Sina Bahram

Founder and President, Prime Access Consulting, accessibility expert

Sina has accomplished a great deal throughout his career. He received his Master’s degree in computer science and PHD . He has received an Emerging Leadership Award in digital accessibility at the annual Noll Ability Community Heroes of Accessibility awards in 2015. He has also been a part of several organizations and served as President of the Java users group. He is also founded Prime Access Consulting. He also likes to engage in public speaking engagements about issues surrounding accessibility. He finds pleasure in teaching others about Blindness and the importance of accessibility.

Vision Towards Success Podcast Episode
Transcript

Elana Regan: Forward. Forward. Left. Behind the door.

Speaker 2: There are over four million working aged blind and visually impaired people in the United States. And over two million of these people are unemployed. This is a staggering statistic but many people defy these odds and are happily and gainfully employed. And we wish to share their stories with the world.

Elana Regan: Hello and welcome to Vision Towards Success, the podcast that highlights stories of career development and lived experience. This podcast is brought to you by the Polus Center for Social and Economic Development. In our program, we feature employment success stories from visually impaired individuals, for people with disabilities and their allies, in hopes of showing just how smart, hardworking, and capable this diverse community is.

Hello, my name is [Elana Regan 00:01:27] and you are listening to Vision Towards Success. In today's episode, we will be diving into the wide-reaching world of technology. Our guest, Sina Bahram, is the CEO of an accessibility firm called Prime Access Consulting. He works diligently to ensure that products today can be used by all people regardless of disability. And now I'd like to hand it over to my colleague, Chantal, so we can learn a little more about Sina.

Chantal: Hi, Sina. Thank you so much for being here today. It is really a privilege to have you. How are you feeling?

Sina Bahram: I'm feeling great. Thanks for having me.

Chantal: Can you tell us about yourself, where you grew up and where you went to school?

Sina Bahram: Sure. I was born in Turkey on the way over to the United States, actually. My family's from Iran. So I'm Persian. And I grew up in South Carolina and then North Carolina. I did elementary school and middle school in South Carolina and then high school and university in North Carolina. I live in a place called Cary, which is very close to Raleigh, the capital of North Carolina. It's a place called Research Triangle Park.

Chantal: While being in school, what type of assistive technology did you use?

Sina Bahram: Well, I'm blind, so I relied on a lot of speech-based technologies, things like a screen reader, which is a program on my computer, and other devices that reads things. But also, I grew up a little bit before all of these things were so ubiquitous, were so common. So I also had some specialized equipment, things like a Braille 'n Speak, which was a personal note-taker that had a speech synthesizer and a braille keyboard on it. And things of that nature where there were talking devices, there was a braille printer or embosser so that I could convert my school materials into braille or a diagram into a tactile diagram so I could touch it and feel it.

And I had a little bit more vision when I was growing up. So I also use a little bit of enlargement software, things like where I would bump the font size up on my computer and then get really close to the screen in order to see what's going on. Starting in high school, I stopped doing that and really use the screen reader all the way and I was able to get way, way, way faster at using technology.

Chantal: Why did you decide to major in computer science for your bachelor's degrees, master's degrees, and your PhD?

Sina Bahram: I always loved computers from a very young age. And when I was four, five years old, six years old, this kind of age, I would sit beside the computer when my brother was using it. My brother is older than me. He's about like 11 years older than me. My sister is 12 years older than me. So both of them, they went off to engineering over at Clemson. They majored in electrical engineering. So they were on the computer when I was a little kid. And so I thought it was cool from that perspective but then I think I quickly realized maybe I didn't have the words for it when I was a young kid but I definitely felt this way that in a technological platform like in a computer, it leveled the playing field a lot for me compared to the physical world.

So I was able to do things on a computer that my sighted friends were able to do as well. In fact, a lot of times, I was a lot better at all of those things than everybody I knew. And that was a really neat thing to be an expert at something independent of this disability or difference of ability. And that then led to me being able to do things for myself. So I was able to write programs to do things and to run a calculator and to begin searching the web, when the web became more popular to look up information instead of relying on an inaccessible book, a printed book, or to have to scan a book, for example.

So in all these ways, it felt like an area where, don't get me wrong, there's a lot of accessibility and access issues to resolve in technology but when those are working well, it's a wonderful leveler of the playing field in a sense, at least for me that the physical world wasn't. So that alone was a big impetus for me, a big driver for me to get more into tech. But then, I just had a lot of fun with it, building computers and building software and writing little scripts. And so I was able to affect things.

And so all of a sudden, it's this magical universe where by knowing the rules, you get to define them and change them and make them different based on how you want them to be. And I thought that was really cool. So when I went into college, I definitely majored in computer science because I knew that's what I wanted to be doing. And then later on, all this other stuff around inclusive design and accessibility started happening where I realized that this is also a method by which I can help people whether they have disabilities or not to just have wonderful experiences because technology is such a wonderful force for good when used in the right ways.

