Podcast Transcript: Is Your Innovation Disabled?

Is Your Innovation Disabled?

Welcome to ‘Didn’t see it coming’, the podcast about brands that learn from past, are looking to the future and are profiting because of it today. I’m your host Marc Stoiber.

Marc: Hello there, as all of you know didn’t see it coming is all about getting new perspectives and seeing things that surprise us and push us forward and help us do things like innovate and come up with more effective brands. Now a short while ago I was introduced to a fellow named Gary Birch. Garry Birch runs the Neil Squire society and Gary has a fascinating story to tell.

He is quadriplegic but that isn’t his story, his story is about innovation and how getting in new perspective by way of a disability is often one of the most inspiring ways to foster innovation. Now we work together and we came up with a great story that Gary is going to be telling at a TEDx conference shortly in March but I wanted to interview Gary before he went on stage just so maybe he can give us a little bit of background if you don’t actually get around to seeing the TEDx conference. Gary, welcome!

Gary: Thank you Marc. Nice to be here today.

Marc: You have a very, very interesting story maybe you can tell us how you came to being the head of the Neil Squire society.

Gary: Ok Marc that’s an interesting story and I’ll try to keep it short but I got injured became a quadriplegic and when I was in electrical engineering I was very interested in working on technology for people with disabilities and I ran into this fellow named Bill Cameron who was also working with the person who was a very high level quadriplegic named Neil Squire and Bill and I and Neil started working together and long story short after we help deal with some technology it started to blossom and a lot of other people with disabilities wanted to work with technology and it led to developing a society to serve those needs called the Neil Squire society.

Marc: Now hold on and let me backtrack a second you just ran right past this whole thing. You’re an electrical engineer actually you’re a doctor of engineering.

Gary: That’s true, yeah.

Marc: Now this is something as part of the talk that you give you go into this quite a bit of detail but people in wheelchairs weren’t expected to be engineers and it just goes back to the whole idea of a closed minded perspective that people had. Can you just go back into that for a sec?

Gary: Well, I don’t want to give too much away Marc but indeed yes when I first had plans of going to be an electrical engineer after my accident, my car accident that made me a quadriplegic I was actually discouraged from becoming electrical engineer because people didn’t think I could do the task of being an electrical engineer. So, but I had some idea what electrical engineers really did so I was pretty convinced that I could do it.

Marc: Now one of the things that you talk about in your speech is that just by virtue of being forced to see the world through different eyes people with disabilities have the gift of a different perspective that fosters innovation. Can you give me an example or two that you’ve seen through your experience of people who are forced to see the world in a different way and that leads to great innovation?

Gary: Yeah. I think I can Marc and I guess what I want to say is a lot of people with disabilities don’t even realize that they have this because just as a matter of living their lives they’ve started to, they had to look at things differently just to manage everyday kind of affairs but they can bring that skill set to a workplace for instance or to solving problems and they may look at problems very differently because you know when they’re designing things to say go on a website they are going to be a lot more careful about making the information very easy to understand and very logical way and they’re not going to depend on a lot of fancy graphics slashing at you and actually it ends up being a much more functional and useful website. People with physical disability and in wheelchair they get into situations where they’re planning no spaces or those kind of things, how things may move around in a certain space they have a different perspective on how to economize on movement and placing things in their environment so things are easy to reach just those kinds of things and at first you getting well that’s not really that important but they bring a perspective that no one else around the table who is trying to solve the problem has never even thought of.

Marc: You know it’s so interesting because I remember a wonderful story about I think it was Six Sigma and Lean Manufacturing where they talked about a shop for where they had to get from point A to point B efficiently and what they found was just by putting tape down on the floor they could get their trolleys through this warehouse more efficiently because what happened before every left their trolley sort of standing around and had to navigate this traffic jam of trolleys. Now I can’t help but think that if you had somebody in a wheelchair and they had to get from point A to point B efficiently that they would be able to spot obstacles in their way that would prevent them, you know.

Gary: Yeah they wouldn’t put up with environment like that.

Marc: Yeah, you know, if you think about how shopping malls are designed or office buildings are designed you put somebody in a wheelchair in charge of lending perspective and I’m sure you would come up with a lot more efficient A to B path.

