Accessible Times: The UATP Podcast

Interview with Sachin Pavithran, US Access Board Director.

February 03, 2021 UATP Season 1 Episode 8
Accessible Times: The UATP Podcast
Interview with Sachin Pavithran, US Access Board Director.
Show Notes Transcript

Sachin Pavithran is the new executive director of the US Access Board. But before that, he was the UATP director. Before he left, we sat down with him to talk about his own very personal experience with accessibility, assistive technology and advocacy—and where it all goes from here.

He had a lot to say about accessibility and assistive technology, but the part that really stood out to me was his own evolution from shy employee to national leader. It all started, he said, when he met other leaders.

"I didn't really know what a successful blind person could do," he said. "But when I went to a meeting that I was invited to go to in Washington DC, the speakers at that event, were, you know, blind people who held high positions in organizations, whether it's nonprofit, and government in the public sector, or it could be people leading different roles in different companies, attorneys, people working in White House, people who were successful. And I had no idea there were blind people who were that successful, like absolutely no clue. And it changed my perspective on what I've been doing so far, and what I could do, and also running into hundreds of blind people just doing things and saying, hey, let's go to dinner, we'll just go, it's just three blocks down the street over there. 

"And just how do you do that without someone helping you get to that? You know, it was just as foreign. It was so out of my comfort zone. And I just tagged along with these people, and I started telling myself, I need this, I need to be able to do this. And that's where it all started for me."

Enjoy the conversation!

JoLynne Lyon:

Welcome to accessible times the UA TP podcast. We talk about the technology that helps people be independent and how it changes lives. I'm JoLynne Lyon. Sachin Pavithran is the new executive director of the US Access Board. But before that, he was the UATP Director. We sat down with him about his own very personal experiences with accessibility, assistive technology, and advocacy, and where it all goes from here. All right, so let's start with your history with the CPD. I know you've been with us for 20 years, right?

Sachin Pavithran:

Yeah, I started back in October, October 16 2000, to be exact. So Cindy Rowland from the web project is the one who brought me on.

JoLynne Lyon:

And I will go straight to a story that I remember hearing from you. Because I think it speaks so much to people who are just learning to accept assistive technology into their lives. But you told me once about that maybe it was a little bit hard for you to use a cane at first, can you talk to me about that?

Sachin Pavithran:

Sure. So, you know, coming to the US, I'd never had any exposure to any disability organizations, but I did not know any people with disabilities period, you know, not just blind? I got seen folks, you know, just went, you know, traveling around in different countries to like, you know, people who are there, but other than that my exposure was almost like, non existent. So I did not know what me as a blind person could do to function, what's acceptable, you know, the whole idea of Braille, I did not know anything about I never been, you know, saw Braille, I never felt Braille till I came to the US. So cane. Also the same thing. The The, the issue was prior to me joining the CPD, I function with my college undergraduate life as a person who didn't speak much about my disability. And bringing a cane into the picture is acknowledging that I'm blind. So that was a big transition. But it also weighed in to the fact that I never had any kind of formal training, any rehabilitation, when it comes to blindness training, because blind people are obliged to get a lot of a lot of intense training on different daily living skills like travel using a cane. How do you function in your household, like, within the kitchen, you know, how to cook, how to mark different things? How, how do you read Braille? How do you do technology, I was very comfortable with technology, because I was always comfortable with technology period. Although I never got exposed to any assistive technology till I came to the US. I tried to use my limited vision, and I tried to use my family to help me out to function. And then I came to the US was when I started getting exposure and assistive technology was not that huge in the 90s. You know, it was very expensive and not as available. So.. cane, definitely put, you know, that stigma of how do people perceive you out there. I really wasn't sure that I was ready to tell the world that I was blind. I still had enough vision to kind of function, not very good, but kind of function. So when I came to the CPD, I used to come straight into my office, sit at my desk, and do what I needed to do, then go back home. I would not explore around the building. Don't go meet people. I just didn't do anything because I wasn't confident enough that I could figure it out. And the whole cpd was kind of like a maze.

JoLynne Lyon:

It really was, I remember.

