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Category: a11y

An Invisible Disability

June is National Migraine and Headache Awareness Month.

I have a personal connection to this sort of chronic pain. I’ve had migraines since I was a teenager. Thankfully, those tapered off in my 30s for the most part. But last November I started having a headache that never stopped. After two visits with my primary care doctor, I was referred to neurology in December. I booked the first available appointment with a headache specialist. That appointment was May 31st. It has been an awfully long time to wait but I want to gush about how great specialists are. The woman who saw me really knows her stuff. I finally have a treatment plan in place. It’s not going to be easy but I feel hopeful for the first time in a while. She confirmed my suspicions. My occipital nerve is inflamed. Once aggravated it can be difficult to calm down.

  • I’ve started taking amitriptyline daily before bed, and will slowly increase the dosage on a schedule.
  • June 1st I received an occipital nerve block injection in the back of my skull and trigger point injections in my neck and shoulders. A cocktail of pain killers and prednisone.

The specialist made referrals for:

  • A sleep study (consultation is this week)
  • A TMJ specialist (need to start wearing my night guard again)
  • Physical therapy (first appointment is coming up)

I like posting about these topics to raise awareness, and it gets people talking and sharing their experiences. But I want to point out the tremendous amount of privilege I have. I’ve got great health insurance through my employer, a flexible work schedule, and a reliable car. And it still took that long to get a treatment plan in place. It’s so much harder for folks who don’t have the advantages I’ve got.

June is National Migraine & Headache Awareness Month
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Progress Not Perfection

Last year, I started working for my current employer just weeks before Global Accessibility Awareness Day 2022. I wasn’t involved much in the planning of that event. But for GAAD 2023? I was all in. So much so, I was even flown out to HQ in New Jersey for my first business trip since before the pandemic. It was wonderful to meet many of my colleagues for the first time after working with them for over a year.

In my role of Principal Accessibility Engineer, I have been able to grow our program this past year. Beyond our Product and UX teams. Colleagues across the company have had more accessibility questions both general and specific. In addition to the a11y course we deliver to devs, I created a general accessibility overview course for all onboarding employees. I hope to expand that offering to include all employees eventually.

Likewise, for GAAD this year we wanted to include everyone. We pulled panelists from Legal, DEI, Technical Writing, and Product. To discuss how far the company has come on its accessibility journey, and where we’d like to grow. Hence the Progress Not Perfection theme. We also partnered with the mission-driven Knowbility for our keynote which covered everything from industry trends to creating accessible content. And our team in India held their own event complete with demonstrations, activities, prizes, and lunch. Feels great to have another successful GAAD outreach event in the books!

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Spring Cleaning for Accessible Content

It is springtime in Minnesota. Which means we reached a high of 88° one April afternoon, then it snowed just days later. Despite the wildly fluctuating weather, I feel the urge to purge. I’ve tossed piles of junk mail in the recycling bin. Winter sweaters will be moved to storage (soon, I hope). Other items will be given away via our local Buy Nothing group. I may not go the full Marie Kondo method with my tidying, but controlling clutter in my physical space makes me feel better, mentally. You know what else sparks joy for me? Accessible content!

Self-portrait holding a lit sparkler in the darkness with the light illuminating my face

Recently, WebAIM released their annual report on the most popular 1,000,000 home pages on the web. 96.3% of them detected WCAG 2 failures. And that’s just what automated testing found. Manual testing would likely reveal many more.

Across the one million home pages, 49,991,225 distinct accessibility errors were detected—an average of 50.0 errors per page

The WebAIM Million

Many of those pages may not be relevant anymore and could be retired. Or portions of their content are likely out of date. Clean it up! Disability and accessibility expert Sheri Byrne-Haber has a great post about this:

Sometimes the best way to make something #accessible is to get rid of it.

I wrote an article about this a while back – the very first thing accessibility leaders should think about when tackling remediation is “do we need this at all?”

– Do we need this graphic / table?
– Do we need this CAPTCHA?
– Do we need this 17 year old inaccessible report that no one ever opens
– Do we need a press release on the election of someone to the board that is no longer on the board?

Don’t pack all your content indiscriminately and move it over to the new accessible template. Go through a cleanup first, and just bring the valuable content over that your users still need.

