When John Samuel was only a college freshman at NC State, he received some life-altering news: He was going blind. He was diagnosed with a degenerative eye condition called retinitis pigmentosa that would eventually claim his entire sight.
Today Samuel is a respected leader in the Triangle tech community as the Head of Technology for Durham’s LCI and the Co-Founder of Ablr 360, two organizations working to transform working conditions for those with disabilities. But that wasn’t always a path that he could visualize—especially as his vision literally faded to black.
Samuel first began noticing he couldn’t see that well while in high school. He struggled with driving and with seeing the school’s chalkboards. But it was only when he was in college that he started running into things, eventually getting so many cuts and bruises he realized it was a real problem.
The diagnosis from the doctor was life-shattering.
“I was told there was no hope,” Samuel said. “It was devastating as a young person.”
Samuel had never known anyone with a disability and the idea of being blind was hard to fathom.
“It really was something foreign to me, and that’s what I struggled with,” Samuel said.
So many of his decisions after that were carefully made with the knowledge that he would soon become blind. At NC State, Samuel had to leave campus early so he could drive home. Right after graduation he moved to India, in part because he knew it was one of few places he could easily hire a driver. With no strong public transportation system, his hometown of Cary suddenly seemed inaccessible to live in.
Likewise, navigating his professional life proved challenging, as Samuel was constantly trying to hide his eye condition. Landing a job once the company knew he was unable to see was nearly always an uphill battle.
When he applied to a company in Africa and investors found out about his lack of sight, they immediately said they couldn’t hire Samuel. He remembers pleading with them to still give him the job. It was his first taste of someone telling him they didn’t want him just because he couldn’t see, and slowly that became what he expected.
After losing a job in Washington D.C. after his private equity firm lost its funding, Samuel’s sight was deteriorating even faster. That was when he began hearing about a software developed at Cary-based SAS that was designed to help people who are blind visualize charts and graphs using sounds.
Ed Summers, the one who designed it, happened to have the same condition as Samuel, and he lived right in Cary. It was Summers who introduced Samuel to the world of accessibility and to LCI, which is the largest employer of Americans who are blind.
“This organization already had an understanding of people who are blind,” Samuel said. “They didn’t have the experience of hiring someone who was blind in a leadership role, but the president at that time, Jeffrey (Hawting), was very open-minded about this. This was his goal. He wanted to create upward mobility. He wanted every single position in the company to be held by somebody who was blind.”
It didn’t take long until Samuel became the Head of LCI Tech. [Editor’s Note: we first wrote about LCI Tech in December, 2019.] It was during this time that Samuel was coming to terms with his new reality as a truly blind person and building confidence in his abilities even though he couldn’t see.
LCI has worked since its inception to create meaningful careers for people who are blind, primarily in manufacturing, retail and distribution. But in 2019, Samuel saw an opportunity to spin out Ablr, which helps companies remove barriers for those with disabilities more broadly.
Ablr is a joint venture between LCI and Walk West, which The Diversity Movement’s Donald Thompson has been instrumental in building as its former CEO. After meeting Thompson at a tech conference, Samuel and Thompson realized both had similar goals of bringing in greater diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) into the workplace, including for those with disabilities.
Samuel describes Ablr, which launched in October 2020 and now has around 50 clients, as an organization that builds demand within organizations to hire people that have disabilities while also offering a workforce development program to build up the supply of talent to meet this demand.
“We want organizations to start hiring more people with disabilities, and we want to be that trusted partner to make sure that you’re setting that person up for success,” Samuel said.
The launch came at a pivotal time when more and more companies were recognizing not all jobs need to be completed in the office.
“Covid was a real shot in the arm for accessibility because all of a sudden where companies used to say, ‘Oh, this job can’t be done from someone’s home,’ all of a sudden we realized that it can be,” Samuel said. “It’s going to take technology, but if the technology is not accessible, you’re going to keep a lot of people out of the workforce.”
Now the barriers of having transportation to get to a job are less heightened for those with disabilities because they can work from home. And during Zoom interviews, interviewers might not necessarily notice if the applicant is in a wheelchair or has a cane, Samuel said. All they see is the person in front of them answering questions.
Several industries are in the middle of staffing shortages, and Ablr’s digital accessibility guidance can help them recruit workers from a relatively untapped labor source.
“We’re seeing an appetite from companies especially now as they’re looking for talent,” Samuel said. “A lot of them (those with disabilities) don’t have jobs because they never thought the market was set up for them. But now we’re making sure that the market is set up for them.”
By the end of this year, Ablr has plans to fully launch its workforce development program in partnership with the state of North Carolina. And they’ve already received interest from other states looking to bring the program there. Deaf Kids Code is also hoping Ablr can build a program for the deaf community.
When companies consider how much money they will be saving by investing in recruiting and retaining talent from groups with disabilities, Ablr’s value—and the value of the entire community of those with disabilities—cannot be overstated, according to Samuel These employees are far more likely to be loyal to an organization if it has put an effort into accessibility, Samuel said.
“I think that a lot of people just think about accessibility as a line of code, but it’s actually about users,” Samuel said.