CARYJohn Samuel has an eclectic resume.

He’s worked as a senior exec for a tech company in India, headed up a venture company’s telecom arm in Uganda and helped launch a crowdfunding startup in Washington, D.C.

All the while, however, he operated under an open secret: he is blind.

“Up until this point, I wasn’t using a cane or assisted technology,” he recalls. “I didn’t want to be associated with the blind community.”

Fast-forward to today: Samuel, 38, is set to be a keynote speaker at NC TECH’s Diversity + Inclusion Summit at Durham’s Sheraton Hotel on March 13.

As head of LCI’s new tech division, it’s now his job to be an advocate for people with disabilities, raising awareness about digital accessibility.

In the United States, it’s estimated the annual discretionary spending of people with disabilities is over $200 billion. The global estimate is nearly $7 trillion.

But if these people can’t access the company online, it’s a moot point.

“It’s simple. If 20 percent of the population cannot understand or operate your website, you’re missing a lot of potential business,” says Samuel.

(C) WRAL TechWire

LCI Tech head John Samuel in his office (WRAL TechWire photo)

That was the motivating factor for LCI, one of the largest employers of Americans who are blind or visually impaired with headquarters in Durham, to launch its tech division early last year.

Its mission: bringing firms up to speed by offering usability testing, training and monitoring.

It’s also one of the few companies where testing is completed by blind or low-vision employees, who have first-hand experience with multiple accessibility tools and platforms.

“At the end of the day, accessibility and usability is about people,” says Samuel. “There is no substitute to having actual people with disabilities provide feedback on your digital content.”

A life-changing encounter

Samuel wasn’t born blind. Instead, it happened gradually.

Reflecting back, he says he started to notice some challenges as early as aged 9. But by the end of high school, it became undeniable.

Eventually, he diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa, a group of genetic disorders that affect the retina’s ability to respond to light, causing a slow loss of vision.

By his mid-to-late 20s, doctors considered him legally blind. Still, he never let it hold him back.

He graduated from NC State with a bachelor’s in accounting, and later received a master’s in business administration from George Washington University.

During this time, he also travelled the world working in lead roles for big companies like Sasken Technologies in India and Aster in Uganda.

Still, he never outwardly acknowledged his impairment.

“I had figured out accommodations my whole life. I didn’t want to be labeled a person with a disability. I was ashamed.”

That all changed in 2017. A friend emailed him an article about a senior manager at Cary-based SAS, Ed Summers, who also shared his same disease. He was working to create software that allows the visually impaired to understand charts.

LCI headquarters (WRAL TechWire photo)

Vanh Vue and Alyssa Cheesman working in the new tech division of LCI. (WRAL TechWire photo)

A serendipitous turn of events brought them in touch with each other, and it rocked Samuel’s orbit.

“Ed told me, ‘if you want to continue your career trajectory, you’re going to have to learn as a blind person.’”

And that’s what exactly what he did.

He began using a screen reader, a form of assisted technology that allows visually impaired users to read the text displayed on the computer screen with a speech synthesizer or braille display.

He also started disclosing his disability when applying for jobs in North Carolina. That’s when LCI came knocking with an opportunity to launch its new tech division.

“I often say coming to LCI was like me coming out of the closet as a blind person. It was the first time I could be open about who I was and be my authentic self.”

Expanding accessibility

Almost two years in, the subsidiary is thriving. It has around five full-time employees, with plans to add two senior members to the team by the first of the year.

It is also expanding its offerings with the upcoming launch of Disability Consulting Services and LCI Tech Academy, which will be focused on helping companies recruit, hire, and promote people with disabilities.

At the same time, it will be working with potential candidates to ensure that they possess the skills required to fill the positions with those companies.

“The disability community is an untapped market, and with nearly one billion people globally it is a market that businesses cannot ignore,” says Samuel. “In addition, this is a community that is unemployed, and often underemployed, so if we can remove the barriers that are causing this, we can make a significant socioeconomic impact.”

Businesses may be losing ‘billions’ due to lack of digital accessibility: Local expert