03 September 2016

When I started learning web development, I wasn’t in a classroom. I didn’t have a teacher to impress upon me the importance of things like empathy, objectivity, and ethics. As I matured in the career, I became more humble, open to new ideas and basically not a jerk (forget what you’ve heard about me, they lied). But that transformation happened in minutes, not years.

For me, as my expertise developed, I found I was less imaginative. When presented with a “new” problem, I often drew several similarities to previous problems and pulled out code I had written previously to “solve” it. This essentially stagnated my development. I was resistant to new ideas and resistant to change. After all, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” And I was often hailed as a marvel of productivity and “quality” among my peers.

At the “height” of my “expertise”, I was given a task to perform in isolation for a new team. After weeks of intense labor, I presented my glorious app. Braced to receive all accolades and ready to deep dive into neck-bearded nuance.

“It’s a good try, but we can’t use it,” the only comment. I was indignant at first. It took some explanation before I understood and that explanation altered me–permanently. “It’s not accessible.”

All my career, I had been developing applications for myself–or those nearly enough like me to overcome my flawed representation of an application; able, English-as-a-first-language, college-educated, etc. Not once had I properly considered an alternate perspective. Not once had I tried to empathize with someone unlike me using my applications.

The funny thing about accepting that criticism; it was the event I needed to change my internal state machine. I was no longer resistant to new ideas, I sought them out. I no longer discounted outside opinions but encouraged dissent. “Tell me how bad it is. I need your help.” It’s amazing how much people want to help you when they know you’re open to feedback.

The sad thing is, I can’t do it alone, it’s just too big. And trying to enlist others is a challenge I don’t always feel up to. It involves those unpredictable, isolated, chronically unavailable systems–people. I’m still learning how their state machines work. Which event will trigger the state I need to make our product more accessible for all?

No matter what technical topics I understand, no matter how many whitepapers I read, or conference presentations I watch, I will never master accessibility. But I will never stop trying because I know the closer I get, the fewer people I leave behind. I don’t yet know who I’m leaving behind when I fail; it could be my parents with their cataracts, my cousin with a learning disability, my friend in a wheelchair, my coworker with Parkinson’s, or my future self. I can’t let them down. I also can’t do it alone. So, I’m probably never going to shut up about it.


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