Empower Through Web Development

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As a person with a disability, I appreciate the web and modern-day computing for their many affordances. The web is a great place to work and share and connect. You can make a living, build your dream, and speak your mind.

It’s not easy, though. Beginners struggling with the box model often take to Google in search of guidance (and end up at this very website). More seasoned developers find themselves hopping from framework to framework trying to keep up. We experience plenty of late nights, console logs, and rage quits.

It’s in times like these that I like to remember why I’m doing this thing. And that’s because of the magic of creating. Making websites is empowering because it allows you to shape the world—in ways big and small, public and personal. It’s especially powerful for people with disabilities, who gain influence on the tech that they rely on. And, hey, you can do web stuff for fun and profit.

The magic of craft

I knew I wanted to be a person who makes websites the first time I ever wrote HTML, hit reload, and saw my changes. I felt the power coursing through my veins as I FTP-ed my site to my shiny new web server under my very own domain name. My mind jumped into the future, imagining my vast web empire.

I never got around to making an empire, but I had something most of my friends didn’t—a personal homepage. I don’t care how ugly or weird they might be, I think everyone should have a homepage they made for themselves. I love going to personal web homes—you know, just to check out what they’ve done with the place.

I love that the web can be this artisanal craft. My disability (spinal muscular atrophy) precludes me from practicing many crafts one might pick up. And yet as a child, I watched as my grandfather would take to his workshop and emerge with all sorts of wooden inventions—mostly toys for me, of course. I came to appreciate the focus and dedication he put into it. Regardless of what terrible things were going on in life, he could escape into this wonderful world of creation, systems, and problem-solving. I wanted that too. Years later, I found my craft. What with its quirky boxes, holy wars, and documentation.

But I loved it. I couldn’t get enough. And finally I realized… this can be my life’s work. I can get paid to make things on the internet.

But first, some not great facts about employment

Employment levels of people with disabilities are low, and those who are employed tend to be in low-paying occupations.

— U.S. Department of Labor

The U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) keeps statistics on employment levels for people with disabilities and, let me tell you, they kind of suck. The DOL goes on to say that only a third of working-age people with disabilities were employed, on average, in the 2010-2012 period. In contrast, over two-thirds of people without disabilities were employed in the same period.

This problem affected me personally as I struggled to get a job after college. Fortunately, the web is a great tool for breaking down barriers. With its vast learning resources, free and open source software, and plethora of ways to connect and share, the web makes possible all sorts of employment opportunities. I’m now a designer/developer at Mad Genius and loving it.

I urge anyone—disabled or not—who finds themselves with limited access to more conventional jobs to consider working on the web. Whether you draw, write, design, or code, there’s something here for you. This big web we’re building for everyone should be built by everyone.

We need that thing that you’re going to build

Last fall, I launched A Fine Start, a web service and browser extension for turning your new tab page into a minimal list of links. Some people saw it when Chris mentioned it in an article and it picked up quite a few new users. But what those users don’t know is that A Fine Start began life as an assistive technology.

Because of my extremely weak muscles, I type using a highly customized on-screen keyboard. It’s doable, but tedious, so I use the mouse method of getting things done wherever possible. I could open a new tab and start typing, but I would rather click. As a result, I made Start, a one-file tool that allowed me to save lists of links and get at them quickly when set as my new tab page—no keyboard necessary.

It was fantastic and I realized I needed Start on every computer I used, but I had no way of getting my bookmarks on another device without sticking them in a text file in Dropbox. So, last year, I wrote a backend service, polished the design, made a Chrome extension, and threw my baby out of the nest to see if it would fly. We’ll see.

The point is, there’s something the world needs, waiting to be built. And you are the only one who can build it. The recipe is mediocre ideas, showing up, and persistence. The web needs your perspective. Load up on your caffeinated beverage of choice, roll up your sleeves, and practice your craft. You’ve got the power. Now use it.

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