PHILADELPHIA — Alycia Brown sat in front of a tablet at the City Avenue Xfinity store recently, next to store manager Shaun Wilson, and posed a question to a Communications Services for the Deaf interpreter on the other side of the screen, using American Sign Language (ASL).

“How much is it?” the interpreter said.

“I’ll pull up your account, and I’ll be able to let you know exactly just how much you’re paying and when your bill will be due,” Wilson said back, as the interpreter signed to Brown. Brown then asked about adding a cable box to her service, and Wilson answered.

Advertisement - Continue Reading Below

The whole interaction took less than three minutes.

Brown and Wilson’s conversation was just a demonstration, but the service is real, now that Comcast has expanded its ASL video remote interpreting services pilot to six Philly-area retail locations. The company is planning to roll out the service at all retail stores in the next several months.

“It’s really allowing an individual who is deaf or a native sign speaker to come in and communicate in the language of their choice and really makes the communication more efficient,” said Tom Wlodkowski, Comcast’s vice president of accessibility. Comcast will be the first in its industry to have implemented this kind of service, he added.

While Brown’s example was a simple billing question, the service is expected to be especially useful for lengthier processes at Xfinity stores, such as setting up an account for the first time. For example, he said, “Imagine what it would take to provision a mobile service (and) have to just limit the communication to pencil and paper. A lot of questions need to be asked.”

Wlodkowski and a team of 19 accessibility-focused staff at Comcast spend much of their time thinking about just that — how people with various disabilities communicate, access media, and otherwise interact with Comcast products.

These kinds of jobs have been increasingly in-demand in recent years. Between 2020 and 2021, the number of accessibility roles on LinkedIn grew by 78%, the Wall Street Journal reported, fueled by the COVID-19 pandemic, an increase in disability lawsuits, and increased attention to diversity, equity, and inclusion.

But Comcast’s accessibility team is over a decade old. While its members are few, relative to the company’s 8,000-person headquarters workforce, the team has grown steadily and so has the scope of their work.

For many of them, the work is personal because of their own disabilities or connection to loved ones with disabilities.

“It’s what drives us,” said Wlodkowski, who is blind. “Lived experience, I think, helps us become better advocates.”

Principal product manager Joel Moffatt, for example, spent a decade working in an independent living center before joining Comcast. He has Usher syndrome, which affects his vision and hearing. He finds it fascinating to hear from customers about their specific needs, frequently learning about disabilities he’s not experienced firsthand.

“I’m OK with making my job sort of about my disability, about other disabilities,” Moffatt said. “But the key is you want to see people with disabilities all over the place.”

‘A big thing is having representation’

Comcast’s accessibility department dates to 2012, when the company had to adapt to a new set of federal regulations on closed captioning. Wlodkowski and one other person were hired to aid compliance with the new rules, but before long they moved past the minimum requirements and started thinking about how to make “the most usable product,” he said.

A few months later, they added Moffatt, who leads engagement for the accessibility team, connecting with other departments at Comcast.

“A big thing is having representation among the teams that work on this stuff,” Moffatt said.

The accessibility group now includes strategists, designers, and product managers. They recently added a product ethics role, too.

But, Wlodkowski made clear, his team is not alone in working on solutions for people with disabilities. They liaise with partner organizations that represent people with disabilities and communicate customer needs to other teams within Comcast.

“We are a hub, and the product or the business units are the spokes,” he said. “We go talk to product groups (and) say, ‘I know you have a million things on your plate, right? We’re not here to argue about that. But if you could just take this one extra step over here, we could open your product up to people who maybe have never had it.'”

‘Better for everybody’

In addition to closed captioning and ASL interpretation in-store, the team has worked on Comcast’s voice remote and more recently its updated large-button voice remote with added accessibility features. It’s available to any customer by request.

Eve Hyppolite, a product experience engineer who works with the accessibility team, encouraged her grandmother to get the new remote. The standard remote “was too small for her visual status,” and the new one is “more comfortable for her hand.”

The latest model replaces a large-button remote that some customers had complained was “clinical looking,” noting they would “hide it when people came over,” Wlodkowski said. The accessibility team held focus groups with seniors, low-vision organizations, and others in the disability community to develop a new design.

Their new remote is white with black buttons and straight edges — it can sit flat on a table or wheelchair tray without wobbling, Wlodkowski said. “A lot of times people would put this on their tray and maybe they have a mouth stick and they’re navigating by pressing a button with that mouth stick,” he said.

The battery compartment has a pull tab, easing battery removal for those with dexterity challenges, and a cover that stays attached to the remote’s body, so it can’t be dropped or misplaced. A wrist strap on the bottom could also be hooked to a chair, he noted, “so if it did slip off a (wheelchair) tray, you don’t have to wait for a caregiver to come back to pick up the remote.”

In nearly a year since debuting the remote, Comcast has shipped out nearly 30,000 of them. Any customer among their 15 million cable subscribers can get the remote for no charge by making a request through Comcast’s Accessibility Support Center.

“When you build an inclusive solution, you often build a product that’s better for everybody,” Wlodkowski said.

‘Lit a fire under me’

The accessibility team has also worked on content-related projects, such as live audio description of the Olympics and Paralympics, so people with visual impairment can better understand the sporting events.

“A consumer who was blind told us that they didn’t know that swimmers were on a platform before they went into the water” until they heard the live audio description, Wlodkowski said.

While customers’ abilities can be vastly different, Wlodkowski said, accessibility work is also unifying.

“We might not have an accessibility issue today, but we’re all going to have one as we get older,” he said. “This all comes into your life one way or another eventually.”

For Hyppolite, watching customers make use of Comcast’s accessibility-minded projects has been a motivator in itself. She showcased Comcast’s web remote to a Philadelphia customer, Jimmy Curran, when the product released in 2019.

The web remote is used on a standard browser, and it’s compatible with computer eye-tracking technology, so people who cannot use a handheld remote can control their television without assistance.

Curran has spinal muscular atrophy and uses a motorized wheelchair, to which Hyppolite attached a tablet with eye-tracking and Comcast’s web remote.

“Wow, I did that,” Curran said, looking at the screen, when he used the app to launch his channel guide for the first time. He had previously needed assistance from others anytime he wanted to change the channel.

“To see his real first reaction when he was able to leverage eye-tracking technology to change to his favorite channel, something clicked for me,” Hyppolite said. “To see the work that was done, and then a real person using our stuff for the first time and actually super amazed … it’s something that’s lit a fire under me ever since.”

© 2023 The Philadelphia Inquirer
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC

Read more stories like this one. Sign up for Disability Scoop's free email newsletter to get the latest developmental disability news sent straight to your inbox.