AXSChat Podcast

Shaping an Inclusive Future: James Thurston on Bridging Technology, Policy, and Accessible Innovation

January 26, 2024 Antonio Santos, Debra Ruh, Neil Milliken
AXSChat Podcast
Shaping an Inclusive Future: James Thurston on Bridging Technology, Policy, and Accessible Innovation
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Join the riveting conversation as we host James Thurston, an eminent figure in the world of accessible technology. Thrust from the halls of Washington DC into the high-tech sector, James has shaped a career that bridges policy and innovation. Across the evolving landscape of accessibility, his tales from Microsoft to his ongoing ventures at ATOS are not only insightful but also punctuated with a spirit of collaboration that is as heartwarming as it is strategic. His narrative is a testament to the power of inclusive design and the shared commitment across sectors to dismantle barriers and enhance technology for everyone.

This episode is a deep probe into the responsibility corporations bear in society, weighing the balance between profit and purpose. James Thurston’s perspective on the matter is sharp, echoed by his experiences across different continents. We confront the reality that businesses are increasingly expected to front the charge on societal issues, with an eye on the variances in approach from the US to Europe. The discourse winds towards the potential of companies to effectuate enduring societal change, challenging the often transient nature of political will with the steadfast vision of corporate strategy.

To cap off, we scrutinize the journey of accessibility in tech, questioning the industry's commitment to integrating inclusivity within the mainstream. The episode showcases strategies to embed accessibility at the foundation of innovation, stressing the value of elevating disabled professionals into leadership roles. With an optimistic view, we investigate the role of maturity models in tracking organizational progress, underscoring the strides being made towards the inclusion of accessibility data in ESG reporting. Thurston's dialogue is a beacon of progress within the industry, signaling a future where technology and accessibility are synonymous.

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Axschat James Thurston

NEIL:

Hello and welcome to Axschat. I'm delighted that we are joined today by James Thurston. Now, this is definitely a friends and family edition because James, I've known him for a very long time and more recently, James has come to join the team in ATOS. So, definitely a little bit of nepotism going on but actually I would have had James on, before he came to work for us, except that he was washing his hair. So, now that you have fully blow dried, James. Welcome, it's great to have you here. I know you have been working in the field for a long time. But please, tell us a bit about yourself? How you came to be working in the accessibility fields and we can carry on in the conversation and yes, you can kick me under the virtual table later.

JAMES:

I actually like talking about how I came into doing accessibility work because it was really by accident. I had started out, I literally in the DC. I have worked here for all of my career and I set out doing technology policy work for the US Federal government, for US senator and I ended up moving from the Senate to a high tech industry association, did work on global privacy standards and security standards and things like that, electromagnetic compatibility and one day, my manager came to me and said, oh, we want you to start working on this thing, accessibility, you know and I said to her, I don't really have time. My events are already full are already full. And she said, it doesn't matter, you got to do it. I started working on accessibility as one of 20 different issues, I was working on for tech companies around the world and fell in love with it immediately, as I'm sure you can all relate to. And really, I wanted to focus more and more of my time in accessibility work because I think for me, it was immediately apparent, the impact of it. And sort of that sweet spot of technology and policy and having a positive impact. And so, I started shifting more and more of my time into the accessibility work that I was doing for the industry and then Microsoft, Laura Ruby and Rob St. Claire asked me to join them and work on accessibility, and then I was actually able to do it full time, which I loved and I have stayed since then and this was more than 20 years ago, focused on accessibility, in moving from the corporate sector, into the non-profit sector and back to the non-profit sector and I think there's lots of good to be done from all of these sectors and one of the things I've really enjoyed about the work is how these different sectors collaborate, I think. Academia, corporate sectors, on profit sectors, governments, with an eye towards can we be leveraging technology for more inclusion, in making that mark.

NEIL:

And I think when we first met you were working for Microsoft. So, you know and then you went to GCI3T and continue to have conversations. So, you know, playing the long game to get you into the team here. But I agree with you, it is one of those topics where it's quite unusual but the sectors do cooperate and collaborate and that's one of the joyful things about working in the field.

JAMES:

And Neil, even within the corporate, the industry sector. One of the things I've really enjoyed is companies that are competitors in the marketplace, do come together and collaborate pretty well on accessibility and always have in developing standards, in pushing for things like procurement policies together. And so, it really is, even though they are trying to innovate each other on accessibility , which is great for everyone. I think the sector has come together. The technology sector has come together really well, to advance the field when it comes to accessibility and inclusion.

