The Other Threads
Public relations graduate paves a path toward accessibility
By Rebekah Friedman, Rebekahb@mailbox.sc.edu, 803-576-7270
Ask anyone who knows public relations major Sarah Massengale to describe her in a word and they might say she’s brazen. Or fearless. Or even stubborn.
They might tell you about a time she corrected them in an email. Or in front of a 20-person class. Or loudly from the back of a 300-person lecture hall.
What they won’t tell you — at least not at first — is that she’s blind.
Even when her blindness is the first thing you notice about Massengale, it’s not the thing you remember. And it’s not the thing that defines her — not when compared to her way with words, anyway, or her quickness to use them to set others straight. Instead, she says, she wants her blindness to feel like a subtle clue in a mystery novel.
“You spend about two-thirds of the book trying to puzzle out what’s happening,” she wrote for a class assignment in 2019. “Then, in that last third, there’s a single detail that is slipped in like a silken thread that ties everything into a neat bow."
That silken thread is a necessary part of the plot for Massengale, but it’s the other threads that tell her story.
The intimidation factor
Massengale was born with optic nerve hypoplasia, a disorder that prevents her eyes from transmitting signals to her brain. She has never been able to see, other than some bright light and shadows from the corner of her right eye.
Many blind children attend special schools, but she was mainstreamed from the beginning. It meant more challenges, but also more confidence.
“Attending a traditional public school, you’re going to learn to self-advocate from day one,” Massengale says. “The intimidation factor that would be present if you hadn’t learned to self-advocate, it’s just not going to exist.”
It didn’t exist when she arrived at the University of South Carolina in 2016, a decade older than most other freshmen. By then, she already had a music degree from Converse College but was struggling to find work. A six-week internship at a nonprofit music school had given her a taste for public relations, and when the Commission for the Blind approached her about going back to school, UofSC’s College of Information and Communications was an easy sell.
“We talked about majors, and I thought ‘I like this PR stuff, let’s try it,’” she says.
The Student Disability Resource Center helped with accommodations, including housing on the Horseshoe and transportation. Inconspicuous architectural landmarks — a water fountain here, a column there — became guides for navigating campus.
And Massengale went to class, ready to be taught by her professors and unintimidated by the fact that it would mean teaching them.
Sung by a princess who’d rather be a soprano, this piece of comic opera sarcastically acknowledges prima donna stereotypes. Massengale says elements such as pauses and foot stamping are intentional.
Seeing what can't be seen
Instructor Ernie Grigg met Massengale while serving as faculty advisor for The Carolina Agency in the School of Journalism and Mass Communications.
Grigg’s brand of tell-it-like-it-is teaching can be a shock to some students, but to Massengale, it was an asset, especially when it came to alt text.
Alt text — short for alternative text — is descriptive copy written into the HTML of online images. Sighted users rarely notice it, but for blind users navigating the web with screen reader technology, it’s the key to seeing what can’t be seen. Conventional wisdom has always been to keep it short and sweet, but Massengale doesn’t think the conventional wisdom is always right.
“I get really annoyed with that because I’m obsessive and detail-oriented,” Massengale says. “I want to see the minutiae of a picture. If I can’t draw the picture in my mind’s eye, then to me the alt text is not enough.”
Grigg became something of an alt text Rembrandt, turning stock photos and logos into verbal works of art and training Massengale to think like the photographers and designers she’ll encounter in her career.
“Getting through her needs isn’t particularly difficult because she’s not looking for the world to adapt to her,” Grigg says. “She’s just looking to get the most out of her education. In class, she brings up the topic of disability when she thinks everyone would benefit from learning about that perspective. She keeps you on your toes because she brings a fresh point of view to the conversation.”
For instructor Kelly Davis, who first taught Massengale in her Advanced PR Writing class, preparation was critical to making lessons accessible. PowerPoint presentations were converted into Word documents, graphics needed to be described, and everything was sent to her student ahead of class to ensure she’d be able to follow along.
