Nov. 29, 2020

The Origins of Accessible Technology with Alan Brightman

The Origins of Accessible Technology with Alan Brightman

The Origins of Accessible Technology with Alan Brightman

Today’s featured interview is an insightful conversation with Alan Brightman. Alan is a former executive of both Apple and Yahoo where he was a pioneer in the field of assistive technology. He talks with Mai Ling about the early days of developing accessible technology, the hurdles and challenges they had to overcome, and laying the foundation for the tools available today. This is a fascinating interview packed with information and insights.

Contact Mai Ling: MLC at

Contact James: James at



Introduction 00:00

We found out after doing all this work for a number of years, we really weren't about accessibility at all. Our goal was not accessibility. Accessibility was just a means to an end, because the goal really was independence and choice, participation.


Mai Ling 00:19

Welcome to Xceptional Leaders with Mai Ling and Martyn where we spotlight high profile topics and amazing people who are changing the world view on Disabilities. I am Mai Ling Chan; you can find me at (


Martyn 00:30

And I am Martyn Sibley of ( And today we're going to be talking about inclusion in tech. I'd say inclusion in general, in the world. We're talking obviously about inclusion around disability, but also a phenomenally inspirational man who is someone that I hadn't heard him, by name, but I think a lot of the companies that he's been associated with, you may, you got listeners where you may have heard of these companies, Apple, Yahoo, just a couple of small companies you know.


Mai Ling 01:02

Small companies.


Martyn 01:03

Yeah, just tiny little companies. But really, just yeah, involved in such a big, important part of getting those tech giants to understand the needs of customers with the disabilities. O it's, as always, a fascinating listen, and this was, one that you did the interview Mai Ling. How did you find it?


Mai Ling 01:23

It was absolutely eye opening. And so very interesting to hear it from somebody who was such an insider and a pioneer in this area. Alan Brightman ( was introduced to me through Larry Goldberg (, who I met. He is the VP at Verizon in the area of accessibility. You know, hearing from these people that are making things happen at such a high level in technology, Alan's story is absolutely incredible. I mean, I'm actually at a loss of, for words, for how to describe hearing it from his point of view. I'm interested to know Martyn, what did you think when you listened.


Martyn 01:58

So, I think for me, there were two tracks really. There was the man and the human experience. And I found him very humble, considering the journey of being involved in playing such a big part in getting these big tech giants to understand the needs of disabled customers, which is obviously phenomenal. On that human experience, but I also took away that, society to change and really the improvement we've had. He talks about stories in the 60s and the 80s of some practices that were going on, for people with disabilities, were pretty archaic and horrible. And obviously, the listeners can hear a bit more as they get into the interview, but it certainly shone a light on the positive improvements we've had as a world and as a society. But as always, we talk about Mai Ling, there's, you know, more to do and there's still practices today that we'll probably look back on in, you know, 20, 40, 60 years that we think need to be or finally are corrected. But yeah, it was, yeah, those two tracks, I found really, really interesting.


Mai Ling 03:09

Yeah, I really enjoyed that. It was almost like an introduction into the history of disabilities. And like you said, his stories, they were just shocking to us now to hear and, you know, he kind of said, but that's where we were, you know, that's where we were at. That's how we were providing support for people with disabilities. And even the verbiage, you know. There was a couple times the vocabulary that was used, but it was poignant to use it, to show you know, why we don't use those words anymore. And then we use more words like independence and empowering and, you know, it was, I just felt like the whole interview was, it was just a beautiful flow of going through historical information, personal journey. And like you said, Alan is just so humble. And he does not take responsibility for, you know, his amazing efforts and what he's done. I mean, I said that he was a visionary. And he was like, that, I didn't feel like that, just doing what, you know, felt like it needed to be done. And meanwhile, he changed the mindset of people at the top of Apple, you know, and showed them the importance of accessibility in technology. So, I do want to plug ourselves here a little bit, he has said that he will be writing or he has accepted the wonderful responsibility of writing the foreword for our next book, which is Becoming An Exceptional AAC Leader ( So, I am so honored, the other writers, the coauthors with me are so excited and honored. And this also brings up Martyn, our Becoming An Exceptional Leader ( book that is already out there. It is available. And I would say, I would recommend it as a great gift for the holidays to colleagues or other people who are on the beginning of their journey to become an exceptional leader. This is just a great read and an inspiration. What would you say Martyn?


Martyn 04:50

Yeah, well, I've read it twice now. I was, as you will know, I know there's our own chapters, but there's the chapters of these other amazing leaders and I've got so much inspiration from all of their stories. And yeah, it wouldn't surprise me if some of the listeners have been referred the book by my friends and family, because I can't stop talking about it to them as well. But no, it's, it's definitely the perfect gift as we come up to the holiday season. And just so full of, as you said a couple of times before that, that impactful and inspirational messages.


Mai Ling 05:23

Yes, and you can purchase it on Amazon and just have it shipped right to them. So that's been really lovely. I've done that a couple of times. And if anyone wants to buy it in a quantity bigger than three, so if you wanted to buy a bunch and give them out, please contact me directly. I am at, and I can definitely get that to you so that you can get it out there. We also want to invite you to like our Facebook page, which is the Xceptional Leaders Podcast on Facebook, ( we have obviously, links to the previous shows and other information. So, we'd love to connect with you there.


