Community Spotlight: John Samuel. Co-founder, Ablr
Talking to John for the first time is like chatting to a friend. He’s welcoming and relaxed, but his passion for his work shines through and you can’t help feeling touched by his words.
John Samuel is an advocate for disability inclusion, and co-founder of digital accessibility consultancy, Ablr. John kicked things off by sharing his own journey, one that shows the power of access, and the impact of inclusion.
It was while John was in college in Richmond, Virginia, that he was diagnosed with Retinitis Pigmentosa (RP), a genetic disorder that causes vision loss and eventual blindness. John remembers how it felt to be told he was going blind. “It was devastating… I was in denial. I was ashamed and I didn’t want to talk about it, I didn’t want people to know.”
Following his diagnosis, John moved in with friends back in his hometown in North Carolina. He graduated from North Carolina State University, but still hiding his visual impairment, John’s early career consisted of jobs he chose because they didn’t require him to drive, an endeavor that took him to Bangalore for two years, and then to New York City.
Despite his efforts, he recalls “I was paycheck to paycheck. My friends were moving up in their careers, and I didn’t see the same happening for me.” John needed a change, and when he reconnected with Steve a colleague he knew from his time in Bangalore, he saw an opportunity.
“…blind individuals are problem solvers.”
“Steve Clemments was on the Board of Directors for a cell phone tower manufacturing company… they wanted to set up operations in Africa. I jumped at it. We signed the contract, but at dinner afterwards, the executives of the company realized I couldn’t see. They said, “We can’t send you out there”. But I convinced them to give me a chance.”
John admits when he left for Africa, he didn’t know what a cell phone tower was. He learned quickly. “I built the business based on values that were really about protecting my secret of being blind… I needed people I could trust so I knew I’d be ok.” John saw immediate success, and 3 years and $25 million in sales later, it was time to move on.
“My experience in Africa showed that blind individuals are problem solvers … Because I had to hide my vision loss, I had to figure out many different solutions on a daily basis. Now I knew I could go and do my MBA.”
“A sense of belonging.”
Back in Washington DC, John enrolled at George Washington University.
“I had never done well academically, because I couldn’t see. If class finished at 5 or 6pm. I would have to leave at 4 because I would need to get home before dusk.” John explained his vision was at its worst in the dark.
“But then Liesl Riddle, Assistant Dean of the Business School, having heard about the work I’d done, invited me to come here, it made me feel so special. There was a sense of belonging.”
John remembers meeting Liesl was a turning point. “Liesl told me to be open about my vision loss. So, I began to talk about it to my classmates. It was the first time I could really be myself and love myself. This is when I met my wife. It was the first time I opened up my heart. Before, I would be scared to tell women that I couldn’t see, so I kept my relationships short. Now, here was somebody who knew me from the start as someone who can’t see so well and is losing their sight and they could love me for who I was.”
“I didn’t know how to be blind”
“I was looking for jobs, but I didn’t know how to be blind yet… If I joined a company, I’d have to use their systems. In Africa, I built a company around my needs. I couldn’t do that anymore.
I wasn’t disclosing my vision loss to companies, and I struggled to find a job. When they met me in person, they weren’t expecting someone who couldn’t see.”
John ended up working for a private equity firm, but the culture wasn’t right. He stayed in his role, even when they stopped paying him. “I didn’t have the confidence to look elsewhere. I didn’t feel like I had other options. The stress of it all caused my sight to deteriorate faster.” He was eventually let go.
John and his wife had just built a house in Washington DC and welcomed their first child. He needed to earn a living, but he could no longer see the computer screen.
“Are you Ed Summers?!”
“That’s when I learned about this software designed to help people who are blind or low vision visualize charts and graphs using sounds. It was designed by a guy called Ed Summers who had RP as well, and was from my hometown of Cary, North Carolina… I had never met anyone else who was blind before. This was so cool.”
For months, John tried to get in touch with Ed, without success. His wife suggested that if Ed Summers can live in North Carolina, maybe they could too. Previously, they’d only considered Washington DC and New York City as these were the only cities that had the public transport John thought he needed. They decided to move back to Cary.
John remembers talking to his Dad on the phone around that time and he laughs as he tells me, “Suddenly, my Dad starts yelling at someone. I said, “what are you doing Dad?” and he said “There’s a blind guy in the road. Maybe it’s the guy you’ve been trying to get in touch with.” I told him he couldn’t go around yelling at people. But he kept going. He went right up to this poor guy and said, “Are you Ed Summers?!” and he was! My Dad puts his phone in the poor guy’s face, I apologize to him, and he agrees to meet me.”
“Learn like a blind person.”