Sheri Byrne-Haber on LinkedIn

There’s more on her website. Her blog post Starting a new accessibility remediation project? outlines helpful “approaches and prioritization that will make your end goal of an accessible website easier and cheaper.” As someone who has been involved in many, many content migration projects, I fully back this approach. The most successful ones only ported what was still purposeful. Content that has been removed doesn’t need to be remediated. Unnecessary content is a distraction. Inaccessible content can be a blocker. Slimming websites down to the essentials will reduce cognitive load, making them more usable for everyone. Ditch that carousel no one clicks through. Get rid of that busy graphic. Embrace the joys of minimalism.

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Because she made a fuss

A favorite part of my job is organizing a monthly Accessibility Community of Practice meeting. Folks from all over the company join us for a conversation about my favorite topic. Many months I’ve mentioned lifelong activist Judy Heumann in some capacity. In February, I spoke about the intersectionality between Black History Month and disability activism. I focused on the 504 Sit-In and Black Panther Party member Brad Lomax who was also a disability activist. He coordinated efforts to have the Black Panthers support protesters during the 25-day sit-in. In photos I’ve seen from the era, Judy Heumann is sitting right by his side.

Black and white photo from 1977 of disability activist Brad Lomax holding a microphone with activist Judith Heumann sitting next to him, both in their wheelchairs.

She was an internationally recognized disability rights leader, often heralded as the Mother of the Disability Rights movement. Earlier this month, I was shocked and saddened when she passed away. She was a legend and still such a powerhouse in the ongoing fight for disability rights. I happened to be reading her autobiography when I heard the news (and when my copy from the library was due, I purchased my own).

One of the most influential disability rights activists in US history tells her personal story of fighting for the right to receive an education, have a job, and just be human. A story of fighting to belong in a world that wasn’t built for all of us and of one woman’s activism—from the streets of Brooklyn and San Francisco to inside the halls of Washington—Being Heumann recounts Judy Heumann’s lifelong battle to achieve respect, acceptance, and inclusion in society.

Penguin Randomhouse

If you haven’t already, I highly recommend watching the Crip Camp documentary on Netflix. It tells the true story of how a summer camp for teenagers with physical and mental disabilities laid the groundwork for a civil rights victory. Featuring Judy Heumann and her fellow activists. This small group of people came together in the right place at the right time and wound up working together to effect great change. They were instrumental in the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990.

Rachel Maddow posted a lovely celebration of the life and accomplishments of Judy Heumann.

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WCAG 2.2 Deja Vu

It feels like deja vu, but WCAG 2.2 has reached the Candidate Recommendation (CR) stage, again. After it reached the CR stage in September 2022, enough feedback was provided to drive these changes. One of them, in particular, makes me happy. The obsolete 4.1.1 Parsing has been removed. Parsing issues no longer cause accessibility blockers thanks to how much browsers and assistive tech have improved. When performing accessibility testing, it has often been difficult to justify failing this success criterion. Focus Visible is bumping up from AA to A, which is the other great news I’ve been aware of for a while. Now we’ve just got to keep waiting it out until WCAG 2.2 is final.

While we wait for that, there’s plenty to keep us occupied in our community:


  • International Wheelchair Day celebrated annually on March 1st
  • CSUN Assistive Technology Conference: From March 13-17, 2023 an inclusive setting for researchers, practitioners, exhibitors, end users, speakers and other participants to share knowledge and best practices in the field of assistive technology.
  • axe-con 2023: Hosted on March 15-16, 2023, axe-con is completely free and virtual. Axe-con is an open and inclusive digital accessibility conference that welcomes developers, designers, business users, and accessibility professionals of all experience levels to a new kind of accessibility conference focused on building, testing, and maintaining accessible digital experiences.



W3C Web Accessibility Initiative WAI, WCAG 2 Web Content Accessibility Guidelines text with icons for touch, vision, cognitive, hearing, speaking, and general accessibility
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World Braille Day 2023

In 2018, the United Nations issued a proclamation declaring January 4th to be World Braille Day, on the anniversary of Louis Braille’s birth. Read more about his life on this page with 19 Fascinating Facts About Louis Braille. We celebrate him now as someone determined to invent a system of reading and writing to bridge the gap in communication between the sighted and the blind. In his own words:

Access to communication in the widest sense is access to knowledge, and that is vitally important for us if we [the blind] are not to go on being despised or patronized by condescending sighted people. We do not need pity, nor do we need to be reminded we are vulnerable. We must be treated as equals – and communication is the way this can be brought about.