Chantal: Speaking about accessibility, did you work during your college days? How was it finding a job while being visually impaired?

Sina Bahram: I did work during my college days. I worked a lot during them. Sometimes it would be at the university IT office. And one of the things that I helped them actually with was their accessibility efforts on campus, and to pass the university-wide ICT accessibility policy, which is like instructional and information communication technology. So really looking at all of the things, websites and educational software and smart boards and things like this, and making a policy on campus that says, hey, these things, they need to be accessible, because they need to be usable by the widest possible audience amongst our staff, our students, our faculty.

And so I did a lot of work in that and got into accessibility that way. But then also, I worked on some other projects where it wasn't related to accessibility. I worked at this company called Radar Find where we were doing real time location systems. So in a hospital, they have a lot of equipment, and it moves all over the place. And they need to know where that stuff is. So we invented these little tags that you could put on them. And then we wrote all sorts of software and all sorts of hardware that could track these things throughout the hospital.

So when a doctor needed something, she could look at a screen and know where the closest of that thing was. There was a map that would tell her, oh, there's one down the hall in this room. And so, I got to work on a lot of cool aspects of that, from the hardware to writing the location algorithms, think of it like indoor GPS, and that was a lot of fun for me. And I also started working a little bit on the theory side of computer science. When we have these applications that students use in class, oftentimes, regrettably, they're not very accessible.

They're very graphical. They show graphs and other pictures on the screen. But then how do you make that inclusive and available so that if somebody is unable to see or if somebody can't use a keyboard or if somebody is unable to hear or talk, how are they able to still receive an education and really demonstrate that they know all the concepts even though they don't have the same abilities as some of the other students in terms of physical abilities? But that was a lot of fun as well. And that, honestly, is what got me interested in theoretical computer science. So that's why I went to grad school for it and started really researching it more from that perspective.

Chantal: I can definitely feel the passion behind your voice. Do you work in that field currently? And what do you do now for work?

Sina Bahram: I do. I do work in that field currently. Mainly, I work in a field called inclusive design. And I'll explain what that is in a second. But first, maybe we should define a couple of terms. So accessibility are those things that we do, especially for persons who use assistive technologies, people with disabilities, generally speaking. That's what accessibility is. And that's great, don't get me wrong, but that's not the approach that I tend to take to this work. We tend to approach things from an inclusive design perspective.

And that means that you design things so that everybody can use it, you're not putting barriers in place in the software. There's accessibility things you have to do, making sure it's working well with a screen reader, making sure it works well when you zoom in at 200% zoom, making sure if somebody can't perceive colors, they're still able to understand what's going on in the interface, all that stuff. But it's not just accessibility. It's really about inclusion, how do we make things as usable, not just the bare minimum requirement to make it accessible. And so about 10 or 11 years ago, I started a company called Prime Access Consulting or PAC, P-A-C, for short. And PAC does a ton of work in this inclusive design space. We work with technology companies, really big ones, the ones you're familiar with, and use their products every day, but small ones, too.

We worked with a ton of museums and cultural institutions, so galleries, libraries, archives, and museums, all of these folks. And what we do with them is we show them how to make their offerings, whether it's an exhibition, whether it's building an entire museum like President Obama's presidential center in Chicago, or whether it's just an art exhibition where we have a bunch of paintings and we're trying to write visual descriptions for them. We show them how to make these experiences more inclusive, more welcoming, and more accessible for everybody, not just people with disabilities. And it's an absolute blast. I love what I do. And I get to work on some really amazing projects with some truly wonderful, creative people.

Chantal: It sounds like your industry is accessible. And are there any other workers with disabilities?

Sina Bahram: Absolutely. We have many people on the team who are either blind, low vision, have hearing differences, identify as being autistic or being on the spectrum, you name it. Because it's really important that the work is being done by the folks who are benefiting from it, who are being served by it. And so, we are really passionate, especially at PAC, at my company, that we hire persons with disabilities, we hire folks who are experts in this field. And that's true for some of the colleagues that we work with throughout the industry as well.

One of the things that we see a lot of, which is unfortunate, is that people will invent stuff for persons with disabilities. Whether it's assistive technologies or whether it's some kind of app on the phone or something like this, but they're not experts in that lived experience. They don't have the expertise. They have good intentions. They have a goal for trying to help but they're not the most informed about all the work that's been done before. So they end up reinventing the same thing over and over and over again.

Basically, if you want one example of this, every couple of years, somebody comes up with a smart cane, every couple of years since 2000, since 1990, this has been true. You just look around, oh, somebody reinvented the laser cane all over again. It's not because they're being malicious or silly about it, it's just that people are not good about doing the research of what has come before let me work with the target audience I'm trying to serve and see what the real needs are and then go about solving those problems.

