Rita Harrison understands firsthand how important the issues of accessibility and usability are for people with disabilities, especially for those who are blind. Her vision loss occurred gradually as a result of Retinitis Pigmentosa, an eye disease that deteriorates the retina.
Growing up in Minneapolis before the independent living movement and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), Rita says people in her community didn’t know how to deal with individuals who were blind. At the age of 15, she was asked to leave school, and instead of graduating with her class, Rita got her General Education Development (GED) credential. After much persistence, she was accepted to a small business college where she earned a Certificate in Business Administration.
Rita began her federal government career as a procurement clerk for the U.S. Department of Agriculture in Minnesota. Since computer-aided assistive technologies didn’t exist in the early 1980s, she used a movable copyholder and reading glasses to help her prepare, track and distribute documentation for the agency. Rita recalls how amazed her managers were at her productivity. Later she learned they had watched a video about employing someone who was blind – but they had low expectations about the person’s ability to complete job-related tasks.
Following intensive rounds of chemotherapy for breast cancer in 2000, Rita lost her remaining vision and partial hearing in her left ear. Still, Rita says she has never let her disability stand in the way of accomplishing her goals. “I’m a firm believer that when one door closes, another door opens,” she says.
During the more than 30 years she has worked for the federal government, much of her focus has been on disability awareness. Currently a program analyst for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in Atlanta, Georgia, Rita provides recommendations on how to better streamline procedures to increase worker productivity.
She also helps the Web Management and Accessibility team take usability to the next level, “beyond the checklist,” by focusing on making program Web pages easier to navigate for individuals who use assistive technologies. While Rita thoroughly understands testing and accessibility from the user perspective, she enjoys learning how developers use html coding to make those features possible. In addition to her work as an analyst, Rita chairs the Commissioner’s Advisory Committee for Employees with Disabilities and serves on the Diversity and Quality of Work Life Committee in the Atlanta district.
Outside of the office, Rita mentors youth with disabilities and frequently volunteers with the blind community. “I tell people it’s important to have F-E-A-R,” which she says stands for: Focus and follow through; Education; Attitude; and Risk. Rita admits that sometimes the FEAR factor is hard for her to follow, too. “The first time I flew alone, I didn’t have a service animal, and I was afraid to get on the plane,” says Rita. In order to overcome her anxiety, Rita pretended she was a football in a game and told herself that she just needed to get from one point to the next in the airport. Today, Rita is accompanied by Emmett, a dedicated Labrador Retriever who helps her navigate her surroundings.
Overall, she says it’s important for individuals with disabilities to focus on what they can do. One of Rita’s proudest moments was her acceptance into Leadership Atlanta, a community program. “I was the first blind person to be nominated and accepted in under a year,” says Rita. She also stays busy with her book club, weekly step-aerobics classes and her 10 grandchildren, who all live in Minnesota.