Content warning: This post mentions a near-death experience.
Quite a few people now have asked me how I became a web developer, and an accessibility specialist in particular. I have no problem telling this story, but I have told it a few times now. Someone once told me that if you find yourself talking about the same things over and over, it might be best to write about them. So thanks, Someone. Here's some writing.
I think about my journey often. The refrain goes kind of like this:
- Wake up; think holy shit, this is my life now.
- Make coffee; think Are we sure? Has someone double-checked?
- Eat breakfast; think It was all so different a year ago.
It wasn't a year ago, but my memory has always had a foreshortening problem.
There's no soft way to say this, so I'll just say it: in 2015, I almost died. This is not the focus of my story, but it is important to know. It took a good handshake with my own mortality to figure out how to make something better of it.
I had to head back home to live with family. I had to figure out all over again who I was and what I was supposed to do to keep myself afloat. Obviously, this is a great place from which to make a life-altering decision, so I thought, "I guess I like computers; I can learn to code."
I joined a bootcamp, which we'll henceforth call Bootcamp1. On the foundation of a strong curriculum, with the camaraderie of a small cohort of students, and under the mentorship of a wonderful man named Ben Pardo, I proved that I could be a developer for real.
Somewhere in the middle of that, I met JP de Vries. JP was never my mentor, but he was a mentor at Bootcamp He was constantly bringing up the topic of "web accessibility". The first time I heard JP use those two words together, the gears turned in my head. Had I been making the web less accessible? How? What did code have to do with access? Access barriers and the ableism that causes them had always been a huge part of my life. I had spent my entire college years talking about (and doing direct action against) barriers in the real world, in entertainment, and in social spaces. I had a moral imperative to make make the web a more accessible place – or at least not make it worse. If I didn't do better, I would be a brand-new kind of hypocrite. I taught myself the WCAG and ARIA, and kept myself busy by re-building a lot of my own work with accessibility in mind.
JP told me about Marcy Sutton, who evangelized web accessibility to others, using a stack that I used every day. When I reached out to her, she suggested that I call her. She patiently answered my questions and told me she hoped I would succeed. I mean, I had to. I needed to eat, and I wanted to do work like hers.
The problem was, job-hunting sucked. Because of health and accessibility barriers, I was only able to look for remote work. The LA job market was (and is) bad enough without that constraint. Derek Fogge, another pro-accessibility Bootcamp employee, fought hard for me to be employed as a mentor at Bootcamp. He put his own reputation on the line for me, so I had no choice but to be good. I had to give back, somehow.
It bothered me that I had never learned about accessibility as a Bootcamp student, so I proposed new curriculum content about accessibility. A few months later, the content was published, and students were reporting how excited they were to see accessibility as a facet of their education. I cut my teeth more and more on this work: I audited hundreds of student projects, wrote more instructional material, and worked with students as a mentor to help them get jobs. I never planned to mentor for this long, but I would not be half the developer I am without the experience of teaching others. I was able to level up fast, again because of someone's kindness.
That brings me to the thing I hate to tell people: I have no magic formula that can help them out. I was lucky. I was lucky to meet people who wanted to take a chance on me; I was lucky to be in a Facebook group, of all things, where I saw the opening for my current role.
There are things I am proud of in this story, of course: I worked hard; I taught myself a new way to look at things, and I tried to pass it on to others. My career has been fun and challenging, but it's not about that. It's about giving back. I do what I do to honor everyone who has ever believed in me - including the dozens of people I did not mention here.
"Thank you" is not a big enough sentiment, but thank you. Thanks for believing in me, and thanks for reading. I look forward to making the web a better place with you.
Cover image courtesy of UnDraw.
I'm not secretive about Bootcamp! I'm choosing not to mention it here because I don't want this post to be misconstrued in any way as an advertisement for a product. If you're curious about Bootcamp in any way, feel free to ask me! ↩