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Dr. Joy Zabala died at the age of 74 on July 1, 2021 after a brief battle with a very aggressive cancer at Connecticut Hospice near her daughter’s home in Orange, CT. She was surrounded by family, friends, love, songs, and the sea.

The aptly named Joy Smiley was born on November 3, 1946 to Edna Miller Smiley and Wallace Bruce Smiley, Jr. in  Daytona Beach, Florida. She lived in Tifton, GA, Miami, FL, Caracas, Venezuela, Lake Jackson, TX, New Smyrna Beach, FL, and Brevard, North Carolina. She graduated from Seabreeze High School in Daytona Beach, earned a bachelor's degree from the University of Florida, a master's degree from Florida Atlantic University, and a doctoral degree from the University of Kentucky. She traveled extensively, visiting and working in more than a dozen countries, including Sweden, India, Australia, Italy, New Zealand, and Qatar. 

Joy was a passionate, lifelong educator and advocate. As a first grade teacher at Escuela Campo Alegre in Caracas, Venezuela, she was beloved for connecting that community with a paper message board that became a tradition and grew so massive it covered one wall of the elementary wing. She also taught and had her first graders perform Shakespeare's original Romeo & Juliet. Once moving to Texas, Joy became involved in special education and embarked on what became her life's work. Stemming from an ardent and empathetic interest in each student, Joy committed herself to the advocacy for and improvement of their communicative tools and educational access. She took on leadership roles in the field, eventually earning an EdD, and grew to national and international prominence as a leading expert, teacher trainer, mentor, and conference presenter in the field of Assistive Technology (AT), Accessible Educational Materials (AEM), and Universal Design for Learning (UDL). Joy developed the SETT Framework (Student, Environments, Tasks, and Tools), a model that is widely used by families and educators for collaborative decision-making in all phases of AT services and delivery. She was also a co-founder of QIAT (Quality Indicators in Assistive Technology), which provides guiding principles for improving services for individuals with disabilities. A colleague recently said of Joy, "Her work is embedded in practices throughout the world." Another writes, reflecting the sentiment of innumerable recent messages,"This is such a significant loss to the Assistive Technology, Accessibility & Inclusion Communities. Joy was an educator, researcher, thought leader, visionary, change maker, mentor and dear friend to so many of us and countless others around the world."

This endearing warmth and energy permeated every aspect of Joy's life. She was generous, sincere, fierce, empathetic and kind. Joy was quick to laugh: at jokes, puns, stories, plays, shows, and the lighter side of modern life...She loved to have fun: kayaking in lakes, rivers, and her treasured sea, hiking in the mountains, exploring and discovering new places all over the world with her husband, Adrian, dining with pride and pleasure at her older daughter Gaye's restaurant, attending her younger daughter Adriana's rehearsals and performances, playing with and traveling with her five grandchildren, singing and harmonizing, reading with a pug in her lap, cheering at tennis tournaments, walking on the beach, snorkeling in the Caribbean, sipping coffee on the porch in the morning, feeding the chipmunks and squirrels, spending endless hours in person or on the phone with numerous friends, family members, and colleagues...She was known to cry: at beautiful things, the births of her grandchildren, moving films, books, poetry, quotes, music, achievements, meaning, courage, and inventions...She was motivated and inspired: by ideas and actions of justice and equality, by curiosity, spirituality, art, creativity, beauty, understanding, and progress.

Joy was characterized by love and commitment: she worked hard to realize her ideals and contribute meaningfully to the world, she fiercely loved, inspired, and encouraged her family, she enjoyed a deep and wide circle of cherished friends and colleagues all over the world. She embraced life and welcomed all generously into her home and heart, leaving this world better than she found it, and all of us richer for having known and loved her, for experiencing Joy. 

Joy is survived by her beloved husband of 55 years, Adrian; two daughters, Gaye (Richard) and Adriana (Sébastien); five grandchildren, Amanda, Jacob, Sophie, Valentine, and Anaïs; and her dear brother, Bruce (Mitchell).


* The Joy Zabala Fellowship in Assistive Technology and Educational Materials is currently taking shape. We will share more information soon about how you and your community can help honor and ensure Joy's legacy by contributing to the Fellowship.

Dr. joy Zabala, 1946-2021

Loved by all who knew her.

Reflections from Family, Friends, and Colleagues

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