FSCast #215

May,  2022

GLEN GORDON:  On FSCast 215 we’ll get to know long-time developer Joe Stephen.  In addition to his work on JAWS, he does manual labor on his family farm in rural Tasmania and manages  to find the time to add accessibility support to some handheld shortwave radios.  Then Toby Willis will be here to talk about Expedia and their current initiatives to make booking travel more inclusive.

Hello, everybody.  Glen Gordon with you here in the Merry Month of May for FSCast 215.  Just in case you were not aware, and just in case you don’t hang on every word I say and every word that guests say, this podcast is indexed by chapters, which means that you can always get a list of the various chapters in an episode, and you can skip between them either just by doing Next or Previous, or by skipping to chapters by name.  Different podcast players approach this in a slightly different way, but it’s the same general feature.

I have been looking without success for podcast chapter support on Windows.  Do any of you know about it?  If you know where such a thing exists, please let me know by writing to fscast@vispero.com, fscast@vispero.com.  Interestingly, the beta versions of VLC Media Player, that’s the beta for VLC 4.0 which is not officially released yet, it does purport to support chapters.  And indeed with an FSCast episode I was able to see the chapter names and try jumping to one of them.  But for each chapter it jumped to the beginning of the podcast.  So it does  seem to be a work in progress.  If you know of chapter support on Windows that’s a little further developed, by all means let us know.

We also have transcripts each month.  If you go to the FSCast page on blog.freedomscientific.com, for each episode, in addition to being able to download the audio, there’s a place where you can activate transcript and read it.  Transcript lovingly produced each month by Elaine Farris, who over the last few years has learned lots more about JAWS and speech synthesizers than she ever thought she wanted to, or that she could.  She does a great job of translating everything we say and everything that our various synthesizer voices say.  So if you’d like to read some of what we’re talking about, the transcript is the place to look.

Coming up at the end of June, on June 23rd, 8PM Eastern, is going to be the next episode, the next installment of FSOpenLine.  It’s a great opportunity for those of us who are working on Freedom Scientific software to talk with you about everything from new ideas you might have for features to problems you’re having and do a little bit of live troubleshooting, anything along those lines is fair game.  Typically it’s Eric Damery, Matt Ater, Rachel Buchanan, myself, and periodic cameo appearances by a variety of other people.  So do join us, either on Zoom or on Clubhouse.  Those are the two platforms where you’ll be able to call in, and we often stream to Facebook and YouTube, as well.  But you can’t interact with us on those two platforms.  June 23rd, 8PM Eastern.

Interview with Joseph Stephen

GLEN:  And I am very pleased to welcome to these here microphones a long-time developer on the JAWS team.  He is responsible for many of the features in JAWS that we all have come to know and love, including Speech and Sounds Manager, ListView Column Rearrange, Braille Structured Mode, and a few others that I have long ago forgotten.  I speak of none other than Joseph Stephen, joining us from Tasmania.  Joe, welcome to the podcast.

JOSEPH STEPHEN:  Thank you.  But it’s actually my honor to be here because when I met you back in 1999, having worked for Henter-Joyce since 1996 before that on a contract script basis, I thought I was meeting the greatest superhero in history.  And I’ve had the privilege of working with you for the last 25-plus years and enjoyed every minute of it.

GLEN:  Well, thank you very much.  I thought you were going to say you thought you were meeting a superhero, and then the truth came out.

JOE:  Oh, no.  I think you’ve proven yourself more than that over the years.

GLEN:  What was your life like growing up?  I don’t think I’ve ever asked you this question.

JOE:  I had about 2% vision, and I lost it fairly sort of early teens.  But I used to love playing Lego.  I used to love tinkering with electronics, pulling things apart and not being able to get them back together again.  And I started programming on a VIC-20 when I was, oh, probably 11 or so.  And I used to write some interesting things in BASIC.  And then I learned machine code sort of in my mid-teens.  And I was programming on the Commodore 64 in machine code without a screen reader.

GLEN:  So how did you do that?

