Note: This article was co-authored by Itto and her husband Mekiya Outini and first appeared on their excellent pan-disability site The Datekeepers.
In August of 2022, Unibility, a global, crowd-sourced hub of disability- and accessibility-related resources, went live. This website, still in its infancy, already hosts an ever-growing catalogue of businesses and organizations offering disability- and accessibility-related services, design guides, legal documents, and digital tools. To accommodate users with various cognitive styles and assistive technologies, all the content exists in two formats: as a narrative rich with hyperlinks and clear explanations of specific design choices; and as a list of URLs, housed in a Google doc, to which anyone can add.
The woman behind the website is Amy Pedid: web designer, art director, accessibility advocate, intrepid toddler-wrangler, and Outini family friend. “I had the idea after bookmarking my 60th disability-related site,” she recalled. “There are so many great resources out there, but they’re scattered all over. I figured there should be a central database where anyone can find what they need without spending years searching.”
The site took a summer to build, with Amy giving it her nights and weekends while still working full time and finding her stride as a new mother.
Her passion for accessible design owes to several sources: her own high myopia and predisposition for vision loss, the friendships she’s forged with fellow advocates and web designers, her experiences during pregnancy, and her fascination with the vast suite of tools at designers’ disposal.
“I really believe the world will be a better place when everyone embraces universal design,” said Amy, “and when more web designers start to realize the power we have to transform the lives of billions of people all around the globe.”
Born and raised in Dallas, Texas, Amy now lives in Northwest Arkansas with her husband Ron, a front-end web developer and cyber-security advocate, and their daughter Aerith, whose marketable skills include taste-testing various household objects, taking things off shelves and putting them back again, and waking up from naps prematurely.
As a teen growing up in north Texas, Amy longed for one thing above all: stability. Though born at a time when her family was “swimming in money,” Amy found her life cast into chaos in middle school when they went bankrupt. Soon after, her parents divorced. “I was just a kid,” she said, “but I figured out pretty quick that all the safety nets were gone. There was no one to support me. I was on my own.”
Now in survival mode, Amy set her sights on the promise of education—a path no one else in her family had taken. Going into high school, she doubled down on her studies and carved out a niche for herself with the artsy kids while her brother and sister played sports and ran with the popular crowd. In her junior and senior years, she took advantage of a bussing program to attend a trade school, Dale Jackson, half an hour away. There, she enrolled in a “life-changing” graphic design course. “I was able to get on Mac computers for the first time,” she said, “and play with Adobe, and I started discovering all the incredible things you could do.”
She attributes her decision to seek a degree at the University of North Texas, in large part, to one of her teachers, Denise Harman. “You don’t necessarily need a degree these days to be a great designer,” she said. “All you need are strategies and programs, and those are in books if you know where to look. I had no idea where to look, though. College is a great place to find mentors who can point you in the right direction.”
In her professors, Amy found proofs of concept: it was possible to sustain oneself financially with creativity instead of subsisting on manual labor and diminishing art to a mere hobby. She also noticed how diverse their interests were, how esoteric their specializations, and this gave her the confidence to seek out her own niche instead of chasing market trends.
The Communications Design program Amy attended was divided into two tracks: graphic design, and art direction. Graphic design students specialized in the detail work of crafting visual rhetoric, such as individual posters and ads, in accordance with existing brand guides. Art direction students, on the other hand, focused on the big picture: exploring new styles, defining brands’ characters, and developing the brand guides themselves. Amy, who considers herself a visual storyteller, gravitated toward the latter.
“It’s all about how brains work,” she explained. “Stories tend to stick in the memory. You need a good story if you want to stand out, especially when everyone is trying to get you to remember different stories all day long!”
After college, Amy threw herself into the workforce, heels hot with the knowledge that if she slipped up, there would be no one to catch her. She saved enough to buy a car and then a house. She met Ron, her future husband, in a video game chatroom, and after a few months of virtual courtship, he flew to Texas, and they met in person. Soon after, they settled down and started a life together.
