Finding Freedom in WordPress

We Should Probably Start at the Beginning

I got my first computer in 1995. I used them a lot in school so that I could turn in homework to my sighted teachers, but screen readers were and are expensive so owning one was out of the question for a long time. Screen reader technology for Windows was in its infancy then, so I worked in DOS almost exclusively. This meant that the command line interface was my best friend. It still is.

I graduated high school in 1998, and went to college to study computer science. I did all my programming with DOS-based tools, because compilers for Windows were inaccessible, even though screen reading for Windows had vastly improved by this point. As part of my computer science course of study, I learned HTML. Thus began my career in web development.

Pull quote: I urge my fellow blind community members to join me inside this wonderful thing called WordPress, because it will change your lives if you let it"

I started maintaining a website where I posted links to my favorite things. It was an ugly thing, because there was very little styling. But I didn’t start publishing actual content until 2004, when I started blogging with LiveJournal. LiveJournal was great in some ways, because it gave me a hosted place to write down my thoughts. But I soon grew bored with it because it wasn’t very easy for me to control the output of the rest of the page around my content. So in 2005, I bought customerservant.com, set up a very simple CMS for blogging, and started publishing there. I dealt with the relative lack of content decoration and lack of easy customization because I wasn’t willing to code my own solution. Nobody really wants to write their own CMS or blogging platform. I also didn’t want to move to another hosted solution like Movable Type, because I like tweaking websites better than I like just being able to write.

Hebrew Dates

One of the features I wanted in a self-hosted blog was an easy way to display the corresponding Hebrew date along with the Gregorian date for my entries. And I didn’t want to hack it myself. The blogging platform I was using had no plugin capabilities. So I started googling and found a Hebrew Date plugin for this thing called WordPress.

What is this WordPress you speak of?

I wasn’t invested in the blogging platform I was running, so I clicked on the link and started browsing WordPress.org and read about what WordPress was.

I eventually found the download link, downloaded the latest stable version at the time, and then went through the manual install process and started playing around to see what I could get done. Part of that install was the Hebrew Date plugin I had found.

One of the things that impressed me immediately was that I wasn’t locked into a visual editor. I could add content with markup and because of themes, I didn’t have to worry about styling. After adding my first bit of content, I started browsing the plugins. I expected there’d be somewhere around ten, and that I’d find that plugins weren’t added very often. I was wrong. I don’t know what the exact number was, but I could tell that at least the plugin stash was being expanded frequently. This was a good thing. It meant that I had a lot of control over the functionality of my blog.

Next, I started hacking my theme. There were no widgets back then, so if you wanted to add display elements from plugins into your theme, you added some copy pasta PHP to your template files. I spent a lot of time after work learning how to fix WordPress and WordPress themes after I broke things.

Then, the software I used to do my job at work became completely inaccessible. So I was in a situation where I went to work for eight hours a day and did nothing. I eventually asked for and received web privileges on my work station, and spent the time essentially getting paid to play with WordPress. It was during this time that WordPress and I hit a rough patch. Thanks to Web 2.0, and the lack of support for it in the screen reader I was using, the administration of WordPress was completely inaccessible, which meant If I wanted to do anything, I had to browse to specific files like post-new.php or page-new.php. So I started learning about WordPress’s file structure.

This went on for a few years, until I left that job and started working as an independent contractor for the largest screen reader developer in the market, Freedom Scientific. I worked my day job from home and hacked WordPress after hours, building my own website and sites for others.

Hours Reduced to Zero

Things were going great until I received an email one Saturday morning from my manager at Freedom Scientific letting me know that my hours had been reduced to zero, and that once I sent my phone and other equipment back I would receive my last paycheck. I now had a ton of free time on my hands, and no income. I applied for Social Security Disability and waited for that to kick in, while living off the six months’ worth of pay I had saved. I also decided to go back to school to obtain various Cisco and Red Hat certifications. I thought that these would be my way back into the workforce. I was very wrong.

Pull quote: The beauty of WordPress and its community is that we can create opportunities for ourselves.

As I began taking courses for my certifications, I learned that the certifications themselves were completely inaccessible. This meant that I could take courses all day long, but I couldn’t pass them because the certifications were required as part of the final grade. My GPA tanked, I lost my financial aid, and everything started cascading down from there. My health took a turn for the worse and I was diagnosed with Lupus eventually, I was evicted from my apartment, and I moved to Augusta, Georgia because my friends Wil and Denise offered me a couch and a roof over my head.

I was still hacking WordPress through all of this. It was the only stable part of my life. I wanted to help make it more accessible for people with disabilities, so I googled WordPress and accessibility and stumbled on the WordPress Accessibility Team in 2012. I was elated that it existed and joined up. Shortly after that, I finally got my own place to live, and started thinking about what I was going to do with the rest of my life in regard to work. I thought I could build things with WordPress for a living, but wasn’t sure if anyone else was doing it. I had heard stories, but figured they were one-offs and assumed given my recent string of failures that I could never pull it off.

I had begun listening to podcasts by this point, so I started looking for WordPress-related ones. I stumbled on the Drad Cast. I was expecting it to be full of technical things, but not very entertaining. Wrong again. I loved it. It was WordPress, beer and hilarity all rolled into one. And they talked about security as well, which is another subject I’m passionate about, along with accessibility. When the Drad Cast announced that WordSesh was going to happen, I was stoked. It was twenty-four hours of WordPress crack, and it was completely online. This was good because travel was out of the question. I made sure to tune in and stayed up the entire time listening to and absorbing WordPress knowledge. I also started interacting with WordPress people on Twitter, and learned about the wider community and how awesome it was. A couple of months after that I started using Genesis, which made WordPress development quicker as far as the front end is concerned. And I was still contributing as part of WordPress Accessibility. Things had finally started to pick up.

