blindspotter | interview with Albert J. Rizzi

Founder and CEO, My Blind Spot

Albert J. Rizzi, M.Ed., Founder of My Blind Spot, a NYC based nonprofit, is an international disability and civil rights advocate. My Blind Spot is dedicated to inspiring accessibility for people of all abilities, serving as expert accessibility governance advisers, performing organizational audits and assessing organizations for digital compliance and true inclusion for people with disabilities.

Q. What do the words universal design and accessibility mean to you?

Inclusive design and universal design, specifically, have been at the core of everything we do at My Blindspot. Universal design means just that, being universally inclusive for people of all abilities. When we create digital platforms with the intention of reaching as many people as possible we’re delivering platforms that are universally accessible and or designed universally. What that means for me. personally and professionally, is to be able to navigate the Internet, software programs, mobile applications, websites, electronic communications. No one, in today’s society, would argue that our lives are inextricably tied to digital platforms. That’s even more true for our aging population and those of us with disabilities. The same programmatic codes that allow technologies to work, when coded properly can help millions of people use software programs and function in life, in schools and in workplaces as valued individuals — they just happen to have a disability. This is a really unique time in human history because people with disabilities can use technologies to compete equally, based upon their ability and not be branded or disenfranchised or marginalized as “less than” because of perceived labels of being disabled.

Q. Tell us about your journey. What brought you to this field?

About 13 years ago I was misdiagnosed with what appeared to be an annual sinus infection, and five spinal taps later turned out to be fungal meningitis. It nearly took my life. I went into the hospital weighing 200 pounds, with 20-20 vision, and left two months later with 127 pounds of weight and completely blind. So this new way of seeing was given to me 13 years ago. I immediately ran into those virtual walls that blocked my assimilation and independence as it once was, in society and in corporate America. I used to own my own businesses, run nonprofits. I had done so many different things over the years, and after losing access to these platforms it became clear to me how important they were in my daily activities, and I set out to found My Blind Spot. My Blind Spot is an organization that’s dedicated to authentic inclusion and passionate about positioning ability alongside race, gender, orientation and religion in both our social and corporate cultures. It’s called My Blind Spot, oddly enough, because it’s about finding the blind spots in our lives. When I drove I always looked for it. We all, universally, have to look for those in our lives so we can navigate through them or around them. It’s about a theoretical blind spot, rather than the physical blindness we live with. My Blind Spot works with a team of accessibility professionals who are certified and use services, devices and technologies. We work with people across the entire spectrum of ability: blind, deaf-blind, low vision, aging, paralyzed, amputees, dislexic and people with cognitive delays; all of whom are collectively referred to as the disability.

Q. My Blind Spot also helps companies and organizations with their blind spots, right? Helps them cater to individuals with a whole range of abilities that cannot use their products and services properly, because they’re not tailored to them.

Exactly. I think I’m being called to put a different face on ability. At My Blind Spot we have this mantra that resonates from a universal perspective: access to the right tools promotes ability, and resources infinite possibilities in our lives. As long as we create that access to tools we need to become capable, productive citizens, the possibilities are endless. We definitely point out those potholes on the virtual highways of life that inhibit, prohibit and limit people who are disabled and reliant on assistive devices to execute in life, school, work or even recreationally, socially, personally. For seven or eight years, we’ve worked successfully with the manufacturers of Quick Books, finding ways to re-code a customized platform that had not been usable or functional for people with disabilities. Through that effort we’ve helped over 600 people maintain or seek employment, or manage their own businesses for the first time — and we’ve only scratched the surface. We also work with American Airlines very dedicatedly to make sure that their public-facing portals are accessible, and that there’s an appreciation for people with disabilities both as consumers and employees. For our international clientele, we do what’s called organizational audits: looking internally at how to make them disability ready, or disability friendly. From a universal design perspective, once we’ve made something work better for the disability community, it becomes, by default, much more efficient, productive, usable and functional for people of all abilities. This means maximizing the outcome of the investment that organizations made on these platforms to begin with. There are 1.3 billion disabled people around the world, plus their 3 billion friends and family, with 8 trillion dollars worth of discretionary spending power. It’s a market base. It’s no longer a social agenda, the thing to do because it’s nice to help people who are “less than”. We’re all aging into this community. I got here earlier than most, I was hoping to wait till I was 75 or 80, but it’s an interesting community of people, an interesting club to belong to.