Sachin Pavithran:

So you know, it was hard. So yeah, so that's that's kind of, and my first cane was given to me by a CPD employee who has two blind kids, he he came and gave me a cane. This was almost I want to say close to six to eight months working at the CPD, came in gave me this cane and told me that I can't come back to work without the cane.

JoLynne Lyon:

I, I hope by then you knew how to get some training to use it.

Sachin Pavithran:

So he he's the one who kind of train me just on campus, just walking on 700 North just on that main drive. on campus, going towards the residential housing, how to cross streets. So the only training I've ever had in using a cane came from him.

JoLynne Lyon:

Wow. Another thing that just kind of blows me away because I didn't know you then, you know. So it's just surprising to me to hear that you were shy? I, I've, I've not known that side of you. So

Sachin Pavithran:

yeah, I think I've tried to, I've learned how to compensate for that. I've always I've been reserved, in many ways I am more of a listener, and then speak up when needed. I think being an advocate, and getting involved in the disability rights movement really changed my personality, because I had to finally come out of my shell and defend why I need to have certain access and why I need accessibility. And speaking in behalf of, you know, disability rights. So that kind of brought me out of my shell. But overall, I was always involved in things, I was doing things. Even in college, you know, when I was going in my undergraduate years, I was very involved in student life with different things, but it was, you know, it was always with friends, it was not me doing things on my own.

JoLynne Lyon:

Yeah. And that's a good segue into another thing I wanted to ask you about. You're a person of color, you're also a person with a disability. And you've spoken a lot about how both sides need to be addressed. You can't assume that just because you're serving people with disabilities, that you're also serving people with color with disabilities, and I don't want to put words in your mouth. But if you could talk to me a little bit about that.

Sachin Pavithran:

So the whole idea that intersection between, you know, someone who is a person of color, and having a disability is a topic that is getting more attention. Now, it's a, it's a topic that hasn't been given a lot of attention, because people really didn't think people who are you know, someone who was, you know, who was not the majority race, who was not white, who is a person of color, and has a disability could have any different level of treatment within the disability community. That just, you know, it was surprising to the disability population at large, because they thought all disability people were kind of the same, piled into the same group of people. But the reality is, there are a lot of things that still need to be addressed when it comes to someone with a disability who is a person of color. There's, there's inequity when it comes to what that looks like for someone who is a person of color. Even if you look at the history of disability rights movement here in the US, in the last 40, 50 years, a lot of the work that was done by its people, well, you know, you know, people of color, were not even taught in the disability rights history. You know, the people that you see showcased when it comes to the disability rights movement are, were very prominent in the disability rights movement are all the people who are Caucasian, who are white. So it's, it's not because there were no people of color who's done the work, it's just, they would not seen important. So the same way when it comes to services. When you know, when you are a person of color, you still have those prejudice that exists in this society that people face. Now, when you add tack on to somebody on top of that, it's just a double whammy at that point. So there is issues that needs to be addressed. It's just not being thought about it, even in service organizations. So there's different programs that we have going on around the state and around the country. People really don't think why are they not? You know, why don't we have enough people of color, underserved population that we serve, and why are they not part of our I don't want to say our data. But if you look at a lot of the data, a lot of the people of color, unless you live in a community, that is the large percentage of the population, you usually don't see them getting a lot of services and why is that? You know, the question to ask.

JoLynne Lyon:

and that question, why is a good place to start. I'm wondering if you have advice to service providers and you know, those who are on the front lines, as far as making sure that everyone is included when they're offering those services, or even, you know, as, as we both know, the first step is just letting people know that those services exist. So how are some ways that we can reach out?