So what we try to do is center those folks and in the work where it is people with disabilities that have expertise and things like accessibility, computer science, engineering, all that stuff, and then work on creating solutions to really push things forward so we're not reinventing the wheel every couple of years.

Chantal: In 2012, you were awarded the White House Champion of Change Presidential Award. How did you feel about getting that award?

Sina Bahram: It was amazing. It was a real privilege. In 2012, I was at the White House. It was just a really amazing experience. It's actually what got me into museums. Because when I was there at the White House, there was a woman there, Christine Reich, and she was over at evaluations in Museum Of Science, Cambridge, Massachusetts, which is a museum that has done some work in accessibility as well. And she's like, "We're hosting this event. I really like for you to come participate."

And it was wonderful because there were a bunch of technology people in the room and I knew all of those people. But there were a bunch of museum people in the room and I didn't know any of those people. And so I got to work with them throughout the week. And we got to work on putting together a prototype and designing an inclusively designed experience. And that really got me more and more interested in museums.

I was working with a lot more corporate clients at the time, some of the companies that just wanted to do the bare minimum for accessibility, and that wasn't very rewarding work. It was a wonderful crowd of people. And these are the people who have become dear friends of mine in this industry over the last decade. So that White House event not only was a great privilege and an honor but also, it was a wonderful opportunity that led to a lot of the work that I do today.

Chantal: So with COVID-19 affecting every one livelihood, how has COVID affected your life and work?

Sina Bahram: I used to be on the road about 250 or so days out of the year. So, I was traveling pretty much every week. Everybody at the airport knew who I was, the whole nine yards. And March of last year, that very much sucked in just overnight. And so all of a sudden, I went from spending 250 days out of the year traveling to spending zero. And that was a huge change. But I'll tell you, a lot of the ways in which we do the work, that didn't change. I was doing remote calls 10 years ago. I was hopping on conference calls with people and getting work done remotely even when I was traveling so much all the time.

And so, the method by which I was doing the work, that didn't really change. But doing it all from home and all of the related things from shutdown orders and not being able to go out and see friends and loved ones definitely was a huge impact. I will say, I'm really fortunate, it's a really a place of privilege. I own a house here in Cary, North Carolina. I can afford things like delivery for food and for groceries, and things like that. I can work remotely. So I was still able to earn a living during the pandemic.

This is a real privileged and fortunate position to be in. So many other people did not have that level of privilege. And so, definitely the pandemic was incredibly hard. And I lost some loved ones and things of this nature. But by the same token, I want to just make sure that we're realizing that so many people had it a lot worse. And so, I'm glad that hopefully with vaccination rates increasing and things starting to open back up again that we're hopefully getting to the end of it.

Chantal: How has it been for you to speak to small and large groups and organizations about web accessibility?

Sina Bahram: Yeah, I mean, it's different. Different groups approach the problem in different ways. Not only web accessibility but digital accessibility and inclusive design, all of these topics, a lot of folks think about it in different ways. Some folks are just concentrating on, well, this is going to cost me more. And you have to have that conversation with them. No, it doesn't, it opens up new customers. There's an ROI or return on investment argument that we make with business owners and things of this nature.

Other organizations, they're interested in equity, in inclusion. They're interested in how do we serve our staff better, how do we serve our customers and our visitors to the organization better. This is the right thing to do, how do we do it? So that's a different conversation. It really, really depends. And when I'm giving talks, the energy in the room is very different. It's very different to talk with you right now on this kind of recording versus talking in a room full of 10, 20, 30 people versus talking to, let's say, two or 300 people versus talking to some crowds I've talked with, it's 2,000 people in the room.

And those are very, very different experiences. What I find lovely about all of them is that I truly do believe and I do hold an optimistic view, especially in the long term about humans. People are generally looking for ways of doing good and a lot of people are good people that simply don't know how to make things better or how to stop doing things that may not be the best from an accessibility perspective, from an equity and diversity perspective, from racial equity perspective, all of these things are top of mind for a lot of folks right now.

And so, I think that when you are someone like myself who offers to come in and collaborate and not make people feel bad about where they are but help them get to where they want to be, that's a welcome. That's something that people are going to react positively to. Not everyone. There's always some folks that are going to be resistant. But the overwhelming majority of folks want to do the right thing, they simply don't know how. And so, that educator role is something I take really seriously, it's really important to me, and I feel that's the way that we can actually strive to make systemic change in the world.

Chantal: Absolutely. And do you mind speaking about your current research in how you can help people with disabilities?