Q. By making it better for people that have certain challenges you make it better for everybody, and the organization can benefit from everybody engaging in a more effective way.

Other clients of My Blind Spot, like Canon USA, and Toyota Lexus are already ahead of this curve. They’re stepping in to make hardware accessible. Canon has fantastic copiers, fax machines and photography equipment that are all voice-prompted, that you could use even with no arms. A mobility impaired person could tell the copier to make 40 copies, front and back and stapled. The things that are happening in the 21st century are remarkable, and we can simplify life with them. Help people with different abilities become more productive, and participate in the potential for employment and community engagement.

Q. In your quest to create awareness and get companies to make their platforms and products better, what are the biggest challenges you’ve encountered?

Social stigma. The fear and guilt that come when dealing with a disabled person. For thousands of years, most people with disabilities were considered untouchable — they’re the ones who brought down curses upon the family — and to some degree we still have that taboo in the back of our minds, in our subconscious. Then, when we have a person in our life, whether it’s our son or daughter, spouse, parent or sibling who acquires a disability, we feel guilty we could not protect them, save them, shield them from that, and we start fearing that they won’t be able to live by themselves without getting hurt. All of these quiet, unassuming, subconscious thoughts compromise our ability to see the loved ones as capable and able. When I’m home, the last thing people call me is “blind”. They just see me being me. Then, the minute I step out of my doorstep and into society I’m automatically thrust into this label, stuck in my forehead: “I’m blind, I’m disabled”. That’s the biggest hindrance now and it impacts how corporate America executives determine and allocate funding for authentic inclusion. We need to work dedicatedly to infuse our corporate world and the DNA of corporate cultures with inclusion, maximizing our investment in digital technologies. People are aging into this community at an alarming rate; and for the first time in human history, we’re amassing wealth to a degree that’s never been reached before and if we don’t harness the technologies to continue including people with disabilities, we’re going to stymie and limit the next creative genius — like Richard Branson, who’s severely dyslexic. And Cher or Einstein, who were also dyslexic. Edison had low vision and was hard of hearing; Michael J. Fox has Parkinson’s. To say nothing of our veterans who are coming back from making the ultimate sacrifice — in some instances their lives, in others their arms, their legs, their brains. This is a point in history where their creativity can be limited because someone forgot to add a code into a digital platform.  