Even after paying off her loans, Amy continued working, sometimes taking on two or three jobs at a time, all too aware of how easily a stable life could dissolve. She also volunteered. Though not yet sure if she’d ever have kids, she was determined to leave the world better than she’d found it, for others’ children if not for her own.
By the time Amy did become pregnant in 2020, COVID-19 was threatening to undermine her vision of a better world. But like many others, in crisis and breakdown, Amy found opportunity.
The sudden, exponential increase of disabling environments and the world’s pivot to remote work and school thrust discussions of accessibility, especially digital accessibility, into the spotlight. As it happened, accessible design was something Amy had been practicing for years.
“When I first started working with clients,” she remembered, “there were all these different rules and guidelines that kept tripping me up. Eventually, I started wondering why they were there in the first place. Like, were they actually benefitting anyone? Or,” she added with a wry grin, “were they just there to make things harder for designers like me?”
Amy’s passion for accessible design was sparked the day she realized that large print and high contrast help her read more easily, and that her own prescription lenses were assistive technology, too.
“I think that’s how it goes for a lot of designers,” she reflected. “We have some kind of personal experience, if not with ourselves then with a family member or a friend, and because of it, we start paying closer attention and noticing how different things affect different people, and how universal design can help everyone.”
Years later, during her pregnancy, Amy’s eyesight worsened, and her light sensitivity increased to the point that she started relying on screen readers when using computers and phones. “Before that, I was mostly familiar with what’s covered by the ADA,” she explained. “I knew how to make physical documents and signage accessible, but not how to do things like, for example, test for WCAG compliance. Using screen readers forced me to get into digital accessibility.”
Though her vision has since returned to pre-pregnancy levels, Amy still uses TalkBack, VoiceOver, and JAWS on a regular basis to test and navigate digital content and evaluate WCAG compliance.
In her third trimester, Amy also started having difficulty walking. “A lot of people don’t realize that pregnancy is a temporary disability,” she said. “I feel like, if more people knew that, it would help us all get over the idea that people with disabilities are somehow different from everyone else. We all have different needs at different times throughout our lives.”
Too often, though, people tend to downplay their own needs, especially when experiencing temporary disabilities. “We say things like, ‘It’s not that bad, other people have it worse, I’ll be fine,’” Amy went on, “but by doing that, we end up making things harder for people who do have it worse by not taking the opportunity to normalize those different preferences and needs. That includes our future selves because when we ignore things, they tend to get worse. It’s better to start with those conversations.”
To employers, Amy recommends fostering cultures of openness, flexibility, and clear communication. “Your employees might not feel comfortable talking about their preferences and needs for lots of reasons,” she said, “but you want your employees to be as productive as possible, right? For that to happen, their need to have their needs acknowledged and fulfilled, not stigmatized. So, even if they don’t bring it up right away, try to leave that space open.”
After spending nine years serving her employers, Amy’s now striking out to tell a story of her own. In January of 2023, she left her full time job as Senior Art Director at the Integer Group to found The Sage Mages, “a one-woman-freelancer demystifying communication design for small businesses and nonprofits.”
“The story I’m telling,” she said, “is about inclusivity. Specifically, how there’s plenty of room at the table. We can bring more people. There’s no need to be afraid.”
Historically, Amy explained, most branding and marketing strategies have targeted niche populations, “but it doesn’t have to work that way. Just because you’re appealing to people with disabilities doesn’t mean you have to alienate your other markets. And, honestly, that’s easier than most people think.”
As an example, Amy points to her narrative approach to design. “Having a story helps you do things like create effective alt text for images,” she explained. “Good alt text doesn’t just describe what’s in the image. It also communicates context and meaning. That makes it more compelling to humans because we like stories, and it also feeds more information to feed to the algorithm when it scans your website, which can improve your brand’s search engine optimization. So, it’s a win-win.”
