National Disability Employment Awareness Month – an amazing man leading an amazing organization, Part 1

John Samuel, Technology Services Manager, LC Industries

October is National Disability Employment Awareness Month, and this two-part blog features John Samuel, and the organization he is helping transform, LC Industries. On September 6, I visited John at his office on the LC Industries manufacturing campus, and then was given a quick tour of the facility. Originally, I was only going to write about the organization, but John’s story is so compelling, I need to make this a two part blog. So, part one – about John.

STAN: I believe you came to LC Industries about a year ago, in September 2017. Could you tell me a little bit, about how you got here?

JOHN: Actually, it started back around the year 2000 when I was pursuing my accounting degree at NC State. I was then first diagnosed with Retinitis Pigmentosa, commonly abbreviated R. P., and slowly started losing my vision. This is a much different journey from someone who is born blind. The condition worsened and by the time I graduated, my vision was even too poor to drive.

STAN: So what were your initial jobs like?

JOHN: I started my career in Finance, working in Bangalore (India) and New York City. Both locations were ideal for me, since I did not need to drive. Then in 2009, I went to Cameroon (Africa) to start and lead a telecommunication infrastructure company, and by this time, I was considered legally blind.

STAN: How did you cope with your work? I am sure you have to sift through many reports and numbers.

JOHN: Even in college, I found ways to cope and adapt. For example, I discovered it was far easier to read white print on a black background as my sight worsened, so I simply inverted the color of the computer screen. I figured out many life hacks like this, which helped me get things done.

STAN: And so what did you do after your stint in Cameroon?

JOHN: I decided to go back to school in Washington, DC and get my MBA. When I was at the George Washington University, I worked with the faculty and staff in the Disability Student Services office, to get the accommodations I needed to complete the program. However, when I started to apply for jobs, I realized that many organizations did not have accessible websites, which severely limited by ability to apply online for jobs. At this stage, I still was not completely open about my own blindness, and this was holding me back.

Many of the excellent LC Industries quality products for US Armed Services personnel on display

STAN: And so did things change? What were your next steps?

JOHN: Yes, things did change, but it took me some time. It was only after I read about Ed Summers, Director of Accessibility at SAS Institute, who developed a software that enabled blind users to visualize graphical information using sound. In addition, I wanted to connect with him not only because of the software he developed, but he was living with blindness in my hometown of Cary. Serendipitously, after months of not being able to connect with Ed, my father saw a blind man walking on the road and surprisingly enough it was Ed. (Link to news article about Ed Summers and his work.) Knowing that I wanted to move back home, Ed then introduced me to LC Industries, where they were looking to start a new technology services business, which was a great fit for my background. In this role, I know I have an opportunity to help remove many of the barriers I faced.

STAN: John, thank you for sharing your fascinating journey with me, and I do hope many who read this will get inspiration and valuable insight for their own journeys. Now, let us talk more about LC Industries.

And now here is the link to part 2 – more about LC Industries.

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My previous blogs for National Disability Employment Awareness Month:

2014: Bridge II Sports – a cool organization engaging people with disabilities through various sports.

2013: Support via a wonderful organization, Enable America.

And also: A theater organization supporting performers with disabilities, Theater Breaking Through Barriers.

My 2014 National Disability Employment Awareness Month Blog – Bridge II Sports

Ashley Thomas, Founder and Executive Director of Bridge II Sports, is herself a member of the US National Parakayak team.

Ashley Thomas, Founder and Executive Director of Bridge II Sports, is herself a member of the US National Parakayak team.

On September 11 of this year, I attended the second annual Triangle (NC) Business Journal’s Leaders in Diversity awards luncheon. I met one of the outstanding and inspirational award winners in the nonprofit leadership category, Ashley Thomas, Founder and Executive Director of Bridge II Sports. I felt she would be perfect to interview for my this year’s October National Disability Employment Awareness Month blog.

STAN: “First, Ashley, could you tell me a little about what Bridge II Sports is all about?”
ASHLEY: “Sure, Bridge II Sports (BIIS), provides adapted sports programs for people with physical disabilities. Our programs serve both youth and adults, as well as military. Often when one is injured, or is born with disabilities, there are no opportunities for active, healthy sports options. We decided to open a door to this niche. BIIS uses adapted sports to develop confidence in the heart and mind that empowers athleticism and confidence!

STAN: “What inspired you to start and build this organization?”
ASHLEY: “As a child, born with Spina Bifida, I was ambulatory, but not an efficient runner nor did I have balance. Once I got into a wheelchair, I discovered that I no longer had fatigue, new energy was discovered, and that chair that “binds – wheelchair bound”, became the tool that set me free! I began to explore if there was wheelchair racing on the internet. I found a coach from Arizona, who told me how to train over the internet! That is what got me going. It was such a joy to have freedom in movement, set a goal, train, accomplish my 1st 5K in 29:32! This made me think that every child should have this opportunity. I guess to make is short, it was so liberating and empowering to me, I felt like others should have the opportunity.”

A basketball game being played in Wake County, NC

A basketball game being played in Wake County, NC

STAN: “Since I am a diversity and career consultant, I often write and blog about workplace diversity and career development. What do you feel is the connection between engaging people with disabilities in sports and preparing them and empowering them to succeed in the work place?”
AHSLEY: Great question! Physical activity, social interaction on the playground, at parties, boy scouts, girl scouts, church groups, etc., are huge arenas where social development, self-confidence, personal identity, begin to form. When one has a mobility limit, I find that there are many areas that just did not get a change to develop. Creating accountability for those with physical challenge is hard to create….unless the one who is setting the standard also has a limit. Our programs set the standard of being on time, yes we know it may take you longer, to accomplish a task, but, the world works on time. We help understand what it means to be a team player. So often a child with disabilities does not get that opportunity, and become very self-focused. This is not a harsh criticism, but and outcome when so much is focused on the brokenness – multiple doctor visits, PT, OT, social worker, ….. Sometimes a kid just needs to be a kid. When accountability, goal setting, team mindedness, is incorporated into the programs, we have developed people who will be great employees! Everyone has a limit, I wanted the folks how have physical limits to have the same ability for development using sports as those who are able to walk, see, move!

STAN: “Is there anything else you want to tell me about Bridge II Sports or yourself?”
ASHLEY: BIIS is a non-profit that functions by many volunteers and donors. I would like to invite folks to learn more about our programs and get involved. Please consider becoming a part of the 360 Club (Link) and sponsor a program so children and adults with disabilities can play!

Many thanks to Ashley for strengthening our community and help so many people though her fine work and organization! Do check out the amazing wide variety of sports programs offered, from indoor to outdoor, individual, team and even extreme!

Also, here is a link to last year’s blog about another fine leader and organization: Sandy Moonert and Enable America.