Episode 11: The InclusionHub Podcast Founding Partner Spotlight — Fable

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Episode 11: The InclusionHub Podcast Founding Partner Spotlight — Fable

In this inaugural episode of our Founding Partner Series, Morey Creative’s Jeffrey Howard discusses accessibility, allyship, and much more, with Fable’s Alwar Pillai and Abid Virani.

Jeffrey Howard 00:01 | Hello, everyone. I'm Jeffrey Howard from HubSpot diamond partner agency Morey Creative Studios, and I want to welcome you to The InclusionHub Podcast bonus episodes. In these episodes, I'm interviewing some of the founders and various team members behind InclusionHub's Founding Partners. To kick off this four-part miniseries, I had the chance to connect with the incredible people at Fable, which is a leading accessibility testing platform powered by people with disabilities. 

Jeffrey Howard 00:31 | You may recognize that name, it is also the home of InclusionHub Podcast host Sam Proulx, where he works as an Accessibility Evangelist. As you might have already heard in Episode 10, I had the chance to interview Sam about his more personal perspectives on advocating for accessibility and greater inclusion. At the end of our conversation, he metaphorically handed over the mic to me to further share some of the insights and inspiring stories from our founders. 

Jeffrey Howard 01:04 | In this first episode, I had the pleasure of interviewing Fable's CEO Alwar Pillai, as well as Fable COO Abid Virani. And we talked about a lot of interesting stuff. The founding of the company. We talked about why digital inclusion and accessibility are so important to each of them personally. We talked about the challenges of allyship, and it's a constant learning process for all of us. And we talked about so much more. But first, before we dive into this episode, I have one small request for you. Make sure you subscribe to The InclusionHub Podcast, I would hate for you to miss out on any of the upcoming episodes with our Founders. And if you're new to the show, go ahead, check out the entire catalog from Season 1. We had some amazing, courageous, and passionate guests throughout the entire season. Now without any further ado, here's my conversation with Abid and Alwar. Enjoy. 

Jeffrey Howard 02:00 | Abid, Alwar, welcome to The InclusionHub Podcast.

Alwar Pillai 02:03 | Thank you so much for having us.

Jeffrey Howard 02:07 | I would love to start out hearing the story of how you two met and what led up to the founding of Fable. And what people or events inspired you to dedicate so much of your life to digital inclusion?

Alwar Pillai 02:19 | Abid and I met each other in 2015 when we were doing our Master's of Inclusive Design at OCAD University in Toronto, and we both came to the program with different backgrounds. You know, my background was in UX design, I'd been a UX designer, I'd studied UX before. And I was just really curious to take it further ahead. So I just moved from India to Toronto for this program. And everything that I was learning was completely new to me, even though I was a designer before. And for you. Your background in international development. 

Abid Virani 03:03 | It was a totally different kind of approach of I was intrigued by this premise of inclusive design, the way to solve a problem is ultimately by engaging people who experience the problem, which in the world of international development is not often practiced. So I was coming in with a strong idea of how I wanted to take that philosophy and bring it into the other work I'd done, and the other academic experience I had. But that first two weeks of school, really was defining in the bigger picture of what's inspired us to get all the way here because our professor Jutta [Treviranus], who was on the show previously, was running this two-week intensive, and it was eight hours a day for two weeks to get to know your classmates. But also, the premise of the course was 'unlearning.' And it was a deep dive into how we look at things, the biases we hold, and doing so amongst an incredibly diverse cohort of individuals who all had different backgrounds and experiences. And those two weeks, were kind of the beginning of the one-two, 99th and 100th punch process that is understanding inclusive design actually works.

Alwar Pillai 04:24 | Yeah, I think the first two weeks just, you know, opened up your mind, it was just everything you looked at, you looked at it from a different lens. And as we were going through this program, we both got to, you know, work together on a bunch of different projects. And one of the projects we worked on was redesigning a remote control for the television. We redesigned it based on the experience that Abid's grandma, who was 90 years old at that time, and we were trying to observe, you know, how does she use the remote? You know, is she able to use it by herself? And what should it be to make that experience better for her? It was really strange to see someone who, you know, watches TV a lot relied on people around her to just use a remote control that anyone who is, you know, at a much younger age who is completely able-bodied, will not think twice about it, just pick up the remote and do whatever they wanted. And I remember we redesigned a much simpler remote and put it in front of her.

