Community Spotlight: Sharon Delaney McCloud, Moving Hearts and Minds
At Eone, we know Sharon as a communications expert, a DEI professional and an accessibility advocate, so we were excited to have the chance to chat with her. Sharon shared how accessibility became so important to her, and her insights on how we can all use the power of communication to create moments for others that starts them on their own inclusion journey.
Early in my conversation with Sharon, I got the feeling, what she couldn’t tell me about communications, is probably not worth knowing! A brief look into her background began to explain why.
A whistle stop tour of Sharon’s career starts with 20 years in television broadcasting taking her from field reporter to primetime anchor, securing an Emmy award along the way. In 2008, Sharon’s entrepreneurial talents were put to the test as she left the newsroom to start media agency, Greenroom Communications with partners, Penn and Kim Holderness. After almost a decade of rapid growth, a merger with Walk West allowed them to form a much larger organization. Then, in November of 2021, Sharon decided to join UNC Health, as Director of Communications.
Sharon is also a true advocate for inclusion, and an ally to the disability community. She’s a Certified Diversity Executive through The Diversity Movement and has helped many organizations on their DEI journey. Her passion for the subject is evident as soon as you hear her speak about inclusion and accessibility.
When Sharon met John
Sharon took me back to where her DEI journey began. She described the pivotal moment when she realized accessibility was a missing link in the communications industry.
“It was definitely an ‘a-ha moment’. And I can pinpoint exactly when it happened. Meeting John Samuel changed the way I approach all my communications, personal and professional.”
Many of our Eone community are familiar with John and his work, but for any newcomers, he’s the co-founder of digital accessibility consultancy, Ablr 360 and all-round great guy! To learn more, read John’s Community Spotlight article next.
John and Sharon connected after John attended a media session Sharon presented at a leadership event in Raleigh, North Carolina. He invited her to the offices of LCI, one of the largest employers of Americans who are blind and low vision.
“I got to walk the floor at LCI and witness these people doing all these things that I could never have imagined possible. He then brought me back to LCI Tech (later spun off to become Ablr 360), and I got to meet his colleagues. I had never heard of a screen reader and frankly, I had never thought about how people with low vision or no vision consume their data from a computer. I never met anyone with low vision before John. His colleagues demonstrated the screen reader, and I was so taken aback, and in complete awe.”
Sharon was so excited about what she learned that day, that on returning to her own office, she shared her experience with all her colleagues and from that moment, it became non-negotiable that every single website her firm built, maintained or updated, was accessible for everyone.
Creating more ‘a-ha’ moments
Sharon immediately saw the value of sharing John’s story to give others the ‘a-ha’ moment she had. Initially she helped John with a TED Talk, but their partnership grew over the years, and together, they opened people’s minds to the importance of accessibility.
“I said to John, ‘people need to hear your story. People in the low vision or blind community, they know these things you have to tell them, but everyone else needs to know too. If we can get you on a TED or TEDx stage, we could really cover some ground and introduce the idea of accessibility to everyone else, because everyone needs to know.”
For Sharon, it wasn’t simply about raising awareness, but what she believed would happen, when people become aware. She believed that to achieve the level of understanding needed for people to want to make a change for the better, they need to not only be aware, but really understand why the issue is important. For her, John’s story builds that understanding.
“John’s tag line is proximity builds empathy. Even today, I use it all the time, because that short phrase, I think, can be an a-ha moment for others.”
A wider view of DEI
But why is that pivotal moment so important to understanding accessibility? Some would say that in the last two years, diversity, equity and inclusion has been in the spotlight so much that they assume most people know all about accessibility now. Sharon explained why, for many people and organizations she has worked with, this is not the case. As a DEI Executive, Sharon works with many different organizations to help them improve their DEI strategy.
“After the events of 2020, all these companies put out big statements on LinkedIn and their websites, saying they commit to being inclusive. But I found that many people, and companies that say they want to be more inclusive, had very narrow definitions of ‘inclusion'. They were thinking about diversity, equity and inclusion, but only on the focus of gender, ethnicity or background. They were not including the accessibility piece. We challenge that. We ask them ‘are you thinking about accessibility?’ and most of them had never even thought about it before.”
