Sushil Oswal with Sabrina Pasztor
Earlier this spring, I interviewed Dr. Sushil Oswal who is an associate professor of Human-Centered Design in the School of Interdisciplinary Arts and Science and a faculty in the Disability Studies Program at the University of Washington. His interdisciplinary research and teaching intersect the fields of design, spatial and environmental technologies, and accessibility for users with disabilities.
Sushil first joined the Association of Business Communication as a graduate student and he was the recipient of a C. R. Anderson Award for his doctoral research. More recently in 2015, he received the ABC research award for his work in online business and technical communication. He guest-edited a special issue of Business and Professional Communication Quarterly in March 2018 under the title of Enabling workplaces, classrooms, and pedagogies— Bringing disability theory and accessibility to business and professional communication. His most recent contribution to the ABC publications is a feature issue of Business and Professional Communication Quarterly in December 2018 that breaks new ground in workplace communication research. Sushil Oswal is also the Editor of the newly inaugurated Western ABC Bulletin you are presently browsing.
Sabrina: Tell us more about your professional background – where you started, what you do today.
Sushil: I have an interdisciplinary background in environment, technology, and human-centered design. As a newly-minted Ph.D., I went into program administration at a private university. I returned to full-time faculty status after ten years of that program administration.
Sabrina: What made you become a member of ABC?
Sushil: I discovered ABC when I was looking into a doctoral research project at Proctor and Gamble. My work was in what they called the Innovative Technologies Department at that time. This was a group of scientists and engineers who studied new technologies coming to the market all over the world to see if any of those could be applied in any of their divisions.
We were still some years from the turn of the century but the group was already neck-deep in projects for new millennium. They were particularly concerned about the Millennium Bug issues faced by the computer industry since the computer calendars were to expire on the dawn of the year-2000. So, I did my first presentation at the International Convention of the Association of Business Communication related to these issues. The following year, I moved over to the research work in a Japanese multinational’s subsidiary and that first presentation was never published as a paper.
Sabrina: You are a leading ABC researcher on disability and accessibility issues, which are still relatively new to the research and business communication fields. What personally and professionally inspired you to explore these topics?
Sushil: Around the time I presented my first paper at the IABC Convention on the topic of workforce 2000, I also presented my first paper on disability and accessibility at The College Composition and Communication Conference which had its origins in a field study I had conducted for a graduate course in Professional Communication. I believe that the paper is still available somewhere online but it was really a very quick foray into the world of disability and accessibility.
Soon, my research in the Japanese corporation took off and I spent the ensuing years researching the environmental policy formulation by a research and development (R&D) group. Through that project I became interested in the applications of innovative environmental technologies in Japan.
Although this multinational manufacturing firm had its fingers in many product markets and had its presence in 64 countries at that time, our group particularly researched the area of cosmetics chemical formulations. In this company, I had a wonderful advisor—a chemist by training and a former university faculty who introduced me to the field of cosmetics and toxicology. While I was collecting my ethnographic data in this company, I was also deep in environmental science textbooks due to my earlier connections with that field which, of course, were of little use to my technical communication dissertation work.
My interest at that time was more in the science side of things but my teaching commitments as a graduate student and my dissertation propelled me in the direction where my career eventually settled. I published about one tenth of my ethnographic data relating the development of an environmental policy document from that project as my doctoral dissertation, but I also continued to develop my interdisciplinary teaching in the areas of environmental science and also connected it to the field of environment and technology communication. I had planned to publish the rest of my research data as an interdisciplinary environmental study but the fate had determined something else for my life plans. The arrival of my two lovely preemies placed my longitudinal research on the backburner for the subsequent ten years and I academically survived primarily doing one-shot research projects and serving my university as a program director.
Sabrina: Tell us a bit about the development of your career as a faculty member and practitioner.
Sushil: As I said, soon after finishing that Ph.D., I became occupied with program development work and my director role at a private university consisted of developing technical communication courses and administering the degree program I was building. During those ten years, I was teaching more students in my environmental science courses than in my technical communication courses because the former enrolled 35 students whereas the latter were capped at 20.
Sabrina: So, what brought you to the field of accessible design?
Sushil: I came to the School of Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences in my current job to develop an undergraduate program in technical communication whose focus is on human-centered design. The turn to accessible design research happened during the second year at this job. I was trying to gain some traction for my research in the interdisciplinary areas of environment, technology, and design but my school had no accessible infrastructure for a researcher like me.
This major research university has had significant grant-funded research projects but they are more geared toward industry needs because their focus is on basic research, not user-centered projects. And, the university research has little connection with accessibility accommodations for faculty.
