Welcome to another episode of the Inform & Connect podcast, a production of the American Foundation for the Blind. In this episode, our host Melody Goodspeed is joined by AFB’s Tony Stephens as they have a sit-down conversation with AFB’s new President & CEO Eric Bridges. Eric shares his personal experience with vision loss as a child, the paths in life that fostered leadership and his move to Washington, DC, and the pressing issues of our day around digital inclusion and accessibility.

Subscribe now to the Inform & Connect podcast so as not to miss future episodes, and feel free to forward along any questions or comments to communications@afb.org.

Inform & Connect Podcast Transcript
Season 4, Episode 2 -- A Conversation with AFB President & CEO Eric Bridges

(EDITORS NOTE: This transcript was produced using assistance from the Otter.io platform and proofed for clarity. There may be variance in instances when the audio was not completely clear.)

Announcer 0:03
You were listening to Inform and Connect a podcast of the American Foundation for the Blind. And now your host, Melanie Goodspeed.

Melody Goodspeed 0:12
Hey everybody. This is Melody Goodspeed with the American Foundation for the Blind's Inform & Connect Podcast. I am really having a great time. I've got my colleague here, Tony Stephens, Tony, how are you doing today,

Tony Stephens 0:24
it is going well, I'm excited to not just be a voice at the start of the podcast, but I'm a human. This is not AI.

Melody Goodspeed 0:31
I know. And speaking of AI, I love that we are with a really cool person, which we'll reveal in a minute. And we're actually in face-to-face. So like I know your real.

Tony Stephens 0:40
Yes, yes, we can confirm that.

Melody Goodspeed 0:43
And we did also have a really good adventure for this. I mean, we found the kitchen since this is the first time I've been to our new office. Yeah.

Tony Stephens 0:51
So for folks that don't know, the American Foundation for the Blind since the pandemic has adopted very much a virtual work setting. We have employees who are all over the country. Yes. But everywhere but the core... we still have, in a sense a headquarters and it's based in Arlington, Virginia, literally right across the Potomac River from Georgetown, a neighborhood in Washington, DC in a neighborhood called Rosalyn in Virginia, and we're in this office setting, you know, sort of a corporate office setting with halls. it's a very interesting building, to say the least. But yeah, we're excited. We finally found the kitchen.

Melody Goodspeed 1:32
The three of us charging forward -- actually, five of us charging forward (Referencing two guide dogs) and got water. And so we're all very happy and hydrated. Yeah, yes. big discovery today. So
Tony Stephens 1:43
What has 14 legs and is on the search for water? (Laughter) Three, three employees. Yes.

Melody Goodspeed 1:48
It's good times for one special employee who we'll be introducing in a moment.
So Tony, I'm also really excited today that we get to go out and meet with some of our donors, which is super cool. It's so great to meet people that really believe in our work. And I'm really excited that you and I get to do that today with our special guest. And new to the scene here. We have our very new president and CEO Eric Bridges,
Eric, join in with the crazy. (Laughter) How are you?
Eric Bridges 2:17
ya? Melody and Tony? I am more than happy to turn on the crazy. Yea, it's great to be here. Great to be with the two of you.

Tony Stephens 2:25
Welcome aboard. We're all excited to have you here.

Eric Bridges 2:26
It was wonderful finding the kitchen. (Laughter)

Melody Goodspeed 2:28
Yes, it was very joyous.

Tony Stephens 2:31
It's the little things in life, like the excitement of finding water.
A lot of folks who came to the AFP Leadership Conference and the Helen Keller Achievement Awards had a chance to meet you in person for the first time since you came into your new role. How long has it been now?

Eric Bridges 2:50
Tomorrow? It will be one month? Yeah. So April 12. Will be one month.

Melody Goodspeed 2:54
Yay. We're celebrating.

Tony Stephens 2:56
Exactly. we'll have a one month anniversary. Yeah. Well, an anniversary means annual. So, I guess. So it's 1/12 of an anniversary. But no, congratulations, and the entire team and staff has been has been so excited to have someone take the helm as president and CEO,
but I have known you for a while, which is exciting. To work for you again, which is fantastic.
And but yeah, Melody, I'm not hijacking your show.

Melody Goodspeed 3:27
no, I love talking. But Eric, can you kind of tell our audience a little bit about you like, we want to hear about you your journey, blindness, journey, your everything. And we want it all just start where you want to start.