Abid Virani 05:26 | Yeah, and we really pinpointed on a specific feature. And what we realized was that this, you know, spirited, 90-something-year-old woman who is enjoying her soap operas, was actually watching stuff sometimes because she didn't know how to turn the TV off. It was my introduction to the world of user experience and understanding UX from a cognitive load perspective. And realizing that, hey, this one button on the remote does two different things. And it does two opposite things, it turns on the TV, and it turns off the TV, and she was interpreting it as that's the button to turn on the TV, and I don't know how to turn off the TV. And so we used an acrylic sheet and filled it with putty and designed a remote control that was a completely different size. But the most distinctive element of it was that it had an 'On' button and it had an 'Off' button, and then we put it in front of her and kind of used the remote behind her back to kind of imitate what she was doing on our prototype on the TV. And when asked to turn off, she did it instinctively. And it was really satisfying. And it was a very exciting introduction to the world for me of what it meant to work with users, let alone to work with a user you love and care for, and to realize you can solve real problems that people face when you ask them about the problem and get them involved in the solution.

Jeffrey Howard 06:58 | I love how your background in international development has this nice analog to the work you're doing—we'll get into this about allyship, how so many solutions come from outside of a community, rather than coming from within. And that often absolutely happens in international development as well. Greater inclusion, accessibility is an incredibly personal matter for people, how they come around to it. I'd love to hear sort of your personal journeys about becoming allies for the disability community, and what is the role that you envision for allies in accessibility and inclusion?

Abid Virani 07:36 | You know, I think one of the more consequential moments I had in becoming an ally was broadening my understanding of accessibility or disability or inclusion. And I think this idea that certain things that we think are binary really aren't was a hard one for me to learn, and I think it played a huge role in being a better partner to folks who are trying to just live their lives fully. When I let go of that idea that this is a binary distinction and started to just reflect on, 'Hey, what is my body? How is it unique? How's it different from other people?' And I've lived with chronic pain for about 10 years, prompted from surgery on my lower back, and that was caused by a car accident. And that affects my day-to-day life and understanding [of] how that affects my life, and in what situations do I become disabled as well? Or in what way was my rehab a disability? And just relearning this idea of what the word 'disability' means is probably one of the most important things that I think folks have to go through to really be an ally. If there's allyship with an undertone of this binary distinction of people who are and people aren't, I worry that that can be allyship that only goes halfway.

Alwar Pillai 09:07 | Yeah, I completely agree with that. I think for me, even when I was taught design, just our concept of averaging users and putting people in buckets and trying to find as much commonality as possible. And that's always been, you know, our approach, but I think, you know, celebrating difference and recognizing that different is actually special is important. So my journey with that was with I have been living with a skin condition called vitiligo, which you know, results in, you know, white patches all across my skin. And for the longest time in my life, I hated the fact that I looked different, that I didn't look like others and trying to get rid of my vitiligo, and I would say in the last five years has been my journey of, you know, celebrating my own difference and in my own uniqueness. And I kind of take that approach—when we think about design and inclusion, we need to come to a point of like celebrating difference, because that's how we can create as much of an equitable world for everyone to participate. If we just focus on commonality, someone is going to be ignored at some point of time.

Jeffrey Howard 10:26 | I love the the push-back of the binary, how roughly 15% of the global population lives with a disability and pushing back against the binary also breaks down this other rising of people who are disabled, and not, and that's beautiful. I want to speak a little bit more on allyship. We have so many listeners who don't live with disabilities but want to help or unsure. What advice do you have?

Abid Virani 10:54 | Yeah, I recently I've gotten to learn a lot by engaging with and learning about Judy Heumann's experiences and her advocacy. One of the things that's really stuck is about how we talk to young people and teach them about disability. And I think that's something that everyone can do is—is be aware of the sentiments that are being communicated to the generation coming up. And I think, whether that means, you know, you got nieces and nephews, whether you have kids, whether you're a mentor to someone younger, professionally, you know, we all engage with folks in different generations. And I think putting some emphasis and focus on folks who are younger, and being very cognizant of how we are using language and reacting to folks with disabilities. And I think a really good example of that is the over reaction side of things and getting that in check. When we see someone disabled sail a boat, we shouldn't be so freaking impressed. And letting go of this, like inspiration porn-inspired attitude towards people with disabilities getting things done. I think that is something we should all just pay attention to, especially in and around younger people.

