A Vision for Digital Equality
By Rakesh Paladugula
I was diagnosed with a genetic disorder called Retinitis Pigmentosa at the age of 16 — almost 16 years ago. Doctors indicated that my vision would begin to gradually decline and I may eventually become completely blind. Within a couple of years, everything happened exactly as the doctors predicted.
Being a teenaged cricket enthusiast, I was unable to throw the cricket ball into the stumps or send the ball over ropes as a batsman. In India, cricket is another religion and I had to forcefully keep myself away because of my limited vision.
Education was another challenge. Being in a middle-class family, studies were of the utmost importance. Seeing the blackboard and reading the textbooks gradually became impossible for me. Nevertheless, I worked hard to clear graduation with the help of friends and family.
Even now, in 2018, not every person with a disability has the opportunity to pursue their dream career. More than a decade back, when I was first searching for career opportunities, my ambitions were much larger than the choices available to me. But I needed to find some work to buy my daily bread.
I believe my greatest asset is my confidence. Though I initially struggled to come up with a new way of seeing the world, I adjusted quickly. I started looking for opportunities to begin my career. Whenever I came across any person, I would imagine myself in their shoes at work. I did a virtual analysis to try and assess if I could do what that person was doing in their job. I did this for every job I observed in my little village: truck driver, postman, vegetable seller, shopkeeper, railway ticket reservation counter, school teacher, etc. As a visually impaired person, I’d identify which tasks in each job would pose problems and think up alternate ways I could do them.
With this little analysis, I decided to pursue a career as a school teacher. I figured I could record the textbooks, prepare for the class in advance and fluently talk in the class room. I took English as my subject expertise. My greatest concern was about correcting the student’s exam papers. The other challenge I anticipated was around managing the classroom—in case the students became distracted, fell asleep or weren’t listening at all.
I started to search for a school teacher job around my village. During my interviews, most of the people I spoke with were impressed with my subject knowledge but were not confident about how I could handle the class. Everyone denied me the opportunity.
Finally, I got a job at a charitable organization training a few students in speaking English and using Tally software. The salary was minimal, but I did not bother about it. For me, to be proven was far more important than the returns I got.
After working for few months as a teacher, I got the opportunity to learn how to use a computer with screen reading technology. I now had a new skill set to compete in the working world, but very soon I realized that even the digital space has barriers for persons with disabilities. So I readily accepted when I got an offer to join a software company as a trainee accessibility test engineer.
As I began my career as an accessibility tester at Iridium Interactive, I realized that the digital barriers for persons with disabilities were far greater than I had even imagined. As technologies increased, accessibility challenges increased as well. With the introduction of interactive web, dynamic updates of websites, mobile web and mobile apps, the demand for accessibility is only increasing. Working in accessibility testing allows me to both pursue a great career path and make an impact.
Over the past 10+ years, I’ve worked hard to learn about and contribute to digital equality. I have helped build accessibility practices at Cognizant Technology Solutions and was the Principal Accessibility Consultant at Deque Systems.
More than anything else, I love sharing knowledge about digital accessibility. I have trained hundreds of developers, designers and quality engineers over my career. I am now an Accessibility Training Manager at Adobe.
In the 21st century, digital inclusion is helping persons with disabilities gain independence. But simply having digital skills is not sufficient for making use of digital content; it’s is also crucial for the applications, software and websites we use to be accessible. Purchasing groceries, booking a doctor appointment, hailing a cab, paying utility bills, managing finance — everything is digital. If these applications and software are not accessible, people with disabilities cannot make use of them.
But how do you ensure that the digital content and software that businesses publish are accessible? Where can they get more information on digital accessibility?
I help to bridge this gap through Maxability — a website I launched 8 years back. I love to spend time spreading awareness on digital accessibility, assistive technologies and disabilities. Maxability provides information for developers, designers and quality engineers on digital accessibility. Recently I have also opened subscription based, self-paced training modules for accessibility enthusiastic software professionals. I am committed to updating and expanding the services on Maxability to continue meeting industry needs.
Rakesh Paladugula is a digital accessibility specialist and disability activist. He has more than a decade experience in digital accessibility. Visit his website www.maxability.co.in to know more about him and digital accessibility. You can connect with him on Linkedin, follow him on twitter @rakesh_a11y and like Maxability on Facebook.
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