Accessibility Adventures: August 2020

by Cam N. Coulter


Posted on August 5, 2020 accessibility


A blue handcap sign on a brick wall

In January, I started worked as a Training Specialist at Hope Services. It’s my favorite job that I’ve had so far, largely because it’s a cool blend of many cool things:

  • disability justice
  • direct support professionalism and person-centered thinking
  • media and technology
  • accessibility, accommodations, and assistive technology
  • documentation, training, and instructional design

In March, I almost went to the CSUN Assistive Technology Conference through the job, but I ended up not going because of COVID-19. However, planning for the conference piqued my interested in accessibility and assistive technology. Most of my professional background thus far has been in direct support, and while I enjoy it and am passionate about it, I’m more of a techie (and a writer) at heart, so the prospect of learning more about the tech side of dis/ability was really exciting. Although I was bummed out about missing the conference, my interest in accessibility and assistive technology had been awakened. (Also, it was becoming clear to me that knowing more about those topics was going to useful in my new role.)

So in an effort to learn more, I started taking Introduction to Accessibility & Inclusive Design, an online course from University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign on Coursera. That course is a great introduction to how people with disabilities use (assistive) technology and how technology can be designed in accessible and inclusive ways. Taking the course made me even more interested in the world of accessibility. When I mentioned this at a monthly check-in with my boss, she gave me a few really good pieces of advice:

  1. Start with finding the professional organizations that relate to the field.
  2. Research the organizations and people affiliated with them, and follow them online.
  3. Ask for informational interviews.

At first, I admit, that advice seemed reasonable but bland. However, now with a few months of hindsight, I can see that her advice was just what I needed to hear. In my research since then, I’ve come across three main professional organizations that relate to accessibility and assistive technology:

(I also want to quickly shout out two cool disability-centric organizations that I already knew about: the Society for Disability Studies and the National Alliance for Direct Support Professionals.)

Learning about these different organizations helped me mentally disambiguate the fields. For example, back in January, accessibility, assistive technology, and disability services seemed like much the same thing to me. But after learning more about IAAP, RESNA, and AHEAD, it’s much clearer to me how those those fields are distinct (albeit interlocking). Accessibility professionals are often guided by an ethic of universal design and tend to help create things that are accessible to the greatest number of people, often without the need for modifications or specialized accommodations. Assistive technology professionals, however, tend to work more directly with persons with various impairments, helping them to use specialized assistive technologies to access things and do things they otherwise may not be able to do. And professionals who work in educational settings (such as directors of disability service centers at colleges) are more likely to have a counseling background because their work often entails reviewing medical documentation. (Thanks to Maude Nazaire at SCU for taking the time to help me learn more about the university side of things!)

After learning about and disambiguating those fields, it was suddenly and surprisingly clear to me: I want to be an accessibility professional.

I care about how we construct our built environments (both physical and digital) and I value universal design because dis/ability is socially constructed, and whether a person can access something is often a question of how things are designed and built (rather than just a question of the person’s abilities).

I want to help make the world accessible and inclusive to as many people as possible. I care about this because diversity and inclusion are important. I care about this because people with disabilities are important. Moreover, dis/ability is a spectrum, not a binary on/off switch. Most able-bodied people are only temporarily able-bodied, and our access needs also vary situationally. Accessibility is important to all kinds of people.

I want to be an accessibility professional because it’s with a role with ethics and justice at the core. Not only that — it’s a specialization with tech that has ethics at its core. I’m a computer geek, but I’ve thus far shied away from jobs in tech because I’ve been consistently disappointed with the tech world when it comes to ethics, inclusivity, and diversity. In the accessibility world, however, things feel different. Accessibility professionals are constantly talking about ethics and inclusion. In part because of this, accessibility feels like a niche within the tech world where I can actually belong.

I want to be an accessibility professional because I care about standards and I like to nerd out about law. (Ask me about copyright law sometime!) Standards and the law are both important parts of this field, and I’m excited to learn about them in greater detail.

I also want to be an accessibility professional because of practical considerations. This is a field that is growing, and that seems likely to continue. Also, to borrow terminology from Cal Newport, I can leverage my existing career capital to become an accessibility professional. I am driven by passion, but I am also informed by my experience working with people with disabilities as well as my experiences with web design and ebook design. For me, accessibility isn’t a leap into something brand new, but rather a logical progression from where I’m at.

I’ve spent the last few months introducing myself to the world of accessibility and falling in love with it. While working through the Coursera class, I started listening to Nicolas Steenhout’s lovely podcast A11y Rules. (Accessibility is often abbreviated as a11y.) I read Accessibility for Everyone by Laura Kalbag, which is a friendly and detailed introduction, and I read Design for Real Life by Eric Meyer and Sara Wachter-Boettcher, which is a great book about how to think and design inclusively. I completed the FreeCodeCamp challenges on applied accessibility, and I’ve read a ton of blog posts and essays. I’ve curated the best resources that I’ve found thus far in a list below. I hope these resources can be helpful to other people who are new to this world.

This is just the start of my accessibility adventures. From here, I plan to keep reading and blogging about accessibility. I’m also going to work to improve my tech skills, connect with other accessibility nerds, and determine whether I should pursue grad school or certifications through the IAAP.

Accessibility Resources

Newsletters

Podcasts & Videos

Blogs

Essays and Blog Posts

Reference

Online Courses & Training

Photo by Waldemar Brandt on Unsplash


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