Jeffrey Howard 12:26 | So we talked a little bit on the personal level, and I appreciate those. I want to look a little bit more organizationally, there are a lot of organizations who are waking up to accessibility, digital inclusion, realizing, wow, we are way behind, and it can feel daunting to make that transition. What are two or three things you think an organization can do to immediately become more digitally inclusive?

Alwar Pillai 12:53 | Yeah, I think I think it's amazing that organizations are finally starting to even look at it from a perspective of digital inclusion. Right, it's not accessibility compliance. I think that's been a great transition to see in the industry, and that companies are finally starting to wake up to this. I think the best way for businesses to start making their investments is—is knowing where they're at. You need to know where you're at, so that you know what kind of investments you need to make to improve. And that starts with really identifying how accessible are your products for people with disabilities, how many people in your team know about accessibility who feel comfortable around the language of disability, you need to have the language to be able to talk about it. And then you need to have the skills to be able to act on it. And it all starts with where you're at right now. And looking into making that investment and verifying that.

Abid Virani 13:56 | I'm thinking that, you know, from a organizational perspective, it's so hard sometimes to look inwards as an organization. I just think that if folks are having a hard time doing that, there's nothing wrong asking for help. There are amazing consultants and contractors and companies out there who will help you take a look. Sometimes a outside perspective can really be informative. 

Jeffrey Howard 14:09 | Alwar, I want to throw a particular question to you. Admittedly, I've listened to several interviews with you. I'm not an expert, but you've many times referred to digital inclusion as a technical problem. What do you mean by that?

Alwar Pillai 14:46 | We live in a digital world. Every company that exists, leverages technology in some way, you know, whether that's internal, or whether that's external—them supporting their customers, consumers, whatever kind of company you are, in this day and age, it is living online. And that means, the way we build our digital products is what's coming in between to make sure that ,you know, the experiences we're creating are accessible. And that's why I say it's a technical problem. It's the way our websites works, it's the way our applications work, it's the way our devices work, we actually have so much more ability to make our digital world accessible than our physical world. It will take a lot more time and make a building accessible, to make an elevator accessible, to make a washroom accessible, but for you to make a signup form accessible, to make, you know, transferring money accessible, it's far more easier. And that's why inclusion is a technical problem.

Abid Virani 15:50 | Just to build on that a little bit to, when you think in the workplace, you know, like we're seeing these statistics about how many companies are starting to make these commitments to, you know, a percentage of their workforce being folks who have disabilities. But then you see the hiring strategies include, like, this wild number of expectation of turnover. And for people with disabilities to be successful at work, it becomes so much more poignant as to how the tools that a company chooses to use internally can dictate whether or not someone has the ability to succeed in their job, to compete in their job and to grow as a professional. I think it should be really freeing and exciting, because inclusion broadly, is not a technical problem. And it takes so much systemic change to tackle some of the bigger, broader issues in the space of inclusion, including for people with disabilities. But when it comes to the digital element of that, it's actually really exciting that it's a technical problem, because it's measurable. And we have a booming population, who knows how to deal with technical problems, and who are building things left, right, and center. I think digital inclusion being a technical problem is also a call to action on something that, you know, we as individuals are capable of contributing to in our work as engineers, as designers, as product managers. And that can really set the stage for the digital world being a step above what it was in terms of making the physical world inclusive.

Jeffrey Howard 17:26 | I love how the language of technical or technologies, so central here because it's easy in older framings to divide as a binary, as you said, between disabled and non disabled, whereas when you focus on technology, it's a matter of what is the tech I need to provide someone to be able to have access to whatever they need, and it breaks down that binary and lot of those barriers, so that's beautiful. I have a personal question for you, Abid. You have a really fascinating backstory. I would love to know, how does your past work as an aspiring filmmaker and designer inform the work you're doing now. I really just like the imagery of viewing the world through an imaginative lens to learn and create something beautiful.

