Let's Talk About Accessibility
Certain pivotal moments in our lives prompt us to reintroduce ourselves.
My name is Asaka.
I love spending time with my friends, telling stories, and making people laugh.
I’m obsessed with MySpace era music, Tumblr fashion, and people who don’t like me back.
I’d like to think that home is wherever I can bask in the encouraging ray of light between sunrise and noon, the warmth of black-bottled perfumes, and the glory of turning the hardest buts into ands.
Right now, that’s TCNJ (The College of New Jersey, for all of you common people). I’m Journalism major and a Communication minor, and I’m in my jun— sorry, I mean senior year. I wouldn’t be where I am if not for writing.
I chose my major, determined to land a gig at a New Media giant like Vice or Buzzfeed and eventually hitch a book deal. After four dropped courses, two W’s on my transcripts, three Januaries spent doing incomplete work, one intensive outpatient admission, I’m still here and I’m still figuring it out.
Anyone who’s had to email the Dean of Students (or the equivalent thereof) with extenuating circumstances knows the angst of “falling behind” in life. I take comfort in knowing that strength is not a finite resource, and that all the times I spent doing nothing were marked by continuous introspection, and moments in collaboration where I tried on different hats — creative director, educator, comedian, delegator, product designer — and just couldn’t stop feeling myself. I wish these detours were something that I chose freely, because as someone who’s medically high-risk, there’s nothing I despise more than this idea of sitting around and waiting for some faraway, elusive future where I’m living my dream. But I’m happy to say that I’ve become much better at writing, and at a bunch of other things that I never thought I’d be good at.
Now, I’m steadfast in my commitment to maintain the foundation of stability that I worked so hard to build. I’ve been looking at where all the other pieces fit, and I know I’ll need to play around, but one thing is for sure: I’m kind of a huge accessibility nerd.
Accessibility, as in making products, services, and environments work for people of all abilities. And don’t get me wrong: I never not cared about that. I have multiple bylines where I specifically talk about disability, I’ve spoken at conferences, and I’ve served in the executive board for Breaking Down Barriers, TCNJ’s disability advocacy org for the past 3 years.
I just felt that I was more qualified to speak on the attitudinal barriers than the infrastructural ones, with the understanding that the former allows the latter to happen. It seemed to me that my disability affected me more socially than academically, and the accommodations I requested in class were abstract (a lot of “potential flexibility” and “if needed” in there) or very straightforward (“no more than one exam per day” “use of laptop”). They didn’t come with the sort of practical consideration that you’d think about to, say, assess whether a classroom is wheelchair-accessible or if an app is compatible with screen readers. I always passed the mic to the people who had more at stake.
But the long, uphill battle to get myself back on track made me realize that man, the world really wasn’t built for people like me either, and in a much more concrete way than just “corporations don’t care about anyone who’s not a rich, straight, able-bodied white guy.” As I experimented with different strategies to create order in my life, I saw that the layout of my physical and digital space had a huge effect on whether I used them or avoided them altogether. I’d always been the follow-your-heart, screw-the-rules, “same difference” kind of person, but in the summer of 2023, I became more of an exacting scientist (or what Freud describes as “anal-retentive personality”). I scrutinized the mundane routines most took for granted. I shouted eureka as I captured the micro-moments when my gaze wandered a tad too far, my memory blanked a bit too long, and the distracting thoughts seeped in, tempting me into a procrastination bender that rivaled that of people who had diagnosable addictions. Then, I’d leave my bedroom, and remember that most people don’t think about this stuff.
The following semester, I dived headfirst into the conversation around accessibility. I’ve contacted one of my entrepneur friends about starting a beauty accesory line that works for people with a wide range of disabilities. I’ve been toying with the idea of building a database that matches users with apps based on specific challenges they are facing. As I type, I’m thinking about how the app that I’m currently using to write this post (Notion) seems to check off all 7 principles of universal design? At least for me.
But let me rewind, all the way back to eleventh grade.
I was the weird Special Ed Kid™, who baffled her classmates by infiltrating AP and honors classes, where my ceaseless intellectual curiosity was at times overshadowed by the personal, seemingly off-topic details I shared in class. My English teacher, Mrs. Krapels, believed in me. I also took a journalism elective with her, which was the last and best period of the day. When I got home, I’d hit shuffle on my 6000+ songs on Spotify and pace around the room for a solid hours as I reimagined my hopes, fears and dreams into splashy headlines:
In a Creative Slump? Five Tips On Getting Unstuck
“This, Too, Shall Pass”: Walking the Tightrope Between Optimism and Nihilism
I’m a Published Writer, and I Struggle with ‘Easy’ Things. Here’s How I Make It Work.
