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Disability

The Blind Man Pushing Companies Into The Future Of Accessibility

A combination of fungal meningitis and medical mismanagement may have taken Albert Rizzi's eyesight, but they didn’t take his vision for the future--or his gumption.

Albert Rizzi comes from a family of foster parents. His grandmother fostered 65 children, and his parents took in their first foster child just a few days after his oldest sibling was born. Growing up, his parents even contributed to the Fresh Air Fund, taking inner city kids into their country home during holidays so they could experience nature firsthand. 

So it’s no surprise that Albert grew up wanting to foster children, and when he couldn’t as a single male, he decided to put his energies into going back to school for early childhood education. For the next few years, he pursued two simultaneous masters degrees (one in education and one in administration) and went on to direct a pre-K and Kindergarten after-school program that serviced 250 students and their families in the South Bronx.

Then things took a turn. Shortly after buying a house in 2005, he had what he thought was an annual sinus infection. When the pain in his head became “tremendous,” he went to the hospital. After five spinal taps, two misread reports, and two months, Rizzi left the hospital with no eyesight and fired from him job. (Yes, that’s illegal.) But he didn’t give up.

“Helen Keller said that the only thing worse than being blind is having sight but no vision.”

“Helen Keller said that the only thing worse than being blind is having sight but no vision,” says Rizzi. “I believe I’ve never seen more clearly in my life.”

It took some adjustment, of course. Rizzi says he felt sorry for himself for a few days. But he had always been a firm believer in limitless potential, which his father was the first to remind him: “We didn’t raise you to be a quitter,” he said. “People look up to you. You always demand 100% from the people around you. So now show us what it looks like.”

Rizzi did.

Albert and his guide dog.

Heading back into the world blind, Rizzi quickly became frustrated with the lack of accessibility he had to digital platforms.“I wanted to assimilate back into society even though I was called ‘disabled’,” he says. But it was digital platforms that were disabled to me. You can’t disable a person. You can disable a bomb or a car or a machine but disabling means make it stop working and moving and functioning. You can’t do that to a person, not really. But still, our lives are so tied to the digital world, and we’re at a disadvantage like never before.”

You can disable a bomb or a car or a machine… but you can’t disable a person. Not really.

By 2008, Rizzi had not just relearned how to navigate the world as a blind person: he had a digital accessibility consultancy up and running to solve the problem.

My Blindspot (MBS) helps companies, government agencies, educational institutions, and other entities get up to speed when it comes to digital accessibility for the blind and print-disabled. There are legally mandated codes that can be programed into websites, mobile apps, native and cloud-based softwares, digitized documents (PDFs), and kiosks to make them compatible with assistive softwares like screen readers that turn the web into audio output, magnifiers for people who are low vision, braille displays, and speech-to-text technology used by many members of the disability community. Far too few entities actually comply or do it correctly.

Where compatibility with assistive softwares might be an afterthought to huge corporations, to someone with a disability it can mean the difference between being able to attend school or seek employment or not… let alone less dire things like booking travel, or shopping online.

Where compatibility with assistive softwares might be an afterthought to huge corporations, to someone with a disability it can mean the difference between being able to attend school or seek employment.

In working with clients, Rizzi always tries to communicate that accessibility is not just the right thing to do. It’s also good business sense: the more people that have access to your company, the better your chances of succeeding. By making sure your websites and others outward-facing products are accessible, you can draw upon not just a deeper customer pool, but a deeper talent pool as well. 

In 2009, MBS made Quickbooks’ platform accessible to the blind. That may not seem like a big deal, but it opened up opportunities for countless visually-impaired people.  “Now, blind and print-disabled people can consider careers in accounting and bookkeeping and can manage their small businesses,” explains Rizzi. He has since worked with clients like American Airlines, the New York Department of Motor Vehicles, Carnival Cruise Lines, and Peapod.

But My Blindspot is only one facet of Rizzi’s activism. He speaks all over the world about accessible technologies, employment, and financial independence for the disability community. And he carries his mission with him all the time. This past April he sued Morgan Stanley for $9 million because their website was not sufficiently accessible for him to manage his assets. He worked with the bank to try to change their practices, but after Morgan Stanley dragged their feet, he felt he had no choice but to sue, which he worries could effect business. “I don’t sue clients,” he explains. “I’m responsible for delivering them the technical solutions to make companies accessible so they don’t get sued,” he says.

But despite his concerns, My Blindspot is still, well, in a good spot. They’re now helping the SUNY and CUNY schools become accessible to the visually impaired. Currently, Rizzi estimates that 90% of the digital platforms used by the schools are inaccessible. But that’s about to change. And when it does, “nobody will have to give up the idea of a having a career in these institutions.”

“Work is the cure for anything.”

That’s what it’s all about for Rizzi. He may have started MBS to make digital platforms accessible, but ultimately, he wants people of all abilities to be able to have jobs. He notes that with more disabled people working, they’d be paying into the tax system rather than depending on it.

“Work is the cure for anything,” he says. “It gives you a sense of value and purpose. My Blindspot is founded on the belief that with the right to tools that promote ability, everyone can achieve greatness.”