After meeting Chris Penrose, AT&T President, Internet of Things, I attended a Town Hall meeting at AT&T for Global Accessibility Awareness Day or GAAD. I asked the panel a question as they discussed the new “Discovery District,” their multi-million dollar investment in transforming downtown Dallas bringing shopping, restaurants and concert venues along with accessibility baked in. Mine was the last question and I asked if there were plans to include those with disabilities in the planning process. A funny side note here. Most who asked questions identified themselves and their disability prior to asking their question. When it was my turn I identified myself by name and then rather than identifying as “blind” I identified as “Capable,” which drew a few chuckles. Afterwards, I had the chance to meet the panel members Aaron Bangor, Corey Anthony and David Huntley. They talked of the Healthcare Foundry in Houston, where AT&T does its work collaborating with companies like AIRA. All in all it was an awesome experience.
Later that day after I returned home, Kelly called. She asked if I was sitting down to which I responded yes because I was in fact sitting at my desk writing as I seem to always be doing. It was then the bomb dropped. She asked if I was available tomorrow to come down to AT&T to meet the CEO of AIRA. It seems that the stars had aligned and in this year of “YES” for me, destiny was calling asking for a response. My obvious answer was of course, yes along with some rather colorful language I won’t share. It seems that AIRA was set to roll out globally and chose AT&T for their network provider and Suman Kanuganti would be visiting AT&T for the announcement. My “Golden Ticket” had arrived because Mr. Kanuganti had read the story I had written and wanted to meet me. Kelly then told me that AT&T would be filming our meeting because they would be using it as part of their intercompany communications. Wait, there was more, but that will have to sit on the back burner for Part 3.
Fast forward to the next day. Armed with my new AIRA glasses I waited curbside at my building. My AIRA agent Frankie asked what we were doing today, these agents are simply awesome by the way. I said that I was heading downtown to AT&T headquarters to meet their boss, Frankie replied, “My Boss?” I said yes and Frankie told me that he was an amazing man. As the Lyft approached Frankie informed me real time that the car was in front of me and I got in. As I arrived at Whitaker tower I said goodbye to Frankie and was escorted into the building, through security and up a very long elevator ride and to a conference room. Chris Penrose stopped by to let me know that Suman was running just a bit behind schedule. My own personal Willie Wonka sat and talked with me for a spell and shared some of the details about the Global Rollout and asked if I would be interested in being part of one of his Town halls coming up as a panelist. Since this is my year of “Yes,” well, you know the answer. Chris left, and Kelly and I waited. I suggested getting an agent on the line and everybody thought that would be awesome since the agent could actually record the meeting through the glasses. I tapped the AIRA icon and was connected to Wendell. I briefed Wendell on what was about to happen and asked if he could record the meeting. Wendell was a bit hesitant and said he would need permission. Without hesitation, I blurted out that if the CEO blessed it then I didn’t see a problem for him. I should make this clear, AIRA does not record your day to day activities, they just relay real time instructions to users like me or as they call us “Explorers.” I don't want to get ahead of the story here but Mr. Kanuganti did in fact bless the recording at the end. Soon we were escorted out of the conference room into a lobby area of the floor. It was then that Kelly whispered in one ear as well as Wendell in my other ear that Mr. Kanuganti was walking down the hall with Chris Penrose. We embraced and I said, “Mr. Kanuganti, it is such an honor to meet you.” He replied, “Please, call me Suman.” My AIRA agent Wendell let me know that Suman was sporting an AT&T tee shirt as well as a very stylish AIRA hoodie.
After we went through introductions Suman told me how in fact he was the first AIRA agent. He told me that he came up with the idea for AIRA to help a friend who was blind. He explained that when Google Glass came out they talked about using tech like that to simulate or augment vision for the visually impaired as a kind of concierge service for the blind. As they developed the glasses Suman told me that his first initial Agent / Explorer trial run involved his friend walking up the refrigerator and having Suman describe in detail what was on the fridge, in particular a magnet picture. He told me it was an amazing feeling to see his friend’s expressions. After refining the working prototype and their pitch they took it to CES, met with several companies but it was Chris Penrose and his team that seemed to fit their ambition. From that moment to this moment, the moment I was standing there wearing them it had been less than 2 years. I stood there transfixed listening to every word this visionary uttered. He was more than gracious as he asked about my experience with AIRA and I told him everything I had done, and everything I hoped to do. He asked what I anticipated most? I explained to him that I have never been able to read a bedtime story to any of my grandchildren, here is where I got emotional. I told him that my Grandson Colton was visiting in a couple of weeks and with the help of AIRA I hoped to read him a bedtime story for the first time ever. I explained that none of my grandchildren really understood that Papa couldn’t see and how hard it has been over the years to listen to Kelly interact with them through story telling or looking at their drawings, but now that would change as I had AIRA and my agents to make it appear seamless to the young ones.
