Josh Loebner Ph.D. ’22 was born three months premature with a slim chance of survival. In his own words, he shares his journey to becoming an accessibility advocate in advertising and beyond.

Photography by Ashley Jones

Who shall separate us now? No one.

This question and answer invoked by students, alumni and friends of Clemson University symbolizes camaraderie and community now more than ever through the rising power of accessibility, which measures the ways spaces or places are made inaccessible or accessible for individuals and communities. 

Consider accessible parking — with vibrant blue-and-white wheelchair symbol signage, expanded size of the space and ramps onto the sidewalk — versus the barriers associated with standard parking spaces. For people who are deaf or hard of hearing, accessibility includes sign-language interpreters and descriptive captions on videos. People who are autistic may welcome detailed instructions for a project and calming or quiet rooms to mitigate overstimulation. 

Accessibility isn’t only about being compliant, jargon-filled policies buried on websites, or accommodations needed by a few and used infrequently. We’re still shifting perceptions and purpose to move from misunderstanding and uncertainty regarding disability and accessibility. With accessibility continuing to innovate, so are definitions of disability.

In the past, disability was primarily recognized as medical diagnoses focused on individuals, such as blindness, deafness, mobility disabilities like cerebral palsy, and intellectual and developmental disabilities. Among marginalized groups, disability is unique in that anyone can unexpectedly become disabled at any time or simply age into it as people get older.

Today, many are expanding definitions to recognize the physical, digital and societal barriers that, due to inaccessibility and misperceptions, may disable these individuals and groups. Beyond this shift in definitions, neurodiversity, such as autism, is now seen as part of growing disability communities. 

Community and pride are innate for Clemson students and alumni, and people with disabilities are now starting to recognize pride in who they are. Discrimination, in the form of ableism, created a significant separation between disabled and nondisabled people for many years and sometimes persists. Shifting from ableism to welcoming takes pride, allyship and commitment among both disabled and nondisabled communities. 

At its core, the Clemson motto for many, including Tigers with disabilities, is about being an a11y. This isn’t a typo; it’s a numeronym — a combination of letters and numbers that form an abbreviation. A11y is short for accessibility, where the 11 letters between the a and y are reinterpreted, and the truncation becomes a double meaning of accessibility and allyship.  

A maturity curve graphic shows a continuum from Inconsideration to Innovation toward people with disabilities.

A metric for measuring the efficacy of organizational practices, this maturity curve shows accessibility practices ranging from inconsideration to innovation.

The aim is to encourage progress by welcoming more people through greater accessibility.

Invisibility to Viability

I was born fully blind in my left eye and legally blind in my right, and with no one else in my family disabled, it was, at times, isolating. I came to realize there was often an invisibility of disability not only in my life but across so many people’s experiences. 

Disability and accessibility were typically not spoken about, not critically studied, not considered professionally in leadership and   not represented. 

What drew me to be a disability advocate and champion greater accessibility in advertising was easily recognizing that there weren’t too many people like me working in the industry or represented in campaigns.

Consider if you’ve never seen a likeness or representation of who you are in advertising, film or mainstream media. What would that invisibility mean? 

Lack of representation pushes people to feel not only left out of a marketing campaign but also left out of society. Alternatively, seeing oneself in the world — and in an advertisement that’s accessible and easy to engage with — creates wonderful moments to inspire and connect. 

Realizing this gap early on was the genesis of my 20-year career in advertising that started on Madison Avenue in New York City.

I was born three months premature and weighing only 2 1/2 pounds. Doctors told my parents not to name me. With foresight, my parents gave me the longest and strongest name, Joshua Bernard Zachary Loebner, and I survived.

Throughout my early life and education, accessibility allowed me to thrive, from attending a school for the blind during elementary school to white-cane orientation and mobility training. Vocational rehabilitation guided me into a career where I could live and work in a large city with mass transit and an accessible office environment. 

Embarking on the journey to advertising and being a Clemson Tiger and beyond was circuitous and started with my personal invisibility. Through scholarship and allyship, I’ve made it my commitment to drive momentum for greater accessibility and the welcoming of disability. 

My sight is limited, but pursuing a Ph.D. focused on greater accessibility in advertising opened my aperture to clearly view a path forward. 

Marketing Made Accessible 

Creating greater access in physical and digital spaces has the power to benefit more than people with disabilities, and this is known as the curb-cut effect. If converted into small ramps at crosswalks, obstacles such as curbs are easier to navigate for people who use wheelchairs, those who are blind, families pushing strollers and so many more. 

Often, in whatever forms it takes, accessibility has the potential to be useful for everyone.

Being an a11y is central to my role as global head of inclusive design for VML, the world’s largest advertising agency. I collaborate with creative teams and clients to build the curb-cut effect into websites, advertising, retail products and everywhere consumers connect, welcoming brands to as many people as possible. Boldly, VML was the first agency to create this title and commitment, and that leadership continues today. 

