Saturday, May 2, 2015

Technology and Disability

On May 2nd 2015 I used my new text-to-speech app to present the following to 60 Fulbright Scholars from 40 different countries.

Technology and Disability 

Hi, I'm Neil Jacobson. I am extremely honored to be able to address you today. As a person with a significant disability entering my golden years, it is wonderful seeing young people excited about taking on tomorrow's challenges. I was asked to talk about technology and disability. Because I seldom do exactly as I'm told, I'm also going to speak about employment of people with disabilities. After Rolf and I speak, I hope you have lots of questions. I love questions! Be forewarned that if you have no questions,I have questions for you!

As background, after 29 years of working at Wells Fargo, I retired to start a disability-focused employment company that specializes in consulting on staffing and placement issues. I quickly realized that there are systemic problems which intrinsically inhibit people with disabilities from working and being productive. Our society holds very low expectations for individuals with disabilities. Our government's defining of disability as the 'inability to work' in order to receive disability benefits is an inherent disincentive. I am dedicating the rest of my retirement to see that these antiquated policies do change. I am doing so by working with The World Institute on Disability (WID). To learn more about my work now, please see Our Career ACCESS dot org.

At Wells Fargo, I was a Sr. Vice President in their I T department. In the 80's, I was the architect responsible for designing the first 7 by 24 banking system in the U.S. My last assignment at the Bank was to manage the design and implementation of mobile banking. I love I T! Especially software. Software proves that there is always a way to accomplish what you want to accomplish. At the Bank, I often drove my development staff crazy. I would insist that any feature the user wanted to put into our application, there was always a way to do so, and indeed there was. I must admit, I live my life as a person with a disability in a similar fashion. Whatever I really want to do, there's always a way!

We'll talk more about Wells Fargo in a moment. I want you also to know that before working at the bank, I co-founded Computer Technologies Program (C T P). It was 1975. The co-founder was a 24 year man, named Scott Luebking, who had a spinal cord injury. At the time, I was 22 years old and my speech was a bit better than it is now. Scott and I set up the program, wrote the curricula, found the students, taught classes, ran the labs, found internships and found jobs for the graduates. Students were in class or in the lab 8 to 12 hours a day, 5 or 6 days a week. My idea was to convince the students that if they could survive me and CTP, they could do anything! I always told my students how wonderful it is to work as a computer programmer in the 'real business world'. After doing this for 4 years, I thought it might help if I actually went into that 'real business world' for a year or two so that when I returned to C T P I could indoctrinate the students even better! To my surprised, I found that the 'real business world' is great. I stayed at Wells Fargo almost 30 years.

My experience at Wells Fargo leads me to believe that corporations are more ready for people with disabilities than we are for them. Focusing on making a profit can be a very equalizing activity. Focusing on doing a great job rather than focusing on ones disability can be liberating. At the Bank, I found that if you did a good job and added to the Bank's bottom line, it didn't matter what color you were or what religion you practiced or what disability you had. Focusing on the bottom line also leads to creativity. There were many nights when there were system problems. Support personnel from the Bank's computer centers would call me and inevitably find a way to understand what I was saying – because they needed to! One of my favorite stories happened near the beginning of my career, before there was online computing, The system crashed at 1AM. My van was in the shop, Trains in the Bay Area don’t run all night. Wells Fargo sent an armored van to transport me and my 300 pound powered wheelchair to the data center.
Assistive technology has always been an amusing concept for me. My own disability, Cerebral Palsy, is quite significant. I cannot drink without a straw, but are drinking straws considered assistive technology? I also have very limited use of my hands, and use a word expansion application to help me type faster. Many people with disabilities I know use a speech recognition system to verbally navigate their computer and the Internet and create documents. These applications have been called assistive technology, but when people without disabilities use them they are just seen as mainstream conveniences and aids to productivity. Would anyone call Siri an assistive technology? What about speakerphones? Gadgets and applications seem to be classified as assistive technology only when they are used by people with disabilities—and only until the general public realizes how universal that gadget or app can be. When people ask me what assistive technology I like the best, I answer it is my Wells Fargo Visa Card. It's surprising how much easier it is for people to understand me after they see that card!

So is it assistive technology, or a mainstream technology product that has accessibility features? The technologies themselves have no such categories, and the differences only seem to arise in terms of who is using them in what context. Most, if not all, developers and companies I know, want to build accessible technologies. Who wouldn't want their product to be usable by as many potential customers as possible? At Wells Fargo, I always ensured the Bank had at least 1 team member actively engaged with the W3C Web Accessibility Initiative (W A I). Their web accessibility standards are quite good, which is why they’re being implemented in law and practice worldwide. The main issue was, and continues to be, how to educate thousands of developers on the standards and how to ensure an ever-changing system continuously conforms to the standards. I look forward to when changes can quickly, if not automatically, be tested and reconstructed to meet W3C W A I guidelines. I look forward to companies proudly displaying an icon depicting their alliance with accessibility guidelines.

Universal Design is a 2 way obligation. I encourage assistive technology designers who are designing products and services for people with disabilities to consider how their inventions can be used by the general public. Just last week, a small hardware firm sent a designer to my house to find out what kind of hardware might better enable me to use my smart phone or tablet from my wheelchair. I applauded them for considering the needs of people with disabilities. I explained how I'd really like a stand mounted on the wheelchair that would hold the IPAD steady and that could recharge the IPAD using solar energy. I urge them to design the stand for bicyclists and people pushing strollers. Marketing to the general public usually leads to a better product at a lower price. Marketing to the general public helps ensure that people with disabilities are aware of the product and removes the stigma often associated with using assistive technologies. Marketing to the general public is also more lucrative, ensuring companies will be around to build the next great product.

The Americans with Disability Act has been an incredibly wonderful civil rights law. The world, especially here in the U.S. is extremely more accessible to and accepting of people with disabilities. Technology, including assistive technologies have progressed well beyond anyone's expectations. There is plenty left to be done. Expectations of people with disabilities are still extremely low. Well over 75% of people with disabilities in the U.S. are not working. To receive disability benefits from the government people with disabilities must prove they are not able to work. Think about that. When I first went to work, I received a letter from the government telling me I was no longer disabled. I went through an identity crisis!

Now is the time to take the next step. Now is the time to expect people with disabilities to take full advantage of the progress made to date and to be active and productive people. We are counting on you, the young scholars and the young people to define the new policies and technologies that will enable all people to be as active, productive and fulfilled as they can and want to be. Go out there and do your thing. Go Go Go! And whatever you do, have fun doing it! Thank you!