This month–July 26, to be exact–marks the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act. We were lucky to land a quick chat with Dana Marlowe, a Principal Partner in Accessibility Partners, LLC, a disability and accessibility advocacy IT consulting firm based in the Washington DC area. Accessibility Partners focuses on the removal of extraneous barriers in technology, with the goal of making IT devices inclusive to all. A Jewish mother of two, Dana was recently named one of the 10 people to win the Best in Business Award from The Ruderman Family Foundation. She took a minute from her mega-active work and family life to answer some questions about her work toward inclusion.
Technology is a broad phrase. Who does Accessibility Partners work with? How far is your influence?
Accessibility Partners works with developers and industry leaders across Fortune 500 companies, Federal government agencies, education institutions, non-profit organizations, international ministries, and everything in between, to help make technology accessible to a larger demographic of users, both with and without disabilities. Accessibility adds to the human side and makes technology less aloof. We focus on the user and their usage, and not the other way around.
How did you develop the idea for this business?
There is a U.S. Federal law (Section 508) that requires IT be accessible to people with disabilities, in a nutshell. Our clients have asked us for solutions to help create technology for people with disabilities. Who better to assist major IT manufacturers and audit their solutions than experienced engineers with disabilities? That is what we have centralized our offerings on—the premise the company was created upon.
How did you get involved in inclusion advocacy work?
As a child, I was always eager for summer to start, because that meant it was time for summer camp. One year was more memorable than others. When I was 7, I fondly remember an encounter with a friend at camp who was deaf. I so badly wanted to strike up a conversation with my new friend but was unable to do so. I remember being frustrated. Even as a young camper, I felt the urge to be able to communicate with everyone. I started learning American Sign Language that very summer.
Where do disability advocacy and technology meet?
Our company is more than just what we do—it’s also who we are. Through careful hiring at Accessibility Partners, we employ expert engineers with disabilities. It’s our corporate policy to specifically seek out the best and brightest with disabilities in the technical sphere.
The best part of being an entrepreneur is being in charge of your own IT workforce. People with disabilities comprise over 85% of our workforce, and that’s a number we’re trying to increase as we spread out across the country!
Can you explain more about your unique workforce? How do you manage multiple disabilities in a company that has offices across the country?
Accessibility Partners pushes for a loud dialogue about accommodations and workplace schedules between the management and staff. In many ways, it’s not much different from other consulting firms that are geographically disparate. Through our honest conversations with our team, we have adopted and embraced a solid telework and Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) environment. I want all of our workers with disabilities to be successful and productive, and they know what works best. It’s unfair and impractical to assume a one-size-fits-all mentality with technology, and sometimes you just have to trust a user. We place the utmost trust in our workforce.
With the mantra that the only disability in life is a bad attitude, our staff has made the company known amongst many consulting firms in the region. We’re known to be strong disability advocates who truly take the time out to understand people with disabilities.
Is there something you’d think readers should know about disability inclusion, as it relates to kids?
There was an amazing ad campaign right around the time the Americans with Disabilities Act was gaining traction. The slogan was “Label Jars… Not People.” That’s a great inclusion lesson for kids. Labels are for food or clothing, not people. Focusing on the individual child, and not their disability, helps put the child first, which is a good rule of thumb. People-first language, with children and adults, puts the individual first and the disability later.
I know you have young children. Coupled with a busy job, you must not sleep very much…
I have two boys, ages 3 and 6, and a very supportive husband who keep me grounded. The thing about a work/life balance is you have to be flexible in every meaning of the word. While I would definitely like to be a simultaneous tightrope walker carrying spinning plates, I do need to keep a solid calendar and a brain capable of compartmentalizing.
Any tips for people trying to do it all?
My best lesson came from my stepfather. He told me, “Everything counts.” It is this general advice that I was able to remember when dealing with large new prospective clients, and the same words ring true when maintaining older ones. It keeps everything in perspective for me and teaches me that everything is important, no matter the size. Plus, it helps me make sure I don’t overlook any details. With my busy life, I know I need help with that!
This interview has been condensed and edited.