Sachin Pavithran:

So if you look, just we're talking just Utah, you know, you know, one of the larger underserved population in Utah, you know, is the Hispanic population. So, you know, you have different Hispanic communities from, you know, different, you know, different cultural background, different countries, you know, we tend to lump all Hispanics, as you know, Mexican population, which is not the truth, because there are different countries with different cultures and different way of approaching things. So, how do we approach this community that has lumped, been lumped together? Yeah, they share the same language for the most part, but they have different cultural views. How do we approach them so that they feel comfortable about the conversation around disability? How do we approach them so that they feel comfortable to even talk to us, you know, especially when the people working within the organization don't even belong to the community, it's making things available, that makes them feel included. Simple things, like having information available in the language, that's like the basic simple things that we have control over to do. You know, winning trust takes time, getting the confidence in the program, and making them want to listen to us takes time because those outcomes and building relations with the community, but if you don't have just the basic offerings, like having your information in the language that you're, you know, trying to approach, that's a simple thing that we can control to do some, you know, some outreach that shows that there's some effort being put. Then the other piece is having people be part of your organization that look like them, that, you know, that can relate to them, that can even understand where they're coming from. Now, you can't have a staff member for every culture that represents your community, you know, just not feasible. But having enough ways to show that kind of diversity that exists that can associate with, you know, with the community that you're trying to work with, shows that you really care and you want to reach out to them and understand. The other piece, I would say is not going, not taking the approach of, "Here we are we do such great job, we can make a difference in your life," rather, the better approach is, Let them tell their story. And see where you can intersect information, to ask more things about them and ask questions to build that relationship. So not just walking in, that you are their savior.

JoLynne Lyon:

Can you tell me a little bit like you started, you told me how you started at the CPD. And obviously, you're moving on to a really big leadership role. A nationwide leadership roles. So tell me a little bit about that role first, and what you'll be doing there.

Sachin Pavithran:

So my new position, I'm the executive director of the United States Access Board, which is an independent federal agency that oversees accessibility, so the primary role is to write technical standards in all areas of accessibility, whether it's public rights of way, which is when it's a public rights of way, it's all the accessibility that you see in your cities and towns, so your sidewalks your or your curb cuts your your radiuses on sidewalks, your roads, streetlights, you're round abouts, the crossing, all those different areas, you know, what, what an accessible community should look like and what what should cities and towns follow? So we write stands for things like that, you know, we write technical standards for airlines, passenger vessels, public transit, you know, web accessibility, which is section 508, which, you know, is a pretty important piece, kiosks and pretty much anything and everything you can think of building a chord, you know, there's so accessiblity the guidelines on what accessibility should look like in any buildings. The only area that we enforce is the ABA. That's the Architectural Barriers Act, which people tend to mix up between ABA and ADA so ther's Americans with Disabilities Act, then there's Architectural Barriers Act. So ABA is a law that it mainly for federal buildings, the accessibility of federal buildings. So that's, that's an area we enforce, the access board, but everything else, we write the standards for the enforcing agencies. So whether it's department of transportation whether it's department of justice, you know, whichever it might be, we write the standards in collaboration. The Access Board is comprised with the staff that works with the board, but it's also governed by members of the board. So there's 25 members, 13 of which are appointed by the President, where I was one of those public members that was appointed in 2012 by President Obama. So there's 13 appointed from the public from around the country, with various expertise and background. Then there's 12 member federal members, which are 12 federal agencies representative like department, transportation, justice, Health and Human Services, Department of the interior, so there's 12 of them, United Postal service and it's the agency heads, that represent, who represents those, these 12 slots. So you can see like, that's a pretty powerful group of people weighing in to make sure that this is a high priority. You have 12 agency heads and 13 presidential appointees, making sure that things happen in this country where accessible is a priority. So small agency with a very large footprint. And we are unique in a way, because most countries don't have anything like that. So a lot of countries try to duplicate what we do. So globally, we are the gold standard that countries come to. There's always foreign diplomats coming to visit, and asking us to go out there to help them within their country when it comes to standards and guidelines.

JoLynne Lyon:

Right. And I'm sorry that I'm asking this question in 2020. But I think it still needs to be asked, why is this important? You know, obviously, it's important for people with disabilities, why is it important for everyone?