Sharon highlighted this worrying trend that can be seen across the board, regardless of industry or organization size. Disability is often overlooked in DEI discussions, yet according to the CDC, 61 million people, or 26% of all adults in the United States are living with a disability. Companies who ignore or alienate that proportion of the population by overlooking accessibility in their communications, could rule out 61 million potential customers in the US alone, and miss out on the talent of a quarter of the US workforce.
I wanted to find out what Sharon’s top priority is, for an organization that’s serious about addressing accessibility issues. She suggested, “companies can first look at their websites and find out how accessible it is, then question ‘what are we doing to ensure we are being digitally inclusive for all website visitors?’”
Sharon pointed out that this is not only doing the right thing, in line with stated values, it also minimizes risk. “It’s a legal requirement that all websites are ADA compliant, so making your website accessible is also protecting your company financially.”
For most organizations, their website is often the first, and sometimes the only point of contact with customers. If a website isn’t accessible, a potential customer, supporter or even employee, will simply move on.
Another reason why starting with a website is important is that when a company experiences the real-life benefits of inclusion, it often triggers an interest in accessibility in other areas of the business too. They begin to look at their internal systems, physical spaces and all communications from an accessibility standpoint.
Sharon shared a great example of how three companies took action to uncover their digital accessibility issues
“The NC Tech Association asked three of their member organizations to allow us to use their websites as guinea pigs. The accessibility team at Ablr went through their websites and we recorded their audit, and then we played it back online! These companies were brave enough to say ‘We don’t have it right, and we commit to doing better. And I think that shows true leadership from a company that actually does want to lean in to its DEI values in a holistic way, not with a narrow focus.”
This exercise was a great step for the companies involved, but also led the way for others who didn’t know where to start on their accessibility journey or were yet to understand the consequences of overlooking accessibility. Watching these audits help people realize just how much is not accessible and shows the power of accessibility in action. That could be an ‘a-ha moment’ in itself.
‘Moving hearts and minds’
For Sharon, accessibility is non-negotiable, but in talking about modern communication, she also highlighted the importance of the words we choose.
“Words matter. More than ever before. With our phones we can be broadcasting internationally with the press of a button. With that, carries a great responsibility, but people don’t think about it that way. You have to be mindful about how powerful your words can be.”
The reason words matter is that, once shared with the world, their effect can be limitless. They may cause emotional responses, positive or negative. They might also cause people to take action, again positive or negative. Not knowing who your message will reach, means you don’t really know how it will affect your audience. Sharon told me about an example of when her message had a greater impact than she anticipated.
“I wrote a letter through an online forum to the White House last year. Then earlier this year, I got a call from a DC number and when I listened to the voicemail, it was the Whitehouse inviting me to come and meet with President Biden. He had read the letter! And it had moved him.”
Sharon’s letter called for bereavement leave for employees who lose their loved ones and are currently expected to return to work without any time off to grieve. It’s an issue that affects everyone at some point and Sharon’s words reached and touched the hearts of many.
Sharon says, “We all have the power to move hearts and minds”. We’ve seen how true this is with how John’s story affected Sharon’s communications and her values, and how Sharon’s open letter affected so many, including the President of the United States.
It’s rather empowering and beautiful to think we can all move hearts and minds in our own way, and Sharon would encourage us all to remember this in our own communications.
Sharon’s words remind us that accessibility and good communication go hand in hand. In fact, one can’t exist without the other. Good communication must be accessible, and accessibility requires good communication. When these two elements that Sharon has shared with us work seamlessly together, that’s when we can really make an impact, or in Sharon’s words, ‘move hearts and minds’. That’s why we think Sharon’s skills and insights are so valuable in today’s world, as we move forward on our journey towards inclusion.
One last thing… What is inclusion to Sharon?
“Inclusion means being comfortable with who you really are, with everyone around you, in your work, in your friendships and in your community.”