Though adamant that basic protocols like these are easy to implement, Amy’s careful not to oversimplify the challenges that digital accessibility can pose. “It does get tricky when you’re trying to do something like, for example, build a huge platform with lots of multimedia content and make it accessible to all kinds of users,” she said. “Sometimes it’s not even possible to optimize for every conceivable use case with the current tools. There’s always more to learn.”
That said, most of Amy’s clients come to her with zero knowledge of accessibility, and her first order of business is to raise their awareness and help them create strong foundations.
“There are tons of specialists who fill different niches within universal design,” said Amy, “from mobile apps, to physical logos, to document design. But lots of small businesses never take advantage of them because they’re not even aware of the need. I always try to help my clients understand the basics of accessibility, and then, if they have more advanced needs, I refer them to someone else in the community who can take things to the next level.”
Ever since starting a Facebook group for designers, advocates, and people with disabilities, Amy’s found support and inspiration from her peers around the world, who eagerly trade referrals, share information, and pool their many years of expertise.
“I’m incredibly thankful to everyone who’s taught me and supported me,” she said. “I was afraid that freelancing would be too isolating, but it’s not—it’s more like I’m part of an ecosystem.”
Being her own boss has empowered Amy to apply the principles of universal design to her own work and life. “Sometimes it’s the little things that make all the difference,” she observed, “like figuring out the times of day when you can be productive and giving yourself permission to work then, whenever it is, instead of nine-to-five.”
Mindful of her clients’ needs as well as her own, Amy’s taken measures to customize not just her services, but also the way she delivers them. There’s a form on her website, for instance, where clients can share their individual communication preferences, anything from ‘I prefer emails to phone calls,’ to ‘Please don’t send me anything after 8:00 p.m.’
“Just tell me what works best for you,” said Amy. “You don’t have to tell me why.”
By doing this, she hopes to put clients at ease and normalize working relationships where all parties’ needs are respected and met, no matter from whence they derive.
As many have found out the hard way since 2020, working from home can sometimes smudge the lines between one’s personal and professional lives. To preserve the integrity of both, Amy often circles back to Eckhardt Tolle’s The Power of Now: A Guide to Spiritual Enlightenment, whose central lesson, that focusing on the present is a key to living well, helps her respond to her daughter’s needs as well as her own.
“Every day’s different,” she reflected. “Sometimes I feel like I’m all caught up. Other times I feel like I have to read three books to just understand what my child is doing! But just being present, paying attention to the kid in front of me and not to my to-do list, has really helped me understand her better.”
Amy’s also discovered that the more she deliberately arranges her life to ensure that her own needs are met, the more time and energy she has for her daughter. “There are still days when our different needs come into conflict, for sure,” she said. “But when they do, I just remind myself that I’m not her manager, you know—I’m her assistant!”
Even when one’s own needs can’t be instantly fulfilled, it’s necessary to at least acknowledging them before addressing the needs of others. This insight, derived from parenthood, applies just as well to inclusive design.
“We talk a lot about the barriers,” said Amy, “and those are very real, but sometimes the biggest barriers is just the absence of communication. If we can start communicating, then we can do a lot more with all the tools, all the resources, all the incredible knowledge out there in the world.”
This is the vision behind Unibility, still an unpaid passion project even now that Amy’s self-employed. Since launching the website, she’s been reaching out to community members, soliciting constructive criticism, and requesting contributions to the Google Doc where links are stored. She hopes this project will become a steppingstone along the pathway to a better world, one in which accessing tools and resources is normal and easy, not a source of stigma or a sign that something’s wrong.
Though stability used to be her guiding star, Amy’s come to understand that life, in constant flux, is never truly stable, and that clear communication, flexibility, creativity, acceptance of oneself and others, and familiarity with diverse ways of being are even higher aims.
This is the world Amy wants for her daughter: one rich with opportunities and shaped by these ideals.