Massengale never shied away from telling Davis what she needed and how to make it happen. But the two quickly realized others needed to hear it, too.
“As I was learning things about making my materials more accessible, we came up with the idea of creating a presentation for the class,” Davis says. “Because all of these students are going out into the world developing content, and they need to know how to do that in an accessible format.”
A necessary conversation
Massengale is almost always the only blind student in her class, and often the first one her classmates have encountered. She has learned to pipe up to correct inaccurate and insensitive terminology, and she has dispelled plenty of stereotypes.
“My favorite is that your senses are heightened because your sight is gone,” she says, laughing. “No, my senses are heightened because I trained them. I do not have super powers! I am not Daredevil!”
Like many people with disabilities, she has been thrust into an advocacy role she didn’t ask for. And she knows talking about it can sometimes make people uncomfortable. But she says that discomfort sometimes makes things worse.
When she took the class that produces the School of Journalism and Mass Communications alumni magazine in 2019, a classmate asked Massengale if he could profile her in the spring issue. The request led to a conversation on how to write about the disabled and, eventually, to an op-ed from Massengale herself that accompanied the online version of the story. Here, she made the mystery novel analogy and reminded readers that it’s a conversation they need to be having, too.
“People are not equipped to talk about disabilities using the right language or with the right sentiment and oftentimes nobody’s ever told journalists that they can ask,” she says. “And that’s the part that frustrates me the most. I just want people to know that they can ask.”
Rethinking the process
PDFs have long been one of the biggest headaches for screen readers. Headlines blend into body copy, tables devolve into gibberish, and the urgency of red text goes unnoticed if the document hasn’t been converted to an accessible format. Text that’s embedded into JPG files is another problem; so are videos without audio descriptions.
Inaccessible content peppers websites like landmines, and there isn’t an easy fix. Part of the issue is technology — what works for one type of screen reader might not work for another. But the bigger issue is systemic. How do you retrain an entire communications team — and, big picture, the entire communications industry — to rethink their processes from the ground up?
When the university began a widescale effort to address its digital accessibility, communicators turned to Massengale to help identify problems and troubleshoot solutions.
“I’ve had this cool insider perspective,” she says. “It’s been really interesting as somebody who knows where the issues are to find myself pointing things out.”
She also became the face of the initiative. Through The Carolina Agency, she and a team of students and staffers collaborated on a video that walks viewers through the importance of digital accessibility from her perspective.
Massengale knows accessibility won’t be achieved overnight, but she’s happy the process has begun.
“What I’ve been so appreciative of is the fact that the university has come to the table and said, ‘we don’t know, we don’t get it, but we want to make it better,’” she says. “And they’ve actively been talking to end users, people with disabilities, to understand what making it better looks like.”
What happens when a screen reader encounters an inaccessible link? Massengale explains assistive technology and how digital accessibility enhances the student experience.
‘What we can do’
The post-coronavirus job market is a scary place for any public relations practitioner. For Massengale, it’s scarier. About 44 percent of working-age blind people are employed, compared to 72 percent for those without disabilities. The unemployment rate for the blind is twice the national average. And those are the pre-COVID-19 figures.
“Largely what that comes down to is that employers don’t fully understand that they can have equal expectations of people who are blind or people who have any disability for that matter,” Massengale says. “Because they just don’t have a clear picture of what we can do and what technology allows us to do.”
But her educators at South Carolina have a very clear picture of what Massengale can do — just about anything.
One day, she hopes that means doing public relations for the Metropolitan Opera or even the Kennedy Center. But no matter where she ends up, her legacy will keep threading through classes like The Carolina Agency, where new managing agency director Clare Morris and managing creative director Jason Porter are bringing her ideas to life.
“They’re actively looking to make The Carolina Agency one of the best agencies for producing accessible content in the state of South Carolina. Like that is a goal,” Massengale says. “So we’re working on it. And I think it’s a process that’s going to keep evolving. I’m excited about that.”
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