Illustration of Louis Braille alongside of the Braille alphabet represented by red dots

Braille is a tactile representation of alphabetic and numerical symbols using six dots to represent each letter and number, and even musical, mathematical and scientific symbols. Braille (named after its inventor in 19th century France, Louis Braille) is used by blind and partially sighted people to read the same books and periodicals as those printed in a visual font.

Braille is essential in the context of education, freedom of expression and opinion, as well as social inclusion.

United Nations

Braille has come a long way since the 1800s. Now there are refreshable braille displays — computer hardware which has a series of refreshable, or fluid, braille cells on its surface.

Braille displays provide access to information on a computer screen by electronically raising and lowering different combinations of pins in braille cells. A braille display can show up to 80 characters from the screen and is refreshable—that is, it changes continuously as the user moves the cursor around on the screen, using either the command keys, cursor routing keys, or Windows and screen reader commands. The braille display sits on the user’s desk, often underneath the computer keyboard. The advantages of braille displays over synthetic speech are that it provides direct access to information; allows the user to check format, spacing, and spelling; and is quiet. 

American Federation for the Blind

It’s a bit like carrying around an e-book vs lugging around boxes and boxes of books. Though this equipment is still expensive, it is becoming more affordable as the technology advances.

Additionally, braille is found in more places these days:

However, more needs to be done. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration does not mandate the inclusion of braille lettering on pharmaceutical drug packaging. In many cases, these examples are the exception rather than the rule. I want inclusive communication, in all forms, to become the norm.

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Complicated Consumerism

Capitalism never stops. Pre-internet, I recall the deluge of catalogs and mailers clogging up our mailbox. Plus the endless commercials on tv and radio. We still have that, despite trying to opt out of it. E-commerce has made it even more excruciating. Unless one is diligent with their ad blockers, nearly every website visit shoves ads in our faces and we end up on email lists from any company we’ve purchased something from in the last decade. I first learned about “Buy Nothing Day” 20+ years ago and I’m a big fan. I relate to the slogan “the more you consume the less you live.” In the U.S., most of us have so much unnecessary stuff. When I do give gifts to friends and family, I prefer experiences over things. Travel, activities, food, etc. We’re in the thick of the holiday shopping frenzy again. Black Friday has passed, and yesterday was Small Business Saturday. If you are planning to shop this season, please consider supporting the organizations who employ those of us with disabilities. 

From Angela Young via LinkedIn:

“82% of people with disabilities are unemployed. How can you support our community this holiday season? Look no further — check out this list of Small Businesses that specifically employ and support us!!! 👇 👇 👇

Popcorn for the People, led by CEO Rachel Cheng, creates careers for disabled people – specifically people with autism. I ordered Butter, Cheddar, Cookies n’ Cream, and Caramel and received my bright red box this week. Let me tell you — all of the flavors are phenomenal! My personal favorite way to eat popcorn is by mixing caramel and cheddar together for a sweet and savory sensory explosion. What’s your favorite flavor??

Bitty & Beau’s Coffee was created by parents Amy Wright and Ben Wright, who have four beautiful children — three of whom have autism and Down Syndrome. They primarily employ people within the autistic and Down Syndrome communities as a way to show that individuals with differences can be a valuable, contributory part of their community! (And their coffee is pretty badass too — check out the holiday roast! I had it during a recent visit to their Annapolis, MD location, but you can ship nationwide across the United States!

Design By Humans is an art collective founded by Mindy Hernandez that supports many disabled artists (my personal favorite is DisabledAF) that you can find by searching “disabled” at the top of the page. I love the way DisabledAF specifically situates themselves at the intersection of Queer and Disabled, my favorite place to be!!

Collettey’s Cookies was founded by Collette Divitto, a rockstar speaker and human with Down Syndrome. She employs 10+ other employees, all with disabilities. You can check out much more of her story on YouTube!

Alissa Smith is a cancer survivor and an incredible warrior who lives with chronic illness… AND she’s an incredible jewelry designer!! Check out her creations at her online store and support her efforts! The Harper Cosmopolitan ring is absolutely stunning… which piece is your favorite??