Martyn 05:55

And it'd be great as well, if anyone has any recommendations of future guests, because we've got a good lineup as always, in the pipeline. But it's great to hear about people that we wouldn't have otherwise heard about before. And it might be, you're listening anything, you've got a powerful story yourself. So, whether it's a referral or a direct hand up, we'd love to hear from you. And also, just talking about shipping, I want to give a big thanks to you Mai Ling for that kind present shipped over the Atlantic Ocean from the US to UK. And people can't actually see it on the audio version. But you've got in the background, a little canvas of both of us with a podcast and I've now got my own version that I'm finding a pride of place home. So, thank you for thinking of me with that. And I think it's nice to acknowledge how proud we are of this podcast and the amazing effort that goes into it. But the amazing output that's happening and the feedback we're getting so yeah, thank you again for being my podcast wife Mai Ling.


Mai Ling 06:58

Oh, you make me cry, Martyn. Thank you. I'm so glad he's back. If you go back to the, I think two or three episodes ago, Martyn had taken the little hiatus and I was so lonely. You guys were probably lonely too. But he's back with his adorable accent. So, yay.


Martyn 07:14

Awesome. Okay, Mai Ling, that's perfect time to get back into the meat of the course. Now the main course of the dinner and hear all about Alan's story and journeys. I hope everyone listening gets as much out of it as we did and enjoy.


Mai Ling 07:33

Well, welcome. I'm so excited to have you join me and Alan Brightman. I don't even know where to start the intro here. Because he has such an amazing bio, I definitely invite you to check out his LinkedIn profile, and also just search his name on Google. He will also come up for amazon books. He is previously the founder of Apple's computer Worldwide Disability Solution group, where he served as the director for 13 years. So yes, we're talking about Apple, iPhone, all of that. And we are definitely going to get into that here. He was also most recently the Vice President at Yahoo, where he also created the accessibility group in 2006. He's coauthored I don't know how many books but we're definitely going to get into this today. Welcome, Alan.


Alan 08:15

Thank you very much. It's great to be here.


Mai Ling 08:17

Thank you. And I do want to say you have already pre warned me that we're going to hear some live New York City noises in the background. And this is great, right?


Alan 08:24

If you don't hear some sirens, or dogs barking or screaming? Something will be wrong with New York City.


Mai Ling 08:31

That's right. It's a city that never sleeps. That's beautiful. And with all your accomplishments, I would probably say they say the same thing about you. So, I would love to find out. I've always said that the journey to accomplishment is never straight, you know, that there's a winding road. And for someone like yourself, I'd love to know, where did you start out? And how did you end up literally at Apple and being such a visionary there in the disability community?


Alan 08:57

Well, I'm not sure how much of a visionary yeah, but I can tell you where I, where I began. I think I um, mostly started down this path, which you're right, certainly was never a straight path, by volunteering in what in the old days were called state schools for retarded kids and adults.


Mai Ling 09:16

O wow. Yeah, we don't hear those words anymore. Yeah,


Alan 09:19

Absolutely. You don't hear either. The state schools don't exist. Incidentally, state schools were never really schools to begin with. The education budget of a state school in those days was about 9%. When you listen to people talk about snake pit and mental institutions, that's what those were. They were places that looked bad, they sounded bad, they smelled bad. You would hear laughter when things weren't funny. It was maintenance and, and what you mostly saw in those days, was how uncommon common sense was. Give you a couple of quick examples. In those days I was volunteering, it was at the time, that was the oldest state school in the country for, quote, unquote, retarded individuals. And there was a problem in one of these institutions. And the problem was that in a day room, a large day room with about 50 kids, head banging and having so much stimulation, they started biting the rug that they were sitting on and chewing on the rug. So, the institutional response to that was to pull all the kid’s teeth out.


Mai Ling 10:10

O my God.


Alan 10:12

And that, but it isn't, Oh, my God, it is definitely Oh, my God, but it was not, it wasn't uncommon. And you could, we found people who, some of the older teenager, residents in these places often discovered sex behind the bushes of the institution. And once, soon as the institutional administrators discovered that, they cut down all the bushes. So, there's ways to approach a problem and then there's ways to be administratively efficient. So, you cut everybody's hair the same way. You have everyone look the same way. You hose people down, and you're having people live in a place where the showers, there's a drain in the middle of a sloping floor. Because that's how, that was the efficient way to get things done. It really wasn't about people at all. It really made it very difficult for me as a volunteer, to go home at night thinking, how is this allowed to go on? How would people, how is it possible that people can be treated this way? And that, just that, was really a real instigator for me. It was I just couldn't stand it.


Mai Ling 11:35

Can I ask Alan, how old were you at that point? I'm not trying to be you know, just trying to understand.


Alan 11:40

This, I was probably just finishing high school.


Mai Ling 11:46



Alan 11:47

Yeah, this was, it was a while ago. I mean, it was probably mid-60s, early 70s. in that, in that era.


Mai Ling 11:56

Right and what you're describing for a lot of us, we actually have to take like an ethics class or something like that in the disability health realm and it brings up the visuals. The videos that Geraldo Rivera was able to share out of Willowbrook, which is, was stunning, you know, that people didn't know what was going on there.