Sina Bahram: Sure. So I'm involved in a couple of different projects right now. I'm not in a PhD program anymore so I can't spend my entire day doing research. But one of the projects, for example, we're working on is this project called multitap. There's this gentleman in Alabama, he is wheelchair user. He can't really speak above a whisper. And he's also blind and has some motor differences, really can't use an iPhone the way that I can use an iPhone with using my hands and running voiceover on it.

So, how can we make something that allows him to interact with let's say an iPhone in a better way, in an efficient, fast way? And so, he was a switch user, which is just a way of saying he had four buttons on his wheelchair. He could either press them short or long. So he could press them quickly or he could hold them down for a second. And these would activate some functions on his phone. Imagine typing that way, it's just so excruciatingly slow to type words that way, because all you have is essentially back, forward, and accept.

So I learned about this and about his story and everything at one of the meetings I was at on an unrelated research project. And I was just offended. From as a computer scientist, I was offended because this is atrocious. I knew I could do better. Now I don't have any free time but that's never stopped me before. So I was like, look, I think we can build something better. And so we did. I got a buddy of mine to 3D print a case. And then I designed essentially a program that runs on an embedded little piece of hardware, a little circuit board that we just bought and programmed. And we put 12 buttons on top.

And the 12 buttons are a keypad, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, star 0 pound, just like a telephone keypad. But here's the thing, before the iPhone, the way that we would text, you would push the keys to make letters. This is the way that we all used to text on our Nokia phones and things like this. But it's not only for typing because we also put different capabilities into that keypad so that he could control voiceover. So then he was able to navigate around and switch between emails and go bring up YouTube and do those kinds of things, which, yes, he could do before but super slowly, and now he can do it anywhere from 5 to 10 times faster. That's some of the work that I do on the side when not doing all the accessibility and inclusive design work in museums and with technology companies and things like that.

Chantal: It's really important and amazing because I myself grew up in a place where I did not receive any access to my notes, or I will just go in class and listen and borrow notes from other people because there were no access and all I needed was accessibility in order for me to be independent and work by my own. And why are you so passionate about accessibility?

Sina Bahram: Well, it's because of what you just said. So the difference is the opportunities that folks have, whether it's because of socioeconomic background, what country you grew up in, where in a particular country you grew up, and what school. I had a teacher when I was in second grade, she probably made all the difference in my life. She was a TVI, teacher with a vision impaired. And what she did was she taught me how to type. That was the thing that we did. And that then allowed me to use computers.

And just imagine if I hadn't learned that, maybe I would have learned it later on, but that's a big deal. That's a really big deal. And so for me, what's important is to understand that when the barriers are broken down, we can make our environments and our society far more inclusive. When we think about disability, there's a couple of ways of thinking about it. One is this antiquated medical model where we view the individual as being disabled. We say, oh, that person cannot see so they are disabled.

This is sort of the way of shifting the burden, putting the blame and the effort on that person with the disability. The other way of thinking about things is an environmental or societal model of accessibility, where we view the environment as what is disabling, not the individual that is disabled. So because the building does not have a door open or button, it is the building's fault. It is the architect that did not even put in the effort to make that environment accessible.

It is the people who paid for that building that did not prioritize just little fractions of pennies on the dollar when constructing that building to make it more inclusive to 25% of the population. So how do we prevent that from happening to make our environments less disabling? This is the source of my passion, because I know what happens both through my own experience and also through the many experiences of the people who work for me and colleagues that I have in the space. I know what happens when those barriers are removed and people are allowed to then contribute to society.

Chantal: Well, speaking about limitation, how did you overcome your obstacles as a blind or vision impaired person, and what advice would you have for our listeners who may or may not have a disability?

Sina Bahram: Yeah, I mean, I think a support system is really important. My parents were very much of the mindset that, well, two things. Number one, just because you're blind, it doesn't mean you can't do anything. But number two is that education is the key and that education is the most important thing you possibly can have, especially as a person with a disability. A lot of things can change in your life, whether it's through a pandemic or through war or through just moving or whatever the case may be, you can lose your money, you can lose your house, you can lose a lot of things, but they can't really take your education from you.

And so this is a really big thing, especially amongst immigrant families. My family came over from Iran. I've talked to other friends, they're either Latino or they're whatever, European, that came over here, whatever the case may be. And this is common thread that the parents are really big on education. And there's a reason for that. It's the secret. It's the proven key. So that is the best way that I was able to overcome a lot of obstacles because not only was I able to be educated about those things that mattered at the time, whether it was my school subjects or what have you, but also because I was able to be educated in a way that I could discuss things and get people to then give me what I needed in order to succeed, because I knew what the possibilities were.

And a lot of times, what happens is that we have a situation where someone may not have access to that level of education so they may not even know what's possible so then they can't ask for it because you don't know what you don't know. And so for these reasons, I would say a good support system and access to education are vital. They're absolutely critical no matter who you are, but especially if you're a person with a disability in order to succeed in society.

