Disability Inclusion In The Workplace: Idan Meir Of RightHear On How Businesses Make Accommodations For Customers and Employees Who Have A Disability
An Interview With Eric Pines
Take more risks: everyone hates taking risks, but it is part of the game. I wish someone would’ve told me how important that is, so I could have taken even more risks early on.
As we all know, over the past several years there has been a great deal of discussion about inclusion and diversity in the workplace. One aspect of inclusion that is not discussed enough, is how businesses can be inclusive of people with disabilities. We know that the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) requires businesses to make reasonable accommodations for people with disabilities. What exactly does this look like in practice? What exactly are reasonable accommodations? Aside from what is legally required, what are some best practices that can make a business place feel more welcoming and inclusive of people with disabilities? To address these questions, we are talking to successful business leaders who can share stories and insights from their experience about the “How Businesses Make Accommodations For Customers and Employees Who Are Disabled “.
As a part of this series, we had the pleasure of interviewing Idan Meir.
Idan Meir is the CoFounder and CEO of RightHear, an innovative startup on a mission to turn public spaces into accessible environments for the blind and visually impaired. Idan has struggled his whole life with getting lost. It affected his army service, social life, and business prospects. He decided he’d had enough of the woefully inadequate signage in public spaces, and co-founded RightHear to — once and for all — take the stress out of getting around.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you ended up where you are?
Yes absolutely. Thank you for speaking with me today.
Well, as an 18 year old, I joined the Armed Forces. During my service, I had to undergo extensive orientation training. And I was always the last to complete it because I got lost and disoriented; every single time.
Fast-forward a few years and my business partner, Gil Elgrably, and I were building a new retail couponing business. While we were scouting opportunities in the local mall, I just kept getting lost. That’s when we realized we could use the same technology we were developing for the couponing business, to instead serve thousands of people who need help navigating and orienting themselves in public spaces. That was back in 2015 and RightHear was born.
RightHear is essentially the more accessible, more inclusive, digital alternative to braille signage. Because — and I bet you didn’t know this — only 10% of people with visual impairments can read braille!
RightHear is the only accessible wayfinding solution focused on navigation and orientation. Navigation is about getting from points A to B as efficiently as possible. Orientation is about knowing where you are in relation to your surroundings. This combination is critical for people with limited vision as our solution provides a way for them to be confident in being independent.
Fast forward to today and we’re in over 2,100 locations worldwide, and have partnered with the likes of Microsoft and Google, McDonald’s and Pizza Hut, Ritz Carlton and Grand Hyatt hotels, plus museums, theaters and safari parks too!
You are a successful leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?
I would say curiosity, humility, and tenacity.
Curiosity — I really hate the phrase “curiosity killed the cat”. I think curiosity helped the cat get fed, meet other cats, and figure out what to do with a ball of twine! Curiosity leads to innovation. If we aren’t always trying to figure things out, or aren’t constantly asking questions, we’re going to stagnate.
Humility — As a startup founder, there’s nothing more humbling than being told “no”. I think you need to have humility to accept where someone else is coming from in that moment, and to move on without taking it personally. And it’s not about shouting the loudest or bragging about the latest funding round success. If you’re confident in what you stand for and what you believe in, then others will see it too. And that brings me to tenacity.
Tenacity — As a business leader you have to be tenacious. That trait helps you work through obstacles, barriers, and problems, and still stay focused on the end goal. I’ll stop at nothing until our mission of making the world accessible is a reality.
Can you share a story about one of your greatest work related struggles? Can you share what you did to overcome it?
When Covid-19 hit, we really struggled with the fact that many public spaces closed, so partnering with them became very difficult. At one point we were even advised to shut down, but we just couldn’t do that to our community of people with visual impairments, who deserve to live independently. To overcome the effects of the pandemic, we’ve streamlined our business so we can continue to focus on what is most important for us: our community. After 2 years, I’m proud to share that we’re still growing and expanding, and making the world more accessible.
What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?
We’re currently partnering with Volkswagen Group to create accessible autonomous vehicles. This is off the back of us winning the Volkswagen Konnect Startup Challenge in 2021. Our proof-of-concept will demonstrate how blind and visually impaired people can travel safely and independently via a mode of transport that was previously unavailable to them without assistance.
We also just signed a 6 year contract with McDonald’s to continue using RightHear’s technology in every single one of their stores throughout Israel. So that’s pretty exciting.