Alan 12:15

Right. And when you did discover it, and you smelled it, and you saw it, and you saw things you couldn't believe. But in those days, there were lots of “lacks of common sense”, of stupidity, I would say. I had a friend, for example, in those days, had a friend who had lost a leg in a freak boating accident. And he was called to report to the draft board. And he went to the draft board with his right pant leg pinned up. And the person doing the interview had a clipboard. And she was reading these questions off the clip: name and address and blah, blah, blah. And she then she came to a question that literally said, and so she asked, as she looked at his pant leg pinned up, she said, Will this disability be of lasting duration? You know, and it's kind of like, he knows that you wanted to smack your head a lot, saying, how is this possible, you know. But there was, there was just a lot of that, a lot of stuff that in those days made me think, I was kind of naive, right. And it quickly made you become an idealist, because you went from this is how this is, I've got to reread Don Quixote, which was one of my heroes in literature and we've got to make something, we're going to change this somehow. And one of the things we did, to begin to change this, was we started our own program in the woods of New Hampshire. I was in Cambridge at the time and we started a program in the woods of New Hampshire, a residential camp program for 50 developmentally disabled kids, 6 years to maybe 15 years of age. And we only took the ones with whom teachers had the biggest problems. The kids who had the fattest files, you know. Files, which by the way, told you way more about the, the teacher than it did about the kid, right. And that, this was an experience that was a residential camp. We took the parents also, because we never wanted the kids to have to go back to the same. We're going to work with these kids intensively for eight weeks. residentially every summer, to send them back to the same environment that they came from, wouldn't have made sense. So, we trained the parents as well. We wrote a lot of manuals and training manuals for parents. But out of that camp experience, I had one very fascinating experience. One, it was the very first book I ever published, was a little children's book. And the children's book was called Like Me (, and it was trying to, and I had gotten the idea from having taken a trip to Scandinavia, where I saw a very similar book, where they were introducing little kids to the word “retarded” at the time. Yeah, so the book isn't really relevant anymore, but, but it was trying to explain to kids, because it's, you have to think about it, it’s a tough concept for kids. Right? A lot of adults don't quite understand it. But when you say, here's someone who looks a lot like you, but behaves very, very differently, kids get confused. But it turns out, so did adults, because I did. I took a lot of photos of the kid’s rock camp over eight years and I put it in this little book with a terrible rhyme. The pictures were beautiful. The rhymes were horrible. They were mine. But when I showed the book to adults, adults said, you know, it's a nice, cute idea, but the kids look so adorable. They can't possibly be retarded kids. There were maybe six or seven photos of kids with down syndrome and they would go yeah, those are the kids with…


Mai Ling 15:44

Your classic look. Yeah…


Alan 15:46

Yeah. And they were retarded, but those other kids. Now keep in mind, what they were looking at is one 250th of a second, right in a form of a photo. And they were criticizing in the book, for having skimmed, you know, kind of just taking the cream of the crop. And it dawned on me that these were people who, because the photos did not match the misconception of who retarded kids were, that the photos must be wrong.


Mai Ling 16:12



Alan 16:13

Do you know what I mean, that's when I, that's when I realized there's a really big problem here, when you start hearing people flinging, was total ignorance, about who are these people in the world. And in those days, this was way, way before the ADA or anything like that they really, we're only selectively in the world. So, it was easy to have stereotypes persist. When these adults told me, no they can't be retarded, they look too nice, they look too cute. They're kids. You know, of course, that means, of course they are cute. You know, if I showed you 10 seconds of videotape, on some of those same kids, you would then say something about that kid, not sure what it is. Years and years ago, we did a quick study for Sesame Street at the time, when Sesame Street was introducing the idea of putting a child with Down syndrome, every Wednesday afternoon, into Sesame Street. Was great, really risky, smart of them to do. And what we discovered, and remember these are preschool kids we're talking about, that what we found was that preschool kids didn't notice any difference among the kids. But what they did notice, preschoolers, what they did notice was, the adults acted sort of differently, towards some kids than the other, so if it was time for, okay, kids, it's going to rain, let's all pull our umbrellas up. All the adults ran to the kids with down syndrome to help, you know, and that's the kind of stuff little kids notice. So, you can imagine all the other cues that adults were sending, that taught kids, is something special, different, less good? And through what that developed into was, this noticing, that adults were very comfortable with platitudes, kids, were not. So, adults would say things like, don't forget, the disabled child is just like you and me.


Mai Ling 16:13



Alan 16:27

The other adult would say you have a really good point. That 11-year-old would sit there going, I don't know what you're talking about. I mean, we're all gonna go stand up and pledge allegiance to the flag in a minute and that kid in a wheelchair is not gonna be able to do it, he's not like me. Or they would start to ask really great, uncomfortable questions. Like, if that girl's blind, how come she keeps her eyes open? Or if I yell into that deaf kid's ear, will he hear me better? How come that retarded guy does that stupid stuff? And these are great, from the gut, should deserve an answer, kind of questions. And all they would get back from adults was platitudes. Again, really, it was kind of like saying, you know, what, just between us, don't ask those kinds of questions, when those are exactly the kind of questions... We did a TV series for PBS many years ago, that was modeled after the old PBS program called Zoom. And, had five main characters, named real people in this series called Feeling Free, or five kids with different disabilities. And at one point, we had them sit around, talking about, talking to each other about each other. And one of the guys Gordon, who was deaf, turned to Ginny, who was a little person and he said to her, how come you're so small? And I thought, adults would never ask that. But she, for her was like a big burden lifted, so she could now start talking about who she, who she was. And because up until that point, she said, a kid would say to a parent, hey, watch with that little girl, that girl, she's so small. And the mother and father would say, go ask her. And the kid would say ask, and Ginny at those days would say, she would freak people out by saying, Well, you know, my mother put me in the bath and left me there too long.


Mai Ling 19:57

Right? Yeah, yeah.