JOE:  Typically I would braille my program out on paper and have it all thoughtfully laid out and error-free in terms of what’s on paper.  And then I’d just type it in because of course there were no editors back then.  You had to just type it into an assembler.  And if you made a mistake, you had to start from scratch again.  So you learned to have fairly good habits very, very early and very quickly.

GLEN:  But you weren’t able to see.  When you had a problem, you weren’t able to see where the problem was; right?  It was like an either all or nothing. 

JOE:  Exactly.  It was, it was an either all or nothing.  And when I first started programming, I had a tiny bit of sight.  So for instance I used to write a – I wrote this program to allow, enable someone to draw on the screen using a joystick and to move a sprite around, a graphic around.  And I could see enough whether the graphic had appeared and whether it was moving in the right direction and things like that.  But I couldn’t actually read the text of the code or anything like that.  But I soon lost that vision.  But by then I’d moved to the PC.  And we actually had a serial synthesizer that sort of spoke some of the things.

GLEN:  You did go to a school for the blind; right?  Somewhere in Australia?

JOE:  Yes, I did.  And I honestly think it was one of the greatest success stories in terms of blind schools because it was at a time when they realized that you don’t just lock blind children in an institution and teach them to weave baskets.  I went to a school that was very adventurous.  I had a mobility teacher who would basically drop me off at a random location and say, “Find your way back to school.”  And it was pretty scary.  But it was a very, very important step in independence.

I had a tech studies teacher who didn’t think it strange or risky to let a totally blind person use a band saw or an electric sander or electric drill press.  And in fact I did woodwork and leatherwork and clay with this teacher.  And I’ve since learned that that workshop is completely shut down because of Occupational Health & Safety problems.  But back then it was a very highly experimental and highly risk-taking school that gave blind people great opportunity to learn.  And I’m very thankful for that.

GLEN:  How did you learn to use things like band saws, and use them effectively and not lose any of your digits?

JOE:  Well, I started out using a miter box, which is a frame where you sit a long saw in 90 degrees to a guide.  And it has little clamps, and you lower the saw down onto your project, and you clamp your project, and you can cut perfect 90-degree angles.  So I started with that sort of thing.  I started mainly using manual tools.  Then I progressed to a bench drill which is fairly safe because it doesn’t move around.  Again, you clamp your project, and you can lower the drill.  And over time I just got more confident.  And now I just use a circular saw, a hand circular saw.  And you can just carry it out to the project.

So of course when I started with woodwork, it was all in a workshop; right?  I used to make wooden toys.  I made trucks and all kinds of things for the children, a slide and all kinds of stuff.  But it’s progressed now to goat shed floors and fencing outside, post-and-rail fencing and things like that.  And of course you don’t have a workbench there.  So you can’t sort of bring your posts and rails to your workshop.  So I bring the tools to it.  So now I use a circular saw, which is just, you know, a regular circular saw.

GLEN:  I typically use one hand to feel what the target that my other hand is aiming for.  How do you do that with a circular saw and not make your hand the target?

JOE:  You know where the blade is, and you know where the side, I’m not sure what you call it, plate is.  And so instead of the blade, instead of you following the blade, you need to follow the guide on the side.  So of course you’re always several inches to the right or to the left of where you’re cutting.  So it’s really knowing your tool.  I think, you know, it’s a little bit like driving, and people doing certain risky things, going around corners and that.  They know what their vehicle is capable of, and they know what their comfort zone is.

GLEN:  Even if I was good at using the tools, I wouldn’t necessarily have the imagination about things to make.  Was that a problem for you?

JOE:  No, I’ve always wanted to know what things looked like.  To a certain extent.  I remember going to a camp one day, and this energetic man with a beard came up to me, and he goes, “Do you want to feel my face?”  And I said no.  So, no, I don’t really care what some things look like.  But like trucks and cars and cranes, all the things that the boys love to make.  I used to make scale models of them that actually worked, the doors opened, the steering wheel could spin around, and there was a seat in it, and you’d put your little Lego men in it.  The boom would go up and down with a string.  You could – there would be a winch on it that you could – handmade little winch that you could wind up with a hook on it.

