In Memoriam: Fabien Vais

Last updated: May 17, 2016

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It is with great sadness that we have to tell you that Fabien Vais, one of the founders of the AccessAbility SIG, passed away September 17, 2014.

Honors Banquet Reception: Fabien Vais with the AccessAbility SIG 2005 Pacesetter Award certificate.
Fabien Vais with the AccessAbility SIG 2005 Pacesetter Award certificate at the Honors Banquet.

Fabien and the rest of the founding team of what was originally the Special Needs Committee worked hard to make known the concept of “accessibility” to the world of technical communicators. Fabien was a stubborn, tireless, and passionate advocate for accessibility. He initiated the conference accessibility guide to the annual STC conferences. In the very first issue of our now defunct Achieve! newsletter, Fabien explains how he and Dan Voss toured the site of an upcoming conference and discovered "that never-ending corridor leading to a dead-end with seven steps! We had passed an elevator that would have avoided the cul-de-sac 150 feet earlier, but there was no sign directing individuals in wheelchairs to take that route. That was a perfect example of the importance of proper signage."

Fabien touched the lives of many members of the SIG and the STC. Here are some photos that are bound to bring back some memories.

At the 2005 STC Annual Conference in Seattle, Washington, Cynthia Lockley took the following photo at the AccessAbility SIG mixer. On the left is Dan Voss with a glass of wine, Brenda Huettner in the middle with a big smile, and Fabien Vais on the right. Fabien is not wearing his conference badge around his neck like the other two, but he is wearing the enamel AccessAbility SIG pins we made as conference giveaways that year.

Dan Voss, Brenda Huettner, and Fabian Vais at the AccessAbility SIG mixer.

There are quite a few photos of Fabien from the 2003 STC Annual Conference in Dallas, Texas. Gail Lippincott took a photo of Jodi, Gail, Melissa, and Fabien in front of a statue of a black-colored elephant with large white tusks. Jodi and Gail are standing on the left, Melissa is seated in front of the elephant, and Fabien is in the wheelchair he used for traveling.

Jodi, Gail, Melissa, and Fabien.

When Dan Voss and Fabien got together, things always got silly. In this photo, Dan is passing on the SIG Manager position to Fabien. The photo is called "Deputy Fabien and Sheriff Dan" because both are wearing 10-gallon white cowboy hats (they are in Texas!) and blue vests each with a giant sheriff star made out of yellow construction paper!

Deputy Fabien and Sheriff Dan

Later, still in Texas, Fabien Vais donned a monk’s cloak! In this photo by Cynthia Lockley, he is seated at the dining table looking very much like the photo’s title: His Reverence. Three other members are seated at his table. Two seem very respectful of His Reverence – Gail Lippincott on his right in medieval dress, and Judy Skinner seated across from him in a bright turquoise shirt. The man on Fabien's left seems more interested in studying the menu!

Fabien Vais Reverence

Cynthia Lockley took another close-up of Fabien as a monk. He looks seriously into the camera with the brown hood over his head, but the dark locks of the monk’s wig peeks out from under the hood in contrast to the elegant silver of Fabien’s hair and beard.

Fabien Vais as a monk

Cynthia also snapped a photo of Fabien at the SIG luncheon. In this photo, Fabien is seated with Mike Murray at the typical big round luncheon tables they have at conferences. With only glasses of ice water and ice tea and a spoon in front of them, it looks like this was taken right before dessert or coffee time.

Fabien Vais and Mike Murray at the SIG luncheon.

At the 2002 STC Conference in Nashville, Cynthia snapped a photo of Fabien discussing plans for the progressions with Lori Gillen at a small round tables with white cloth covering.

Fabien Vais and Lori Gillen

In Chicago for the 2001 STC Annual Conference, nine people got together for this photo of the Special Needs Committee business meeting. Fabien is seated in the front on the left and Cynthia Lockley is seated on the right. The other seven people are standing in the background. Dan Voss is holding a light blue paper flag with the logo of the Special Needs Committee. On the table in front of Cynthia are a stack of brochures about the committee.

Special Needs Committee Business Meeting

At the 2000 STC Conference in Orlando, Carolyn Kelley Klinger snapped a photo of Fabien Vais in his wheelchair and Cynthia Lockley in her scooter smiling in the sun by the Dolphin Hotel pool.

