Honoring Wisdom, Embracing Change: Observations about Eldering in the Accessibility Community

Accessibility Elders — Sharron Rush, Lainey Feingold, and Wendy Chisholm

Recently I wrote about finding my tech family in the accessibility community at the CSUN Assistive Technology conference. It was there I met my mentor, Glenda Sims, Team A11y Lead at Deque Systems. During one of our conversations she recommended that at some point, I should try to attend the John Slatin AccessU conference, a small conference dedicated to helping designers, developers, and anyone responsible for online content learn the means to integrating web accessibility into their personal and corporate workflows.

I agreed that this would be a nice thing to attend, but honestly, I shelved the idea for a future year. That changed when I heard Sims discuss her relationship to the conference on the #A11y Rules Podcast.

You see, Glenda loved this conference because of its connection to her own mentors. She considered John Slatin, a lifelong advocate for digital accessibility at the University of Texas, and Sharron Rush, the executive director of Knowbility, her personal mentors. These were people who supported her in the accessibility community. While Dr. Slatin has passed away, his legacy lives on in this wisdom sharing conference hosted by Rush’s organization Knowbility, a nonprofit organization with the mission of improving technology access for millions of youth and adults all over the world.

How could I not go?

On May 15th, 2018 the John Slatin AccessU conference kicked off its 2-day conference with a breakfast panel, “Honoring Wisdom, Embracing Change: A Conversation about Eldering in the Accessibility Community.” Sitting on the stage were panelists whose sum total of accessibility experience topped more than 70 years. It was a stellar lineup of accessibility advocates, including:

It felt magical to be stepping into the accessibility community, with a reflection honoring the collected wisdom of elders.

What do we mean by eldering?

Eldering is not just about age, but rather about the knowledge, perspective, and experience a person has in the accessibility community.” ~ Lainey Feingold

An accessibility elder, Feingold argued, embodies the following characteristics: credibility, wisdom, discernment, connectedness, good sense and reason, an ability to listen, and a fundamental understanding of when to step aside and make space for change. “Just being in this field for a long time doesn’t make you an elder. It’s how much you get it,” Feingold continued. People come into the accessibility community at all different times and all different stages.

Feingold asked that we keep the following questions in mind:

What do elders need from this community as we transition to different phases?

How can we amplify the wise voices of those in the accessibility community who are elders or who are not elders yet?

How can we help others find their voice as accessibility advocates?

Sharron Rush argued that one of the most important roles of the elder is to help people feel welcome and to foster new minds. She emphasized that this community needs to avoid elitism and to embrace continued inclusion. Rush also reminded the audience of the fact that people with disabilities must continue to be proactively included — “Nothing about us without us.”

Recording the Lineage

It’s important to know the history of a movement because it helps future generations learn from the past. The roots of this community are held in common, namely the Civil Rights and disabilities rights movements, the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) , the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, the W3c, and others as well.

Wendy Chisholm asked the panelists about their strongest influences, identifying one of her own mentors as Gregg Vanderheiden, the current director of the Trace Research and Development Center, a program housed at the University of Maryland that is “dedicated to research that prevents barriers to, and capitalize on the opportunities presented by, current and emerging information and telecommunication technologies.” Sharron Rush named John Slatin, Jim Thatcher from IBM, and Jim Allen from Texas School of the Blind. Lainey Feingold began her journey into accessibility learning from her blind clients in Structured Negotiation and Greg Vanderheiden, who later introduced her to Shawn Henry. She also recalled inviting her hero Jim Thatcher, the legal expert in the first lawsuit against Target stores, to dinner and spoke of how much Jim taught her from then on.

Falling into Accessibility — A Story

The panelists each had stories to share about their entrance into the accessibility community. Sharron Rush remembered that she actually didn’t intend to focus her life long career in technology. While she had an associate’s degree in Computer Science, she found the field boring and thought that space didn’t really interest her. However, it seemed that wherever she went, technology related tasks fell into her lap.

While working for Easter Seals, Rush focused on trying to increase employment opportunities in the tech world for those with disabilities. Unfortunately, barriers continued to prevent consistent employment. Sharron turned to the government and to local entrepreneurs for advice.

They suggested that she do something competitive to stoke interest and foster creativity. Turn accessibility into something exciting and engaging through a design challenge.

Thus began the Accessibility Internet Rally, “a global competition based in Austin, Texas that pairs teams of top web developers and web design students with nonprofit organizations to create or improve their websites.” She expressed how much she loved being a part of the accessibility community, which allowed her to connect her interests with those of others around the globe. The OpenAir competition continues to grow each year, with the 2018 competition being the largest yet.

Fears for the Accessibility Community

Wendy Chisholm broached a challenging question regarding fears the panelists had concerning the accessibility community. Lainey Feingold lamented the fact that it is often necessary to rely on law to ensure compliance. She wished that everyone understood that people with disabilities have full civil rights to information and technology. She wished that people would just know that digital accessibility efforts were about civil rights. If we as a community could start from that belief, than there would be more time available to be spent on creative solutions.

Feingold shared that she believes the greatest challenge for the community is to hold on to its inclusive practices, and that it avoids the danger of accessibility becoming only a legal obligation devoid of heart, creativity, and compassion.

Hopes for the Accessibility Community

Wendy Chisholm believes that the practice of digital inclusion right now has a lot of heart. The question becomes, however, how do we keep encouraging people to operate and create from this space? Members of the audience also echoed this heart-centric philosophy, reminding us that while a lawsuit may give you leverage to make change, it is love and empathy that truly get people passionate and engaged.

Glenda Sims suggested a challenge for elders in order to continue propagating this inclusive and heart-centric community. She remembers feeling alone in her efforts to promote accessibility, and she reminded the audience that many still continue to operate in isolation at their respective organizations. Sims said that elders needed to share their experiences coming up in the accessibility community and to give new advocates a safe place to know that they aren’t alone in wanting to create change. Accessibility elders, Sims argues, have a responsibility to “pay it forward” to new members who wish to more fully participate in this inclusive community.

Wendy Chisholm closed the session with a poem written from the heart about this amazing community that holds the highest expectations for positive and progressive change and inclusion. Her poem “Ode to Accessibility Communities” offered the most connected, beautiful conclusion to a very thoughtful conversation:

Ode to Accessibility Communities by Wendy Chisolm

My name is Wendy Chisholm and I want to recruit you!

Listen!

Hear.

See.

Feel.

PERCEIVE.

Connection.

Thousands of people (or more?) working on #accessibility.

# a 1 1 y

Access.

Inclusion.

Connection.

We are

Able

To change the world.

Able

To connect with others who are

Able

To connect with others who are

Able

To connect with us who are

Able

To be here *this* morning who are

Able

To hear, see, feel…

PERCEIVE a world where we are all

Able

To change the world.

To innovate.

To connect.

Our community invented the innovations that make iPhones and Androids possible:

Onscreen keyboards,

Word prediction,

Screen magnification,

Speech recognition.

What we do today makes tomorrow’s innovations possible.

Makes tomorrow’s tools work for more people in more situations,

Makes technology more flexible.

WE ROCK!!

AND

We still have so much to do:

So many more restaurants to make accessible to people who use wheelchairs,

So many images still need alt-text,

So much culture change and so many tools are still needed for every new product, website, and application to be accessible and usable at the alpha release.

This is my ode to the accessibility community–an amalgam of communities and connections.

My ode to the tribe.

My ode to our connections and our innovations, to our persistence and determination.

Welcome!! Let’s get this party started.

I have found my tribe. Thank you for the welcome. I’m off to study, learn, and advocate. Digital accessibility for all!