The following week, their 30 minute meeting turned into 3 hours. Ed introduced John to the world of accessibility and showed him his career wasn’t over. He told John “You need to learn as a blind person now.” John would learn how to use the accessibility features on his phone, and it opened up a whole new world for him.
“If I can’t get a job… what about other blind people?”
The difficulties John faced as he searched for a job made him wonder “If I can’t get a job with my experience, education and my privilege, what about other blind people?”
John set off on his new mission, to create jobs for individuals who are blind or low vision. Ed introduced him to the then president of LCI, a manufacturing company and the largest employer of people who are blind and low vision in the United States. John joined the company and was tasked with starting a business that created technology-based jobs for blind and low vision individuals. It was here, that John met Mike Iannelli, who would become his friend and co-founder of Ablr.
What is Ablr?
Ablr removes barriers for people with disabilities by helping businesses in the following areas:
Eliminating the digital divide. From auditing and reporting to testing and monitoring, Ablr provides everything a business needs to ensure their website and applications are compliant, and perhaps more importantly, usable.
Changing perceptions. Inclusion isn’t just about an accessible website, it’s about individuals and a feeling of belonging. That’s why John and his team also offer DEI training and advisory services.
Creating pathways for employment. Ablr’s workforce development program works with employers to help them understand the business case for disability inclusion. They also help individuals with disabilities develop the skills they need to thrive at work.
Ablr is about the stories of individuals
The barriers Ablr removes are the same barriers John faced on his own journey. But John insists Ablr isn’t about him or his story, it’s about many others and all of their stories.
“When you hear the stories of the team, their stories are amazing! Sighted or not, able-bodied or not, all of our different journeys and experiences intersect at Ablr. That’s the coolest thing.
Although Ablr is a digital accessibility consultancy, at its heart, it’s about the stories of individuals. When John talks about the impact they’ve made, he doesn’t talk about a website, but rather the journey of individuals.
“The very first person we hired, she came to us with no experience and after two years she went on to the accessibility team at McDonalds, earning more money than anyone else in her family. And that story was replicated multiple times with different people and different jobs.”
Cultivating inclusive workplaces
When I asked John about his goals for Ablr, without hesitation he replied, “To create jobs, and upward mobility for individuals who are blind and low vision.”
John explained to me how Ablr’s work to help companies achieve digital accessibility is all part of a bigger mission, to create employment.
“What we are doing at Ablr now with digital accessibility, is we are making companies more accessible, more inclusive.”
Ablr creates pathways to employment for people with disabilities using a two pronged approach. Their digital accessibility and DEI training services creates accessible and inclusive workplaces. At the same time, they work with individuals with disabilities to ensure they have the skills they need, not only to do a job, but to progress in their careers and utilize their talents, so they can choose their own future.
Like John, many people hide their visual impairment, because it’s the only way they can navigate workplaces that are designed for people who can see. Ablr creates truly inclusive workplaces where people can thrive as their authentic selves, and can be judged on their talent, rather than their differences.
Digital accessibility leads to inclusion
John told me about a client, a Museum of Flight. Their accessible website was the catalyst for their inclusion journey that is reaching far beyond their digital space.
“They heard me speak at an event and asked us to make their website accessible. So, we did. Then they were so excited, they wanted us to make their e-commerce platform accessible, so we’re working on that, and then they’re like, “Wait! Make our museum accessible!” They want their museum to be universally designed. John also pointed out that an accessible museum is also an accessible workplace, which opens up more employment opportunities.
A Beachhead Strategy
“Digital accessibility was always a beachhead for Ablr. For companies, their first response is compliance. I say fine, let’s start with compliance, let’s get into your systems and go from there. Just like the Museum of Flight.
Right now, in digital accessibility, there’s a lot of conversations about external facing sites, But the next thing is to get into their internal systems, because we want all the systems in a company to be accessible.”
Then the focus shifts from systems into people with education and DEI training.
“There’s a lot of accessible technology options out there. But accessibility is not a line of code, accessibility is about people’s experience; If you really want to be accessible, you have to focus on the people.”
“Proximity builds empathy”
For a client to simply be around the Ablr team and seeing individuals with disabilities at work can reframe their view of disability and lead them to want to move forward in their inclusion journey.
“The next time they build a product, they remember working with us and think “oh yeah, Shannon had an issue with this, so let’s do it this way. If you can humanize it, it becomes about Shannon or about John and it’s no longer just a line of code.” That’s the difference between compliance and inclusion.
What is inclusion to John?
“Inclusion is that sense of belonging for everyone. Making sure there is no barrier to people feeling like they belong.”
Find out more
At Eone, we share John’s passion for inclusion and his belief that accessibility is for everyone. Perhaps you do too. Is now the time for your organization to join the movement, and up your inclusion game? Find out more at www.ablr360.com.