I have both worked for some really, really large companies right? I would love to understand, within your context, what does it look like to talk to your audience and listen to your audience just practically, right? Because it's very easy – you could put out a survey, you can go do research, etc. But how do you stay close to them and talking to them and hearing them?

Heather Dowdy 24:39
Well, that's so important, but it's my favorite part. Actually I just got back from California last week, and we were doing some research with members. And it was so exciting to kind of have that Wizard of Oz moment where you're behind the screen and just watching folks engage with your product. But yeah, to your point, there are lots of ways to do it, there are companies that we’ll partner with that will send out surveys. And this has been pretty typical of all of the large companies that I've worked with. And then I've also been part of research teams that will bring in folks by working with the disability community that have members of each of these organizations that they can bring in for a focus group. And then there are other channels. Folks are very vocal on social media. When something works for them, when something doesn't. Or through customer support. But I try to stay as active as possible on social media just to watch what reactions are. An example of that is with Stranger Things, the latest season, we had very descriptive closed captions for the depth, like, very descriptive, added a little bit extra to it. For example, if a door was opening, in the closed captions it was like, “The door opens creakily” or something like that. And it was a mixed bag. There were lots of vocal people writing articles that they did not like that, that that was a little too much. And then there are other folks that thought it was fantastic. And so all of that is data to help us tinker and improve and optimize for the next go around.

Chris Hare 26:17
Yeah, and I imagine, too, it then pushes it to a place of potentially eventually getting the level of personalization that you want in those types, you know, in those subtitles. Like, Hey, I want the more extraversion or I want just the straight across the plate, right? You know, you talked about early on of living at the intersection of race and disability and a number of other areas. What are some of the narratives that impact how people with disabilities, and also people of color with disabilities, are received in our culture?

Heather Dowdy 26:49
How about sometimes the narrative is missing? The narrative is, Oh, you don't look like you're disabled. Oh, that's really masked as a behavior issue. One of the narratives is near and dear to my heart that I want to continue to champion and do something about is just the school-to-prison pipeline. A large number of black and brown students that enter the school-to-prison pipeline have a disability. And with certain types of disabilities, were either misdiagnosed or under diagnosed like autism, for example. Because some folks like the narrative that autism is really, really smart people on the spectrum that sometimes wear a hoodie, I don't know. There are lots of different variations of the narrative around autism. But all of those are really important to not just pinpoint what disability looks like, how a person with a disability acts or functions, or what they need. And I really do think that coming back to being flexible, and how we meet each other's needs, and being able to really understand directly from the community what it is that they want and need, and then use that as inspiration to really take it up a notch and deliver. Because the truth about tech and innovation is sometimes we think we know what we need and then when we see something great, it's like, Oh, I would have never thought about that. Insert Uber, for example, right? But at the end of the day, it really is about being more inclusive about what disability looks like, functions, and what a person with a disability needs.

Chris Hare 28:37
And what is your assessment of why storytelling is so important and changing those narratives? And then also you're on one of the biggest platforms in the world for telling amazing stories, right?

Heather Dowdy 28:49
Yeah, which is what attracted me to the opportunity. You know, I was busy starting to work a little bit more on just upskilling of people with disabilities when this opportunity presented itself at Netflix. And I thought, huh, I hadn’t really thought about this. I don't know. Like, that seems like having fun, and I'm doing serious work over here. And what I had to really reconcile within myself is that there's a place for joy when it comes to justice. And personally, I don't think I had been living that at that point and was really starting to grapple that, but also at scale. And when I thought about the global conversations we're having in our culture based on what we've watched on Netflix, I realized there was a huge opportunity to make sure that those conversations were inclusive of people with disabilities. And so when I think about why storytelling is important, an example is just when George Floyd was murdered. In that particular summer, I remember being at work at a large company and feeling alone, not really feeling seen in terms of how I was taking the news. And also the conversations that were happening around me were just not great, were not very sensitive or inclusive. And I remember sharing with the team how I had had a family member who was pretty much dragged from their home during the day, a deaf family member, and accused of a crime that they did not commit. But because they were deaf, and because they were black, it was so easy to pin it on this person. And I happened to be outside when they were taking the person to the police car, and I'm like, Where are you going? Where are you going? They can't hear you. What are you doing? And the fact of the matter is, I have family members and friends who are black and who are deaf that are pulled over by the police. And they're not able to self-identify that they are deaf. They are seen as black first. And when we think about the police violence against black and brown communities in the United States, over half of those incidents involved a person with a disability, perhaps mental health disability. And so that is an intersection. That is a narrative that we aren't talking about. And it really hits home for me in terms of when I close my computer, and I go home, and I think about my family and my friends that I interact with. And so that, to me, is why storytelling is super critical.