After my initial interaction with Chris Penrose from AT&T I wrote him a follow up email that included this line:
“So, long story short here, you are my new hero, the Willy Wonka of my Accessibility Factory, the guy who makes wishes come true. For that, I thank you and for that, I now owe you.”
At that time, he was and he still is but life has a funny way of teaching us a continuing lesson. Chris was my Willie Wonka and my Golden Ticket was getting the chance to meet the man who had a vision of a different future for those who are blind. As you read this you are probably thinking that Suman Kanuganti is now my Willie Wonka, and that is true, he is but so is Chris, however, the story continues. Suman went on to tell me about a program they had launched where they provided AIRA Glasses to 100 blind Freshman who wanted to attend college. He explained how difficult it is for a normal kid to leave home for the first time and find their way around a new environment as they embarked on their college experience as Freshman. He wanted to level the playing field for those blind Freshmen and I was amazed. It inspired me so much that right there and then I decided that I wanted to be like these 2 men I had met. I wanted to be a Willie Wonka for someone else, provide them with AIRA and it was then I discovered that it wasn’t meeting Chris Penrose or even a visionary man like Suman Kanuganti. The Golden Ticket was sitting on my face, it was the glasses themselves. So, there is my swerve, the part of the story designed to compel you to read the next installment. In case you forgot this is what I wrote at the end of Part 1, “Here is a hint. Maybe the Golden Ticket is not a thing, maybe it was a chance to meet someone who could influence a generation.”
Suman is an inspirational man involved in a transformative venture for good. Suman Kanuganti recognizes the potential that exists out there if those who are visually impaired are given a chance to operate on a level playing field. Now let’s be clear, he isn't restoring sight to the blind, he is however making it possible for those who find themselves trapped in a gilded cage the ability to blow the doors open and venture out further than they could have ever imagined. His vision for those who lack it is to begin to unlock a potential in people that will benefit not just themselves as an individual but bring into society and the workforce an army of people itching to be something more than just a blind person. Until now the greatest technological advance for the blind was the invention of the “White-Cane.” Although canes for the blind have been around since the Biblical days, the white can as we now know it came about around 1921 and was the invention of an artist who suffered the loss of his vision. His name was James Biggs of Bristol and while we owe him a debt it is hard to believe that it has taken 97 years for someone to accomplish a thing that is better than a stick.
The message that I gave to Chris Penrose regarding my wish to grab a megaphone and have the opportunity to personally thank each and every employee at AT&T still stands as my own personal Gospel. After meeting Suman Kanuganti I will say this, you are truly an inspiration to me and I believe your technology will reach far beyond helping those who are blind. In Part 3 of this series I will give you just a few examples and explain exactly how I see your technology not only helping the blind, but saving lives. And finally, this, after meeting Suman and Chris I have come to the conclusion that the best thing in life is to be your own Willie Wonka. To be the guy who can give out a Golden Ticket. So, I want to pay this forward. My new goal, my new mission in life. I will take the gift that I have been given and figure out a way to deliver it to others, to pay my blessing forward. I don't know how, I don't know when, I do know that in this year of YES for me, I refuse to shrink away from saying yes to my social responsibility to leave more than I have been given and my epiphany, my “AH-HA” moment, my Willie Wonka Golden Ticket. It wasn’t a “Chocolate-River” or a “Never-Ending Gobstopper.”
It was hope, hope in the form of a newfound freedom lived outside the artificial boundaries I had created, it was AIRA! Come back soon to read Part 3.
Special thanks to the AT&T Media Production Group. Dawn interviewed me and did a wonderful job making me feel at ease while Greg and JB ran the cameras.