Transcript of Interview with John Samuel and Jennison Asuncion
John Samuel (00:11):
This is All Access with John Samuel. This is a show where we share stories of leaders, entrepreneurs, and advocates who are improving the lives for people of all ability. Today we have Jennison Asuncion who is the head of accessibility engineering evangelism at LinkedIn and the co founder of Global Accessibility Awareness Day. Jennison has started camps around the globe and he’s earned medals and awards for his efforts and we’re so thankful to have you here today, Jennison. Hey John, how are you doing well, thank you so much. I really appreciate you taking the time to speak with us and for being the inaugural invitee to the show.
Jennison Asuncion (00:56):
Hey, well congratulations to you for starting this out. This is exciting. A little nerve wracking. It’s, it’s early here on the West coast, but I’m going to hopefully sound coherent.
John Samuel (01:06):
No, it sounds great. Thank you so much. You know, first I really wanted to take the time just to get to know a little bit about your background and where you came from. And I think if I’m not mistaken, you grew up in Canada.
Jennison Asuncion (01:18):
I did. I was born and raised. We’ll just say in the early seventies, in in Montreal, which is in the predominantly French speaking part of Canada. And I, and it’s important for me to mention that because obviously at that point I was a minority within a minority group. I am first generation Filipino immigrant born in Montreal. I became blind when I was about a year and a half old with optic atrophy. So blindness is all I’ve really known. And I was mainstreamed in quotes, if you will, into a school with, with seeing kids. I then moved into a regular again in quotes high school. Then went through college, university did two degrees in university. Never thought I would end up in Silicon Valley because my first degree is in politics.
Jennison Asuncion (02:22):
But yeah, so that was the, like, that was my early I kind of skipped around there, but that’s my early life. Born and raised in Montreal, finished university, and then moved to Toronto, which is Canada’s largest city. We can, we can kind of unpack anything you want in there. I, I, I learned braille really early. I’m a huge braille advocate. If you and I were together and we were talking, I would, if I was smart, I would have a few braille notes in front of me on a little index cards just to keep me focused.
John Samuel (02:54):
No, that’s actually a skill that I lack and I’ve been told I need to learn. So my team had, they given me something that looks like a little dreidel they can feel, and it can turn a little a little dots around and kind of feel. So it’s something, a skill that I, I want to learn. And especially in, like you said, in, in speaking engagements, it’s, it’s a really important, it can be really.
Jennison Asuncion (03:17):
It really came in handy for me. It was in a number of areas. One was in a language courses, so I, I had to take French living in Quebec and Spanish. And I also had took Latin in high school around, particularly for the French and the Spanish part of how you were graded was your ability to read out loud. Oh, wow. I needed the braille. In order to, to, to make that happen. Listening to a screen reader and repeating what the screen reader might say just doesn’t make sense to me anyway. Yeah. The other place where braille the other two places where braille came in handy was math. I’m not the smartest guy when it comes to math, but I need to, I need to quote, see what the equation looks like or feel it. Like all 20 steps. But I, and I also need to, to feel if there are diagrams, like when I was taking a physics course here or there or when I took calculus and all that stuff, those, all of those diagrams, you know, someone could describe those to me until the cows came home. But I’m a physical learner and I need to actually feel stuff. I also love braille maps, a big graph nerd. So anything to do with tactical and all of that stuff is stuff I enjoy.
John Samuel (04:41):
No, that’s awesome. You know, I can only assume that you are a good student or is that the case?
Jennison Asuncion (04:47):
Are we talking about academically or, or, or the set out to the corner or both? I want to hear a bell vote now. Honestly, I w I would say I was an average student. I, I suffered from math phobia in high school and that was largely because there were well-meaning professionals at the time. And this was in the early nineties. Or what was that? Late eighties, early, like I graduated from high school in like the early nineties. And so back then, even back then, blind people were not necessarily being groomed to go after the big ticket jobs. It was, and, and there’s nothing wrong with these professions, but back then it was really lawyer or psychologists that were the domain of people who are blind because apparently we’re good listeners. The idea of us doing anything that does with math was, was unheard of.
Jennison Asuncion (05:52):
So I was getting signals, like I said, from well-meaning professionals telling like, just just try and pass math, just like don’t worry, like don’t expect to do really, really well when you hear older professionals telling you these things. You kind of like end up thinking it’s true and like, like many people who are blind, visually impaired or who have differences I was subject to a certain level of bullying and, and, and other tomfoolery. And to be totally honest with you, because of this is the only way I, I’ve known, and this is just me. I have never really spent any time wishing I could see or be moaning. The fact that I can’t see now the exceptions that are like, if I can’t find my keys or if I spill something and I have to wipe it up.