Chris Hare 31:50
Thank you for sharing that. I think what I'm hearing is several levels. There's one is just the importance of you, as a human being, needing to be able to tell your story to the people around you at work, right? And have them listen and hear you and respond in a respectful way. And then also learn and grow from your story. So there's that level. And then there are, to your point, false or broken narratives, but also just completely missing narratives, right? It's that the unseen people that just fall through the cracks. But again, it comes back to beliefs or choices, I think, choices to not see certain people and just assume, right?

Heather Dowdy 32:33
But that's what's cool about storytelling. And that's what I like about Netflix's focus on storytelling as a vehicle to building empathy. So yeah, there are some stories that folks have strong reactions to one way or the other. But the fact is, it starts a conversation. And it shifts things from being them over there to, Oh, that's a piece of my story, or I know someone that goes through that. And that's really the shift that really has to take place in order for us to have change.

Chris Hare 33:10
So as a mom to three beautiful kids, what is the future that you envision for them? And then how are you helping them get there?

Heather Dowdy 33:18
I think about that often, which is why I'm a big believer in affirmations, in them understanding and accepting who they are. Because I don't think that you can really work in your purpose or live in your purpose without a great grounding sense of who you are, and that you were created to do something particularly special. And so for me, I very much buy into having conversations by asking lots of questions of them, and also pointing things out to them, and allowing them to be able to bring things to me. They're as much my teacher as I am theirs. I learned so much from them, and I've truly embraced motherhood for that reason. But I just really want them to understand who they are and the difference that they were created to make in this world.

Chris Hare 34:18
I think so much of our internal narratives are, I mean, they're shaped by inputs, right, and what others tell us. So I love the fact, and that really challenges me as a parent, right, to think about ways that I can intentionally speak what's true, because our kids are hearing all these kinds of things through media, through friends, etc. But speak what the truth is, as just a really positive input to help shape their narrative, right?

Heather Dowdy 34:45
Yeah, they're sponges. But I'm also recognizing that they can reason, like, that's what makes us human. And so the questioning piece is really to see how they're interpreting the world and the people that they encounter. So it was really interesting in that sense.

Chris Hare 35:02
So, you know, as you think about the future for people with disabilities, and you talk about meeting everyone where they're at, what's that future that you envision look like?

Heather Dowdy 35:13
A lot around personalization. That's why I like that you mentioned that earlier. Understanding that no two disabilities are alike, and we don't necessarily all have the same need. But how can we be flexible and accommodating and providing the different access that folks need? So personalization is a big one that I'm thinking about in tech. And also, I think even beyond technology, because not only am I working at Netflix, but I'm also on the board of the US Access Board. And what I think about is really the education piece and the future of education, and how we can make it more accessible in the sense that in the pandemic, so much shifted, but so much was unearthed on the education side in terms of inequities, whether being able to service students with disabilities, or just being able to service people with and without internet access. There were so many different access points. And I would love to see how by solving for one and extending to many, which is sort of my point of view in accessibility, how we can really focus in on things like that school-to-prison pipeline, on students with disabilities and their access needs, and then begin to make the entire education system and approach a lot more accessible for all students.

Chris Hare 36:46
You talked about being out in California last week and some of those magic moments of seeing that transformation. Is there a particular story that stands out of, you know, as we think about the stakes of that future that you're working to bring about with so many others, is there a moment where you got some feedback from a customer around how transformative an innovation was for them?

Heather Dowdy 37:10
Well, it was a lot, it was a whole day. And we're still processing it. But what I thought was interesting is how engaging the conversation was when there weren't access barriers because of technology. Like, technology was actually removing some of the access barriers. Because we were focused on a group of blind and low-vision individuals, it was really exciting that it wasn't, Hey, I can't access this thing. It was, Here's how to make it better. And what I love about that type of feedback is that's what's going to make it better for everyone, and we wouldn't be able to get that feedback if we had allowed it to be a barrier for them accessing it in the first place. And so that's why I don't mind all of the feedback and the chatter online about whether folks liked the story or didn't like the story, or what we're experimenting, because I’d rather them have that feedback than I can't access it at all. And I still think that there's more work to do across our society, whether that's an employment, education, whether that's in banking, whatever sector you find yourself in, like, the barriers to access should be removed, period. We need to go beyond just providing the bare minimum, and really thinking about how we can innovate. But it's hard to do that, and we haven't even removed those initial barriers to entry.