As time went on, my fantasies became more and more grandiose: Vlogs from a Mid-Century Modern Seattle apartment. A “K” on my Instagram follower count. A spot on a TLC show. I dreamed so big that I couldn’t see anything, while a miscellany of half-played songs filled in the background, and that was how I liked it. I couldn’t let myself think about the alternative. I was aware that my slow reaction time and limited concentration would make traditional employment — whether it’s balancing checks or serving food at restaurants — significantly more difficult. I’d probably have to talk to Human Services, or something like that.
But writing was one area where I’d always excelled in. It was most definitely worth paying to get a degree for. Getting paid to share my own opinions and talk about my own life sounded like the best deal, especially since I didn’t get to do either of these things that often. I found it very difficult to communicate the way I wanted (I also had the worst brain fog and flat affect because of the antidepressants I was on at the time), and many times, I was counted out before I could get a word in.
“I’m depleted,” I wrote in the essay that I submitted to the New York Times for a high school editorial contest. “Every day at school, I isolate myself from most of my peers: it’s a matter of time before they make these assumptions, before they postulate how my brain works. On social media, though, I’m a completely different person. I’m dynamic. I’m assertive. I’m people-oriented.” (I’m pretty sure I meant “utterly unhinged and terrifying, because it was the only place I could express myself.” Oops!)
When I wrote, I felt like I could be a voice for past, present and future versions of myself. At the beginning of twelfth grade, I remember showing my case manager an inventory of all the idea I had for my blog.
“This is everything I really want to have on my portfolio by graduation. I just don’t know where to start,” I told her.
“Do you have a timeline?”
“Yeah, yeah. Well, I published a new blog post every month from now on and did an extra one over winter break and spring break, then I could write fourteen.”
“Okay! Do you want me to also write it on separate piece of paper?”
“Oh, I’m just worried that— No, you know what? Maybe I could get it down to twelve if I could merge some of those.”
I clicked on the titles. Most of them were placeholders, like [Spring 24 job and accessibility article], but they each addressed a different aspects of my life with a disability.
I began to drag and drop. “I need to figure out the order because they’re all connected.”
This “portfolio” I spoke of wasn’t a requirement posed by any of the colleges I’d applied to. I just wanted something to show to all the people that I was going to meet. I knew that most people weren’t going to read fourteen blog posts, but I’d be damned if I didn’t have something that I could point to. Some girls couldn’t leave the house without makeup; I couldn’t leave the house without my portfolio.
Sometimes, it felt like letting people think whatever they want to think was a luxury not afforded to those of us with more noticeable disabilities. Usually, it’s the speech impediment that gives it away. Basically, I talk really fast and really slow at the same time (I recently learned there’s a name for it — cluttering). I have the tendency to smush together the first and last syllables of words (It’s hard to explain, but my words can come out like misheard Fall Out Boy lyrics), ramble incessantly, use a lot of filler words, and stumble over my words (”The store was um, okay, so yesterday, I went to the uh store”). Due to the tension in my voice, I’ll sometimes sound like I’m interrogating someone when I’m just trying to chat.
Writing was the only place that I had total control over how I presented myself to the world — until it wasn’t.
I never finished any of the fourteen blog posts I’d hoped to publish before starting college, but I was able to start off the second semester of my freshman year (Zoom University) with a new personal blog on Medium. That semester, I was in a class where everyone had to make their own websites and create content. By the time I finished my first semester as a sophomore, I was publishing something at least every month. I even joined TCNJ’s Her Campus chapter. I was on a roll.
I chose my major, determined to land a gig at a New Media giant like Vice or Buzzfeed and eventually hitch a book deal.
Then, I fell off the wagon.
I lost my handle on my ADHD. Before I knew it, my life on campus turned into an exercise in averting crises. A typical month looked like one and a half weeks where I worked pretty consistently (but superficially; it terrified me that even after reducing my course load, and I could only get myself to do the absolute bare minimum), and two and a half weeks, or “episodes” as I’d call them, where I’d go a day at a time without touching my laptop and call in sick because I couldn’t get out of bed.