DEBRA:

Yes and that's a really interesting point and I agree with you, James and I know you and I have been friends for many, many, many, many years and I feel very blessed that you and I have been friends for so long because we all do become friends, as Neil says, friends and family but gosh, when you stand by people, even when you're not under the same flag as them and you just fight and fight and fight for people, a lot of us became very close friends. But, I also have seen, I was very proud of the United States, when we first really started working on this, in the early 2000's and stuff when you and I were there and it really, the groups that did step up were the technology groups in the United States. They were the ones that stepped up. The Microsoft’s, the IBM, was really in the game at the time. I mean, there was HP. I mean there were some early, early players and we really did come together and I think we accomplished a lot. Then of course, you know, time changes and everything. But I you know, I think it's interesting, someone like you, looking at the career you have had because once again, you started with a gigantic global brand and then you shifted into the non-profit and that's pretty intense being in the non-profit just because of the constant how are we going to the bill. I mean, I don't care who you are , it's a very different. Whenever you're in corporations, it's a different kind of stress, there are also stresses with that because I also have worked with really large banks in my career. But, and then you shifted back and came back to a big technology brand and I'm impressed with a lot I am seeing from ATOS. I am looking at it from the lens often what I see Neil's team doing. I don't pay attention as much to other things, ATOS is doing, just because you know, there is too much data for all of us to get our hands around. But I am curious, I know you got your boss on here, but still James, I am curious a little bit about this walk and what you think you learned doing this. Because early on you started, early on in this accessibility journey. The brand went, another big brand. I mean, I think we can learn a lot from your experiences. I was just wondering if you would talk a little bit about it.

JAMES:

Sure, and it sort of does tie together for me, anyway. One of the main reasons, why I was interested in coming back to the corporate sector, into Neil's team in particular, but to the corporate sector in general is because I think we are at a much different place. All of us, who are working in this space globally, a much different place than even we were a few years ago. I was through SET for many years, over that 8 or 9 years, I was seeing the kinds of conversations I was having with companies and big governments, all over the world was qualitatively different from even a few years ago. I tell people when I started working on this topic, back with the industry association, in the early 2000's, Debra. One of my first trips to talk about accessibility was to a really big country. I won't say which one. But I was having conversations with the government about accessibility. About policy in this government, the national government of this large country, basically told me, we are not interested in this topic, we don't have people with disabilities in this country.

DEBRA:

Oh, wow that's cool.

JAMES:

Surprising.

DEBRA:

Right.

JAMES:

And that country is actually moved to do some really, really impressive work and leadership on technical standards and other things. But with companies, what I was seeing, over the last few years, is really the kinds of conversations that we are all having with these companies, in governments as well but is different. So, I feel like I used to spend a lot of my time, maybe five years ago, just evangelising the topic, begging the CIO of to care about the issue. Maybe because of all the work you have all been doing and we have been doing together but the conversation shifted more to, you know, I get why it's important James, just tell me what to do which is a much better conversation to be having frankly, than you know, sort of please care about this issue, please do this meeting. And so, what I saw and one of the reasons why I kind of make the move from the nonprofit sector back to the corporate sector is the ability to scale it back and change because I think there is an openness there now, hey we get it, why it's important but we need help doing it and that's exciting work to be doing.

DEBRA:

Well, so James, one more question and then we'll turn it over to Antonio. Because I know you all, the three of you are representing corporations know this answer. So, this is what I'm sure curious. Do you all think it's unfair in some way that society is asking corporations to solve all of our societal issues we have had for thousands of years, right now. I'm just curious because we actually are. We are telling you to solve this problem when society created it and hasn't begun to solve it and even that comment you made about the country where no people with disabilities live. I often do think, in some ways, we are hard on our corporations and by the way, the corporations, I don't care, you know, that's just the way it is. But the reality is we are asking you to solve the larger societal problems that we have very had and we are expecting to solve very quickly. And I was just curious why you all haven't done that yet?

JAMES:

I'll jump in and I am sure, Antonio and Neil you have that you say too. A couple of thoughts that. Corporations are made up of human beings that work there. And we all, you know are just like any other human beings we have things that motivate us and that we think are important in wanting to be creating and living in a society that resonates with us. That's a good fit. So, in that sense, corporations, you know, are not different than you know than the people that make them up, I think. And I do really firmly believe that there is an alignment that's the corporate social responsibility movement, that there is an alignment of what is good for business and what is good for society. And I think accessibility in disability inclusion, is one of those areas where it's relatively easy to find alignment, you know. So, I think we can be doing both.

DEBRA:

Good answer.

