Ashleigh Lodge – Abled Despite Barriers

Ashleigh Lodge was diagnosed with Fibromyalgia approximately nine years ago and started working as an Application Developer at Neovation Learning Solutions in 2013. However, she didn’t disclose her disability to her manager until last year.

Most people start with a 0 or 1 on the pain scale – a tool doctors use to assess the intensity of a person’s pain on a scale of 0 to 10. Ashleigh, and other people with Fibromyalgia are at level 5 or 6 every day.  She is in constant pain. It moves bit by bit, but it’s always there. Ashleigh has learnt how to work through the pain by hyper-focusing.

“If I can concentrate on something else, I can basically ignore my stupid body,” says Ashleigh.

As a result, she overcompensated. She took fewer breaks and came out of them sore and tired. She worked hard, doing all the management stuff that wasn’t getting done, and was promoted to the position of an Application Development Manager, a position she currently holds.

When Ashleigh was diagnosed, she went online to connect with people with Fibromyalgia and to learn more about her condition. She got involved in online communities for people with disabilities. As a developer, she was drawn to conversations about digital accessibility. Ashleigh didn’t disclose her disability at work but as she learned more, she started to advocate for improving accessibility of their products.

“I talked about it a lot,” Ashleigh says with a laugh, “All the time, basically. Anytime someone would give me an opening.”

Ashleigh told her boss that not only was it the right thing to do – morally and ethically but it also made sense from a business standpoint. According to Statistics Canada, 22 per cent of Canadians are living with disabilities and that number increases globally. Making a product that’s accessible to such a large section of population just made sense. Due to Ashleigh’s advocacy and the improved marketability, Neovation decided to make accessibility a focus in their latest product.

Ashleigh says digital accessibility is something that needs to be built in right when you start the project. Two basic things they worked on was giving users the option to change their font size and the option to switch to a high-contrast theme. These two things make a product accessible to people with low vision or other visual disabilities – conditions that are quite common.

Thanks in part to Ashleigh’s advocacy, when Neovation was building a new product, a focus on accessibility was baked into the product plan. All you have to do is stick to the existing standards of design. Simple things like making sure the fonts are big enough to read and the colours contrast well against the background make a huge difference.

The problem is that most developers don’t even take accessibility into consideration. Ashleigh has given a talk called “What is Accessibility and Why Should I Care” to Red River College students and ICTAM members. She says the people she met there had never even considered that a blind person would use a website, or that a person with Parkinson’s would find it hard to use a mouse or keyboard.

Ashleigh says that we’re in an awareness-building stage in Canada right now. The United States have had legislation since the eighties and there are companies getting sued for not building in digital accessibility. The Canadian Government has just recently started working on legislation. Once it’s is in place, people will have to pay notice.

“Realize that people have different needs than you and accommodate that,” she says. “I think that’s the right thing to do and we’re pretty terrible for not doing it.”

After digital accessibility, the future is inclusive design. Inclusive design is when you make a product that’s usable by as many people as possible, while making accessibility a priority. For example, companies with digitally accessible websites make sure that they’re readable by a screen reader. Then, they realize that they need a high-contrast theme to make it accessible to people with low vision. They build in a high contrast theme and realize that it is now readable under bright sunlight for everyone. So, the website is not just accessible but also inclusive.

For that to happen, people have to realize that digital accessibility is not exclusive. It actually benefits everyone else too. If the Canadian government enforces legislation, companies will start getting penalized for developing inaccessible products. Developers will be forced to build accessibility in when they start developing a product, instead of it being an afterthought.