ADHD, invisible disabilities, and making the digital world accessible
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ADHD, invisible disabilities, and making the digital world accessible

Albert Kim first got interested in digital accessibility because of his ADHD, dyslexia, and invisible disabilities. He wanted to make websites and apps usable for everyone, including himself. After all, he uses a screen reader and text-to-speech to read text online. 

But when Albert started to explore a career in digital accessibility, friends discouraged him. They said it wasn’t a good career path. Albert decided to try anyway. Within a few years, demand for his expertise exploded. People who had discouraged him before were now asking about jobs.

In this episode, Albert shares how to start a career in digital accessibility, and why he wants others with learning differences to join the field. He also talks about the challenges of being a first-generation college student and immigrant from South Korea. 

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Episode transcript

Albert: So I started talking to different people around me who are working in tech industry, but then most people were discouraging. Most people actually didn't even know about this field. Most people didn't really recommend it. But growing up in such a hardship raised by a single mom and everything, yeah, it is challenging. I get it. But I went through a lot of challenges already.

Eleni: From the Understood Podcast Network, this is "How'd You Get THAT Job?!," a podcast that explores the unique and often unexpected career paths of people with learning and thinking differences. My name is Eleni Matheou, and I'm a user researcher here at Understood. That means I spend a lot of time thinking about how we find jobs we love that reflect how we learn and who we are. I'll be your host.

If you have a learning or thinking difference or a disability, you might've heard of the word "accessibility." This means making things as usable as possible by as many people as possible. Well, our next guest, Albert Kim, is an accessibility expert. He also has ADHD, dyslexia, and other invisible disabilities, which is part of the reason he feels like he found his calling.

Hi, Albert, welcome to the show.

Albert: Yeah, thank you for having me.

Eleni: So, I thought a nice place to start would be just like, kind of explain it, what it means to be an accessibility expert. I'm on the product team at Understood. And so I work really closely with the experience and design team, and I've actually worked on a few accessibility projects, so I'm pretty familiar. But for our listeners, I thought it might be valuable for you to explain what it might mean to be an accessibility expert and just describe it to them as simple as possible.

Albert: Basically, the work that I'm doing, accessibility specialist role, it actually focuses on digital accessibility. So just like buildings, there's a law to make it accessible for people with disabilities or anyone to be able to access for wheelchair users and things like that. Digital space, same thing for digital products, whether that is like an app or a website, it needs to be accessible for everyone. So I basically help companies make these digital products accessible to everyone. And it's not just people with disabilities, because disability has three different categories, like permanent, temporary, situational. For example, my mother, as she gets older, her vision is lower, and so her text size has to be bigger, and things like that. So it's a really interdisciplinary subject. It involves human/computer interaction, design, computer science, and psychology. So yeah, it's a very fascinating subject area.

Eleni: I think one thing that we talk about UX is really I'm trying to understand the state of the person using the technology, whether that's like an emotional state or a physical state, and designing with that in mind.

Albert: Yeah, of course, mm-hm.

Eleni: I would love to hear why accessibility is so important to you and why you chose to dedicate your career to accessibility.

Albert: For me, accessibility is really important because I deeply empathize with the struggles. I myself have disabilities. I was born with some disabilities and also attained some growing up. And so for me, the representation and advocacy for people with disabilities is really important.

Growing up, I was born in a South Korean family. And South Korea has a lot of stigma toward disability, especially invisible disabilities, like mental health and things like that. And my parents have never gone to any school. They never got any formal education. So, for me, growing up, I've never really seeked out for any medical help or any diagnosis for my disabilities. And even when I became adult and tried to seek for medical help by myself, my parents were against it. Because they just simply didn't want their child having a diagnosis of a certain disability and things like that.

So having gone through such a struggle, even within my family, in my environment, in my society, wanting to be accepted as who I am, I deeply empathize with such struggle for anyone, honestly, not just people with disabilities. When I came across this subject, this field, for me, it was like a calling. It was like a life mission. And especially, even within digital accessibility, these invisible disabilities that cognitive and learning disabilities, as well as mental health, have not been traditionally covered much. Which it was very absurd to me because if not accessibility area talks about these issues, then where else can we talk about it, right?