Abid Virani 18:12 | I really appreciate that question. Because I think unstructured paths to entrepreneurship are critical. And filmmaking feels really tied to the world of both business and to the world of inclusive design. You know, one way to think about that, though, is, you know, inclusive design is really about focusing on the individual, it's focusing on folks who might be at the edges, are often referred to as outliers. Film and putting a spotlight on individuals, is to actually become more aware on kind of the micro, and to understand at the individual level and experience and a character and a personality, and everything that makes them that, so the unique environment and the unique timing or circumstance. And so I feel like film really allowed me to just learn about people and go deep into the fact that like, no two people are alike, and inclusive design, from a practitioners perspective, you need that embedded into your mental model. What's helped those is kind of balancing that with this kind of macro perspective on economics and understanding that there are systemic things that need to evolve and change. But I think the balance is really helpful. And I'm extremely grateful for the fact that film continues to be this way of getting to know individuals deeply while we try to affect change for the masses.

Jeffrey Howard 19:50 | I want to go back to another point you both mentioned at the beginning, it was about unlearning, as you're discussing some of your schooling and learning about UX. Many people may not be familiar with this concept of unlearning. I was wondering if you could walk us through that a little bit earlier in your process.

Abid Virani 20:09 | It's amazing how much we pick up as we're growing up, or as we get exposed in high school and university and—

Alwar Pillai 20:17 | It's the amount of things we're conditioned to, right? Our educational system, our grading system, to the way we look at the world, it's just like every year goes by, we just are more and more conditioned. And unlearning is a process of questioning everything that you were taught, everything that you believed in, and trying to looking at it from a different lens. And we try to—and we have to try to do this all the time as well, you know, it's something that we practice. And when we have new employees who come into our team, you know, we really give them that space to unlearn. It's like, you know, what does a team look like? Who gets to be part of a team? What is disability? How do you view disability? What do you think? Who is the user? What are the characteristics of the user? It's just every part that you see, you'd have to just question it a little differently. And for a lot of people, it takes you aback, it takes you aback because you started looking at everything around you differently. 

Abid Virani 21:19 | Yeah, you know, and what I would say is that it's not a thing that happens, like it's not like a moment in time where, 'Oh, I think differently.' It's not like that. I think Alwar mentioned, you know, over the last five years with your vitiligo, your perspective changing, you know, that is a lot of conditioning and upbringing and culture, and everything pieced into why you might feel a way about a thing. And it can take years to go through a process of looking at something that you once perceived as negative and to look at it as positive, like that is a huge transformation to go through. But for that transformation to happen, you actually have to start by trying to let go of the first half, not just change it into the second half, you want to approach the second half through a different kind of process. But the starting point is how do you deconstruct something that maybe has been deeply built into you? And I think one thing that a lot of folks face is the fact that they perceive disability to be this negative thing. And they say, 'Oh, that poor person with the wheelchair' or whatever. [Crosstalk] And I think when you hear folks talk about things like 'differently-able,'—that just screams the need for unlearning, like that desire to think even that disabled is this negative word, that we shouldn't call people disabled is also a thing that comes to mind. So I think choosing who we learn from is a part of that process. And I think broadly, exposure is a big part of that process. And I think we continue to be on a really exciting journey of unlearning things that we didn't realize were part of our way of looking at the world and influenced by our communities, and our TV, and everything else.

Jeffrey Howard 21:27 | I appreciate how you highlight the importance of language here, big fan of language myself. I think language is a profound starting point for change. Because as we focus on changing the language we use, that then becomes other concrete actions and the way we orient in the world, as you talked about those very gradual, subtle ways that we build new habits of interacting with other people.

Abid Virani 23:38 | I want to ask you something, which is do you find that your language is also evolving, even through the experience of having all of these conversations and delving deep into it?

