Joy and Love–Remembering Joy Zabala

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AT3 Center offers this tribute for Joy Smiley Zabala, Ph.D., who passed away July 1. Joy was a principal architect of contemporary AT practice.

Those fortunate enough to have met Joy Zabala will not soon forget her. One memorable moment for AT3 Center staff occurred during a presentation by Joy Zabala at the ATIA conference in 2014. The session was designed to explain education reform and the hullabaloo surrounding impending summative assessments and what they could mean for students with disabilities. Joy was well known to be warm and dynamic, a seasoned presenter and leader in the AT field. After all, she’d created the SETT Framework, a process for considering assistive technology for individual students (and anyone, really) which had been around so long, and was so universally adopted, that it was like designing the map of the stars.

Not all attendees, however, knew she’d started as a kindergarten teacher. She revealed this to the packed room as she kicked off her shoes. She needed her whole body firmly rooted to convey what she wanted to say and why she thought everyone should get involved within their own states for the sake of “our students.” Her investment, passion, and dedication were obvious. She was, without question, a woman on a mission to make the world a better place.

Over decades, she did just that.

Anyone doing the work we do has been impacted by Joy whether they know it or not. The SETT Framework has solidified her place as a quintessential noblewoman of the AT World.

Elisa Wern, M.Ed, ATP (on Twitter, July 7, 2021)

Joy Zabala was a powerful systems thinker who could drill down to the individual faster than her next heartbeat. She not only developed the most widely adopted process for identifying appropriate technology for an individual (a collaborative process that considers the Student, Environment, and Tasks before considering the Tool), she was also a founder of QIAT (Quality Indicators for Assistive Technology) and for years moderated the QIAT listserv where anyone could ask for AT advice and get responses from practitioners with decades of experience (before Facebook groups were even imagined). And she was an evangelist for Universal Design for Learning and the integration of AT with UDL, including the adoption of Accessible Educational Materials. Joy served as project manager for the AIM Consortium and directed technical assistance for CAST and the National Center on Accessible Instructional Materials, among other roles. For years she was ATIA Conference Education Chair.

Her work lives on in all of us and will not only go on, but will continue to change the educational landscape for the better.

Hillary Goldthwait-Fowles, Ph.D., ATP (on Twitter, July 7, 2021)

In the words of Grace Meo, one of CAST’s founders, “Her work is embedded in practices throughout the world.”

CAST Remembers Friend & Colleague, Dr. Joy Smiley Zabala

In the immediate aftermath of her passing, these accomplishments and overwhelming contributions to the field of AT were not what seemed foremost on people’s minds, however.

The loss is clearly as personal as it is professional.

I am honestly not sure who I would be or what I would have done without her and her wisdom in my life.

Jennifer Edge-Savage, MS, EdS, OTR/L (on Twitter, July 7, 2021)

Joy Zabala’s ability to hear and coach AT newbies was breathtaking. When I was a parent with no clue she was patient with every question. [At] ATIA a couple of years ago she was even more generous. Her passion is inspiration.

Christine Griswold (on Twitter, July 7, 2021)

Two women smile for the camera seated at a maker table surrounded by a mess of everyday materials like cups and mugs and there is one mounted tablet. Willkomm has a disk made of InstaMorph held up on her forefinger.

This is a photo of Joy (on the right) with Therese Willkomm, Ph.D., Director of ATinNH (the NH AT Act Program) from ATIA Maker Day in 2018. Once shared with Therese, she replied:

“Joy to the world. That sums up what Joy Zabala meant to me. She demonstrated such joy and modeled how to be truly gracious. She taught the world so many important lessons. Never judgmental and always encouraging. She was the kindest person I have ever met.”

Mike Marotta (Director of the NJ AT Act Program) and Karen Janowski hosted a special #ATChat on Twitter July 7th that was dedicated to remembering Joy.

“What is one word you would use to describe Joy?” Karen tweeted.

“One word for Joy… hard one… passionATe !” tweeted Kelly Fonner.

Melissa Bugaj: “LOVE!”

Eleven people (just one man) smiling, assembled for a group portrait.
Joy Zabala with her QIAT colleagues at ATIA in 2016.
Top row (left to right): Susan McCloskey, Terry Foss, Penny Reed, Joan Breslin-Larson, Jane Korsten, Joy Zabala, Kathy Lalk. Bottom row (left to right): Kelly Fonner, Scott Marfilius, Gayle Bowser, Diane Foster Carl.

The Association of Assistive Technology Act Programs (ATAP) and the AT3 Center staff were honored to have known Joy Zabala. We will continue to implement and share her teachings and tools as we move in tandem with the AT community to ensure that all can access and obtain assistive technology devices and services when and where they are needed.