Sarah Hendren’s What Can a Body Do? is a beautiful meditation on disability and the different ways bodies meet the physical world. In a word, there’s often a “mismatch” between how the world is designed and how people interact with it. There’s a chapter in the book where Hendren talks about a non-profit workshop that helps fabricate physical tools and accommodations for people with disabilities, when I read it I almost quit tech entirely.
The workshop made tables, modified wheel chairs, and other bespoke objects. The idea of joining an organization like that lit up my neural network. Working with actual people, hearing their needs, working together on their problems, to help design and build a objects to allow people to succeed at whatever task (no matter how big or small) that they want to do… that sounded like fulfilling work.
For months I’d fantasize about quitting tech and making accessible objects. A friend of mine works at Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired (TSBVI) and he told me about how they 3D print objects like charts and graphs or the inside of a cell to help the kids understand visual concepts. What a novel use of technology! Fabricating accommodations for kids sounds fun. And projects like Ramp Up Reykjavík which has expanded to Ramp Up Iceland and now to Ramp Up Europe broadens my imagination for what’s possible.
Then I realized… wait a minute… I make websites. Websites are already a surface area with a notorious amount of mismatch for people with disabilities. In a world where 96.3% of the top 1,000,000 homepages have detectable errors, there’s a lot of work to do. Maybe I don’t need to quit my job, instead I could:
- Fix errors on the sites I work on (doing this)
- Help educate other web developers on accessibility (doing this)
- Build tooling to help other web developers fix their errors (doing this)
- Work with standards groups to propose new accessible HTML (tried this)
- Meet more often with folks who have disabilities and listen to their concerns (need to do this)
- Build bespoke apps or tools for people?
That last one… In the same way the little workshop builds from the book bespoke accommodations, is it possible to build bespoke apps and browser extensions to help bodies meet the digital world? I use my web developer superpowers ✨ to hack websites or build small apps for myself all the time. Why not offer this skill to other people?
One inspiration for how this might work is from Blake Watson’s talk “The joys of home-cooked apps”. In the talk Blake shares a handful of side projects he’s built as workarounds for his spinal muscular atrophy. From digi-fying a card game, to a custom DnD character sheet, to a Markdown-to-spreadsheet generator to manage his caretakers, to a classy browser startup screen; Blake is using his programming superpowers to help his body meet his world. Blake’s tenacity for finishing side projects and creating good, small, clear-intentioned apps motivates me.
In the spirit of chasing this idea, I reached out to TSBVI and they offered a tour of their campus and makerspace. It’s a wonderful place with genki kids and the art on the walls is tactile and meant to for touch. One issue they specifically called out was that the Prussa Slicer app used by their 3D printers is inaccessible (missing labels and a focus trap problem). That’s blocking kids from being able to make prints on their without sighted assistance. It’s a shame when kids with disabilities miss out on the fun. I don’t know how to write GUIs in C++, nor do I know how the wxWidgets framework it uses works, nor can I build the project locally… so I might not be the candidate to fix this particular issue… but maybe you are? Or maybe you’re the person who could help me? If this sounds like you, please reach out. I know some kids who could use your help.