Jeffrey Howard 23:50 | Oh, absolutely. As a writer and interviewing people from different backgrounds, I'm always learning ways of how I can better word things. And people have different preferences for language you use, especially within different subgroups within different communities within the disabilities community. And so I'm just always trying to be attuned and learning and realizing, 'Oh, I need to change that' or 'Oh, I I misspoke here.' And it's just always learning and it's just always change—trying to be open to gentle correction, and just new insights of knowledge gaps that I've had. So it's just a continual process that you talked about.  You don't wake up one day, 'Oh, I unlearned X'—you gradually shift away from it to something new. 

Jeffrey Howard 24:34 | I want to give you both a chance to do a couple of victory laps here. As cofounders of Fable, you've accomplished some really incredible things. Are there any specific projects in particular you're most proud of?

Alwar Pillai 24:49 | I think I would start at a higher level. Like, yeah, it's been such an amazing journey with everything, you know, that we've done with Fable and the kinds of organizations we're getting to support and the impact we're having. But you know, one of the things when we started the business as well was really leaving in the voices of people with disabilities throughout all processes. And for us, that's when I think building our community and being able to provide flexible working opportunities to people with disabilities, and our community of testers being able to influence the biggest corporations in the world and how they build, you know, accessible products. That's super exciting. So the project that I would say, that, you know, stands out for me, it's something we've worked on recently, Fable Pathways, and I'll let Abid speak to it more because that's something he's been leading, but truly, truly love everything we're doing there.

Abid Virani 25:49 | You know, this has also been a bit of a hack and a cheat of being able to pull in this passion for film into the business and give a platform for people with disabilities to share the knowledge that they have. So yeah, absolutely Pathways is, as a whole, this free skill development program, video-based, Masterclass-styled, Masterclass-inspired online courses for people with disabilities, taught by people with disabilities, with the focus of improving and advancing people with disabilities into the technology sector for work. And so the part of this that's fun is a creative part. It's an elevation of certain voices part. But it's also the learning piece of it, we ourselves are getting to learn from folks who have problem solved, and who have navigated nuance and complexity in ways that are incredibly difficult. And I think as a whole, it's the beginning of something, and it kind of feels weird to put it that way, because it is a full on project, but it actually kind of feels like we're about to scratch the surface of something that's gonna go much, much deeper. I think that's probably why we're so excited about it right now and feel proud about it right now. We've been really lucky though. We've worked on cool projects, man, like from helping make 911 services accessible to folks who are d/Deaf-blind to elections on multiple angles, from registering to vote, to being able to watch the live election results, even just making cool features and some of the products we love, more accessible, like, we get to touch a lot of really exciting things and power to our community, because it's them who are driving forward these projects.

Jeffrey Howard 27:39 | I'd be remiss if I didn't mention Sam Proulx. Not only is he the host of The InclusionHub Podcast, he's also Fable's Accessibility Evangelist. And I want to ask this question in the context of allyship—what has it been like working with Sam?

Alwar Pillai 27:55 | It's been like—I can't say anything but amazing. You know, Sam has been part of the journey from Day One. He was there when Abid and I literally had a barely-working prototype. He was our first tester, to then building our first set of community members and becoming our community manager, scaling that to now being, you know, the voice of Fable and being our Accessibility Evangelist and representing Fable in all different communities and spaces. Sam has taught Abid and I, and continues to teach Abid and I, a lot around accessibility, but also just even more around how do we scale our organization? How do we build an inclusive team? How do we be the example, you know, that companies can look at when it comes to practicing inclusion as well. And so we have a lot of healthy debates. And it's always something that you kind of leave feeling wanting to chat more with him.

Abid Virani 28:59 | It's an amazing effect to have as an individual, not just on one company, but what I think is starting to become more and more the industry, I think. I think Sam's willingness to politely disagree and to assert his opinion as an incredibly knowledgeable individual, who is always well-researched and well-studied. And he brings this air of like, hey, debate is okay, let's have a conversation. We don't have to agree with each other, but I can still say my opinion and do it with conviction. And that's one thing with Sam, is he carries himself with a lot of conviction, and the best part of that is that he's willing to say 'I'm right,' and he's willing to 'I'm wrong.' And I think he's a really great example for us, but for the whole industry, like we need more conversation, we need more debate. We need more disagreement with respect, if we're going to really progress forward and make the digital world inclusive. I think Sam is spearing ahead really well.