Chris Hare 38:51
And what are some ways as you look at the industry more broadly, what's an example that you'd like to see of how accessibility could and should be advanced?

Heather Dowdy 39:00
Well, as I mentioned, I love the personalization piece with the idea that I don't necessarily have to disclose whether or not I have a disability every time, but by technology understanding what features I use in order to watch content or to navigate online, that that can stick with me as I travel throughout the digital universe in that sense. And so the concept of technology really conforming and meeting me and supplementing what my abilities are is super and important to me. And that was what was exciting about really digging into AI for accessibility, for example, because there are so many people that were more focused on, Okay, what jobs is AI going to take away in that sense? And how is it going to replace humans? Robots are gonna come and take over the world. But I was like, Wait a minute, can it complement what I already do well, like, that should be the point of AI. And so I think that there are yet to be, there are scenarios yet to be unlocked through personalization and AI.

Chris Hare 40:20
So the phrase that hit me really hard from what you just said is “supplementing my abilities”. That's so powerful, right? Because it's what I often hear, or what I often think of is, like, how can we help you with your disability? You know, that's kind of the context, I think, versus how are you supplementing my abilities? That shift is so powerful, right?

Heather Dowdy 40:42
It is, it's big, because then it's like, Oh, I don't have a disability, but I need you to complement my abilities here, too. I have an access need. It kind of shifts it away to, like, we all have some sort of access needs. We all have things that can make us shine even brighter. So can we start to focus on those?

Chris Hare 41:02
Yeah. And also, we all will eventually have additional access needs, life happens, things shift and change. And, yeah.

Heather Dowdy 41:10
So the idea that, hey, as a business, I don't need to think about accessibility, maybe I'll just add it on to the end – you know, because it's cost prohibitive or whatever, I don't have the expertise – doesn’t really make a lot of sense. It doesn't make a lot of sense from a market reach perspective, or really serving all of your customers, or even just how about, that's not how you create the best product possible. You can't call yourself a leader if you aren't inclusive of customers and members with disabilities.

Chris Hare 41:43
Yeah, we've had a couple of conversations in this podcast series. So first, with Bain & Company, we talked about especially really large enterprise companies, because people talk a lot now about having your purpose as a company, right? But that purpose is often at this really high level. It doesn't actually connect down from the 200,000 foot level. And then with Ebbie Parsons, we talked about the fact of oftentimes purpose is really a veneer that you put on top to look good to the world. But again, it's not core to what you do. I know you've worked at a series of tech companies that are aiming to change the world and have that stated purpose. But they also need to maximize profit, right? So what are some of the challenges that you see when there's this purpose and it collides with profit, and how that plays out around accessibility?

Heather Dowdy 42:39
Lots of challenges in the sense of, like, when to do it. And accessibility is one of those things that really has to be baked in from the get-go. It can't be retrofitted afterwards in order to do it well. And so a lot of times in tech, just because everybody moves fast in tech, you often hear, Well, we'll come back to that after our MVP. We'll come back to that later on. And it's like, no, this should inherently be part of your design and your approach in this particular product. I think that that is something that happens a lot. And then also, the know-it-all versus learn-it-all. We know what access needs people with disabilities have. So we're going to do this right here. We're going to make this one size font bigger or whatever. Instead of really doing that research, really having that feedback loop, and not being afraid to iterate. Many times you hear with accessibility companies and professionals, we talk about how it is a journey, because it is, that's the truth of the matter. And so really, how are you measuring your improvement along that journey when it comes to disability inclusion and accessibility? I think that's really important. Or to your point, you're just saying that that's part of your purpose and your mission, but you really haven't put teeth to it because you aren't measuring how you're progressively improving in that area.

Chris Hare 44:11
I know your family gave you a sign name growing up. I'd love to hear what that was and why they gave you that name.

Heather Dowdy 44:17
Yeah, want to see it? It's H in American Sign Language. It looks like that, have my thumb closed in with my third finger and then the two index fingers and top fingers are out and you go up and down. And you get a sign name when you're in the community, and a deaf person gives it to you. And they gave it to me when I was really young. And it was H for hurry, because I was always in a hurry. My parents, as I mentioned, would go to the social gatherings and talk for hours. And as a little kid, I would just pull on their sleeves while they were talking because they were moving their hands, and be like, Can we go? Can we go? And so I got H for hurry.

Chris Hare 45:05
And how has that shifted over time? Clearly, you've known what your mission is kind of from day one. You have that desire to always be going, always be creating, etc., right? But you're also, now you're in the middle of the mission, right? There is friction, things move slowly, etc., which requires, I imagine, a ton of patience and perseverance. So how have you shifted and grown over time?

