Thanks Rob! Why Accessibility Needs English Majors

By Sharon Rosenblatt posted 05-18-2016 09:43


Celebrating my sixth year working in accessibility, it’s ironic to occasionally feel like an outsider in the field of inclusion. My moment of reckoning occurred during a think tank at the 2016 CSUN Conference on Disabilities. Robert Sinclair’s comment perked my ears: “Accessibility needs more English majors”.

As many of you know, Rob Sinclair is our current president of the International Association of Accessibility Professionals. For many years at Microsoft, he carved out accessibility innovations and became their first Chief Accessibility Officer (CAO). Sinclair is synonymous with accessibility. When Rob says accessibility needs more of ‘you’—that is the ultimate call to action. I almost channeled a 1980s Sally Field accepting her Oscar to shout aloud “You like me. You really like me!”

Sally Field holding her Oscar with the caption "you like me, you really like me!"

From 2006 to 2010, after avoiding classes at the University of Maryland located in the business school or that required an HTML prerequisite, it surprised everyone, including myself, when I began working for a technology consulting business: Accessibility Partners.  “What do you do with a BA in English?” puppets sang in the Broadway play Avenue Q. That stung. What did I want to do? I wanted to change the world, but my strongest weapon was a blinking cursor in Word. I guess it was pre-determined that Microsoft would always be entwined in my life.

Starting by writing press releases, articles, proposals, and other business development documents, it was apparent that I wasn’t working for a generic start-up. Taking technology access for granted for most of my life, within weeks I went from politely aware to a fervent advocate. I treated every deliverable as an endeavor towards reshaping the perspectives and attitudes surrounding people with disabilities.

Yes, accessibility is extremely tech-centric. How can it not be? The tenets are rooted in a code I’m only beginning to decipher. But, accessibility has a need for training, social media, marketing, speaking, public relations, essays, blogs, awareness, advocacy, and beyond. I might never be able to develop an accessible app, and that’s okay. However, what isn’t okay is if I couldn’t explicate on the importance of accessibility in a tangible way to an executive, developer, manager, or lawyer who has never met a person who is blind. When I reference the outstanding work that organizations like US Business Leadership Network (USBLN), National Business & Disability Council (NBDC), and Office of Disability Employment Policy (ODEP) to those who tell me that people with disabilities are expensive and pointless hires, I feel vindicated knowing that I’ve undone some stereotypes. But I can’t do it all alone.

English majors are tenacious, and that’s what I believe Rob was addressing. They are malleable, zealous, and often long-winded. Having an over-caffeinated writer who can glibly spout a dozen synonyms for inclusion is exactly what accessibility needs. The technical back-end development is crucial but before the code can change, someone needs to tell society the how and the why. Cue the people who focused on literature, Shakespeare, creative writing, and post-modern poetry. That cohort with boundless words, who are deemed less desirable by other technology fields because they can only engineer sentences. Not so with accessibility.

Let’s all consider Rob Sinclair’s proclamation, but take it a step further. Accessibility needs everyone. Bachelors of Arts, unite with the Bachelors of Science! And moreover—this field doesn’t require a specific degree, just a degree of passion and a desire to change society. Accessibility can benefit from the plurality in voices, whether written, coded, typed, signed, spoken, or translated. The message is the same, but it’s time to let everyone say it in their most powerful language. 




05-20-2016 10:32

Thanks Rob--loved hearing your comment. I am so grateful you see the bigger picture of accessibility, and everyone is truly welcome to the party. Any chance we can share your comment on our social media? We'd love to put it in that framework so other viewers can see the big picture also.

05-19-2016 00:07

Great post, Sharon. Thank you for highlighting this topic.
You're right. I was challenging the room to think beyond techies. Of course we need more designers and engineers who are educated and passionate about accessibility - and have the support needed to make this an integral part of their daily work. That is essential, so we cannot stop driving toward those goals. However, the same is true for the many other pieces of the puzzle required to create, deliver and support accessible content, applications, and services. This means we need English majors, Finance majors and Business majors ... artists, strategists and teachers ... marketing, customer service, hospitality and tourism ... and many other skills and job roles to be informed and do their part.
I chose "English Major" as my example to challenge the room to think more holistically. We cannot simply "build it" and expect that "they will come." We need professionals (like you :) ) to help craft language that will move the discussion forward. I see people every day making decisions that hinder accessibility because they are uninformed. We need must continue to dispel myths and build shared understanding, globally, of disabilities, accessibility & inclusion. This is only one example of the essential non-engineering work that is needed.
Ultimately, the transformation we are collectively seeking will require willing participation from people in many / most fields of study and job roles. So, I wholeheartedly agree with your assessment: *Accessibility needs everyone*.
Thank you for all that you are doing!
All the best,