And I used to ask, “Does this look like the real thing?”  And occasionally they’d say, “No, it looks like this.”  And so I’d go back and do it again.  And other times they’d say, “Wow, how did you know?  It looks exactly like it.”  So it really depended.  I mean, I made a lot of mistakes and had to redo things.  And, you know, I remember making a little bulldozer one time with a front-end loader shovel on it.  And it took me hours to get that shovel right.  And of course they broke it because they’re children, and I had to – I think I fixed it like three or four times before I gave up, and I said, “Well, you can just have the tractor without the shovel on the front.”

GLEN:  So was this Lego?  Or was this wood?

JOE:  No, this is out of wood.  So, you know, proper, you know, cut out the wheels with a hole saw and et cetera.

GLEN:  Did Lego actually help you better understand how you could do things with wood?

JOE:  No, but it was good, though.  I remember when I built our first, well, had our first house built by contractors.  I actually met with a real estate agent.  And I said, well, I don’t like that design.  I’m going to build you how I want it out of Legos, scale model.  So I built our house out of Legos, scale model, and I said, this is how I want it.  And so they drew up or they modified their plans according to my scale model, and they built the house that way.  So, yeah, Lego was quite useful.

GLEN:  Did you like the house that ended up being built?

JOE:  Oh, yeah, I mean, for the budget that we had it was brilliant.  That was back at Mitchell Park.  We were there for five years before we moved in Adelaide to the hills for 15 years.  And then we moved to North Tasmania about four years ago.

GLEN:  And to say that where you moved in Tasmania is rural is  a bit of an understatement; isn’t it. 

JOE:  Well, we live on 205 acres surrounded by 5,000 acres of forest.  Our driveway, so to walk to the letter box, is 800 meters long going down a hill and past the forest.  We mainly, well, we originally moved here because of the children.  We traded a third of an acre 25 minutes out of the CBD in Adelaide for 205 acres here for the same price.  It was to give them a space, to give them opportunity to run around.  And some of them have already left home and decided that it’s not for them.  And of course that’s left us with a lot of extra work because we didn’t sort of move here to only have a few people to work the land.  We moved here to have a whole family to work the land.  So it’s kind of been quite difficult.  But yes, it’s a big place.  And there’s a lot of work to be done.

GLEN:  What kind of work do you do in terms of maintaining the farm?

JOE:  So I help with fencing.  I can do both tensioned wire fencing, post-and-rail fencing.  I do the irrigation, like the water, we have three sources here for the house.  We have rainwater, bore water, and dam water.  So I’ve had to plumb the dam water to the irrigation areas, to the orchard.  The rainwater and the bore water I’ve had to hook up and put taps on so I can divert whichever water I want into the tank, things like that.  I’ve had to repair the floor of a goat shed, which is like 1.5 meters off the ground, and that was a tough experience.  The floor is made of one- by two-inch, we call it scantling here, really thin bits of wood with gaps between them.  So I’ve had to replace a whole floor in the goat shed.  Done a bit of renovation in the house, like the floorboards, the wooden floorboards in the house and things like that.

GLEN:  Where did your knowledge for doing this come from?  I wouldn’t have the first thought of how to approach doing fencing like that.

JOE:  Initially I felt what my son was doing because he did agriculture TAFE course, and he’d worked as a fencer and things like that.  So he was able to teach me a few little handy skills about how you make really neat wire knots with wire that’s so hard you can barely bend it.  Because what happens is you build what we call a box strainer at each end, and then you string the wire, and then you pull, you tension the wire with special things called gripples to make the fence really, really under tension, like high-tensile.

GLEN:  Yeah, it just – it’s very hard for me to conceive of because if you’re sighted, you go to YouTube, and you watch some clever person do whatever the task is that you want to.  That doesn’t necessarily translate well to having it described and understand it.

JOE:  Well, it’s hard to do things like, for instance, I can drill the fence post with a petrol auger.  But to try and make the posts perfectly straight and in line, I used to get my children to do that because otherwise, I mean, I could do it.  If they weren’t around I could do it.  But since they’re perfectionists like me, they want the fence to be actually straight.  So, you know, I put a string line there.  But even with a string line it can move.  So I tend to get them to line up the posts and make sure that, you know, sight them in.

