By Michael Melcher
Partner, Next Step Partners
Ed Gray, Director of Accessibility for Avid joins Michael Melcher on his Career Stewardship podcast
“It’s a matter of accepting my disability, discovering new tools and keeping abreast of what’s going on. That’s the key change.”
For most of the 25 years that Ed Gray has worked for Avid, he was able-bodied. But in recent years, as his eyesight deteriorated into blindness, he has had to adjust how he works. That experience has launched him on a path that is making his company and its products more accessible to people with all kinds of disabilities.
In addition to leading its third-party audio developer program, Ed spearheads Avid’s accessibility effort, including the adaptation of its award-winning audio engineering product, Pro Tools, which is now fully accessible for visually impaired users.
He says, “We have blind people in New York City making records without sighted assistance. We’ve won awards for that. I’m as proud about that as anything in my life.”
In Episode 38 of my Career Stewardship podcast, Ed joins me for an engaging conversation about how he navigates the workplace as a blind person and how to make all workplaces more accessible to people with disabilities. Ed, who has always been a talented musician and performer and hugely funny person, talks on a very personal level about his particular journey. He also identifies resources for disabled employees that you can easily find, whether for yourself or your company.
Following are a few key excerpts from our conversation (that have been edited for clarity and brevity). Listen to the full interview here: Are You Ready for Disability.
Michael Melcher: Let’s talk about reasonable accommodation. What does that mean?
Ed Gray: You can communicate with a company — if you wish, and not everyone chooses to — about a disability that you have. A disability is defined as some sort of barrier between you and getting a job done.
So for me, I can struggle through a PowerPoint presentation as long as it’s in digital text. If I can select the text, then my screen reader can speak it. But if the presentation has a bunch of screenshots that are just images or drawings of text, there’s nothing in the world that can allow me to read it. So I’d need someone to read it for me or convert it to digital text or add alt text to the images.
Reasonable accommodations are things the company can do using their normal budget. It’s often about giving employees tools. The main ones for blind people are screen readers – tools that read the text on the screen. They magnify text and change the color schemes, etc. Some are free. Apple’s Voice Over ships with the operating system. You don’t even have to install anything, And on Windows, the built-in screen reader is called Narrator.
Seeing AI is a free Microsoft app that I use on my iPhone. It lets me hold up the phone to some text and it will start speaking it in real time, which is amazing. When we were both in business school, 25 years ago, the only way to do that would be with a Kurzweil screen reader, which would have cost a couple hundred thousand dollars and was the size of a refrigerator.
Michael Melcher: What are some things you learned about yourself and life in the past few years?
Ed Gray: I learned to accept my disability. My eyesight deteriorated over time. First it was blurry then it was dark, then dark and blurry, then the colors were all washed out. And I lost my central vision. It just got progressively worse.
And so I tried harder and harder to use regular screen tools, like enlarging the text or reversing the colors of the text and using high-contrast mode. And it was all pissing on a burning building. It was not solving the problem. I was not reading effectively and then I got to the point where not only did my eyes hurt, but my brain hurt. I would work for two hours here at my desk and I’d need to take a rest. I’d lie down and – I’m not making this up — I’d see the same letters and same fonts racing across my field of vision. I’d see words and letters in dark blue Garamond font racing across my vision.
When I made the personal decision to let go of this practice of trying harder using standard tools and relied on Voice Over to speak the text to me and other tools, I felt so much better, so relieved. And now that I’m facile with the tools, I can get through a ton more work and my brain doesn’t hurt. I don’t see letters racing across my field of vision. The symptom is gone.
It’s a matter of accepting my disability, discovering new tools and keeping abreast of what’s going on. That’s the key change.
Ed Gray: A point I want to emphasize is that employees need to meet the company halfway. So if you have a disability that no one knows about, it’s hard for the company to help you. And employees have to learn how to and actually use the tools and ask for help using things like screen readers and mobility tools and things of that nature.
And it’s a matter of their personality. Some people openly and actively ask for assistance. Some people, especially people that have become disabled and weren’t born with a disability, may be proud, or as much as I hate to say it, embarrassed that they are disabled and can’t do things they used to do. Or they are stoic. There are lots of reasons people don’t ask for help.
But if you don’t ask for help and identify yourself as having a challenge, it’s very hard for people to help you. And then you have to live with — in my opinion — the fact that you need to work a little harder and take more time to do things that able-bodied people do. For example, I get a couple hundred emails a day. It probably takes me three or four times as long to get through them as it used to. It takes me a long time to interpret a PowerPoint slide or another document. I have to kind of fish around with it. Sometimes I have to press my nose against the screen and use what limited peripheral vision I have.
I could probably ask for more help than I in fact do. If you are disabled you have to declare, in whatever way you are comfortable, that you are disabled, ask for help and tools to help you get your job done and work a little harder and longer to stay in the race and work effectively alongside others.
Michael Melcher: What types of resources can people look for? And how should they be looking for them?
Ed Gray: As a disabled employee, you should start with your company’s HR department which, God willing, has been trained on how to deal with employees with disabilities so they can give you a head start and point you to resources.
If your company has nothing, you have the right to ask for reasonable accommodations and you can tell HR that they need to endeavor to research this stuff and provide you with tools from stem to stern.
Job postings need to be accessible. They need to be in digital text and not just an Adobe pdf — that’s a picture that no screen reader can read. It’s got to be speakable by a screen reader.
There should be something on the company intranet that says if you have any challenges with work — visible or invisible, visual, auditory, motor or cognitive — we’re here to help and we’ll set up a meeting to discuss what we can do for you.
From there I believe the next stop is to look at the accessibility offerings at major companies. Look at Apple and Microsoft, for example, which are like wonderlands for disabled people. They are making tools and their operating systems more accessible. There’s stuff going on in the lab that you couldn’t believe. It just gets better and better.
You can also look for resources that are specific to your disability. Lighthouse is the name of resource centers for blind people. Gallaudet University is a college which has mostly deaf students and they have state-of-the-art resources for deaf people. I would look at that.
Then, I would turn to Google. Search for tools, but you’ll have to sift through the stuff that’s useful and the stuff that’s crap. Because everybody is trying to make a buck.
Michael Melcher: Let’s say you know someone who has a disability. You want to help but you don’t want to be condescending. How do you do it?
Ed Gray: As with seeking help from companies — some people don’t want help, thank you very much. Others want a ton of help.
You want to let disabled people operate independently unless they ask you for help or it’s really obvious they need help.
If a blind person is using a cane to navigate down the street and they drop the cane and it rolls a few yards down a hill — they need help. But don’t grab their arm to cross the street. Don’t be a complete idiot and grab their cane as they are walking.
Over the course of our 30-minute conversation, Ed and I discuss more details about his path and perspectives, including:
For additional resources and links, check the show notes page for this episode.
This 5-star podcast from career expert, Michael Melcher, will help you figure out what to do to advance your career.
Each episode offers best practices, stories from the field, and bite-sized tips to help build your career success in both the short and long term.
As one of the partners at Next Step Partners, Michael is a seasoned expert on developing leaders, building inclusive work environments, and helping senior professionals make career transitions. A former lawyer, foreign service officer and startup CEO, he has navigated several career transitions himself.
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