Disclaimer: I cannot speak on behalf of those with disabilities. This is 100% a viewpoint from someone that loves and cares for someone that’s disabled. I write this as a means of my experiences as a caregiver/emergency contact that has had to learn and adapt to things and someone that wants to continue to learn and be educated about accessibility.
Let’s go back to 2016, my second to last year in college. I took a course called “Introduction to Interactive Media” and had one of the sweetest professors you will ever meet. Before my time in this class, former students will tell you that Adobe Animate (or Adobe Flash/Flash Professional) was taught. Come time for my semester, we began to use the beta version of Google Web Designer. Needless to say - it was pretty glitchy. We’d have these little labs where we’d create animations from stock photos or images of toys on the IKEA website. Hours were spent piecing these things together and when the time came for presenting to the class, your character was bound to lose an arm or a leg. But like I said, we had the sweetest professor ever and she vouched for us in the beginning, letting us know she was aware this might happen.
For our final project of the year, we had to use Google Web Designer but we were allowed to create anything we wanted. A game, an ad, an animated story. I came up with the idea of a website which contained a mobile app. I was inspired by the idea of Kroger’s “ClickList” which was pretty new at the time. I generally liked the idea of something in the eCommerce realm mixed with something like Uber or UberEats. However, the shining star of this project was my mom.
About 6 months to a year before this project, my mom had suffered from numerous seizures which had put her in the hospital for a few days. I won’t go into every waking detail but eventually she was discharged, losing a week of her life memory wise and feeling like she’d been hit by more than one train. As her emergency contact, I was in charge of driving her to the hospital and being there to listen to the doctors, on top of working my 40 hour/week job and going to school full time. Luckily, my mom wasn’t down for the count. The doctors told me the seizures did equate to having a “brain injury” but that she would recover. She was put on a new medicine which has been helping her since. On top of the new medicine, she was put on a 90-day driving restriction for recovery and for the safety of herself and others around her.
I brainstormed my project and on and on all I could think of was my mom. If the restriction had been permanent, how would she get groceries? Being in a secure building, how would she receive them? What’s the safest way to do it? What about other people in her building who were in the same boat? How are they supposed to get groceries? Could their home health representatives obtain them? I was new to all of this and even today I still am. To add to the laundry list of questions and ideas I had regarding the experience, I also contemplated how low-income could be implemented into this. Most of these tenants, my mom included, were locked into a set way of life when it comes to bills and groceries. Sometimes the little corner store up the street is all they have. My next thought: add EBT/WIC/SNAP payment methods. I’d watched my mom use it before in self checkout at the grocery store, why couldn’t you implement it in an app? Or at least propose the idea?
Fast forward to that summer. I finished my Interactive Media course. I took a special topics course on Usability. I’d been looking for internships and unfortunately was rejected from one due to already working a 40 hour/week job. I felt like internships were a must even though I couldn’t find it anywhere in writing. It was this unspoken rule in college that somehow that would get you in the door for everything. That was the golden ticket.
Remember the professor I told you about? The sweetest professor ever? One night while I was chipping away at homework in my hiding spot on campus, I received an email from her addressed to myself and a handful of other students on internships or summer research. I responded back accounting for my experience so far with internships, talking about how I can’t just drop my job, but I’d be willing to work one on top of my job or even do research. We corresponded back and forth about summer research projects and she had stated in all of this how I had been picked because she enjoyed having me in class and really enjoyed my final project from the Interactive Media course. And get this… the summer research? Was on accessibility.
I had no idea what I was getting into. The idea of summer research intrigued me. Plus, research in informatics? What all did that entail? Not to mention I was reeling at the idea that this professor enjoyed my work and saw my value as a student and my value as a future employee wherever I ended up. It never occurred to me that my entrance into accessibility started with this project and more importantly - my mom.
That summer, I was tasked with introducing myself to W3C (World Wide Web Consortium), WCAG (Web Content Accessibility Guidelines), Bootstrap, the legal side of accessibility, my school’s website for our library and a test to become a certified (ooh!) research assistant. This project was a sub-project to research that was being conducted by my professor but opened up a whole new world. I became certified. I read the “cliff notes” version of the WCAG but also went into every single detail, every single guideline while auditing the library website (check this out if you want to get an idea). I collected data on how the website fared against WCAG, learned about the contrast checker, ran some automated accessibility tests (WAVE Web AIM, IDI Web Accessibility Checker). I then came up with my own audits, using various accessibility settings on different devices (i.e. iOS VoiceOver, Screen Speech, the screen reader on my Toshiba). I submitted all of my findings to my professor for the project, taught myself some Bootstrap basics and pieced together a small website to showcase everything.
Fast forward to today: it’s been one whole year since my mom suffered from a right temporal stroke. Let me start off on a positive note and say, my mom is doing great. She won’t agree with me, and she doesn’t see it, but trust me when I say she’s doing amazing. I’ll spare the details but at the time, my mom had been hospitalized for 17 days, and then re-hospitalized a day later for dehydration, came home, lost her vision completely, and regained it. There’s about one to two months worth that she doesn’t remember - that she wishes she remembered. This is where everything came full circle. The audits I did on the website? The tools found in our devices that one can use for accessibility? I felt as though I had weirdly trained myself for this without knowing it. I helped my mom and showed her the different settings, what each one did. Practiced using the ones she was comfortable with and set them according to her preferences.
The right temporal stroke has also affected her mobility. Remember me talking about the 90 day driving restrictions? Now it’s permanent. No more driving. Which means no more grocery shopping for herself, no more taking herself to the doctor or getting out. Her sight has come back but she has what’s called “homonymous hemianopsia” which is where one half of your vision field is impacted in each eye (in this case, her left). The hemianopsia is the biggest contributor to the driving restrictions.
As much as I wish I could change things, push a button and fix things for my mom, I can’t. I feel incredibly grateful and so very blessed for her health being the way it is now. The past year has been hard but I find myself taking the time to think about how things were a year ago, and how much worse it could have gone. How much worse I thought it could have gone.
On my journey to becoming hired as a designer or developer (heck, even something for web accessibility!), I’ve realized my project from 2016 is worth revisiting. It’s worth going from prototype to an actual thing. Planning it out. Putting in features I know my mom could use. In the past year her biggest thing is she misses grocery shopping and I’ve realized this is perfect for trying to get the experience back to her. (I should note: yes, I can take her to go shopping but there comes a list of obstacles you encounter by walker/cane plus trying to plan it in my work schedule. The objective is also to help her re-gain independence)
With that said, while I can’t seem to find that button to push, the situation has made me realize what my passion project is. What I enjoy doing. I love accessibility - not just web accessibility but accessibility as a whole. It’s helped me to see the world through my mom’s eyes. The situation has made me realize how I could wrap this into my love for web design and development. How I can contribute and help her and how she continues to inspire me today, just as she always has.