Almost five years ago, I was sitting in my dorm room at George Mason University, bored out of my mind and trying to figure out what to do for the weekend. My homework for my assistive technology class was finished at this point, and I was secretly hoping that I could find something to do that would help me to broaden my knowledge on assistive technology for blind and low vision users. After a series of web searches, I ended up finding an event run by the Center for Accessibility at DC Public Library where people could come in and have conversations about assistive technology. I excitedly attended the event the next day and ended up being connected with a wonderful group of accessibility advocates, many of whom were blind or low vision. They empowered me to learn more about accessibility outside of the educational space, shared their experiences with me, and even helped me come up with the topics for my first few posts on Veronica With Four Eyes.
Yesterday, I learned that one of the people who helped encourage my accessibility work, and that helped to inspire me to learn more about disability policy passed away. Mercia Bowser was one of the first people to welcome me into this community of accessibility advocates and introduced me to several different groups and initiatives within the Washington DC area that were working to improve services for people with disabilities. Mercia was cheering me on in the audience when I first spoke in front of an audience about my personal experiences with vision loss and using assistive technology, and announced to everyone how proud she was of “Miss George Mason” and how she thought I was going to do amazing things for the blind and low vision community. I’m grateful for her example and I plan to keep the promise I made for her to never stop writing and advocating for people with disabilities.
Today’s post is a tribute to Mercia and how she helped me to gain the confidence I needed to talk about vision loss and assistive technology on a public platform, and how others can do the same. Here are my tips for how to support new accessibility advocates in the local community, on social media, and beyond.
What do accessibility advocates do?
Accessibility advocates are people who promote, talk about, and actively bring accessibility into conversations in the physical and digital spaces. This can include people in the tech space creating better hardware and software experiences, people in the policy space working to improve services and quality of life for people around them, people in the education space who want to make learning possible for everyone, and so many other places. Accessibility advocates do not view disability as a problem that needs to be solved- they want to eliminate the physical and societal barriers that keep people with disabilities from fully participating in the community.
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Find a way to introduce yourself
When I attended my first ever accessibility event, I remember thinking of these three things:
- “Wow, that person who is speaking is super cool, I wonder if they would want to talk to me after this event.”
- “I have so much to learn, I’m not sure if anything I say will actually make sense.”
- “Did I just meet five blind people in a row that were all named Rob?”
By the end of the event, I learned that all of these things were true- speakers love to talk to people after events, I can bring a unique perspective to conversations about accessibility, and there really were five different blind people I met named Rob that day. One of the things that helped me to feel the most confident as a new accessibility advocate was that people would come up to me and introduce themselves and tell me more about their work, as I was able to feel more included and start to learn from others. As time has gone on, I now make it a point to introduce myself to people who are just starting to explore the world of accessibility and help them to feel welcome in the space.
On websites or social media, these introductions can look a bit different. For me, this typically consists of following a new person and then either commenting on a post or direct messaging them to learn more about their work.
Let people know about local or virtual events
I didn’t know about a lot of different accessibility events that were taking place in my community until people told me about them, or I found them on social media. If you happen to see an interesting talk, event, conference, or another gathering that will be taking place in the local community or virtually, don’t hesitate to share this information with new accessibility advocates who may not know about it exists. Some examples of ways to do this include:
- Asking if they will be at an upcoming event, including registration information if relevant
- Tagging them in an event post
- Forwarding an email or newsletter
- Tagging event postings with relevant hashtags so people can find them
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Encourage them to subscribe to relevant resources
Is there a newsletter that tells people all about upcoming events? Is there a local organization that focuses on accessibility? Is there a really cool blog that talks about their area of interest? What’s your favorite hashtag to find accessibility information? Don’t be afraid to share your favorite resources and encourage people to subscribe to or follow these accounts so that they can further expand their horizons. My professors have always had lots of helpful accessibility resources for me to explore, and I’ve also found tons of awesome resources from the people I follow on social media.
Invite them to speak
While I have always felt confident speaking to people I know about vision loss, I wasn’t sure if an audience of strangers would want to hear what I had to say about accessibility. The first time I ever spoke with a microphone in front of an audience about accessibility was at an event related to White Cane Day in 2016, and Mercia had told me to take the microphone and share my experiences using a blindness cane in college. I wasn’t sure if people actually wanted to hear about that, but she told me that she loved hearing me talk about how I started learning to use a cane, so I stood up and spoke. Once I heard everyone laugh with me and talk to me afterward about how my words resonated with them, I knew that I wanted to speak at more events like this.
For people putting together local or virtual events or looking for guest lecturers, I recommend reaching out to new accessibility advocates who have been sharing interesting perspectives or conversations in their local community or on social media who are willing to speak about accessibility and compensate them for their time. Even if someone only has a hundred followers on social media or if the biggest venue they have spoken at previously is a classroom, inviting them to speak can help them to gain an even larger platform and experience while providing valuable information for people in the audience who are looking to hear from someone new and exciting.
When possible, connect them with others
When I first met Mercia and the people at DC Public Library, they gave me a list of several names for people that I needed to talk to if I was serious about working in accessibility and assistive technology. Those people were able to introduce me to even more people, and now I have a huge network of friends and peers in the accessibility space from all around the world that I can talk to about various things, with the network growing almost daily. Whenever I meet a new accessibility advocate now, I make sure to give them the names of other people that I know can help them to learn more about accessibility or who have an answer to a question that they may have. For example, when my friend told me how frustrated they were with using a website and how they felt that their accessibility feedback was going into the void, I was able to connect them with someone I had met that worked on that website’s accessibility team so that they could more easily solve this issue.
Share their content
Lastly, if the new accessibility advocate is creating content such as blog posts, social media posts, videos, or other content, share it on your social media or with others so that their audience can grow even more. Whenever I see someone share my content, it makes me feel more confident to write more about a given topic and write more in general, and I know that other creators feel the same. It’s especially helpful to give shoutouts to new blogs or accounts when possible, as this can help to eliminate anxieties for people who are wondering if they are broadcasting to the void.
Summary of ways to support new accessibility advocates
- Find a way to introduce yourself, either by approaching a person at an event or following them on their website/social media and leaving a comment
- Let people know about upcoming local or virtual events by sending them a message or letting them know about popular events
- Encourage new advocates to subscribe to or follow platforms that share accessibility information
- Invite new advocates to speak at events or to serve as guest lecturers to ensure that new perspectives are being shared
- Connect new advocates with other people in the accessibility space by introducing them or telling them about people that they should meet
- Share content from new creators in newsletters and on social media