AXSChat Podcast

Decoding Disability: Insights from Mai Ling Chan

October 13, 2023 Antonio Santos, Debra Ruh, Neil Milliken
AXSChat Podcast
Decoding Disability: Insights from Mai Ling Chan
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Are barriers truly insurmountable? Explore this question and more in our deep-dive discussion with Mai Ling Chan, CEO of Xceptional Lab. We unravel the multifaceted aspects of disability and its position in the entrepreneurial landscape. Mai Ling, using her experience as a speech therapist, eloquently frames the narrative of disability as a source of creativity and strength, rather than a setback. 


Delving into Mai Ling's background in communication and education, we see the transformative role of speech, language, and occupational therapists in the lives of disabled individuals. We also look at the intersection of artificial intelligence and therapy, which promises a potential game-changer in this realm. Our discourse further extends to challenges that entrepreneurs with disabilities face, including the hesitation to disclose their disability to investors. Mai Ling's insights provide a valuable perspective on flipping the script about disability, empowering unconventional talent to thrive in attracting investments.

As we pivot towards the Exceptional Alliances Epic Online Accessibility Event, we shed light on the aims of this conference - to bring together public and private stakeholders for rich discussions on investment, growth, and policy. We also peek at the accessibility measures put in place for the event and the modest stipend for presenters. Our conversation wraps with a note of gratitude towards Amazon for their enduring support for this conference. Remember, after every significant event, it's essential to pause, reflect, and recharge.

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AXSCHAT Mai Ling Chan

NEIL:

Hello and welcome to Axschat. I'm delighted that we are joined today by Mai Ling Chan, who is the founder and COE of Exceptional Labs. Mai Ling, thank you for joining us, delighted to have you with, here. We were just chatting before coming on Air about our ADHD and so on. But tell me a bit more about Exceptional Lab, and what it is and what you're all doing?

MAI LING:

Thank you so much. Thank you for having me. I just want to let you guys know how honoured I am. I know this is an amazing long running show and just to be here with you guys is incredible. Usually, I'm listening and watching instead of being on it. So, thank you. So, Exceptional Lab is one of my new babies, I can them my babies. I've been in and out of companies for the last about 12 years. It's been an amazing experience in the disability support area. And I came together with India Oakes, who is an amazing leader advocate in the disability space and augmentative communication area and then Yono Welker, who is a visionary and pioneer in AI and neuro diversity. And the three of us looked at all of our talents and relationships and things that we do and said, you know, we really want to do something together. So, we started thinking about doing an accelerator programme, specifically for disability focussed entrepreneurs. So, you don't have to have a disability but in that space of Universal Design and inclusivity and when we started doing that, that was back in January. And as you guys all know, the investment environment and community kind of taint, with the whole business things and start up investment. And so, we kind of put that on hold but we still wanted to create something together and so, we decided our first offering would be the Exceptional Alliances Epic Online Accessibility Event. And I give total credit to Yono Welker for being the architect of this because he has put together a couple of amazing online events, like hackathons for women, in Saudi Arabia and Dubai and he is just incredible with it. So, when he came up with, we can do ten 10 sessions, 50 presenters and this new idea of doing round table discussions, instead of long form presentations, I was like, what I had never heard of this. But, my background has been putting together professional communication and education, so, I've done that with a couple of my companies and so, I love this space and reaching out to all of our colleagues and people who are, we call them change makers, in the disability community, has been an absolute joy for me. And so, that is what we are doing. It's coming up on October 20th.

NEIL:

Excellent and yes, you know Silicon Valley bank, take down a lot of VC capital and suck the oxygen out of some of the sort of investment vehicles. That said, disabled talent and unconventional talent has always found it exceptionally hard to attract investment and to attract investment and VC's, even in times of relative plenty. You know, so, I was, there was a great post from Cat Noonan, the other day and she was quoting someone else and I can't remember, so quoting of quoting, but she was saying, you know these people tend to back founders that are pale, male and Yale. And you know, people that are unconventional that are not male, male and Yale, also have great ideas that can be turned into viable businesses. So, I think the intent is great, let's help that the market bounces back. I'm sure that there will be a recovery. But, in the meantime, you know, acting in this space, seems like a really good way to start you know, bringing some of those people together. Debra I see you have a question.

