Heath Thompson: “The difference between collaboration and criticism is a matter of timing”

I’m proud of the work we do at AudioEye. I believe we’re most certainly bringing goodness–in the form of online equality–to the world every single day. As part of my series about “individuals and organizations making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Heath Thompson, CEO of AudioEye, a digital accessibility software solution […]

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I’m proud of the work we do at AudioEye. I believe we’re most certainly bringing goodness–in the form of online equality–to the world every single day.

As part of my series about “individuals and organizations making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Heath Thompson, CEO of AudioEye, a digital accessibility software solution provider committed to creating an internet that is accessible for individuals with disabilities. He has nearly three decades of leadership and engineering experience at organizations ranging from start-ups to large global corporations with a deep background in SaaS and software product businesses. Most recently, he came to AudioEye from cybersecurity leader SANS, where he was General Manager (GM) of the Security Awareness business. A paraplegic since the age of 18, Thompson is a tireless advocate for disability rights.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! It is really an honor. Our readers would love to get to know you a bit better. Can you share your “backstory” with us?

When I was 18 years old, while on vacation with my family, I was driving back from the beach one summer night, when in the blink of an eye, I lost control of my vehicle and my car rolled over in an accident that broke my back, paralyzing me from a spinal cord injury. As an active, athletic, college-bound teenager, I woke up in a hospital ER to the news that I would never walk again. And the doctors were right: I haven’t walked in 40 years and have been in a wheelchair every day since.

It may surprise some, but I have embraced my disability; professionally, being in a wheelchair has never held me back. I come to AudioEye with nearly three decades of leadership and engineering experience at organizations ranging from start-ups to large global corporations. I have a deep background in SaaS and software product businesses, and most recently, I was the General Manager (GM) of the cybersecurity leader SANS.

But as I reflect on the past 30 years, I like to think my journey to AudioEye began the night I was injured. As an individual with a disability, I am able to more freely navigate the physical world thanks to the requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). That legislation passed because communities came together to fight for disability rights. Yet thirty years later, we find ourselves in the same fight — this time in the digital sphere.

The internet is anything but equal for those trying to navigate it. A recent study revealed 98-percent of the million most popular web pages have accessibility barriers for individuals with disabilities. AudioEye solves digital accessibility issues, ensuring every one of every ability has equal access to online content. But we can’t do it alone. Just like the ADA, it will take a community of website creators, designers, business owners and advocates to commit to online inclusivity. It’s an honor and a privilege to be the CEO of a company leading this charge.

Do you feel comfortable sharing with us the story surrounding how you became disabled or became ill? What mental shift did you make to not let that “stop you”?

I am proud to share my story because I believe every moment leads us to where we are today.

I am individual with a disability now leading a technology company advocating for an equitable internet for others with disabilities. I am incredibly proud to be part of a team raising awareness about the inequality that exists online for individuals with disabilities in order to rally the community around the issue, and to solve it.

Sure, my disability has slowed me down at times. It’s a mixed bag when it comes to accessing schools, restaurants, concerts and stores. But I have never let it stop me, not even when the doctor first told me I may never walk again. And it’s certainly not stopping me now because when it comes to creating a fair and just world for individuals with disabilities, we still have a lot of work left to do.

Can you tell our readers about the accomplishments you have been able to make despite your disability or illness ?

I’ve really lived all my adult life with my disability, from age 18 onward. Everything I’ve done in my adult life from going to college and grad school, working in my career, marriage, having kids, starting my own business, even playing competitive sports — I’ve done from a wheelchair.

A lot of these things were challenging earlier in my adulthood, because we had not passed ADA into law until 1990. Everything used to require a lot of advanced planning to make sure a facility or event was accessible. Having to take classes in the lobby of the one or two accessible buildings on campus because the classrooms were not accessible, entering buildings through loading docks or kitchen entrances, being carried up flights of stairs by strangers, going floor to floor in a building, or even going to another building, just to find a restroom with a door big enough to enter — these were all daily occurrences pre-ADA.