Eleni: Definitely.

Albert: So, kind of felt like a calling, and I feel like I had to jump in and really bring more representation of people with disabilities, similar disabilities that I have, in this field.

Eleni: That's definitely something that I've heard in my research too. When we talk more broadly about diversity and inclusion, often disability is left out. And then even within the disability spaces, invisible disabilities are left out of that conversation too. So there's, like, a number of layers. And as you said, learning disabilities in particular are often, you know, not considered. I would love to hear some examples of where you've noticed perhaps digital platforms not being as accessible as they could be for learning disabilities and, like, a common mistake or gap that you see on these platforms.

Albert: I think one of the challenges I have is the reading comprehension difficulty due to my dyslexia. And because of that, I use screen readers a lot. And a lot of websites, actually majority of websites, are inaccessible. And one of the most common thing is these screen readers are assistive technology that requires specific technical compatibility.

But many websites are not designed and developed with these assistive technologies in mind. So for example, if I'm trying to use a screen reader to read the content, sometimes it might skip, like there is no, for example, alt text for images, or there is no coherent orders, and it's just really not the pleasant experience.

So those are one of the biggest challenges. And also in terms of, from the mental health aspect, a lot of contents that might trigger mental health traumas, there is no trigger warning or the contents might be just dangerous subjects, right? Dangerous things. And being able to write contents in plain language rather than overcomplicating things. And a lot of it is design content. Those are the biggest parts that I find a lot of issues.

Eleni: And I know you mentioned that you didn't necessarily see some of your diagnoses considered, so I thought it might be helpful for the audience, if you feel comfortable, to share the learning differences that you have.

Albert: Yeah, thank you for asking, because I know there's a lot of stigma toward disabilities, and I know many times people tend to not to disclose. And I was advised not to disclose if I don't feel comfortable to, but I try to disclose as much information as possible, because I want to break that stigma a lot. And I have cognitive and learning disabilities, such as ADHD, dyslexia, OCD. I also have anxiety and depression, as well as PTSD. So, it's quite a lot, but these are the diagnoses that I got and been on medication for them. And I'm really fortunate to be able to find a good medical team who was able to help me out in this journey.

Eleni: Yeah. I'm happy to hear that for you too. And thank you for being vulnerable and sharing all of those diagnoses. It is really important sometimes to be more open because that's setting an example for other people that might feel a little bit more shame, and it really reduces stigma around it, just talking about it.

So you mentioned that when you discovered the accessibility space, you felt like it was truly your calling. I want to hear more about how you discovered it, you know, set you on that path.

Albert: Actually, to share that story, I do need to share a little bit about my background because I think it's all connected.

I was born in a family with domestic violence. So my mother, my sister, and I all escaped from my father. So, I was mostly raised by a single mom. I'm a first-generation college student, and we couldn't afford the cost. So I had to take a pause in my college. And at that point, I was trying to find out what can I do in terms of my career?

And while I was going to college, I actually tried three different startups. I thought business success to be my fastest route to become financially independent and free so that I can support my family. So I tried different startups.

And then I went to South Korean military because of the compulsory military service. And in the military, I served as a telecommunications specialist. And that was, like, the first time I kind of interacted with these more of a computer and technical things. And then after I came out, I was doing more of a digital consultant work. But then because of my startup experience previously, I got recruited by my friend and I was brought in as a business development manager. And while I was working for this tech startup, I realized, oh, like, in order for me to really get into this field, I do really need to understand more about computer science and coding and web development. So I started doing a UCLA Extension certificate in web development applications programming.

And while I was studying that subject, I came across digital accessibility. At first, I was very fascinated by the subject because I never, ever imagined there is an existing field for this specific digital accessibility. And when I came across, I felt like, like, this is super cool. To me, it was kind of like looking at robots or AI, so I automatically got drawn to it and I started looking up, oh, so what are the digital accessibility guidelines for people with invisible disabilities or people like me? And I couldn't really find much resources. Oh, that's strange. Maybe I did a poor research. So I started reaching out to different people on LinkedIn and also attending different events and conferences to see maybe if I attend these professional events, I'll be able to hear more about that subject. But I still couldn't find much information. 

