When people ask me how I got into the accessibility field, my answer is that for me, it was more by accident rather than by design. I had just graduated from college, moved to a new state, and was excited to begin my career as a network or telecommunications engineer. I knew I would be hired very quickly because after all, I had a shiny new degree and back then, I was still young enough to know everything there was to know. And so I waited for my phone to ring … and I waited … and I waited. Eventually my phone did ring, but it wasn’t with the awesome job offer I was expecting, rather it was a friend who called asking for help. My friend had gotten a new job and was excited to begin work, however, he wasn’t sure how — or even if — the computer system he needed to use could work with a screen reader. For anyone new to this blog, a screen reader is an assistive technology that takes text that normally appears on an electronic screen and renders that as speech or braille output. Put another way, it’s a technology often used by (but not exclusively by) blind/low-vision people to hear the textual information that appears on a screen.
I was surprised when my friend called for a few reasons. First, my phone hadn’t rang in so long that the sound nearly startled me out of my chair. More important though, I had been using screen readers for quite a while and just sort of assumed that every other blind screen reader user must surely be as proficient as I was. What I didn’t fully understand is that not everyone was as into technology as I was and that my interest in technology could really be used to benefit others in ways I couldn’t have imagined. I was happy to help my friend, but even happier when I saw the impact that help had on his life. My friend told people about how I had helped him, those people told other people and before too long, my phone was ringing quite a bit.
If I had to define what accessibility means to me in one sentence, it would be: To empower and enable people to accomplish whatever it is they want to be able to do in life. Over the course of my career, I’ve had the honor to help people utilize technology to accomplish incredible things. I’ve also gotten to play a part in the evolution of technologies which continue to help more and more people every day; it’s been an incredibly awesome journey.
Often I’ve been asked, “What kind of background is ideal for someone wanting to get into the accessibility field?” I think what’s really needed is a passion for equality and a willingness to be open-minded. Empathy also goes an incredibly long way. Certainly there is a technical component to accessibility, but some of the best accessibility professionals I’ve met come from user experience, teaching, and a variety of backgrounds, each adding their own special experiences and perspective to what is becoming a tapestry of equality.
One more thing I want to address in this post is this idea which I keep hearing, that people with disabilities are a natural fit for the accessibility field. Certainly there are some really amazing people with disabilities in the accessibility field, but simply having a disability doesn’t necessarily make someone a good fit. For example, I have spoken with many other blind folks who feel that accessibility would be a good fit for them because they are very proficient screen reader users. The thing is, accessibility is way more than testing content with one particular type of assistive technology such as a screen reader. I think what often gets overlooked is that accessibility is about equality, not just equality for people with a specific type of disability.
I’m always happy to talk about accessibility, it’s an incredibly amazing and rewarding field. If you’d like to learn more, definitely continue the conversation in the comments, or feel free to contact me. Also, if there’s a particular aspect about the accessibility field you’d like me to blog about, please leave me a comment and I’ll do my best to write a post on the subject.