May 10, 2024

Having an Ally in Life

There is something about Global Accessibility Awareness Day (GAAD) that always puts me in a reflective mood. Reflective of my disabilities, my work in the accessibility world, the work that still needs to be done, opportunities for more inclusion and acceptance, etc. In my work as an accessibility strategist here at Anthology, my days are happily spent in this space, working with higher education institutions and organizations around the globe in their implementation and adoption of Anthology® Ally, our digital accessibility tool. To ensure that our efforts at celebrating and acknowledging Global Accessibility Awareness Day are not performative, disingenuous, nor limited in scope and time, we must evolve, grow, and improve all year long, not just during the month of May. Here at Anthology, between our consistent efforts in ensuring our products are designed and developed with internationally recognized Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) Level 2.1 AA in mind and our powerhouse accessibility tool Anthology Ally, I am confident in our consistency and efforts. But (there is always a but) there is more work to be done. Maybe it is because of the global attention and focus on disability and accessibility, or because I live and breathe in the world of accessibility, but this year, my reflections have expanded to include my own lived experiences as a disabled woman lucky enough to have met my disabled friend.

Despite the estimated 1.3 billion disabled people in the world, being disabled can be an isolating existence. So much of what we experience is private, medically complex, emotionally taxing, sometimes embarrassing, and drastically individualistic. For these reasons, and many, many more, it can be difficult to be vulnerable and confide in someone, no matter how close your relationship with them might be. Beneath the surface, there exists a strong and looming fear that your experiences will be misunderstood, or worse, minimized in a veil of toxic positivity and shrouded with “solutions” to your impairment when you never asked for any in the first place. Sometimes, you just need to be able to say exactly what you are feeling and experiencing without fear of being pitied, made out to be a hero overcoming the odds, or dramatic. You need someone who gets it, will listen to you, empathize with you, believe you, and not try to fix you. It is times like this that, as someone living with multiple disabilities, I need a disabled friend.

I searched my whole life to find other people like me. Each time I came across someone with a disability, I was so drawn to them that I would overthink our interaction to the extent that I would miss the opportunity to actually approach them. And in retrospect, it is important to note that not everybody wants to be approached about their disability, let alone talk about it with a stranger. The urge to high five them in collective solidarity was often so strong, despite the fact that I would not describe myself as a high fiving type of person. I realized that at the end of the day, I was longing for connection, understanding, solidarity, and empathy from other disabled people with similar impairments to my own. I craved the kind of relationship where I could openly share my experiences and feelings without being told to drink more water or try essential oils. For me, this person is Amy Lomellini, Anthology’s product accessibility lead. Amy came to Anthology from higher education and was a power user of Ally. She found her role at Anthology while engaging with the International Ally User Group. And now that I’ve found her, I cannot imagine my life without her. We often spend time chatting about our disabled experiences and how to make the world a more accessible place. There is an ethereal sense of power in knowing that you can relate to someone whose personal lived experiences are comparable-ish to your own. For my fellow members of the disabled community, I sincerely hope you find that sense of empowerment and comradery in a way that suits your needs and preferences.

Ally is an accessibility tool embedded directly in your learning management system which helps build inclusive environments by making digital learning content more accessible for all students. Rooted in the principles of Universal Design and Universal Design for Learning (UDL), Ally emphasizes autonomy, empowerment, and inclusivity.

For instructors, Ally provides context and guidance on the accessibility of course content items by way of Instructor Feedback and the Course Accessibility Report. Instructor Feedback evaluates the accessibility of an individual content item, such as a Word document or a page built directly in your LMS. Ally detects accessibility issues found within the content item and provides a corresponding accessibility score, ranging from 0-100%. Within the instructor feedback panel, instructors receive a list of identified accessibility issues, a definition of the issue (the what), the significance of the issue and whom it will impact if it is not fixed (the why), and step-by-step instructions on how to fix the issue(s) (the how). With Ally’s guidance and direction, instructors are empowered to learn more about accessibility issues, whom they impact, and how to fix them.

Of Ally's main features, the alternative formats embody UDL and universal design the most. Once an instructor uploads a file to their course (e.g., a Microsoft Word document or a PPT file) or creates a content item, such as a page, within their LMS, Ally automatically generates alternative formats of the original version (without altering it). The comprehensive list of available alternative format options include: tagged PDFs, OCR’d PDFs, Braille Ready File format, translated versions (in over 70 languages!), HTML, audio, BeeLine Reader, ePub, and Microsoft Immersive Reader.

The alternative formats, while designed to remove barriers for disabled learners, also benefit those without disabilities (universal design). Having a wide range of alternative format options reinforces multiple options for engagement, which is one of the main guidelines of UDL.

No accommodations are required to access the alternative formats, no permission must be granted, no disclosure of disability status needed, and no limit on the number of formats downloaded. This empowers learners to access their course content in a manner that aligns with their learning needs or preferences.

Empowerment and autonomy often feel hard to come by as a disabled person. So much of our approach to taking care of ourselves relies on the recommendations and diagnoses of medical professionals, none of which happens quickly or without anxiety on our end. The more agency we have in our own lived experiences, the more we collectively shatter the narrative that being disabled equates with helplessness or weakness. The agency and empowerment that comes from a disabled friend or a digital accessibility tool like Ally is virtually impossible to quantify, perhaps rendering them even more necessary.

In celebration and honor of Global Accessibility Awareness Day, I encourage you to be introspective about your own connections to, knowledge of, and awareness of, disability and accessibility. Are there instances where you can contribute? Learn more? Adopt accessibility tools in your own work to break down barriers? For those who identify as disabled, where do you find your empowerment and agency? If you are encouraged to do something in the name of GAAD, but are unsure where to start, Anthology is expanding Global Accessibility Awareness Day into Global Accessibility Awareness Month (GAAM)! During the month of May, we will host a variety of activities centered on accessibility and inclusion. To continue the conversation with Amy and me, join us for our upcoming webinar titled Accessibility and Inclusivity in Technology. Hosted in partnership with AWS, Amy and I will detail our positionality and experiences both in the field and as disabled individuals to highlight the importance of designing and developing technology that is inclusive and accessible to all. The webinar will be held on Tuesday, May 14th at 10:00 a.m. ET.

Additionally, we will offer free access to our online asynchronous course called Accessibility Fundamentals. The Accessibility Fundamentals course will help instructors, course designers, and all who work with, create, or disseminate digital content to increase their awareness of the considerations for creating more digitally accessible course materials. We’ll look at learners with a wide array of learning needs and explore specific steps you can take to decrease accessibility-related barriers in online and hybrid learning environments.

Register for the webinar and/or course

However you participate in GAAD/GAAM, we look forward to seeing how your contributions push the needle of accessibility!

Katie headshot

Katie Grennell, Ph.D.

Senior Education & Training Specialist

Dr. Grennell serves as accessibility strategist at Anthology. She has worked as an adjunct instructor in the disciplines of history, American Studies, American popular music, and disability studies for over 14 years at multiple institutions throughout Western New York. Her first book, Disability and Accessibility in the Music Classroom: An Instructor’s Guide (Routledge) was published on September 1, 2022.