In celebration of National Disability Employment Awareness Month, we are excited to feature John Samuel, Head of LCI Tech, a North Carolina-based firm that employs Americans with disabilities to provide digital accessibility services. John’s passion for inclusion is rooted in the fact that he is a blind entrepreneur, advocate and public speaker committed to creating opportunities by eliminating accessibility barriers.
How did you get started in accessibility?
I rather bumped in to it – literally! I was diagnosed with a degenerating eye condition when I was in college, but did not disclose my eye condition to my professors or many other people. I felt ashamed, and did not want people to know that I was going blind. I then left my home state of North Carolina, because I did not think I could have a career or life there if I could not drive. My career then took me across the globe, spending time in Bangalore (India), New York, Douala (Cameroon), and Washington, DC. Throughout this time, my vision was diminishing, but along the way I was figuring out accommodations for myself, so I could accomplish my work. This ranged from finding a magnifying mouse that would let me enlarge content on my screen, to inverting the color of my display to help me see text better. Although I was facing issues navigating the web and using apps on my phone, I did not know that these were accessibility barriers. The word accessibility was just not in my vocabulary.
In March of 2017, my friend sent me an article about a new software that was developed that allowed people who were blind to visualize graphs and charts using sound. I thought this was cool, but what really grabbed my attention was the person who developed the software. His name was Ed Summers, and he had the same eye condition as me and was working in my hometown of Cary, NC! I tried for two months to get in touch with Ed, with no luck. Finally, my wife and I decided to look for houses in Cary, thinking that if he could live there, maybe we could, too. We told my parents that we found a house we liked, and they were so excited, because they never thought I was coming home. They immediately jumped in the car to go see this house, and as my dad was driving he started yelling at something. I was on the phone, and was asking him what was going on, and he told me that there was a blind person on the street and maybe it was the person that I was trying to reach! I told my dad not to yell at people who are blind on the road, and not to yell at anyone for that matter! Therefore, he got out, walked over to the man, and asked if he was Ed Summers – and it was!
After apologizing profusely to Ed, he agreed to meet with me! He is the Director of Accessibility at SAS, and it was this serendipitous encounter that led me to the world of accessibility and LCI Tech.
As the Head of LCI Tech, you have drawn upon your own personal challenges as a blind professional in the business world to stress the value of employing people with disabilities. What is a common misconception that employers have regarding workers with disabilities?
I think many of the misconceptions about employing people with disabilities are derived from the fear of the unknown. If someone does not have exposure to someone with a disability, whether it be a family member, friend, classmate, or someone they worked with in the past, they don’t know what they don’t know. This often results in people with disabilities being underestimated for what they can actually do, and thus being overlooked for potential employment opportunities.
However, to change this we need to continue to remove barriers that are limiting people with disabilities from all aspects of life, including work. This is a cultural shift that needs to happen, and we have been trying to do this by providing digital accessibility services at LCI Tech, by people with disabilities. Not only are we helping our customers make their digital content more accessible, but we are also helping them build empathy, both of which I hope will lead to more people with disabilities entering the workforce.
What is an accessibility barrier that you would like to see solved?
Something that I am quite passionate about is the accessibility of education. When I look at the education statistics for people with disabilities, it makes sense why the employment numbers are low. And today, higher education is not limited to a traditional four-year college, but rather community colleges, boot camps, and apprenticeships, and this is what I want to ensure is accessible for people of all abilities.
However, like any good entrepreneur, when you see a problem, you see an opportunity. This is something that we are working to address at LCI Tech, are hopeful that we will launch a new service next year that will provide accessible training and certifications, for people of all abilities. This is just one more step towards removing the barriers that hinder our community from entering the workforce, and we are hopeful that it will pay dividends in the long term.