DEBRA:

Well, one question I would have. I was going to make the same comment as you that you know, the taint did not fall out for the disability community investments in January. It has always been this way, unfortunately. That's one reason why Billion Strong, is focussing on entrepreneurs, with disabilities as well, as others. So, I think often we, our community doesn't really understand the right way to talk to these funders too. So, we'll see as our industry continues to mature. But one thing, I want to ask you Mai Ling is that you have some letters in your name, and I know not everyone understands what the different initials are, so, I was wondering if you could just first of all, let the audience know what CCC SLP means and you talked about already for a second, but I just want to let you to do that first.

MAI LING:

Sure, so, it is a Certificate of Clinical Competency in Speech Language Pathology.

DEBRA:

Cool. Just in case people didn't know. I think that our speech language pathologist, our occupational therapist, our physical therapist, are the unsung heroes -- well, I really do of our community. I know that the difference that they made in my daughter's life, especially when she was young. But it was interesting as our relationships changed with these therapists, as she, well she is now 36. So, I just want to, well, hats off to the industry. I think there is a lot. We are seeing more and more speech therapists, physical therapists, mainly speech and occupational therapists, coming into our space. And I really welcome them because I think they are playing such an important part. Specially with all this new language stuff we are doing with AI, which is very interesting as well. I recently learned there is a new title in AI, I'm sure there's a whole bunch of new ones, but conversation starter, I want to be a conversation starter. There's a new position, you can be a conversation starter with AI. So, anyway, but how do you believe being a speech therapist sort of influenced how you're looking at the community. I know you also are part of the community just like we are, like Neil and myself with ADHD, but I am just curious how you think it influenced you.

MAI LING:

Thank you so much. That is exactly the reason why we are doing this event is we want to inter disciplinary, inter professional practice. And as a speech language pathologist, it's all about communication, and we are talking about changing culture, vocabulary, in the disability community, awareness and it all comes from what you think these words mean, right, and what your nonverbal communication is saying also. So, I feel like there is a bit space for speech language pathologists in this space and I am so excited for this actual event, we have four speech language pathologists that are going to be participating in different ways and I've been really trying to share that and say, you know, we need all our speech peeps to come on board, but also, we need occupational therapists, teachers, designers, artists, entertainment people. We need everyone at the table. And how are we going to make change is to communicate. And in whatever form. And that's the best part of accessibility, right? You know, using sign language, being able to chat, being able to read the captions. So, all of this is moving towards universal design. I keep saying this is that someday us, as disability advocates, we will be obsolete, we will be like the word processor because everything that is created, is created with universal access in mind. You know, we are not there yet. You know, we are at the early, just the layering stages. We are bringing awareness. We are showing people what the ramifications are. But some day, we won't have to say, oh, where is that word processing computer because I actually had one of those in college, I dragged this thing around, just so that I could write papers, can you imagine that. And we are going to look back and say, yes, I mean can you imagine that captions weren't always there or sign language wasn't always there. Hybrid events weren't always available. We are going to get there some day. And it's from the work that people like you guys have been doing for almost I think you said, ten years this show running. That's what we are here for.

