Written by Eniola Ajao, '21
When people ask about my interest in accessibility, they often assume that someone in my life has a disability. The assumption is that one must have a personal connection in order to care about accessibility. So, do I have a personal connection with disability? Yes, and no. No one in my family has a permanent disability, but I have been personally enriched by people with (what some would consider) disabilities. My journey with accessibility began in the classroom. On a whim, I decided to take American Sign Language (ASL) courses because I wanted to take a break from learning French, which I studied for six years. I had no idea, then, the way that it would change how I think about the world.
Learning American Sign Language was revelatory. Through learning ASL, I was able to discover the possibility of communication beyond the conventional framework of written and spoken verse. The first time I witnessed a Deaf poet use his hands to express vivid images, sudden realizations, conflicting thoughts, and underlying emotions, I was in awe. I saw how the use of physical space could blur the lines between gesture, language, and performance. I especially loved ASL because of the relationships I formed when I began learning it. I am grateful for the Deaf friends and teachers who encouraged me to continue to push myself when I was first learning American Sign Language, who took me to see Deaf speakers and poets, and reassured me that it was okay to make mistakes.
Inspired by what I had learned in ASL courses, I spent the entirety of my junior year researching Black Deaf cultures, through courses like Professor Pooja Rangan's ‘Disability Media’ and 'Hearing Difference: The Political Economy of Accent' respectively, culminating in a substantial research project, which was later published as “Deafinitely: the Racialization of Black Communication in the U.S.A.” In my 'Disability Media' course, I learned about how assumptions about disability shaped the designs of various media forms. This included thinking about the uses of media by people with disabilities, exploring and media made by disabled creators and thinking about disability from a philosophical, scientific, and technological viewpoint. I learned about disability tropes and rehabilitation narratives in film and TV; “assistive” technologies; subtitles, captions, accessibility; inclusive design, and more!
Now, as an Accessibility Ambassador in IT, I’ve been able to put what I learned into action. With training from Shivaji Kumar (Digital Accessibility Specialist at Amherst IT), I’ve learned about creating accessible instructional materials, fixed accessibility issues in syllabi, and conducted accessibility training for faculty members. This has also given me the opportunity to learn about web accessibility, a skill I put to use when evaluating the accessibility of nearly 400 webpages for the We Rate COVID Dashboards project. Moving forward, I hope to continue working towards a more accessible world for everyone.