IAP 2019-E6: Peter Slatin, founder of Slatin Group.

In this episode:

Mark interviews Peter Slatin, former Editorial Director of Real Capital Analytics and current head of Slatin Group. Peter explains how his blindness exposed to him to awkward interactions at best and disrespectful behavior at worst from strangers, and how these experiences led him to start his own business to stop these situations from happening to others. He and Mark discuss what Peter calls “social access,” which addresses the gaps left by traditional forms of accessibility (digital and physical), and how to engage with people with disabilities who may be in need of assistance.

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Links of Interest

Slatin Group Website

Peter Slatin’s most recent Forbes article



Mark Miller: Hey, welcome to the IAP, the Interactive Accessibility Podcast, brought to you by The Paciello Group and its affiliate, Interactive Accessibility. I'm your host, Mark Miller, thanking you for helping us keep it accessible. Hey, do us a favor, if you're enjoying the IAP, share it, tell someone about it, even link to it from your accessible website

Mark Miller: Hey everybody, thanks for listening. I want to bring on, right away, a very special guest with a very interesting job in the world of accessibility, and that is Peter Slatin. Peter, welcome to the IAP

Peter Slatin: Thank you. It's great to be here. I really appreciate this invitation

Mark Miller: Well, you're very welcome. We're happy that you accepted the invitation and that you're here talking to us

Mark Miller: Let's give the listeners just a little bit of background on who you are and, if you don't mind, kind of how you got into accessibility. And I'm excited to hear you talk about what you do because it's very different than the areas that we typically think of in accessibility

Mark Miller: We think about physical accessibility and, as of late, we think a lot about the accessibility of things like websites, which is what I'm involved in. It's what Interactive Accessibility and The Paciello Group do. But you think about accessibility in a very social way, so if you could give us a little background, I want to dive into that

Peter Slatin: Sure. Well, I'm blind, so I got into accessibility by needing it very much. And I spent most of my career as a journalist writing about architecture and commercial real estate and finance and all that kind of stuff. But I was always really pissed off, should I say, about how well or poorly I was treated at all kinds of places. Public accommodation, if you will

Peter Slatin: And I always wondered why people didn't know what to do with me or with my friends and colleagues who are also blind or deaf and hard of hearing or mobility-impaired or have intellectual disabilities, and that people are very awkward around them. So I just decided, at some point I said, "There's a way of educating people.

Peter Slatin: And I developed a training program. And because of my history in writing about real estate and various kinds of real estate, I approached hotel owners I knew and asked them if they were interested in this kind of product that would train the staffs in their hotels on service to people with disabilities

Peter Slatin: And as I began to do that, and as I found some hoteliers and hotel companies welcoming and others completely uninterested, I began to look at what I was doing and I'd say, "Well, what is it I'm doing?" Because people would say, "You're doing ADA training?" And I'd say, "No, this is not ADA training. This is..." and they said, "Etiquette training?" "No, I don't like that term. It's not etiquette." "Is it sensitivity?" "No, it's not really sensitivity.

Peter Slatin: And I began to think, okay, it's really about, as you've said, and this is... My phrase is social access. Because we have laws about physical access and we have regulations about web access and guidance and all those are taking... Physical access is the easiest for people to understand

Mark Miller: Right

Peter Slatin: ... for the world to grasp and professionals to hire to make buildings accessible. And I know it still is taking lots of time but... And there are different ways of different parts of the world approach it. The web has been harder and will remain challenging for a long time to come, even though great strides have been made. But even defining what access is and what makes something accessible has been challenging for everyone from businesses to the judicial system to higher ed, et cetera, et cetera

Mark Miller: Right

Peter Slatin: And of course we know that what's accessible is what we can access. If we can use it's accessible, and if we can't, it's not accessible, and we should be able to access it

Peter Slatin: But I thought what I was doing is social access because, to me, that's what you'd call it in technology and wiring, the last mile, the last inch. You can have a great building, a beautiful hotel with incredibly fast internet service on a beautifully accessible website. But if you're a blind person and you walk in the door and someone grabs your elbow and says, "Let me help you," and pulls you along to the front desk, you've just had a really crappy and possibly dangerous experience

