Toby Willis | Software Engineer in Test II in Seattle, WA
Did you know there are over 1 Billion people with disabilities in the World?
…that’s like more than 15% of the population. I’m learning these stats because I lost my vision due to a degenerative retina condition known as Leber Congenital Amaurosis. You can also read more about my experience in The Seattle Times and US News & World Report.
I functioned as a sighted person growing up and for the first part of my professional life; working with my hands in a variety of fields from construction to manufacturing and even sold a successful startup industrial maintenance business. I sold that business because my vision had deteriorated to the degree that I was unable to drive, efficiently read print, and QA my employee’s work.
Subsequently, I return to the University to learn a new skill set. That is where I rediscovered tech. I had done some simple programming throughout junior and senior high school but had not thought much about code outside of the simple scripts running on primitive manufacturing equipment I often maintained. I landed a job in the Adaptive Technology Center (ATC) at Middle Tennessee State University where I had enrolled to finish my undergraduate. There, I helped other students with disabilities access information and learn to use assistive devices and software to live more independently.
I decided to pursue a degree in Recording Industry Management being that I am a lifelong musician and already had a degree in music. As my vision got slowly worse and the recording equipment and software got smaller and more complicated, I found it increasingly difficult to be efficient and compete in Nashville where I lived at the time.
Working with other students with disabilities in the ATC gave me valuable insight into the challenges we face as users who depend on assistive technologies to access information and gain an education. My vision was gradually getting worse, and the magnification equipment and software just couldn’t make the print big enough any longer. I began relying on a screen reader application to speak the contents on the screen around this time in my life and started to realize how difficult it is for people with disabilities to be productive and independent in an increasingly digital world. That’s when I pivoted my career toward “Accessibility.”
After working my way up through the University, I took a Director of Student Disability Services at Nashville State Community College. It happened that the college had a large Deaf population which made for a great learning experience for us all in better communication. Later, I took a job at City University of Seattle. That’s how I got to the PNW. Although I enjoyed working with students at the University, I wanted to really dive deep into a problem and make a meaningful contribution. Being that our World was then and still is more and more on the web, I wanted to help solve the problem of web accessibility, or the lack thereof.
In 2014, I heard that Expedia Group was looking for a screen reader user to consult with the Client-side Engineering team to improve the usability of the website and mobile app for customers with disabilities. I jumped at the chance because I love to travel and was never able to independently book a trip using a screen reader. I came on board in August of 2014 and was pleasantly surprised to learn that Expedia Group embraced web accessibility as an opportunity to make a difference in the lives of disabled travelers while making our products better for everyone. We really dug into Inclusive Design practices, good markup and architecture, and building adequate testing protocol. I’m proud to have been a part of creating what I believe is the best eCommerce experiences a screen reader user can find on the web.
I am not disabled, there are only barriers that are more difficult for me to surmount. If we work to remove those barriers, people can live more independently, be more productive and make a more meaningful contribution to society. Disability is the largest minority in the World. Many individuals with disabilities want to participate in society but simply can’t due to the physical and social barriers that exist. Around 50 percent of people with disabilities are unemployed, underemployed, or marginally attached to the workforce. That means there is a huge untapped talent pool waiting to participate in making everyone’s life better.
You can help remove a barrier by opening your mind to disability as diversity, working to overcome the conscious and unconscious disability bias, and make an effort to include someone with a disability in your professional and personal life.
“Diversity is inviting me to the party; inclusion is asking me to dance…” Author unknown (possibly attributable to Verna Myers on Twitter)