About 25 percent of adults in the United States have some sort of disability, and I’m one of them. Most of us use some sort of digital technology, and most of us encounter difficulty using that technology. When I say “most of us,” I mean most everybody, not just people who have cognitive, physical or sensory challenges.
In addition to having a disability, I’m also a student of digital accessibility, which I like to think of as trying to make it possible for all people to successfully use technology. People like me. People like you. Everyone.
My journey to becoming a student of digital accessibility started before there was a digital anything, though. Before cell phones, before the World Wide Web, before personal computers. It began back in the analog age, actually.
My journey started when I was in first grade and we were learning about vowels. Our teacher had just shared with us that old saying, “i before e, except after c or when sounded as a, as in neighbor and weigh.” She told us that after recess she’d be calling on students at random to recite back to her. Because I had difficulty getting it right in class, I decided to spend all recess reciting to myself. No playing on the swings, no skipping rope, no running around with my friends. I just kept chanting over and over again: “i before e, except after c … .”
When we got back to the classroom, I was totally prepared. The teacher called on me. I stood up promptly and proudly recited the whole thing absolutely correctly.
Only something was wrong. Why did the teacher look so mad? Why was she speaking so harshly to me? Why was she telling me to go stand in the corner? (Back then, teachers actually did make children go stand in the corner as a form of discipline. Like I said, this was before the digital age.) I’d never had to stand in the corner before. It was so humiliating. The Corner in our room was in front of the class, and everyone sat looking at me as I stood with my back to them facing the wall, sobbing. Heartbroken. I didn’t know what I’d done.
The next week I found myself sitting in the waiting room of a doctor’s office. The sign on the door said his specialty was “Otorhinolaryngology.” My father and I were having fun trying to pronounce that big word when the nurse came. She took me to sit in a little room with a window in it that looked out on a bigger room, and she placed a heavy pair of headphones on me. She left and another person came in to sit outside the little room, looking at me through the window. In the headphones I heard him saying he was going to play a series of tones and that he wanted me to indicate when I heard a sound. Sometimes I heard the sound in my right ear. Sometimes I heard the sound in the left ear. Sometimes in both. Sometimes there were long gaps between sounds.
Afterward the doctor told my father that I could hear about a third of high frequencies and two-thirds of low frequencies. He recommended that a note be placed in my file at school saying I was always to sit in the front row of the classroom so I could see the teacher’s lips clearly. Apparently I had learned to read lips while learning to talk.
Ever since then I have been acutely aware that I am prone to mishearing things, sometimes in embarrassing ways. I’m especially likely to mishear when I’m tired, or when I can’t see the face of the person talking to me, or when I’m having trouble sorting the words out of the wall of sound in a noisy place.
I say that my journey to becoming a student of digital accessibility began in that first-grade classroom, because that was the day I learned I was deaf. The next week in the doctor’s office was when I learned I was always going to have to work harder than anyone else to figure out what was going on around me.
Eventually all that experience — and more — opened my heart. It expanded my awareness, so that many years later when I started learning to code and heard that there were lots of people who had trouble accessing the Internet … Well, that was like me not being able to hear in a dark room, right?
I decided I wanted to do something that would help turn on the light.