The far-and-far-between stretches of time that allowed me to sit down and flesh out an essay/article/blog post was accompanied by enormous relief, and fear: it’s now or never. Even if I had all the time in the world, my attention would dwindle if I worked on the same manuscript for over two weeks or a total of 50 hours — whichever that came first.
And yes, 50+ hours was a regular occurrence. I couldn’t help but stuff my manuscript with an overwhelming amount of information. I’d try to go through each point as fast as possible, which also compromised the quality of my work. I smushed together my paragraphs (summarizing, or making circular statements, instead of telling stories). I rambled incessantly (regularly exceeding 3000 words). Due to the unintentional, intellectualizing vibe created by the above, I sometimes sounded like I was trying to ~own~ whoever that was reading, when all I ever wanted was for them to get to know me better than they did before.
Writing was the only place that I had total control over how I presented myself to the world — until it wasn’t.
It was exhausting to constantly walk around with backlogs after backlogs of unspoken ideas that threatened to shifted out of order as my mind formed new connections. The only way to break that cycle was to not let things pile up; to publish far more frequently than I had been. But every time I planned that, I’d get caught up in some sort of a crisis.
Without a creative outlet, I lived in the shadows of my friends. I grew restless. Since I didn’t have anything better to do than be other people’s sidekick, I started taking everything personally. I used to strike up conversations by posting my articles on Instagram, but since I couldn’t do that, I was stuck relying on the same 1-2 people at a time to meet all of my needs (Not. Humanly. Possible). My excess energy manifested as ostentatiously written text messages that makes me cringe to this day and insistence to Just Clear Things Up, right now, right here, right this moment.
Every week during my Zoom call with my therapist, I’d shake my head and mutter: “I have to get back into writing.” And every time I went on Instagram, the portfolio in my bio called out my name. But I knew that school was more important. I watched helplessly as my computer turned into a graveyard of abandoned projects.
In the March of my sophomore year, I had the first of many epiphanies that would change my life: clutter triggers my episodes.
My room was always the messiest when my urge to avoid tasks was the highest, and yes, if I don’t feel like doing anything, I’m most definitely not doing to clean my room. But I wondered if it could be the other way around — that I didn’t want to do anything because a cluttered house leads to a cluttered mind, and wasn’t that the whole point of organizing my room? So that I could get to work faster? And I had a feeling that I was going somewhere with this.
I told my therapist. He flashed a proud smile before prompting me for further insight, as therapists do. “How does a cluttered room make you feel? What do you feel in your body?”
“Do you ever catch yourself thinking, ‘People are going to judge me’ or ‘Why can’t I do this?’ A lot of folks with ADHD struggle with shame—”
“Oh, no. That doesn’t matter to me,” I interjected. “But you know what it might be? Overstimulation. Because it’s like, everything just feels so crowded.”
In the March of my sophomore year, I had the first of many epiphanies that would change my life: clutter triggers my episodes.
We started dedicating the last ten minutes of our sessions with me cleaning my room on camera. My mind started to feel clearer. I felt more alert, but also calmer. Seeing such a big difference from a ten-minute routine led to the realization that I had to break things down on a level much basic than I’d ever imagined.
Various school staff showed me how to use the Eisenhower Matrix, set SMART (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant and Time-bound) goals, and sign up for the Writing Lab, but I couldn’t follow through. “The problem is,” I imagined them complaining in the break rooms: “I give Asaka suggestions, but she rejects them. Every one of them. It’s in one ear and out of another. I can’t stand students like that. I’m sorry but I can’t give you an A because you’re crying, and now you’re just taking away resources from people who actually need them.”
The problem, I soon realized, was that most of the guidance I received operated under the assumption that everyone had the same 24 hours a day, and that I needed extra help budgeting my time. But it was like I didn’t have the same 24 hours to begin with. Crossing the labyrinth from my bed to the shower to class to my laptop to Canvas took me hours, and most days, I wasn’t working on my homework until 4PM. I pulled out from the academic coaching program I was in, and started seeing a psychologist who could Zoom with me twice a week to check in on my morning routines (I’m very, very lucky that I have insurance).
Various school staff showed me how to use the Eisenhower Matrix, set SMART (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant and Time-bound) goals, and sign up for the Writing Lab, but I couldn’t follow through.
Everything came together last summer, when I found myself writing for the first time in a solid year. I’d been given a grant to start my series, #TechnicallyAutistic: Dispatches from the Periphery, under one of the creative writing professors, as part of the Mentored Undergraduate Summer Experience (MUSE). This was my last chance.