ANTONIO:

James, I think in some societies and looking at United States and comparing with Europe. I believe that in Europe, we see more a kind of a difference between consumers and citizens. And I believe, in United States, sometimes citizens are mixed with consumers. What I mean by this is, when you are serving citizens, you need to serve everyone, you don't really have a choice. Okay. When you approach that from serving consumers, it's almost like you are serving a specific group of people that might have an interest in your product. So, and I think sometimes, particularly on the government's side, it's important to consider that everyone, you are serving everyone, not just a specific group. And sometimes that, I am saying this, because this is something that I was closely looking when, each during the Obama administration, when they were creating the Obama Care and they were looking at people who have to use the website and they had this consumer angle, instead of having the citizen angle. And that applies to some of the topics that end up treading a little bit on that area. But you know, we have the European Accessibility Act coming very soon. And I am almost sure that the first offenders are not going to be companies. They are going to follow with GDPR and the first offenders are going to be governments, for sure. I don't have any doubts about it.

NEIL:

So, I think that's a fair comment. The governments already have an obligation and maybe of them are failing on that. We know that because of the reporting. At the same time, I think that on the positive side, I think that if you say you're taking a citizens verses consumer view, you can say that businesses have understood that this is a market segment that they wish to serve now. And therefore, there is that clear, aside from the ESG and the changing corporate cultures to be more purpose driven, which I think is not all of it is window dressing. I think there is generational change in leadership and a generational change in attitudes towards the ways that businesses operate. So, I think that while we won't have solved all of the problems yet, there is that realisation is that it is good business to do this stuff and then on top of that, I think that the there is this desire to do stuff that's sort of longer term, whereas sometimes you know, we think of businesses as being very short term sometimes , thinking about reporting on quarterly results and everything else but there also, whilst some of their behaviours are short term driven. They are also planning to be there in more than four- or five-years’ time. So, they are not driven by electoral cycles like politicians are. So, businesses do think further out, sometimes about the impact they are having and how they can be, how they can be more inclusive. So, I think that there are some positives for businesses being engaged. We are also part of problems that were caused by society because businesses aren't separate from society and James pointed out we are made up of humans. Debra, you had a comment as well?

DEBRA:

Yes, I just had a quick comment and then, I really do want to give it to Antonio but somebody asked me the other day, a leader asked, an impressive leader asked me the other day. Who did I really think was going to show. Who did I think was going to have the best impact, the most innovation going forward now. He said, do you think it's the corporations or do you think it's the governments or maybe it's some others. And I really had to stop for a second and sort of think about it and even before I was going to answer, he came back and he said, I think it's going to be the governments and I was like really because we haven't seen it. When we started talking about what we are seeing in the EU, which very, very impressed with and we started saying, looking at others and I think that where we need to see it, is we need to see it from everybody obviously. But I think we really need to step up in ways that we have never seen before. And I think there are some interesting things happening in governments, in countries that we can point to say now, isn't that interesting. I thought we couldn't do that. For example, we were told you cannot make a touch screen accessible to people that are blind. You cannot do this. Well, then Apple did it. Okay, so I am very curious about that and to be honest, I don't care who does it, as long as we innovate and move forward. But I just, I am sort of thinking that I agree with this gentleman I was talking to, I think that maybe my expectations for governments is shifting and I have higher expectations than I did in the past and James, you look like you want to comment on that but I want to stop and then you turn it over to Antonio.

JAMES:

I do. I just want to add another thought or two on this topic of the role of companies. Again, I've shifted from government to non-profit, to corporate, back and forth, throughout my career. And all of them have good things. I'm very much a glass half full kind of person. But, I think, going back to this point of the people who make up companies. I think a couple of things, one, I was so I'm a gay man, I was in the tech sector when marriage equality was being fought about here in the US. But I saw the tech sector take a stance and a lead on that because they were pushed by their employees and at least in this sector, I think, you know that the employees, the knowledge that's the capital of the company, that's what drives them forward largely and I think companies across the sector listen to their employees and I think we see that and there's maybe a greater opportunity of leveraging the disability resource groups in companies to drive that forward, including Debra on innovation. I have certainly seen Microsoft, and here at ATOS, employees, with disabilities, both individually and collectively through the ERGs, pushing the company to be better and more innovative on accessibility.

ANTONIO:

Okay. So, changing a little bit the topic, but I believe somehow at the end it's going to have a connection. I was I've been following CS, in the last couple of years, like many of you and this year, there was a particular focus on accessibility, plenty of panels. But something that didn't happen in the previous years. However, I know I was tracking the feed of the event and the programme on the website. The agenda that was out there, that was made for the journalists and for the media and I was able to see you know, a kind of a separation between, tech and accessibility conversations. So, what we need to make the click.