Gary: Yeah that are much more user friendly for everyone yeah and you know even say you know I didn’t wanna go back to your example about the the shop for I think you were saying but you know there’s great examples where people with developmentally delayed have been hired into these environments and have become very productive workers for these individuals and to help them out they’ve put things like tape on the floor, other Marcers or bigger sign saying things just because those were choose they needed and everybody liked them and everybody started doing things more efficiently because it’s much clear exactly how things had to happen.

Marc: Yeah that’s an incredible story. Now from yourself working, you know, working with Neil Squire society you say we talked about a statistic in your speech that there are a great number of people with disabilities that are sitting idle that basically you don’t frame it like hire these people because it’d be nice you say there’s a whole a fountain of innovation just sitting there waiting to be tapped but there’s some pretty disturbing statistics on how many people with disabilities are underemployed or unemployed.

Gary: Yeah, when you count those persons with disabilities in Canada that are either unemployed or you add in there those that have given up but wanna work. You add those two together you have well over fifty percent of Canadians with disabilities who are not working.

Marc: 50%, At the height of the great Depression how many people were unemployed?

Gary: I think it was around 35% and that was considered a huge national crisis. So we’re well above that, well above that.

Marc: So, I run a business let’s say a department store and I want to make things more efficient. Are there some stories, do you have some stories about you know putting people into situations with Neil Squire or finding people jobs were suddenly the employers come back and say; Heck I didn’t know this was possible. I hired this person and they brought a whole lot more to the party then I imagine they would.

Gary: Yeah we get that kind of feedback all the time. I think the first kind of feedback we get is I never really thought the person to do the job so well and the other thing we hear early on is it’s interesting rub off effect that it has on the rest of their employees because they see Sam or Sally there working away and they noticed they are working with these additional kind of challenges and they are going well if Sam and Sally can do that I guess I’d better, you know, I can step up too and so there’s all kind of benefits right off the bat, you know, a lot of companies now are documenting lower absenteeism better productivity etc. But just when you know it’s just those little discussions, sometimes our formal discussions around brainstorming table or sometimes just little hallway discussions to bringing new ideas and new ways of doing things that they never even thought of before and to the person with the disability they are usually pretty obvious, they can’t believe no one else thought of them.

Marc: Now one of the things that we sort of skirt around when you’re doing your talk is the massive upside of innovation that was created for people with disabilities that this is actually you know it because you were very clear when we first met you said you know people with disabilities not generally well-off people that can, you know, put you over the top as a billionaire but if you think of the rub off affect all the other people that you help. So I mean do you have any example that you could share of that where you go, you know, it was invented for this type of disability but then it rubbed off and everybody benefited and it went on to become a huge, huge product.

Gary: Well, let me tell you about one give you a sneak preview. I mean there’s so many examples out there and in fact you can find them on the web, lists of technology that was originally developed for people with disabilities and is now completely mainstream and people are using it not even knowing that was the original use of it but you know there’s a person and it just goes back to the 90’s or 1890’s or approximately, there is a person with a learning disability and he was the first one to come up with the keycard Punch system, you know, the original way to input data and he did it because he was working with the growing numbers of US citizens in the states and they had to find a way to count them automatically before that they were doing them by hand. So he came up with the key card punch system. You know that worked so well and it turned into a company that most of us know it’s called IBM and so he just thought differently.

Marc: Yeah it’s just your goal well how can I make this more efficient because I don’t get it or I have trouble working my hands as the dexterity.

Gary: You know Marc I would’ve loved to been there, you know, why are we counting these people all by hand?

Marc: Yeah this just doesn’t make any sense and it is you know so much of innovation as just asking obvious questions that by virtue of being experts are being inside the company we don’t ask anymore, we assume that there is no solution to that it is just the way we do it or no way.

Gary: Well I think that’s the beauty of diversity in general. It’s not just people with disabilities we tend to bring up a very unique perspective on things but whenever you have a diverse environment you always benefit from a diversity of views.

Marc: Awesome. Thank you so much for joining me on the talk today.

Gary: It was a pleasure. I appreciate the opportunity. Thanks Marc.

Marc: Talk you soon.

You’ve been listening to ‘Didn’t see it coming’, the podcast about brands that learn from past, are looking to the future and are profiting because of it today. I’m your host Marc Stoiber. If you wanna get a hold of me drop me an email at marc@marcstoiber.com. Have a good one.