And then I realized, oh, wow, so most of the digital accessibility conversations were focused on physical disabilities, blind, deaf, and motor. But invisible disabilities have not been covered much. So, that's when I felt like, oh, it's my calling. And I need to really get into this field and try to bring more representation.

Eleni: Yeah. And that's something that we also hear a lot, where people identify, like, an opportunity or a gap and for people that are more risk-averse, it's like, oh, but like that's uncharted territory. Whereas for others, it's like, well, that's actually really exciting. You can be the pioneer in that space if no one is doing it. And as you said, there's definitely a need for it. Like, you identified a personal need for it. So, there must be others feeling the same way, right?

Albert: First, I didn't know how to start. So I started talking to different people around me who are working in tech industry. But then most people were giving me advice that was discouraging. Then most people actually didn't even know about this field existing. And second, most people didn't really recommend it. Like, it's an unclear career path, and the companies that have accessibility teams are only the large companies. So, I heard a lot of discouragement. But growing up in such a hardship, raised by a single mom and everything, yeah, it is challenging. I get it. But I went through a lot of challenges already, but I still overcame. So why not try? And what an interesting life because after I got into this field, shortly after, the demand has soared extremely a lot. So compared to two years ago, there was an article talking about the job increase in this field was 70 percent in one year.

And because of the COVID and how the digital transformation is occurring, and a lot of government services and public services are also transitioning to digital, there is this soaring demand for making websites and apps accessible for everyone so that public services are available for everyone. So now the people who were discouraged at me before are now coming to me and saying —

Eleni: Congratulating you.

Albert: Congratulating me and also asking for help. They want to learn more about it.

Eleni: Yeah. And I think that takes a lot of courage to block out societal pressure and other people's opinions. And just really look inward in terms of what you want and being guided by that.

Albert: And I think that neurodiverse people are actually very strong at that because we've overcome that kind of stigma, always resisting.

Eleni: Definitely. Yeah. We talk about that a lot. You know, if you already feel othered in whatever way, then it's actually a lot easier to go against the status quo and go against the grain because you already are. And I think it's really important to point out some of the strengths and positivity around neurodiversity.

Albert: Yeah, thank you. I really hope that more and more neurodiverse people pursue this field because there's a huge demand for neurodiversity representation in this field. And it's a really, really fascinating subject that I think a lot of people will find very meaningful because you get all the benefits of working in the tech industry, like flexible location. And most companies are nowadays remote and flexible hours. But at the same time, you do work that actually benefits people with disabilities and humanity. So, it just gives me a lot of life fulfillment and meaning in my work and everything.

Eleni: Oh, that's so beautiful to hear. You know, you mentioned flexibility in the tech industry and how perhaps working in tech could be a little bit more inclusive or more accessible. Do you want to talk a little bit more about that and why that's important to you?

Albert: If I were to work at a traditional company where the business practice and work environment is very traditional, it would be very challenging. Because of my disability, sometimes I need to have flexible work hours. Also being able to work remotely at my home where I feel comfortable gives me a lot of room for accommodating my disabilities. And another thing is I feel like the tech industry, the culture and the community itself, is very supportive. It's all about, like, supporting each other, open-source projects, and we're all trying to help each other, so that is a huge plus for people like me, who is a foreigner, in a foreign country, without a college degree. And then being a first-generation college student with a lack of guidance, it means so much to have that kind of support, especially digital accessibility community. Because a lot of people in digital accessibility resonate and empathize with people with disabilities and actually having disability is a huge, huge strength, because you have a deep insight and understanding of users with disabilities. And that is very precious and highly appreciated skill and experience in this field. So I think that was one of the biggest part was the people in this field were just very welcoming, loving, and supportive, and that is really hard to find in other fields, I feel like.

Eleni: And you also mentioned not finishing college and some of the challenges that you had from a financial perspective. But I would love to hear perhaps some other challenges that might've been related to, like, your learning and thinking differences or your other mental health challenges.

Albert: A lot of challenges are so subtle and embedded in my life that I don't even know it exists. For example, I have a hard time with estimating time. So my doctor was telling me because of my low executive functioning in my brain, if I'm estimating a time for a certain work or certain task, I can pretty much assume that it is going to be wrong. And another thing is balancing my focus. It's very hard to balance my focus.

