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Remembering Rachel Olivero

February 22nd, 2019

Rachel Olivero, smiling in a red dress.
Rachel Olivero, courtesy of National Federation of the Blind

Earlier this month we saw the passing of Rachel Olivero. Rachel touched a lot of people in both the Drupal and accessibility communities. She worked at the National Federation of the Blind, as the Director of Organizational Technology. I am not sure that this is where she was first exposed to Drupal, but she became involved in the community after attending DrupalCon in her hometown of Baltimore in 2017. It was there where she participated in her first code sprint and contributed her first bug report.

After attending the first-ever Nonprofit Summit at DrupalCon Baltimore, Rachel stepped up to lead an accessibility breakout at DrupalCon Nashville. She was always willing to share her knowledge and never got annoyed no matter how many times she was asked her whether the <aside> element was ever useful to a screen reader. Fortunately, about 20 minutes of the accessibility roundtable was recorded. She engaged with a few folks throughout the week, many remember her from Drupal Trivia Night.

As a technical user who was blind, her opinion was sought often in the Slack Channel. She also engaged with the Drupal Diversity and Inclusion team. Rachel was active in Twitter and other social media platforms too, where she engaged with other members of the Drupal community. As a person who was blind, transgender, and a lesbian, Rachel understood a lot about the importance of diversity.

Rachel became involved in the NTEN Drupal Community of Practice calls a few years ago, when she came on a monthly call to share some accessibility knowledge. Subsequently, she became a more regular attendee of these calls. Johanna Bates and Rachel were slated to co-present a session on accessible content entry for content editors at the upcoming NTEN 19NTC in Portland. This would have been her first ever NTEN NTC.

Rachel also served on the NTEN NTC’s first-ever accessibility committee, contributing her knowledge to making conferences more accessible. This is a perfect example of how willing Rachel was to share her expertise and experience with others. She was generous with her knowledge, kind, collaborative, and extremely funny. The loss of her warmth, humor, and brilliance in the Drupal community, the nonprofit tech community, and in the a11y community is a massive and sad loss.

This fall Rachel contributed an article to the latest 24 accessibility series, Not Your Father’s Navigation Strategy: There’s More Than Just the TAB Key. She argued for developers to invest in proper semantic markup so that screen reader users can make full use of their assistive technology. This annual series of articles really draws on a Who’s Who of accessibility.

Rachel was also the president of the NFB’s Amateur Radio Division. As a modern HAM enthusiast, she was active on GitHub working to create a Software-defined radio (SDR) scanner that could continuously record a set of frequencies for on-demand playback. She was interested in public safety.

Rachel had been working on NFB.org’s new Drupal 8 site for a long time. She was so excited to see it launch at the end of January. Rachel had recently been promoted at the NFB to Director of Technology. This launch was a huge piece of her work, and the site looks amazing. It is terrific to see how she was able to modernize the NFB’s website and leverage Drupal to help her create a modern responsive website.

As Rachel said in an NFB Facebook campaign:

“I’m lucky, and thankful, that blindness hasn’t caused a lot of resistance in my life. From the support of family during my early years to the encouragement of friends, to the emergency management director who I never saw blink an eye when I said, “I want to take the CERT class. You can teach me to get people out from under a collapsed wall too, right?” to all those who supported my gender transition. I’ve generally never felt that I couldn’t do something as a blind person. However, it’s the love, hope, and determination of my family in the National Federation of the Blind, that has given me the extra strength and answered the, ‘but how do I…” And that is #WhyImAFederationist

Rachel was also quoted in a very recent Vox.com article by s.e. smith, Websites need to be more accessible for disabled people. Rachel clearly identified that “Accessibility is still a sidebar when it comes to web development.”

A few community members shared memories of Rachel:

What I admired most about Rachel was her willingness to help at any level necessary and the kindness with which she acted.  She was enthusiastic about building community and eager to contribute. She regularly gave time, experience, resources (like her server space, and other infrastructure) and energy to connecting people and working for a future in which technology would be accessible to all.  Her unique perspective brought insight, empathy and patience to her work, and I’m sad that the world has lost such a passionate champion for inclusion. 
Nikki Stevens (drnikki)

Rachel was the kind of person who immediately made you feel at ease when you were spending time with her, even if you had just met. She was great about making sure that nobody got left out, and was quick to invite new or shy people at events who might have eaten alone to come sit with her and her friends instead.

She was generous with her time whenever I asked to bounce an idea off of her to see if what I was considering suggesting would actually be helpful for the blind community or not, and she never made me feel like a bother when I asked for her thoughts. To the contrary, she always seemed happy to help. She was encouraging when I was right, and gracious when I was wrong; she never made me feel stupid about an idea if I was off-base, and instead provided valuable insight that I apply to my work to this day.

Rachel was an awesome woman, and I wish that we had gotten to spend more time together. The Drupal community (and the world at large) will definitely be feeling her loss. I hope that we can all put what she has given to each of us to good use to carry forward what was always her mission – to make the world better for people. 
Helena McCabe (helenasue)

Rachel Olivero was really an adventurous spirit. I remember a NFB conference several years ago when Rachel mused “I’ve always wanted to ride a mechanical bull – y’know do as Texans do in Texas”.  After fighting the management of the establishment, who were not inclined to let her ride, she got to ride – for a full 30 seconds:-). Everyone at Deque will miss her. Rachel is an inspiration to all those who strive to be true to themselves and the cause of digital equality.
Preety Kumar

In 2007, Rachel was one of the first accessibility experts I worked with after I joined Deque and I was always impressed with her technical strength and her ability to keep people at the center of any discussion. I remember the demonstration she made to Wal-Mart’s checkout team, that the shopping cart was inaccessible. Their response was getting off-track into technical mumbo-jumbo when Rachel loudly interrupted, “excuse me…excuse me. The point is that I want to put money in your pocket but since the shopping cart won’t work for me, I can’t do that. Do you want me to put my money in Target’s pocket instead?!?!”  I always enjoyed working with her on any project and will miss her.
Wes Dillon

I enjoyed talking with Rachel at both of her DrupalCons. We mostly talked shop. I was very impressed with her knowledge and patience dealing with people interested in learning. I remember talking about getting organizations like the NFB to approach technology more as makers than consumers. We also talked about challenges with procurement and the work that she was doing to revise how technology was purchased. She seemed hopeful and focused. She was clearly a big thinker.

By being involved in the Drupal community, Rachel reminded a lot of us of the importance of building our tools to work for everyone.

We were all looking forward to working with her more. She will be missed.

In lieu of flowers, the family requests that memorial donations be made to the National Federation of the Blind to support projects in which Rachel personally invested her time, treasure, and talent.

Contributions can be mailed to National Federation of the Blind, 200 East Wells Street, Baltimore, Maryland, 21230, or given online at https://nfb.org/donate.