My children tend to do a lot of stuff.  Like my 13 year old drives the tractor, and he’s very highly skilled at maneuvering it.  And my 11 year old rebuilds lawn ride-on mowers and things like  that.  So they’ve got a lot of skills, having been brought up home schooled and on the land.  So they help me with a lot of things.  And sometimes I can just act as manager.  Sometimes I actually can do it.  You know, but we all work together.

GLEN:  Where do they get the skills that you can’t directly teach them, since you’re in the middle of nowhere?

JOE:  That is a really good question.  So my oldest, or second oldest son, who has now left home, but when he was first here he’d done agriculture.  And so he taught the younger ones a few things.  But they’ve just learned.  All of our family’s just learned because they’ve had to learn.  You know, Daddy can’t do that, so you, you know, figure out a way of doing it.  And I guess they’ve inherited some of that tenacity that I’ve had to have to survive.

GLEN:  Yes, your definition of “independence” probably exceeds that of many of us.  Most of us.

JOE:  But having said that, I don’t like going out by myself into the city.  It gives me panic sort of, you know.  So I know some blind people who are super independent going out by themselves.  I’m not.  I guess probably I used to be, before I had a family.  But since it’s been so long, I haven’t had to do that.  And so now when I have to do it, it’s a bit of a panic for me.  So, you know, we all have our areas of strength and weakness.

GLEN:  We probably should talk a little bit about how you came to work for us at Freedom Scientific.  I know you did math and programming studies at University.  What did you do after you graduated?

JOE:  Well, for the first three years I worked at the Royal Society for the Blind of South Australia as an assistive technology specialist, basically looking at solutions to help blind people to be independent, which of course is where I came across JAWS for Windows.  And I had just been using this other screen reader called Protalk, which was an absolute disaster.  And this JAWS for Windows actually worked.  And the keystrokes were really, really intuitive.  And I just loved it.

And so then I learned that it had this ability to be scripted, and so I started scripting every application I could get my hands on.  And then this guy on this list called Eric Damery sort of wrote to me and was asking me about scripting for Netscape and a few other things.  And so there began contracting for Freedom Scientific.  But it wasn’t until 1999 when the Royal Society for the Blind send me to CSUN that life changed direction there.

GLEN:  I don’t remember exactly how you came to work for us.  But you did.

JOE:  So I went to CSUN.  And I met up with this amazing person called Glen Gordon, and Eric Damery, and all these heroes that I’d heard about on the training tapes and things like that.  And Eric said to me, “So would you come and work for us?”  And I said, “On one condition.”  And he goes, “What’s that?”  And I said, “I can work from home.”  And that’s how it all started.  And I’ve worked from home ever since.

GLEN:  What do you think the JAWS feature is that you are most proud of?

JOE:  One of them is the DOM server, which is the technology behind Chrome and Internet Explorer and Edge and that, which seems to have survived a long time in terms of software.  I mean, I wrote that back in 2005, and 17 years later it’s still being used.  I mean, it’s a complicated monolith now.  But it still serves as the backbone of all our virtual document support.  Structured mode, I guess, is interesting because, you know, a lot of other screen reader manufacturers copied us, and even copied our nomenclature for the way we represent controls.  And it’s kind of interesting to have set the standard in the industry.  But, yeah, I don’t know.  I kind of, because we’re constantly developing JAWS, I sort of forget what I’ve done, and sort of one feature merges in and one version merges into the next and it’s not really distinct – well, I’ve done this, and I use this – because it’s always moving forward. 

GLEN:  So for lots of years, everything you talked about was JAWS, at least in terms of work and the things that you were doing technologically.  And then suddenly, a year or two ago, I heard you start talking about ham radio and ham radio software for the first time in a long time.  Had you continued to be a ham all your life?  Or was this something that happened more recently?

JOE:  When I was young I used to be into 27 MHz CB.  But I gave that up because I was getting into bad company and stuff, and it wasn’t really being very helpful.  But then when I had children I needed a way of communicating when we went to conferences because I spoke at conferences and things like that, or even when we went out to the park.  And so we got these little UHF CB radios back in 2013.  And we used them for a couple of years.  And then I sort of thought, well, I’ve always had an interest in radio.  I used to have a scanner, a radio scanner.

