Updated: Aug 28
Inclusion is a powerful concept that can potentially transform education and technology. It is about creating a world where everyone, regardless of their abilities or disabilities, feels valued, supported, and included. In this thought-provoking interview, I had the privilege of speaking with Tany Holzworth, a content designer for inclusive classroom tools at Microsoft. Tany's journey from being a paraprofessional for students with severe and profound disabilities to working at Woodland Park Zoo and now at Microsoft has given her a unique perspective on the importance of inclusion and the impact it can have on individuals and communities.
Listen to my interview with Tany Holzworth wherever you get your podcasts or on Acast.
The Path to Inclusion
Tany's journey towards promoting inclusion began when she worked as a paraprofessional for students with severe and profound disabilities. She witnessed firsthand the challenges faced by these students and the need for a more inclusive education system. Tany's experience in both progressive and segregated special education programs fueled her desire to make a difference. She went back to school and obtained her master's degree with the intention of becoming a general education teacher who could advocate for the inclusion of students with disabilities.
"I wanted to invite these kids into my classroom because I know how hard it is for special education teachers to flip that on its head and say, 'Please invite these kids. Support these kids. They deserve to be in your class,'" Tany explained.
However, the burnout and frustrations of the education system led Tany to seek a different path. She joined Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle, where she helped build an inclusive volunteer program. This program aimed to diversify the volunteer base and provide opportunities for individuals with disabilities to contribute to the community. Tany's work at the zoo highlighted the importance of breaking down barriers and creating a more inclusive environment.
The Power of Inclusive Volunteer Programs
Woodland Park Zoo recognized the need to make their volunteer program more diverse and inclusive. By including individuals with disabilities as a first step, they aimed to create a more welcoming and representative volunteer community.
"We had people who were providing hand sanitizer after kids had the chance to pet turtles, and that was their one task. They loved it and made kids laugh. We also had people who were super passionate about giraffes and would spend their day talking to visitors about giraffes. There were opportunities for different types of people with disabilities to participate in a way that made them shine," Tany shared.
One of the most inspiring stories from Tany's time at Woodland Park Zoo involved a volunteer with autism. Initially, the volunteer had been accompanied by a family member for support. However, when the family member became unable to continue, the volunteer's participation in the program was questioned. Tany advocated for the volunteer's inclusion and, with the support of a job coach, the volunteer thrived. Within weeks, they applied for a job at the zoo and became a paid staff member.
This story exemplifies the transformative power of inclusion. By providing the necessary support and breaking down preconceived notions, individuals with disabilities can excel and contribute to their communities in meaningful ways.
Replicating Inclusive Volunteer Programs
Woodland Park Zoo's inclusive volunteer program serves as a model for other organizations seeking to promote inclusion. Tany emphasized the importance of assessing accessibility and making necessary changes to ensure that individuals with disabilities feel welcome and supported. This includes providing clear information on how to request accommodations and offering alternative methods of application.
Tany also highlighted the need to address internal culture and attitudes towards disability. By fostering a culture of inclusivity and valuing the contributions of all volunteers, organizations can create an environment where everyone feels valued and respected.
Microsoft's Commitment to Inclusion
Tany's journey eventually led her to Microsoft, where she now works as a content designer for inclusive classroom tools. Microsoft has made significant strides in promoting accessibility and inclusion, with initiatives led by individuals like Jenny Lay-Flurrie, the chief accessibility officer at Microsoft.
"Microsoft is a great company for disability. Satya Nadella, the CEO, had a son who was disabled, and he had a big impact on the company's commitment to inclusion," Tany explained.
In her role, Tany focuses on making Microsoft's products more accessible and inclusive. She works on designing the language and interface of the tools to ensure they are user-friendly and cater to the diverse needs of individuals with disabilities. Tany also advocates for a shift in mindset within the writing community at Microsoft, encouraging the use of inclusive language and reframing products based on support needs rather than age ranges.
The Impact of Inclusive Classroom Tools
One of the key tools Tany works on is Immersive Reader, which helps individuals with reading difficulties by highlighting words, breaking them into syllables, and changing text colors for easier reading. Immersive Reader can be used on any web page, providing support for individuals with disabilities in various educational settings.
Tany shared her experience of using Immersive Reader to reinforce basic reading skills with students who struggled to attend to their reading. The tool helped them stay engaged and feel more independent in completing their tasks.
Another tool Tany is excited about is Reading Progress. This tool allows students to record themselves reading out loud and receive feedback on their pronunciation and fluency. It empowers students to practice and improve their reading skills independently, reducing the need for constant support.
The Future of Inclusion
As we look to the future, the importance of inclusion in education and technology cannot be overstated. Inclusion is not just about meeting legal requirements or checking boxes; it is about creating a society where everyone has equal opportunities to learn, grow, and contribute.
Tany's work at Microsoft and her experiences at Woodland Park Zoo demonstrate the power of inclusion and the positive impact it can have on individuals with disabilities. By breaking down barriers, challenging preconceived notions, and fostering a culture of inclusivity, we can create a world where everyone feels valued and supported.
Inclusion is not a one-size-fits-all approach. It requires a deep understanding of individual needs and a commitment to providing the necessary support. Through the development of inclusive classroom tools and the promotion of inclusive practices, we can empower individuals with disabilities to reach their full potential.
The journey towards inclusion is ongoing, but the potential for positive change is immense. By embracing inclusion in education and technology, we can create a more equitable and inclusive society for all. Let us continue to advocate for inclusion, challenge societal norms, and work towards a future where everyone feels valued and included.
Tim Villegas is the Director of Communications for the Maryland Coalition for Inclusive Education, and the host of Think Inclusive, a podcast that exists to build bridges between educators, families, and disability justice advocates to create a shared understanding of inclusive education and what inclusion looks like in the real world.