Transforming and Accelerating Accessibility: The Need For The Organized Blind Movement To Innovate Through Inclusive Design; Sina Bahram, Founder and President, Prime Access Consulting; Research Triangle Park, North Carolina

PRESIDENT RICCOBONO: We're going to flip flop a little bit to accommodate our speakers.  I'm going to jump into the next presentation.  We're going to jump to transforming and accelerating accessibility, the need for the organized blind movement to innovate through inclusive design.  

We'll welcome a scholarship winner in 2010.  I have two pages of notes I was going to say about him.  He was recognized as a championship of change by the Obama Administration.  He is a blind person who is    has built a very successful business around accessibility and inclusion and he's living our philosophy through his leadership of a business that really puts at its core, advancing inclusion accessibility as a core principle of value to whatever organization he makes a conscious choice to work with. And his contributions to our movement through his leadership in accessibility are many.  He informs the work that we do on so many fronts here.  Back to our station is Sina Bahram.

stand up with your face to the sky
together we can take it higher, we can take it higher

SINA BAHRAM: Mr. President, thank you for such a kind introduction.  You can tell it's been a long day.  Good evening, everyone.  My name is Sina Bahram coming to you from North Carolina on a under this thunderstorm laden evening.
I want to tell you a little bit about what I do.  Talk about inclusive design and get into it.  I run a company called prime access consulting or PAC for short.  It is a really cool job.

I'm incredibly privileged.

This week alone, one conversation was around how do we make holograms accessible.  The other one was we have an immersion room and we have only projectors and no electricity on the walls but how do we make things inclusive designed for everybody whether you can see or hear or use your feet to walk around.  These are some of the conversations I get to have and some of the amazing spaces I get to play in.

And the reason that I get to play in those spaces is because of this philosophy of inclusive design. We all talk about accessibility.  Those things that are done especially for persons with disabilities.  Sometimes it is defined as the things done for those who depend on assistive technologies.  But really what it comes down to is that there's a difference between that and inclusive design.  Inclusive design is a way of thinking that allows us to design experiences, places, buildings, services, products, what have you, in such a way that it is usable by the widest possible audience.  In such a way that it doesn't introduce barriers.  And up front.  Not making it accessible after the fact.

The common example of this stuff is things like the curb cut, right?  Critical for some audiences like those are mobility differences.  But it is augmentative and helpful for everybody for example parents with strollers or people with luggage at the airport.

We don't think of certain other things as inclusive design but they are.  Think of audio description that is not only helpful for those of us who are blind and use it on services like Netflix and so forth but also my friend who is autistic uses it.  I was over at his house.  We have a pretty irreverent relationship.  You know you can see, right?  Yeah, I do.  But I use it for the emotional content.  I want to know what, in certain dramas, it is hard for me to detect emotional content.  We see this with visual description in art galleries.  It is useful for those who can see, not just for those who can't because it lets you know what's going on.  And it lets you have a guided looking experience.

So if you really want to think about this difference, one way of look at it is something like at the national museum of African American history and culture, there is the Greensboro County counter.  It is an exhibit on the segregation, detailing the violence portrayed against the men of color that sat at the counter during the civil rights movement in this country.
If you go, there you are if you're a wheelchair user, you're asked to roll down to the end of the counter where it's been lowered a couple of inches.

Now this is accessible, right?  But we think in the work that we do at PAC, if you're a black woman in a wheelchair rolling up to this thing, you're asked to roll down to the end of the counter.  It is accessible and legal but it is no way inclusive.  That's the work that we try to do.  That's the kind of situation that we try to avoid in the world.

So we need to remember that a lot of us know these facts, these numbers.  We hear them all the time.  25% of the people in the world have a disability.  Your chances of experiencing a disability is one out of 2 over the age of 35.  We all have different abilities and skills and ways of interacting with the world.  And we need to get out of these silos. A lot of the work we do concentrates on understanding we need to be able to build coalitions amongst groups of persons with disabilities whether it's deaf folks and blind folks and autistic folks and so forth because only together can we overcome some of the incredibly significant challenges that are facing us not only today but in the near future.

We need to understand this doesn't take away from our individual causes, making the world more inclusive is not against the mission of the NFB.  But we need to understand we have these amazing talents and expertise that we can bring to these conversations and only together through realizing that when something is inaccessible or othering for one group of people, it is inaccessible and othering for all of us.  That's the underlying ethos behind the work that I do and what I tend to believe in. Why does this matter?  It matters because we live in the most accessible time in the world!  And you know what else is simultaneously true?  We live in the most inaccessible time in the world.  We've become with iPhones and iPads that have built in accessibility and those are wonderful things.  They should be celebrated. The thing is that over the next four years, there will be more inaccessible experiences created than in the history of humanity.  That's the nature of exponential progress.  That's what we're up against.

