Today (16 May) marks the eighth annual Global Accessibility Awareness Day (GAAD) which highlights the need for increased digital access and inclusion for people with disabilities. As the pace of technological change increases, we must not forget about the potential for exclusion this brings. Launched in 2012, this day recognises how crucial it is for businesses to enable digital and tech accessibility for all.
Molly Watt is a board member on the Institute of Coding’s (IoC) Diversity & Inclusion Board. She provides valuable insight into the work the IoC is doing to improve accessibility and diversity for digital skills, at higher education and in the workplace. She writes about her experiences with accessibility and emphasises the importance of being inclusive.
At age 25 and with the benefit of hindsight it is now I am able to tell my story with so much more confidence, there were many years I felt so damaged I just couldn’t!
For those who do not know me my name is Molly and I live with a genetic condition called Usher Syndrome. Usher is the most common cause of congenital deafblindness.
My early years
Perhaps the cruellest part of the condition is being born *just* deaf and not knowing what was in store for me until I reached adolescence. As a deaf child I received copious amounts of speech therapy in order to access speech and sounds along with the use of my analogue hearing aids which were fitted at 18 months old. With intense support right from the get- go (which I was fortunate enough to receive,) I began speaking well from the age 6. I studied at mainstream school, and just like any deaf child, I was incredibly visual and relied on visual clues along with my hearing aids to communicate with my family, siblings, friends and peers.
I thank my parents that they decided early on that the oral route was the route for me. Without the speech I have today, I would not be where I am!
My teenage years
As mentioned, once I reached my teenage years the blindness bombshell hit home, and it was the biggest shock of all – no deaf person would wish losing their sight on their worst enemy.
From partially sighted at age 12, to severely sight impaired (legally blind) at 14, I found myself registered Deafblind, in a school, a society, and a day and age, that just wasn’t ready for me.
Having worn hearing aids all my life it was way back when I was 18 months old that my parents recognised the core need for accessibility in order to feel as included as possible. Thankfully I found myself living in a time where hearing aid technology had innovated and improved – to a point where access to sounds was far better quality and my speech dramatically improved. Communicating with the world around me, despite my failing sight, has for me, been simply priceless.
It was during my teenage years, I discovered Apple technology thanks to an old primary school friend whose mum worked at one of their stores. Almost by accident I came across and became reliant on many of the built-in accessibility features: Zoom, Large Text etc. It became fairly obvious that in order to access materials at school and independently all that was required was for me to have my MacBook/ iPad and I could then manually adjust materials to suit my needs best. It was with these skills that I adapted, that I managed to sail through my GCSEs.
Accessibility challenges at school
Sadly, I cannot write that my school years were smooth sailing – they weren’t. In fact, I tried out a few schools shortly after my diagnosis to seek out a better supported education for my disability. With hindsight I was naive to think a boarding school for the deaf was the answer. They talked the talk, sold themselves to us saying they knew all there was to know about Usher Syndrome. Unfortunately, I believe the reason they wanted me seemed more about the funding I would bring to the school, having me as a student meant they would receive double fees per term as I was a dually impaired student. I certainly didn’t get double the support!
Unfortunately, it wasn’t until I started that I realised peers, right through to care staff and teachers – none wanted to understand my needs. In fact, many were convinced I was pretending for the attention! Believe me, I have a few stories!
This was all during my teen years where I experienced such emotional turmoil around acceptance that I was going blind, transitioning from being a deaf visual kid to using my residual hearing more and having to take onboard mobility training which led to me going on the waiting list for a guide dog. I suffered such severe anxiety and depression and when I was home on weekends, refused to leave my bed. I had no friends, no faith and no direction.
After a year out of education, I was persuaded by my parents that a return to mainstream and college would be a good move and a way of both restoring my confidence and fulfilling my academic potential.
After a great deal of hard work we finally found a place that fully accepted me, Strodes College, Egham Surrey but still there were issues to be tackled.
My GCSE results were how college judged my entry and for me this was a massive move in the right direction. I was not seen as “deafblind Molly”. Finally a college who recognised me as a person, and my academic achievement, before my disability.
College was honest in acknowledging they had no experience of supporting somebody like me, but that they were open to listening and learning to enable me to reach not just my academic potential, but that my wellbeing would be a huge part of their ambition for me. I cannot begin to express how much of a difference this very attitude made to my mental health, my support system and in fact, all this led me to get into a top London university to study to be a primary school teacher.
Moving on to university
I really fancied myself teaching the next generation, influencing them and guiding them onto their own positive journeys, whoever they were going to be, whatever their needs might be and after my awful experiences of exclusion, misunderstanding and bullying I would make my classroom as inclusive as possible.
Sad to say this dream fell short when I arrived at the university despite having all my tools at the ready to get my degree.
Having applied, with the help of the PA I had at college as once again I was unable to access UCAS independently. I tried not to let this dampen my spirits – I have got this far I thought!
Thereafter I quickly learned I had to undergo 'Skills Tests' alongside my A-levels in order to get onto the chosen degree. These tests took place online, where the small print was inaccessible as was the website and for assistance a number to call, back then I could not use a telephone! I was dumbfounded. I tried to do the practise run of the Skills Test; however, it was timed and as most things take me longer and again the website did not allow the zoom function another barrier!
My wonderful college sorted out this accessible mess and I managed to both take and pass the tests on college grounds. Again, I tried not to let this dampen my spirits – I had come this far!!
Once I started university, Freshers week was a blast and I made many friends – most likely because I had a guide dog, but I was okay with that, I felt so happy to be accepted, to finally have direction and feel good about myself.
Then again this soon started to go wrong.
I couldn’t access the intranet that all lecturers referred to, I couldn’t access the PowerPoint slides and worse, the lecturers refused to do printouts for me to access the information (because it was bad for the environment!) I was not assisted in vocational subjects as well as in phonetics and nor did I have notes that I required after each lecture. What was a Deafblind person to do? All the support was promised, external support services were in place, but the university did not want to listen – a bit like school, they seemed to think they knew best!
I spent a great deal of my free time sorting meetings with Head of Year, Disability Coordinators, Disability Advisors, etc. – all seemed to not ‘get it’.
I would see my friends enjoying the early days of uni life and then there was me, laden with trying to sort out how I was to truly be a part of the whole uni scene.
I was sinking and nobody at university seemed to take it seriously and worse, didn’t seem to care.
After 4 long months I made the decision to leave. I don’t like the words 'drop out', I withdrew. They failed me; society seemed to have a habit of failing me.
I am more than capable of a degree – and I still believe this today. It wasn’t to be!
Using my experience to make a difference
I recognised after a few months at home, a time to reflect that the real barrier is not my condition but the many accessibility barriers, many I have faced.
The ignorance, sometimes the arrogance, the couldn’t care less attitudes, the emotions, the lack of understanding, lack of learning all start and begin with accessibility.
I then began to focus on things that DID work for me, technology. I began blogging.
Blogging was and still is, a way of sharing information, educating and venting, it is a way we can all have our little or big moment and it can be so effective.
One of my blogs went viral, it probably will never happen again but for me, people in very important places were looking, reading and learning. In my own way I became an educator, not how I originally saw it but arguably on a bigger stage where I can make a difference to all generations.
This was the making of Molly Watt Talks.
Today I am now an international keynote speaker, author and Accessibility, UX/Usability consultant. I am on an exciting journey and my mission to create an all-inclusive life for all.