Alan 19:59

But when it was asked directly, when Gordon said that Ginny, how come you're so small? Then you've got an opening, you've got something that you can answer directly.


Mai Ling 20:08

What year was that? Are we in the 80s now? Is this in the 70s?


Alan 20:12

Oh, this is probably early 80s.


Mai Ling 20:15

Early 80s.


Alan 20:16

May be not, may be probably, not the early 80s yet. Still on the 70s. I'm not 112 years old. 😊


Mai Ling 20:24

That's great. 😊 Well, I'm just trying to give our listener perspective on your journey. Right!


Alan 20:29



Mai Ling 20:29

Let me ask you, everything seems so monumental, looking at it from today at 2020. And we're at, we just celebrated the 30th anniversary of the American Disabilities Act, ADA. And I'm looking back and I'm asking you for dates, because I'm going gees 70s and 80s. Would you say you're trying to educate and also change culture? Like these are these are huge, you know, ideations?


Alan 20:54

Yes. I mean, without a doubt, I mean, it was, there was a little bit of anger that was motivating that, there was a little bit of concern motivating that. But mostly what it was, then, and what continued to maybe the one non ragged journey was intimacy, that every single person I've ever worked with, who was any good, was intimate with people with disabilities, as opposed to, you know, you can get people to answer a multiple choice test with 20 questions about disability, so they can get all 20 right. And you say, well, that's great, you got a really good grade on knowing about disability, how many people with disabilities, you actually know. And they would go, you know, I saw a guy in the supermarket in aisle four coming down, and I think I knew him. And you'd say, well, how many people with disability you know, who, who, whose first name you know? And it turns out, you know, these people would go by answer the questions correctly, you know, but I don't, I mean, I know how many chromosomes, I know the chromosome story with down syndrome, I just don't know anybody, who is someone with down syndrome. And that was, to me, that's a real differentiator. When we started the Apple group, for example, in the mid-80s, we weren't techno whizzes, we didn't really know a whole lot about technology. What we did know, were people. This image with me, it started in the institutions do you know, when I would see these people, and it went through this camp that we ran for eight years. So, we got to know 50 families every year that we lived with, and we spent year around with. And then I wound up doing a photo exhibit around that time, that traveled around the country for several years. The photo exhibit was called "Ordinary Moments" ( Quick little anecdote, there was a very famous photo exhibit called The Family of Man ( And The Family of Man is also in a book of photos. And in The Family of Man there are no pictures of anyone with a disability that you could see. Okay. And that really irked me off. So was, maybe people are missing from this family.


Mai Ling 23:06

Right. Not a comprehensive representation.


Alan 23:09

Yeah, so I did, I did these photos for, and called it Ordinary Moments, because it wasn't, it wasn’t photos for a cause. It wasn't like, here's a picture of Jimmy we can put on some charitable poster, and you can donate a quarter, and Barbra Streisand can sing a song and Billy can knows to put his coat on. Do you know what I mean, it was just pictures of people with disabilities, doing stuff in the world, that turned out to travel around the country for three years, it was a real kick to have done. But again, not one of these people in the photos was to me a subject of a photograph. They were all people with names and families and stories. And you know, and once you have that in your cells, you don't, you don't lose it, do you know. And when I first started hiring people in the group, I started at Apple, I didn't hire technology people. Apple had plenty of technology people. What they didn't have were people with that intimacy. And to me, that was a cornerstone. I get there's a ton of stories around this stuff, that I won't bore you with all of them, but as I've been told, is a woman named Muriel Rukeyser, who once said that the universe is made of stories, not of the atoms. And I think it's really true, you know, that that's how you can convey stuff that actually happened. And I will never forget, speaking of this photo exhibit, when it opened, and it's opening at the JFK library in Boston. And there were huge images and lots of people came. And so, I knew some foundation, people were coming in, I wanted to make sure that not only did they see the pictures, but they saw the most accessible physical environment, you could imagine. So, I was doing things like measuring the rugs and seeing what kind of toilet paper was in the bathroom. This was going to be a model of accessibility. And half… and we had this reception and halfway through the reception, someone came actually really angry. Is that… how could you put on an event that as inaccessible as this ?


Mai Ling 25:02

O O.