Jennison Asuncion (06:53):
But in, in general, and I obviously attribute this to my mom and then the positive upbringing in support I got just as a kid through my family. Cause I know not all families provide that support to me. It’s just, it’s just an attribute of, of who I am. And I kinda just like roll with it. You become very innovative because you always have to problem solve and you have to be able to read people. Cause you may need to trust someone to give you a hand to go somewhere or whatnot.
John Samuel (07:25):
I often talk about who wouldn’t want somebody who’s blind who’s navigated through college or navigated through certain aspects in life cause we’re problem solvers. Right? Who doesn’t want to problem solver on your team. And then, you know, I think that having the support of your family and just, that’s awesome. Cause I think you mean, you know the things that you’ve done, you know, it’s pretty cool stuff. And I think that it’s a reflection of kind of where you’ve come from.
Jennison Asuncion (07:53):
I do a lot of travel and things like that. Yeah, I really feel that there’s an opportunity because there’s such a mystique around people who are blind and, and how we operate amongst people who can see. Yeah. And so as I go around in my world, in my life and I’m traveling and I’m meeting new people and all that kind of stuff, I really do take those interactions as opportunities to make that as much of a positive experience for them as possible. Now people will argue with me and say, you know, that’s not our job. And, and sure, like I get it and I don’t do it. You know, every single time because every once in a while you meet jerks or you just don’t feel like you want to be the educator at the day. Yeah. But I can like as someone who’s blind, and I don’t know if it’s a sixth sense or just something that I have developed, I can read the room and know if someone is uncomfortable or comfortable and kind of try and help them, hind of be comfortable.
Jennison Asuncion (08:54):
Because the way I feel about it is they may well interact with another person who is blind or visually impaired. And I, I want to give them that positive experience. And I’m not saying like you’re giving up your independence by being nice to see people, but I mean, we’re humans, right. And I know different and I would rather take the opportunity when I’m, when I’m feeling energized and stuff. Of course, I’d rather take the opportunity to be that for lack of better word ambassador to kind of like kill any of those myths and just answer questions. Some of them are silly questions, but you kind of just roll with it. And of course I have the opportunity to like stop that conversation whenever I want.
John Samuel (09:35):
At least I feel the same way as you, you know, being an ambassador and then sharing my story and now I’ve been talking about it’s important that we share stories cause that’s how we build empathy and that’s how we break down those, those kind of walls that there’s artificial walls that come up between people in general.
Jennison Asuncion (09:52):
Yeah. And not only build empathy, but you’re also building your network too. I mean, the person who could be someone who, you know, didn’t think that they would ever know a blind person then and who knows that person could have the next job waiting for you like in a few years. So why not be nice.
John Samuel (10:10):
And you know, right now it seems like there’s a lot of stories about young students who are taking AP courses. And they’re not having access to the braille, accommodations or things like that. I’d love to hear kind of where your thoughts are on that.
Jennison Asuncion (10:27):
Well, yeah, I mean, I, there’s no way that I could, I would have been able to even entertain, even though they were long suffering courses, there was no way I would have even been able to pass any of those classes or any of those exams without having access to braille. It just, it’s just what I need to, to learn. Some people are good at, at audio, like I know some at least one or two blind people who can memorize 20 steps in account liquid. I need the braille and, and the fact that these students, if we’re talking about the advanced placement classes, that in itself is stressful just even preparing for those exams. But the fact that they then have to pause preparing right up until like the 11th hour because you know, I think they were only told that they wouldn’t have accommodations that they needed up until the very end.
Jennison Asuncion (11:28):
Then they had to be distracted by becoming advocates. And that’s a tough, that’s a very fine line that we walk as people with disabilities. It’s like there’s our lives that we’re trying to live. And then we also sometimes either by our own wanting to do it or because of circumstance, we have to become advocates for ourselves. And that is a lot of energy and it can be distracting. I know when I was in university I ended up taking on managing a lot of my own accommodations. The reality was that the center for students with disabilities had so many students that they were dealing with. And I felt like if I could take care of my own stuff, I would be able to get things done faster or, or at least like be able to manage that stuff. And, and like I do one less person they would have to worry about to to manage.
Jennison Asuncion (12:22):
And so really that’s, that’s where I learned in university how I was going to explain to people what I needed to be successful. I would send my own letters to professors and explained to them that I was blind and that I would want to meet with them ahead of courses and just to talk to them because I figured that they may not have ever taught someone who’s blind before and no two blind people are the same. And it was just an opportunity so they weren’t shocked like the first day to walk in. And I’m like walking in, all of those skills that I learned, whether it was like managing,ugetting a material put on table, ordering stuff in alternative format or talking to professors, paid dividends later on as I went into my professional life because then I was able to tell my different employers, Hey, for me to be successful, I need this.
