FSU Art alum Larry Weru will attend Harvard Medical School this fall to pursue his Master of Science degree in Media, Medicine, and Health.
The program, led by faculty directors Dr. Neal Baer, MD (writer and producer of ER, Law & Order SVU, and Designated Survivor, and executive producer of Peabody Award-winning Welcome to Chechnya) and Dr. Jason Silverstein, PhD (science journalist and writer-in-residence in the Department of Global Health and Social Medicine at Harvard Medical School), offers an “evidence-based multidisciplinary storytelling and arts-driven curriculum focusing on health interventions.” Faculty offering instruction in the program include MacArthur “genius” grant and Pulitzer Prize winners, memoirists, essay writers, playwrights, and social media experts. Students will have expert mentors guide them through using the storytelling medium of their choice (for example, film, creative nonfiction, podcasting, or graphic design) to craft a novel public health intervention.
“While I’m a master’s student at HMS I’ll develop a novel public health intervention to help improve health outcomes for people with disabilities by helping us move the needle on web accessibility,” says Larry. “The web has increasingly become an environment where we learn, work, play, and worship. The Covid pandemic kicked that trend into high gear. 2020 was my busiest year,” says Larry, who coded his first webpage when he was eleven and now consults on web development for his e-commerce clients . At FSU, Larry received dual degrees in Studio Art and Biology and served as the Senator for the College of Fine Arts, where he co-founded the College Leadership Council for the College of Fine Arts, which publishes SIX magazine. He took interdisciplinary web development courses through the Program in Interdisciplinary Computing (PIC) and won “Best in Show” awards at FSU’s campus-wide tech conference Digitech.
Businesses that closed their offices during the pandemic relied on the web so that their teams could work from home. Businesses that sold goods also relied more on e-commerce for revenue. Consumers also turned to the web to make more of their purchases. However, much of today’s web is developed with accessibility barriers that make it difficult or impossible to use for millions of people with sensory, mobile, or mental limitations, according to Larry. “More than a third of the online environments that billions of people occupy for education, employment, entertainment, and connection are uninhabitable to more than 50 million people with certain vision, hearing, coordination, cognitive, and movement impairments.”
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the conditions in the environments where we learn, work, play, and worship affect a wide range of health outcomes and risks. When these and other social determinants of health  are reduced, mortality and morbidity are increased.
Last spring Larry published a personal essay on Slate  to bring attention to accessibility issues on the app Clubhouse. At the time, the rapidly spreading social app wasn’t designed with accessibility in mind. Larry, who first went public about having a stutter in the story, says that the platform disenfranchised people with speech impairments from joining the discussions. In his Slate pitch he argued that if accessibility remained unaddressed in the new social voice platforms such as Clubhouse and Twitter Spaces, then millions of people would be silenced by the reduced conditions in the new web environments.
“Accessibility is not just a concern for tech startups,” says Larry. Last year, the State of Accessibility Report  published by Diamond, a digital agency that builds accessible experiences, revealed that people who rely on screen readers could not access 38 percent of the Alexa 100, a list of the web’s 100 most visited websites, which includes many tech incumbents. During the first issue of the annual study a year prior, over 60% of the Alexa 100 were not accessible via screen readers. “People couldn’t even log in,” says Larry, citing the study. The Alexa 100 is a good subject for the study since “the Pareto principle, known as the 80/20 rule, applies here,” says a TechCrunch review of the study . “You will reach about 80% of the traffic with the top 20% of digital products.” During the height of the pandemic, with the shift towards working from home, the Alexa 100 contained productivity apps that people use for work, in addition to the traditional social networking, entertainment, and news sites that make the list. Websites included “file transfer and collaboration tools, delivery services and communication tools like Zoom and Slack,” says Tech Crunch. At the time, those tools were difficult to use for people with hearing impairments. Video chat services such as Zoom have only recently started adding auto-captions. “As of April 2020, none of the video platforms had automatic captions built-in except for Skype. Unfortunately, the captions on Skype weren’t of the highest quality.”
“We live in a world where the web is essential, but not always accessible to people with disabilities,” says Larry. “But the web is not doomed to inaccessibility. When websites and web experiences are designed and developed with accessibility in mind, people with disabilities can use them. From my experience, accessibility rarely comes up in discussions when people are deciding what to build for the web. If we want an accessible web, it needs to become a regular part of the conversations that decide and build it. We need more public health interventions that can move the needle on web accessibility. Harvard Medical School will be a fantastic place for me to learn how to design effective interventions. This isn’t something that I can do alone, of course. I invite people who resonate with this topic and who want to help to reach out. I would love to help share their stories.”
Over the past year, Larry has written and co-written public health stories as a freelance writer for Slate and Vox, and co-authored public health op-Eds in the Orlando Sentinel, Toronto Star, Vancouver Sun, and KevinMD. Larry’s contributions and co-contributions to the social sciences are the subject of his TEDx talk, highlighted by Fast Company and Gizmodo Japan, published in the journal Practicing Anthropology, cited in “Real World Python” (No Starch Press), and quoted in “Community Engagement Through Collaborative Writing” (Routledge). Last fall Larry served as an alumni panelist for Harvard Medical School’s Media and Medicine certificate program  which he participated in during the spring, as well as a panelist for University of South Florida’s seminar on Ethical Issues Facing Healthcare Professionals, Educators, and Advocates During the COVID-19 Pandemic . In 2020 Larry was inducted as a Notable ‘Nole.
If you or a loved one has been impacted by an inaccessible web and would like to contribute to Larry’s project, he invites you to send him a message via his contact form.