Alan 25:02

Yeah, exactly. And I was thinking, what are you, what are you talking about? And it turns out, we had a couple of bars set up and there were no diet mixers in the bar. So, there were no sugar free mixers that you can make with your drinks. And that person could only have diet mixers. And I'm thinking, you know, that's why this accessibility story will never end. Well, there will never be an ending to yep, everything is now accessible. Because there's always going to be, not the most common case in the world. But this person was legitimately upset that I was disrespectful enough not to have thought of his or her needs, even though I didn't know who the person was. So, bump, I bump ahead a little way to, after having worked in the nonprofit sector for such a long time, I come to Apple, which is hardly nonprofit in those days. This was 84. And in those days, Apple's on the cover of every magazine in the world, money all over the place. But what struck me when I first showed up, there was, everyone had on their t shirts, or the bumper sticker, “A computer can change your life”. That was Steve, Steve Jobs's, philosophy, computer can change your life. And I remember thinking, again, coming from the nonprofit sector, wait, if someone was hungry, you didn't give him a phone, but you gave him a sandwich. If something is metal and plastic can change your, fundamentally change your life. I really didn't believe it, until we were given permission to start our group. And then the stories about how lives change as a result of technology, were startling, eye opening rapid phenomena. In one quick story, just to give you an example. And then I'll come back to the beginning of this Apple group, because it really was, it was interesting to watch people like Steve Jobs and John Sculley see the birth of this. There was a guy, a friend of ours who live lived, he's no longer alive, in the middle of the country. And when he was growing up, Johnny was his name, his dad was a very famous jazz musician. And Johnny was so skilled that as he was growing up, people started to think that he was going to be even more talented than his dad. But when Johnny was 20, like a lot of kids, teenagers, he got into a bad car accident, and wound up being paralyzed from the neck down. So, he went to rehab and after they fixed up physical cuts and bruises and all that, they said, you're, where you want to be now, what do you want to do? Johnny goes, it's not what I want to be, but who I am, I am a jazz musician. And they looked at him kind of pitifully. And their best response to that was, to put paint brushes in his mouth, try painting, that's another art maybe you can express yourself that way, and Johnny, spit those out. 😊 And he, you know, fast forward several years, we're now giving the keynote address at the American Occupational Therapy Association Conference. And in the middle of the, our keynote, we wheel, Johnny wheels himself out. So, picture this guy, a black guy, beautiful round face, hands on the wheelchair arms are resting on washcloths, you know, and he's beaming. And he rolls up to this Macintosh computer. And it, Mac was not in those days, well, what they are today, they weren't quite as bad, and a lot of sound equipment as well. And it's got a mouth stick. And he starts to press a few buttons. And suddenly, music starts playing and it's his music. And it's music like jazz, that he's sort of improvising, as he goes along, a roomful of 2000 OTAs, 98% of the time, maybe even now, were a female. Many of them were too old to still be practicing the profession, in my opinion. They were you know; they were like, they were, because we were trying to change that profession too. And we think the only way we're really gonna make a difference is, if half of these people retire out of their profession, because these are the folks who are like, I know how to handle my patients, my clients, and don't tell me anyway. They're all tapping their toes, and they're snapping their fingers, and the place is going crazy. And Johnny is playing his music. The point about that was Johnny started taping these kinds of sessions, sending them back to the original rehab center to make the point that you, don't you dare put a ceiling on what someone might be able to do. You know, and he proved to them, that their assumptions about what might be possible for him could not have been more wrong. Now, the other part of that story is that without the technology, he would not have been able to do what he was doing. So, the two, the two angles if you will come together really nicely. And so, here's an example of, here's a person with a disability and that computer literally changed his life. Because without it, it's not clear what he would have become, not clear who he was anymore. But now we get to Apple, I get to Apple and the Apple 2. Probably not many of your listeners would even remember, there was such a computer as the Apple 2.  Yeah, but it was a computer, you could pop the top off, of this computer. And you could stick it with all kinds of little things that made it easy to operate with a switch or whether you could modify it. Then the year I get to Apple in 84, the Macintosh gets announced. And the Macintosh doesn't have a top that you can pop off. And it has these strange things like Windows, multiple windows, and a mouse. And, and the disabled community started sending me a comment saying Why did Apple turn its back on us? The Apple 2 was, was so accessible. And now you come out with something that Steve Jobs said, this is the computer for the rest of us. And I'm sitting there, we just started this group, that which became the Robot Disability Solutions Group. Knowing that these are the 20% of the population that we promised, we were going to include, not forget to build for. And now so I'm going to come out with this computer that's not the least bit accessible. It was interesting that our proposal, my proposal to start this group, when I wrote it for Steven and John Sculley at the time, they turned it around in about a week and said, absolutely. It's unbelievable. What? We're not doing this? We've always promoted ourselves as a company, about individuals, not like IBM, it was about corporations, we are about individuals, we didn't realize that we weren't being responsive. The day after we got approved, the day after this proposal got approved John Sculley called me up to his office, and he taught me two of the best business lessons I've ever learned in my life. First, he said to me, look out, I have no idea whether you're going to be able to pull off this group that you're talking, I don't know if you're gonna be able to pull this off or not. But you have to make me one promise. You have to promise me that if you fail, you will fail huge.


Mai Ling 30:23

Nice. Yes.


Alan 32:18

That was such unbelievable permission. You now, don't just nibble around the edges, go for it. And if you don't succeed, you went for it. This is the same guy who in a subsequent meeting, I remember sitting at a meeting with him with a bunch of other engineers from Apple, and developers whatever. And I don't even remember the issue that was being discussed. But I remember him stopping the room by saying, alright, I hear everybody. Now what I want to know is who's doing the best thinking in the world on this subject. Because he knew that it wasn't just going to be within the four walls of Apple, that the only brilliance was going to be. So, you could argue and you could argue passionately, believe me, there were tons of passion at Apple in those days. But John also wanted to remind people, these other folks you need to account for and include in what you do. So, who's doing, so they are huge and who's doing the best thing in the world on this prop, gives you such a different way to approach problems. And again, remember this was a, five or six years before there was an ADA, there were no, there was no looked at guidelines or evaluations. But we did it, creating this office because it was the right thing to do. Apple was in more than 20% of the population. But secondly, because and I think this was another lesson that I learned from me, actually, which was, we did it not only because it was the right thing to do, but because it mattered. And it turns out what I learned and held on to almost ever since. A lot of my decision making is mattering matters. Something needs to matter. If you're given an assignment by someone who's a superior of yours, but it doesn't really matter to you, you're not going to do as good a job as if… so was back in that now back in the old institution, where the screams and cries of people who were being treated badly, that got to me, that mattered to me, you know, and well, this doing this Apple stuff now really mattered to me. We weren't, I wasn't quite sure how to get it to matter to our engineers and software developers. So, what we did and the key, the key to the creation of this whole… became this terrific, terrific group over the years, was brought together about a dozen rehab engineers around the country. And we have engineers, are you know, they're kind of like the gadget people in the rehab world. And I brought them together in a room with a dozen of about top hardware software engineers. And we were going to talk about disability and accessibility and the needs of people. But before we did any of that, we scattered the room with photos of real people with disabilities. There weren't many people actually that Apple hired yet with disabilities, like they weren't at most companies. But I wanted the room to have a flavor of real people. These are the folks we're talking about. And they have names and here's who they are. Here's what they do and here is what they can't do. And then we got down to it. Here's now, I've got these engineers, Apple engineers sitting in front of the Macintosh, they invented, they created. And I said to them, I want you to put your hands in your pocket, put a pencil in your mouth…