Eric Bridges 3:42
I've lived out here in the DC area for 22 years. I came to live in this area after having graduated from the University of Iowa. And, go HawkEyes by the way.
I was born and raised in Iowa, in a town called Dubuque, which is on the Mississippi River on the eastern side of Iowa, across from Illinois in Wisconsin. And I have two younger sisters and my mom and dad's still live most of the year in Iowa.
My upbringing probably was not that much different than a lot of other blind or visually impaired. Kids. I began to lose my vision at the age of four. Indirectly due to juvenile rheumatoid arthritis, and some of the inflammation that was in my joints made its way into my eyes. And so it was challenging. I had gradually lost my vision from the age of four until I was about 17.
But, if I'm being totally honest, the thing that we would call "sight," the sighted community would think it was awful at age 16, and 17. So, shadows and things like that. I went to public school, all the way through. My parents are wonderful advocates and have been wonderful advocates. For me, being able to stay in public school, they had to fight for me not to be sent to the School for the Blind in Iowa, when I'm, I am very much pro School for the Blind, when it is appropriate for the child to receive services from the School for the Blind, in this case, was not a good academic or social environment for me to be put into. So they got a lawyer. And literally, it was just a couple months before the ADA was signed into law, that this whole thing went down and advocated on my behalf to begin to learn braille, and how to use a white cane in public school. So I learned advocacy pretty early, due to my parents. Pretty cool.

Melody Goodspeed 6:19
That is awesome. Because I think sometimes parents who I mean, you are a parent, I am parent, Tony's a parent. So all three of us are parents, anyhow, that learning how to advocate for your kids, especially when you know, they're facing something that you just don't know about. I mean, I know when I lost my eyesight rather suddenly, at 26, my parents didn't know what to do. It's hard. But thanks for sharing that.
Can you tell us one fun thing, a school experience that you remember?
Eric Bridges 6:57
I remember a lot of embarrassing things in school, because here's the deal. I didn't want to admit that I was losing my sight. Right? Okay, that's pretty common. I didn't want to learn braille, I didn't want to learn to use a cane. And one of the consequences of not wanting to use a cane when you have... I don't know... depth perception issues, let's say, is that you bounce yourself off of glass door dividers, you tripped downstairs... There's a blooper reel out there, probably of all the goofy things that I did in high school, thinking that, you know, girls would find me a lot more attractive. If I didn't, if I didn't use my cane, not thinking that bouncing myself off class partitions Probably was not all that attractive to girls. Just saying.

Melody Goodspeed 7:49
I know.

Eric Bridges 7:51
The logic there was flawed, I'll admit, but I also had braces, and I had moderate acne. So I was like, I was a bundle of self confidence.

Melody Goodspeed 8:06
but all those things are wonderful.

Eric Bridges 8:08
But, school was not a lot of fun for all those reasons. And I, eventually figured out that in order for me to be independent, and to be successful, I needed to learn how to use a cane, and how to get around independently. I got my Braille overall ability to read to a really good place. Some of that was my parents bargaining with me actually allowing me to read Stephen King books in eighth grade in order to get my proficiency up. Now, that's a double-edged sword. So I got it. I got my proficiency up, but I had nightmares.

Melody Goodspeed 9:00
I mean, it's a thing. Literally, Pet Cemetery. Yes.

Eric Bridges 9:04
Oh, yeah. Cujo. Yeah. Yeah. I I was enthralled with those books. But I also was 13 and had lots of lots of nightmares. But yeah, those are some of my school experiences.

Melody Goodspeed 9:22
I love it. I think it's important to share these things because that age is hard. Anyway, I just, I think what we're getting now it's really, really hard. Can you talk to us a little bit after college, talk about college?

Eric Bridges 9:33
I loved college. It was the greatest thing. I also went to class sometimes. (Laughter)

Melody Goodspeed 9:41
Sometimes we have to go.

