Editor’s note: Veteran entrepreneur and investor Donald Thompson is a regular contributor to WRAL TechWire. His columns are published on Wednesdays.

RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK – John Samuel is a good friend of mine: an innovator, a CEO, and an ally for greater diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI). When he started losing his sight in college, John let it take him over for a while, failing out of school and searching for direction, but not for long. Instead, he chose to face the challenges of his vision loss head-on, intentionally seeking opportunities and experiences that let him push past roadblocks and low expectations to grow his skills and expand his capabilities. Now, he removes barriers for others, increasing accessibility and advocating for greater disability inclusion in the workplace. 

“People with disabilities are problem solvers,” John says. “Every day, we have to figure out just how to get from point A to point B or to do some simple task. We persevere. We keep going. And that’s something that you can’t teach. What type of employer doesn’t want somebody like that?” 

And he’s right; hiring more professionals with disabilities increases workplace diversity leading to greater innovation and problem-solving. In fact, according to a recent Accenture study, companies that prioritize disability inclusion have 28% higher revenue, double the net income, and 30% higher economic profit margins than their peers. 

Photo courtesy of John Samuel

John Samuel in his office

On April 15, John and I will be sitting down together for a conversation about this topic, Leveling Up Your Workforce Through Disability Inclusion, but ahead of the webinar, I wanted to share some of what John and I often discuss: his story of being underestimated by others and the business case for disability inclusion. 

After being academically suspended from VCU, John entered NC State’s lifelong learning program and took so many classes that they eventually accepted him and let him earn his degree in accounting. Then, he moved to Bangalore, India, mostly to prove he could succeed there with low vision, and from India, he moved to New York City. With his night vision gone and his daytime vision deteriorating, John wanted easier access to trains, taxis, buses, and subways. Navigating the city, with its broad diversity of cultures and people, was challenging and rewarding. 

“I had to find work-arounds and solutions,” John told me, “and it gave me confidence every day. These are the kinds of things that become building blocks. I’m not going to be denied. I can get around, even though my sight is gone. And I thought, if I can get to every single part of the five boroughs, you know, maybe there’s a place I can live and have a successful career.” Soon after, he worked his way into a leadership position, launching a telecom infrastructure company in Cameroon, in West Africa. Now, he’s CEO of Ablr, a NC-based startup that specializes in digital accessibility and works to make all businesses more accessible and inclusive. These last few months, our teams have worked together to build an online course on disability inclusion. 

Donald Thompson: Tell me a little about Ablr and what you all do there.

John Samuel: Ablr provides testing of digital content, like websites and mobile apps, to check if that content, system or tool can be used by assistive technology and by people of all abilities. Our certified analysts, many of whom are blind or low vision, check for accessibility issues and make sure the content is actually usable too.

DT: Correct me if I’m wrong, but it seems like the term low vision would apply to almost all of us as we age. Our vision tends to get less perfect as we grow older, right? So isn’t that something that also affects just our general population?

JS:  Exactly right. We’re all more likely to develop disabilities as we get older. You know, we joke and say that the disability community is the most inclusive organization. We’ll bring anybody on. It doesn’t matter what race or gender or religion you are, anyone can get a disability at any point in life. You may not have a disability today, but you know, there’s a high likelihood that, in your lifetime, you or someone close to you will have a disability.

DT: So, clearly, accessibility is the right thing to do for people, but tell me why it’s good for business too. 

JS: 26% of adults in the country have a disability. And, as we have a fast-growing, fast-aging population who are getting disabilities on a rapid basis, we want to make sure that all those individuals have access to online retail, menus, tools, public forums, resources and information. If we’re excluding a large number of people from participating online, we’re also excluding a large group of potential clients and consumers. 

The key thing is, we need to stop focusing on only compliance, and think about making it easier for people to use your products. When we stop thinking about accessibility as just a line of code, and realize that it’s about actual people, then we will see change.  

DT: So, final question, for people taking this Disability Inclusion course, what are some of the things you’d like to leave them with, as they learn about diversity, equity, and inclusion?

JS: From my perspective, I see a few key barriers. One is accessibility. It’s critical to make sure that we talk about equity. Web accessibility is an actionable step that we can do today to start leveling the playing field and making digital content more successful.

The next is training. We spend so much time and effort in training or upskilling our workforce, but unless that training is accessible for everybody, we’re going to be leaving some people behind. That also means we need to create pathways to employment for people with disabilities, many of whom have been excluded from traditional programs. 

The third is corporate culture. It’s important that, as organizations, we are thinking about inclusion from the top down, about every aspect of it. We have to change our own mindsets to see the value of having a much more diverse, inclusive workforce that represents the communities we serve, no matter what type of company you are. That’s why we launched this course. 

Proximity builds empathy, right? We can learn about disability and diversity, but we also need to spend time with people who are different from us because that’s when we’re going to build empathy and really understand why this is important. 

DT: I think that’s right. And I think our relationship, as it continues to grow and develop, is a perfect example of that impact. I mean, I like to consider myself very open-minded and very broad in my thinking, but not having a friend that’s blind — until you and I got to know each other — disability wasn’t at the top of my mind. It wasn’t something that I thought about in my day-to-day business. 

Proximity to a broad and diverse group of people creates empathy across the board. That’s a really powerful lesson and something we should all continue to think about and strive for.

About the Author

Donald Thompson is an entrepreneur, public speaker, author, podcaster, and executive coach, recently named one of Forbes’ Next 1000: Upstart Entrepreneurs Redefining the American Dream. He is currently CEO of Walk West, an award-winning digital marketing firm, and co-founder and CEO of The Diversity Movement, a technology-driven diversity, equity and inclusion consultancy. He is also a board member for several organizations in healthcare, banking, technology, marketing, and sports, a Certified Diversity Executive (CDE), and a thought leader on goal achievement and influencing company culture. 

Join Donald Thompson and John Samuel for a free webinar on Disability Inclusion on Thursday, April 15th at 12:00 noon, and connect with Donald on LinkedIn.