Mai Ling 35:31

That's right. Use it like that. Yeah.


Alan 35:34

Then two things happened. One, first of all, like giggles like this is a silly little exercise. Luckily, John Sculley, God bless him, he was president of Apple, he was in the meeting as well. And he said, we're gonna do this. And then, so people stopped giggling, stop chortling about this. And they said that, okay, we'll do this silly little exercise. But before we do it, I just got to turn the power on, because the switch is in the back and I can't reach it with the pen.


Mai Ling 36:00

And there you go 😊. And you're like, step one, we have an issue!!


Alan 36:04

Yes. Well, at the end of the day, we had 23 issues. Yeah. Right. Because we would show them do that exercise for a while and you know, people, how do you operate a mouse with a, with a pencil in your mouth? And how do you, how do you hold out two keys, never mind three keys at the same time. And that's when a lot of the, lot of the things you'll find in the Macintosh to this day, and many of them are really old, you know, long in the tooth at this point, we would put into the operating system, then. Because people realize, you know what, this stuff is easy to build, we just didn't know it was a problem to begin with. And that was key. So, for example, in those days, there was no way you could control the volume, right, unless you went to the operating system, and you slid a little slider down and the volume would go down to zero. But if you couldn't hear, right, then you say this to an engineer, and they go wait a minute, we can fix that, and they run out of the room and come back in two minutes. It didn't. 😊 But that's how I remember because it was so easy. And they would go okay, now bring it down to zero, it won't be a beep or anything, there the menu bar, will flash at you. Because you're definitely, you'll be able to see this visual, you know, and the key. There were two things. One, it was an engineer’s pride. And anyone who develops nifty products has pride in the products. And what we were demonstrating was, we know, you have a lot of pride that you made a perfect product, that computer for the rest of us. But there's some problems here, you know, and we are to point out the problems. Like if you have a keyboard, and you have physical disabilities, and you can't go from the left side of the keyboard to the right, without hitting a few keys inadvertently. That's a problem. What are you gonna do about it? And besides, these guys were brilliant, and they would have to, even if it we just didn't realize that was anybody's problem thought…


Mai Ling 37:55

And thought about it? Yes.


Alan 37:56

Right. So, the interesting thing that became, somebody said, well, we should make a computer for people with disabilities. And that's when we said, no, no, we need to make a mainstream computer that's wonderful for everybody. We're not going to make a purple computer, because someone you know, can't hear, or can't see or can't use their hands easily. We're going to make a mainstream product, it's gonna have disability stuff, accessibility stuff built in. If you need it, you invoke it, if you don't. You know even half the people or more don't even know that stuff exists. But up till today, you know, I'm sure your listeners would know this, but if you were to develop a phone today, a mobile phone for some of those blind, the last thing you would develop is something with a flat piece of glass. Right? What is that?


Mai Ling 38:48



Alan 38:49

Right. And yet the day the iPhone came out…Because quick rewind, once that meeting happened, and we started to build stuff for the Macintosh operating system. The other effect of all this was the idea of accessibility and accessible design came into the DNA of the company. It was no longer us having to cry out loudly, they knew it right. And they knew that they didn't make the best product as someone who was deaf wouldn't be able to use it. So now, I come to the iPhone, is this flat piece of glass, which within six months became the most popular cell phone in the world for people who are blind. And you say that to people, even today, people who have their iPhones forever and ever. How's that possible? And for a while, I'll explain to people how it's possible. I don't do that anymore. Now I just say, go into the, you know, go into the accessibility settings. Play with it yourself. You'll be blown away by how relatively speaking how simple it is, okay. And I want you to be surprised. I want you to be amazed. And then I want you to realize, Oh yeah, it's just the right thing to do. Right. So, it doesn't have to have that many exclamation points behind it. It's just good design.


Mai Ling 40:00

I want to stand up and start applauding, like, you know, the people listening, I think we just want to give you an applause. It's just listening to Alan, to you, it sounds like well, of course, this is what you do. But I know that you were making them look at things in different ways. And once you started literally like turning the lights on and saying this, you know, look at it this way, look at it from this perspective, look at it from this person's lived experience, right? I can imagine that, you know, at some point, did they start to think about it as they were coding or creating, you know, the wireframes? Did they start to think that way and say, well, wait a second. You know, when I think back to my conversation with Alan, or what I learned from that, we need to do this. It makes me think of, were you on the mobile apps, were you part of that creation of those earlier ones?


Alan 40:43

We had, we were our own group, and all the other groups mobile, educate whatever it was, would come to us as like the Resource Center, if you will. Okay, so we would lend people out to the main team, do you know what I mean.