Mark Miller: Right

Peter Slatin: If you're in a wheelchair and someone starts to push your wheelchair without your permission, they've invaded your personal space. So, those are just some real simple examples of the problems with social access

Mark Miller: Yeah. Those are great examples. And I'll tell you, this is really interesting to me and it's interesting to me for a couple reasons. One is because in the line of work I'm in, I'm very fortunate to be exposed to a lot of people with varying disabilities. Right

Peter Slatin: Right

Mark Miller: And I see what you are talking about all the time. There was this one instance where I was actually coming back from CSUN, which is the largest accessibility technology conference in the world, I believe, that was, at the time, out in San Diego

Mark Miller: And I was flying back to the East Coast and had a layover. And in one of these layovers I was, as you do, one of my priorities was heading towards the restroom after getting off one plane before I got on another plane

Peter Slatin: Yes

Mark Miller: And as I was doing that, as I was heading into the men's room, right before, there was a nice young lady leading a blind gentleman to the bathroom, which was all going very well until they hit the front of the bathroom. And then she just stopped. And I kind of... I'm sensitive to these things, right? Obviously. So I was kind of looking

Peter Slatin: Right

Mark Miller: And he's going, "Well, I need to go, why are we stopped? I need to... Are we in the bathroom? Where's the bathroom?" And she's stumbling, she's not even know what to say. And she finally sort of spits out like, "Well, I can't go in there." And I'm thinking to myself immediately, this woman was chosen by the airport to help out this individual

Peter Slatin: No, yeah. Sure

Mark Miller: ... and now they're very. And this may not be exactly what you're talking about to me, I'm like, but and now they're in a very [crosstalk 00:07:23]

Peter Slatin: No, it is because those basically she... No training. She had no real familiarity and she didn't know how to simply communicate, "We've arrived at the bathroom. The door is on your right, one foot on your right or-

Mark Miller: Yeah. You know, I think needed somebody to lead him in there, which is... I offered it. I said, "I'm heading in there.

Peter Slatin: [crosstalk 00:07:45

Mark Miller: And I have an advantage because I know, right

Peter Slatin: Yeah

Mark Miller: So I said, "I'm headed in there. Would you like me to... Would you like to go? [crosstalk 00:07:53] like me to take you [crosstalk 00:07:53]-

Peter Slatin: But you didn't grab him by his other elbow and say, "Oh, let me take you in there." You said, "Can I help you?

Mark Miller: No, I just... I offered. Would you like [crosstalk 00:08:00]. And he said yes. We went in and I said, "I'll wait for you." And then when he came out I asked... Whatever. You know that you know the drill. I don't need to [inaudible 00:08:09] that

Mark Miller: But that, to me, really is a moment in which I was feeling on this individual's behalf exactly what you're talking about. So, talk to me about how... If you had gone in and done that, been involved in that airport, how might that have been different? I know you started to but I interrupted you, but if

Peter Slatin: Well, what I would've done... And airports are, I mean, they're a huge cluster you know what

Mark Miller: Mm-hmm

Peter Slatin: ... of different touchpoints for people, for every consumer, every traveler, goes in, from the time you are dropped off by however you get there, bus, train, car, to baggage, curbside check-in to ticket agent to clerk in store with you if you're buying some chewing gum, and restaurant folks to gate attendants, who are multiple, to flight attendants. And at every one of those touchpoints who... Oh, and if you have a disability or you have your so-called assistants who will guide you there

Peter Slatin: And of course if you're blind or use a wheelchair and you go to one of those places, what happens? You go to the ticket counter, they take you over to what I call the disability ghetto and they leave you in this little place. And they say, well... They check you off and they find someone to come serve you, assist you to your gate

Peter Slatin: And I'd like to engage those people in conversation. I think it relaxes them and they enjoy it and they get something out of it. They're working for extremely low wages with very little training and they're running around all day and they're overdressed in over-warm environments. And they may not speak English with any fluency and are just doing what they're told and trying to get through the day. And they have a very difficult job and very little equipment to do it with