In 2014, I filed for incorporation in Georgia, and Customer Servant Consultancy became an actual entity. It was the name I had been operating under since I started building things with WordPress for other people and I was glad to make it official. It was also around this time that I started building internal systems with WordPress to manage projects and customer relations. Since WordPress is open source, and becoming more and more accessible by the day, I was able to gain more independence because I wasn’t at the mercy of web and application developers who know nothing about accessibility. I could build it myself as long as I had the time.

Through WordPress (and by extension open source software), I’ve improved my circumstances, become more self-sufficient, and I’ve been able to assert some control over my life in general. It’s improved my employment prospects drastically, which means I no longer have to work whatever low-paying odd jobs I can find to keep the bills paid. I believe that it can help other blind people as well. We have an eighty percent unemployment rate in this community. We’re still fighting discrimination in the workplace, and we’re still fighting for equal access when it comes to the technology we use to do our jobs. But the beauty of WordPress and its community is that we can create opportunities for ourselves. We don’t have to be at the whim of circumstance where work is concerned. Since WordPress is GPL software, we can modify it to build whatever we need or want. It’s not the only GPL software, but between the software itself and its surrounding top-notch community, there are a lot of resources out there that can help the blind community improve its own lot. Not by taking hand-outs, not by relying on government assistance, and not having to put up with other people making decisions for us. With WordPress, we can make decisions for ourselves, and have all kinds of help along the way from the community. I urge my fellow blind community members to join me inside this wonderful thing called WordPress. Because it will change your lives if you let it.

20 comments

  1. Amanda, I wanted to let you know that, as another who could file for disability and sit on my butt all day watching TV, that your tenacity and drive to improve both your life and your circumstances is an inspiration to many… even me. Thanks for writing this.

    • Amanda Rush says:

      You’re welcome, Jesse. I haven’t gotten to the point where I can ditch the SSDI altogether, but I’m getting there, and that’s my ultimate goal. If WordPress gets me to that goal, it’ll have a fanatic for life and so will its community.

      • WordPress has also allowed me to work from home, kill my commute, kill my lung-draining hours and social stresses. I think we have two very big advocates for going out and killing it to drag back to the cave. 🙂

        Don’t be a stranger if you want to team up to improve the lives of people who just need the opportunity to change their circumstances. I spent a good 3 years communicating to others like me not to fulfill the prophesy at their birth.

          • Cyndy Otty says:

            Ooo, ooo! Me! Me! I want in, too!

            Also, amazing story, Amanda. It’s been such a neat thing to see the community grow and grow throughout the years I’ve used WordPress. But even more to see so many more visually impaired and other physically handicapped persons join in! (It was so lonely 10 years ago. I’m just saying!)

  2. Ben Lobaugh says:

    Your story is inspiring Amanda! I myself am not disabled but I do volunteer at an organization that exists to get disabled people, who otherwise would not be able to themselves, out on the water in sailboats. We have made the boats accessible for everyone from blind to fully paralyzed. Seeing their faces light up with big smiles makes me want to strive harder in all areas to become more accessible. I am happy you have found a home in the WordPress community and look forward to your contributions and the ability for all peoples to experience the joy of publishing their thoughts on the web.

  3. Dale Reardon says:

    Hi,

    I’m blind myself and live in Hobart, Tasmania, Australia.

    I too am working with WordPress and its accessibility has come a long way – I mainly find working with widgets difficult.

    Glad you are back on track financially.

    I know what you mean about discrimination in employment though, having experienced that several times myself.

    You might also like to install the subscribe to comments reloaded plugin that lets us be notified when someone replies to our comment.

    Good luck,

    Dale.

    • Amanda Rush says:

      Hi Dale,

      Regarding working with widgets, I don’t know if you’re familiar with it, but if you open the screen options, and enable accessibility mode, things get a lot easier.

      Hope that helps,

      Amanda

  4. Amanda Rush says:

    And yay Cyndy! Are you active on Twitter? If so, there are a ton of WordPress lists you can follow and interact with. I’d also be definitely willing to follow and interact.

  5. Ben Meredith says:

    Such inspiring stuff, Amanda. Moved me to tears.

    On my long list of things I need to do better, improving the accessibility of my site and client sites is near the top.

    I worked with a client-of-a-client that is a startup focused on design for everyone. You may have heard of them from their innovative wristwatch (called a timepiece because you don’t have to “watch” it to read it) Eone Timepieces

    I no longer even work for them, but my time helping them really showed me how little I know about the vision impaired community.

    This post continues that process of discovery for me.

  6. Hi Amanda,
    I find WordPress to be a really awesome platform as well — and like you said, getting more accessible all the time (due in a large part to the accessibility team — hats off to you all!). I to am hoping to make a business out of WordPress, though possibly just a side project. It’s good to see other blind developers who have also found the freedom in WordPress though.
    -Michael.

    • Amanda Rush says:

      Hi Michael,

      Thanks for your comment. As for getting started with WordPress as a business, starting it as a side project is a good idea. Also, if you’re not inclined to be a coder, that’s OK. We need good implementers just as much as coders.

  7. Wendy Delfosse says:

    Amanda, thank you for sharing your story. Earlier this year I was diagnosed with a medical condition that isn’t presently a problem but could one day affect my vision. I’m newer in the WordPress community, doing work with implementing and design. I have thought about how I’d need to adapt things in my life if my vision does change in the future and while I knew WordPress has a lot of accessibilty dedication and there would be a way to keep working it, hearing it from someone who’s really walked it encourages me a lot. Thank you for all the ways you’ve helped it grow. 🙂

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