Fabien Vais & Cynthia Lockley

Travel down memory lane and see more photos of Fabien in our photo albums on Flickr. Please do share your memories of Fabien in the comments.

We extend our condolences to Fabien's family.

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7 thoughts on “In Memoriam: Fabien Vais

  1. I remember that Fabien took me on a hotel tour and he pointed out to me all the ways that the hotel was inaccessible or inconvenient for him in a wheelchair. I remember that in order to attend a bar that had two steps, he had to go through the kitchen, passed the laundry room, and up a ramp in which the incline was too steep. Also, he showed me that the cobblestone floor is rough on a service dog’s paws. These are all things that I took for granted before that tour. Fabien opened my eyes.

  2. I share similar memories as Lori. When working on the Achieve! newsletter, Fabien was very patient and helped me to consider how accessibility increased usability for everyone. Some of what I learned from Fabien has helped me to help my aging mother as her mobility and vision have decreased. His legacy endures.

  3. Thank you so much to Karen and everyone from the STC AccessAbility SIG for these words and photos of Fabien. This tribute is a perfect reminder of the immeasurable impact he had on the accessibility world, as well as on the people he worked with. His smile and enthusiasm for life and work and friends can be seen in each one of these pictures and stories.

    Thank you, from his family, for showing us how much he was respected and enjoyed by you all.

    Leah (Fabien’s daughter-in-law)

  4. Most recently, Fabien supported my international educational outreach programs for people with spinal cord injury by contributing to new research on wheelchairs. This work is part of an in-process 2011 research agenda for educational outreach programs for people with diverse needs.

    I enjoyed his story of why he used a wooden wheelchair. I think of it often as I see people use manual chairs. Fabien’s upper body strength was his gift when it came to mobility and meeting the challenges that life had to offer.

    I recall the STC meeting in Baltimore, MD (USA), where the street access to an area Fabien wanted to go to was extremely steep. The curbs were also a big step up or step down from street level, making access difficult. It is my understanding that Dan Voss accompanied him on this street journey, which also had steep terrain. Fabien took on the challenge and succeeded.

    Today, we have GPS technology to help us with lots of things. As I work with Blind Ambition at The University of Memphis (, Herff College of Engineering, Computer Vision Perception Image Analysis (CVPIA) Lab, I wonder what additional navigation comments Fabien might have for developers of smartphones for those with mobility restriction and accessible navigation needs. Dr. Mohammed Yeasin directs the Blind Ambition Research (email hidden; JavaScript is required). Blind Ambition addresses accessibility and usability of smartphones for those who are blind. One question that Fabien asked at this conference is: “What is the crossover in accessibility and usability?” This question is as current today as it was then.

    Fabien’s work with the STC Accessibility SIG will long be remembered. He was an inspiring technical communicator, teacher, and professional mentor. He freely shared his candor that often gave us a reason to smile!

  5. Saluting a True Warrior … and Bidding Adieu to a Beloved Friend

    Just a few days ago, I opened my personal e-mail for the first time in over a month since I had been virtually living at work during a major overtime siege.

    That’s when I learned I had lost a respected professional colleague and a dear friend. I’ve been trying to “process” that terrible news. I have done so intellectually but I don’t think I have even begun to deal with it emotionally. That is why you have not heard from me sooner.

    It seems just yesterday I was kibitzing with Fabien via e-mail, and even though we haven’t seen each other in several years, we remained close friends. My wife and I plan to tour both the U.S. and Canada when I retire, and Quebec was definitely going to be a priority “port of call,” so it never occurred to me that I would never see Fabien again.

    As you have read in the many other tributes on this blog, Fabien was a “charter member” of the original STC Special Needs Committee founded by Judy Skinner in 1998. During the early 2000’s, the Special Needs Committee evolved into the AccessAbility SIG, which remains a respected international advocate for universal accessibility as well as technical expertise in web site accessibility.

    Fabien took the baton from me as AccessAbility SIG manager in 2004. We both remained very active for the next couple years. At that point, the managership passed to Lisa Pappas and still-SIG-manager Karen Mardahl, who had the good sense to bring the SIG out of the Stone Age by embracing the social media. Fabien and I, as well as the third member of our “Three Musketeers,” SIG newsletter editor Mike Murray, were both pretty much “dinosaurs” in that respect.