John Samuel (13:19):
That’s something that I actually struggled with when I was in college. I didn’t know how to disclose. And so I didn’t. And so I think I went a good while with knowing how to advocate for myself. Right. And it just like, you know, the students were talking about you’re having to carry a lot of extra burden trying to figure out solutions while you’re also trying to learn and do your job and it can be heavy. Sometimes.
Jennison Asuncion (13:46):
I got into computer science in university for some, for some crazy reason they let me in, but I struggled and I had to decide what I wanted to do and I decided to do. I decided not to do what my cultural norms were because I only did computer science. Part of the reason I did it was frankly as a Filipino, there you are. It doesn’t matter if you have a disability or not, I don’t think. But to be the lawyer, the computer scientist, the doctor now I didn’t like being a doctor wasn’t practical to me. Yeah. I didn’t want to be the lawyer. So I thought that computer science would make my family proud and stuff, but it was miserable. Yeah. I, I flunked out of that and then I said, you know what, I’m going to do something I really am interested in.
Jennison Asuncion (14:32):
And so I did a degree in political science and that actually dovetails well because I was extra curricularly. That’s a bad use of English. I was heavily involved in disability student politics in Canada. I mean, you’ve done so much with the camps around the globe. Do you think it’s that experience that’s kind of driven you towards that or what has been your reasoning for building up these camps? One of my passions is making it more making. So the concept of accessibility, right? And making stuff, making mobile apps and websites, making those things accessible to your average engineer or computer scientist or designer. Surprising to many who might be blind or visually impaired. Not very many people have interacted with us in the main, like we’re still, we are still a minority, so people just don’t know what they don’t know. So I’ve always been passionate about making accessibility accessible.
Jennison Asuncion (15:44):
Right? And so I, I’ve wanted to make it something that engineers and designers find curious and alter and find fun and interesting. So I had an opportunity, I found out about this accessibility camp that was run in Washington D C in 2009 and I had never heard of it before. But it sounded really wild. It was like, you know, show up at this thing. We’ll, we’ll like throw ideas up on a wall and we’ll create a schedule and we will just like learn about accessibility. And I thought that was really wild. Yeah. And so I just flew to DC and just to see what that was going to be like. Now I had already been been working in accessibility. I started full time and accessibility in 2006 but right was I got and came into this room with all these designers and engineers, many of whom had never thought about accessibility before.
Jennison Asuncion (16:41):
And then there were people with disabilities in the room as well and people who worked in accessibility full time like myself. And it was just this, the buzz in that room was contagious. T I’m all about these moments that totally like transformed the way I think about things. But I left that event going, I want to do something like that because that’s an amazing way to get engineers and other folks interested in accessibility, holding on a Saturday and make it free and provide lunch. So then that’s so, so it took me a couple of years. But yeah, I started an accessibility camp in Toronto in 2011 but I helped start an accessibility conference in Boston the year before. I was part of a committee, but I started my own accessibility camp in Toronto in 2011 which was a precursor to access to global accessibility awareness day, which is a totally different animal. But but yeah, there was an accessibility camp in Toronto and then we spun, went up in Los Angeles and now I run one here in the Bay area as well. And it’s just an opportunity. It’s meant to be, it’s not meant to be a stuffy conference, like an academic conference. It’s meant to be really relaxed.
John Samuel (17:51):
And yeah, I think it is a great transition to, you know, global accessibility awareness day, which I think you may be most famous for cope. And I’d love to kind of hear how this all came about.
Jennison Asuncion (18:04):
Joe, Devin, who is my cofounder and partner in crime on global accessibility awareness day. This really started with him. So I so will park my involvement for a second to just give you the 32nd about Joe. So Joe, go, Devin was your everyday developer. And he, you know, he developed worked on like American idol.com and those kinds of websites as just as a, as a mainstream developer. Yeah. He had an opportunity to see a YouTube video of a blind person using a screen reader. His name is Victor siren, who, who’s now with Google. But for, for Joe, that was the first time he had ever seen someone using a screen reader and just even like the concept of a blind person operating computer. And then a few years later he, he, his dad was starting to lose his vision and was struggling to use a bank website.