At that point, I decided to switch the locus of my research toward accessibility and disability in the workplace, including academic spaces of employment. This major change in my research was possible because of my location in an interdisciplinary school although it meant building an academic background in a whole new field.
My editorial work with Business and Professional Communication Quarterly during 2017-18 related to this research area. Of course, my other academic research in accessibility and disability is in knowledge management field and some of it is tied to the spatial and digital designs of libraries today. I published that work in journals like, Work, and in collections focusing on library access.
Another key area of my research is in accessible design in the field of commercial and consumer technologies. I usually present and publish that research in the venues related to the Association for Computing Machinery. I study the design problems of self-service digital systems—the kind of technology you find in automatic teller machines for banking and the self-service ticketing kiosks at the airports. In this area, I also study the technology side of learning management systems, such as, Canvas and Blackboard for their accessibility to disabled students and faculty.
Sabrina: If you don’t mind me asking, what is one thing that distinguishes your work in these areas from other existing scholarship?
Sushil: I come to the problem of access in technology, built spaces, and workflow design from the interdisciplinary perspective of an environmental scientist, a communication expert, and an accessibility designer. I bring to my research and teaching the embodied experiences of a serious sensory disability which not only informs my understanding of the problems faced by disabled employees and consumers but it also shapes how I think about the ecology of the context-of-use for products and services, the way disabled bodies navigate through time and space, and the overall disabled user experience in a network society.
Sabrina: Could you also talk about your Business and Professional Communication Quarterly work briefly?
Sushil: Back at the 2015 ABC Conference in Seattle, Deborah Andrews and Melinda Knight asked about the possibility of guest-editing an accessibility issue after I received a research award for an article on the accessibility of online courses in the Journal of Business and Technical Communication.
The special characteristic of the two accessibility and disability issues I edited is not only that they bring this area of scholar ship to our journals but also that my editorial role was not to serve as a gatekeeper but as a mentor to all the authors. Most of them were publishing in our journals first time and several were doctoral students, or newly minted assistant professors. I mentored them through the development of their multiple manuscript drafts over a period of one year after I selected a dozen of promising proposals from a much larger pool of abstracts. We still put those manuscripts through the highly rigorous anonymous peer review process of our journals before accepting them for publication.
Sabrina: What are some of the topics covered in these two issues about accessibility and disability?
Sushil: Four of the articles—one in the 81.1 and three in the 81.4 issue—address the questions of accommodations for employees with disabilities, accessibility of websites, and legal and ethical concerns relating disability. These should be of interest to both practitioners and academics. The other six articles concentrate on the design of disabled inclusive teaching and scholarship. Topics range from designing business and professional communication assignments that serve all students and teach them about disability and accessible communication in the workplace to becoming oriented to disability in our classrooms. Besides offering excellent pedagogical suggestions to enrich our courses with ideas about disability and accessibility, they also instruct educators about disability and communication design theory.
Sabrina: In the two issues of BPCQ, you connected the discussion of disability theory and access to spatial environments that support disabled individuals. How has the contemporary workplace changed to accommodate accessibility?
Sushil: The response to the changing demographics has been slow from the business and industry side. Even though we have example after example showing that accessibly-designed products and processes become darlings of consumers at large, businesses continue to perceive disability access as something tied to legal requirements. They want to get off the hook with the least effort.
Of course, there are exceptions here and there. Our building codes require that all new construction meet certain accessibility standards but architects are not taught to think about disabled occupants the same way as they are supposed to consider their nondisabled users Thus, the building designs minimally accommodate disabled users—wheelchair ramps, elevators, and braille signs. Hardly any architects consider or consult with disabled users to learn about how they experience spaces and what other spatial experiences would they enjoy.
Sabrina: What does today’s employer need to know most about disability and the workplace?
Sushil: First, they need to realize that disability is a common fact of life. Second, that the products and services designed to meet disabled customers’ needs also serve other customers better. The ramps and curb cuts are used by parents with children in strollers as much as by wheelchair riders, if not more.
They also need to pay attention to the expanding marketplace for accessible products and services. Accessible tourism, for instance, is already a flourishing niche business. Almost in every product category—including communication products—there is a demand for accessible and disabled-friendly products and services. If our companies do not give care and respect to this segment of cliental, someone else from China or India will certainly grab the opportunity and we’ll then be playing the catch-up game with them.
Sabrina: If you could link your research to advice or recommendations to business employers around disability/ability issues and opportunities in the contemporary workplace, what advice would you give them?
Sushil: When we reflect on the ethical, legal, political and cultural implications of our professional practice, we tend to invoke stereotypical, diverse audiences—women, users-of-color, or international customers. While all these constituencies are central to the success of our business enterprise, we overlook almost 20 percent of our disabled customers and users who happen to intersect all demographic categories. They have more than a trillion dollar spending power worldwide but their consumer and communication needs are not being met.
