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lunchBOX interview 009

Stacy Ray

Senior Product Manager | VitalSource

The VitalSource logo, links to the VitalSource website.

Rick Johnson

Vice President, Product Strategy + Accessibility | VitalSource

19 May, 2021

lunchBOX: Hello, good day, and welcome to lunchBOX. On the menu today, on the eve of Global Accessibility Awareness Day, we're delighted to welcome Stacy Ray, Senior Product Manager, and Rick Johnson, VP of Product Strategy and Accessibility at VitalSource.

VitalSource have long been pioneers and thought leaders in the inclusive publishing community and we are delighted to welcome Stacy and Rick to talk about their thoughts on the past, present, and future of accessible publishing. And, of course, to find out the secrets of the perfect VitalSource lunch.

Bon appetit...

1. Who are you and what do you do?

SR: Hi, I am Stacy Ray, a senior product manager at VitalSource. I manage the Bookshelf reading system, which provides higher ed learners with access to course materials.


RJ: And I’m Rick Johnson, one of the co-founders of VitalSource and VP of Product Strategy and Accessibility.

2. How did you come to be involved in the world of accessibility?

SR: I became involved with accessibility when I took on my role at VitalSource. Up to that point in my career, accessibility meant providing learners with a printed copy of course materials. VitalSource opened my eyes to the world of accessibility and why it is so important. Here it is not an afterthought; our products are designed from the beginning with accessibility in mind.  

RJ: As a freshman in college, I had a blind floormate who was an organ music major.  He invited me often to join him at practice sessions where he would describe how the music made him feel and what he saw in his mind as he played the various compositions. That friendship, and the many frank conversations I had with him, helped me glimpse the challenges of his world in higher education. Later, as an uncle to two autistic nephews, I gained greater understanding of the opportunities learning solutions can provide to an even wider audience, and the imperative of making those available everywhere. These guided my initial emphasis on accessibility as a fundamental pillar at VitalSource.


3. What does accessibility mean to you?


SR: Providing equal access to materials, regardless of ability. And because I work in higher education, that means that all users have equal access to education.  

RJ: No barriers. Now…I realize that is a lofty goal. It’s one we all should strive for but never assume we have accomplished. Accessibility needs to always be a journey we are on as we strive to provide accommodation for individual unique needs. We can never assume we have arrived and stop the journey. 

4. What has been your biggest challenge in promoting accessibility?

SR: I am fortunate that, as an organization, VitalSource considers accessibility to be a core value. My biggest challenge is managing all of the touchpoints that can impact accessibility for Bookshelf users. I have to ensure accessibility across multiple browsers, operating systems, and a wide variety of content. All of those must work together seamlessly to provide an accessible experience.

RJ: The last mile. What I mean by that is different in each situation. Being ‘accessible’ is never something you can do alone. As a digital solution, we are dependent on operating systems, assistive technology, hardware solutions, correct markup, efficient delivery, natural discovery, and so many other parts of the whole solution. Understanding where a gap exists and creates the ‘last mile’ for a situation, or a user, and how we can participate in closing that gap is always my biggest challenge.

An icon represents a zig-zag shaped pathway containing 9 steps represented by 9 circles. The first circle is shaded.
An icon represents a zig-zag shaped pathway containing 9 steps represented by 9 circles. The first 4 circles are shaded.
An icon represents a zig-zag shaped pathway containing 9 steps represented by 9 circles. The first 7 circles are shaded.

5. What’s been your biggest success in relation to accessibility?

SR: Recently, VitalSource was recognized with the 2019 Digital Book World award by the Daisy Consortium and was also awarded Gold status from ASPIRE. While awards are great, I feel most satisfied when I have an opportunity to engage with a learner who has benefited from Bookshelf’s accessibility.

RJ: VitalSource has been successful only because of our team, and our customers. The VitalSource team does not see accessibility as another task to add on to a product, or a solution, or a platform. It is fundamental.Our customers expect that, and ‘hold our feet to the fire’ to make sure we do what we claim we do. Our biggest success is that interaction between what we create and how it is used, and the cycle of continual improvement. If you want me to point to something specific, however, I will point to EPUB3. We were one of the very first reading systems to embrace that format (and helped create it). Seeing it now as the default format for so many parts of the EdTech ecosystem, and the inherent accessibility it provides, is immensely gratifying.

6. What is the most enjoyable part of your job?

SR: I love seeing an idea come to life and provide value for our users. I get to work with different teams, and there is always a new challenge. No day is ever the same.

RJ: Talking with our users. I used to say, “If I’m not shaking a customer’s hand every week, I’m out of touch,” but in these COVID days, I’ve had to replace that with Zoom!


7. How have you or your organization made a difference?


SR: In addition to working hard to make our products accessible, we are always looking for ways to improve our processes and become more efficient. We go beyond adhering to industry standards and are actively involved in helping to create a community that propels accessibility forward.

RJ: I am so proud of the leadership the VitalSource team has in the accessibility community. From helping to create EPUB3, the EPUB accessibility specification, deploying our content transparency initiative, working with thousands of publishers to ‘do the right thing’ and celebrating their success, and so many other things. We know our work is not done, but we treasure the trust the community places in us.