Peter Slatin: But all those encounters that I've described are touchpoints for something to go wrong. And so that by the time you, if you're a business traveler or a leisure traveler, when you get to your destination, everybody, whether you have a disability or not, everybody is exhausted from traveling. It's not a comfortable experience

Peter Slatin: If you have a disability, you've had... Oh, and how can I leave out the TSA? Everyone's favorite

Mark Miller: On Friday, [inaudible 00:11:02]

Peter Slatin: Yes. I had a very close-up encounter with a TSA agent yesterday, who, I don't know, they found something on my hands when they swabbed my hands. And so, I got the personal pat-down

Peter Slatin: But anyway, so, what I would do is try and create an affinity among the stakeholders, all those stakeholders, starting with the authority that manages the airport and to the... Who runs those associates who assist people with disabilities? Is it the airport? Is it the airport authority? Is it the airlines? And they all contract out to a third party

Mark Miller: Right. It's convoluted

Peter Slatin: Who vets that third party? It's incredibly convoluted

Mark Miller: Yeah

Peter Slatin: And who's making a ton of money off of hiring very ill-equipped people to drag people around like luggage? And somebody is making a lot of money. I have no idea who they are. And if I were still in the reporting business, I would report on it but I'm not. But maybe some day

Peter Slatin: So, yeah. So when I go into any organization to do training, I like to bring everybody together. I don't want to do just the managers

Mark Miller: That's a good [inaudible 00:12:32]

Peter Slatin: ... or just the housekeepers. I want to do everybody... Get everyone in the same room so everyone knows that they share this challenge

Mark Miller: Yeah. And that's not dissimilar, I think, to the way that we approach our jobs, in terms of... You can kind of remediate your website for accessibility, but if you don't have all the stakeholders in the organization behind it, it tends not to stay there

Peter Slatin: Yeah

Mark Miller: So, I really see the value in what you're saying. That you might be able to train these five people whose job is to help people who are blind through the airport, but when they leave [crosstalk 00:13:12]

Peter Slatin: But if I [crosstalk 00:13:12]. Yeah, if they get to the gate attendant and they don't know

Mark Miller: Right

Peter Slatin: ... that you're there or they don't know. I don't know. Anyway, it's just... And the same is true of any business. So, hotel, if I just... Everybody in the hotel has touchpoints. You have the front desk clerks and you have the housekeepers and you have the restaurant workers, et cetera

Peter Slatin: It's interesting enough that I have been able to, I'm actually very pleased to announce this, that I'm going to introduce in the... Next spring I'll be teaching a course that I've developed on hospitality and disability at NYU's hospitality school and it'll be the first such course in the country as far as I know at the university level. So I'm really excited about that

Mark Miller: Yeah. I see this a lot in air travel and especially where I'm traveling at the same times as people who have disabilities are because I'm often going into the same place, so I'll run into them on the plane. And this year, flying to CSUN again. This time it was in Anaheim

Peter Slatin: You got to find somewhere else to go

Mark Miller: Yeah. I had noticed when I got on the plane that there was a blind gentleman that was on the plane too. Actually this is a question for you, right? Like [crosstalk 00:14:34] on this

Peter Slatin: Sure

Mark Miller: So, this is what I did, and I want you to give me your honest, candid feedback about this. And I thought about this. I didn't just do this automatically, but I was like, "Should I?

Mark Miller: So, what had happened is that I was several seats behind the gentleman who was blind, so I thought, "This guy's got to get off this plane. He's got to get..." I know what a pain it's going to be for me to get from this plane to the conference, so I just called [inaudible 00:15:00] over at some point. I said, "You know, ma'am, if you don't mind letting the blind gentleman up there know that I'm going to the CSUN conference and I'm happy to have him accompany me to the hotel," or whatever I said. I don't know how I worded it, but [crosstalk 00:15:16] I wanted him to know

Peter Slatin: [crosstalk 00:15:18] could get him there

Mark Miller: Yeah, I was going to get off this plane and head in the same direction and I didn't want to say like, "I can make sure he gets there or help him or-