    Now to the hard part … my words of tribute to my dear friend.

    Fabien’s passion for ensuring accessibility was unequalled and his energy in pursuing that goal unbounded. He literally radiated that passion. On top of that, he was one of the warmest, friendliest people I have ever met. Fabien could be very stubborn when it came to his passion for accessibility, but even those with whom he “crossed swords” in the process still respected and liked him. It was impossible not to like him. And for those of us who were bearing swords alongside him for the cause, he became such a close friend that it is well-nigh impossible to accept the fact we have lost him.

    Ask Mike. He put it best when he said, “My brain just won’t process this.” Well, neither will mine. But my heart demands that I continue with this tribute, because I know that is exactly what Fabien would do if the situation were reversed.

    When it came to the dream of universal accessibility, Fabien was a true warrior.

    I remember the time he and I were doing an onsite inspection of the lavish Opryland Hotel the day before the 49th STC international conference in Nashville, TN, in May 2002. Fabien was the originator of the Accessibility Guide the SIG published in hard-copy format for several international conferences. The guides typically ran from 40 to 60 pages, covering every imaginable aspect of accessibility: the airport, public transportation, the convention center, and, of course, the conference headquarters hotel, which was obviously a key consideration in terms of accessibility.

    Fabien had almost total responsibility for those accessibility guides. They were his “baby.” He did get excellent support from the host chapters as well as production assistance from student STC members, but the fact is, without him, those guides never would have happened.

    Today, the many accessibility aspects of conferences—from wheel-chair accessibility to dietary restrictions—have been integrated into the online conference registration and program. But the printed accessibility guides Fabien championed were the spark that continues to sustain the Society’s enlightened approach to disabilities.

    We all remain indebted to Fabien for awakening us as an organization to the diverse range of disabilities to be accommodated and pointing out—not always so subtly! —that it is our moral and ethical obligation to make reasonable accommodations for those with disabilities at our conferences, in our publications, in our web site design, in everything we do.

    Returning to the Nashville conference, Fabien and I met for an early breakfast on Saturday and then set out—Dan on foot and Fabien in his wheelchair—to “case the joint” for accessibility and publish a two-page onsite addendum to the Accessibility Guide (printed at the hotel business center, in this case a Kinko’s) to be inserted into the books and distributed during conference registration Sunday morning.

    The hotel was, applying the letter of the law on the ADA standards, “100% accessible.” But when put to a real-world test, it failed miserably.

    The first test came when Fabien and I spotted a chic European-style sidewalk café within the vast multi-level atrium. Only two steps separated us from the entrance but there was with no ramp in sight. For somebody in a wheelchair it may as well have been a cliff. In point of fact, Fabien, who is a polio survivor, could have negotiated the two steps on his canes with his phenomenal upper body strength, but that was not the point. So I went down the steps, called for the manager of the café, and asked him where the ramp was so my friend could access the café. The manager hemmed and hawed.

    “Are you telling me there IS no ramp?” I asked.

    “Er-no, well, I mean—“

    From the top of the steps, Fabien winked at me and chimed in, “What you mean is that this hotel is not fully accessible.”

    Reddening, the manager said, “We ARE fully accessible. I will show you how to get to this level.”

    Whereupon he led the two of us on a merry chase that took us the length of the atrium, eventually down a long, curved ramp, through a service door, down a long dimly lighted tunnel with concrete block walls, briefly outside (thank the Lord it wasn’t raining), past some smelly dumpsters—I kid you not!—back inside, through the laundry room, up another long dimly lighted tunnel with concrete block walls, this one much steeper than the first, and finally into the café. I’d say all told it was about a half mile, give or take a football field.

    Fabien said something in French that I didn’t quite pick up, but I’m pretty sure it wasn’t very nice.

    At that point, we said, “Thank you” and “Merci” and Fabien wheeled out the front door, got out of the wheelchair, went up the two steps with his canes, I picked up the wheelchair, and we went off to continue our inspection.

    The next thing we found was a series of steps that blocked our progress to a bank of elevators that was key to accessing the rest of the hotel. This time we did eventually locate a long, steep, and curvy ramp through the lush semi-tropical foliage which led us to the elevators, but it took us a good 10 minutes to find it. The ramp surface was painted in earth tones to blend in with the foliage, almost as if it were camouflaged. All it would have taken to spare us those 10 frustrating minutes and speed us on our way would have been a small, inexpensive sign where the nearly invisible ramp emerged from the jungle.

