Dana Marlow parlayed an early interest in American Sign Language (ASL) into a career consulting with enterprise and government. Her real bottom line: making the playing field level for everyone.
"I really enjoy working with people with disabilities in general and wanted to see if there was a way to support them by making technology accessible," Marlowe says. "My passion for this has placed me at the nexus where disability advocacy converges with information technology."
Marlowe's aunt, a speech pathologist, introduced her to sign language and also some deaf friends. She gained multiple university degrees including a bachelor's in Professional & Technical Communication from the Rochester Institute of Technology. She realized that, in addition to helping to bridge the language gap between hearing and deaf people with ASL, she wanted to bridge the technology gap, as well.
"It is such a given in society today that everyone can use the latest and greatest technology. Unfortunately, people with a variety of disabilities often have difficulty using items like computers, smartphones and tablets to their full potential. My company helps to make sure that information technology is accessible for people with all disabilities," Marlowe says.
She began her career consulting with blind and deaf people who needed assistive technology to use computers, telephones and other devices.
In 2009, she founded Accessibility Partners with two other principals. The company is on track to receive revenue of $1.25 million this year, working with dozens of Fortune 500 clients and U.S. federal agencies.
One on hand, the company consults with makers of consumer electronics devices, testing and auditing products for accessibility and then advising companies on improvements. Accessibility Partners helps them comply with national and state regulations, such as Section 508 of the U.S. Rehabilitation Act, which requires that all web content be equally accessible to people with disabilities.
As a GSA contract holder, the company also helps agencies and their contractors make sure their technology meets federal disability standards.
"We will either consult with government agencies themselves or the IT company or the consulting firm providing products or services to the government. We are their accessibility subject matter experts," she says. "The meat of what we do is driven by these federal regulations."
This is big business, indeed. Marlowe says that some of Accessibility Partners's clients may be responding to a statement of work from a federal agency worth more than $20 million.
Marlowe says her company goes beyond compliance. "When we evaluate a product for accessibility compliance, we keep in mind usability, and we will be discussing that as well," she says. "What it really comes down to is, accessible information technology leads to economic independence, educational advancement, and access to hope, recreation, travel and full-on participation in society. That's why I do what I do."
Marlowe says she's a feminist, yet she's reluctant to say she's experienced barriers because of her gender. She believes that, as a woman in IT consulting, she can bring a new perspective to companies. "I don't think it's a male-female agenda but being able to tap into a pool of so many people with disabilities who are underemployed," she says.
Nor does she see herself as a do-gooder. When helping companies accommodate people with disabilities, she says, "This is not a compassionate approach, but about finding the best person for the job. Accessible technology has a huge ROI for companies."
When she consults with electronics and computer manufacturers, she points out that people with disabilities have as much as $220 billion in discretionary income—along with aging baby boomers who may be losing their hearing, vision or mobility.
The company has expanded to international work, consulting with companies in Europe and the Middle East. Marlowe expects more growth to come when Section 508 revisions are complete, because it will likely extend regulations to more products and services.
Her biggest challenge, Marlowe says, remains, "changing the attitudinal barriers that persist. IT has a huge role in helping to break down those barriers."
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