Educator, Advocate, Founder & CEO Takes on US Airways
Albert Rizzi and dog guide, Doxy
Intro: Meet Albert J. Rizzi, educator, advocate, and now, CEO. You may recognize him as the gentleman who was ejected from a US Airways flight when a flight attendant took issue with his dog guide Doxy's position in the cabin. Suddenly and without notice, Albert and Doxy were taken off the plane. It was a horror story—but it turned into a tale of affirmation and support when Albert and Doxy's fellow passengers challenged the injustice and gave up the flight rather than fly without them.
However, there is a lot more to Albert than just that one newsworthy event. Read his story to learn how, after suddenly losing his sight, he transferred his skills into building blocks for the future and the outstanding career he has today.
The Story: My name is Albert Rizzi, and I am the founder and CEO of My Blind Spot, Inc., a nonprofit organization dedicated to advancing equal access and promoting understanding, respect, and opportunity for the blind, the visually impaired, and the print disabled. At My Blind Spot (MBS), we believe access to the right tools creates ability and restores infinite possibilities for those of us with vision loss.
I lost my eyesight eight short years ago due to a dangerous strain of fungal meningitis that attacked my optic nerve. At the time I was Executive Director of a thriving preschool and after- school program in the South Bronx. My desire to work with children came prior to losing my sight, and continues to this day. The inspiration first came at the passing of my grandmother in 2000. She and my grandfather were foster parents to 65 children over a 15-year period. When she died, I promised to work with children, so I became a kindergarten teacher, and eventually a principal, then decided to manage my own program. However, even with two Masters Degrees in Education and successful completion of an advanced blindness compensatory skills program, my employer refused to let me return to work because I was blind. They did not believe I could run the school program due to my lack of sight. However, I still had my sights set on starting a charter school where I would continue working on behalf of the underserved, under-resourced children and families to whom my career had been dedicated.
As I did my research, hoping to resume my career as an educator, I came up against a paradox. Despite the ever-advancing growth of computer-based assistive technologies, I repeatedly encountered websites, software and tools that were inaccessible to the blind. Even though I was computer literate, I was not able to apply for positions online because of website inaccessibility.
I also became acutely aware of the limitations imposed upon me and my blind peers by the failure of governments and organizations to use current and cutting-edge technologies, ignoring legislation mandating that computer-based communication and information systems be accessible to people who are blind or visually impaired. I also learned that these barriers were faced by others without visual impairment, who were also unable to read and interpret standard print.
It didn't take long for me to learn that being blind and learning to operate in the sighted world could be challenging, frustrating, and even disturbing. Particularly distressing, although not related to technology, was the discomfort I sensed that some people felt in my presence.
It was out of these challenges that I began to consider ways to correct the antiquated misperceptions about blindness and ability. The result was My Blind Spot, Inc. My Blind Spot was born and became a formal nonprofit in September 2009. Since then, we have worked with government agencies, schools, and organizations to achieve the high degree of accessibility, which is possible through technology and mandated by law, yet seldom realized in practice.
My days have been dedicated to defying stereotypes and creating accessible work environments and websites for people of all abilities. I am constantly on the go, traveling, in meetings, writing, doing presentations, and cultivating relationships. The demands of the work we do at My Blind Spot are so varied that the word "typical" doesn't even apply in describing a normal workday.
These days include negotiating with other leaders in the blindness and disability communities that work to ensure equal access in airline transportation for the disabled. My recent problems with US Airways highlight yet another access consideration that My Blind Spot will be championing. We are investigating possibilities of joining forces with the Association for Airline Passenger Rights (AAPR) to improve travel for the disabled.
At present, the collaboration between Intuit and My Blind Spot is our biggest project and it demands most of my attention. The project is centered on creating the first accessible version of QuickBooks for Windows. We believe that making QuickBooks accessible and usable for the blind will be a catalyst for change and, hopefully, help to promote better corporate social responsibility.