Fantastic. Let’s now shift to our discussion about inclusion. Can you tell our readers a bit about your experience working with initiatives to promote Diversity and Inclusion? Can you share a story with us?
RightHear’s entire business premise is to help people who are blind or partially sighted. They have generally been forgotten when it comes to accessibility and regulations. You’d be hard pressed to find a public venue that didn’t have a wheelchair ramp or designated parking. But mobility is only one form of accessibility. We’re working hard to make sure people with sight loss, challenges interpreting words and instructions, and even people who don’t speak the local language can safely and independently access public spaces by using RightHear’s “talking signage”. Especially as I already mentioned that only 10% of the blind and partially sighted community can read braille.
We are also very involved with our community. We have regular Zoom calls where members present their own topics and discuss issues in a safe and supportive space. It’s important to create a “stage”for exploring different opinions, backgrounds, and communication styles. And most of all, it’s important to provide a sense of belonging.
This may be obvious to you, but it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you articulate to our readers a few reasons why it is so important for a business or organization to have an inclusive work culture?
Inclusion means that everyone feels valued and welcome. I can’t imagine a single business that wouldn’t aspire to have that type of culture. Not everyone is equal — and that’s ok. But everyone can be valued equally because we all have something unique and special to contribute.
In Hebrew — my native language — the word for “accessible” and the word for “attitude” come from the same root. I always found that pretty poignant. You need to have the right attitude to create an inclusive and accessible work culture. It’s a mindset as well as the practices you put in place to make that mindset into a culture.
The Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) requires businesses to make reasonable accommodations for people with disabilities. For the benefit of our readers, can you help explain what this looks like in practice? What exactly are reasonable accommodations? Can you please share a few examples?
Firstly, I believe we need to reassess our understanding of the term “disability”. Society represents disability with a wheelchair user icon — which is only part of the story. Disability (alongside accessibility) also includes those with visual impairments and unseen disabilities such as Dyslexia, memory loss, or other physical and mental challenges.
Once we create a more inclusive definition, businesses can start making the right kind of accommodations for everyone.
Some examples of accommodations for working practices include sharing pre-read materials before group discussions, having flexible working policies, and offering awareness training.
Examples of accommodations for physical spaces include providing wheelchair ramps, designated parking spaces, designated rest areas, accessible restrooms, and accessible signage. At RightHear our accessible signage is simple and discreet. And it’s a lot less expensive than a remodel or renovation to get yourself up to ADA code!
Aside from what is legally required, what are some best practices that can make a business place feel more welcoming and inclusive of people with disabilities? If you can, please share a few examples.
I’d like to share a story about Adi, who is a good friend of mine. He’s a software engineer who develops apps. I think he launched his first app at the age of 11. He’s also legally blind from birth. Adi works very closely with us — he has since day 1. And when we asked him if there was anything challenging about working with us, he said “finding the office. Finding the coffee machine”. This incredibly talented developer can find his way around code and systems, but needs someone to physically help him find the kitchen area or the elevators. It doesn’t make sense to me that this is how he has to get around!
When he uses RightHear, he doesn’t have to worry about whether someone will hold the door for him because the venue has pre-programmed into their notifications where the door is located. And they can also add whether it’s a push/pull or automatic door as well. It can alert him where the kitchen area is, as well as where he is in relation to it.
You just can’t get that level of autonomy, that depth of information, that flexibility of customization, with a static sign written in braille. Especially as it’s not a very inclusive format for signage.
So if we only do what is legally required — i.e. install braille signs — we’re doing a disservice to those with disabilities.
And if I’ve learned anything from Adi, it’s to reach out to the community you’re trying to serve, and talk to them. Listen to them. Ask questions. Learn. You can’t be inclusive on behalf of someone if you aren’t inclusive of them.
Can you share a few examples of ideas that were implemented at your workplace to help promote disability inclusion? Can you share with us how the work culture was impacted as a result?
RightHear is installed in our office building. And actually, every building or public space that’s RightHear-enabled receives an accreditation from us to show they’re accessible to the blind and partially-sighted. The accreditation can be displayed proudly — just like you would for a TripAdvisor rating — so everyone knows your venue is accessible, welcoming, and inclusive.
We also have flexible working policies. Since our employees are spread throughout the globe, we’re proof that you don’t have to be in the same physical space, or even the same time zone, to function cohesively.