Heather Dowdy 45:35
Oh, my goodness. Yeah, it requires patience that I didn't know I was built for. But as we say in church, God is still working on me. And now I would love it to just be not so much the ‘hurry’ piece. I think for me it was always like, We gotta get this done as fast as possible. And sometimes that meant I didn't take good care of myself. Sometimes, you know, burnout is real. Passion and social activism burnout is super real. And now that I've been in this for a while, over 16 years, I realize that it really is about the influence, it really is about bringing more people along the journey. And what you asked me earlier about something that stood out in research, now that I think about it, there was actually a moment where there was someone who didn't have a disability who happen to be around us doing the research. And he said, “Whoa, I’d never watched a movie with audio descriptions on. That was incredible! I think I'm gonna watch more movies like that.” And to me, that made me smile, because that is what it means when you share your influence, when you share storytelling, to bring more people along the journey so that you can scale faster, and so that they can also share the message of disability inclusion and accessibility in their own spheres of influence.

Chris Hare 47:13
Well, Heather, thanks so much for joining me. This has been an extraordinary conversation. There's a lot going on in the world right now that’s difficult, right? Goes without saying, but I just said it. What gives you hope as you look to this next year and as you look to the future?

Heather Dowdy 47:28
I'm hopeful and excited that we have so many more tools than we've ever had before. And I am hopeful with the collective healing that we are attempting to engage in, that we will be good stewards of the opportunity to innovate, but also the opportunity to care for and connect for everyone and each other a lot better.

Chris Hare 48:02
That's beautiful. Well, thank you, Heather. I really appreciate it.

Heather Dowdy 48:05
Thanks for having me, Chris.

Chris Hare 48:07
What strikes me most about Heather is her clarity of calling and her persistence. The fact that she knew her future as a kid and stuck with it, no matter what people said, is truly inspiring. She has a clear picture of the narrative she's bringing to life. And no matter how much friction she encounters, Heather just keeps pushing until she breaks through, even when the people she's trying to serve, the people in her community, see her as an outsider. Like Heather, we all have narratives that we tell ourselves, that we believe – narratives that shape us, control us, hold us back, and help us become better versions of ourselves. But where do those narratives come from? Sure, they come from culture, they come from media, they come from our families, and our communities. But they also come from inside of us – from our hopes, our dreams, our frustrations, and our wounds – and they come from what I like to call atomic stories. Atomic stories are our recollections of those distinct moments of pain and joy, frustration and delight, curiosity and transformation, that both shape and reinforce how we view ourselves, how we view the world, and how we view others. For better or worse, we can reject or believe those stories. And when we tap into the energy in the matter of those stories over time, stringing them together, it shapes a narrative, a narrative that has the power to keep us anchored in the past, stuck in the present, or propel us to the future. Heather says it's so well: “What I like about Netflix is focus on storytelling as a vehicle to building empathy. So yeah, there are some stories that people have a strong reaction to one way or the other. But the fact is, it starts a conversation and it shifts things from them being over there to, Oh, that's a piece of my story or I know someone that goes through that. And that's really the shift that has to take place in order for us to have change.”

What about you? What struck you about Heather's story today? What's your vision of the future and the narrative that you're trying to make a reality? What friction are you encountering? What keeps you going? I'd love to hear from you. And that's it. Until next week. Thank you for joining The Storied Future Podcast. Please subscribe, leave us a review, and be sure to visit TSFpod.com for more information about Heather Dowdy, for Show Notes, and to check out other episodes.

The Storied Future Podcast is a production of The Storied Future, LLC, produced and edited by Ray Sylvester, audio engineering by Ali Özbay, logo design by Evan MacDonald, theme music by The Brewz. Your host is me, Chris Hare. Learn more about our work helping leaders create great B2B narratives for a change at www.thestoriedfold.wpengine.com.


Heather’s LinkedIn

With fifteen years of experience developing and demonstrating accessible technology in mobile, web, and artificial intelligence, Heather Dowdy is passionate about connecting the dots across disability, race, tech, and faith. She currently leads Accessibility at Netflix, leveraging technology to connect people with disabilities to their next favorite story. Previously, Heather served in several accessibility leadership roles at Microsoft and Motorola Mobility, including being named Chair of the Accessibility Working Group of the Mobile & Wireless Forum. As the oldest daughter of deaf parents, she is fluent in American Sign Language (ASL).

Heather has served as a Board Member of the World Institute on Disability (WID)deaf kids CODE, and Billion Strong. She loves using the design thinking process to create solutions that improve usability for everyone. She holds a bachelor of science degree in electrical engineering from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.