Sachin Pavithran:

When we talk about anything with disability legislation, first law that comes to anyone's mind who even who even to those people who might not know much about disabilities is ADA, the Americans with Disabilities Act was passed 30 years ago, and which is a good thing. But there's a lot still to be done to make lives for people with disabilities more inclusive in the community that they live in, inclusive in a work environment, inclusive in an education environment, inclusive in just society, society at large. People with disabilities have a lot to contribute, but they can't play a key role in all these different sectors. Unless we do the things that level the playing field, whether it's, you know, whether it's just casual community involvement, or whether it's professional or whether it's education, whatever it might be, there's a lot of work to be done, and there's attention being given to it, there's still not the kind of buy in that we should, should have. Even though it's been 30 years since the ABA was passed. I think more people are getting more exposed. I think more people are growing up around people with disabilities being in mainstream education. So that's helping, but it's still there's still a gap in what that society would look like if it was if accessibility was always a part of every conversation without being you know, being asked for or being something that you had to legally push for.

JoLynne Lyon:

Yes, and this is something that I've that I've wondered about a lot. 2020 for example, has forced a lot of people online. You know, we're spending a lot more time online communicating online than we ever have before. And so in this year, particularly, I've, I've noticed that some things have come out that were helpful to people with disabilities. For example, Google Meet now has a free version, and it includes captioning, Skype, I don't know when they added their captions, but they've got captioning now. So we are seeing some movement, what do we need to what further steps need to happen?

Sachin Pavithran:

So if we're just talking like the big tech giants like Google, Microsoft, Apple, you know, in the last five years, or maybe 10 years, more so in the last five years, they've taken accessiblity more seriously then than they have in the past. And some some of those tech companies do better than others in in some areas, and there's always competition, you know, one company comes up with something the other tries to duplicate.

JoLynne Lyon:

And let's, let's stop and unpack that even a little bit. Because just the idea that tech companies are competing with each other over accessibility is that the sense that you're getting, you know, that they're, they're not just doing it, they're trying to do it better than each other.

Sachin Pavithran:

It's starting to be more so that way, because these companies, the names are throughout, you know, Apple, Google, Microsoft, the three big ones, you know, Amazon's also one of the players now, those companies have taken accessiblity seriously, like, every one of those companies, I've said, have teams that primarily focused on accessibility, it's not just one individual, they have teams embedded in different parts of the company. For example, in Microsoft, they have people working on accessibility on the office team on the on the Microsoft Edge team, the Xbox team, all those different types, they have players who understand accessibility being part of all those things. So if the conversation has changed, because in the past, if they did have someone who understood accessibility, this one individual that they went to, to inquire any questions are accessible by that's changed. And it's become, they realize this is a pretty big market. It's a market that has buying power, this is a market that is getting bigger and bigger. Because our population, the baby boomer population is getting older, and they're also going to use some of this technology, so that the population is that uses some of this technology is getting more and it's getting more attractive, for sure. Initially, they probably started doing it because of legal reasons. But now it's becoming part of a culture. It's not where it needs to be yet, but it's getting there. Then there's, you know, organizations like Microsoft, where the CEO of Microsoft has a personal reason, because he has a family member with a disability. So he's taking it personally to make accessiblity a high priority. So all those different reasons, make these tech companies to really push it to, you know, really make accessiblity part of their culture. I don't think we're close to where it needs to be. But it's definitely a lot further than it was five years ago.

JoLynne Lyon:

And what would you like to see? What movement would you like to see in the future?

Sachin Pavithran:

in the tech space,

JoLynne Lyon:

in the tech space, also in the physical space?

Sachin Pavithran:

The ideal environment would be I walk into, you know, if I was to travel somewhere, I don't have to think or worry about whether I'm going to be able to get around, you know, just basic functions that people at large, who don't have disability, take for granted. You know, someone who's using a wheelchair, is this town going to be accessible for someone who uses a wheelchair? Can they get into the building that they're going to be that you know, always having this? Now, how often do you think about, Can I, when I go to this meeting, can I get into that building? You know, that's probably not a thought you have a lot now, you know, that's but that's the kind of planning a lot of people would we'll just have me as a blind person. When I go to meeting you know, first thing, am I going to have the information I need Am I going to be able to participate in that Was it me I have to have All these questions I have to ask ahead of time so that I can participate. Or if I'm going to, you know, traveling, say, I'm going to travel to some, I don't know something recreation, say I'm going to a concert, how am I going to find where I need to be at this concert? by myself, if I'm not with anyone who can help me, if it's just me by myself or me with someone else who has a disability, it's, it's this. It's a stressful thing. Planning ahead, because you don't know what you're going to run into. It's not something that someone who doesn't have a disability even think about, yeah, they might run into some obstacle because they forgot something, or they don't know where the entrance is, or can't find a parking. But it's not, how you would find your seat? Or how would I navigate in that crowd? And those kinds of things. So you know, having to be a part of society where that's not a question anymore, where I can show up, and I can know, this will be a part of how, you know, accessiblity and inclusion will be a part of whatever the area might be, but it's a recreation, whether it's a meeting, whether it's anything I do, I don't have to like pre plan anything. That would be the ideal space. Same with technology. If I was to buy a piece of technology, I don't have to worry, Can I use this piece of technology? Is it going to be accessible? I don't have to do all this research. Is this blind friendly? Is it accessible for someone who have you know, it comes? Now that's why Apple is kind of set a standard with all the products on how they've built accessibility that any Apple product comes. And the other products are doing the same thing, Microsoft, Apple just had a lead in how they did that. And they've kind of set a standard on how they do it. Now there are other companies that do better in certain aspects, when it comes to accessiblity, but they all like I said earlier, they're competing, and so they're trying to make their products more accessible.

JoLynne Lyon:

So to go back to that concert example, how could you make that experience more friendly to people with disabilities?

Sachin Pavithran:

it's really having an understanding of what your what your population, or what your customers are going to be look like, knowing your customer, your customers have more diverse than what you had, have had in the past, knowing that your customers could be people with disabilities, like intentionally doing things to make it. Now if I bought a concept that's in a pretty large venue, say the What do you call it place? The Delta center? Whatever that is.

JoLynne Lyon:

And I'm drawing a blank too. Yeah, I know, I know what you mean.

Sachin Pavithran:

Call it the Delta. So when you go there, those basic things, if I want to go to the go get a snack, for example, here, I I figured out where my seat was, I got my seat, I'm situated. How do I go get me a drink? Or how do I go to the restroom? How do I figure that? And then when I get there, how do I get back? You know, simple things like that, how do we do that without and do it independently, so that I don't have to ask someone to come escort me to where I need to go and take care of me. I want to do it when I want to do it. And now I want to go get a drink. I don't want to wait 20 minutes for someone to send someone to come pick me up. You know, it could be indoor navigation way of doing that in a seamless way. So it's an accessible indoor navigation where you know, it's a device, they hand out to whoever comes in so they can use it if they're blind. Now if it's a wheelchair user, having options of seedings that's not just one section that, you know, because it will check what if there was a wheelchair wants to be right up front? Can that person get right up front. Is that even an option? All those kind of things, anything get right up front, if that's accessible, can they get to the stands to get a drink if they want easily to maneuver and not have to go all around the building to a special entrance and up these elevators across the building to get to that place?

JoLynne Lyon:

Wow. Yeah, lots of thinking. Lots of thinking, lots of design involved in all of those things. So we've talked A little bit about how the accessibility world has changed. I, I'd like to talk a little more personally, again, about the the change in your own perspective, like, you know, you started as someone who was maybe a little bit self conscious about using a cane. I've seen you out in the world, I know that's not you now, what's happened in between, you know, that person that you were and the person that now has a very prominent role? How did your perspective change?

Sachin Pavithran:

One thing I do have to say is, by meeting other people who went through similar experiences, like I have other blind people who experienced, you know, growing up, being blind or losing their vision later on, and big getting successful. And the way I did that is by finally running into this organization called the National Federation of the Blind, where I, I was introduced to the organization like, I want to say 2006, yes, around 2006, and I've never really had much association with blind people prior to that I've met blind people on campus, when I go to the Disability Resource Center for class related stuff to get things and then for work when I used to do some technology training. I mean, I have clients. So I learned that I didn't have much association, I didn't really know what a successful blind person could do. I wasn't, I wasn't even thinking I could do more than what I could do. You know, I was doing some computer programming, I was technology training, demonstration. That's about it. I thought, This is my career, you know, this is all I can do. I was comfortable with what it was because I had no one challenged that I could do more. But when I met this organization, joined this organization and met these folks. And I went to a meeting that I was invited to go to in Washington DC. In early 2007, the Washington seminar, and the speakers at that event, were, you know, blind people who held high positions in organizations, whether it's nonprofit, government, the public sector, or it could be people leading different roles in different companies, attorneys, people working in White House, people who are successful, and I had no idea, there were blind people who were that successful, like absolutely no clue. And it changed my perspective on what I've been doing so far, and what I could do, and also running into like, hundreds of blind people just doing things and saying, hey, let's go to dinner, we'll just go, it's just three blocks down the street over there. And just how do you do that without someone helping you get to that? You know, it was just as foreign. It just, it was so out of my comfort zone. And I just tagged along with these people, and I started telling I need this, I need to be able to do this. And that's where it all started for me. Oh,