JAMES:

Yes, I'll jump in on that and I think you all have good thoughts on it. I think that's a really important observation and somewhat unfortunate in this day and age. I would also like to see mor integration. When I was at G3ict, I parted with Victor Pineda and others to start up the inclusive Smart City and he showed smart cities for all and our goal in that, which I think is getting specifically to the GES issue, is this is a kind of mainstream accessibility and inclusion, as part of the all of the great innovation that was happening in the Smart City sector. I mean Smart Cities in general, were and are adopting technology in kind of breathtaking ways and at the time, we started that initiative, because we saw them thinking about accessibility, thinking about Smart City technology but not putting these together and having kind of two separate conversations. We wanted to really push that together. And so, by design, we went to and targeted mainstreaming the topic of accessibility, with cities in that case and wanted to be in the venues and the events like the smart city expo in Barcelona and others, to really talk about this. Unfortunately, to your point, we often were separate, here's the disability accessibility and what we wanted was more to integrate this into a topic for innovation for city technology. And I think we still have enormous amount of work to do in that respect. I see more and more opportunities to do that and more people who are running events and discussions, mainstreaming the topic or integrating the topic into a broader conversation about innovation or technology or digital transformation. But it is an area where I think we are still lagging which does puzzle me sometimes.

NEIL:

I'm going to turn my mic on and then agree. So, I'm going to a big event and it's big industry event but it's not an accessibility event, but it is a DEI corner. And it's like, well hold on, it's progress, it is progress, because these big events are starting to talk about disability and accessibility. But it's still not fully integrated and it's a bit like that. It happens to a large extent at World Economic Forum this week as well. You have got various side events getting on but we are yet to get onto the main stage. So, at some point we need to be the people climbing onto the main stage and taking the mic. But as part of the integrated conversation. We don't a necessarily need to have, you know, write and now we're going to have on the main stage, the disability session and watch everyone go and get their cup of coffee. Like you say, we want to have people represented of our community or of our expertise as panellists in various sessions, giving their perspective and I think that then, when that happens, we have really made it.

JAMES:

Neil, I think kind of related to that, one of the things that I've found exciting about this, the point where we are now is and our company but also at other companies, maybe not enough yet, but more and more executives, senior executives with disabilities coming out and talking at their conferences or whatever, not necessarily being a person with a disability but that comes into the conversation at some point potentially and I think that's incredibly powerful both for employees but also for the audiences to see the senior executives, who are doing great things for great companies. It also happened to be a person with a disability that maybe using assistive technology, in their daily work.

DEBRA:

James, I'm also like you as you very well know. I'm a half full glass girl. I'm obnoxiously optimistic. My mother said that. So, but I agree with everything you're saying and I see some leaders, really, really stepping up and you know, I love watching what's unfolding in the Valuable 500, is going to take a while. We got these CEOs to agree, but there is just some realities of really making everything happen. It is going to take us all. But. at the same time, I appreciate, I appreciate the leaders stepping up. I appreciate so much the group supporting the leaders, even better. But one thing is troubling to me that we all need to pay attention to is for the leaders to say, this woke stuff is for the birds. I'm tired of this woke, which we are seeing. We actually saw a, I think it's a billion-dollar corporation, not a trillion yet say he was really tired of this woke stuff. That freaked me out as a citizen and as a human being because I need our leaders to get what your job is and if you don't think what your job is, where you think it's all about where the money is, Antonio says in America, we make it all about consumerism and capitalism. Times are changing, pay attention, you don't have to, don't pay attention but do know you'll be left behind. And who am I? I'm a stupid little mom with a cause in Virginia, but I'm telling you, we are paying attention to the corporations that are blah, blah, blah and the ones including us and we are convening. We are convening and I think Axschat, sorry, I just saw that Neil changed my title. And he knows I've ADHD but I just want, I hope ADHD, but I just want, I understand societies now want leaders of corporations understand society is now watching and we are watching in a different way and we are convening. We are convening. And so, we are going to support and applaud the groups, the corporations that are including us. We appreciate them. We don't expect them to be perfect. We don't even know what perfect looks like. It's just this woke crowd, blah, blah, blah, I believe your dated. I believe society will no longer accept that so, I might be a big old nobody from Virginia, or originally from Florida. But I am telling you CEOs, you've been put on notice, we are not putting up with it anymore.

ANTONIO:

But on that, I think this is something that we also talk in the past, here on Axschat is, what is happening is going to be a bit terrifying on some level. And just remember that many organisations have not done a good job on the AI.

