Accessibility and Me: A Journey from the Mountains to the Virtual Realm
Learn about Itto Outini's journey from Morocco to Missouri, where she is the new Accessibility Outreach Manager at AudioEye.
My name is Itto Outini. I’m a journalist and a storyteller, a polyglot and international traveler, a believer in education and a Fulbright scholar, a screen reader user and assistive technology lover, and as of 2022, I’m also the Accessibility Outreach Manager at AudioEye.
This is the unlikely story of how I became all these things despite having been several other things—abused, neglected, blinded by a family member, kept from school until the age of seventeen, orphaned, homeless for six years, and more. In short, this is the story behind why I do what I do.
In the Mountains of Morocco
I was born in the Middle Atlas Mountains of Morocco, in a rural Tamazight community, in 1989.
Back then, we had no electricity, no paved roads or plumbing or automobiles. My father, a trader, used to travel for months on end, buying and selling in markets all over Morocco, but he never took me with him.
For twelve years, I lived in the mountains. For twelve years, I never learned the names of any towns, much less cities, countries, or continents. I never used money, only bartered for wares. I never watched TV or listened to the radio, only kept up with the rumors and folktales. The first time I saw anything with a combustion engine was when I was sent off to live with my mother’s family. As I stood beside the road and watched the bus approaching, I wondered how on earth it could move on its own. I deduced that it probably grazed like the cows.
Over the next five years, I was introduced to many amazing appliances, but also faced a steady escalation in abuse, which culminated with my uncle’s wife throwing a kitchen knife at me and blinding me when I was seventeen.
After that, I became homeless, but also managed to enroll in a school for the blind.
Education became my lifeline. I swiftly learned to read and write in Braille, speak French and Standard Arabic, and operate a radio, whereupon I gorged myself on knowledge of the world. I read Braille and audiobooks voraciously and paid total strangers to read to me, even when it meant that I myself went hungry.
With time, I became aware of various assistive devices, including Braille displays and smartphone apps like Be My Eyes. I even wrote my bachelor’s thesis on screen readers and learned everything about them except how to use them myself.
Coming to America
My first time actually using any of these wondrous devices was when I earned the Fulbright scholarship and came to the United States to pursue my MA in journalism and strategic media at the University of Arkansas.
Here, I learned how to use iPads, smartphones, Victor Readers, Braille displays, and laptops loaded with JAWS, Voiceover, and NVDA. I familiarized myself with Apple, Microsoft, and Google products, mastered the necessary keyboard commands, and got on first-name terms with everyone who works at the Microsoft accessibility help desk.
Working Through the Pandemic
Then the pandemic came along. Remote work went mainstream, reliance on technology became the norm, and my world expanded once again.
I snagged an internship with the United Nations Development Programme, where I contributed to a proposal to expand inclusion of persons with disabilities and tested the Quantum platform for accessibility. I freelanced for ABILITY Magazine, interviewing people all over the world from my apartment in Missouri.
And then, in September of 2022, I was recruited by AudioEye, and the latest chapter of my story began.
Raising Accessibility Awareness
As Accessibility Outreach Manager at AudioEye, I’m responsible for helping individuals and organizations understand why they should strive to make their digital content accessible to everyone. To do this, I need only point to my own story.
For years, I fought for access first to education and basic necessities, then to assistive technology and technical training, and finally to professional opportunities. It’s cost me a lot, but I’ve managed to attain all these things. Yet even now, with all the necessary hardware, software, and technical skills at my fingertips, certain barriers to access remain. As a screen reader user, I’m unable to navigate websites whose buttons aren’t properly labeled. When browsing social media, I refrain from liking or sharing posts that contain images without alt text since I can’t know what message I’d be endorsing. Even CAPTCHA-protected regions lie beyond my reach.
As a consequence, I continue to depend on sighted people to help me perform simple tasks such as logging in to websites or filling out forms and submitting them. Approximately 97% of the internet, according to WebAIM’s recent research, is riddled with accessibility issues like these, presenting all manner of stumbling blocks to those of us with disabilities, ranging from the inconvenient to the insurmountable.
It’s time for that to change.
Making the Case for Digital Accessibility
In order to create a truly level playing field where those of us with disabilities can participate as equals in remote work, online culture, public discourse, virtual opportunities, and more, we must begin to take digital accessibility seriously. This will benefit all of us—not just people with disabilities, but also the content creators who want to reach as broad an audience as possible, the service providers who strive to better serve their clients, and the businesses that seek to penetrate new markets, broaden their customer bases, and bolster their brand reputations.
As I write this, the vast majority of organizations striving for accessibility compliance are doing so for fear of litigation. I want this to change, too. I want clients to partner with AudioEye, not because they fear the stick of a potential lawsuit, but because they’re drawn forward by the many carrots offered by digital access. I do what I do because I love the work, because I believe in the power of knowledge, technology, and human connection. I learned their value the hard way, from a hard-scrabble life lived, in large part, without them. My dream is for digital accessibility to stop being viewed as a burden and to take on a new luster, that of a labor of love.
I know what it means to be left in the mountains while others set off to seek their fortunes in distant lands. And I know what it means to leave that isolated life behind, to step into the world.
I know which one’s better. I think you do, too.
So, let’s embark on this journey together. And let’s make sure, this time, that we bring everyone along.
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