Tricia Baden suffers from Lyme Disease, which causes chronic headaches. The toxins in regular candles can exacerbate headaches and migraines, so everyone benefits from her amazing scents at Flores Lane that are toxin-free and use a soy-based wax! The chakra and meditation collection is my personal favorite for my Buddha and crystal altar!”

What a wonderful roundup. Adding to that list, the Isadore Nut Company:

“In 2018, Tasya toured Jewish Housing and Programming and the kitchen at Cornerstone Creek, where she learned more than 82 percent of adults with disabilities are unemployed. She decided to create a workplace for people of all abilities.

Tasya moved production to Cornerstone Creek and began partnering with social service organizations and advocating for persons with disabilities. Now more than half of the staff at Isadore Nut Company are adults with developmental or intellectual disabilities.

Tasya believes that everyone, regardless of ability, should be given the opportunity for employment because everyone holds value and has something to contribute.”

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World Usability Day 2022

The annual global event, World Usability Day, will be observed on Thursday, November 10th, 2022. I’m slated to deliver accessibility training to international colleagues that day, so I’ll be missing my local UXPA MN event but I’m a big fan. World Usability Day is a single day of events occurring around the world that brings together communities of professional, industrial, educational, citizen, and government groups for a common objective: to ensure that the services and products important to life are easier to access and simpler to use. The theme for this year’s World Usability Day is “Our Health.”

In our theme “Our Health” we look to explore systems that provide healthcare in all its many forms such as virtual/telehealth, electronic health records, healthcare products and all digital health related solutions. This theme will help us explore timely and important issues such as continuity of care, access to treatment, telemedicine, systems for mental health, exercise, nutrition and many more. In addition, Our Health includes health problems related to environmental issues such as air and water pollution impact on health.

World Usability Day

Participate in one of the global events, if you are able to. And be sure to sign the Usable Tech for Good petition.

If the UN recognizes usability as a core digital technology value, this will create an awareness of HCI/UX at the policy making level, increase the public engagement with the investment in user experience, potentially lead to a global impact, and let usability do its part for the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. 

WorldUsability Initiative
World Usability Day logo with the earth surrounded by a green circle and the text Make Things Easier Day
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Ableism in the Public Eye

Some of you may know about Pennsylvania senate candidate John Fetterman, who experienced a stroke in May of 2022. This left him with some auditory processing challenges. He is now making us of assistive technologies like closed captioning. Despite your political beliefs, his public use of AT should be celebrated for a number of reasons. He’s helping to normalize and destigmatize temporary and permanent disabilities. His willingness to use common assistive technologies in his personal and professional life shows he is adaptable and can troubleshoot. Unfortunately, this has led to some awful ableist attacks.

The lines of attack used against Fetterman, many of which are ableist (meaning they convey prejudice, either overt or subtle, against people with disabilities), tap into long-standing stereotypes about people with disabilities and could affect voters’ perceptions of him. That’s because there continues to be stigma against people with disabilities, according to Lisa Schur, a co-director of the Rutgers Program for Disability Research. As a result, she said, political “candidates with disabilities have to work extra hard to ensure voters that, yes, I’m competent and capable of doing the job.” This stigma can be particularly intense for candidates with mental or cognitive disabilities — or even for candidates where questions are raised about their cognitive function. 

What Attacks On John Fetterman’s Health Reveal About Disability And Politics from FiveThirtyEight

This is all upsetting enough, but particularly jarring as October is National Disability Employment Awareness Month:

Observed annually in October, National Disability Employment Awareness Month (NDEAM) celebrates the contributions of America’s workers with disabilities past and present and showcases supportive, inclusive employment policies and practices. In recognition of the important role people with disabilities play in a diverse and inclusive American workforce, the theme for NDEAM 2022 Disability: Part of the Equity Equation.

Office of Disability Employment Policy

But it’s not all bad news. Teen Vogue put out an excellent op-ed about how ableism bars people with disabilities from seeking — or winning — elected office. While discouraging, they describe some gains:

Despite systemic inaccessibility and ableism in electoral politics, the disability community continues to gain mainstream attention around its political participation through organizing and movements like #CripTheVote. As these movements have grown, disabled candidates and elected officials are being more open about their disabilities and we have seen a number of historic firsts: the first full-time wheelchair users serving in Colorado and Arizona, the first appointed and elected Deaf mayors, and some of the first openly autistic state legislators.