Q. Where do you see players really doing something to create a more inclusive and accessible world?

  There are my personal heroes that I’ve emulated and looked to as mentors. People like Mike Balsano, one of my anchors when it comes to understanding how authentic we need to be in doing this. Mark Balzano, who single-handedly created the AT&T division of inclusion and accessibility, and who is now over at Charter Communications helping to spearhead their commitments to the same; and Microsoft, under the leadership of Jenny Lay-Flurrie. Take Teach Access, for example. Larry Goldberg has this organization which is getting the Silicon Valley invested in what they professed to be their mission, which is technologies for all. But there isn’t any one entity or person that’s doing it right on their own; it goes back to the philosophical belief that many shoulders make life work. The IAAPG, the USBLN, the AAPD, NOD, all of these organizations need to come together. Looking at our civil rights legacy in the United States, we need to reflect on what our African-American and black brothers and sisters endured and laid as a foundation, which was then picked up by the women’s rights movement in the ‘70s, and the LGBT rights movements in the ‘70s and ‘80s, and then our fight for authentic and universal inclusion regardless of race, gender, orientation or faith. Now we need to pick up those torches as a community of people who are “differently abled”, “disabled”, “with disabilities” or whatever label people want to hear. We owe it to people like Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., Bella Abzug and Harvey Milk. People like Jim Senaki at Chase, and Victor Calise, who heads up the New York City  Mayor’s  Office for People with Disabilities. Those are my heroes. Those are the people who are fighting the good fight, who we need to stand behind, sit next to, listen to and be the voice with to bring things truly forward so organizations like Microsoft, AT&T, Charter Communications, Canon USA, Toyota Lexus, American Airlines, look at us as a vibrant, viable people. We’re working right now with the state of New York. We’re poised to be an official preferred vendor for the entire state of New York. I’m working very closely with the New York State preferred source program for the blind, the state agency. We’re working with the CIO Bob Sampson at the Office of Information Technology Services to make sure New York leads the way in authentic inclusion for all of its residents: aging, disabled or either. Right now we’re so pointlessly splintered and divided in this country, and there isn’t one of us who isn’t a friend, a family member or isn’t one degree of separation from somebody with a disability or somebody who’s going to acquire a disability. We need to come together as a society, as a corporate culture and as a nation to make sure that the simple digital codes that go into allowing people like myself to action and not be dependent on the kindness of strangers, become the norm.

Q. That would be good not only because it’s the right thing to do, or it’s the socially appropriate thing to do, but also because it’s good business. This is a lot of people we’re talking about, along with their relatives and friends. So if you multiply the effect of having a strong relationship with your customers, that can turn into a lot of revenue for corporations.

That’s one thing corporations need to appreciate. Studies I’ve seen have demonstrated that corporations are more concerned with, and focused on maintaining their market base rather than building a new one. But as we age, they have no choice but to address the digital barriers that are in place: otherwise they’re going to lose their current market base and never build a new one. The father in law of Anthony Buonaspina, our chief technology officer, was in a wheelchair; they went to a restaurant one time and there was no wheelchair ramp, so they never went back. His father in law has died since then, and they still haven’t gone back to that restaurant. The same goes for the virtual world. If we don’t start building the wheelchair ramps and handrails into our digital infrastructures, we’re not going to build the new market base that’s right there for the picking, and which adding friends and family it’s almost half the world population, so it’s huge. Can we afford to ignore that? In doing so we avoid tapping into a whole new revenue stream. We avoid building reasonable adaptations into our corporate infrastructures to allow people to work later into life. I’m using the word “adaptations” instead of “accommodation”, because we shouldn’t be accommodating people with a simple approach. Most engineers and programmers would appreciate and understand it as an adaptation and it has to be an economic win-win. Digital environments that support assistive technologies — screen readers, magnifiers, voice to text technologies, Dragons Speech, voiceover — allow people not to recur to Social Security for financial support as disabled; by allowing people to transition out of high school into a work environment instead of onto Social Security, we decrease the demand on social security systems, public assistance programs and entitlement programs, which is a great economic boost. This also creates taxpayers, which is a double win-win. This conversation shouldn’t have to be necessary in the 21st century. Thirteen years ago, when I lost my eyesight, I should have been able to step right into any position of my choosing and not have to be stuck on disability insurance support.

Q. When you came a couple of weeks ago to speak to my students at the Pratt Institute School of Design, you opened our eyes to universal design gave us excellent first-hand examples of little things brands do that can make life a lot better. Can you share some of them?

The Barclays Bank, for example, cuts the right top corner of credit cards so whether we’re looking at the card or touching it inside our pocket being blind, we would know how to slot it into the ATM. This also works with hotel room keys. Very simple, and it could become a universal design trait if everybody implemented it. This eliminates the need for any other intrusive imprinting to distinguish the card. Another example are hotel room numbers. I have neuropathy on top of the other nerve damage I’ve endured, and it’s hard to even feel those those millimeter raised numbers to determine if I’m at the right room. But at a Hilton or Marriott property they have this doors on which the numbers were at least a half an inch high. They were also architecturally interesting, so I wanted to touch them more to make sure I knew all the numbers. That’s another way to deal with our aging population, and it also addresses the fact that we have an unfortunate literacy rate of 10 percent among the blind community, which goes back to education. The Penn Plaza in New York City actually has elevators that tell you what floor you’re getting off on, how to call an elevator. That doesn’t happen everywhere. They’re little things that we take for granted when we aren’t denied access, and that have made me aware of the simple universal design elements that go into a physical building, as well as a virtual one.

