It never ceases to amaze me how we all start out pretty much the same, bar a few genetic differences, and yet we all turn out so different! In my case, I can see how a combination of lucky genes, upbringing and life experiences have shaped me to become the person that I am, at this moment in time... including my career path and ambitions. It would take a lot of space to give you all the details, and the vast majority of it would be deathly boring, but here are a few snippets of my story that have shaped and developed me to become an accessibility specialist.
It is often difficult to separate out nature from nurture and certainly, there is a lot of overlap. However, I had barely any contact with my biological father and only minimal contact with his father, so I can say with a degree of confidence that much of my edtechie ability and interest is genetic. My grandfather was at Bletchley Park and although I don't know much about his work there, I remember him showing me artefacts that would point to a serious interest in computers and coding. My only real memories of time spent with my father was tinkering with early computers and gaming devices, writing code in BASIC and the best lesson about computers and the only useful life lesson he ever taught me, which is that computers don't make mistakes - they only do what they are programmed to do. If a computer does something wrong, look first at the human element!
I spent 21 years in teaching, covering private, state, international, primary and secondary schools. The best years were spent teaching year 2 to year 4, mostly in mixed-age classes in a village school in West Yorkshire. My love of technology led to many opportunities and definitely improved the quality of my teaching and my ability to keep even the most disengaged children learning.
Until 2002, I had never even thought about what it must be like to live and work with a disability. I wore regular glasses to correct short-sightedness but hadn't had any real problems with my sight. All that changed pretty quickly. My lenses had a prism in them to correct a slight squint. The strength of that prism had increased a fair bit over the last year and I was a bit irritated that I was having to change my glasses every 6 months... then 3 months. It was expensive! Then, only 6 weeks into another new pair, I started with horrific headaches. That was when it all started.
I was referred to an eye hospital where they were pioneering treatment for my condition. I had prisms stuck onto the back of my glasses, intially just on one lens but eventually on both. The aim was to make my squint as bad as it would get, as quickly as possible, before operating to correct the squint. By making the condition as bad as possible, it reduced the likelihood of it returning and me needing further invasive eye surgery.
It took just under two years, by which time, without my glasses, I could see two of everything... several metres apart. With my glasses, the stick-on prisms made everything extremely blurry, like looking through frosted glass. When it was dark and street lights were on, my whole vision was filled with hundreds of mini-rainbows, and made me feel nauseus and disorientated. It was a very unpleasant experience and not one I would want to repeat. Fortunately, the operation in June 2004 was a complete success and I have had no sight difficulties since.
What I learned from this experience, was how difficult it is to live and work without useful eyesight. My saving grace was my computer. Screen readers weren't that common then, but I could increase the size of everything and I could touch type, which helped me produce lesson plans and teaching resources. I gained a real appreciation of how intensely frustrating it is when things don't work as they should. This stayed with me and has influenced much of my recent work.
We lived in Finland from early 2009 to Autumn 2013. I taught in an international school in Oulu, on the north-west coast, and my boys attended the same school. We had originally intended to stay there forever. We did our very best to adapt to the culture, learn the language and to live as closely as possible to the Finnish lifestyle, whilst still retaining our Britishness.
It's a long story, but we ended up building a house. I'll be honest, we weren't even competent at building IKEA furniture, so a house was a pretty big project. We learned so much through this experience. As a team-building activity, it would have ranked much higher than building paper bridges or spaghetti towers! However, my middle-aged body wasn't really ready for such intense physical activity, and in April 2012, I sustained a spinal cord injury, cauda equina syndrome, which didn't get treated quickly enough. The result is that I now have nerve damage and a mobility impairment.
We returned to the UK, so that I could continue working with the reasonable adjustments concept that I think is actually better here than in the EU. I tried going back into primary school teaching, but it was just too difficult to balance with my disability. In December 2014, I started work with our local authority as Area Manager of the Adult Learning service. It kept me in education but also opened up a wealth of new opportunities. Working for local government is a different world but I loved it! I was line manager for about 30 tutors, as well as an Assistant Area Manager. I learned to work with policies, processes, and best of all, our adult learners.
Alongside my work, I studied with the Open University and gained a Master of Arts in Online and Distance Education. As a student, I was introduced to some assistive technology to help me produce my assignments, and hence began an intimate relationship with Dragon, a speech-to-text application. One of my favourite modules was about making accessible online content and this was something that shaped my next role as an eLearning designer.
When I started my previous role as an eLearning Designer, I expected it to be a career path that would last until retirement. I was thoroughly enjoying transferring my skills as an educator to that of a learning designer. I very quickly gained expertise with the Articulate 360 products, especially Storyline and Rise, as well as learning the basics of some of the Adobe Creative Cloud applications. What I hadn't expected was just how much the issue of digital accessibility would feature in my work. Over time, this took over everything I did. Rather than building eLearning products, I spent most of my time assessing client products to check whether they were compliant with the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) and fixing the majority so that they would work properly with assistive technologies.
I also worked at a management level as Chair of the Disability Network, to influence leadership across the company and to change the culture of the organisation to make it a more accessible workplace. It was in that role, that I was looking for examples of Accessibility Specialist positions to take back to our management, when I found the advert for the role I am in now and couldn't resist applying.
So a range of life experiences and career progressions have brought me to this place, as Head of Accessibility. I can now devote my whole time to accessibility. However, it will always be my life. When I clock off at the end of the day, my disability doesn't clock off. It comes with me. The barriers I face to access in all aspects of life, are always present. This is the same for all disabled people. We become master problem solvers... specialists in our own condition and advocates for ourselves and others. For me, it feels like a calling. I can find purpose in my own disability by using it to help others. I will campaign for accessibility at all levels until the day comes when we have genuine equality of access.