Q&A: Talking Assistive Technology with Dr Nasser Siabi, OBE
Keith chats about assistive technology with Dr Nasser Siabi, OBE. Nasser is the CEO of Microlink PC, which aims to provide disability management and assistive tech to the workplace. He was awarded an OBE in 2011 for his contribution to helping over 300,000 disabled people transition from education into work. He is also a founding member of the British Assistive Technology Association (BATA) and part of the DWP Disability Employer Engagement steering group. The Q&A below is a summary of a podcast between Keith and Nasser, recorded in June 2023.
Keith Valentine and Dr Nasser Siabi talk about assistive technology, inherited eye conditions and more
Key breakthroughs in assistive technology
Keith Valentine, CEO of Fight for Sight / Vision Foundation: I wonder if you could reflect on some of the key breakthroughs you think have happened with assistive tech and how that's impacted the ability of disabled people to integrate into the workforce.
Dr Nasser Siabi OBE: A lot of good, mainstream technologies were driven by accessibility and assistive technology needs. Texting, screen readers [and] today, whether your fridge talks to you or whether you're sending in a text message on your mobile phone, they all came out of trying to address the needs of the blind people 40 years ago or 30 years ago.
With Alexa, you're doing your shopping by voice command, which came about again as kind of a disability need for people who couldn't interact with computers. Now voice command is built into every device, every product. Before, technology had a disability price tag on it. Thankfully, we've done away with a lot of those [price premiums].
A driver for innovation
Keith Valentine: It feels like the requirements of disabled people and the way that businesses are responding to that has been a driver of innovation. Is that right?
NS: Absolutely. When you try to deal with the fringe because [the] law said you had to, or society forced you, then you realise using those techniques, or those technologies to help those on the fringe benefits others. For example, Dragon Naturally Speaking is very popular among disabled people.
But law firms use voice recognition to do their report writing because it cuts out the need for a PA to convert the voice into text.
“You make life accessible to the most needy, you'll find everyone in society benefits”
You make life accessible to the most needy, you'll find everyone in the society benefits. Lift the bottom 20%, the top 80% will go up. You can always lift the 80% and leave the 20% behind. And that's what I always say to people, the 80 / 20 always reverses.
You have 80% of students in the classroom who are capable and don't need anything done differently. The 20% don't engage the same way, and they're left behind. Later in life, that 20% becomes 80% of the problem that society doesn't know how to fix. So, pick them up, the 20%, lift them up, give them access, equal access, and then you find the other 80% start performing even better.
And that's what I think assistive technology has influenced. Niche products have made their way into the mainstream, and they are making working life so much better for everyone.
Different needs for assistive technology
Keith Valentine: People with even the same eye condition and the same level of sight can have differential needs for assistive technology.
So, there will always be a need for certain elements of tailoring.
Nasser Siabi: Absolutely. We are not going to do away with bespoking certain technologies for people because we are a population ageing. We have one in four, one in five people living with a condition that impacts the day-to-day. And for that, we need to do things slightly differently.
But what I'll come back to here is to recognize the worth of human beings.
We have to nurture and to treasure and to benefit and harness the talents we've got. As a business, if I've employed people who are working at 70 to 80% of their capacity, as a selfish businessman, I want to make them to perform at 100%.
Change is so small, and it's so transformational, and it's so cheap. Why not? It's an attitude change.
Disability used to be a scary subject. Everybody assumed it can't be that good. If he's blind, how is he going to do a job? Talk to David Blanket. He will tell you how to do a job. He's got such a memory, like an elephant. Honestly, he’ll never forget, and he's so articulate, and he's so off the mark. Everything he's done is like superhuman qualities that nobody else can get because they've never had to.
That's exactly what happened to me in my early life. I had loss in one eye and severe loss in the other. And I compensated for it by improving my memory because I had to memorize everything. Later in life, I restored my eyesight, but that memory stayed with me. I've got a very good recollection of every meeting, every conversation, every incident, every kind of situation I've been in for the past 30 years.
A family history of Keratoconus
Keith Valentine: You mentioned earlier on that you've got a very personal journey in your family. I think there's Keratoconus in your family. I wonder if you'd be open to sharing a bit about your relationship with sight loss.
Nasser Siabi: There was research done in Moorfields Eye Hospital about the causes of Keratoconus, and they discovered four out of five brothers were affected by it. So, can we use you guys as a case study? Quite obviously, there are hundreds and thousands of other patients, but they particularly wanted to understand why the four of us had it and yet my parents neither of them had any eye conditions.
So, I'm glad to say that it wasn't just because of us, but they've discovered the gene that causes it.