Jeffrey Howard 30:04 | Fable is a Founding Partner of InclusionHub alongside with Salesforce, Be My Eyes and Morey Creative Studios. How would you describe the importance of collaborating on initiatives like this to help improve accessibility and inclusion?

Abid Virani 30:19 | It's a shared mission. You know, I think this is one of these exciting spaces where a lot of people in a lot of different ways are working towards the same goal. We should be doing that collaboratively. And it's critical that we don't hold up into these silos of how we're approaching a problem, trying to come up with the the ideal solution, and it's just not going to get there if we're not doing this with each other. And I think what we all realize in that endeavor, is the fact that we need more people doing it. We need more people interested and excited about this problem, which is that our digital world is not equitable. I think that coming together and partnering on initiatives, with for profits, nonprofits, government organizations, individuals, is critical. I think compilation of stakeholders is ultimately what's going to help, as an industry, as have a mark, and have an impact, and get closer to this goal that we have.

Jeffrey Howard 31:26 | Final question for each of you. Your several years in accessibility, digital inclusion. You've encountered plenty of naysayers, skeptics, people you still need to persuade about the importance of these things. Both from a moral and economic perspective, how would you sum up why accessibility and digital inclusion matters so much?

Alwar Pillai 31:52 | Yeah, we have to constantly keep explaining the importance of this. And we have to remind ourselves that, you know, some people are just getting exposed to this and learning about it. I think the most relatable way is something we've already touched upon as not thinking about this as binary. I think that's been the easiest way for people to understand, you know, why you should invest in digital inclusion, that, you know, disability can be temporary, permanent, situational, each one of us can experience disability, and that all of us today, benefit from technology that was designed for people with disabilities. And understanding that it's contributing to broader usability. I feel we need to shift away from that feel good—do this because it feels good. No, do this because it makes sense. And I think people are slowly understanding that when you break it down in these different, relatable ways.

Abid Virani 32:55 | You know, it's really nice to say that I feel like we talk to skeptics less now than we did five years ago. [Alwar: That's true.] And I almost fell out of practice of having to really convince them. But I do think when it comes to folks who maybe aren't as convinced as others, I think the personalization is right. I think understanding, I think I saw a billboard the other day, just driving into the city, actually, in Toronto, there was a billboard that said 100% of people will experience disability in their life. And I couldn't read the organization that put it up there. But I was really excited that we're just making this more relatable. And I do think that goes hand-in-hand with removing this notion of this binary distinction. So yeah, I absolutely think that helping folks understand how they themselves experience disability, and how they're already leveraging things built for people with disabilities, is a great way to get through the skepticism and make it more relatable. So that's just doubling down on exactly what Alwar said. 

Jeffrey Howard 34:06 | Alwar, Abid, thank you so much for spending some of your time with me, with InclusionHub Podcast. I wish you all the success and further collaboration with Fable, and thank you so much. 

Jeffrey Howard 34:18 | As Sam would say, 'Wow.' I have to admit that I loved Abid calling out so-called inspiration porn, the types of news stories and videos that get shared on social media that really end up belittling people disabilities and lowering the expectations we have of one another. Admittedly, we have a lot of cultural unlearning to do, but I think we can do it. I also deeply appreciate the refrain from Alwar, digital inclusion is a technical problem. I sincerely believe that. It's really poor design that disables us. It's society that disables us. 

Jeffrey Howard 35:01 | Fortunately, we are not destined or fated to live in an inaccessible world, we can overcome this, and that's a choice we make every single day with every single thing we design. You can check out InclusionHub[dot]com for more stories about accessibility and inclusion and resources, and insights from people living with disabilities. Also, be sure to learn more about InclusionHub's Founding Partners, and all the great people who helped make this podcast possible. They include Salesforce customer relationship management software, Morey Creative Studios, where I work, a HubSpot diamond partner agency, Fable, who we just talked about, an accessibility testing platform and Be My Eyes, which is a free app connecting blind and low-vision people with sighted volunteers. Please, before you go, subscribe to the podcast. Rate and review us. Honestly, it does wonders to help advance the cause. And as my predecessor Sam always likes to say, a more accessible and inclusive world is a better world. 

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