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American Council of the Blind Makes Accessibility Key

Picture of Eric Bridges takes a moment to relax in his office at ACB.

Eric Bridges begins each day by making the U.S. more accessible for the blind community, his family, and himself. As Executive Director for the American Council of the Blind, he carries optimism and hope to the role that typically one doesn’t find in a nonprofit. His perspective in life as a person who is blind is filled with expectations for his community as he deals with the struggles of bringing collaboration to businesses that have often left people who are blind and visually impaired behind.

With less than one year under his belt in the Executive Director role, Eric focuses on featuring collaboration instead of compliance with industry, particularly as it relates to future development. He wants accessibility to be in all products from the day they go on the market rather than waiting for the 2nd, 3rd, or 4th generation before someone thinks about accessibility. He’s making traction with companies such as Microsoft, Apple, Google, JP Morgan Chase, and others to think about how they develop technology today… and in the future.

But, I’m getting ahead of myself.

Connecting With The American Council of the Blind

This story began 17 years ago when Eric was a junior in college. Every semester he had the same problem… getting class materials in alternate formats on time. Eric didn’t know of anyone else on the campus at the University of Iowa who had visual impairment or who was blind. That’s when he got wind that the American Council of the Blind, or ACB, had an internship. He learned the ACB does tremendous work for the community of people who are blind and visually impaired.

“I was intrigued, so I joined ACB and listened to a lot of people say the same things I did and articulate the same challenges I was having. It made me feel, in a perverse way, kind of good because I wasn’t the only little snowflake conquering this issue,” said Eric. “Also it raised concerns for me, as it did for many of the others, that this was a problem across the country. It was an issue that really didn’t discriminate per geographic region or guys or girls. It was just an ongoing challenge.”

The injustice bothered Eric. After graduating, he decided to work in the Washington DC metro area where he cut his teeth on public policy. Although he’s young, Eric feels he’s up to the challenge of taking the ACB to the next step. The hard work associated with getting new laws crafted, passed, and implemented takes a single, dedicated focus.

The Key To Working Collaboratively… Accessibility

Accessibility plays a major role in Eric’s strategy. In fact, he dreams of having everything accessible when it’s released the first time rather than waiting until the 3rd or 4th generation for accessibility to be considered as a new feature.

Eric gets nervous when he gets notified of an upgrade. Will it work? Or will the upgrade break the accessibility part of the program? No one knows until they try. That’s a scary thing for someone who is blind. He can’t go back easily to the previous version if the upgrade disengages accessibility.

People who are blind can’t always find the jobs they want. Until they get accessibility in their technical products and start to see other people who are blind thrive in a business setting, people who are blind will continue to be disproportionately low in business. About 30% of the blind workforce are working today. Most of the degrees are in law, social work, human services and other fields unrelated to business.

His wife, Rebecca, will attest to working for a company that hired her without too many questions about her impairment. She is also blind. With a Master’s degree in Organization Development and Knowledge Management Program from George Mason University, they knew she would be a well-rounded candidate. (More next week.)

Major Companies Eager to Partner

Some of the major commercial companies like Microsoft, Apple, Google, and JP Morgan Chase have begun to partner with ACB. By bringing accessibility to the forefront and making accessibility in their products is part of their mindset.

Satya Nadella, Chief Executive Officer of Microsoft, provides a prime example. Microsoft is investing millions of dollars in hiring folks to work on accessibility, a priority for Office 365, Exchange Server, and a host of other products. They have made accessibility a priority not only to customers, but to developers who are blind as well. That’s right. Microsoft’s making their development tools accessible, which in turn gives developers who are blind a future in software.

“What has been really nice is that I’ve been able to morph my role over the last few years from negotiating with these companies over the law into collaborating with them,” commented Eric. “Getting a law signed and having it go through implementation has allowed ACB to engage these companies in a way that was not adversarial, it was collaborative.”

A New Kind of Leadership

Eric reminds me of what having more Millennial leaders will be like. Collaboration rather than competition. The spirit of working as partners delivers so much more to everyone because they want to provide the best goods and services they can for a mutually beneficial result.

When you talk with Eric, his determination is palpable.

“So, I’m blind. I work for a blindness organization. When I go home, I am still blind,” says Eric. “There’s a very personal aspect of this that kind of rears its head every once in a while. Sometimes I have to tamp it down. At other times I kind of let it go because, who am I if I’m not an advocate? Advocate for me.”

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