Impact of sight loss
Nasser Siabi: It wasn’t until the age of 15 that my father noticed something was not right about me and took me to a specialist. He said, Oh my God, your son is almost blind in one eye. Haven't you noticed that? That's when he said you need to get it fixed. So my father sent me packing to Europe to have an operation, and luckily, I came to the UK with my younger brother It was at a time when the political scene in Iran was a bit interesting. So, my father said you guys go there. And apart from the disability of my eyesight, I also had a disability with language.
I had a decision, a dilemma. Learn a subject that I was good at, which is all memorizing things, in a language that was alien to me. Or go back to basics and learn the sciences, which was easier to learn because it's all about numbers and making sense. Because the classroom was small and the teacher was good, immediately I realized it wasn't my intelligence at all.
Here I regained my confidence. I compared myself with my peers who were really struggling with the science subject. So all the way to my doctorate, which was in solid state physics and electronics and computer science, it really proved to me that anyone can succeed with the right motivation, with the right support, and with the right tools. And that's how I want to turn my life to sort of make sure nobody is disadvantaged, not in school, not in the workplace, not even in retirement. I can do that with technology. And that's, that's how I've found my purpose in life.
The disadvantage I faced in the classroom it's happening even today. For somebody who is dyslexic, for somebody who's got autism, for somebody who has hearing loss, somebody who's got vision loss, in the 21st century, easily fixable, very, very easy to fix, but we're not doing it. Why? That's a whole life wasted.
Save sight and change lives
Keith Valentine: One of the things that has come up in conversations is how those of us that have got sight conditions want to be treated and for it to stop and be not just wanting, but I think hopefully demanding equity in the way we live our lives can contribute to our societies and economies. I wondered, wanting something to stop, wanting to be treated, and also living with it, to be your best person with the hand that you're dealt.
Do you see any contradiction between those two things?
Nasser Siabi: What alternative is there? What's the choice? You have to live with it. I learned early what I have lost, I've gained elsewhere. Now, I mentioned I used to be so good at memorizing things to the position that when I did my A levels, I wrote letter by letter of what I'd written in the books when I even came to answering questions because I remembered it. I could memorize it. When I went, joined the company to work, I was their purchasing manager. I cannot exaggerate, but I would say I know 200, 300 telephone numbers by heart.
“I learned early, what I have lost I have gained elsewhere”
So, if you can combine what you gain out of losing your sight and technologies can even help you boost that then I think you become superpowered rather than actually disadvantaged. I had a corneal graft in 1982. It's very early days when they were doing it, and it's served me well, but with a combination of that and new technology on how contact lenses It's restored my eyesight to 80%, which is brilliant.
I have always maintained all we need in life is a small support, a small understanding and a small provision for us to be able to be our best version. Hence this whole technology, to me, is that enabler. We are not perfect, nobody's perfect.
What will the technology of the future deliver?
Keith Valentine: I haven't been able to drive for 30 years because of my eye condition, and the prospect of an autonomous vehicle that would take me up to some distant corner of the lakes and allow me to enjoy the countryside is too good to be true, and I hope it will come one day. What do you think the big breakthroughs are that are likely to come in in technology in the coming years?
Nasser Siabi: Technologies such as AI are really very exciting. I know it’s a scary subject for a lot of people, but, like anything else, the good that it brings is, is substantial too. The autonomous car is one example. Yeah, okay, I could take an Uber, but if I wanted more independence, I had my own car, and it was driving everywhere, it was safe. The next thing is, okay, I've gone to the Lake District. How do I enjoy it if I can't see it?
Well, that's where you've got the power of audio description. You've got the water, blue sky... It can describe it to you. You have the same because, you know, blind people have a damn good imagination. If you look at the TV programmes, they're building captions into their accessibility. It is for people who are hard of hearing. It's also good for people who are autistic.
I also know there's a lot of development like, you know, Elon Musk is implanting a chip in your brain to do all sorts of superhuman things. They are science fiction. It might be true, mind control might be also true, but ultimately we don't need that. I think simple things to restore your communication is the best thing because human beings are social creatures, and they want to communicate, they want to be together. If you use technology to bring people closer, you've done your bit. It might be beneficial, but I can't see how I would benefit from that chip in my head.
Some final words of wisdom from Dr Nasser Siabi
Keith Valentine: As we close, are there some words of wisdom you might want to pass on to those listeners who either are now or will become dependent on assistive technology
Nasser Siabi: Be kind is the number one. Enable people, and give them the right tools, support, and training to be able to live an independent life as long as they can. So, if you have parents, make sure they learn how to survive using technology. If you have children, make sure they use it wisely. If you have employees, make sure they have access to the right tools.
And if you are the decision-makers, policymakers. Say, okay, what is it that we're missing here in our classrooms, in our workplaces? How do we support more employers to get more disabled people into work because the technology is there to support them at work? Nothing new needs to be invented. Just start applying it correctly.
Keith Valentine: Dr Nasser Siabi, thank you so much for your time today.
Nasser Siabi: Thank you very much, Keith, and it's been a pleasure.