Diversity & Inclusion
DEI / Web development

The bold gait of Austin Seraphin

Why the accessibility consultant isn't held back by his blindness.

Nico Westerdale (Courtesy Nico Westerdale)

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Technical.ly’s Editorial Calendar explores a different topic each month. The April 2018 topic is accessibility. These stories explore people and firms making technologies that all people can use. From assistive technology to web accessibility, these stories explore the latest in building a more inclusive society.
Every now and then, during our conversation, developer Austin Seraphin’s eyes hurt so much he contorts slightly in his chair and clenches his fists.

But Seraphin, a 41-year-old accessibility consultant who’s been blind since birth due to a condition called retinopathy of prematurity, is combining Western medicine with herbal remedies to cope with the excruciating pain that his calcifying corneas are causing him.

“I’ve been doing the drops and ointments and just, you know… keeping going,” Seraphin said.

What he won’t mention is the third element getting him through the “essential health change“: his fortitude.

I meet the developer at his apartment on a surprisingly warm Friday afternoon. He wore a blue flannel button-up shirt and aviator-style glasses. From behind the shades, I can barely make out a thin layer of freshly-applied ointment that covers his eyes.

“How do they look?” he asks. I tell him the aviator style complements the shape of his face.

From my abled-biased perspective, I’m taken aback by the certitude of Seraphin’s initial gait. He gets up from his chair to find something and the first step is always bold, unafraid and big, just like when he came out to meet me in the elevator. As I’d come to understand throughout our conversation, his lack of sight means he just has to find other ways to adapt to his surroundings.

It's so frustrating to call tech support and hear them say: 'Do you have someone sighted who can help you?' No, we do things ourselves.

The serenity of his approach to pain, the way he embraced it as a new part of his life he must tackle, is also telling of his approach to the work he does in the space of accessibility and technology. When he felt sightseeing tours were excruciating bores for the blind, he cofounded Philly Touch Tours, creating sensory tours of traditional “sight-seeing” spots and cultural institutions. When workout apps forgot about the fact that blind folks can’t see their spunky workout vids, he made an app called Eyes Free Fitness that gives rich workout descriptions for the visually impaired.

“This is where you get to see the layers of accessibility,” Seraphin said. “Even though an app is accessible, it would assume that you can see the videos.”

He gets irked at stuff that’s not accessible, too. As we chat about crypto and blockchain, he points out the irony that in their search for independence and freedom, lots of sites in the cryptocurrency space have made inaccessible sites.

“C’mon, you cryptos!” Seraphin shouts. “If you write a program that gives a freedom but you don’t make it accessible, then you deny me of that freedom. That’s the thing I’ll keep hammering home.”

I get the feeling his feistiness to demand what’s fair is a learned trait: The plight for accessibility started long ago with Seraphin’s parents, who had to wrangle with school administrators to allow him to use a laptop while attending Strath Haven High School, a public school in Delco.

His love of technology began even longer ago, with the joyful arrival of the Apple IIE at his home. What made the 1983 product a huge deal at the Seraphin home was that it was the first Apple product to feature a screen reader using synthesized speech.

“Back then it wasn’t built in like it is now,” Seraphin recalls. “It was a separate software program you had to run, but I took to it right away. I remember thinking, ‘So all I have to do is tell this computer what to do and I can make this magic box do whatever I want? Cool! Well, adults must have built this thing so naturally you could get a job doing this as an adult.’ It just all clicked right then: this is it.”

Today, Seraphin’s work as an accessibility consultant has leaned on his ability to provide unique perspective, both as a user who is blind and as a programmer. On account of his change in health, which per a blog post he penned has affected him psychologically as well as physically, his coming work will focus more on personal projects, like working on the intersection of open source and accessibility.

“I want to see the open source community step up,” Seraphin said. “I think there’s a lot of opportunity there because you’re not just flagging flaws for a company but you can contribute code and documentation.”

Throughout the interview, I’m self-conscious. I feel worried I may ask a dumb question so I put the issue upfront: I ask Austin what do sighted people, like me, most often get wrong about people with visual impairments.

“I think it’s just about the fact that we have a basic level of independence,” he says. “It’s so frustrating to call tech support and hear them say: ‘Do you have someone sighted who can help you?’ No, we do things ourselves, we don’t have people just doing things for us.”

The same framework of inclusivity applies to what Seraphin flags as the most important thing young developers can do to make sure they’re not building technology from an exclusive standpoint. Sure, adhering to industry standards and best practices is an important starting point, but nothing can compare to bringing actual voices with disabilities into the process.

“It’s important to include all sorts of people in your testing — or your development team, if you can,” Seraphin said. “Focus on real diversity and aim to get a cross-section of opinions. Don’t just think you know what they want.”

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