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My year of thoughtful learning

Posted in Accessibility, Adventures, Design, and Education

Today I want to recognize the 5th annual Global Accessibility Awareness Day which is being celebrated tomorrow, May 19th, 2016. There are many types of events going on in my local DC Community and around the world. But I highly recommend you check out the Inclusive Design 24 series. I watched several of these sessions last year and can’t even begin to select favorites. The Paciello Group always puts on a great event.

For me, this day has become about reflecting on all the things I’ve learned, been involved in, and accomplished in the last year. Here’s the quick run down on what I’ve learned since GAAD last year:

  1. When I have a complex problem to solve and combine it with something I’m passionate about, I become a much better designer.
  2. Most of us still cling to our own mental model of what it’s like to be a student in today’s North American education system. We know nothing.
  3. If we open our minds and get out of our safe little boxes there are no limits to what can be accomplished.

About this time last year, I was just stepping into my new role as the Accessibility Manager for Blackboard. I was excited to really take charge of things and do good work. I’ve spent the last year building strategies and partnerships, influencing product directions, writing articles to help our clients create accessible content, and developing a framework for building inclusive classrooms. It’s been a busy, and very rewarding year. In taking this new role I discovered something everyone else already knew about me. That my design background, and my love of problem solving, was best expressed when turned on something I was truly passionate about. Which turned out to be working to solve one of the most critical problems facing today’s education system – truly inclusive access to learning experiences. It’s a work in progress.

Last summer after taking on this new role at Blackboard I had the honor to meet, speak to, and work with several students who have a wide variety of physical and cognitive abilities. Some had language processing challenges, some had Cerebral Palsy, some were Blind or visually impaired, and others were dyslexic or struggling with various learning disabilities. The one thing they ALL had in common was a considerable drive to learn. They did not see themselves as limited, but they all acutely felt that others saw them that way. These young men and women showed me what it was like to be a student in today’s education system when you are labeled as “different”. It was a truly eye opening experience. So many of us are still working under the assumptions that people with various physical and cognitive challenges are “disabled”, that they don’t want to learn, be independent, or live meaningful lives. When, in fact, they do. They simply need to work differently to accomplish the same tasks and achieve the same goals as the rest of us. It’s our lack of awareness and conscious consideration that unknowingly place limits on them. I spoke a bit about this at the EDUI conference in Charlottesville last fall and I’ve been working with the teams at Blackboard ever since to change the mental model we have in our heads when we think about “students”. It’s a big challenge. But, then again, I love a challenge.

In March of this year I was looking for a way to give back to my community again. I wanted to get involved in a group that was making a difference. I’d volunteered with Big Sisters, and been a travel softball coach for several years. All of that was very rewarding. With my ‘little’ heading off to college, and my softball team moving into high school play, I was looking for something different. Then I stumbled onto something amazing. Catalyst Sports. I’ve been a rock climber for about 7 years now and I’ve been advocating for people with various abilities in my professional life almost that entire time. But somehow I’d never fully connected the two. For the last 3 months I’ve been working closely with the Greater DC Chapter of Catalyst Sports to run monthly adaptive climbing workshops at SportRock Climbing Center in Alexandria VA. Watching these folks give 120% to every challenge put in front of them, and getting to be a part of exposing them to one of the most enlightening experiences I’ve ever had – the cathartic experience of climbing rock – has been unbelievable. I am constantly amazed by the strength, resilience, passion, and commitment these adaptive climbers exhibit. It’s truly shown me that the only limits you have, are the ones you place on yourself. With an open mind and considerable determination, not even the sky is the limit, regardless of your physical or cognitive ability.

  • Seated climber in his wheelchair getting ready to tackle the 45

So, as we all recognize and celebrate our differences on this 5th Global Accessibility Awareness day, think about the limits you’ve been placing on yourself and how you can break through them. And if you work with students, have a child, parent, sister, brother, cousin, friend or even neighborhood acquaintance who is still in school, think about what small change you can make to help them feel included in their own learning. Together we can raise awareness and discover the solution to building truly inclusive learning experiences for everyone.


  1. Aline Revoy
    Aline Revoy

    This sounds like you are leading a very fulfilling life JoAnna. Congratulations and do keep going.

    May 22, 2016

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