Jennison Asuncion (19:07):
And so Joe was watching his dad struggling to use this bank website. And so like any like any tech person, when you get angry, you start blogging. Yeah. So Joe took to a blog this was in 2011 in November with the number 26 2011 he wrote a blog post and it, the headline on the blog posts with something like challenge of accessibility needs, needs to go mainstream. And in that blog post he wrote all about you know, how developers really need to understand accessibility and at least at a minimum they needed to understand about screen readers and whatnot. Okay. So he wrote this blog and published it. Now this is where I came in. So as you know, like I talked to you about the camps and I, and I was really interested in, in, in concepts of, of getting accessibility more more in the mainstream and getting more engineers and other people talking about it as early as 2009, even a little earlier than that.
Jennison Asuncion (20:12):
So here I was minding my own business. So Joe lives in Los Angeles. He still does now. But here I was at home on, on an, on a Saturday evening, I believe in November in Toronto minding my own business. And I was just trolling Twitter. Yeah. I happened to be home that night and I, by happenstance, I came upon a tweet that said, you know, Joe, Devin has just published this blog post. And, and it had that, that tagline on it. So I was really curious and I active link and I read the blog post. Oh my goodness. Like this is like amazing. Like this person who like really has like no connection that I know of to accessibly himself or working in accessibility wants to do something. So I just, I responded to his blog post immediately and said, Hey, you know, I’m interested in the same thing.
Jennison Asuncion (21:10):
If you want to do something, let’s do it. Yeah. And so, you know, fast forward from a blog post, we, we now the, the dirty little secret is Joe and I are both extraordinarily busy people just with life and different activities we’re doing. So first, first challenge was just getting time on our own calendars. They actually get on the phone. Yeah. So we did that and we started chatting and we just got along and all that kind of stuff. It turns out, you know, he was actually also Canadian born, but now living in Los Angeles. So anyway, we talked and we said, okay, do we want to do this? And we’re like, yeah, let’s, let’s see. Well, you know, we didn’t, honestly, we didn’t think it was going to take off at all. And so we randomly chose I think Joe May have proposed a date or he may have said, let’s choose a date in his blog post.
Jennison Asuncion (22:01):
But then like we said, okay, let’s do, may not, we’ll just arbitrarily choose that date. Yeah. And so we did, we chose the date and then literally for that first event, we just like both of us you know, for better, for worse, I know people like just through our travels. And so here I was just emailing a friend of mine who worked in accessibility telling them about this crazy idea and we wanted to do and would they get involved because it’s a global accessibility awareness. Yeah. Anyway, we started I think with 16 public in person events that we know of and a few events online and I refused mentioned any of them because as soon as you start listing, you’re going to forget, adore a lot of people from around the world who really took part in it, which I’m really grateful for to like fast forward to like last year where we had over a hundred in person events in multiple languages.
Jennison Asuncion (23:01):
And, and the goal of global accessibility is really just to spend that day focused on raising awareness on digital access and inclusion by, and for people with disabilities. I mean there’s outside of people who are blind and visually impaired, there’s, there’s like including us, there’s like over a billion and that’s a conservative number because there are certain cultures where certain disabilities and impairments are not recognized. Yeah. So we want it to just cause that conversation to happen. And here we are at our ninth anniversary. We never, honestly, and I, I please myself, I will go to my grave saying that I never thought it would off. Yeah. And there’s so many things that are happening that Joe and I always find out about later, like after the fact, because people don’t necessarily like let us know and they don’t have to, but they’re just doing their own thing.
Jennison Asuncion (23:59):
But it’s just one of these crazy things. And then so by the way, so we moved it from May 9th, and we said, okay, let’s just move it instead of a specific date. Let’s just say there will always be the third Thursday of may. That’s awesome. And then we’ll just leave it there. Yeah. and yeah, so we’re next year is our 10th anniversary and it’s just, it’s a fun thing for Joe and I. It’s a little stressful, you know, we’re all working on it like this, like little sleep these days because everyone is last minute. They’re telling us about events they want us to, they want to talk to us. They want all kinds of things. Right. What kinds of people thank you. But yeah, so that’s how global awareness day started, but it really, it’s become, it’s, it’s taken on a mind of its own. Like at this point, Joe and I w the way I described it as we’ve created this platform and we let people just do what they want with it.
Jennison Asuncion (24:56):
As long as it sticks with the theme of digital access and inclusion for people, disabilities and impairments. How are you celebrating GAAD this week? No, boy. Well I’m, I’m doing a couple of like cameo appearances in different events, just doing some greetings for different events that are going on. We Joe and I did one for an organization in China that’s celebrating GAAD. So we did, we prerecorded that last week. I did another prerecording last night for an event in Japan. I’m sitting here and, and really pumped to be talking to you. For, for dad. Yeah. Bobcat. And on the day itself, let’s see if I know this right. I think at four in the morning I am reading an event that’s happening for the first time in the country of Azerbaijan, which is Oh wow. So they’re holding an event for the first time and they asked if someone would come and greet people.