To find out more about how I got diagnosed with autism, I went through my old paperwork, almost like an adopted kid in a YA novel trying to find their birth family. As I went over the results all the psychoeducational evauation I’d taken from ages seven to nineteen, I noticed that I found it harder to orient myself in space. One of the tests required me to listen to some audio instructions and point to specific objects in a colored picture. The evaluator noted that I kept pointing to items in the wrong order or skipped something. Similarly, when I had to look at a video and then point to things in the same order I saw, it was observed that I couldn’t accurately recall the third item once I had to remember three items. My most recent IQ test, I took longer than 2% of people my age to look for two specific items in an assortment of shapes, and 6% of people my age to draw symbols into corresponding numbers.
As I went over the results of all the psychoeducational evauation I’d taken from ages seven to nineteen, I noticed that I found it harder to orient myself in space.
Seeing those details unlocked a vague, but unmistakable, memory. I was seven, so that would’ve been my first psychoeducational evaluation, and the child psychologist made me take a test where I had to look back and forth between grids (I’m not sure which one — I Googled the tests and they all look pretty similar). And I got this feeling, a walking-through-mud, dead-on-my-feet feeling that soon becomes a regular part of my life.
It was the same feeling that made me move at a snail’s pace while working on math coloring sheets, crossword puzzles, or “scavenger hunts,” where I had to walk around the classroom to answer questions.
That made me cry during a game of Joking Hazard because I kept forgetting the instructions, even after a friend wrote it down on a separate piece of paper for me.
That made it harder to correctly cite my sources than to form a sophisticated, rigorous analysis when I had to write a paper.
That made me once spend an hour trying to make the laces on my Doc Martens look the same and still miss two eyelets.
That made me want to put my head down after adding one entry on my to-do-list with the correct date and time (no 2AM meetings plz).
That made me forget how to shower when I woke up to a cluttered room.
It all made perfect sense.
None of those things were directly related to the conflict at the crux of my series — the unique way I navigated the social world, which was unlike anything I’d ever heard from other people who had this diagnosis (people I knew from school, plus people that TikTok algorithms deemed as being similar to me) — but they helped me understand how I can take better care of myself while I hammered away on my computer for twelve-plus hours every day.
Over the next several months, I began implementing more and more changes in my life:
I got Notion (not an ad… but I should elaborate on its significance soon).
I made it a habit to compile all the materials I need to complete a task — links, attachments, and any copy/paste-able body text — in a single document, as soon as I had access.
I grabbed some labels from Walmart, numbered my makeup with corresponding wall pockets, and re-taught myself how to do my makeup.
I made a checklist on Structured to ask Siri what the temperature is for every day of the week, so that I could pull together my outfits in advance.
And not last and also not least: I stopped using the blanket statement that I struggle with “time management,” and started saying that, well, my mental GPS crashes sometimes.
One of the hats I wore this semester was one of a strategic planner. When I was elected as president of Breaking Down Barriers, I created an “Event Planning Masterdoc.” I made an outline of key school policies, and a spreadsheet listing the executive members' availability ("Sometimes," "Usually," or "Never”) for every 30-minute interval from 10 AM to 7 PM on weekdays. Last but not least, I came up with a table with each row representing every day of the semester and each column dedicated to a different long-term goal, so that it would be easier to count backwards and split tasks fairly. Putting together the masterdoc was a long, challenging process. For example, when I was setting up the availability spreadsheet, I struggled to accurately label the time intervals (like 10 AM, 10:30 AM) for each day. By the time I got to Tuesday, I was at a standstill. Without the help of other executive board members, I wouldn't have been able to do it.
It made me think about how the rest of society takes so much for granted, and how easily an accessibility issue can be mistaken for a skills issue. Inclusive design helps people reach their full potential at school and work, and most importantly, it promotes individual dignity and autonomy — or as I once heard a service dog trainer on Japanese TV aptly described as “pride and privacy.”
When my mental GPS kept going offline, I just couldn’t keep up. Many times, I had no choice but to admit to someone that I was doing something last minute. They’d ask me the classic cause-and-effect riddle — What do you need in order to do this? How long would it take to complete this? What other things do you have to do? Which is more important? — and I’d get tripped up. I know that most people are genuinely trying to look out for me, but I’d rather look out for myself first. I just needed stability, and I’m finally getting that by being more efficient with my GPS usage and carving out a digital workspace where I’m not constantly disoriented by a three-ring circus of entering, exiting, and scrolling. The freedom to make decisions on my own terms is priceless.