What advice would you give to other people who have disabilities or limitations?

This year, we are celebrating the 30th anniversary of the signing of the Americans with Disabilities Act. While most of us are somewhat familiar with the ADA, we may not all be familiar with what might have been the single most important event leading to its passage: the Capitol Crawl. On March 12, 1990, hundreds of activists gathered on the steps of the Capitol in Washington DC urging Congress to pass the stalled legislation. Among those, 60 abandoned their wheelchairs, crutches and other assistive devices and crawled up 83 steps. The attention and pressure of that event worked; the ADA passed within four months.

So my advice to anyone, regardless of ability, is to never stop fighting for what you believe in. The courage of those 60 individuals 30 years ago changed life for tens of millions of Americans. We can do big things that may have a tremendous impact when we set our minds to it! Like Congressman Coelho, who sits on AudioEye’s board, and who authored the ADA has stated, we, as persons with disabilities, have to continue to fight for our rights even AFTER the law is passed, to keep awareness where it needs to be and to adapt to our changing world. This is why I was so passionate to join AudioEye to help fight for digital accessibility, given how essential digital access is in everyday life.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are?

I’ll never forget the moment I first met former Congressman Tony Coelho, the author of the ADA. He’s on the AudioEye board of directors, and we were introduced when I was considering the position as CEO. As I started into my meeting with him, I was overcome with emotion thinking about Tony’s passion as a disability rights advocate, and how that passion has opened the door to many of the freedoms I have today — frankly how it enabled much of my adult life.

I now have the honor to collaborate with Tony as we raise awareness about digital accessibility and the inequality that exists online. It’s fair to say that, from a distance, Tony’s leadership 30 years ago changed my life, and his leadership today, as a colleague and confidant, continues to inspire and motivate me both personally and professionally.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

Every time AudioEye works with a business, organization, agency or website designer who commits to making their website more inclusive, we’re one step closer to a more equitable internet. And that’s a good thing. When we pause and think about the world we live in today — one that’s full of physical distancing — we realize how much we rely on digital connectivity. Yet the majority of websites are inaccessible to a quarter of the US population. The CDC reports 26-percent of the US adult population has a disability, and when we think about these individuals experiencing barriers on an internet we have become so dependent upon, we know we need to do better. w.e.

I’m proud of the work we do at AudioEye. I believe we’re most certainly bringing goodness–in the form of online equality–to the world every single day.

Can you share “3 things I wish people understood or knew about people with physical limitations” and why.

People with disabilities want to do what everyone else does: have a level playing field with able-bodied people when it comes to jobs, raising families, enjoying public events, gathering with friends, traveling, playing sports, and living active lives.

Access means full access — not just access into the front door of a building — but truly experiencing what was intended within that building. I recently was reading about an actor with disabilities, talking about how inaccessible stages and auditions were. You could get in the door of the theater, but an actor with a disability might not be able to take an audition. This probably seems subtle, but it’s an example of full and equal access.

People with disabilities don’t really want to be treated specially — they want the freedom to be treated *like* everyone else. This is a very critical point in thinking about inclusiveness for persons with disabilities.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”?

There are so many but I will cite a one that really struck me. A good friend of mine recently said, “the difference between collaboration and criticism is a matter of timing.” Let’s collaborate on doing something right at the outset — not criticize what’s been done wrong and try to change it.

I would say this applies directly to giving people with disabilities a voice in architecting the future world. We’ve seen this happen in building design and architecture, as ADA transformed the physical world to include access in the design of buildings. We now need to see that same kind of thing happening in the digital world, where the voices of people with disabilities are included in the design of new digital experiences, and technology that enables people with disabilities to have equal digital access is a standard consideration for all digital experiences.

We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this 🙂

It would probably require more than one breakfast, as I don’t think there is a single influencer category here that rules the day. Much like the Black Lives Matter or the #MeToo movements, it takes recognition and champions across all aspects of our lives to take up a social cause at this scale and sustain it, to make a difference.

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