Chantal: That's really, really true. You remind me so much of my mother who always believes that education is the key to success, although I did not have access to accessibility in school but she always pushes me to go to school. And she believed that was the future for me. And you remind me so much of her. It is really a privilege speaking to you today. I mean, I have learned so much from you. And I am sure that our audience as well are learning so much about accessibility and inclusion. It's just really, really remarkable where you come from and where you are right now.

Sina Bahram: Thank you. That's very kind comparison and also just very nice of you to say. And thanks for all the work you're doing with this. I think that this kind of message of inclusion and accessibility and education being important is important for people to hear and for them to then use it in order to be successful in their own life. So thank you for what you do. And thank you so much for having me.

Elana Regan: You are listening to Vision Towards Success. My name is Elana Regan and today's guest, Sina Bahram, is the CEO of Prime Access Consulting, an accessibility firm that works with businesses large and small to combat inaccessibility. We had a chance to catch up with Sina after the interview to discuss larger systemic issues of ableism. Ableism is defined as the discrimination or social prejudice against those with disabilities based on a belief that people with typical abilities are superior.

This is a huge issue in the world today for people with disabilities. When able-bodied people feel it is necessary to fix those with disabilities, it can be extremely disheartening and impact a person's confidence. This issue arises a lot in companies in higher education institutions and fighting the systemic oppression can cause mental and emotional burnout. We asked Sina for some advice on how to navigate these complex and sometimes hostile environments in order to get disabled voices a seat at table.

Sina Bahram: You have to find the right levers. I mean, you have to find the right levers and knobs to pull and twist. And so, it really depends on what the motivating factors are for the individuals at hand. When I'm talking with the CFO of a $100 billion company, I'm not using the same arguments as when we're chatting with the director of a 14% museum. When we're working with governmental agencies, we're talking a little bit more about policy.

We're talking about commitment to equitable access for their citizens. We're talking about things of this nature. So you got to find, first of all, just the right arguments that meet people where they are, not maintain your own arguments even though they're right, even though they're 100% correct but won't land your results in the room. So you have to be incredibly flexible and fungible. That's number one. Number two is it's exhausting. It's exhausting work.

And so having a support system of allies, both persons with disabilities and without, and that's really critical that we don't stay in our echo chambers, is really important so that you can bounce ideas off of folks that you can get approach say, hey, I was talking with a procurement officer and I found that by giving them this five-year plan with all of these milestones in it, that really helped move that commissioner forward. You have those kinds of conversations that can arise so you can target the results that you want given the parties that you're dealing with.

Elana Regan: It is only logical that arguments differ based on the opposing forces and the situation at hand. And for those with limited experience facing ableism, in education or the workplace, it can be very difficult to know what argument to use. A support system will help you strategize and plan the tactics to use based on the desired outcome and the entities you're dealing with.

Sina Bahram: You also got to figure out what kind of room you're talking to. Is this a carrot or a stick kind of problem? There are laws in this country around some of this stuff. And you need to be able to speak intelligently about them, not just wave around like the ADA like it's some kind of magic wand.

Elana Regan: One of the biggest pieces of disability legislation in the US is the Americans with Disabilities Act or the ADA. This bill was signed into law on July 26th, 1990. This document makes it illegal to discriminate against somebody based on a disability in employment, education, public access, transportation, and telecommunications. Being educated about the relevant disability documents and resources like the ADA is important in getting the results you want.

If you do not have that needed knowledge, having allies who have that information is crucial. For example, if you were struggling with a higher education institution to provide accessible content and you did not have a complete understanding of the Americans with Disabilities Act, it would be important that you find a person or a group of people that had the information you did not. These people can be found through governmental agencies like State Services for the Blind consumer support groups or the campuses' ADA coordinator. Having the knowledge is a huge part of getting the results but knowing how to pitch your idea is just as significant.

Sina Bahram: The other thing that I do and it's a little bit of a manipulation tactic and it works incredibly well, and I use it unashamedly, is that I assume people already agree with me. I don't even acknowledge the correctness of their incorrect position. I just assumed they're along for the ride. So the onus then from a social dynamics perspective, within a meeting or within a public venue or within a conference call or what have you, even with an email conversation is on them to go, "Oh no, we're not going to do that thing."

So you put the onus on them in order to do the inaccessible thing as opposed to trying to acknowledge their position and then beg and plead for your more inclusive thing. I do this with great success and just, again, unashamedly, some of it is just social engineering. Lastly, I would say that it's important to understand that you're not going to win them all. And so you got to quickly know when to cut your losses and move on, whether that's talking to somebody they report to, whether that's talking to another colleague, whether that's letting them go and actually seeing who they compete with the most and going and helping those people in order to manipulate them, hopping on board later on down the road.

