Blind engineer creates revolutionary tool for Facebook

Many businesses are hiring people with disabilities, but Facebook is taking it a step further by putting a blind engineer in charge of a project that can affect millions of people. Matt King is using his disability to his company’s advantage by creating an artificial intelligence tool that helps visually impaired people “see” what’s going on and stay connected.

Seth Fiegerman wrote about King and his work on Mashable:

Halfway through Matt King’s presentation, the screen goes dark.

It’s the kind of glitch that might make a man sweat in front of the audience. But this is no glitch. King has done it deliberately to bring us into his world, however disorienting it might be for the rest of the room.

“I’m going to put it into a state that’s more like how I operate,” King says with just a hint of mischief. He looks less like a computer engineer than an ex-marine, but with the surprisingly cheerful and calm speech of someone who grew up in the Pacific Northwest.

Before we can fully internalize his words, King is drowned out by a mechanical voice. “Screen curtain on.”

King begins tapping the arrow keys to scroll through a Facebook timeline, with the voice leading the way. “Heading Level 5. Link. February 26, at 3:53 pm.” Next, it recites the contents of the friend’s post. “What a view, I really like my new camera.” Then nothing. The voice is quiet. King is quiet. There is no photo to enjoy. The screen is still dark.

King with his colleagues from the Facebook accessibility team.
King with his colleagues from the Facebook accessibility team.

One billion people check their Facebook feeds every day, mindlessly scrolling through texts and photos to keep up with friends and family. King joined Facebook in June as the company’s first blind engineer to make sure millions of visually impaired Internet users around the world are not handicapped in their personal relationships simply because they can’t do the same.

After the silent pause in his demo, King unveils the result of the first big project he’s been a part of at Facebook. The same mechanical voice uses artificial intelligence to identify broad but crucial elements of the friend’s photograph. The image, it says, “may contain sky, tree and outdoor.”

A second photograph from another Facebook contact is said to include “pizza.” Vague, sure, but at least it tells you something to keep you in the loop — more than that dark screen.

This AI-powered tool, officially released in its applications on Tuesday, is part of what Paul Schroeder, VP of programs and policy at the American Foundation for the Blind, described to me as a “tipping point with accessibility.” The same technology that some scoff at or even fear today — artificial intelligence, self-driving cars, voice-powered personal assistants and robotics — could fundamentally transform the lives of the visually impaired in the coming years.

Read the full story here.

Businesses see big benefits to hiring people with disabilities

What do Starbucks, AT&T, Northrop Grumman and Ernst & Young have in common? A commitment to a diverse workforce that includes people with disabilities.

Sarah Blahovec recently wrote about these companies and why they value hiring people with disabilities for The Huffington Post.

“One theme we commonly hear when discussing disability (or any minority) employment is that it is the right thing to do. Providing equal opportunity is providing equal rights; it’s moral and ethical,” she wrote. But, Blahovec wondered, “What if we looked at disability employment from a business perspective instead of from an advocacy perspective?”

Here’s a sample of what representatives for each company said:

  • Starbucks – When we think about hiring for Starbucks, we think beyond labels. We challenge ourselves to look beyond traditional sources and typical profiles, to bring in people that share our values and our passion for service and community. 
  • Northrop Grumman – We are committed to creating a work environment that values diversity and inclusion because it creates innovation, improves productivity and boosts profitability. 
  • AT&T – We are company where everyone’s differences are authentically embraced, valued and vital to our business inside and out. Whether it is by ensuring an accessible environment so employees can win at work or offering the accessibility products and services to our customers, accessibility is our commitment to connect people to the world around them.
  • Ernst & Young – We seek the best talent, period. To find the specialized skills we need, we have to tap the broadest available talent pools, including people with a wide range of physical, cognitive and mental health abilities. People with disabilities often have well-honed problem solving skills and a degree of adaptability that are especially valuable in today’s fast changing business environment.

Blahovec’s conclusion? “These companies are not only extremely successful leaders in their fields but are also powerful models of disability inclusion that make compelling arguments for greater disability workforce inclusion. They not only reject the outdated ideas that disabled workers are liabilities to business, but actively promote the perspective that workers of all abilities bring different strengths to the companies’ missions.”

Read the full article here.

‘Pawing it forward’ and teaching job skills

What can be better than young people, dogs, meaningful work and paying it forward? For Brewhaus Dog Bones, paying it forward becomes “paw it forward.”

Jessica, left, measures ingredients, spent brewery grains, with the help of Bobbie Perry, an instructional assistant.
Jessica, left, measures ingredients, spent brewery grains, with the help of Bobbie Perry, an instructional assistant.

Not long ago, Lisa Graham visited San Diego and learned that dog bones, pizza dough, pretzels and bread could be made using whole-spent grains from the beer brewing process.

About a year ago, she started Brewhaus Dog Bones in New Richmond, a company which helps young adults with disabilities develop vocational skills and have fun, meaningful project-based learning opportunities.

The perfect storm of Graham’s thoughts became Brewhaus. Brewhaus Dog Bones are small-batch, hand-crafted, oven-baked treats made from whole grains sourced from local breweries.