If we don't do something about that and we don't do something about that together, then we are absolutely out of luck.  So we can't be talking about accessibility.  If we're having a conversation around accessibility, it is already too late.  That's a post facto conversation.  We need to be talking about inclusive design up front.  Take for example some current events.  The ACLU right now has a major campaign and these are not bad people, by the way.  They have a major campaign right now against facial recognition.  And really stigmatizing facial recognition as a technology.  For good reason.  It has been used to perpetuate massive harm and violence especially against persons of color in this country.

Here's the thing.  A lot of us use facial recognition all the time not only to do something like unlock our phones but to understand who's in a photo because Apple has built in artificial intelligence into our devices. Someone who is autistic can use facial recognition technology to detect emotional contents either on a video stream or through image recognition.  These things really matter but these policies that are being put forth, they're being put forth by well meaning people.  They're being put forth by folks who want to do good and prevent harm in the world.  However, they're deeply ableist.  They're deeply naive solutions to complicated problems.

So we need to work together and have a unified voice, especially amongst all persons of varying abilities, otherwise, we have absolutely no chance, my friends, of solving these problems and making sure our voices and our roles in the world are represented in the way that we want them to be.

So what can we do about it?  This is a little bit of doom and gloom.  What can we do about it?  We can think inclusively.  When we have an experience, we don't only think about ourselves in terms of was that described or was this available in Braille?  But was there sign language?  What would I have done if I didn't have the privilege of being able to walk there?  Was there a ramp to get access to that thing?

We need to be thinking about all of our brothers and sisters and fellow humans that have various abilities because we need to then be surfacing these issues and problems when we notice them in the world so that we can be helping each other and by doing so, of course, help ourselves.  We need to also be able to bring on board allies. This means, for example, the individuals that are creating experiences.  I work with thousands of designers and developers every single year.  Me and my teamwork across hundreds of different products in the industry whether it is health care or museums in which we do a ton of work.

And a lot of these people are simply acting from a place of first of all, lack of education about accessibility and inclusive design.  And second of all, from a place of not knowing what it is to do.  They're told one thing and expected to quickly become an expert in certain matters.  But they're not set up to win.  And we need to be able to group together with other persons with disabilities, with other groups, to establish education pipelines, to establish unified messaging and to really go after legislators on this topic so that we are unified in our approach because there is an avalanche of new technologies headed our way.

It will blow your mind what is going to happen between now and 2030.  It is not a mathematical exaggeration.  It is to say it will be more than all of humanity has experienced since there have been people on this planet. So if we realize that that is true, we cannot be complacent and satisfied. Being unsatisfied does not mean being ungrateful, right?  I have the privilege of working with some incredible people every single day.  People who go I had no idea some people are like I didn't even know computers could talk.  That's where some people start.  Other people are like I think I know everything about accessibility and after a couple of conversations with my team, they realize they don't.  We all have different journeys we're walking on.  But we cannot be complacent in that.  We need to be grateful but pushing forward with incredible fervent behavior.  If we don't, then we're going to be left behind.  And rapidly accelerating rate.

I invite you to think about your personal experiences.  Think about going through the world in whatever capacity you do whether it is education, whether it is in the practice of law, whether it is in technology or in music or in anything that it is, that you do.  And think about those experiences not only from the viewpoint and through the lens of blindness which we    in this group of people, under this virtual room, do such a good job at.  But also under the lens of making sure that these experiences and these environments that we have the privilege of existing in are as inclusive as we possibly can make them for our fellow humans.

Now this has some practical consequences.  It means when we notice something like there's no captions on a video, we need to be complaining about that just as hard as no audio description.  It means that when we notice that there's no, for example, sign language interpretation at a dramatic event, it is just as important as not having audio description.  Things like that are a way that we can start building consensus that there is a unified need.  It is not an option.  We need to make our environments less disabling. It is that old adage that you have the medical model of disability and the social environmental model of disability.  It is not the individual that's disabled.

It is the environment that is disabling.  We need to work together to make sure that our environments are not disabling as we move forward throughout the world. In closing, I want to say thank you so much to all of you for your time.  Thank you, Mr. President, for your invitation to speak to the convention this evening.  And I hope everybody has a wonderful rest of your convention.  Have a good night, everybody.

PRESIDENT RICCOBONO: Thank you very much, Sina Bahram for your work and the difference you're making and educating people about the capacity of blind people as well as all people with disabilities and informing our work in this space.  I said in the presidential report that one of our interests here is what a future civil rights museum for the blind might be like.

I've talked with Sina about that idea.  We'll be tapping into his knowledge for that project.  Thank you for being here.  Let's go to the PAC plan.