And so then I thought, I might get my amateur radio license.  And so I went for my foundation license in 2015.  I upgraded to my intermediate license in 2016.  And then I did the advanced electronics, radio electronics course in 2017.  It was a six-month course that I crammed into three weeks because I had to do it when I was on leave, and I got my advanced amateur radio license.  But then I found that none of the manufacturers made handheld transceivers that were accessible for blind people.  I mean, there were a few Chinese models that had a few voice prompts.  But they were half-baked accessible. And the big manufacturers really weren’t interested in it.  And the ones that were, again, they did really, really half-baked solutions.

And so one day I heard about this guy who had reverse-engineered this Chinese radio and figured out how it worked and had written open source replacement firmware for it.  So I got hold of the source.  And of course because it was done by a sighted person, again, the accessibility, though better than the main manufacturers, was half-baked.  And I got hold of it, and I said, look, we can clean this up.  We can rewrite it.  We can add more features.  We can fix up all the accessibility.  We can make it 100% accessible, completely.  And so that’s what we did.  And then we discovered that those radios, some of those radios weren’t being made anymore.  And then I discovered another open source project that was going to be supporting another set of radios.  And I contacted them, and now I’m helping to make that firmware completely accessible with voice prompts, as well. 

GLEN:  So for the first generation of talking radios, the ones that actually work now, what radios specifically are we talking about?

JOE:  There are two brands.  One is Radioddity, and they have two models, the GD-77, which is a model with a keypad and a keyboard.  And then they have a model GD-77S, which has no keypad and no screen, but we have made it so that you can access it as if it had a full keyboard.  So you can enter frequencies and rename channels, even though it doesn’t have a keyboard.  It uses the control knob in a clever way.  So that’s Radioddity.  And then the other brand is a BaoFeng.  And they had three models:  the RD-5R, the DM-1801, and the DM-1801A.

GLEN:  And are any of these still available?

JOE:  There is heaps on the used market.  There are some new ones still available.  But unfortunately at least the GD-77 is no longer made because of the chip shortage at the moment.  I have seen you still can get RD-5Rs, and you can still get a few DM-1801s.  But they are getting harder to get.

GLEN:  But if there really are lots on the used market, that’s probably a way to even save some money.

JOE:  Oh, yes, definitely. 

GLEN:  How do people find you, typically, to find out that indeed this stuff’s available and then get the software?

JOE:  There is a website called blindhams.com, which is run by a group of blind amateur radio operators in the U.S.  And they have a link to the accessible GD-77 firmware on their website.  So there are two links.  There’s the beta link, which will take you to the bleeding edge.  And there’s a stable link which will take you to the last fully tested release.

GLEN:  And even though it’s called “Accessible GD-77,” it works on all the models that you talked about?

JOE:  It does.

GLEN:  Is there a discussion of these things on Blind Hams?  Or if not, where does this stuff get talked about?

JOE:  There is an email list which is called the Blind Hams Mailing List, which has a lot of traffic about accessibility.  And then there’s another group called Active Elements which is based in the U.K., which also has its own group.  And I post to that email list, as well.  I’m not sure how many members they have.

GLEN:  But I assume between the two of those, news of the work that you’re doing pretty much gets talked about.

JOE:  It does.  But it’s surprising how many new people we get on a regular basis that have never heard of it.  So I’m sure some of your listeners probably haven’t heard of it.  In fact, I was talking to someone recently who just found out about it, and they were sort of getting desperate that they couldn’t get one of these radios because they hadn’t heard about it earlier.

GLEN:  My guess is that there are a bunch of people who you encounter as a result of this work who are JAWS users.  How do you feel about them sort of tracking you down with your hobby for your day job?

JOE:  Well, JAWS has always been more than a day job to me.  It’s one of my children.  I thrive on making the world of accessibility better.  And so I often tell people, “I hear you.  I want to put in the features that you want.  I want to fix the bugs you want.  Unfortunately, there is a priority queue, and there are things that need to be considered and weighed up.”  But it’s a very strong part or big part of my life.  And I want people to know that we actually do listen.  As a company, we listen.  We may not always do what you want straight away, but it gets on the list of things, and sometimes other things are higher in priority.  But because JAWS is one of my babies, it’s one of my children, far more than just my day job, I really want to make it the product that you need it to be to get your job done or to make your life easier.