JoLynne Lyon:

wow, that's awesome. You've already answered this a little bit, but I'm going to ask it anyway, how does the Access Board matter in Utah.

Sachin Pavithran:

So, the the work that the Access Board does impacts the whole country, you know, when when standards rolled out and when agencies implement it. So, things you see within your community, you know, when public transit has been implemented, you know, when you see simple things like, say Salt Lake City, when they rolled out the the front runner, the rail system, all those where you see how that transportation was rolled out, there are certain rules, certain standards, that they have to follow, because it was required by law required by regulations for them to do it in such a way and the reason it was done is the role that accessport played in writing those standards, in collaboration with the Department of Transportation. So that wouldn't happen if you didn't have an agency like accessport with the expertise to write that. Transportation, department transportation as an agency alone, don't focus on accessibility. They don't have the in house accessibility. They do have but that's not their expert, you know, that's not what they do. They they partner with this agency to do that similar with education, HHS. Now all those different agencies, department interior is another agency we work really closely with, for all the outdoor recreational, like your, your monuments and your national parks in accessibility areound that all the other recreation areas that is publicly owned, how do you make those accessible? Access board has a significant role in you know, working with those agencies to make sure. And like I say, wouldn't happen if you don't have an agency that specialized and is legislated to work on these.

JoLynne Lyon:

I've run through my list of questions. Is there anything you'd like me to know? One question that I think you probably have answered, but I have it written down. So I'll ask it. Are there barriers that that still need to be overcome?

Sachin Pavithran:

When it comes to

JoLynne Lyon:

when it comes to accessibility? Yes,

Sachin Pavithran:

yes, that's quite a bit. You know, one of the barriers, we still talk about something as basic as transportation, which, you know, we've been talking about transportation, transportation is still a big barrier for people with disabilities. If you live in an urban setting, if you live downtown Washington, DC, you have a lot more options to get around as a person with a disability. You live in, in Utah. What are the chances of me getting around if I was living somewhere, Let's say Vernal, Utah. Richfield, Utah, it's almost impossible for me independently getting anywhere even living here in Logan, it is limited. Now I take the bus to go to work, you know, from where I live, to get to campus to my office, if I was driving shouldn't take more than five or 10 minutes. Sometimes it takes me 45, 50 minutes on a bus to get there. And I have to plan it way ahead. So there is a lot of barriers because of transportation. Transportation creates a roadblock for many things in a way, how you decide where you want to live, how you decide where you can work, how you decide what what you can get involved in within your community, all that makes a difference in someone with a disability, if you want to do it independently. And so yeah, accessibility, we we still have a long ways to go. Even in employment, you know, how do you have? How can you be competitive in your employment, or education, higher ed, higher ed has kind of a lot, a lot to do when it comes to making accessible in the learning, it's more accessible and inclusive, not something you know, without having to go, keeping on asking for what they should be getting rightfully, which, you know, that they should have. So, yeah, it's it's still got a lot of work. And, you know, I hope, you know, we get to a point where that becomes part of everything that we do accessibility is not this special topic we have to debate about and, you know, advocate and argue about whether it's important or not, rather, i should be something that is practice that's embedded int every conversation we have Regardless of what is being d

JoLynne Lyon:

Thank you for listening to Accessible times. The UATP podcast. It's brought o you by the Utah Assisti e Technology Program, part of t e Center for Persons wi h Disabilities at Utah Sta e Universit