“Society is taking more steps to become more accessible to people with different abilities, but technology is lagging behind.”
Dana Marlowe ‘96, ‘98
Some 58 million people in the U.S. - nearly 20 percent of the population - have some form of physical or sensory limitation. This is the fastest-growing minority group in the country.
"It's also the only minority group that anyone could become a member of at any time," says Dana Marlowe '96, '98 (sign language interpreting, professional and technical communications).
Marlowe has made it her business to help people with disabilities, particularly in the area of access to technology. She is principal partner and co-founder of Accessibility Partners, a consulting firm that works with businesses and government agencies to help make technology - including websites, software and other electronic communication tools - equally available to all audiences.
"Merging disability advocacy with technology - that's my passion," says Marlowe.
There's substantial demand for this type of service. Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, a federal law, requires that electronic and information technology used by the government be accessible. Private companies have also become more responsive to accessibility issues due to public demand. She has worked with well-known IT companies as well as government agencies.
"Society is taking more steps to become more accessible to people with different abilities," says Marlowe, "but technology is lagging behind."
For example, if a website carries a video that is not captioned, people who are deaf are left out. Likewise, images on a website need to include imbedded information so people who are blind can hear a description. Even use of color needs to be carefully considered: Instructions directing viewers to "click on the green button" might be meaningless to people who are colorblind. Accessibility Partners helps organizations assess such problems and address them.
Marlowe also helps clients with written communications.
"Words are so powerful," she points out. "Old, inaccurate and inappropriate descriptions perpetuate negative stereotypes and attitudinal barriers."
Marlowe's passion for this work began with a life-long love of languages (she's fluent in Spanish as well as American Sign Language and can read and write Hebrew). The interpreting program brought her to RIT. On a co-op job with City of Arlington (Texas) Public Information Office, she learned more about issues affecting people who are deaf and hard of hearing.
Marlowe returned to RIT and worked as an interpreter while earning a B.S. from the Department of Communication. In 2000, she earned a master's degree in communication studies from the University of Texas at Austin. By then, the two threads - communications and disability advocacy - were thoroughly entwined.
Her RIT senior project proved memorable. Research for "MetaPerceptional Accuracy: A Study of Exotic Entertainers and Strip Club Audiences" involved interviews with spectators and performers. It got a lot of attention: The Chicago Tribune asked her to write an article about her project.
"I took an intellectual project and adapted it to something fun and out of the box," she says. "What I learned is that taking a gamble can really, really pay off."
Two years ago, she made another bold move when she started Accessibility Partners in a recession, three months after having a baby. Her son, Micah, and husband Preston Blay '96 (mechanical engineering) are doing well, and her career is flourishing as well. Marlowe was named a "Rising Star" by Government Computer News and Federal Computer Week and has been recognized as one of the top 35 professionals in Maryland by the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation. She was the subject of a cover article in Washington Technology magazine and was recently featured in Technorati.
That's gratifying, but the real payoff comes from doing work she believes in.
"At the end of the day, I go to sleep so happy."