Then, right behind them is our expanding elderly population and the latter’s needs do not vary a great deal from those of the former. The Japanese businesses have experienced this shift for almost two decades, and the United States demographics are trending in this direction with our baby boomers entering in their late seventies.
To serve these populations, we not only will require specialized professional marketplace but also a move toward a new “normal” where any one might have needs similar to these two populations. What we will be needing in our workplace the type of communicators who are not only critically literate in rhetoric, technology, and business organizations but also can assess the needs of these populations who within themselves are quite diverse.
Professionals who can research disability and accessibility issues in the workplace and find answers for various units of the firm and, of course, for the customers and users. With the aging of our population, our businesses will also suffer from typical labor shortages. Since women are already in the workforce, unlike World War ii, the employers will have to adjust to hiring disabled workers. So, that raises a whole set of different questions: should workplaces hire disabled employees now and get acclimated to their difference, or should they wait until the labor shortages are at their door?
Sabrina: Could you also talk about these exceptional businesses for our readers?
Sushil: OXO tools are an obvious example. They were designed with a specialized population in mind but are now a convenient option for any consumer group. Many businesses view accessible designs as less than attractive but that myth also has been cracked by Apple. The non-visual interfaces of iPhones and iPads were originally added for providing access to the blind through sound and touch but now Siri, VoiceOver—Apple’s screen reader—and its touch and gesture interfaces are used by all users.
Sabrina: What role do you think ABC can play in advancing teaching, pedagogy, or classroom instruction on disability and accessibility?
Sushil: As an organization that prepares business and professional communication practitioners and future instructors, we can take a leadership role in educating our undergraduate and graduate students in this area. Our practitioner members can join hands with teachers in developing expertise in accessible communication designs which could also be implemented in the workplace.
Sabrina: What role do you think ABC can play in advancing research on this topic?
Sushil: As I state in my guest-editorial to the March 2018 special issue of Business and Professional Communication Quarterly, both of our journals published only one article on the topic of disability since the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990. So, 2018 has been a landmark year for the ABC when I was able to guest-edit a special issue on disability and accessibility pedagogy and then also edit a feature issue that centered around workplace research on accessibility.
As the editorial for the December 2018 issue of Business and Professional Communication Quarterly states, the journal plans to regularly publish in this area. My hope is that the ABC membership will venture into this area and get their feet wet with accessibility-related scholarship. As I have argued in my 2014 widely cited article, “Participatory Design”, we as communication designers must engage with disabled users and professionals in participatory activity so that we could learn from their specialized knowledge and lived experiences.
Sabrina: In what capacity have you participated in ABC?
Sushil: Besides guest-editing these two issues, I have been reviewing for our research journal, International Journal of Business Communication, for many years. More recently, I have taken up the reviewing of ABC Proceedings and I’m also on the review board for Business and Professional Communication Quarterly. And of course, now I’ve added on service work as Editor of the newly-launched Western Region publication!
Sabrina: What do you like most about ABC?
Sushil: I like the medium size of our annual conference, the long-term personal and professional relationships among our members, our widening international membership, and our organization’s investment in matters of equity and inclusion. As we have discussed during the last few months, I would like to support the activities of our Western ABC so that we could reach out to many more communication professionals and faculty on this side of the United States.
Sabrina: Outside your research and teaching, what are some hobbies and activities you like to do?
Sushil: I have the hectic schedule of an R1 university professor on my current location that requires consistent juggling among priorities—research, teaching, institutional service, and the campus-related community work.
At any point in time, I also have two or three graduate students across the country who require regular advice in their disability and accessibility research, particularly when they don’t have a local mentor.
Whatever time is left over, I like to spend it with my children and in their preoccupations. Their college and school projects also draw me in as a parent and academic. They have all been into science projects, orchestra, and robotics clubs. Although I have been now teaching for a long time and have always enjoyed the class and one-on-one time with my students, there is a certain pleasure that is exclusive to working with one’s own children and seeing them grow.
Oswal, S. K. (2014). Participatory design: Barriers and possibilities. Communication Design Quarterly, 2(3), 14-19.
Oswal, S. K. (2018). Special issue: Enabling workplaces, classrooms, and pedagogies—Bringing disability theory and accessibility to business and professional communication. Business and Professional Communication Quarterly, 81(1).
Knight, M. & Oswal, S. K. (2018). Feature Issue: Business and Professional Communication Quarterly, 81.4.
Recommended Citation: Sushil Oswal with Sabrina Pasztor. (2019). Expanding the horizons of business and professional communication with accessible user experience. Western ABC Bulletin, 1.1.