When everyone is empowered to bring their true selves to work, they’re far more invested in their role. What we’ve done is eliminate the stress faced by so many people with visual impairments. People are more confident, they’re more energetic, and they’re more comfortable. That’s the kind of environment I want to be a part of.
This is our signature question that we ask in many of our interviews. What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me When I First Started My Career”?
- It takes longer than you think: The media give the startup world the impression that all startups become an overnight success story. This is just not true. Everyone knows that 99% of the startups fail, but not many people know that even for the successful ones — it takes about a decade on average to exit/IPO.
- It’s all about the hands-on experience: it is not about your academic degree, as much as it is about your actual hands-on experience. I knew that when I started my career, but didn’t have the confidence to focus more on it.
- Take more risks: everyone hates taking risks, but it is part of the game. I wish someone would’ve told me how important that is, so I could have taken even more risks early on.
- Hire people that are smarter than you: I wish I would have followed this notion earlier in my career. As a manager, you sometime want to be in a position of being the “expert” in the room, but the truth is that it is usually a bad idea.
- You don’t build your company’s culture: it is simply created by itself. The more you invest in it the better, but even if you invest nothing, you’ll still have a “company culture”, although not necessarily the one you hoped for. Therefore, investing in it is absolutely mandatory.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share a story about how that was relevant in your own life?
Where there’s a will, there’s a way: I love this quote, and not only because it is “wayfinding” related! As a long-time bootstrapped startup — and a company supporting many people who overcome challenges on a daily basis — I find this quote very inspiring.
My life experiences have shown me that if an individual or a company sets a realistic goal, there is almost nothing that could stop them from achieving it. It might take a while. It might require a lot of effort and resources. But it is possible. Everything is possible when you have the mindset to solve problems and keep moving forward.
You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
I think there’s an unfortunate misconception that the disability ecosystem is a niche market. But the truth is that accessibility is for everyone, and everyone is a HUGE market. So if I could inspire anyone, it would be to embrace accessibility. Embrace diversity. Embrace inclusion. Because that’s what’s going to help create a more equitable world.
And if you don’t know where to start, we can help. Our solution is easy to install (you don’t even need one of our technicians — you can do it yourself if you want!), it’s easy to program, and it’s even easier to use. And we will map your venue for you to help identify the perfect placements for the technology, so you can provide the right audio descriptions in the right locations.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
You can check out our website at www.right-hear.com or follow us on LinkedIn https://linkedin.com/company/righthear, Facebook https://www.facebook.com/RightHearApp, or Twitter https://twitter.com/righthearapp.
You can also see what FastCompany said about us recently! https://www.fastcompany.com/90757316/mcdonalds-and-righthear-visually-impaired-people
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent with this. We wish you continued success and good health!
About the Interviewer: Eric L. Pines is a nationally recognized federal employment lawyer, mediator, and attorney business coach. He represents federal employees and acts as in-house counsel for over fifty thousand federal employees through his work as a federal employee labor union representative. A formal federal employee himself, Mr. Pines began his federal employment law career as in-house counsel for AFGE Local 1923 which is in Social Security Administration’s headquarters and is the largest federal union local in the world. He presently serves as AFGE 1923’s Chief Counsel as well as in-house counsel for all FEMA bargaining unit employees and numerous Department of Defense and Veteran Affairs unions.
While he and his firm specialize in representing federal employees from all federal agencies and in reference to virtually all federal employee matters, his firm has placed special attention on representing Veteran Affairs doctors and nurses hired under the authority of Title. He and his firm have a particular passion in representing disabled federal employees with their requests for medical and religious reasonable accommodations when those accommodations are warranted under the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (ADA). He also represents them with their requests for Federal Employee Disability Retirement (OPM) when an accommodation would not be possible.
Mr. Pines has also served as a mediator for numerous federal agencies including serving a year as the Library of Congress’ in-house EEO Mediator. He has also served as an expert witness in federal court for federal employee matters. He has also worked as an EEO technical writer drafting hundreds of Final Agency Decisions for the federal sector.
Mr. Pines’ firm is headquartered in Houston, Texas and has offices in Baltimore, Maryland and Atlanta, Georgia. His first passion is his wife and five children. He plays classical and rock guitar and enjoys playing ice hockey, running, and biking. Please visit his websites at www.pinesfederal.com and www.toughinjurylawyers.com. He can also be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Disability Inclusion In The Workplace: Idan Meir Of RightHear On How Businesses Make Accommodations… was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.