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Digital Accessibility

Images of Accessibility: An Afternoon of Disability Community

In August, I had the opportunity to participate in a photo shoot to update the website for USC’s Digital Accessibility team. I was excited about the opportunity. It would allow me to participate in campus life, something I had missed out on a lot of since COVID hit my first year here. It would allow me to bring a face to disabled students’ issues on campus, something I care about passionately. And, honestly, I was excited to model (I’m a little vain and it was exciting to imagine being on the USC website!).

I was nervous. I’m not good around people – being autistic is not something I’m ashamed of, but it definitely has some drawbacks. I didn’t know who I would be dealing with, or what situations I would be put in. I wasn’t sure if I was dressed right. Was I misjudging the situation? Would I mess it up? Would I make things awkward? These were questions that often came up for me in new situations with new people.

The day arrived. I dressed up – I had a meeting with a volunteer coordinator right afterwards, so I had to look professional. I made it to Russell House, where we would be eating together before heading out for the photo shoot. This also made me anxious. I have a very limited palate, thanks to my autism. I also hadn’t been eating inside thanks to COVID, but wanted to participate fully in the event. It was a mess – most places were closed, the food was not very well prepared, and Mary Prouty, one of the Digital Accessibility Team members who had planned the event, had to go ask for chips for my nachos because I’m too scared of conflict. (You know the “she asked for pickles” meme? It was literally that.)

But lunch went well. We chatted. The other two students were undergrads, but it was cool to talk to students who were dealing with different experiences than mine. They were in the band together, so while I felt a little like an outsider, it was fascinating to learn about their experience in the band. It was cool to learn about their majors – STEM is like a foreign language to me, so I’m always interested in learning what it’s like to study the sciences. Mary and Dow Hammond, the two Digital Accessibility Team members in charge of the photo shoot, were great at keeping the conversation going and making us all feel welcome. Maybe this wouldn’t be too bad, I thought (even if I was overdressed).

Students with disabilities pose in a parked golf cart by the Maxcy monument.

We finally headed out to the real part of the afternoon – the photo shoot itself. A few more people joined our group, students and admin, all working together to promote a vital part of our campus. Dow and Mary had arranged a golf cart ride for us, understanding our needs as disabled students coming together in the August heat. I had joked at lunch that if I passed out from the heat, just make sure I didn’t hit my head (the joke didn’t really fly – it never does, for some reason). I have POTS, a condition where my heart rate can suddenly get elevated and I get lightheaded and sometimes even pass out, exacerbated by heat and exertion. Luckily, Dow and Mary had planned ahead. My needs were taken care of. Who would’ve thought that an accessibility office would think about the needs of their disabled guests? (Maybe that joke will land better.)

Taking pictures was fun. We posed outside of the library, sitting together with laptops and tablets as if we were working together. It was a silly activity, feeling like we were playacting. There was a lot of dramatic pointing and laughter. We moved into the library, where we took more pictures. I got to see more of the library than I’ve seen in my four years here at USC. I also got to know my comrades better. One worked in the College of Arts and Sciences and did their social media – really cool. Another was also in the English department, and we talked about professors and classes.

But what really made the afternoon special was when we all got together in a study room while Dow and Mary took pictures of us as if we were working together. We were able to talk while we were in there – the point was to look as if we were talking, after all – and the conversation was so insightful. As one student pointed out, this was a group of disabled students, who all had accessibility needs, needs that were often not met on campus. As a group, we didn’t generally look the way society assumes disabled people look. That meant we often struggle to get the accommodations we need. We had struggled to succeed, in some cases, because of the roadblocks imposed on us not by our disabilities, but by the misconceptions other people have about disability. This was a group of people who understood what I go through, what I live, on a daily basis. This was a very diverse group of people, different ages, different majors, and yet. These were my people.

A group of students with diverse disabilities have "spurs up" with the bronze cocky statue.

I’m very glad I took part in this afternoon of accessibility representation. Before this August afternoon, I hadn’t even heard of the Office of Digital Accessibility. Now I was a part of their image. I was a part of a group of people who had come together to promote this idea, of digital accessibility and its importance. We ended the afternoon at the Cocky statue, of course. (Spurs up!) We’d traveled across campus, spending some time on the horseshoe, taking silly pictures, having deep discussions.

I’d never met these people before. I may never see them again. Yet this afternoon, with them, will have a deep impact on the way I see accessibility on campus.

Challenge the conventional. Create the exceptional. No Limits.