Whatever it takes, the goal is not to lose sight of moving the overall needle forward in terms of societal progress. And so if that specific thing in front of you is not budging, then what are the things around it that you can move and then revisit it once there's more kind of institutional inertia and momentum around those efforts to get them to come to where you want to be.

Elana Regan: Think of your situation like chess. You go in initially with your plans and strategies but that doesn't always work. Sometimes you have to sacrifice your queen in order to win the game. Social situations and negotiations can be exactly like chess. You have to give and take in order to move society forward. It might not be in the way you initially thought but change was made for the better. Change takes time. And as of now, accessibility features and technology is not a priority in this increasingly digital world.

This is because corporations don't believe that people with disabilities can or will use their products. They think that the disability community is so small that any effect on their reputation or sales will be limited. In reality, a quarter of the population is disabled and we can and will use technology if the accessibility is built in. This is something many companies have yet to notice.

Sina Bahram: We live in the most accessible time in human history. Simultaneously true, we live in the most inaccessible time in human history. By 2025, there will be more technologies invented between now and then than in the history of humanity combined. This is a mathematically objectively true statement. There's no room for argument here. This is a true fact. And a majority of those things will be inaccessible.

Now, what's funny is there's also going to be a metric boatload of things that is going to be more accessible between now and then, more so than in the history, in all of the history of humanity. But it doesn't matter, one quarter of a million being larger than one quarter of a thousand doesn't really matter because the other portion, the other 75% is so much larger, and it's going to continue to be this way.

Elana Regan: It is possible to make every piece of technology and web content accessible. The WCAG, which stands for Web Content Accessibility Guidelines, first published in 2008, and ARIA, the Accessible Rich Internet Applications, both provide programmers with concise information on how to make websites and other online materials accessible to those with disabilities. The resources are out there, people just don't know about them. And this is where we run into the biggest problem in accessible tech today, the pipelining problem.

Sina Bahram: So the pipelining problem has two parts to it. The first part of the pipelining problem is what you outline. Developers, designers, human factors, folks, you name it, engineers, psychologists, what have you, even doctors, let's put that whole thing aside for a second, they all are graduating from universities and other programs, other certificate programs, et cetera, without the necessary skills but also without even the necessary mindsets around inclusion and accessibility.

This is a massive problem because then they ended up creating things unwittingly making them less accessible. So we need to fix that at the university scale. And the way that we need to fix that is we need to make accessibility and inclusive design part of accreditation. And we need to attack universities at accreditation because otherwise they don't care. And this is what I was talking about earlier about reaching for those levers and knobs that people care about.

So it doesn't matter that they say they care about accessibility. What matters is that ACM or other bodies will not accredit to their computer science department unless if they build in accessibility. So we need to go after the entities that are upstream and then we can use that as the motivator for university X to do the correct thing. Some of it will be done just because, others will be done because you have to say, well, you're not going to get accredited. So that's number one.

Number two on the pipeline problem is we don't have enough people in my field. I'm looking for multiple folks that are experts in WCAG, in ARIA, screen reader usage, et cetera, to help with a lot of these things that we're doing, whether it's audits and things like that. I cannot tell you how difficult it is to find these people. Some of these folks are earning six-figure salaries. I cannot find these people. And I'm reasonably well connected.

This is a massive problem. There's not that many folks that know this stuff well and are available to be hired. And so we need to be encouraging folks, whether they're persons with disabilities or not, to go in and get the computer science skills, the engineering skills, the what have you, the design skills, and then also to be contributing on just pure inclusive design and accessibility work because there's so many things to fix independent while simultaneously we're solving the pipelining problem and trying to make the world more inclusive on one end. So these are the two aspects I feel of that education question that you asked that we need to be tackling in a really significant way. And it's going to involve, it must involve, federal, state local education, business folks in order to make some progress on it.

Elana Regan: This is like a supply chain issue, people are graduating university and they don't have the required knowledge to get into the accessibility field. If there are less people in the accessibility field, less accessible technology gets produced, and the cycle will just continue unless universities change their accreditation requirements. Another outcome of the pipelining problem is that accessibility firms like Sina's have to engage in a large amount of remediation. Remediation is when a piece of technology is made accessible after it is on the market and to news. The percent of work that is remediation is extremely high and something Sina would like to see lowered.

Sina Bahram: For me, I think it would be an 80/20 split more in the favor of remediation. But that's starting to change mainly because we're being really strategic about trying to build relationships with architects, trying to build relationships with lawmakers, trying to build relationships with designers and exhibition design firms and things like that, where they call us in at the beginning, they build this into their budget upfront so we're not taking away a slice of anyone else's pie. We're part of that design team from the very get go. And this way, it's making the project better and more inclusive along the way. We've gotten a ton of traction with that. But don't get me wrong, a majority work is it remediation? Yeah, yeah, it is.