DEBRA:

And I would say, I don't think that they’re going to go away, like the processors. I actually think going to happen, is we are going to shift. I know that when we started doing this show ten years ago, we are like, there's no way we are going to be doing it for very many years because society is going to wake up and figure out that accessibility will even out. But, I think that instead what happens, especially with like using our speech language therapist is, I do not think they are going to go away but I think that what they are going to be able to do their job so much better. We make it impossible, I believe for speech therapists, a lot of these therapists to do their jobs. Speaking from experience I have a daughter with Down Syndrome, who has continued to have communication issues. She was given speech therapy for 20 minutes, once a week, with six other students when she was in school. There is no way you can change your language with that little bit of time. So, I believe what is going to happen. They are not going to go away. I think they are actually going to be able to be, so much more effective because we are going to give them the tools they need to be successful. And that's a big hope I have with artificial intelligence. So, but I don't, I think their role is going to shift and change. But I think, if anything maybe they are going to value these leaders, these speech language experts, these therapists that really understand how our bodies work, how our muscles work. I just think what is happening is going to allow these people to bloom. I really do. But I'm an optimist so, I'm bad about that.

MAI LING:

No. I just, I definitely want to add to that and thank you for clarifying. I absolutely also don't think that these human service positions are going to go away. What I meant was though, in designing the world and how we interact, that that advocacy will eventually not be so needed, as it is. Thank you for clarifying that.

ANTONIO:

So, we had entrepreneurs with disabilities in the past, in the programme. In your views, what are the roadblocks that they are facing today?

MAI LING:

Excellent. That's actually my jam. I have been focusing on spotlighting people who are working in this disability space, in the innovation entrepreneur area for years. I have a Podcast, so I have interviewed, over a hundred, I think it's up to 150 guests now. I have three books that I have published and spotlighting people's specific stories of creating something, going through challenges and continuing to process. And so, one of the threads that I keep finding is people are there, first of all hesitant to share that they have a disability with investors. So, that is what one of those start up pitches’ things, you know, the elephant in the room, you know, do you share it. So, for some people where it is seen and visible. Then that is something that they don't have to address. If it's not, like myself, where ADHD, you know, is that something that you want to share because that might be seen as a detriment. It might be seen as putting you behind all of the other entrepreneurs because you have a neuro diversity. And so, it is becoming more and more acceptable and there are more grants available and more scholarships and more specific programmes out there. You know, accelerator programmes, like Remarkable, I love what they are doing over there. I'm sure, you guys know Molly Lovitt. So, you know, people like us, are helping to shed light on this and that it is even something that is a gift, you know. And something that is helping them to focus their power and their passion. So, that is one area of it. Another thing is, we are trying to get away from, we are calling it that cringe factor, it's like, ah, you have a disability and you're running a non-profit. And we are trying to shift that to no. I'm a creator, I'm an innovator. I'm fearless, I'm courageous and I have a company. So, I have definitely seen that as another shift. Like should I start a non-profit or should it be a C Corp. So, there have been things that we have been in talking about, I've been in coaching with a couple of entrepreneurs in accelerator programmes, also talking about the elephant in the room is, why should people care? You know, a lot of people when they are pitching, they are just trying to get the investor to invest money because they are going to make money back. We are in a different area; we want them to invest money and put their hard-earned investment into something that's going to make a difference. Impact investment. And that's different. And so, helping the entrepreneur, who in that disability space, to be able to convey that message and to move someone to understand that this is something that I should care about. So, I would say that those are the top three things that I'm finding.

ANTONIO:

Sometimes, I also have the feeling that if someone is disabled, they will be entrepreneurs building something for their community. And that might not be always the case. How do you think we can also address that perception that bias that exists that people with disability should build stuff just for them and not for the larger communities.

MAI LING:

Right and so, I'm finding that we are using words like inclusive design and we need to be more simpler about it. You know, obviously, I am a wordsmith, I love language. But to get to the general population and for them to understand, we need to show them how this is going to affect them and how it's going to affect them or their families. I'm even finding that with this conference. You know, we are working on accessibility and that people don't know what that is. And I just started learning about urbanism. I didn't really understand that until my 27-year-old son sat me down and said, you know, Mum, living in the suburbs, you are really sucking all of the resources from our taxes and I was like what? You know. So, you know, it's our responsibility to educate and to educate obviously the entrepreneurs also in that you are not just creating for this specific disability. You are literally creating because anybody can use if and it will increase their quality of life and access and all of this. So, I think it's education.