Eric Bridges 9:42
Yeah, well, I viewed college very much as the ability for me to set my own path in life to sort of figure out me and who I was. I spent a lot of high school Still trying to fit in. And once I got to college, I just said, I'm just gonna be me. And I wound up joining a fraternity Phi Kappa Psi at the University of Iowa, and was very involved in the fraternity, I lived in the fraternity house for a couple of years, was vice president of the chapter and learned a lot about leadership. I learned a lot about how a lot of guys living in a house can make it very dirty. But I learned a lot of tough things, I mean, holding one another accountable for our actions, being in a fraternity, you know, and, and doing what you say you're going to do in terms of chores in the house, and all this other stuff. And a lot of it has applied as directly applicable to the rest of my life. And that's one of the things I've taken from that experience.
There's all these stereotypes of, of the "frat boy," and keg stands and all this other stuff. And we had fun, but there was also that we had the highest grade point average of any fraternity on campus. One year, we had the highest grade point average of any of the chapters in Phi Kappa Psi, which was really cool. There was a lot of emphasis on on academics and philanthropy and being out in the community and giving back and then there was the social standpoint that, you know, I'll just be frank, it was awesome, getting to know girls, getting to just go out to football games, I went to a Foo Fighters concert, they opened up actually for the Red Hot Chili Peppers, which was really cool. 2000 And it was one of the one of the funner things I did in college. funner not a word, more fun thing.

Tony Stephens 12:14 what And was your major? (Laughter) This
Eric Bridges 12:16
Well, my good man, I majored in journalism and mass communications. Yes, sir. Look at me. (Laughter)

Melody Goodspeed 12:25
For that, we're so proud. Yeah.

Eric Bridges 12:29
But, you know, I thoroughly enjoyed my time in college, I, you know, I had, folks that I could look up to, one of the interesting things about my I don't know, my progression through vision loss is that there weren't a lot of people. peers in particular, that had vision loss. So I didn't have that. I didn't have it in college until I joined, what was then known as the National Alliance of Blind Students, which was an affiliate of the American Council of the Blind, and I found a kinship with those folks that lived all over the country, they were college students that were blind, or visually impaired. I learn that I wasn't alone. And I learned some tips and tricks like how to advocate with my university for alternative format, materials and things of that nature. So it was, it was good. And that also allowed me another social Avenue as well.

Tony Stephens 13:45
So it's, it's 2000. Well, what you do graduate in 2000, and you're a journalism Mass Communication major. What was it that brought you to Washington, instead of going to Des Moines and working for the Register or going to Chicago and working in media? What, why Washington.

Eric Bridges 14:03
So I had an interest in two things: sports and politics. So I spent the first couple of years at the J school thinking that I was going to try to do this sportscasting thing, right? So as a sports anchor on TV or radio, my ultimate goal was to be on ESPN. And to be a sports center anchor, which at the time was kind of this iconic, idealistic thing..., Dan Patrick and Keith Olbermann back in those days. But the other interest that I had was politics, and I applied for a congressional internship and was accepted. And that brought me out here the summer. of 2000 to DC, and I interned for then-Senator Tom Harkin, from the great state of Iowa, and spent the summer here, which also happened to coincide with the 10th anniversary of the ADEA.

Tony Stephens 15:20
which Harken pass through for folks that don't know who he was.

Eric Bridges 15:24
And so, consequently, I got to do some really cool things that summer, and attend some really great events and be in some really interesting company. The senator brought me to a lot of the ADA events, frankly, events that the other interns didn't get to go to, they got to just open up mail and answer phones and all that. But I got to be with him along the rope line. For the 10th anniversary celebration at the FDR Memorial. President Clinton was there, and I got to meet the president, I got to hang out with Senator Kennedy. He also was a big proponent and champion of the ADA, and he was good friends with Senator Harkin.

Tony Stephens 16:16
Kennedy was the head of the Health Education Committee at that time, wasn't he?

Eric Bridges 16:22
Yes. Health Education Labor Committee. Yeah. So yeah, it was it was a really fun summer. And one of the things that came out of that summer is I fell in love with Washington, I thought it was so much fun. There's so much to do. And decided that I wanted to figure out a way to come out here and work. And National Industries for the Blind provided me that opportunity, they learned that I was here doing an internship, they began to recruit me. And then later, that year, after I graduated, they hired me to, to come out and work and live in Alexandria. So I've been here in this area ever since.

Melody Goodspeed 17:14
Here's a fun fact, all three of us have worked at the National Industries for the Blind.

Tony Stephens 17:21
For people that are trying to find work, NIB is still one of those places that a lot of people do turn to, in a sense, when you're just trying to get your first footing. It's probably much easier now. But when we were younger, Eric, I'm leaning more to you, because I know, our age is closer, probably the melody with you. I'm the older one here, the the old gray dog, but, but you know, it is just...trying to find jobs. In the old days, for me, it was always in college free internships and things I would do, just to get to do anything. Because I couldn't go work retail. There were so few options. This was right, as the ADA was passed, when I was just starting college that, you know, it just wasn't there opportunities weren't there like they are now.

