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.

A great diversity experience – Theater Breaking Through Barriers

Two of the actors featured in “The Artificial Jungle,” David Harrell and Anita Hollander

NOTE: The play featured in this blog runs through July 1st at the Clurman Theatre, 410 West 42nd Street, New York City. Link to Theater Breaking Through Barriers for information and tickets.

In early June, my mother and I took a quick weekend trip to New York City so she could have a reunion with her best friend from college from the early 1950s. Since that was planned for Sunday, I arranged for us to see an off-Broadway play on Saturday afternoon, Charles Ludlam’s “The Artificial Jungle” in celebration of the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Ridiculous Theatrical Company.

The play was a combination comedy and thriller featuring only five characters. Nerdy Chester, his attractive over-sexed wife Roxanne and his doting mother all live together and run a pet shop in New York City selling exotic animals. They are looking for some additional help with the store and hire sexy mysterious Zach. Zach and Roxanne have an affair and then plot to kill off Chester by throwing him into the piranha tank. The 5th character is Chester’s best friend Frankie, a good hearted but somewhat incompetent policeman. Do read this fascinating synopsis and review from the NY Times from when the play first ran in 1986.

Anthony Michael Lopez (Zach) and Alyssa H. Chase (Roxanne) plotting Chester’s demise in “The Artificial Jungle”. Credit: Sara Krulwich/The New York Times

What is special about this current production? Theater Breaking Through Barriers features actors with a wide range of disabilities. David Harrell (link), who plays leading man Chester, is an actor, speaker and disability advocate with one hand. And Anita Hollander (link), who plays Chester’s mother is a long time actress, singer, lyricist, producer and teacher who lost a leg due to cancer. Both actor and actress were marvelous in their respectful roles. In addition Anthony Michael Lopez (link), who portrays Zach was born with a leg defect, and other articles about the cast say that one of the five actors is also legally blind, though all my google searching could not help me identify who.

As a diversity consultant (deep expertise in LGBT, but half my clients engage me for all areas of diversity and inclusion,) I do take away two lessons from this production:

First, that differently-abled people are fully capable of handling the same tasks and taking on the same responsibilities as people without disabilities, and may perform just as well or better. This is a very important message for the business world where often unconscious bias could lead us to prejudge people with disabilities as less capable. During the play, the acting, directing and story were so good, the disabilities of the cast were non-apparent.

Second, the world of entertainment should use more “imperfect” people in roles. So often shows, movies and plays have the most beautiful flawless people on stage. Naturally in entertainment, we like to get lost in the fantasy of gorgeous people in a glamorous story, but it is also nice to experience entertainment that much more parallels real life.

I do thank Theater Breaking Through Barriers and the Clurman Theatre helping my mother and me have a great weekend in New York, and I am pleased to also make a charitable contribution to TBTB through my business. And if you are in or going to New York, do go see “The Artificial Jungle!” Link for info and tickets. And do pay close attention to the piranhas in the tank.