Through my presence on the Disability Advisory Board in Suffolk County, New York, we are also working to guide the County into bringing their websites into compliance and conformance with the regulations and guidelines governing internet and intranet access for the disabled. Additionally, we are embarking on a new and exciting venture working with Cablevision, the largest provider of cable, internet, and phone service in the Tri-State area of New York, New Jersey and Connecticut.
I believe that our success thus far has everything to do with the team that My Blind Spot has pulled together. We are presently aligned with a significant base of blind and disabled professionals, nationally known scientists, university and college professors, deans and assistant deans of the same, small business owners with both national and international consumer bases, educators and counselors for the blind, and politicians at the State and Federal level. What began as an organization run on volunteer support has morphed into a nonprofit that has had to partner with other companies in the technology and access industries, as well as hire 10 staffers, 7 of whom are members of the blind and disabled communities.
Right now my days are filled with coordinating the various conferences and conventions we will be attending in 2014, including the AFB Leadership Conference, overseeing the last testing phases of the QuickBooks project, developing and coordinating efforts for tutorials and manuals to complement the new usable version of QB for Windows, and laying the groundwork for a training program for the same in mid to late Spring of 2014.
I work with some of the most dedicated individuals I have ever known. MBS has no fewer than seven people from the blind community on our payroll and no fewer than eight in total from the disabled community. We also have 40 beta testers and volunteers from the blind community, and a team of accessibility professionals from around the globe.
Building a team as dedicated and committed as the one we now have, and continue to grow, takes patience, and a lot of trial and error. But suffice it to say, we are very blessed to have people who have worked with us since the inception of My Blind Spot and we keep adding new partners into the mix.
Another critical consideration at My Blind Spot, and a personal favorite of mine, is looking at the word TEAM as an acronym for Together Everyone Achieves More, and that has never been more true than it is for me today.
My current job fits well with my previous jobs. In the past, I had the pleasure of working in the fashion industry and with intellectual properties. I managed trademarks and licensing for brands like Jordache, Bonjour, Jones New York, Evan Picone and more. I managed a 300 million dollar licensing business under the Jones New York brand. I owned and operated restaurants with partners in New York. I am an educator with degrees in early childhood education and administration and supervision. I ran a 2 million dollar nonprofit in the South Bronx, and now I run my blind Spot. Everything I did previously, all of the experiences and skills I developed, prepared me for this moment, and I think that is true for anyone.
We should be able to build on our own abilities and skill set from one business opportunity to the next. Career growth can be likened to Legos. If we do it right and lock all the pieces together, we can build wondrous things and create opportunities for ourselves.
If I had to be blind, I could not have picked a better time to do it. Unfortunately, I only learned Level 1 Braille when I could see, and despite my attempts to reintroduce it into my life, my neuropathy precludes me from confidently reading braille. But I am not giving up on that and hope to try out a braille sense or some similar braille output device to see if I can feel things better that way.
What I like most about what we do at My Blind Spot is that we create hope and opportunity for the community. What disappoints me is to find out that the world's engineers, technology developers, programmers, etc., know very little about virtual access and therefore lock most of the print disabled community in the dark.
I do not understand why such a conversation still needs to happen, and why it has not happened before. Given that the solutions are relatively simple, it is so very disappointing, and it is an unfortunate truth around the world. Yet, it something I enjoy addressing and bringing to light.
What advice would I give to people wanting to go into this field? I would say develop a clear and solid business plan, look for individuals of like mind and passion, and then just do it. In my signature line of every email is the following: "The person who says it cannot be done, needs to get out of the way of the person who is doing it."
If we let others color our present or our future with low expectations, then we have no right to expect that things are going to get better. Helen Keller once said, and I paraphrase, "The only thing worse than being blind, is having sight but no vision." My Blind Spot came to me as a vision, and now its successful existence is another way for me to simply refuse to be defined or labeled by others.
The Contact: Albert J. Rizzi