Eric Bridges 18:12
No, and it's interesting that you raise that. I did interviews my last semester, for jobs with big companies, companies that I was qualified to work for. And there was always some reason, just always some reason for them not to hire me.
The one that sticks out the most is Sears. Now, I know, like Sears is a punch line now. But back in those days, Sears was enormous. And they had an executive training program, that they would go in particular to the Midwest, like big 10 schools, and recruit talent. And I made it all the way through several rounds of interviews, and I made it to their headquarters for the final, round of testing and interviews. So I was there was like, 20 other people my age, and they were gonna select, I think it was like, five or seven of us. And I didn't end up going through a lot of the same interviews or testing that the others did. And I asked the question, why not? And they said, well you can't see. Yes, that's true. But why am I here? You know, if I'm not going to go through what everybody Alstead is having to go through and they said, Well, we like you. But we're not sure that you can handle the interviews or the testing that we're going to put these people through. And I said, okay, so that didn't work... That didn't make Eric feel good. But these are the struggles.

Tony Stephens 20:27
the things that reveal that passion, though, when you realize all but like the things that like people do to help lift us up to be successful. And then when you encounter that sour experience, it's like, you realize how many more people... That's why I got into the whole blindness advocacy space after decades of working in other advocacy orgs on other issues, but it was after a bad experience that was like, I've been so lucky my whole life. And I don't know, Eric, if it's the same for you feeling you begin to realize that someone has to get in and try to help change this. Is that what kind of lead you toward advocacy, this idea that you've had these experiences, even with all the opportunities you've had, there's still systemic barriers. And for you to go in and want to advocate for that? Well, yeah.

Eric Bridges 21:19
I think so. I don't know, I've been called a bloody do-gooder at times, I'm good with that, by the way. But, I want for our community to have the same playing field, beyond the level playing field, and then be judged by our merit, and not by whether or not we can see, and that that experience that I had in college, and then I had a couple of other ones, other experiences that were not great. Also, even after just looking for other employment in my career. I, that stuff fuels me, but the other thing that fuels me is success, and looking around and seeing individuals who are blind or have low vision, being successful in the world, the world is not built for us.

Melody Goodspeed 22:31

Eric Bridges 22:35
there needs to be more of us, in different areas of, of our economy, actively participating.
I came to this job from the American Council, of the Blind, which is a member-driven consumer organization in our field, and being able to work on areas of digital inclusion is that that area in particular is huge, because it cuts across education, employment, and transportation. Again, seeking to level the playing field for us to be able to have equal access
Tony Stephens 23:25
The digital world touches every part of and every aspect of our life now. Talk a little about that, with one of your rises in success. You talk about how success also feeds you the same way. But in the digital space, you've been on a national stage, you had an amazing opportunity to work. And really one of the wonderful things you're bringing to AFB and sort of bridging, going back to being an intern with Senator Harkin, who did a great job of bringing together corporate partners, public partners, advocacy-related people in the field. But one of the great things you've been you've been doing is walking alongside the major tech companies, and helping them bolster their accessibility, or anybody that will listen I know, your career has been spent just sort of walking with them and having them walk with you. You've been doing this at ACB and other places. Talk a little bit about that, and how that has felt for you. I know you're so humble, in a sense, but you've been able to be part of the pulse of the rise of accessibility and digital inclusion. How has that felt?

Eric Bridges 24:49
It's been a wild ride, and it's not over. This is the song that never ends. Melody, You know that song? Yes. Keeps going on.

Melody Goodspeed 24:58
It just keeps going like infinity. Yeah.

