My Accessibility Story
Back in the summer of 1995, I was working as a student technician for Bryn Mawr’s Computing Services department. One day my supervisor told me I needed to install some special software on the library computers. I took the disks, went to the library, and started installing.
What I was installing, it turns out, was MAGic — screen magnification software. The software was requested by a low-vision member of the college community. She needed the software in order to be able to read our online card catalog — the Web, at the time, was still barely a factor for most of the folks that I interacted with. (That same summer I started teaching an “Intro to the Internet” course to adults and the focus was still on e-mail, except for a brief demo of Lycos and/or Magellan.)
Once the install was complete, I tried the software for myself. I was horrified; I wondered how anyone could adjust to using such a clunky application. As interfaces were enlarged, small flaws in certain apps stood out and attracted my attention. Words flew off screen, and I had to scroll horizontally in order to finish reading a line of text. As both a tech support person (I wondered if I had even installed the software correctly, for a while) and as a computer science student (I hadn’t taken any HCI courses, but clearly I was thinking about related issues) I was concerned on behalf of and for the user.
But I was also intrigued. I got one of the women that used the software to demonstrate it for me. We talked about other assistive technologies that were out there, and I tried to learn as much about them as I could. I installed JAWS for DOS at some point, to find out what screen readers were all about. I researched alternate input devices, and for a time used a Twiddler (chord-keyboard).
During this time I was also developing some rather amateurish Web sites, but I didn’t put much thought into making them accessible. Of course, at the time, the sites were just images and text, so there wasn’t much to think about! As sites got more and more complex, however, I learned about Web accessibility via that same community of users, which continued to call for tech support any time MAGic or JAWS failed to give them access to the content they desired.
In 1999, after I had joined AOL and learned they were being sued by the NFB, I had to chuckle to myself. When interviewing with them, I submitted a technical skills sheet in addition to my resume, on which I listed “Henter-Joyce assistive software” as something I was familiar with. I was clearly over-optimistic in thinking that AOL would already know of these products, since only one person asked me about that particular bullet point. Not only did I have to explain what the products did and who would make use of them, but I also had to explain why it was important for all people to be able to use computers and access the Internet. *forehead smack*
So, this story ends the same way many of my stories end… by crediting and thanking Bryn Mawr for the best education, opportunities, and community a school could offer to a student. When I say that I wouldn’t be where I am today if it hadn’t been for Bryn Mawr, I really, truly mean it.