Drawing Inspiration from Traumatic Brain Injury


Glenda SimsI was deeply inspired by a conversation I recently had with Anne Forrest, one of the nation’s leading patient advocates for people with traumatic brain injury (TBI). Anne suffered a mild TBI herself during a car accident in 1997. I had the pleasure to attend her first presentation after her injury, to Dr. John Slatin’s class on accessibility at the University of Texas Institute of Technology and Learning. Anne spoke about her injury, her path toward recovery and how computers could provide assistance.

Challenges and Growth in Living with Traumatic Brain Injury

As a student, I didn’t see Anne’s cognitive disability while she was speaking from her prepared script. I never would have known she had a disability until she finished her planned speech and fielded questions. At that time, her brain injury allowed her to do pre-planned speaking, but impromptu simple questions and answers were obviously very difficult. She also said that driving a car was no longer possible because it seemed like all the gauges on the dashboard were critical to watch. Similarly, blinking, flashing or moving objects on a web page were so distracting that she was unable to draw her eyes away from them.

Then, in December I bumped into Anne at Knowbility’s Open AIR accessibility event. Realizing that I was present for her first post-injury speech in 2000 and seeing how much she has accomplished since then blew me away. She could now answer spontaneous questions with such ease that I didn’t realize until 10 minutes into our conversation who she was! We discussed research on cognitive disabilities and web design. At the end of the evening, as we walked to our cars, I realized that she could drive.

Inspiration through Disability

Each time I’ve seen Anne she has taught me an important lesson. Years ago she taught me that accessible web design can break down barriers for people with brain injuries. She personalized the situation for me. To this day, I still think of her when I describe why it is so important not to have flashing, blinking, moving content on a web page.

And now, over a decade later, she showed me how truly phenomenal our minds can be. Her website says it all…our brains are plastic. With exercise and creativity she opened new pathways in her brain. What an accomplishment!

Exciting Possibilities in Cognitive Accessibility

Earlier last year at CSUN I had goosebumps as I listened to Lisa Seeman explain about the groundbreaking research at the W3C on Cognitive and Learning Disabilities Accessibility. I believe with all my heart that the next major accessibility innovations will come out of research on cognitive accessibility. These discoveries will not just help people with disabilities but will actually be major breakthroughs for our intellectual abilities as humans.

Even though I’ve been in the field of accessibility for over 15 years now, I know I have a lot more to learn from Anne and the work she is doing to advocate for people with traumatic brain injuries.  Her journey is important to all of us.  We have so much to learn about building better digital experiences.  And while on the surface, it might seem counter-intuitive, designing with cognitive disabilities in mind forces us to the next level and actually improves the design for all.

Glenda Sims is the lead accessibility expert at Deque sharing her expertise and passion for the open web with government, education and companies that range from small business to Fortune 500.

She spent over a decade as a Web Analyst at the University of Texas at Austin, where she helped support the central web site for the University. Glenda was an accessibility expert and web standards evangelist at UT along with her mentor and hero Dr. John Slatin. She co-authored the book InterACT with Web Standards: A Holistic Approach to Web Design.

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