We ensure people with disabilities are part of the creative process by listening and learning through firsthand engagement, ensuring integrated marketing campaigns are accessible across TV, print, radio, digital experiences and outdoor advertising, and that representation on screen includes authentic disabled actors in commercials. 

As part of WPP, the leading advertising holding company, we recently launched an innovation propelling accessibility forward through AI-powered audio descriptions that create rich narratives of what’s happening on screen in videos for people who are blind or partially sighted. The innovation is a clarion call for the industry to recognize how AI has the potential to drive accessibility with audio descriptions on a global scale. 

Beyond implementing accessibility features, our goal is to better represent people with disabilities in marketing to propel perspectives away from ambiguity and toward acceptance. 

In the past, and sometimes today, representation may be a fleeting image of someone with a disability — typically a person using a wheelchair — in an advertisement. Authentic representation is shifting to where people with disabilities are seen as central characters in campaigns and across a spectrum of disability types. 

Each of our clients is at different points along a path toward greater accessibility and disability representation. Our team and I have been fortunate to collaborate on inclusive design innovations that have been recognized with the highest industry honors and international publicity. 

Cutting More Curbs 

People with disabilities are part of our communities, including several thousand Clemson students, faculty and staff; 1.1 million in South Carolina; 64 million in the United States; and 1 billion people globally. Among this huge population and beyond, greater accessibility creates more ways to welcome. 

Thinking back to that time when you were a new Tiger, there may have been some trepidation on how to navigate the expansive campus and find classrooms and your place among students. 

Now, consider layering disability onto that experience and how it could become either more difficult or welcoming. As a doctoral student, Clemson’s interdisciplinary rhetorics, communication and information design program’s online synchronous courses were accessible and enormously enriching. 

My time at Clemson, and for so many others with disabilities, was and continues to be more accommodating and inviting through the Student Accessibility Services staff, who were invaluable in supporting my student journey.  

This team easily helped, reassured and guided me to where I could find accessible audio textbooks, optimal testing accommodations and other needs. Even when my concerns weren’t directly tied to Student Accessibility Services, the team found solutions. 

While most of my Clemson experience was virtual, there were several times I was on campus, including being selected as the only student to speak at my doctoral hooding. Student Accessibility Services staff guided me to the podium and across the stage, where I was confirmed a doctor and proudly shook President Jim Clements’ hand. 

Professionally, those reasonable accommodations and accessibility continue now. In my role as global head of inclusive design, I primarily work virtually from my home office. Multiple lamps and magnifiers span my workstation with a large print keyboard and massive monitor that allow me to scale content to view it more optimally. When I do travel, my white cane and colleagues help me navigate new venues. 

Be an A11y

Bold ideas and actions are central to what I do every day in my role as global head of inclusive design. Looking back at my time at Clemson, these same themes were a connective thread among faculty guiding discourse and discoveries — and students critically thinking in pursuit of innovative horizons. 

The next time you’re on campus or exploring Clemson’s digital connections, consider the accessibility features. You’re sure to see nondisabled and disabled people benefiting from them. If someone in your family is living with a disability and is a prospective student, know that Clemson would welcome him or her. 

Beyond the confines of campus, explore where you live to find community organizations, education, job training and recruitment programs for people with disabilities and their families. 

If you’re a parent of a child with a disability and your business has an employee resource group that welcomes conversations about disability, consider attending. 

Consider the marketing and communications of where you’re employed, or where you employ others, and find out how accessible or inaccessible your marketing is. Ultimately, be open to being an a11y. 

Wherever you work or recreate, consider what is and isn’t accessible. If no one is talking about it, be bold enough to raise your voice even if you don’t have all the answers. 

A dark silhouette of Josh Loebner holding his assistive white cane.

Being an a11y means supporting and helping others who may be excluded, discriminated against or simply ignored. We all have the power to welcome, invite and connect with others in meaningful ways, whether inviting friends into our homes, out shopping, attending religious services or sitting beside someone in class. 

For me, and I’m confident for so many others, accessibility has opened worlds of opportunities. People with disabilities are now seen in Congress, in Hollywood movies and on the red carpet, in advertising, and among globally recognized businesses and brands. 

Distinctly owning my unique experience as a blind student and now a leader in my profession, I believe that each of us, on our journeys as Tigers throughout life, possesses the potential to be an iconoclast and an a11y to others. No matter your career or community involvement, accessibility can be applied to any business, organization or anywhere people connect, where everyone can be an a11y. 

Who shall separate us now? No one.

Josh Loebner Ph.D. ’22 is the global head of inclusive design at VML, the world’s largest advertising agency, and a graduate of Clemson’s rhetorics, communication  and information design program.

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1 Comment

  1. Josh’s story helped me understand how welcomed I was as an architectural student at Clemson in the early sixties. I was born with mild cerebral palsy. My spastic movements, my hearing loss and speech were still present when I attended Clemson.
    I felt totally comfortable and accepted by both faculty and students. It never really bothered me at the time, but looking back I am so grateful for it all. I went on to become a successful professional in my career with several professors supporting me along the way to prominent positions in the architectural design world.
    Thank you for your article.

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