17 Sep A Bend Resident Works Towards Accessibility for Facebook
Ask Matt King and he’ll readily tell you that he believes he has the greatest job in the world. As a member of Facebook’s accessibility engineering team, King works on software to help the blind utilize Facebook. Lately, his efforts have been focused on the product automatic alternative text, which describes photos in spoken word to the user. “I’m doing work that matters,” he says. “In fact, I’m spending all of my time on work that matters. The fulfillment is very high.”
The fulfillment in his work is also very personal. King is blind. He was born with a condition called retinitis pigmentosa, which destroys the retina. He had some sight throughout his childhood and teens, but by the time he’d earned a degree in electrical engineering from University of Notre Dame, he had lost all of his sight. He knows first-hand the feeling of separation that can come with a disability. “When I was in high school, with limited day vision and no night vision, I didn’t feel comfortable experiencing many of the aspects of teenage life,” he recalls of his youth in Centralia, Washington. “I didn’t feel connected to people like me. I viewed blindness as negative.”
Ultimately, King became grateful for the experiences of sight he did have, as those have helped him discuss things like colors and real-world objects in the same context as his colleagues in order to create better products. The software automatic alt text uses artificial intelligence, specifically object recognition technology in conjunction with a screen reader, to produce spoken descriptions of photos. “Two billion photos a day are uploaded to Facebook,” King says. Previously, the only information available to someone who couldn’t see the photo was the name of the person who posted it. Now, they can learn some of the components that make up the photo.
King demonstrated the product for me when we met last summer in Bend’s Compass Park, near his home. He made three taps on a photo that appeared in his Facebook feed, and we heard these words: “Photo may contain: three people, a mountain, outdoors.” “This work has positive effects that are important to people’s everyday lives,” King says. “Social connection is valuable to everyone, but maybe especially to those who are disabled and might feel isolated.” The software, he says, has already changed his own life. “Now I can interact with some stories in a way I couldn’t before.”
After college, King worked as an engineer for IBM—first as an electrical engineer and then as a software engineer—for two decades. He, his wife Kim and their two children moved to Central Oregon from Colorado in 2009 and had a home built in Bend’s NorthWest Crossing. “We were looking for a family-oriented neighborhood community. We loved that the kids could walk to school and that we could build a new home in a classic-feeling neighborhood.”
King loved living in Bend and working remotely for IBM, but when a Facebook recruiter came calling in 2015 and asked that he join their accessibility team, he jumped at the chance, despite the commute that would be required between Bend and Facebook’s campus in Menlo Park, California. “It was a natural fit,” he says. He’d been doing public work in the accessibility sphere for years, but Facebook took the opportunity to the umpteenth level. “We are working on products that are important to more than a handful of people,” he says. “This impacts billions of people. With products that have the reach that Facebook has, we are helping to shape people’s expectations of what is possible.”
King misses his family and Bend when he’s away, but loves the chance to split his time between the stimulating environment of the Bay Area and the quieter pace of Bend. Mostly, he is thrilled to be doing the work that he is. I asked him if he ever imagined software like this would exist, let alone that he would be helping to create it. He smiled, and in his deliberate, soft-spoken way, said, “This was definitely not part of my life plan. It’s a lesson in not living a life too scripted, for you might miss out on opportunities far more amazing than you might have dreamed.”