Elana Regan: Remediation would no longer be an issue if creators had an interest in inclusive design. Inclusive design is the process of creating something for a diverse group of people. This differs from accessible design where people are very focused on a singular outcome and how design impacts one disability. An example of inclusive design would be having different shapes and textured shampoo and conditioner bottles. This would help a blind person identify shampoo versus conditioner but also helps somebody who doesn't like to open their eyes in the shower. And because of that fact, we asked Sina how could blind technology users get involved in the accessibility field.

Sina Bahram: I think that, unfortunately, what this means. And I don't like that I'm giving this answer, but I do feel it's the answer to give, is that folks need technical skills. That's just the world we live in. And it doesn't have to be going to school for computer science. It can be a certificate program. It can be something else. But we live in a world that is deeply, deeply digital right now. And it's only getting more. We need a level of digital literacy amongst persons with disabilities.

And I'm biased, I work in that field, I'm coming to things from a computer science perspective, I'm coming to things from the perspective that technology can fix a lot of problems. And it truly can. I've got the results to point to, to prove that. But it does mean that they need to learn these things. And I know there's a lot of emphasis on, well, like not everybody has to learn tech in order to contribute. And those are all true. We need content people, we need design people, we need psychology people, we need all of those folks.

But if you're asking if you're an assistive technology user and you want to get into accessibility, my number one piece of advice is learn every single piece of technical knowledge you possibly can get your hands on. Learn computer science, learn these technical skills, because it's only going to get more technical. The projects that I see coming down the pipe, I mean, last week, I was working on holograms, okay, nobody's talking about that. Some people are over here talking about alt text on images. Meanwhile, we're working on holograms. And so, the world that people are going to be entering five years from now is even more digital and technical than the world we live in now. And you need to know those things in order to have relevancy.

Elana Regan: The world is an extremely digital place and the pandemic has only allowed digital literacy to soar. In order to get the technical knowledge you need, you have to be open to new experiences and willing to take a chance on yourself in your own abilities. And for that reason, Sina emphasizes the need to say yes.

Sina Bahram: I mean, just say yes a lot. It leads to burnout as an adult. But as a young person, I got to tell you, and I'm not saying this in a boastful way but I am ridiculously successful right now and the reason for that success is because I said yes to things as a younger person. So many people, I think, artificially limit themselves. And if you are especially working in a larger organization, you're not going to be the make or break. It's not a startup where you're one of three people. And so if you fail at something, the whole company disappears.

When you're one of a 1,000 employees, I'm sorry, I'm just going to be a little blunt, you're not that critical, especially if you're the new hire. They're not going to give you a critical path job. So yes, so say yes to things, and you'll get so much experience and recognition when you do those things that then it will set you up just from a skill set perspective to doing a lot more.

Elana Regan: Sina told a story of when he was an intern at Radar Find. He took a risk and made a digital interface for hospital staff. This was a visual project he could not see and still he said yes to the job. And by taking that risk, he increased his technology skills and became a better employee. He was just an intern and he knew he wasn't make or break. So in taking on this project, he gained the knowledge to further his future career.

Sina Bahram: We made a touchscreen interface for a bunch of people in a hospital. These folks, they were scared of computers. They said if you give us a computer, we're quitting on the spot. Okay. They're the folks who work in central sterile, the folks who sterilize everything in the hospital, in the basement of the hospital. But we put a screen on the wall. We didn't even tell them. We're like, no, it's not a computer. It's a thing. It's a signage thing. And I just happened to make it accessible. I had to because, me. And then they ended up using it and loving and they're like, we told you we weren't going to use a computer. You see how awesome this thing is you made for us instead? And all it was, was a touchscreen.

Elana Regan: Think about what Sina did. He took a chance making this visual interface, something most people think a visually impaired programmer could not do. And he did it anyway. In order to succeed, it is important that you give yourself the most opportunities you can, not only by saying yes but also not limiting yourself because of your disability.

Sina Bahram: Don't artificially limit yourself based on anything disability related, like, oh, I won't be able to do that because. So instead, it's like, well, no, let's figure out a way of how to do that. So kind of a default, yes, this is possible, as opposed to being super cautious upfront.

Elana Regan: As Sina outlined, there's a lot of things we can do as disabled people to get employed and be outstanding employees. But getting hired is not entirely dependent on a disabled person's skill and drive. The hiring process is greatly impacted by an employer's biases and knowledge of minorities. This is where a firm like Sina's can help. The employer sometimes need to be educated on how to create an environment where all individuals, including those with disabilities can thrive, Sina has run into the same issues with racial representation in the workplace.

