Charlotte Lucke smiles and stands with arms crossed behind campus shrubs.

Editor’s Letter: The Accessibility Issue

As graduate students in the rhetorics, communication and information design doctoral program, my colleagues and I repeatedly encountered the question, “What wants to be said?”

The question was one of many instructional refrains voiced by Victor Vitanza, whose scholarship brought me from Texas to Clemson University back in 2016. When seminar conversations lapsed into a short or long silence, Vitanza always filled the void:

“What wants to be said?”

Looking back, it’s clear that Vitanza had a purpose behind his question. He taught us not only to speak but also, perhaps more importantly, to listen.

When I began my position as managing editor of Clemson World in December 2023, a feature story about Josh Loebner Ph.D. ’22 was a candidate for the summer issue. It was a welcoming and familiar story, as Loebner is a fellow RCID alumnus.

Along with Loebner’s story, a story about Ivy Prince, a teenager who leveraged her participation in Clemson Extension and 4-H to develop culinary workshops for youth with special needs, was slotted as a potential feature.

And it wasn’t long before our associate editor, Davis Potter, received a pitch about Justine Gravino ’12, an alumna who helps to create jobs for people with disabilities through Amazon Business’ partnership with the historic AbilityOne program. Then, a pitch about the first ClemsonLIFE study abroad trip landed among our list of potential stories.

It didn’t take long to realize that stories of disability and accessibility were what wanted to be said. And so, we set out to listen.

As graduate students of rhetoric, Loebner, our colleagues and I studied the power of words and images, media, and advertisements. In Loebner’s feature story, he touches on this power, sharing his young realization that people with disabilities — people like him — were excluded from mainstream media.

In response to the invisibility, he has made it his life’s work to fill the void, foster accessibility and invite people with disabilities into conversations about representation.

Loebner is part of a growing chorus but recalls a time when accessibility and disability were not spoken about. Elizabeth Caldwell, a student whose story is also told in this issue, similarly speaks to the stigma around disability. She and her National Scholars Program began a club, Tigers 4 Accessibility, to educate others and create accessible spaces and community on and off the main campus.

In creating this issue, we wanted to contribute to the rising flux of visibility, accessibility and education pioneered by those featured in this issue and others who worked with us behind the scenes. As we curated content related to an accessibility theme, we prioritized making our content as accessible as possible. One way we accomplished this is through our cover, which is accessible to Braille readers and a visual statement to sighted readers.

The cover and this issue reflect collaboration between individuals and organizations from Clemson and beyond. By listening to and collaborating with others, we learned a lot. In meeting with Student Accessibility Services about the cover, for example, we learned that Braille is becoming obsolete as it is expensive and loses its tactile integrity over time. Braille refreshers, or digital translators, are quickly becoming an alternative to traditional Braille modalities.

By meeting with document accessibility specialists Dan Lewis and Walker Massey, we realized our website needed work, including a need to correct alternative text in some places. Alternative text is one of the ways images are made accessible to readers who experience stories through screen readers, which tell stories in sound instead of sight.

In developing this issue, we learned about some incredible alumni, staff and students who are working hard to make higher education, careers, independence, belonging and community accessible through physical and digital accommodations. We realized some of our own limitations. We aren’t perfect, but opening conversations helps us progress toward accessibility so everyone can access education, entertainment, joys and vitality.

Accessibility benefits us all, and what might be an accommodation for a stranger today could be an accommodation for a loved one tomorrow. As we invite more to the table, we continue to learn and grow.

And that is the power of listening to what wants to be said.

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