Inclusive design helps people reach their full potential at school and work, and most importantly, it promotes individual dignity and autonomy — or as I once heard a service dog trainer on Japanese TV aptly described as “pride and privacy.”
I share all those little hacks that I use to get around, because they could also help other people, and should be made widely available. I also do it because these are the things that we take for granted and accessibility begins when we stop taking things for granted. I don’t say this in a count-your-blessings, feel-sorry-for-me way. We can all stand to be curious about how each of us move through the world. What seems like one step to someone is five different steps for another. Tips that sounds ridiculous to one person might be the catalyst propelling another to excellence. While it’s not always possible to cater to everyone all at once, all the time, we shouldn’t underestimate the power of inquiry, or the benefit of technology.
This isn’t me saying “try those 5 tips and watch all of your life problems go away!” Before I started writing this, I filled pages after pages reflecting on the emotional, spiritual, and social transformation that I underwent in college. I finally had the time, because this is the first winter break that I don’t have any incomplete work, and soon, those pages will also be yours. The bottom line is that I knew that something had to change. There, my design thinking became an unexpected yet vital tool. And that’s the thing, right? We can tell the same story over and over in so many different ways, and none of them will ever be the “whole story”.
Indeed, the biggest lesson I learned, just in general, is that I am not beholden to one way of approaching life. Our frames should serve us, not the other way around. In life, there are so many possibilities. You can be a chef and write a bestselling autobiography about how you overcame a health struggle, without it being a how-to-book about cooking. You can also be a wellness writer that share recipes at the beginning of each chapter and donate your proceeds to food banks, without having to be a chef. I’m still figuring out where the pieces fit for me.
Though I can’t imagine life without writing (and live by this Hayley Williams quote: “Expression is survival”), and no longer see a recent publication as a prerequisite for being present, both in body and mind. I’ll happily stay up late for specific projects, but I don’t live on the sidelines anymore. My creative drive is stronger than ever, because it comes from a place of abundance, rather than scarcity. Carving out a place in the literary world now feels like an exciting prospect, not a last-ditch attempt to secure authorship of my own story.
I feel that working as an accessibility- something could also be rewarding. I've talked to some people about my journey, and their reactions have been ones of fascination. After I explain the mental GPS and the nitty gritties, I see them nod slowly but with conviction, before they tell me that they’ve never thought of it like that. If I could use these insights to help other people who are facing challenges at work or school, that would be amazing. I can picture myself writing informative blogs, just as much as I can picture myself talking to people face-to-face and watching their faces light up.
Either way, I’d probably want there to be some degree of separation between my accessibility work and my more narrative-based work, even if they both involve writing about disability. Many times, I share details about my disability to seek closure around identity and belonging. That’s me reaching in to unpack my ever-changing, ambivalent emotions and reaching out to connect with other human beings, and if you’re going to put a criteria or a price tag on something like that, I want it to be based on artistic merit, not educational value. Otherwise, I’m afraid, I’d feel too much like a case study and not enough like a person.
These are just some of the things that I’ve been thinking about. I have so many different options, and I cradle them with cautious optimism, hoping that I won’t lose them as I keep my palms open, the same way I did when they first found me.
I won’t lie: having a disability can be very isolating. The truth is that I still have rainy mornings where I ask myself if college is just a Make-A-Wish stint before I descend into the shadows of my hometown, living from paycheck-to-paycheck in my mom’s basement. What gives me hope is the sheer determination and resilience of people around me. When my close friends tell me that I got this, I believe them because I’ve seen them as beacons of strength — even when their sleepless eyes couldn’t register their own brilliance, like an over-exposed camera lens unable to shut out the harsh glares of white. I also carry messages of inspiration from people that I don’t know, as well as the people that I used to know, and my hope for all of us this year is that, as Instagram user @twopawsfarmhouse puts it, we “find the time to be happy, not just strong.”
I have so many different options, and I cradle them with cautious optimism, hoping that I won’t lose them as I keep my palms open, the same way I did when they first found me.
I’m starting 2024 with intention to write at my heart’s content and to join a vibrant community of mentors, educators, and entrepreneurs working to advance accessibility. Let’s do this.
Until next time,
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