Originally shared with the International Association of Accessibility Professionals
Written by Sharon Rosenblatt
Celebrating my sixth year working in accessibility, it’s ironic to occasionally feel like an outsider in the field of inclusion. My moment of reckoning occurred during a think tank at the 2016 CSUN Conference on Disabilities. Robert Sinclair’s comment perked my ears: “Accessibility needs more English majors”.
As many of you know, Rob Sinclair is our current president of the International Association of Accessibility Professionals. For many years at Microsoft, he carved out accessibility innovations and became their first Chief Accessibility Officer (CAO). Sinclair is synonymous with accessibility. When Rob says accessibility needs more of ‘you’—that is the ultimate call to action. I almost channeled a 1980s Sally Field accepting her Oscar to shout aloud “You like me. You really like me!”
From 2006 to 2010, after avoiding classes at the University of Maryland located in the business school or that required an HTML prerequisite, it surprised everyone, including myself, when I began working for a technology consulting business: Accessibility Partners. “What do you do with a BA in English?” puppets sang in the Broadway play Avenue Q. That stung. What did I want to do? I wanted to change the world, but my strongest weapon was a blinking cursor in Word. I guess it was pre-determined that Microsoft would always be entwined in my life.
Starting by writing press releases, articles, proposals, and other business development documents, it was apparent that I wasn’t working for a generic start-up. Taking technology access for granted for most of my life, within weeks I went from politely aware to a fervent advocate. I treated every deliverable as an endeavor towards reshaping the perspectives and attitudes surrounding people with disabilities.
Yes, accessibility is extremely tech-centric. How can it not be? The tenets are rooted in a code I’m only beginning to decipher. But, accessibility has a need for training, social media, marketing, speaking, public relations, essays, blogs, awareness, advocacy, and beyond. I might never be able to develop an accessible app, and that’s okay. However, what isn’t okay is if I couldn’t explicate on the importance of accessibility in a tangible way to an executive, developer, manager, or lawyer who has never met a person who is blind. When I reference the outstanding work that organizations like US Business Leadership Network (USBLN), National Business & Disability Council (NBDC), and Office of Disability Employment Policy (ODEP) to those who tell me that people with disabilities are expensive and pointless hires, I feel vindicated knowing that I’ve undone some stereotypes. But I can’t do it all alone.
English majors are tenacious, and that’s what I believe Rob was addressing. They are malleable, zealous, and often long-winded. Having an over-caffeinated writer who can glibly spout a dozen synonyms for inclusion is exactly what accessibility needs. The technical back-end development is crucial but before the code can change, someone needs to tell society thehow and the why. Cue the people who focused on literature, Shakespeare, creative writing, and post-modern poetry. That cohort with boundless words, who are deemed less desirable by other technology fields because they can only engineer sentences. Not so with accessibility.
Let’s all consider Rob Sinclair’s proclamation, but take it a step further. Accessibility needs everyone. Bachelors of Arts, unite with the Bachelors of Science! And moreover—this field doesn’t require a specific degree, just a degree of passion and a desire to change society. Accessibility can benefit from the plurality in voices, whether written, coded, typed, signed, spoken, or translated. The message is the same, but it’s time to let everyone say it in their most powerful language.