Voices Of Accessibility: Jonathan Thurston

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Amnet is pleased to introduce a new series, “Voices Of Accessibility”, in which we will hear from the people at the forefront of the accessibility initiative in digital content – their views, their plans and their inspiration.  

A senior Amnet representative, spoke to Jonathan Thurston, Head of Accessibility Product Management at Pearson, who shared what he’s doing to lead this change.

Amnet: How did you get involved with accessibility?

Jonathan Thurston: I grew up in Silicon Valley and attended a beautiful little school that had a wonderful library. I remember wandering through the stacks at recess, pulling and reading the books that sparked my interest. I learned so much doing this as a young student;  it was really being in that library, rather than the classroom, that made me who I am today. Education has shaped my life and that library helped shape who I am.

Later as a teenager, my family moved to Tokyo, Japan for four years. This  gave me the unique opportunity to experience more of the world. This in turn exposed me to many diverse and different cultures. My eyes were opened. I experienced first hand that many, many people do not have the same access that I had. This truly impacted me.

After graduate school, I became a professor of Digital Media. During this time I  received several grants to study education in Ghana, Africa. Through this research I learned so much about this beautiful country and it’s people first-hand. I worked side by side with them in schools and interviewing headmasters, parents, and students. A common theme of these discussions was the frustrating lack of access to educational resources and opportunities. It pained me deeply.

Amnet: Can you describe this lack of access in more detail? How did you handle it?

JT: I visited a school in the central region and met with the Headmaster. When asked if he could show me the books at the school he pointed under his feet. The school’s books were secured in a wooden lock box that looked like a pirate’s treasure chest. I asked him when the students were able to read the books? He shared that the books were too valuable to take out of the box, so students never got to see them.  It again highlighted to me just how important access was.

I wanted to make a difference and I started a small nonprofit called Voice: Empowered Learning. Our mission is to help kids get better access to valuable educational material.

Jonathan Thurston in classroom in Ghana

Jonathan Thurston in Ghana, 2016

Through this research it became apparent that lack of access extended to culturally-relevant educational material.  My research led me to the development of a new program that helps students author and illustrate their own creative stories. We then publish them locally into print and eBooks that can then be shared with other students throughout Africa. The program is designed to enhance reading and writing skills and ultimately empower students by helping them to become published authors. We’re run on a very small budget, and work with volunteers. We publish the stories online and also with Worldreader, an organization with the mission to bring books and literacy to the world via e-readers.

Ghana schoolchildren

With schoolchildren in courtyard, Ghana 2016

Amnet: How does your personal experience shape what you do at work?

JT: After teaching as a college professor for nearly ten years I got married and started my family. Following my love of books and technology it seemed an easy choice to enter the publishing field. I managing the ebook programs for two large publishers (where I  helped them roll out EPUB3 and managed accessibility) before Pearson, and learned a lot.

When I moved to Pearson I was able to fully focus on accessibility and follow my passion, ensuring that all learners have access to succeed. As Head of Accessibility at Pearson I manage the overall requirements for remediating our in-market products while ensuring that all new products are born accessible. It’s a huge endeavor with many different types of content and diverse technology stacks adding to the complexity.

Without access, people are denied opportunities that are essential to their growth. I consider myself  lucky to be working for a company that understands the importance of accessibility.

Amnet: What about accessibility keeps you up at night?

JT:  Our workflows, and how to optimize and improve them. With proper support it is definitely possible, but careful planning is required.

Amnet: What makes you the most proud?

JT: When an individual learner succeeds. If a student is struggling with access and we come up with a solution that helps that student to succeed, then that’s a great day.

Amnet: How is accessibility embraced in your corporate culture, and what part do you play in that?

JT: You must build a solid business case to succeed. Support has to come from the top down. To succeed involves working across cultures, products, and tech teams. I recommend meeting with all of the key players, garnering support, designing a policy, and getting sign-off. This is something with which we have been successful at Pearson.

Amnet: What is the one action any company can take to change the game for them on accessibility?

JT: Executive support. Progress with accessibility often won’t happen until you get support from the highest levels within your organization.

Amnet: Who do you look up to in this initiative? What are they doing? What makes them a hero for you?

JT: George Kerscher, who has really been an inspiration in the publishing world for decades. He himself is blind, and is on a mission to create standards and technology for what he coined “print disabled” in 1987. Among other things, George is Chief Innovations Officer of the DAISY Consortium; Senior Advisor, Global Literacy, to Benetech; President of the IDPF; Chair of the DAISY/NISO Standards Committee; Chair of the Steering Council of the W3C Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI). We owe him a debt of gratitude for his exceptional and ongoing work.

Amnet: What milestones do you see over the next few months and years?

JT: Continued communication will be key for accessibility success in the industry.  Working together to discuss and develop directly with schools, disability offices, and the students so that we all share in the success and growing dissemination of accessible material.

Amnet: Jonathan, thank you so much for taking the time to speak with Amnet! We look forward to hearing you speak on panels at the PSP and CSUN conferences in the next few weeks.