I’ve been an accessibility consultant off and on for the past 15 years and have been an advocate ever since I learned about web accessibility. The interesting thing is that, after all these years, I’ve just recently started to dig into the reason why I continue to be such an advocate. Of course, a big part is because everyone deserves to have an equivalent user experience. But I’ve realised that there’s more to it than that. It’s personal, but I’ve never “allowed” myself to tap into that. Until now.
In May 2002, after just finishing my second year of college and being incredibly happy that I had finished my final projects and had no finals, I flew from New York to Arizona, where my parents were living at the time. My mom lent me her car, so I wasn’t stuck in the house all day. I went to go visit my grandmother for a little while and was a few minutes from getting back to my parents’ house when a cement truck driver (who was turning onto a neighbourhood street) either forgot to check if anyone was coming down the road or just didn’t see me.
As we all know, cars don’t immediately stop when you slam on your brakes. I have no idea how fast or slow I was going, but I remember seeing the white side of his truck and immediately thinking “Oh [insert non-work appropriate word here], I’m 19 and I’m going to die” and then, moments later, being super confused that I was alive, followed by “my parents are going to kill me that I just crashed their car.”
By some sort of miracle, I didn’t need to go to the hospital. Well, maybe I needed to go, but I was in such shock that I felt fine. I didn’t go to the doctor until later that night, because my knee hurt. The only immediate injuries were bruising from the seatbelt digging into my chest, and my knee hitting the dashboard. But no one is that lucky.
Lots of issues followed. The first symptom to appear was post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which lasted a while. I still have glimpses of it here and there, along with anxiety. Then there was the onset of very noticeable reduced sensation on the left side of my body. It runs from below my left eye all the way down to my left foot. Sadly, that isn’t all.
I have issues in both my feet, with my right being much worse than the left, and I live with chronic back and neck pain. If you’ve read and know that I train for endurance events, I’ll let you in on my secret: several monthly visits to a sports massage therapist, years and years and years of physical therapy, and a large amount of stretching. Even then, I live with chronic pain. But a) it actually feels better than when I don’t workout and b) I refuse to give up on my life dreams, even if my body isn’t what it should be.
So what does all of this have to do with accessibility? It’s about the accommodations I need in order to feel the same way others without a disability do. In some ways, I’m lucky. Thanks to everyone wanting to be comfortable, I have many options for shoes and, with the help of orthotics, I’m generally ok, even if I do end up trying on about 10-15 pairs of shoes if the ones I’m used to are discontinued (I wish I was joking, and no, I am not into fashion or care about the style of my shoes). Despite being uncomfortable after about 20 minutes of sitting or standing, I have the luxury of choosing an ergonomic chair or using a standing desk.
The one health issue from my accident that I don’t have an easy solution for is the pain in my hands. Over the past few weeks, due to weather changes here in the US, my arthritis was so bad that I was almost in tears for multiple days in a row. When you work at a computer all day, it’s not easy to get around issues like these. Because of my arthritis, using a mouse is already difficult and something I have given up. I ended up just using my keyboard and also resorted to using a screen reader a few times to reduce the number of keystrokes. I urge you to try it some time. You’ll realise just how many sites that you use every day aren’t accessible!
Unfortunately, my story does not stop there.
I was very sick when I was young. Although I finally got my tonsils and adenoids removed at five, they started causing me issues when I was three; these issues caused breathing problems and many ear infections, which affected my hearing. When we started learning all of the different ways to pronounce ‘r’ in preschool, it sounded like ‘w’ to me. In the US, we have a very hard ‘r’ sound, so it was extremely noticeable when I spoke. The solution was supposed to be to read aloud and record myself, so that a) I could practice the sound and b) I could hear what I sounded like. Not surprisingly, when you are made fun of and bullied for the way you speak, you aren’t super eager to talk and end up being embarrassed.
I finally got rid of my speech impediment when I was around 11 or 12 years old. I didn’t grow up in the age of voice assistants, but it pains me to think of kids who are just like I was — kids who get teased just because they speak differently — who want to do something fun like asking Alexa to play their favourite song or wanting Siri to call one of their friends and then hearing a message that the voice assistant can’t understand you. Fortunately, with apps like partnering with Alexa, there are some breakthroughs, but not all voice assistants are at the point of being able to understand those with irregular speech patterns or speech impediments.
I don’t normally talk about these parts of my life. I actually don’t think most people who knew me from when I was 13 on even know I had a speech impediment. Most of the time, it’s just because some of the memories of my childhood and the memories of my accident are painful. But as I was reflecting on why I’m an advocate, I realised it was time to tell my story, because I want people to understand that accessibility isn’t just about the law, and it isn’t just about the standards. It’s about your neighbour, your coworker, your friend. It might even be about you. Not all disabilities can be seen or heard, and not all disabilities are permanent. But regardless of whether someone is living with a disability, has lived with a disability, or has never lived with a disability, our ability to have access to the same information matters.
My hope is that everyone reading this will become an accessibility advocate. You don’t have to know all of the standards or conduct accessibility audits to be an advocate. You just need to stand up and help others realise that accessibility is essential and that someone who needs accommodations, or who needed them in the past, may be someone you interact with on a regular basis.
We’ve come a long way since I became an accessibility consultant all those years ago, but we still have a long way to go. Let’s work together to advocate for more change.