With a background that merges disability accessibility advocacy, education, and technology, Benjamin Nadolsky L’24, WG’24 is adding an exciting extracurricular activity to his 1L schedule: a seat on President Biden’s Architectural and Transportation Barriers Compliance Board, more commonly known as the “Access Board.”
“Accessibility isn’t an issue that can be tackled by one side alone. You need everyone focused and paying attention to it,” Nadolsky said. “At my time at Penn and at my time at Yale, I was always the only student in a wheelchair. There is not much representation, and if you don’t have representation, then you don’t have people thinking about the needs that people have, so you have to lend your voice in any way possible.”
From engineering to advocacy
On the Access Board, Nadolsky is looking forward to conversations at the intersection of accessibility, education, and technology.
As a high school student, Nadolsky was interested in science and almost accepted an offer to Stanford’s Engineering program; however, he ultimately chose to attend Yale, where he switched his focus to Global Affairs and History. While he was there, he founded Yale’s only student organization dedicated to disability rights — Disability Empowerment for Yale — and as he continued to study, work, and engage, he became increasingly more interested in advocacy.
During an internship at the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Educational Technology, Nadolsky began to look at the intersection of disability access and educational technology.
“A lot of the staff had been former Teach for America members, so I was talking to them, learning about their experiences, and they described it as a really awesome opportunity to be on the ground and learn more about schools and education,” Nadolsky said. “I wanted to see what it was like to be a teacher. I decided to Teach for America for two years, then go to law school. That was always my plan.”
Following his graduation from Yale, Nadolsky taught for two years in Nashville. Still passionate about engineering, Nadolsky founded the school’s FIRST Robotics team — a group he continues to coach and mentor, even as a law student.
When COVID-19 radically altered the world in 2020, Nadolsky’s plan changed. Instead of enrolling in law school during the fall of 2020 as he had planned, Nadolsky deferred, then realized he had much more time on his hands than he had anticipated. Eager to continue to engage in meaningful change-making roles, he joined the Biden campaign, started a consulting firm specializing in disability accessibility in education, and served as a consultant for the World Institute on Disability, which would lead to his participation on the nonprofit’s Board of Directors.
“When COVID hit and I decided to defer for a year, I found myself thinking ‘What am I going to do with my time for the remainder of the year?’” Nadolsky said. “It was fortuitous in what happened, because I was able to meet the right people and help out in any way I could — and it worked out.”
The Access Board
The Access Board is an independent agency within the federal government that provides opinions and support on policies related to disability accessibility across the country. For Nadolsky, helping the federal government establish itself as a leader is essential, because the nonprofit sector, the private sector, and other branches of government look to federal agencies for guidance.
To Nadolsky, part of being a leader in this space means pursuing every side of disability accessibility. Today, accessibility to technology is a primary concern.
“When people think about disability, there are things their minds go straight to. One of the hardest challenges will be to introduce new topics — how do we introduce technology into the conversation?” Nadolsky asked. “For people who aren’t as familiar with conversations around disability access, I think it is really important to try to help them understand that these are serious issues that we need to address to make sure everyone is included.”
To illustrate how technology can pose barriers to disability access, Nadolsky pointed to the number of ways in which websites — sometimes government websites — exclude people. For example, screen readers help many people in the visually impaired community access digital information on computers and smartphones by either reading the information on the screen out loud or converting it to braille; however, if a website’s layout is disorganized, this makes navigating it with a screen reader much more difficult and time-consuming. Moreover, if a website features a video, ensuring that the video includes captions or an ASL interpreter on the screen is crucial to ensuring that everyone can fully participate and engage with the information being presented.
Nadolsky is hopeful that even the most pressing challenges can be surmounted.
“There is a lot that can be done on the Board,” Nadolsky said. “We’re in such a volatile day and age with the pandemic, war in Europe, and everything else, but people are looking for a way to improve. How do we make life in the U.S. better for everybody? I think a lot of people are unhappy with the way things are right now, and it is really important that we start to think outside the box and actually improve lives. At the end of the day, I know all members of the Board want to help people. I can’t speak for them, obviously, but that’s why I’m here, and that’s why I was really excited about the appointment. It lets me be able to be a voice and advocate with people and be there in the room and make things happen.”
Above all, Nadolsky is looking forward to connecting with the other Access Board members. As an organizer, Nadolsky recognizes the importance of building community while fighting for change.
“I’m looking forward to meeting the other Board members — people to engage, connect, and think critically with as we work to solve these issues and problems,” Nadolsky said. “One of the major factors of organizing around disability rights issues is just knowing people. Do you have the connections? Do you have the know-how? Do you have the institutional knowledge? Everyone has all these experiences that are isolated from one another, especially in the disability community, that need to be shared to allow further inclusion for everybody.”