GLEN:  And the good news is you’re not the only one who feels that way.  That’s, I think, really the nice part about working for Freedom Scientific and Vispero, that there are lots of us who take it the same way, that it doesn’t end at 5:00.

JOE:  Absolutely.  And that’s why it’s been such a pleasure working with you over the years.

GLEN:  Well, thank you, Joe.  It’s been good having you on the podcast.

JOE:  Thank you so much.

JAWS  Power  Tip

GLEN:  I’ve periodically mentioned that we do live webinars, typically on the third Thursday of the month at 12 noon.  Those are put on by our Training Department.  You can either register for attending live, or listen to the archived versions by going to freedomscientific.com/training.  I bring it up now because the webinar in May dealt with complex websites, interacting with content that’s a little more complex than the typical link or button or edit field.  Lots of great stuff was covered.

And it’s from that webinar that I’ve taken this month’s Power Tip.  We all know about Quick Keys, those single letters that allow us to navigate web pages faster than simply reading them from top to bottom, things like “H” for moving by heading, “V” for moving to visited links, “U” for unvisited links, “I” for the next list item, et cetera.  But there are a few others that are less common that you may find useful.  “O” moves to articles.  And articles typically are a boundary for a news story or other chunk of text.  JAWS announces that.  So if you find that you’re reading through a whole bunch of articles or, equally likely, that there’s only one article on the page with lots of other irrelevant junk, “O” is a quick way to get to the article.

Then there’s “D” for moving to the next different element.  I like this one because if you are reading through, let’s say, a bunch of links, you don’t know what you really want, but you’re tired of reading the links.  Maybe they’re too specific for the task that you’re after, and you’re looking to find the next piece of interesting content.  So “D” will move you to something that isn’t a link.  Or if you’re on a button, it’ll move you to something that isn’t a button.  So it’s a quick way of exploring the page once you’ve realized that a chunk of something isn’t what you’re particularly interested in.

There’s also “S.”  I don’t know that it’s quite as useful as “D.”  It moves you to the same element.  So if you’re on a link, it’ll move you to the next link.  If you’re on a heading it’ll move you to the next one.  It’s the converse of “D.”  And SHIFT of either of those two letters will do the same thing, but move in reverse.  And lastly there’s “N,” which is intended to move you to the next piece of plain text, just something that isn’t really actionable, but something that you may want to read through.  Those are a few of the JAWS Quick Keys.  More discussed along with other navigational challenges and how to overcome them in the webinar talking about navigating the web that’s available on our Freedom Scientific Training page.

Interview with Toby Willis

GLEN:  On the line with me now is Toby Willis, Senior Product Manager for Inclusive Travel and also the Founder and President of the Ability Inclusion Movement at Expedia Group.  Toby, welcome to the podcast.

TOBY WILLIS:  Thanks, Glen.  Thanks for having me on.  Happy to be here.

GLEN:  It’s really funny.  When I started thinking about Inclusive Travel, I immediately went to, oh, Expedia is going to focus on the accessibility of their website.  And they probably did initially.  But is that where it started?

TOBY:  Yeah, actually that’s how I began my career at Expedia Group.  We had an initiative, or the company started an accessibility initiative, and I was brought on to sort of build out that program and provide subject matter expertise around screen reader usage and testing and best practices.  And not just screen reader usage, but all assistive technologies and use cases.

GLEN:  How has that evolved over time?  And what are the things that are easier now than they were when you started?

TOBY:  A couple of components come to mind.  A calendar widget, number one.  If you think about back in 2014 how almost every site had a calendar widget, and they all were broken for screen readers.  But we built this desktop and mobile calendar widget that was extremely usable with both the keyboard and touchscreen, and that’s something I’m really proud of.  Another thing is type ahead, auto complete.  Or there’s different words for it, but predictive text, whatever you want to call it.  And that was a feature that was a real challenge to solve for screen readers because you want to give, as you type in characters, you want to sort of allude that there’s results loading, but you don’t want to talk over the user interaction, so that was a really tricky problem to solve.