Q. And those elements don’t just help people with disabilities, they help everyone who could be getting in late to a hotel when it’s dark, for example.

More examples: the automated or voice prompted screens in the back of taxis. I can now pay my own fare, with a credit card if I want to, and it allows me to put a tip in. Same thing with Uber getting their mobile app. I can file any number of compliments, tip, make complaints, order a car in advance. I don’t have to stand with my finger up on the sidewalk hoping somebody will stop, wondering how many taxis have gone by because they don’t want to pick up a blind person, or a person with a wheelchair. It’s a simple fix. As long as technologies are being developed, they need to be designed for maximum penetration, towards people of all abilities. There are about 5 trillion people with disabilities in the northern hemisphere — that’s five trillion dollars of discretionary spending power, 175 billion dollars of disposable income. Hotels, airlines and shopping chains are going to want us to come and spend our money there. Why can’t we just design it with that in mind?

Q. Is there anything in particular that you’re working on with My Blind Spot, or that you’ve seen out there and that’s exciting and promising and will have an impact on inclusion?

So many things. At My Blind Spot we work very closely with the American Foundation for the Blind under the guidance of CEO Kirk Adams, who is another one of my mentors and inspirations. We’ve run into organizations like Cat Tech Labs; and the Capti Voice app has makes a fantastic personal reading assistant that allows inaccessible PDFs to be transcribed into an accessible format for people with disabilities. More importantly, it allows for the translation of documentation for second language learners — it’s universal. It’s a tool that maximizes teacher’s time and efficiency in the classroom. Another product that we’re working with, called Vital, comes out of Arizona and it’s a 3D touch-screen that makes charts and graphs three-dimensional, so students who might not be able to digest it in a printed format can work with them. My Blind Spot it developing solutions to complement the very important, non-negotiable component that’s going to shift the landscape of universal design and digital inclusion: manual testing, on human interaction by end users with the product. Automated testing platforms barely catch 30% of the errors, and we want to make sure that we achieve the WCAG 2.1 AA standard for usability and functionality. We’re looking at creating a patent for doing searches on a Web site to make sure they stay compliant, and there are a whole new program and coding platform out there called UIA that’s going to be phenomenal. User First, another company we’re working with, has a fantastic solution for both public facing and internal facing that’s going to completely change employment, and it won’t only be for consumers who are shopping or looking for information. There’s a lot out there right now, and this is probably the best time I could have picked  to go blind.

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about albert

On January 6th, 2006, Albert J. Rizzi came out of a morphine-induced coma and opened his eyes to a world gone dark. Doctors had thought he had a sinus infection, but after 5 spinal taps, it was determined he was suffering from a lethal form of fungal meningitis. Fortunately, after 2 months in the hospital, Albert beat the odds and started to live his life as a man who had been robbed of his sight, but not his vision.

“I spent a few days feeling sorry for myself. But then my father reminded me: ‘You weren’t raised to say you can’t do something. You were raised to accept and embrace all of life’s challenges.”  With energy and determination, Albert threw himself into learning how to navigate the world as a person who just happened to be blind. He brought a sense of adventure to all his endeavors, from grocery shopping to traveling the New York City subways to driving a race car in a blindfold derby.

A tireless and vocal advocate, Albert debunks stereotypes about those who live with disabilities and speaks out for job opportunities, accessible technologies, and financial independence for the disability community, particularly for people who are blind or print disabled. In 2009, he founded a nonprofit, My Blind Spot, dedicated to Inspiring Accessibility for All!


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