In the middle of college, John Samuel learned that he was going blind; he had a degenerative eye condition called retinitis pigmentosa. At first, Samuel was ashamed and didn’t want others to know he was losing his sight. He left his hometown of Cary, thinking a career in the Triangle was impossible as most people drive to work.
Samuel then worked in India, New York City and Cameroon, Africa, even creating his own telecom infrastructure company before completing graduate school at George Washington University. There Samuel became more open about his diminishing sight, but lingering worries remained.
“I was still ashamed of it in terms of I thought I’d be a liability for companies,” Samuel said. “Once companies got to see me working, it was O.K., but during that interview process, I was always kind of hiding it.”
Now as the head of Durham-based LCI Tech, Samuel has returned to his Triangle roots, proving a career here is possible for a person who is blind while helping create jobs in local companies for the visually impaired like himself. LCI Tech is a division of LCI, which is (among other things) one of the largest employers of Americans who are blind.
LCI Tech was established to help provide jobs for the visually impaired in technology services, with the initial focus on call-center positions. But soon it expanded into a broader effort toward digital accessibility, to help companies make their tech—and themselves—more accessible and inclusive to those with disabilities.
“When we started to look at some of these companies who wanted call-center or customer-service support,” Samuel said, “the challenging piece was that their systems were just not accessible.”
LCI Tech helps client companies to make their career portals and websites accessible so people with disabilities can apply for their jobs, as well as building systems in organizations so that those with disabilities can be successful once there.
Some of LCI Tech’s client companies include the Downtown Raleigh Alliance and the Raleigh Little Theatre. With six people who are visually impaired on the LCI Tech team, LCI Tech is also in talks with co-working spaces on collaboration. Durham-based startup Transloc, a transportation app service, benefited from LCI Tech’s usability testing as well.
Pivot To Broader Issue of Digital Accessibility
“That’s where I was like, we’ve got to step back,” Samuel said. “We’ve got to pivot and we’ve got to focus on accessibility, because that’s the cornerstone to create a technology that works for people with disabilities, not just blind people but people of all abilities.”
One of the greatest misconceptions about people who are blind is that they cannot use a computer, Samuel said. With assistive technology, people who are blind use computers just as much as people with sight.
“I’ve been an underdog in my life in the challenges that I’ve had to face,” Samuel said. “I think that I have a platform now and it’s really important for me to see how I personally can help make an impact. I think that ties in well with the mission of LCI and LCI Tech: how do we give people the opportunity? We’re creating opportunities and we’re creating upward mobility. It’s one thing to get someone a job, but then if we’re not showing them around to having a meaningful career and having an upward trajectory… My whole thought process is that somebody with a disability or a blind individual should be able to hold any position in the company. There should be no position too high.”
The jobs possible for employees who are blind go beyond the call center or customer service roles they initially targeted, Samuel said. LCI Tech’s goal is to create 200 jobs, a goal Samuel says others perceive to be lofty but is easier to envision with the work LCI Tech does in making companies more accessible through their career websites and portals.
“A lot of people talk about, ‘oh, that creates this customer service job,’” Samuel said. “That’s great, but are you making sure that somebody with a disability can be the president of that organization? That’s where my goal is because I think it also comes back to, ‘proximity builds empathy.’ And so if you have people only at one level of the company, that message doesn’t get across the whole organization. But once we can get people with disabilities in leadership roles, that will go trickle down.”