And focus handling, for the developers and technologists among us listening to the show, focus handling, how do you manage the focus handling on the predictive text as you arrow key through results that have loaded when you type.  So it was a really fun challenge.  And that makes me miss my days as an engineer, like solving those problems.  It was a lot of fun.

GLEN:  I always wonder as a screen reader user, if I have a bad technological experience, is it even worth my while to try to report it?

TOBY:  Yes.

GLEN:  First of all, it’s often hard to try to figure out where and how.  But then what happens when an accessibility problem is reported?

TOBY:  So if you go to expedia.com/accessibility, there’s a link that allows you to – that will generate an email to the accessibility team.  And they will create a ticket, and it will get routed to the appropriate team.

GLEN:  So it’s worth it.

TOBY:  It is absolutely worth it.  And we want it.  We welcome it.  Please give us the feedback.

GLEN:  So what’s one of your personal best and one of your worst travel experiences?

TOBY:  Oh, I have so many of both.  Definitely many more positive experiences.  Ireland comes to mind simply because I had no issues with access for my guide dog.  It seems that the public had been very well educated and informed as to what the access laws were, and I got not one word, negative encounter at all.  I did have a terrible experience in Brussels.  I will just go ahead and call out Brussels because they do in fact have significant service animal access legislation.

However, the particular hotel that I had booked upon my arrival declared immediately upon my stepping in the lobby that service animals were not welcome in the hotel, and he was canceling my reservation there and then, and I was on the street at 5PM on a Friday afternoon with nowhere to stay.  And went to a second hotel, and walked in across the lobby to the counter, booked a room, and the gentleman came around from behind the counter to hand me the key and saw I had a dog.  I’m not sure how he missed that upon my entry, but for whatever reason he saw the dog and then proceeded to cancel my reservation for the second time in the same hour.

And the third hotel proclaimed to be pet friendly, and as many of our listeners who handle guide dogs will know, we often sort by pet-friendly properties such that we can avoid the friction I’m describing.  And unfortunately the pet-friendly hotel did allow me to stay, but with much finger pointing, talking behind their hands, whispering to each other, and a lot of uncomfortable, awkward engagement from the staff.  So I was happy to get the hell out of Brussels the following Sunday.  We haven’t even touched on the beer and chocolate tours and how off the rails that went.

But I will say I arrived Sunday afternoon in Luxembourg to a very warm welcome and had a wonderful experience in Luxembourg and on into Germany and beyond.  So highly recommend the Netherlands.  Highly recommend Luxembourg.  But the country that you might find in between the two I did not have a good experience.

GLEN:  That story is sort of a perfect example of how inclusive travel goes way beyond the accessibility of websites.  Is Expedia doing things to minimize the chances that others have an experience like that?

TOBY:  Well, we are starting to do more with our partners to help travelers have a more positive outcome.  I think Expedia has historically been more focused on the transaction of travel booking.  And as of late, the past couple years we’ve been really leaning into the end-to-end traveler experience.  We’re taking a hard look at the lodging experience.  We think that’s a great place to make a big difference in the everyday lives of travelers, designing our platform to allow partners to provide us with accurate and sufficient information.  And conversely, building our platform in a way that allows us to hand off information about the traveler to the partner.

GLEN:  I seldom think that I should be telling, let’s say a hotel that I’m going to, that I’m blind, in advance.

TOBY:  Mm-hmm.

GLEN:  Do you advise that?  And if so, what are you thinking potentially the hotel could do?

TOBY:  Yeah, you know, I was going to say I go back and forth on this.  But I don’t know.  Maybe it depends on the situation or the individual.  There’s times when I have, personally, I booked a trip to Hawaii, and it was a Marriott property in Kona I booked, and I just put a note when I booked on Expedia in checkout, you can just write a note to the hotel in the special service request section on checkout.