Mai Ling 40:54

Wow, okay. Oh, do you remember when Steve Jobs did one of the first videos of someone using an app who was totally blind, and he's walking in the woods, and he's showing you how it's showing typography, and all of a sudden I just remember people being amazed.


Alan 41:12

But it, what's interesting is how amazing it is, and it shouldn't be, do you know, what I mean? It's a, by the way, I'm not a big fan of gimmicks. You know, you see people do a lot of what I was just describing was a gimmick, right? Not to have you put your hands in your pocket, put a pencil in your mouth, when we actually exploited the hell out of gimmicks. Because not only did we tell them about our experience, and what problems people just had, but if you did, quote unquote, gimmicks, like if I sat someone down in front of a Macintosh, which I did with one of the CEOs at Apple at the time, and I said, Okay, you're in front of a Macintosh. Now you're paralyzed from the neck down, type me a memo. And the CEO sat there, and first tried to bend over and type with our nose, right? I said, No, no, you don't have those muscles, you can't do that, you're paralyzed from the neck down. She said O. And when we finally showed her several ways, that that could be accessible to her, she went back to her direct reports, every top senior executive in the company, and she said, tomorrow, I want each and every one of you to go to the Disability Solutions Lab, which is what we had created, so that people could experience this stuff. You are all assigned to go to that lab and experience what these people have to show you. And so yeah, I mean, once you show people, something that they hadn't thought about, and then realize, I should have thought about that, I didn't realize, I hadn't thought about that. It becomes, it's a mission. And it also turns out, we found out after doing all this work for a number of years, we really weren't about accessibility at all. Our goal was not accessibility, the accessibility was just a means to an end, because the goal really was independence and choice, participation. And so, you know, I could, I could build a ramp on a sidewalk, but if there's no stores, you want to get into, what if I give you access, I've just given you a ramp. But there's more to it than just the accessibility part.


Mai Ling 43:11

So, you know, I, I asked you, if you would honor us to write the foreword for our upcoming book, which is Becoming an Exceptional AAC Leader. I am the main writer, and I've united 14 other amazing people in the augmentative and alternative communication community. And when I asked you, you were very transparent and genuine, saying, you know, I don't really have a lot of expertise in the AAC area, which is specific for communication. But, you know, everyone that I've spoken to, and I've said, you know, I'm so excited, Alan finally did say yes, you are still the person that is seen as the pioneer or the visionary. And I know you feel uncomfortable with these words, but accessibility, then translated into accessibility, technology, communication, and that's now why we have this entire universe of amazing technology where people can use their fingers, they can use sight, they can do all of these things to help them to talk, which now translates like, taking these words off the pages. Right? Yeah,


Alan 44:10

It's a, it really, I mean, it's not false modesty to say, there are a ton of people who were intimate with this community. And then with the problems, literally work from you know, four in the morning until nine at night, because we had this opportunity to do nifty things. The parking lot at Apple in those days, nights and weekends was always full. Because literally, Steve told us, we're gonna change the world. And we believed it. And our little slice of the world that we thought we could change, changed us. You know, we realized, look at what was possible here. And so whether it was giving somebody a sort of a little Billy in the classroom, you know, every time attendance was being taken, all the kids would say, here, here, here, and then the teacher would get to Billy… and Billy and she would say, yeah, you're here to Billy. Okay. And finally, Billy because they hear on his own voice.


Mai Ling 45:01

Yes, the other voice.


Alan 45:02

Huge, you know, and all of a sudden, Billy sat up a little straighter, you know, and he was, became part of the group. So yeah, I know, we're probably gonna run out of time, let me give you a couple of quick lessons that comes from others, that may be worth sharing. Here's what they were, having been in this whole special ed, rehab community for what seems ages, I got a couple of quick things. And you're all of the people that you talk with, people who might be listening to this podcast, we've all gone to these many, many conferences, education conferences, etc. I decided that we shouldn't go to them that much anymore. But instead, create your own conference. and invite not people like yourself, but invite a clown, an artist, a fireman. And I really mean that. It's like, after you got to 8000 of the conferences, you realize you're hearing the same rhetoric, the same jargon, everyone's agreeing with everybody else. And artists talk differently about everything you're seeing, you know. When I first brought a mouse, to Apple's industrial design group that has artists in it, because we wanted, but how can I build a mouse into the arm chair in a wheelchair, you can control the wheelchair, and very first thing I do on the side of the mouse, was, they didn't look, they just turned it upside down. Okay, so like, here's a wheel, and we can, and it was like, yeah, we had been looking at mice for years, and never thought about just turning it upside, little tiny little bumpers like that. So number one, for the lessons, one is taking artists out to lunch, to talk about what you do, and see what he or she has to say about what you do, and ask him to be as candid as possible. The next lesson is, and I've learnt this, again, from Johnny, who taught us, don't impose a ceiling on people's abilities, is that you should just assume, yes, it's possible, as opposed to, I think how we can do that. We, I was honored to be invited to be on the board of directors of Steven Spielberg's Starbrite Foundation, at the time for chronically ill kids. And when we're talking about things that are possible and impossible, and he said, very matter of factly, Well, you know, we created the Jurassic era when we needed to. I'm like, Oh, yeah. I guess that would have thought to have been impossible. And then kids, sick kids would say, I want to experience being hurt. I want to experience losing out because people are always coddling me. So, create an online environment where I can be hurt, or I can get dirty. And you are like, Oh, yeah. Okay. There's a lot of, a lot of people say no, that's not possible. Say yes. And then figure out how you can go from there. Thirdly, next to last is, you have to have a vision, you have to know why you're showing up, you know, so. And the problem with most corporate mission statements, whether it's nonprofit or profit in the corporate world, they're not very memorable. Right? So, the corporate mission is a paragraph long. Who's gonna, how do you react? The best corporate mission statement I've ever heard in my life was Paul Newman's Hole in the Wall Gang camp. He had a series of camps for kids with cancer, and they came up every week, and the mission was for them, quote, “To raise a little hell”. And of course, that's the mission statement. And it's the only statement in my life I ever remembered. Because it was to raise a little hell. And so again, you should realize, Why are you showing up? Yeah, yeah, it's a job. And it's a paycheck. But really, particularly in this field, What is your vision? And the problem is, lesson number four, is that dreaming should matter. And when you go to corporations, they always say, you know, dream big. Well, I would say to our population, Dream small, but Dream small, a lot. Okay. And the reason it's problematic is because particularly if you're a teacher, there's, there are disincentives to dreaming, right? You have a curriculum, and you have to follow this. And so, if your dream, it's like, well, I don't know. You're not following the rules. Yeah.