For example, I have ADHD and I get distracted to a lot of environmental stimuli. So when I'm working, I turn off a lot of other noises in my room and try to be able to focus so that I don't get distracted. But at the same time, I have OCD as well. So for me, there's no middle ground. And it's, like, either I'm very distracted or I'm very, very, very focused, maybe too focused, to the point that I'm not prioritizing certain tasks and moving forward. It's kind of like a bicycle when you're riding a bicycle on a downhill, it's hard to stop for me. It's very hard to stop when I'm going down already into the path of ADHD. So learning coping mechanism to help me balance that has been very challenging.

Also another thing is, because of my anxiety, new environment, where it's my first-time experience, for example, let's say that I'm trying to go to medical school. I've never been to medical school before. Then there's lots of new information out there that I don't know. To me, that is a huge uncertainty, and that overwhelms me a lot. So it gives me anxiety and it triggers my OCD a lot. So I get obsessed about like reading things and learning things because I'm so anxious that I feel like if I miss one word, I might miss a huge chunk of information.

So it took me a long time to really learn the coping mechanism that it's OK to fail. It's OK to try. And whether or not you fail, you will learn something, and it'll be good for you. So, just there was constant struggle but definitely I think as first step was getting medical help, and it helped me tremendously.

Eleni: That was super interesting to hear how your different diagnoses interact and how they show up for you, and how one can actually then trigger the other. And since you started talking about advice, I thought that would be a really good segue to ask you about other advice you have for young people with thinking and learning differences, particularly those that might be interested in getting into the accessibility space.

Albert: The main thing that I really want to convey to people who are going through a similar struggle as I am is that you are not alone. I'm here, there are ton of other friends around me who have similar struggles. We are here. And you are heard, you are accepted, you are loved. So I think finding community is really powerful.

I started this community called Accessibility NextGen, because I wanted to build a supportive community for anyone who wants to learn about digital accessibility, to be able to help each other and make more friends, literally, like, that was the main reason why. Because when I was trying to get into this field, it was so challenging, and there are people, a ton of people, who are more than happy to help you.

I and tons of my friends want to help people with disabilities and especially neurodiversity to get into this field. So please let me, let us, help you by reaching out to us, or connecting with us, or just shooting a DM anytime. The name of the community is Accessibility NextGen, and it's on Meetup.

Also, you can find me on LinkedIn, Albert Kim, or my Twitter handle is djkalbert, but the Slack channel is actually invitation-only, so once you actually message me, I can send the invitation and then go from there.

Eleni: Thank you so much for joining, Albert. And thank you for all of the work that you do in the accessibility space.

Albert: Well, thank you so much, Eleni, for having me today. And I hope that my story will at least help someone feel that they are not alone. So, thank you.

Eleni: I hope so too.

This has been "How'd You Get THAT Job?!," a part of the Understood Podcast Network. You can listen and subscribe to "How'd You Get THAT Job?!" on Apple, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts. And if you like what you heard today, tell someone about it.

"How'd You Get THAT Job?!" is for you. So we want to make sure you're getting what you need. Go to u.org/thatjob to share your thoughts and to find resources from every episode. That's the letter U, as in Understood, dot O R G, slash that job.

Do you have a learning difference and a job you're passionate about? Email us at thatjob@understood.org. If you'd like to tell us how you got THAT job, we'd love to hear from you. As a nonprofit and social impact organization, Understood relies on the help of listeners like you to create podcasts like this one, to reach and support more people in more places. We have an ambitious mission to shape the world for difference, and we welcome you to join us in achieving our goals. Learn more at understood.org/mission.

 "How'd You Get THAT Job?!" was created by Andrew Lee and is produced by Gretchen Vierstra and Justin D. Wright, who also wrote our theme song. Laura Key is our editorial director at Understood. Scott Cocchiere is our creative director. Seth Melnick and Briana Berry are our production directors. Thanks again for listening.

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    leads user research for Understood. She helps Understood to center its work on the lived experiences and voices of people who learn and think differently.

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