So I just wrote, “I’m blind, and I travel with a guide dog.”  No question.  No request.  Just sort of open-ended, whatever.  And I pretty quickly got a response back from the property asking, like, “Thanks for letting us know.  What do you need?”  And I said, “I don’t need anything.  I just need you to let your staff know that service animals are allowed and welcomed.”  And I don’t know exactly what I said, but basically just asking for them to be an ally and educate their staff so that I could avoid any negative encounter.  And it was a positive outcome.

And there’s times when I have not disclosed in fear that I would introduce bias.  And often I can in person, when folks meet me, and they see my dog, and they see that she’s well behaved and clean and so on and so forth, and I can influence the way that they think.  So I think it depends on the person, and it depends on the scenario.

GLEN:  You mentioned that the platform is trying to show more in terms of facilities.  How is that actually being represented?  And how can people make a decision as to one facility over another in terms of their inclusivity?

TOBY:  Right.  Well, we announced last week at the EXPLORE conference in Vegas, our Annual Partner Summit where we bring in, like, 4,000 of our partners into Vegas to have a few days together to learn from each other and innovate together.  And one of those announcements is what we’re calling the supply score.  And that is a mechanism that allows Expedia and our partners to rank the property or the vacation rental or the hotel or what have you, based on several different components.  One of them is the accuracy and completeness of the content, so for disabled travelers it’s very important that we have accurate and sufficient information, including pictures of things.  So if a property says they have a roll-in shower, do they have a picture of that roll-in shower so a wheelchair user can discern if it’s a fit for them.

The other thing is experience, so how are travelers ranking this property based on experiences.  And to support that we’ve been able to release, say, what we call “inclusive reviews,” which if you leave a review on a property, you can now select whether or not that review is would be relevant to the disabled community or the LGBTQ community and so on.  And then we can use those data to inform us as to how well a partner is doing on the actual in-trip experience.  And we use a complex algorithm of all these data points to inform our search ranking.  So we’re able to quantify those experiences like I had in Brussels, where if I leave a bad review, or if I report that to Expedia, then it influences the experience score, which would perhaps push that property down the rank list or down the search results, or maybe even lead to being removed from the platform.

GLEN:  That’s really good, actually.  It’s nice that that’s finally happening.  It feels like it’s something that’s been long in coming, but is going to be quite welcome.

TOBY:  Right.  I mean, historically it’s just been – it’s been price-driven.  So it’s been a race to the bottom.  It’s like, you know, because a property that’s a nickel cheaper could be higher in the ranking, but a much worse fit for the traveler.  And this is not solely relevant for disabled travelers or marginalized travelers or whatever.  This is important for every traveler, in my view, where we want to provide you with the best value, and that doesn’t necessarily mean always the cheapest price.  If it’s not a good fit, then it doesn’t matter how much it costs.  And to carry on with my example, if a hotel’s cheaper, but you can’t arrive, sleep, or bathe, then what difference does it make how much it costs?  So just trying to put the right information in front of the right user at the right time.

Another release announced last week that I am extremely proud of is what we call the Lodging Accessibility Guide.  And that is a handbook that partners can download from our knowledge base, and it goes through the business case for why this is important, to help partners understand that this is not just a feel-good thing.  It’s not only the right thing to do, which we all agree it is the right thing to do.  But there is a very compelling business case which often motivates partners to really lean in and make their own investment in the space.  So the handbook helps them understand not only why, but how.  So there’s some step-by-step guidance on how to make their properties more inclusive.

GLEN:  Hey, Toby.  Thank you very much for being with me.  It was great to get to know you and hear about your work at Expedia.

TOBY:  Hey, thanks so much, Glen.  I really appreciate the opportunity to speak to your audience.

Signing Off on FSCast 215

GLEN:  That does it for FSCast 215.  I want to put in a plug for you writing to me.  If I have not heard from you before, what are you waiting for?  Ideas about guests to have on this podcast, issues that you’re having trouble solving in any other way.  I’m not saying that I can jump to your defense, but I will do the best I can to help get things unstuck for you.  Write to me at fscast@vispero.com, fscast@vispero.com.  I’m Glen Gordon.  See you in June.


Transcript by elaine@edigitaltranscription.com







edigitaltranscription.com  •  05/23/2022  •  edigitaltranscription.com