Mai Ling 47:48

Going outside the lines.


Alan 49:10

Yeah. And I'm thinking, if you do dream, you can create in your students, Little Dream makers, do you know, as opposed to just little kids who behave themselves. So, I would sit back a little bit, think about what you do. Not just tomorrow's lesson on tomorrow's clients. And I know that sounds soft and fuzzy and how can I really do that. But it all comes back to what matters. You know, it needs to matter. And if it matters to you, you could dream about it. And, you know, that's all I can say.


Mai Ling 49:45

You said a lot, to you've shared so much, Alan, I know that people that are listening that, just to know, to be in this space with you so intimately. I know you used that word before, but you definitely came into our world. So many of us have personal stories. Whether it's ourselves, our loved ones, you know, the people we work with. And that is what has inspired us to do what we do. To hear your story firsthand, Alan, has just been such a blessing. I just I really want to thank you.


Alan 50:10

Thank you very much. I love the opportunity. I love as you might be able to tell, I love talking about this, because it was so fun to live through. Now just recounting it and relaying it. So, thank you for the opportunity.


Mai Ling 50:22

Wonderful. Thank you. And again, I invite our listeners to definitely look up Alan's books on Amazon, and then also on LinkedIn, you can connect with them. So, thank you, Alan.


Alan 50:32

Thanks, Mai. Appreciate it, really had a great time.


Mai Ling 50:35

Thanks so much for joining us for this episode. And remember that if you have a creative idea that you're ready to start on and want help from someone who truly understands what it means to build a disability focused offering, visit and let's get started.


Martyn 50:48

Be sure to check out to embrace your place as a world changer. If you are serious about becoming an influencer and impact in the world. Please join me in my VIP Academy. We focus on you and build momentum together. Will see you in the next episode.

Alan Brightman

Ph.D. in Education

Alan Brightman received a Ph.D. in Education from Harvard University and an Honorary Ph.D. in Science from The University of Massachusetts. His professional accomplishments in areas related to individuals with disability as well as older adults reflect a career devoted both to increasing the quality of life for underserved and too-often overlooked members of society and to developing large-scale business opportunities to serve the needs of these segments.

Brightman was most recently a Vice President at Yahoo where he created the Accessibility Group in 2006. This group continues to be responsible for ensuring that all of Yahoo!’s Internet products are as accessible as possible to individuals with disabilities.

Previously, Brightman was the Founder of Apple Computer's Worldwide Disability Solutions Group and served as its Director for thirteen years. In this capacity, he worked closely with Apple's hardware and software engineering teams as well as with diverse teams in marketing, sales, industrial design, and public relations to ensure that all Apple products, programs, and services were accessible to children and adults with disability.

While at Apple, he co-authored Independence Day: Designing Computer Solutions for Individuals With Disability and produced a variety of videos designed to illustrate the role of technology and telecommunications in increasing options and opportunities for all children and adults.

The work of Brightman's group at Apple, the first of its kind in the industry, has been widely recognized and honored around the globe.

Brightman was also the Executive Producer of a new musical called PULSE: The Rhythm of Life, based on a website that he and his group at Apple created for seriously ill children and young adults. PULSE premiered at San Jose, California’s Montgomery Theater to packed houses and rave reviews. Brightman also produced the Original Cast Recording CD of PULSE and is featured in the nationally televised PBS program about the making of this unique show.

Throughout his career, one of Brightman's principal aims has been to use mass media and mainstream technologies to substantially enhance the quality of life for stereotyped, often ignored, children and adults. Toward this end, he has published a number of books—for children as well as adults—aimed at fostering full participation of disabled individuals in all aspects of society. One of his books, Steps To Independence, is now in its fourth edition and has been translated into eight languages. He also produced an award-winning television series, called Feeling Free, for PBS as well as a one-person photographic exhibition designed to increase understanding and acceptance of disabled individuals. This exhibition, entitled Ordinary Moments The Disabled Experience, toured the United States for 3 years.

Brightman’s most recent book, DisabilityLand, was the recipient of a Benjamin Franklin Award.

Brightman has served on the Board of Directors of the Starbright Foundation, an international organization chaired by Steven Spielberg that works to create new futures for seriously ill children. He was also Executive Producer for Starbright of a series of programs entitled Videos With Attitude, aimed at illuminating the true, though, and occasionally humorous experiences of sickness and disability.

In recognition of his work in the field of assistive technology, Brightman was awarded a Lifetime Achievement Award from Boston University.