At Sycamore High School, Esther Adams, the intervention specialist, talks endlessly about her days with the students. They even partner with the Teaching Profession Academy at Sycamore. Adams said, “Students become part of something bigger than themselves, working in a real business. They take ownership and produce a good product.”

She said she sees students blossom on a daily basis, because they have taken on specific roles in the kitchen. Not only do students make the dog bones, but they are involved in invoices, loading, delivery and sales. They are not stuck in the kitchen. They get to see their product to completion, and the interaction with vendors and breweries is a priceless life skill.

An important new endeavor is a partnership with Clovernook Center For The Blind and Visually Impaired. Brewhaus and the center will provide paid employment for participants, a beginning to another business model using brewery grains.

Graham’s passion has become a meaningful reality for students all over the Cincinnati area. Her goal is to eventually have a freestanding “Brewhaus Bakery” — integrated within a brewery — and a “Brewhaus Brewbus,” a food truck for dogs, that supports paid employment for very special adults.

This story originally appeared in The Salt Magazine.

A grocery store with a great mission

At Nature’s Bin, a grocery store in Lakewood, Ohio, it’s not just the fresh produce and products that keep customers coming back. Many shoppers also love the store’s commitment to providing real work experiences for people with disabilities.

(Photo from Whole Foods Magazine online)
(Photo from Whole Foods Magazine online)

Nature’s Bin is operated by Cornucopia, Inc., a non-profit that helps people with disabilities “develop skills and confidence leading to sustainable employment.” Cornucopia was founded in 1975 by Brian Daw and Anne McEvoy. “The hope was to create a place where people with disabilities could learn job skills and work in the community; quite a novel idea in 1975,” says Nancy H. Peppler, executive director of Nature’s Bin.

Cornucopia’s original store, “The Bin,” offered training to 12 people with developmental disabilities every year. Today, Cornucopia helps upward of 200 individuals with special needs (physical or cognitive) learn work and social skills every year.

Individuals work side-by-side a full-time staff member across many departments in a “real-work, real-world learning environment,” says Peppler. They might learn how to stock shelves, run the register, clean the refrigerator cases or master another visible job.

Read the entire article in Whole Foods Magazine.

Coffee shop provides more than caffeine fix

Emily is one of several employees at Point Perk in Covington. (screenshot via Local 12)
Emily is one of several employees at Point Perk in Covington. (screenshot via Local 12)

A new coffee shop recently opened in Covington, Ky. with a mission to not only revitalize the downtown area but also to provide jobs for people with developmental disabilities.

Point Perk, 104 West Pike St., took over a former restaurant space and is operated by The Point/ARC of Northern Kentucky. The coffee shop employs five individuals with disabilities along with professional baristas, and it also is a way to teach people in the community about The Point and its services.

[h/t Local 12 news]

Indiana hotel offers on-the-job training for people with disabilities

A first-of-its-kind, fully functioning teaching hotel designed to provide job training and employment for people with disabilities is now open, according to Disability Scoop.

At least a fifth of the employees at a Courtyard by Marriott hotel opening Dec. 22 in Muncie, Ind. will be people with disabilities.
At least a fifth of the employees at a Courtyard by Marriott hotel in Muncie, Ind. will be people with disabilities.

At least 20 percent of the staff at the Courtyard Muncie at Horizon Convention Center are people with developmental and other types of disabilities, according to Sally Morris with The Arc of Indiana, which spearheaded the project.

Individuals with disabilities are already employed in all areas of the operation including at the front desk, in housekeeping and at the on-site bistro and restaurant. The hotel in Muncie, Ind. opened Dec. 22.

Read the full article here.

Pairing passion with entrepreneurship

Michele Vaught’s face lights up when she talks about art. Her passion and talent are obvious as she sits in the Visionaries & Voices Northside studios.

“I’ve always been interested in art and music, and have been making art daily for the last five years,” she said. “What inspires me is finding different textures and colors and using that in my pieces. I always try to do something different that will be unique.”

Michele Vaught works on one of her pieces of pottery at Visionaries & Voices in Northside.
Michele Vaught works on one of her pieces of pottery at Visionaries & Voices in Northside.

Vaught, 44, has been attending Visionaries & Voices since last spring and her focus is on clay. Recently she’s been selling her artwork at Under the Stars, an art consignment shop in Batavia, and at JuJu Beans, a coffee shop in St. Bernard.

Every few weeks, Vaught takes a handful of her clay creations to each place, where they almost always sell out. She’s even had customers and friends commission original art pieces.

“One of my sisters knew the owner of the coffee shop, and that’s how I began selling my art,” Vaught said. “I’m very happy with the success of these endeavors. It’s something I’ve always wanted to do.”

Though Vaught loves what she does, she describes herself as a frustrated artist because sometimes the ideas she has in her head don’t translate to the finished work.

“With clay you can do whatever you want to make the shape you want. If it’s not right, I can smash it and start over,” she said. “My pieces tend to be more out of the box. Even though I can be critical of my own art, the customers love it. I’m always trying to come up with new ideas and challenge myself.”

Vaught, who lives in Silverton, said she plans to take more art classes to learn new ideas and techniques for her future projects.

This story was written by Robert Shuemak, an advocate who works at Hamilton County DD Services