We roam the earth, learning from others, searching for experiences, and collecting memories. All the while gaining access to people and technology that hopefully will elevate our lives. These experiences are facilitated by the generations before us; in a beautiful intersection of timing and coincidence. Wrapped up in writing our own life story, we can take things for granted. We can neglect the effort others put into making this world better.
After flying over most of our beautiful country, I landed in Utah. I made my way through Salt Lake City Airport and when I stepped outside I was overwhelmed by the beauty of the horizon, the mountains, and the crisp fresh air. I jumped on a bus to Utah State University (USU) and mentally prepared myself, opening up my mind for an extensive two-day learning experience with the folks at WebAIM.
While enjoying the two-hour ride from the airport to USU, I had commitments to keep and projects to move forward. I was answering emails, writing code, photo editing, and checking in with my wife to make sure life was good back at home. Before I knew it, we arrived at our destination. This beautiful college campus rested comfortably, nestled in a valley surrounded by snow-capped mountains.
Not long after getting settled in my room, I connected with my instructors the day before Accessibility training and decided last minute to join them on a drive through the Cache National Forest. I hadn’t a clue what I would see, but I was pleasantly surprised. The mountains from the horizon were now up close and almost on top of us as we drove through the curved path between them. Logan Utah was unusually warm this time of year, but there was still plenty of snow left behind for us to admire. That evening ended with Mexican food and great conversation. Their hospitality set the tone for the rest of the trip, raising my spirits and priming me for what was to come.
Early the next morning I made my way to class and was met with some awesome USU swag and Accessibility Training documentation. I got settled, opened up my MacBook, and more importantly, opened up my mind.
Over the next two days, I learned a tremendous amount of technical techniques and concepts about Web Accessibility. Which is exactly what I was there for, to gain knowledge from industry leading experts; “leveling up” my skill set and acquiring certification. What I wasn’t prepared for amidst all of this technical information, was the perspective this trip would give me.
A lot of accessibility really comes down to common sense. And that means practicing a mindful and meaningful approach to creating things that others are meant to use. Whether it be a building, software, vehicle, headphones, glasses, phones or tablets, all of them are designed to be assistive, helping someone improve their quality of life in some way. And if you use these things, someone took careful consideration and crafted specific parts of them to ease your experience.
One of the most memorable experiences was visiting another building on the USU campus that showcased assistive technologies. Walking through the halls we saw old and new inventions showcased behind glass with photos that illustrated their importance to those with disabilities. More importantly, we were brought to a room where we met an amazing individual who faced her disabilities with optimism and honesty. Her low vision and dexterity challenges didn’t keep her from using technology and living a full life. She was able to shop, communicate and operate mostly on her own because of assistive technologies available on her iOS device. And her honesty was refreshing, where she encountered difficulty in a poorly developed website she expressed her frustration with humor. Her plea was simply to do our best with people like her in mind. We were there to learn… to be part of the change needed in this world to help them get by. Our efforts would make them more independent and provide immense value. In fact, those with disabilities who encounter issues in their user experience can get instantly frustrated. A developer or inventor’s lack of compassion and awareness will amplify that person’s disability. It will invoke emotional responses and substantial legal risks.
The goal here is not to give them “special” treatment or make exceptions in their favor. But to think of everyone equally. At some point in life, we will all need accessibility to get by, and we can only hope that the developer behind the scenes was compassionate enough to do right by their audience. If we think of accessibility from the ground up, we will build a better world by default, and for the long run.
On my way home, I felt a warm sensation overwhelm me. All experiences during my travels had taken on a new perspective. I was beginning to measure all aspects of my day against what I had learned. Every doorway, ramp, sign, entrance, exit, sound, and visual was far more apparent than before. I realized that each generation of our society had to address these challenges throughout history. Our modern day conveniences had to be attributed to those who came before us. Every comfort I experienced during my travels was likely carefully crafted and I truly felt grateful for those that were mindful enough to implement them.
So how does this change tomorrow? I ask myself that question a lot. And the answer lies deep within yourself, but it requires you to step outside of yourself as well. Think of your abilities and the years of experience you have. Determine how those abilities can help the greater good. Take the time and define the steps you can take to improve the lives of others. You may not see the direct impact of your efforts, but you can rest easy knowing you did your best with others in mind.