What employers do not realize is that disability is just as much a part of diversity as race, gender, sexual orientation, or religion. It is on the employer to have an environment where anyone, regardless of background, can be engaged and comfortable at work. Because of that fact, we inquired what employers should know about disability and hiring disabled employees. Here's what Sina had to say.

Sina Bahram: Yeah. I mean, I think it depends. This is a question that is also asked on a couple of different boards. And one of the topics that we're struggling with right now a lot and thinking about a lot is racial equity as well. It's like we want more people, how do we hire more persons of color? And it's like, well, do you have an environment in which they're set up to succeed once you hire them?

And the same is true about persons with disabilities. It's not just go hire a blind person. It's do you have an environment in which folks are able to succeed independent of having a disability and/or being different in some other way? And so it's really about good leadership. If you are running an organization and you have a mission that you're trying to get done, whether it's values based, nonprofit, or even for profit, there's a mission that you're trying to execute on, you are artificially limiting yourself in an incredibly stupid way if you're going to not hire 25% of the population. So part of this is just a pointing out to people that they're being a little silly from a purely self-interest perspective.

Elana Regan: Pointing out the potential biases of an employer or a company may help in getting hired. But shedding light on the advantages of hiring a disabled employee can be even more impactful. Oftentimes, in job interviews, disabled individuals will have to face an added set of questions related to disability. These questions are often very ignorant. And in fielding them, it can be crucial to point out some of the skills that disabled people are innately better at than the rest of the population. People with disabilities are incredibly perseverant because of all the challenges we have faced. Oftentimes, we have better attitudes than our able-bodied colleagues because we don't let the little things get us down. And we are probably some of the best problem solvers you will ever meet.

Sina Bahram: Persons with disabilities are problem solvers. I mean, this is an objectively true statement like no other. If you are a person with a disability and you've had a disability for longer than an hour, you are a better problem solver than 99% of other human beings. This is simply true. And so, if you think about the world we live in, it's not really the kinds of jobs that are I'm going to do this one thing, this is what I do 9:00 to 5:00 and then I go home.

Because to be blunt with you, that's going to be done by a robot, either it's already been automated or it will be automated very soon. The jobs that humans are going to be left with are the ones that involve either knowledge, work or creativity of some sort. This is a reality. Some people don't like to talk about it. They're just sticking their head in the sand. But it's a reality. And so what that means is that you need problem solvers. And the best problem solvers in the world are persons with disabilities.

Elana Regan: In the coming years, the most available jobs will be those that involve creativity and out of the box thinking. Some of the best people for these jobs are people with disabilities. Hopefully, this fact will encourage employers to be more inclusive. Inclusivity is something everyone searches for, whether it's finding the right group of friends, being picked for a special team, or simply having your opinion heard. And for those with disabilities, it's incredibly hard to find environments and content that don't passively or actively inhibit us from having equal access or opportunities. Sina and his company PAC is just one of the institutions fighting this global disregard for accessibility. And now a blindness tip about the simple assistive technologies that are in your lives from Sina Bahram.

Sina Bahram: There are so, so, so many assistive technologies that we all just would have dreamed about 10, 15, 20 years ago that now were built into your phone for free from money identification to real time OCR, optical character recognition, to things like seeing AI and being able to recognize faces and even people and scenes. And that's only getting better and better. The other thing that I would say is smart appliances are a thing now. And I approach things a little ironically. My thermostats are super inaccessible, but they're also the most accessible thing I've got.

And what I mean by that is I cannot use the thermostat on the wall. Okay? I cannot. It's a touchscreen. It has no screen reader, totally inaccessible. But it's a smart thermostat, which means I can use it from my phone, I can use it from my voice assistants, I can use it with their app, et cetera. And so, making sure that we think about things in sort of a higher level way, especially when it comes to personal devices is really important. Smart home technology is one of those things where maybe the native thing is not that accessible, but because they made it work with the Amazon Assistant, it's going to then be something that you can use. So using that insight in a way of automating and having more independent access to things I think is really important.

Elana Regan: For more information about Sina and his company PAC, you can go to www.pac.bz. And to inquire about inclusive design for your business, you can go to www.pac.bz/contact. I would like to thank Sina for coming onto the show today to share his insights to the world of accessibility and inclusive design. He is truly an amazing guest. And I hope you all enjoyed this episode of Vision Towards Success.

Thank you for tuning in to Vision Towards Success. This program has been recorded and produced by Elana Regan and David Gonzalez from the Traits Win audio podcast team, in association with the Polus Center for Social and Economic Development. Funding for this program has been provided by the Libby Douvan Award from the fielding Institute, the Massachusetts Commission for the Blind, and the Barre Savings Foundation. Additional episodes of this podcast can be found at www.poluscenter.org/tradeswin or wherever you get your podcasts.

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