DEBRA:

I agree.

ANTONIO:

So, some of them, they've have appointed the wrong people. They haven't listened, their work forces enough to implement agendas or in some cases, they believe we do this here from the HQ and everyone around the world needs to follow us. So, sometimes there was we also need to look at that side you know, that's some VI leaders are also to blame in the fact that we are in where we are now.

DEBRA:

I agree. And we all have to step in and help. And I just think, I am hoping that leaders are being put on that that people want it anymore. We've seen people doing this for a long time. I remember watching Google, a whole bunch of people walking out on Google, when the employees did not perceive they handled sexual allegations correctly. I mean I'm a big fan of Google, I'm just using it as an example. My gosh, when you are a gigantic brand like that. It's hard to keep track of all of the moving parts. But I hope helpful and I continue to be hopeful and obnoxiously optimistic. But at the same time, I'm also aware of my age. I'm aware I've a timeline and so and I was talking to somebody the other day who is a well-known leader in our space and very well-known and this gentlemen has done things that have changed the world for us all. And he's saying the same thing, you know Debra, I'm getting tired of this, are you tired of this yet and I said yes, I am. So, I think we actually have to be more blunt to be heard maybe. Because I believe in being nice. I'm little Miss Nice. But maybe it's time for us all to start being blunt about the expectations we have of all of us and ourselves. And the reason I bring this up here James, is because once again you have an amazing background. ATOS was really blessed to be able to get someone like you. Because, you have such a varied global background and so, I'm hopefully about. I'm obnoxiously optimistically about how intense things are but also that maybe people could finally be heard. I know I'm naive, I don't care, we got to try to be here.

NEIL:

I absolutely love obnoxiously optimistic. I think it's wonderful. And I think that DEI doesn't kill people, no matter what Elon Musk says. DEI is who it is, us, it's representing society. So, this whole.

DEBRA:

Well, Elon Musk he's part of our community, Neil. Elon Musk is part of our community. So Elon, what the hell are you doing? My God, vote with the people, side with the people. So, yes, let's own our whole selves.

JAMES:

Goes off and says, yes, this is the one group that we are all going to age into at some point. If you live long enough.

NEIL:

Yes, absolutely and that's it. We have a super aging population. We are going to all acquire disabilities and at the same time, we also have generational shift in leadership and attitudes, that I think are much more open to being inclusive, just as a mindset. We don't have to argue the case with our younger people. It's more a case that they are arguing why we are not doing it fast enough, which I think is a wonderful change. So, James we move and you know an awful lot about sort of, you know you spend a lot of time looking at organisational maturity and it's one of the topics that we kind of brushed against. We thought we would talk more about it but we have gone off in a nice, interesting direction. What do you think, you know, do you think, as a sort of closing point that how we judge the maturity of organisations, in terms of inclusion, particularly disability inclusion, is going to change over the next decade; do you think we are going to hold organisations to a higher standard?

JAMES:

I hope so. And I hope the organisations will hold themselves to a higher standard. And important for me, is hold themselves to a standard but be looking at that from both a qualitative and quantitative perspective. That's the beauty of maturity models when they are done well, data driven and done well, in my mind, is both the structure of that kind of a maturity model or assessment tool. The definition of the variables, the definition of the five, typically five levels of maturity for each variable. The structure and the substance of the tool, I think is a good way to push any organisation, you know, I've led assessments of universities of cities of companies. And I think they are useful in this sense. And so, I don't know, Neil, if the other great thing about maturity model tools is you can design them in looking and assessing different things. I think where I've been focused is a lot on culture and also the government's processing systems that allow it to come up to live up to its stated commitment, to accessibility and inclusion of people with disability, whether those people with disabilities are citizens of a city or employees of a company. I suppose, you know, they would and should evolve. But, I think where we are at right now is really giving more organisations, in my case, in these days’ companies, to take a much more quantitative approach to making progress and measuring that and building and feeding that kind of data into continuous improving loops in their company or organisation.

NEIL:

I tend to agree and I think the understanding of what data to measure is becoming more mature as well and it's starting to be integrated into ESG reporting and so on. So, I am, while my glass here is half empty, I'm more than half full in terms of my optimism as well. So, on that positive note, I would like to thank our friends at Amazon and My Cleartext for keeping us captioned and keeping us On Air. And I look forward to continuing the conversation on social media. Thank you, James.

JAMES:

Thank you.

The Evolution of Accessibility Work
Government and Corporate Responsibility for Issues
Accessibility in Tech and Innovation Integration
Assessing Maturity Models and Progress Measuring