I’m currently typing this from the Metro on my way back from a conference all about inclusion and encouraging underrepresented populations to go into technology related careers. As a result, I have been thinking a lot today about how fortunate I am to have been able to graduate from high school, go to an amazing college, and have encouragement from my family and friends. I recognize how privileged I am to have these things, and am grateful for them every day.
A man sat next to me on the metro and held up a sign in front of me that I couldn’t read. I smiled and they started signing to me. He was completely deaf, and homeless. I used my basic sign language that I learned from a friend and said that I have low vision and can’t read what their sign said, and gestured to my blindness cane which was unfolded next to me.
After I did that, they pulled out a sharpie and a piece of paper and wrote that they were sorry for shoving something in my face that I couldn’t see, and then asked how I was treated in school. Since this goes past my signing capabilities, I pulled out a notebook app on my iPad and explained that I had to fight for my accommodations but was very fortunate to graduate from high school and come to college up here. It was hard to receive services sometimes because the school decided I was so high functioning, I shouldn’t need their help. They wrote that they were one of the people who fell through the cracks, who was told that they were stupid because their hearing impairment wasn’t identified until after they’d already dropped out of school because they were failing. No one thought to test him for having hearing loss, they thought that he was just plain dumb. I mentioned that my goal in life is to make sure people with disabilities get equal access to education and are able to succeed, and how I want to tell all students that they belong. His dream is apparently to be an architect. Before I could type out a response, he got off at the next stop, but not before signing to me “you are important.”
Cases like this are not unique. My mom would always tell me I wasn’t the only child in my class who had problems seeing, and that so many other people went undiagnosed or misdiagnosed with other issues. It’s hard to realize there’s a problem, especially as a child, because it’s easy to think that there isn’t a problem after all and that everyone is like this. I remember meeting a staff member at an Apple Store back in eighth grade who noticed I was looking at the iPads and enlarging them, and told me how he had a lot of trouble seeing and had to drop out of school, abandoning his goal of becoming a computer science major. Adults aren’t always trained to identify problems either, or they are brushed off and told that there’s nothing that can be done.
If it wasn’t for my mom pushing for me to receive services back in kindergarten, I easily could have fallen through the cracks too. These people drop out of school because they believe learning is inaccessible to them and that there’s nothing they can do about it, when in reality all it takes are simple accommodations to help someone shine, especially when it comes to finding employment opportunities.
As I finish typing this back in my dining hall, I am grateful that I was able to succeed and having so many people advocate for me, but most importantly, teach me how to advocate for myself. I know I have a great amount of privilege, and I want to help others by giving them the assistive technology that they need to thrive. As one of the speakers said in the conference today, “opportunities don’t come unless the accessible technology comes with it.” As I like to say, I might not be able to change the entire world, but I might be able to change the world of someone who was struggling before. Although right now, I feel like I can conquer anything.