This Comcast exec turns accessible tech into something for all
Tom Wlodkowski has sculpted tech for people with disabilities for 25 years. A lifetime of experience being blind didn't hurt, except for the times he fell off his bike.
Joan E. SolsmanFormer Senior Reporter
Joan E. Solsman was CNET's senior media reporter, covering the intersection of entertainment and technology. She's reported from locations spanning from Disneyland to Serbian refugee camps, and she previously wrote for Dow Jones Newswires and The Wall Street Journal. She bikes to get almost everywhere and has been doored only once.
ExpertiseStreaming video, film, television and music; virtual, augmented and mixed reality; deep fakes and synthetic media; content moderation and misinformation onlineCredentials
Three Folio Eddie award wins: 2018 science & technology writing (Cartoon bunnies are hacking your brain), 2021 analysis (Deepfakes' election threat isn't what you'd think) and 2022 culture article (Apple's CODA Takes You Into an Inner World of Sign)
This is part of CNET's "Tech Enabled" series about the role technology plays in helping the disability community.
Tom Wlodkowski is working hard to put himself out of a job.
Wlodkowski is the head of accessibility at Comcast, having joined four years ago from AOL. After working 25 years to make technology more inclusive for people with disabilities, he is aiming for the day when it's just part of the routine.
"We'll know we're there when you don't need dedicated accessibility groups anymore," Wlodkowski, who was born blind, said in an interview three weeks ago in his lab at the towering Comcast skyscraper in Philadelphia. "People are starting to realize now that...if you really focus on accessible design, you make a better product for everyone."
Tools built for accessibility underpin tech essential to your daily life. Whether you lean on the closed captions in your Facebook News Feed's videos or the voice-command powers baked into today's phones and speakers, such features help people with disabilities and fix problems for everyone else, too. It's the crux of inclusive design, a concept Wlodkowski and his team at Comcast have promoted inside their own monolithic media company: You reach more people when you consider and include all of them, and that makes for stronger business -- and better tech.
Comcast isn't alone in this trend. Both Apple and Microsoft kicked off events last week with videos about the importance of designing products to be more inclusive. There was heightened awareness of the issue in October in particular because it was National Disability Employment Awareness Month.
Technology has a track record of breakthroughs aimed at accommodating a disability that ended up helping others. Alexander Graham Bell's work on the telephone went hand-in-hand with research into deafness. The first working typewriter was crafted by Pellegrino Turri so that his lover, who was blind, could return his letters. Vint Cerf, a "father of the Internet" who is hard of hearing, developed early email protocols so he and his wife, who is deaf, could communicate easier.
Casting a wide net
For Wlodkowski, inclusion was baked into his upbringing.
The youngest of four brothers, he jokes that his mother didn't have the bandwidth to coddle him with a houseful of boys wreaking havoc. Wlodkowski jokes about his parents setting him loose on the streets of the Connecticut suburb of Southington. But when the time came for him to ride a bike, his mom found herself fighting back her instinct to protect him, she told him later.
"We were in a schoolyard in our neighborhood, and I fell off like every kid does, but I probably attributed it to the fact I couldn't see," he recounted. When he complained that he wanted to stop, she told him they wouldn't leave until he got back on the bike, even if they stayed in the schoolyard all night.
"She said it was the hardest thing for her to stay true because it would have been easy to say, 'You know what, let's just go walk the bike home and we're done,' right?" he said. "But that was probably the best thing she could've done."
Wlodkowski realized early in his career that inclusion meant casting a wide net to the disability community at large, even those with the same disability as himself.
He began working in accessibility and tech in the early 1990s at public radio and TV station WGBH in Boston. The company at the time was developing descriptive video services for people who have low vision or are blind; the audio descriptions narrate the action in a show during breaks in dialogue.
"When I first got there, I was like, "Well, I'm the consumer. Won't you just tell me what's on the screen?" he said. He failed to grasp the nuances that make video description most helpful, he said. A kids' show, for example, needs to speak relatively, like calling something "as big as a dinner plate" rather than 12-inches around. Grown-up programming descriptions should be neutral, so viewers can draw their own conclusions about why a character is, say, standing silently in the corner.
It taught him a lesson that he has carried through to the present day at Comcast, where his team holds frequent roundtables to get first-hand accounts from people with all kinds of disabilities.
"You can put 10 of us in a room who are blind, and I might have one way of doing it, and [another person] might have another," Wlodkowski said. At Comcast, "it's our job to sift through all of that feedback and reach that common denominator that at least gives everybody a good jumping-off point and a usable experience."
More than a niche feature
Comcast's voice remote is the company's prime example of how an accessible technology makes mass-market products better. The remotes have a voice-command button that lets anyone pull up a program, movie or channel just by asking. Since Comcast introduced them to subscribers of its advanced X1 pay-TV service a year and a half ago, the company has deployed more than 10 million to customers.
It's tech that sprung from Wlodkowski's team.
For people with a visual disability like him, that kind of control puts watching television in closer reach. It also allows the people who help care for someone with a disability -- a spouse, a parent, a roommate -- to do something else while their loved ones command their couch surfing on their own. And for people with sight, it helps liberates them from that design monstrosity dating back to the dawn of cable TV: the channel grid.
"People may think of this as a niche audience, but there is broader value to it," he said. More than one in three US households have a member who identifies as having a disability, according to panel research by Nielsen this month. And a landmark study by Forrester and Microsoft more than a decade ago found that 60 percent of working-age US adults were likely to benefit from accessible technology, even if they don't necessarily identify as having what's commonly categorized as a disability.
Wlodkowski is starting to see signs that more companies are paying attention. Yes, his job at Comcast is still intact, but he's noticed attendance explode at business conferences centered on accessibility in recent years. The number of attendees at the US Business Leadership Network's annual conference, which focuses on strategies for including people with disabilities in the workplace, spiked 88 percent this year from 2013.
Wlodkowski said his team continues to work on advanced technology, like eye-gaze tracking that can help people who can move only their pupils to pick exactly what they want to watch on TV. But he said their meaningful role is simply helping others at the company realize how little it takes to help so many.
"It's not like we're doing rocket science over in this lab," he said. "We're here to connect all the dots."