What 2020 has meant for a disabled CEO

Republished from podiant.co/blog

I’m running a livestream session on Wednesday 16th Dec, as part of a little pilot programme. If you’re a podcaster or interested in the medium, and you want to get a plan for your podcast — either to develop or to improve it — for 2021, come and join me.

The following was published on my company blog on Friday, inspired by the UN’s International Day for Disabled People.

Hi, I’m Mark, the founder of Podiant, and I’ve been blind since birth.

When most people think about blindness, they’re thinking of total lack of sight, which is rare even among those with visual impairments. I’m what Americans might call “legally blind”, in that I have some sight, but nowhere near enough to drive a car. And I can’t throw a punch to save my life… lack of depth-perception, and all that.

I don’t really talk about it much, as I don’t want it to be part of Podiant’s story, and almost none of the design, technical or business decisions I make are informed by it. I don’t think my love of podcasting has anything to do with my lack of sight, as easy a conclusion as that is to draw. My attitudes towards good mic and presentation technique, on the other hand, definitely come from listening to a lot of audiobooks.

I’m not a particularly good advocate for accessibility. I try to not actively get in the way of my users — and by extension, myself — and that’s mostly what I ask of others. I pinch and zoom to make things bigger in iOS, and am enraged by websites that block this behaviour (it’s on by default, so designers are making a deliberate choice when they disable it) because they’re desperate to curate the user experience so that it fits within their narrow definition.

I use macOS’s built-in zoom functionality, which is a godsend, and I cut down on eye strain by getting Siri to read aloud long web pages or blog posts.

But apart from that, I mostly just get on with it. I make affordances. And for 90% of my life, that’s fine. It presents challenges when I want to do things like my recent YouTube series, but I organise my setup to accommodate, and hope people don’t notice my jiggly eyes (nystagmus).

The things is though, our industry loves its conferences, and while a bunch of you are super sad that you can’t get together because of this pesky virus, I have to confess, it’s been a great leveller for me. Here’s a segment from a talk I gave a few years ago, by way of explanation:

Today is the UN’s International Day for Disabled People, so I wanted to ask, as a member of the industry who would like to shake more hands than he gets the opportunity to, that you consider people like me — and those with other disabilities and neuro-atypicalities that are perhaps not easy to spot, but that make especially long-distance travel difficult — before you rush back into organising your events.

I’m not saying you have to throw everything out for the likes of me, but consider ways you can incorporate different people’s needs into those all-important networking portions of events and conferences.

I was lucky to present the award for best comedy podcast at the inaugural British Podcast Awards in 2017, and my needs had to be accommodated because I wouldn’t be able to read the card with all the nominees. In the end, the night’s MC (Olly Mann of Answer Me This!) read out the runners-up on my behalf… without missing a beat I might add; the man’s a pro. An hour earlier I memorised the paragraph that introduced the winner, and delivered it “verbatim”, according to Mr Mann, and everything else went on just fine.

Why bring this up? Well, I can’t and won’t speak for everyone, because there’s no such thing as a ”disabled community” (there are disabled people and some of them know each-other), but I can say that for my own part, I’m willing to meet people in the middle and go a little further in order to keep things moving. If you do a little to accommodate me, I’ll do what I can to step up so that things run smoothly for you.

So when I ask you to consider what it might be like to present when you can’t see any of your slides without looking behind you, or to navigate a trade floor when you can’t read anything that isn’t an inch from your face, or how impossible it is to read someone’s name — let alone pronoun — on a badge, or to find the venue, or to find a hotel that’s near enough to the venue so as to make it navigable and also not bankrupting… when I ask you to consider these things, know that it takes 10x the effort for me to meet your expectations than it will for you to meet my needs.

And podcasters, think about this the next time you advise someone to “check their privilege”.

I promise I’m not calling anyone out, subtweeting, or saying anyone’s underperforming in these areas. I can’t, because I don’t get to go to these events, because they’re all in California and I live many thousands of miles away. I also know that no-one’s trying to keep anyone out, so this isn’t an accusation, this is just a request.

Many within the industry know my company, or at least know me for being vocal about podcasty things, and a few have been surprised not to see me at more industry events. The above, plus the price of admission when you’re a real-world bootstrapped business, are your reasons.

I’d love to see you in 2021, and maybe get the chance to talk at an event. If that’s virtual, I am 100% fine with that. I know it won’t mean we get to nip off to the trendy hole in the wall for a slice of pizza, or to that nice craft beer place just off the main strip, and that makes me sad, but for now, for right now, it’s a trade-off worth making, to keep everyone safe, but also to give everyone who deserves to, a chance to attend.

Thanks for reading this.