Jennison Asuncion (25:59):
So I’m going to do that. Then I’m doing a webinar. His target audience is Africa predominantly Kenya. It’s awesome. Inclusive Africa. I cold lead something called the Bay Accessibility and Inclusive Design, Meetup Group. And we’re going to celebrate GAAD that evening, that Thursday night. And that will be my last official responsibility for GAD Joe and I honestly, we just didn’t know what was going, what was going to happen. But obviously a lot of people have taken advantage of, of, of the virtual meetings and all this stuff. We right now have, if you go to global awareness day.org, there’s over a hundred and events and activities that are happening around the world. So again, Joe and I just like, we don’t even know what to say anymore and it’s like this animal on its own and it’s amazing. And for me, like people ask like, what, what, what does it for you?
Jennison Asuncion (27:07):
And for me it’s the new events that pop up of much respect to all of the events that have repeated over the years and we’re grateful for those. But like as or by genre, my goodness. Yeah. Having them join a global accessibility awareness day you know, having the gaming industry really pumped about making gaming accessible and really pushing it during global accessibility awareness day, having new themes like virtual reality and some of the other stuff, but just, yeah. So, so some of those new things and seeing more languages being spoken because it is global accessibility awareness day. It isn’t global English only accessible.
John Samuel (27:51):
Do you have any, any goals for it in the next 10 years or so?
Jennison Asuncion (27:57):
Yeah. Well we want to do something more, you know, because everyone’s talking about a global accessibility awareness day and then what happens like 364 days, the rest of the year, right? Three 65 days if it’s a leap year. And so we, Joe and I want to do something that would carry on the mission of GAAD the rest of the year. So stay tuned for more on that next year. There’s a little teaser.
John Samuel (28:27):
All right. That’s awesome. It really is cool. You know, I’ve only been in the accessibility space for the last few years and you know, and I remember the first time I read it and wanting to do something and you know, and writing a blog and these type of things and it’s, you know, and it can be as small as that I think.
Jennison Asuncion (28:45):
Yeah. Oh, absolutely. It can be, it could be you having coffee with a designer or a software engineer or a QA tester or a venture capitalist to just talk to them about what accessibility is. Like, it could be something that’s an, or you could organize like a international, like symposium. I want to get back to something real quick. I’m just talking about accessibility as a profession and, and my, my, the way I navigate around accessibility, I mean, I am completely blind as we’ve talked about before. Yeah. I, and I said this in other places, but I would not be doing my job as an accessibility professional if I focused strictly and exclusively on issues that impact people who are blinded. There’s there are people with a variety of other disabilities sudden as part of my like understanding and learning about other people with other disabilities and impairments.
Jennison Asuncion (29:50):
I, you know, it’s, and it’s still a learning for me, but but it’s important to understand those other disabilities and impairments and what the impacts are. Because when I walk into a room, you know, and with my white cane, most people would automatically assume that I’m going to sit there and just talk about alternative text descriptions for it, for images or things like that. And again, like I said, as an accessibility professional who is like, my job is to make the lives of people with all types of disabilities and impairments that much better in the digital space. I need to be advocating for all disabilities and impairments. And, and I, and I raised that because there’s sometimes this like assumption even within the blindness community that that is my, my one and only focus.
John Samuel (30:47):
I’m totally with you. I think that people assume it’s like a one trick pony. Right? But I think if it’s actually me, accessibility is, I mean we think about it in that whole broader sense when we talk about it, but sometimes just think, yeah, when they see the white cane I’m only talking about the issues related to the visual impairments. But you know, I think that accessibility in general benefits everybody that’s part of that awareness that we have to, you know, a non disabled or disabled. Right. I think there is accessibility benefits as all right.
Jennison Asuncion (31:21):
And, and as you know, I mean there are people who could have temporary disability or situational and people are getting older. And so it isn’t just people with permanent disabilities or impairments that are, that are, that can be positively impacted by my moving the needle on it.
John Samuel (31:40):
I really appreciate this. Jennison I think that I’m super excited about about global accessibility awareness day this year. And I think especially in our current times you know, living in our virtual world, that it’s even more important that we think about digital accessibility and access for all. So I thank you for taking the time to speak with me. Thanks man.
Jennison Asuncion (32:05):
No, I appreciate it and good luck with with your show.
John Samuel (32:11):
Thank you so much.