NEIL:

Excellent. And I fully agree. I think there is, you know real value in delivering inclusive business. What you know and Debra had put in the chat and people don't discuss because it might not get funded or might get hired, people sometimes don't even realise that they have neuro divergent conditions. You know, they go through life and yes, I mean, my child can't be ADHD because he's just like me.

MAI LING:

Exactly.

NEIL:

You know, I got diagnosed in my late 40's, Debra in her 50's you know, and then going backwards up my family.

DEBRA:

It made sense.

NEIL:

Yes, yes. But I also think that there are you know impact investors are very different beasts to standard VC's. But as you know, one of the things that I'm really interested in is making disability inclusive businesses really profitable because I keep repeating this but I see no problem making good money from doing good things, in fact, I think it's incumbent upon us to make good money from doing good things. In fact, more money than from businesses that do bad things and when we manage to flip that over, then it has a massive effect and impact on society. So, I am with you, not everything can be a charity, all of the time it should not be because that does not self-sustain. We had a great chat with Kurt Jaeger a couple of weeks back, maybe a month back, where he's also looking at business and finance and repeatable business, as a way of increasing the representation of people with disabilities in media, rather than just pointing and saying, you know, put more disabled people in your films.

MAI LING:

Yes.

NEIL:

So, I think that this is really important and Antonio has, I think got a comment on that too.

ANTONIO:

No, I believe we are talking, I believe that you know, VC's also hide their disabilities. It's also you know, I'm in a position of power. So, I don't want to look at someone vulnerable as an investment. But what I wanted to ask Mai Ling, is that sometimes, even entrepreneurs with disability, they might be in a vulnerable situation, they might be receiving benefits. They might be afraid that you know, if you go into any entrepreneurial journey, they might lose some of the benefits. How can we make sure, that when, if they want to embrace such a journey, they also do it in a safe way and don't put their lives and sometimes basic things in their daily lives at risk.

MAI LING:

Absolutely, it's a great question. There are starting to be amazing free resources available now so, I'm going to plug the National Disability Institute. There is a small business section there that Nikki Powis is heading and she is also a presenter at the event and what they are doing is just providing a plethora, inundating information, Webinars, you name it, on how to get started, how to look at you’re funding. How to, I think you know, the big question that you actually just brought up is, if I do this and I have an income stream, I won't lose my medical support. So, you know, how can we navigate that and, the best part of the resources like that, is that you now have someone that you can go to. You know, you can talk to and it's our responsibility like, I just say this to get that information out there because a lot of people who are just starting, don't even know it is available. And so, we need to just keep getting that out there because they are used to the able bodied, typical types of resources, which is like your local quants, your city small business information and those places are not as equipped, obviously to deep dive into the nuances and niches of a person with disability, who a starting up a company. And so, we just have to keep start making sure that these freely and wonderful available resources that they know how to get to them.

NEIL:

Yes. That's extremely important. I think that obviously there is a set up that's different in every country around what benefits and people can get and at what point, working becomes a problem. And I think that this is something that happens a lot in the disability community, where people wish to work more, wish to but also need the support and it's a really difficult area to get right, in terms of policy because we know in the UK that the government has pushed extremely hard to get people off benefits and into work, possibly, you know and that was controversial and on the other hand, you know, in the US, there seems to be this trap where people are, you know can't work, because the benefits are going to disappear. So, these systems are almost entrapping you. So, there do need to be pathways to enable people to transition into entrepreneurship and in some kind of a support mechanism for this. So, that people can really fulfil their potential. Debra, I see you.