John Fetterman’s Stroke Has Led to Ableist Criticism From Media, Politicians via Teen Vogue

Meanwhile, some cool programs are popping up around the country:

Ablr Works is the workforce development arm of LCI, one of the largest employers of Americans who are blind or visually impaired with headquarters in Durham. It has teamed up with the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services’ Division of Services for the Blind (DSB) to kick off the statewide initiative this month. The benefits are twofold: It will make websites and digital content more accessible, as well as reduce the high unemployment rate among people with disabilities, the company said.

‘First-of-its-kind’ program to train visually impaired as digital accessibility testers

And last but not least, disabled people were among the hardest hit by pandemic-related job losses, but the rise in remote work also created new opportunities.

Recent employment figures indicate that disabled people have, in fact, gained a stronger foothold in the workforce, likely due to the popularity of remote work. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the number of disabled workers ages 16 to 64 who are employed was well over 5.5 million during the summer months; as of September, that figure had crossed 5.8 million, accounting for nearly 4% of workers overall. The labor force participation rate rose to 38% in September, up from 37.6% in August, a year-over-year increase from 36.4% in September 2021.

The employment rate for disabled workers is higher than it has been in years
Politician John Fetterman looking thoughtful behind a podium, with a microphone in hand, and a large American flag as a backdrop
Jeff Swensen for The New York Times
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Creating a More Humane Social Order

Writer, disability-justice activist and performance artist Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha knows that it’s possible for society to become more equitable. They envision a future in which “people are free to be, regardless of their ability to fit into capitalist institutions.”

‘The Future Is Disabled’ book review from Ms. Magazine

I’m excited by the work of activists like Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha. And their latest book that “lays out a bare-bones agenda for what is needed to make the U.S. more socially just: affordable, available and accessible housing; healthcare and pharmacare; a universal basic income for all residents; free, high-quality public education programs; and the elimination of punitive policing and incarceration.” A resounding YES PLEASE to all of it!

Unfortunately, the systems in place are resistant to change. Instead, those in power propose much smaller, incremental tweaks. For example, recently the State Department announced the finalization of their Five-year Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Accessibility (DEIA) Strategic Plan. Don’t get me wrong, this more intersectional approach is a step in the right direction. But it will only protect federal employees. Only 20% of people with disabilities are employed, compared to 64% of non-disabled people, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. That’s a huge gap. Only 4% of DEI initiatives include disability and that’s just in organizations that even have a DEI initiative. Most companies don’t have their disabled employees or customers in mind. A perfect example came from the amazing Meryl Evans. Yesterday she posted about her experience with an Apple Watch, and more.

“People with disabilities can bring a lot more to your team than what you see on their resumes.

They have an uncanny ability to come up with innovative ideas and solutions. Feeling excluded has a way of driving people with disabilities.

For instance, I never wanted an Apple Watch. I hadn’t worn a watch in years. A friend convinced me to try it. It made my life as a deaf person easier!

How? It became an accessibility tool.

It buzzes when cooked food is ready. No more overcooked food! It buzzes when someone is at the door. No more packages sitting on the porch for stealing. No more leaving my sister stranded on my doorstep when she dropped by unexpectedly.

No one advertises these benefits. Apple never marketed it that way. If they had, they may have gotten more buyers and fans.

These are examples of how someone who is different from you can innovate and come up with creative solutions.

We don’t always click when we meet someone. This isn’t because of a bad interview. We tend to click with those most like us. You’ll gain more when hiring someone different from you.

The thought of creating a more accessible hiring process feels overwhelming. Just start. How can you get started?

– Ask every candidate what accessibility they require.
– Verify the online application process is accessible for keyboard-only navigation and works with screen readers.

These are starting points. Keep working on it and adding more pieces. Progress over perfection. Just start.”

Again, yes to all of these things! I’m neurodivergent and have an auditory processing disorder. I wear noise-canceling headphones a good portion of the day. The Apple Watch’s haptic feedback has made my life so much easier too. And I want that for others. There’s so much we could do, as a society, to improve the quality of life for our fellow humans. But the pace of change is moving too slowly. More people are being forced to survive with less…while profit margins are on the rise for those at the top. We could all be thriving instead.

Author Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha on the left, a femme non-binary person with green hair, and the cover of their book on the right, The Future Is Disabled
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