8. If you could click your heels and make one thing easier for yourself at work, what would it be?


SR: Better juggling skills.

RJ: Finding a way to let people understand the amazing work that has been done by so many in this community. Twenty years ago, when VitalSource was early in this business, everyone complained that vendors or publishers were not ‘doing the right thing.’ While we are still not perfect, so much has been done. I’d love for people to know that.


An icon of a figure juggling with 5 balls.

9. What is the most exciting development you’ve seen this year in the accessibility sector?​


SR: In general, just the level of focus that has been placed on building assistive technologies into operating systems like Windows, Apple, and Android.

RJ: Standards. Seriously! We are finally at a place where we have standards that can evaluate every part of the ecosystem. From content creation, to file format, to metadata markup, to user interfaces, to web APIs, and on, and on. When we have standards that provide transparency to claims, everyone wins.


10. Where do you see accessibility in 10 years? Any new developments you are keeping a close eye on?

SR: I think that we will get to a point where accessibility is just a given.

RJ: I agree with Stacy.  Technology cycles have shown us this over and over.  The things that are called out now as accessibility requirements (structured navigation, customizing the display for size, colors, modes, etc.) will be assumed.

An icon features a computer monitor displaying a heart shape and represents inclusive design.

11. How and where do you learn about new accessibility initiatives in the sector?


SR: I stay up to speed using multiple resources, including Inclusive Publishing, the DAISY Consortium, Benetech, and our accessibility testing consultants at the Paciello Group. We also have a special interest group at work that is dedicated to accessibility news and issues.

RJ: You have to get involved, be willing to learn, understand, deploy, and help improve standards, and above all share. We all will succeed when we all work together.


12. What or who is your accessibility inspiration?

SR: Several years ago, I had the opportunity to work closely with Amy Salmon. She really helped me understand the challenges that print disabled learners experience when trying to navigate a platform or read a book that is not fully accessible. It really changed my perspective.

RJ: Three people immediately come to mind, but I would love to list a dozen! George Kerscher for his decades of leadership, Alistair McNaught for his ability to define a problem and the needed approaches, and Caesar Eghtesadi who, in addition to being a ‘rock star’ in the community, taught me that every situation can be approached from other perspectives.


13. Which single accessibility tool do you use the most?


SR: I don’t use any accessibility tools day-to-day, but I do use VoiceOver frequently to test Bookshelf.

RJ: My accommodation needs are for my eyesight and my age! If I don’t have my glasses, the font size must be larger, and I love night/dark mode when I can find it anywhere!


14. Tell us your favourite accessibility story.

RJ: I was presenting at one of the annual National Federation of the Blind meetings when the lights all went out.  I immediately stopped in the now totally dark hotel ballroom…and my host asked me what was wrong.  When I told her, she laughed, and said, “Now you are just like all of us!” and the entire audience joined me in laughing.  I continued on, and have never forgotten that opportunity for me to learn, and to share, and to better understand.

15. Which lunch would describe your organization and why?

SR: A potluck. Before the pandemic, we would organize potluck lunches around a holiday or particular theme. There was always plenty of variety and new foods to taste, and you always left satisfied.

An icon illustration features a outdoor table laden with picnic food.
An icon illustration features a picnic blanket and a basket of food beside a tree and beneath a bright sun.
An icon features a a refridgerator and a stove resting on a hand, representing sharing food.

16. What would be your favourite setting for that lunch?


SR: In a nearby park.

17. Which 10 people from any time or place would you invite to your lunch?


SR:​ ​

  1.  Anthony Bourdain.

  2.  Michelle Obama.

  3.  Robin Williams.

  4.  Dolly Parton.

  5.  Ernest Hemingway.

  6.  Prince.

  7.  Julia Child.

  8.  Amelia Earhart.

  9.  Maya Angelou.

  10.  Ruth Bader Ginsberg.


18. What are you reading at the moment?


SR: Atomic Habits by James Clear. I also like to keep a lighter read by my bedside table. Right now, I am reading The Testaments by Margaret Atwood, in Bookshelf, of course.

An illustration of a person wearing glasses and reading a book.

19. What are the applications/services that you couldn’t live without at work or personally?


  • Google Maps – I am fairly new to the Raleigh area, and I am still learning my way around.

  • Netflix – In the pandemic, Netflix has provided a great escape.

  • Bookshelf – I use Bookshelf almost every day. It keeps me close to the user experience and feeds my love of reading.

20. Anything totally secret to tell us? We’re amongst friends…


RJ: We all need, or someday will need, an accommodation. Learn now!

lunchBOX: Always best to be prepared, Rick! 

Thank you so much for taking the time to join us for lunch today, Sarah and Rick. It's great to hear more about VitalSource's dedication to embedding accessibility in every aspect of the design process and always putting users first. We also always appreciate an invite for Prince to the lunch table, as we get to think about this wonderful performance.


Thank you for your patronage. We know that you could choose other luncheon establishments. We'll take care of the bill...

You can visit the accessibility pages on the VitalSource website to learn more about the amazing array of work and features that VitalSource are investing in to make sure everyone has equal access to the content they need. In the meantime, happy GAAD!

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