Eric Bridges 25:00
Yeah, you got it. But this journey that, you know, ACB was on and they, you know, the membership really dictated that, you know, the staff work on this area today called Digital Inclusion, it really started 15 plus years ago, and I'll never forget receiving an email. It was a Wall Street Journal article, that a colleague of mine forwarded to me, the title of the article was a buttonless world. And it was an interview that the Journal had done with Steve Jobs. And this was in like, June of 2007. And this article profiles, Steve Jobs' mindset of thinking, and what was going to be happening very soon, which was the introduction of the iPhone buttonless device ostensively. You know, and so, looking at that, and seeing that we were continuing to be left behind me and wasn't just the iPhone that was going to leave us behind, we're already behind in a lot of areas, from a technology standpoint and reliance almost solely on assistive technology, and not commercially available technology to make our world accessible. So, I, as a representative of the American Council of the Blind and the American Foundation for the Blind. At that time, it was Paul Schroeder and Mark Reichert. We joined with the hearing loss, deaf and hard of hearing communities to introduce a piece of legislation that sought to really level the playing field in the digital realm as it pertained to smartphones and your home theater, so televisions, and the cable box and the DVR in the cable box and all of that. It, it also, we began to deal with audio description, which today in streaming services, it's there's like 1000s of hours of it available with movies. Back then. There were like a couple of TV channels, occasional Sesame Street. Yeah, there's, there's like some of the PBS stuff. And then CBS and Fox voluntarily did audio description for a couple of shows. That's it. Yeah, that's it. We introduced this thing called the 21st Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act, and over about a three year period, it moved through the legislative process, and eventually it was signed into law. And it was a huge achievement for our community. And in negotiating the language for, for the legislation that became law and then implemented regulations. I was able to develop relationships with the companies that were going to be impacted by this. Yeah. And I'm very proud to say that, you know, ACB, and myself as their representative, we still have those relationships with those companies today. And some of those companies are represented on AF B's Board of Trustees, Apple and Google in particular. And through the through the process of the regulations coming out, it provided us the opportunity to reach out to the companies that were going to be impacted and say, "Hey, would love to work with you on making your product or service usable." And not just the accessibility compliance, which pretty low bar that exists in most regulations. And there was significant interest in doing that by those companies. So we're referring to companies like Comcast, like Microsoft, Apple and Google and others. And along the way. Some very strong, trusted partnerships with these companies and still have them today. And I'm very grateful to have had the opportunity to represent a segment of the blind community to do outreach and build relationships with these companies. You know, these companies, none of this thing we call technology happens in a straight line. Companies introduce products that are accessible, and then they will introduce the next generation, that product and something has changed, and it's not as accessible. But really what we're seeing today, if you look at today, versus 15 years ago, there's a lot more commercially available accessible products and services to our community, then then there ever has been. It's exciting.

Tony Stephens 31:02
Awesome. Well, we're running out of time, I know. But this will not be the last time. Hopefully we'll be able to reconnect for other conversations.

Melody Goodspeed 31:11
Yes. I have one question, though, if that's okay. With your passion and everything you talked about, which is great, what would you see doing here at AFB to keep that moving forward? Give us one thing?

Eric Bridges 31:23
Well, frankly, the technology component, the digital inclusion component is very big, I think for AFB. And it's kind of twofold. Actually. Three, it's public policy. Its research, the study that was released last month that showed some of the barriers that we still face for digital inclusion

Tony Stephens 31:52
Our Barriers to Digital Inclusion Survey. Check it out online at AFB.org.

Eric Bridges 31:58

Melody Goodspeed 32:59
I love it. And I couldn't agree more. I'm really excited to go on this adventure, aren't you, Tony?

Tony Stephens 33:05
It's super exciting. I mean, it is like just knowing what's on the horizon for opportunity, in terms of technology, in terms of inclusion. And, and, you know, it's exciting, you know, communications is my hat here at AFB. And it's to think of the opportunity to be able to tie into that narrative is a lot of fun.

Melody Goodspeed 33:26
Yes, and in my head, for development, I'm really looking forward to sharing it with our supporters, our partners, our colleagues, we call them our AFP family. So I can't thank you both enough for this great conversation, we will have many more. And I'm really looking forward to us finding our way out of here.

Eric Bridges 33:47
I know right? We're at the root of the wisdom tooth for the building.

Melody Goodspeed 33:55
Bizarre I mean, all I can think is Three Blind Mice keeps going through my head. I'm sorry, it just this. Well, thank you so much, everyone, for joining us. We hope you've enjoyed this. Yeah, my name is Melody Goodspeed, the Informing and Connect podcast. If you want to check out the digital barriers serve, research project, or any of our programs, please visit afb.org Thank you so much. Catch you next time.

Announcer 34:23

Thanks for listening to inform and connect a podcast to the American Foundation for the Blind. For questions or to find out more about the podcast email communications@afdb.org. Consider making a gift today to support the American Foundation for the Blind. Go to www.AFB.org, creating a world build limits for people who are blind or have low vision.