Hamilton has broken barriers and changed how we view the vehicle of musical theater. The social statements it makes are too numerous to count the first time you encounter it. But I have been struck by the remarkable parallel it has drawn to the struggle of capable professionals living with disabilities, in the American workplace.
You see, I’m a woman living with a lifelong disability. I am also the the founder/president of a company that attempts to put people living with disabilities in positions where they are relied upon, sought after and recognized for understanding their own accessibility needs and how to solve them. That might sound simple, but trust me, it’s been anything but easy. In a world where tech is not a female-friendly industry and where living with any type of disability is silently equated to being incapable, it’s been a daunting task.
Let me explain with a story of one of our early business challenges.
The software industry has, since its inception, relied heavily upon “UX” or user-experience testing and input. Ask anyone who works on a digital quality assurance team. They’ve got their own UX testers on staff who are consulted to ensure that the needs of users are represented in their development process. When our company, WeCo, introduced the concept of UX testers who live with disabilities in 2011, to ensure the very unique needs of this group are represented, we heard comments like, “…but people living with disabilities don’t know what they need.” A large federal organization who developed their own accessibility testing program stated to a national webcast audience in 2014, “…we don’t use testers who live with disabilities because the websites will never pass accessibility standards if we do.”
What I thought would be a slam-dunk product was, particularly in the early days of our company, challenged by accessibility software manufacturers as being “untrustworthy.” They claimed that feedback from trained UX testers living with disabilities simply couldn’t be accurate in comparison with their software. What I found more surprising is that the bulk of potential customers who required accessibility testing, went along with this belief. Looking back upon these events, I realize now that it wasn’t the idea of applying UX testing to accessibility that was difficult for people to accept. It was the idea of placing professionals living with disabilities, in a position of knowledge, and one in which they represent and articulate, their own experience.
Our Minneapolis staff team members had the good fortune to meet some of the cast members of Hamilton a few weeks ago. It was at our neighborhood Fairgrounds Coffee and a fundraiser for CURE Epilepsy. Sitting down with two talented gentleman playing prominent figures in history, who looked nothing like the founding fathers they portrayed, I was struck with the parallel. “You guys are pushing boundaries, just like we are,” I said to Nik Walker, who portrays Aaron Burr in Minneapolis and Miguel Cervantes, who is Alexander Hamilton in Chicago. “Getting people to see history, our past, and who we are as a nation as something more than an identity for just one group of people. And it’s making a difference. Thank you.” Cervantes responded, “Of course. That’s why were here.”
Hamilton’s author/composer, Lin-Manuel Miranda, described the musical this way, “It’s a way of pulling you into the story and allowing you to leave whatever cultural baggage you have about the founding fathers at the door.”
So, as National Disability Employment Awareness Month continues, know that WeCo Accessibility Services, along with countless other talented and determined people living with disabilities, will keep getting up on the stage of the accessibility industry, and the American workplace, every day, encouraging people to leave their limited ideas about us, at the door. We will continue to challenge the idea that people living with all types of disabilities (not just blindness) have a place in guiding the accessibility of the digital products we use. We’ll also keep stretching the imaginations of how we all view professionals in the workplace, knowing that there is a place for all of us.