    Making note of where the sign was needed so we could inform conference attendees in our addendum to the Accessibility Guide, we proceeded to the elevator to continue our adventure.

    It didn’t take us long to realize the well-hidden ramp in the jungle was no fluke. Indeed, the biggest accessibility problem at the hotel was lack of signage. The next example was when we traversed a long, deeply carpeted corridor which ran the length of the mezzanine level above the atrium. Have you ever tried to negotiate a deeply carpeted surface in a wheelchair? I offered to push Fabien, but he just waved me off and muscled his way down the corridor. I seriously doubt many people in a wheelchair would have the strength to have gotten down that corridor, but Fabien covered all 300-or-so feet of it.

    Whereupon we encountered a seven-step drop down to an elevator, with—you guessed it—no access ramp.

    My education in French vernacular continued.

    Rather than have Fabien traverse the seven steps with his canes—which he could have done but which would have been a little dicey—we made note of the situation and then retraced our “steps” back down the 300-foot corridor to make sure we hadn’t missed something.

    And, sure enough, we had—about halfway down the corridor, if you took a side corridor (with no steps), there was another elevator just a few feet down the side corridor. But guess what wasn’t at the intersection of the main corridor and the side corridor.

    Right. A sign.

    This pattern continued throughout the hotel, so we just kept taking notes and pointed out all the “trouble-spots” in the addendum, which we had printed at the Kinko’s and inserted into the already printed Accessibility Guides, ready for distribution at registration in the morning.

    Our mission complete, we went back to the café to have a glass of wine, making sure the manager saw Fabien negotiate the two steps on his canes. As we sipped our wine and toasted the success of our mission, a gleam flashed in Fabien’s eye.

    “Well, I don’t think our mission is QUITE yet complete, Dan,” he said.

    “What do you mean? We covered every inch of this place!”

    “Yes. But now we need to fix the signage problem.”

    “What do you mean?

    “We need to put up signs.”

    “How do you propose we do that? Kinko’s is closed. And even if it were open, how would we put up the signs?”

    Another gleam in his eye.

    “I always come prepared. I have paper, colored markers, and thumb tacks in my room.”

    You can probably figure out what we spent the next three hours doing, completing our mission at midnight. So I’ll fast-forward to the part where the irate hotel manager cornered the STC executive director the next morning, demanding STC cease and desist “vandalizing” his 5-star hotel.

    Fabien and I were immediately “spoken to.” Of course, the hotel manager’s minions had already ripped down our signs, so there was nothing for us to do at that point other than to say we were “so, so sorry.” I mean, we had made our point, so what was the harm in humbly apologizing?

    While trying not to laugh.

    And even as I mourn our grievous loss, I still have to chuckle as I recall this story … and I can almost see Fabien smiling down from above.

    Rest in peace, my fellow warrior and beloved friend.

    And, to Fabien’s loved ones, I send my deepest condolences. May you find peace in the knowledge that Fabien made a huge difference in this world and that we, his many dear friends, will honor his memory by carrying forth his mission.

  6. Fabien and I took a little time to get to know each other. In fact, I don’t believe we liked each other very much. We both mellowed out over the years and started sending fun little barbs back and forth. I remember once I sent him a photo of a Canadian Royal Policeman sitting backwards. We laughed and enjoyed life together.

    One way I consistently “got” him was when I made it a point to sit next to him at various luncheons at out annual conference (The Summit). Damien was a Vegan and always had to explain to the waitress what that meant. Immediately after he explained, I would always cut in and said, “That means he worships the devil.”His face would flush and in a small child-like voice said “It does not!”

    Fabien will always occupy a place in my heart reserved just for him. Dr. Seuss is known to have said, “Don’t cry because it’s over. Smile because it happened.” I will always smile when I think of Fabien.

  7. I’m rather late for this, but nevertheless I extend my condolences to Fabien’s friends and family. He was one of my professors in Concordia University’s certificate program in Technical Communication. He was extremely fluent in the subjects of writing and editing, and he imparted his knowledge with flair and wit. He overcame many physical obstacles despite his body being damaged by polio, and I remain inspired by that.

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