It might seem like sleight of hand to go from teenage assistant for one of the most famous magicians on the planet — Penn Jillette of Penn & Teller — to web accessibility specialist. But Jerra Strong found himself drawn from the world of illusion to the digital world of IT.
He is now an enthusiastic advocate — and the go-to expert — for web accessibility in UNLV’s web and digital strategy department. It’s a role that allows him to fulfill his passion for social justice by helping others master the simple tricks to making their content accessible to all.
What is accessibility?
Accessibility ensures that individuals with disabilities independently get the same information at the same time as it is given to people without disabilities. If Person A can find out some information at 2 a.m. on a Sunday on the website, but Person B has a disability and if the site isn’t accessible, they have to call the university on Monday morning and wait on hold for somebody to answer their question — that is not equity. Accessibility is a way to ensure that a person who may use their computer differently from the way you or I use it, is able to easily access that information at the same time as anyone else.
What was your path to working at UNLV?
My mom read in the newspaper about the entertainment engineering and design program at UNLV. It’s a unique program that’s not offered anywhere else in the world. I came for that program.
Before UNLV, I worked closely with Penn Jilette from Penn & Teller as a production assistant. While I was in college, I worked with Mac King on his show. I had imagined myself moving into an engineering role in live entertainment and magic.
It turns out I don’t have the heart for show business. It’s tough. Being in show business is tough. But as I was taking these engineering classes, I learned to code. Software development and, later, the idea of web development was almost addictive.
Your role is web accessibility specialist. How did you come to apply to this position?
I started with IT in 2014 as a student worker. I worked my way up to being on the WebCampus training team, and took our accessibility training here at UNLV [Foundations of Accessibility].
Accessibility always seemed like a black box. It’s nice in theory, but how does a person learn that? I didn’t know where to get started, and somebody came into my office and said, “Do you want to take this new training we have?” And I jumped at the chance.
I spent a lot of time around Philip Voorhees, the person who started our accessibility office here at UNLV. He asked me to collaborate on a project where we were teaching faculty how to create accessible course materials in Canvas. My job was WebCampus trainer and his job was the accessibility team. It really seemed to be a good fit, but I didn’t realize I was auditioning for a job. He called me a week later and made me a job offer. So I worked at the office of accessibility resources for three years, and when the new position for web accessibility specialist on the web team was open, I applied for the position.
How important has accessibility become in higher education?
The first lawsuit in higher education specifically for digital accessibility was in 1993. That surprises a lot of people. It’s becoming the norm now to focus on accessibility. Part of that is because there have been legal and enforcement actions in this area from the U.S. Department of Education Office of Civil Rights. These actions prevent discrimination on the basis of any protected identity, including disability status.
But another part is that digital technology has become ubiquitous in our education system. It’s hard to imagine going to college without a laptop now, and the tools available have made it easier to create an accessible document. Now it’s a more reasonable expectation, I think, to have a robust digital accessibility program.
What is the most challenging aspect of creating accessible content for UNLV?
Making accessible content requires a content author to learn new skills in the programs they already know and to change their workflow. Busy as we are with everything we do as a university, it is hard to make time to attend training, to practice something you may be uncomfortable with, and to make changes to the way you’re used to doing things.
In your current role, what has been one of the most rewarding moments?
I would say the most rewarding thing is when I can communicate the “why.” When I see someone become passionate about accessibility as a student success initiative, as a diversity initiative, as a social justice initiative, when I see them catch the same fire that I first got when I took accessibility training — that is something really special.
What misconceptions about accessibility do people have?
That it’s very technical and very difficult to learn. I felt that way when I was first exposed to accessibility. But, it’s something that’s fairly straightforward that anybody can learn. A few small changes in how they use Microsoft Word, about how they use social media, can make a really big impact.
The other misconception people have is that it’s someone else’s responsibility. “That’s for the [Disability Resource Center] to do. That’s for some accessibility specialist somewhere to worry about” — but in truth, we are all responsible for improving, for ensuring equal access to what we do here at the university.
Also there’s a big misconception that it’s for the blind when, in fact, accessibility guidelines cover a huge array of disability types, including differences in vision that may not be blindness, like color blindness. Differences in hearing, differences in motion and motor ability. The largest group is differences in cognition, so learning and understanding information.
What advice would you give your younger self?
I’ll tell you the truth. When I was younger, people would ask me what I wanted to be when I grew up, and I gave a huge variety of answers. Anything from a ballet dancer to an astronaut to a marine biologist. I would say that it’s OK to not know what you want to do. It’s OK to not know what the dream is because you’ll know it when you see it. I didn’t truly know until I found web development and really felt a calling. Younger me didn’t know what a web accessibility specialist was and wouldn’t have understood. So, there was a lot of time spent agonizing over questions that I would eventually just easily find the answers to.
Give us a gear recommendation — an everyday product that helps you do your job or eases some sort of occupational hazard.
I make heavy use of video speed control. I have an extension in my browser that allows me to speed up videos. Things like YouTube videos and videos on other websites. Many people listen to podcasts a little faster than the recorded speed. I do the same thing with video courses on sites like LinkedIn Learning. I do this because it actually helps me focus, and I find myself trailing off less. It also means I can learn the same amount as someone else in two-thirds of the time.
What would your last meal be?
What I really savor now is home-grown food since I’ve started gardening. There’s very little that tastes as good as something that has just been pulled off the vine that day.
I started gardening to learn more about biology and the soil, I think that soil science is going to have a lot to do with reversing climate change and improving food security in the 21st century.
Who is someone you admire and why?
At the Southern Nevada Diversity Summit, I met Haben Girma. She is a Deafblind black woman who is a daughter of refugees. And she has learned to surf. She has met two presidents. She graduated Harvard Law, and she now speaks on accessibility and disability inclusion topics.
The reason that I admire her is because she challenges us to think about things in a different way. In her presentation at the summit, she challenged us to understand that people with disabilities live rich and fulfilling lives — not in spite of their disabilities, but in spite of people who make it harder to have a disability, and that we have a responsibility to change that.