DEBRA:

Yes, well I will go right in and say, I agree. I know often, here in the United States and the United Kingdom has bet up about this as well. We have a tendency, just to focus on ourselves and we really need to make sure that all of our entrepreneurs, including entrepreneurs outside the US and the UK are meaningfully included. And, as you said Neil, we get certified as entrepreneurs with disabilities by our countries that we are you know incorporated in. Not, that all of our offices it's remaining incorporation. So, it's very important that these programmes be global which is why, once again, Billion Strong, is working on this with our country partners because we want corporations to include us in their supply chains. But at the same time, we need to make sure it makes sense for the brands. I see some certification, I know of a certification, for example, that they are you know, certifying, you know things that do not makes sense to corporation that corporations do not buy and accidentally, that can became a trap for our community as well, not really understanding what the true needs are of a potential client, a potential funder. I remember when I first started, in entrepreneurial, in the early 2000's people would say, what are you all doing? What can you do? It's like, what do you need done. Okay no, that's the wrong answer because we have a tendency, to sometimes, as entrepreneurs try to boil the Ocean, instead of really being, you know, I mean we learn, we have to learn along the way, which is why it's so important that our entrepreneurs be more meaningfully included and we are seeing so many cool programmes that are coming up to support us, but one thing I would be curious about, Mai Ling, just to make sure that, give a little bit of more attention to your conference coming up in a couple of weeks, do you mind telling us because I know, we have already talked about some of the speakers, but do you mind just telling us a little bit more about if people joined you know, what can they expect, just to give a little love to some of the speakers that are going to be joining you?

MAI LING:

Thank you so much. I truly appreciate that. Going back actually just to the, you were talking about policy and what we can do. We are actually starting out, right after the keynote event which is by Lydia Browne. She is with the National Disability Institute and an amazing internationally recognised speaker on disability advocacy, right after that we are going into accessibility ethics and justice. And that is right, you know our first event there. The keynote will be provided by Dr Victor Panadan, who is also internationally recognised and he has the amazing documentary, if you haven't seen it, it's 37 minutes, called, "Unconfined." It's incredible. It's his experience during Covid. And then India Oakes, will then be moderating this conversation with Edmund Asiedu, who you have had as a guest. He is the Administrator of the New York City Transit Authority talking about accessibility there. Cal V Brik, we also know him, he's a lawyer working in the advocacy space. Rebecca Willford, another legal advocate and then Tom Folly, who is the Executive Director of the National Disability Institute. So, that's our first big round table discussion and then right after that, we go right into, how can we bring major public and private stakeholders, to the table to talk about investment and growth and policy. And so, this is again, I'm going to give yes, I wanted to say Yono Welker is the one who is the architect for this and creating it and then the people who are involved are shaping what those questions are going to be. So, in that one, we have Ali Ingersol, who is another former guest here, Molly Levitt with Remarkable, David Dark Angelo is going to be the moderator, and he was recently the Commissioner of the Massachusetts Commission for the Blind. Matt Laskowski, and she's very, very active on LinkedIn and her advocacy. And then Nicky Powis, who is with the Small Business Hub of the National Disability Institute. So, I mean just, coming out we are addressing these two things that we are talking about right here. And then, throughout the day, we are talking about lived experience, workplace environment, when do you talk about the accommodations that you need and the people in there are people that who are leaders and pioneers and advocates, specifically in the space. In this one, specifically to talk about is John Robinson, he is the President and CEO of Our Ability Inc and he's going to --

DEBRA:

Once or twice, I believe. So, I know that you have a lot of speakers, so it would be hard to name them all. So, how would somebody sign up for that. Is it a charge? Is it all in person and I know some of these questions so, I'm batting them over to you so the audience can hear?

MAI LING:

Thank you. It is free. It's a 100% free. And one part a labour or of love. Say, we got started a little late and we don't have sponsor relationship. So, for next year we'll have a better pool of companies to connect with. Right now, we are just clearing what our needs are. And we are also actually giving each of the presenters a small staple to thank them for participating. Thank you so much. I'm proud of that. We have sponsorship for American sign language for every single presentation. And of course, we are going to have close captioning available and so we can be fully accessible. Go ahead?

