Dana Marlowe – President of Accessibility Partners

Dana Marlowe has an unrivaled passion for equal technical access for all. In the accessibility field, this intensity has made her a staunch advocate for people with disabilities. Initially starting out as a sign language interpreter some years ago, Dana discovered that a business endeavor could spring out from her true passion. She always knew that she wanted to provide the best access to technology for people with disabilities. As her focus on communication and interest in technology to improve the lives of people with disabilities grew, she learned from different industries but this knowledge did not fulfill her original plans. Thus, in April 2009, she decided to hybridize her passions, work with partners and start her own accessibility and IT consulting firm. Dana and her colleagues took the plunge and opened up Accessibility Partners, headquartered in Silver Spring, Maryland. Even though Accessibility Partners has only been in existence for a mere fourteen months, they are now one of the leading accessibility consulting firms in the world. With her company, breaking down the accessibility barriers is a reality, not just a dream anymore. Accessible IT leads to economic independence, educational advancement, access to hope, and full participation in society, all things that Dana values highly. She helps federal agencies and private companies make their hardware, software, web sites, and telecom products accessible for everyone. The most rewarding attribute of creating this company for Dana is that she is able to hire people with disabilities to assess the usability of their products. Who better to know if a product is accessible than people with disabilities? Dana is a devoted leader to this technical cause and in what little spare time she has, she serves on related committees, task forces and keynoted conferences across the globe. Despite a crazy schedule, she makes time to volunteer in her community for the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation and American Cancer Society.  With over 12 years dedicated to IT accessibility for people with disabilities, colleagues and disability advocates everywhere know Dana for her stewardship in advocating for all aspects of disability rights.

What are you working on right now?

I may be ticked off when my Blackberry stops working for a few hours and my work life on the road is temporarily disabled. Imagine how somebody in a developing nation feels who to him or her, access to technology is a pipe dream concept and a Blackberry is a fruit. My ultimate goal is access to accessible technology on a global level but I am working on a bunch of smaller goals that will hopefully help me accomplish my bigger one. Right now, I am trying to maintain a work/life balance. Obviously, my dream of equal technology access is a personal and professional goal, but sometimes these two arenas blend more than they should. I telework out of my home most days , but sometimes it is difficult shutting one door of my house to enter back into the work zone. I love my family and the convenience of working home but sometimes it is hard to give each the attention they deserve. Like my dream, both require give and take and I’m willing to give everything I’ve can to accomplish both of them!

3 Trends that excite you?

If I were to update my Twitter as frequently as some of my colleagues do, you could definitely notice some consistent trending factors. I can bullet them with the pound keys, so that Twitter would recognize them as trending topics:

#accessiblemarket. I’ve traveled to many countries and saw the strides they are making and I’m really ecstatic about the progress. Disability advocacy is catching on and I always pump a fist when I hear about new legislation or protocol abroad.

#indiemusic. I also pump my fist to indie music. I am anxiously awaiting its arrival to more mainstream radio instead of sequestered away on static-filled stations or independent online radio sites.

#skorts. I’m really getting back into the skorts. For those of you who don’t know what I’m talking about, it is a skirt that has a pair of shorts underneath and attached. It is the perfect summer clothing but not enough people have embraced it yet. You get the best of both worlds with this!

How do you bring ideas to life?

I saw this question and I immediately thought of the GE commercials from the mid-80s. Bringing good ideas to life sometimes happens to me in the bathroom, the location where I have my best ideas. I am a very evocative person and I always have to talk my new ideas out with a trusted social network. I pick this network very carefully because I not only need the constructive criticism so valuable to idea formation but I also need people who believe in me and know all that I am capable of. I always bounce that rudimentary though kernel from one colleague to another and see what type of idea can pop from it. Once this idea reaches fruition after hours of discussion, I always have to put it into measurable components to track my progress. When I finalize this process, I always season it with a dash of hope and watch my idea take flight. I hope that it soars.

What is one mistake that you’ve made that our readers can learn from?

A singular mistake is hard to narrow down, so as a fun activity, here is a random sampling of personal and professional errors:

TODAY:  I didn’t have Lactaid milk for my oatmeal. That’s a pretty substantial mistake for today as I’ll feel the effects later, but the day is still young.

THIS WEEK:  I didn’t read the instructions on a federal solicitation carefully enough and had to deal with some minor ramifications.

THIS MONTH: I accidentally included a major typo in a proposal for a client. They were not so accommodating of my error and my oversight had me apologizing at 11:00 p.m.

THIS YEAR: Yet, I think the hardest thing I’ve had to learn and this ties into my biggest mistake is thinking I can do it all. There is a fine line between confidence and floundering and I crossed it at the start of Accessibility Partners this year. I imagined that I could be the perfect mother, wife and business partner but you cannot give 100% to three things simultaneously. I learned that everything is doable but not to what you would deem as perfection. I learned this the hard way after I started Accessibility Partners. I was so caught up in the new business euphoria that I neglected to tell some close friends and family about the company. They found out in our yearly Christmas newsletter and they were not pleased not to hear it directly.

THIS DECADE: There is still the one humongous mistake I’ve been consistently making this whole decade-I’m still wearing the skorts. I want them to come back in fashion so badly, but my colleagues still think it’s funny I wear them.

What is one book and one tool that helps you bring ideas to life?

I found that “Made to Stick” by Chip and Dan Heath really helped me with my idea formation and making process. It helped me break down ideas to their core, or simplicity as they call it. It is a realistic book that offers sound advice-anyone can benefit from it.

Surprisingly, the one tool I use everyday isn’t a piece of software but a standard pad of paper. I doodle on this every time an idea springs into my head. There is something comforting about putting an idea onto something tangible-like it is already real and possible.

What is one idea that you’re willing to give away to our readers?

I don’t pretend to trademark any of my ideas as personal property. Most of the way I work and live is created from a huge collage of input from people I’ve encountered through the years. Everyone always says to take risks but this is always easier said than done. It is not an original idea but it is so rarely implemented that is worth reiterating. Whenever I’m about to do something not so prudent, I always think about this quote by Jim McMahon–“Yes, risk taking is inherently failure-prone. Otherwise, it would be called sure-thing-taking.” You have to be risky to survive or else nothing would every progress. I’ve made mistakes but I also started my company on a huge risk and this has paid off. Don’t fear failure, just prepare for any possible outcome and you’ll be set.

One question that I always am asked is if combing accessibility and technology has to be difficult.

In an ideal world, I would wave a magic wand and make accessible technology materialize for anyone who needs it. Realistically, it is a bit more challenging than that. Truthfully, no one wants to be told they have an easy job.  I do not believe that accessible technology is impossible but the process is complicated. Sometimes it can be very difficult to tweak intricate technological items and deal with stubborn attitudes. I would like the whole progression to just fall into place in one step but I know that in order for it to be done to my high standards, it takes a lot of time. Still, it is worth it and the efforts are necessary if we want to achieve equal access to technology.

Why disabilities? Do you have any connection?

I’m such a solid advocate for human rights that falling into disability advocacy seemed to make sense. One in five people in the United States have a disability, which makes it the largest minority in our country. I think the fact that this is a minority group that anyone could join at any time really made me want to help. I do not know anyone immediately with disabilities nor had an earth-shattering moment but I am still affected as a human being. I just feel that equal rights for technology are so necessary in today’s business world but often neglected in mention in the media. I am confident that I am going to turn this world upside down and do something about it.


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LinkedIn: Dana Marlowe