DEBRA:

No, full accessible, all conferences should be fully accessible. No matter what but certainly if they are talking to our communities. So, yes, we appreciate you making all of these necessary steps.

MAI LING:

Excellent and I have been working with people who are in the deaf and hard of hearing community and low vision and blind and they have been helping us to make sure that everything, as far as the website, the registration, on boarding, you know, all of that is accessible, as much as it can be because we are limited by that third party platform, you know when you have a plug into Zoom or whatever. So, doing our best but it's, I tell you, if you talk about legacy and what you have worked your whole life for I feel like this is one of those things that I will personally say, you know what, I feel like, I did do something big.

DEBRA:

Congratulations. That's why we wanted to highlight what you're doing. We can't highlight everybody but we did want to talk about because it seemed very timely, as we are talking a lot about identity of our community. And really pulling our community together in a more powerful way that honours each other so.

ANTONIO:

It is also important to notice that the event is not going to take long, it is going to happen in just a few weeks right.

DEBRA:

Right. It's upcoming.

MAI LING:

Yes. I am starting to get nervous.

DEBRA:

When is it?

MAI LING:

It's October 20th, a Friday, it's all day. It's starts at 7. And on the Westcoast and 10 on the east coast and then or you guys, it will be a little bit later, over in the UK. Recordings will be available and that's for people who choose to be a part of the community but it's only $19.99, so I feel like it's a nominal amount. And that will be for access to all of the recordings, the chat transcripts and the, what is that called, when you're like oh my God, help me, when you're talking and the words come up? Closed caption.

NEIL:

Captioning.

DEBRA:

Captioning, not closed, just captioning.

NEIL:

Captioning.

DEBRA:

You don't say closed or open, just captioning.

MAI LING:

Captioning, thank you.

DEBRA:

You had brain freeze we get that. So, how would somebody register, what is the URL to register?

MAI LING:

It's exceptionalalliances.com.

DEBRA:

Okay.

NEIL:

Excellent. And I like the name, Alliances because, right, because this is something that all of us on this Podcast, right now, believe whole heartedly and is building bridges and bringing people together because it's all too often that people go off and do their own thing and it's about that community again, so, thank you for including that in your very naming of what you're doing.

DEBRA:

And also, Neil, people are so bad about thinking they are doing it for the first time. Nobody has ever thought of it. Nobody has ever done it. I hear that so often and it's like let's take time to celebrate each other but also celebrate what everybody else is doing.

ANTONIO:

Debra, I think sometimes people are influenced by the clickbait of the news headlines. There is always someone that's the first.

DEBRA:

I know, they are the very first person that thought of this. Okay, I guess we haven't been doing this for ten years, how much episodes? Yes, it's like all of us are doing together. Let's celebrate collaboration and not make it all about us. Let's make it about everybody else. So, that's what we try to encourage here. That's why we share other people's stories, every week, for free.

NEIL:

Absolutely.

DEBRA:

We appreciate our sponsors.

NEIL:

Yes, that's what helps keep it free. So, thank you Amazon and thank you for years with the support from My Cleartext, with all of the captioning. It's super important for us, and we are you know, sincerely grateful for that long term support and allyship.

DEBRA:

Yes.

NEIL:

So, thank you very much Mai Ling. It's been a great pleasure talking to you. I wish you every success with your conference. I hope that you have a holiday booked, directly afterwards because I know what it's like organising these things.

MAI LING:

Yes.

NEIL:

But I once got talked into running six simultaneous in person events for global accessibility awareness day and different cities around Europe. I went on holiday the afternoon we finished the event. I really needed it.

MAI LING:

Yes.

NEIL:

And -- DEBRA: It's exhausting. And I'm very wary of the guy who persuaded me to do that and any more bright ideas he comes up with. I wish you all the best, I am sure it will be a great success. Thank you very much for your time today.

MAI LING:

Thank you for having me. I'm so honoured. Thank you.

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Accessibility and Advocacy Roundtable Event
Conference Success - Gratitude and Well Wishes