Peter Slatin: If that's where he's going, of course. [crosstalk 00:15:26] going

Mark Miller: Yeah. He can hang out with me. We could get there together

Mark Miller: And so, she did. She did. And she, "Oh my God, that was so nice." And said, "Oh, that'd be great. I'd love to..." and was over the moon, right? She moved me up into my own private row right behind him, which [crosstalk 00:15:44] be done, but she thought... Offered me free... You know how they have those paid snacks

Peter Slatin: Yeah

Mark Miller: It was on... I don't remember what [inaudible 00:15:50] it was on. Offered me those free, which I didn't take because I didn't need them, but

Peter Slatin: Because it's awful food, also

Mark Miller: [crosstalk 00:15:55] awful [crosstalk 00:15:55]. Yeah, [crosstalk 00:15:59]

Peter Slatin: Anyway, so, the question is did you do the right thing? Is that the question or

Mark Miller: Well, did I do the right thing? Could I have done it better? Would some... He seemed to appreciate it, but could that have come off [crosstalk 00:16:10]

Peter Slatin: I think you did the right thing. You could have done it yourself, gone up and just said, "Hi, I'm Mark, and you might be going to this conference I'm going to and that's where I'm going and I know what a hassle it is. If I can help you, we can travel together, that'd be great. If not, sorry to bother you.

Mark Miller: Yup

Peter Slatin: That's fine too. Either way

Mark Miller: [crosstalk 00:16:36], yeah

Peter Slatin: But yeah. The whole point is, whatever you're doing, is you're acknowledging that person has their own agency and he may have said is, and some people I know might have, on one hand, said, "God, thank God someone's going to help me get there." And other people may have said, "The hell with that. I can get there by myself and I'm going to do it and I don't want your help and I don't want you to ask me for help." And fine. That's cool too. The point is just to offer and let the person decide

Mark Miller: Right

Peter Slatin: ... which is not what happens most of the time, is that someone else is trying to make that choice for you. Just like if you accompany a blind person to dinner, very often, or any person with a visible disability, and the staff member will ask you, "What are they having for dinner? What would they like? What would the gentleman like?" And you go, "I don't know. Ask him." But that's a common thing taught... Somebody that [inaudible 00:17:53] the person accompanying the person with a disability becomes the only real person in the room. And that's a challenge

Peter Slatin: So what you're pointing to is just the theft of personhood that you're trying to avoid and you just want to make sure that someone has agency. And I even said, "Excuse me, I don't even want to talk to you.

Peter Slatin: It's funny, before we started the podcast, I was listening to a BBC broadcast. And they were talking about a social science study about commuters. How commuters who engage their fellow commuters in conversation are happier in life than people who keep to themselves

Peter Slatin: And they did this... The results of this study was first done in the U.S., and so they decided to replicate it in London. And, of course, in London, the British are reserved. And there were people who responded to the study question, which was, "Well, would you participate and speak to one of your fellow commuters?" And they'd say, "I'm sorry we don't do that here.

Mark Miller: [crosstalk 00:19:05

Peter Slatin: But it's just a question of engaging

Mark Miller: Yeah

Peter Slatin: And engaging with equivalence, on par with someone

Mark Miller: Right. I really like the way you phrased it too, in terms of giving them, I think agency's what you said, but basically

Peter Slatin: Yeah

Mark Miller: ... don't... You're not forcing it. You're just offering and

Peter Slatin: Right

Mark Miller: ... just as if somebody were to offer something to somebody without a disability that they thought they might need

Peter Slatin: Yeah. If you're on a plane and you're struggling to put your suitcase up overhead and someone offers to help you and you can either accept the help or you can say, "No, I've got this," and then you'll either succeed or it'll come crashing down and break your neck

Mark Miller: [inaudible 00:19:49

Peter Slatin: That's your agency to break your own neck

Mark Miller: Break your own neck. That's right

Peter Slatin: You just don't want anyone to break your neck for you

Mark Miller: Yeah. I'll tell you, as somebody who is around a lot of people who are blind, specifically... I think it's an easy one to talk about, right? As much as I like to pretend I'm somebody that knows how to engage in these situations, I'm often wondering whether or not I'm doing the right thing

Mark Miller: I mean, I know not to pet a dog and all that kind of stuff and when I'm with friends who are blind, it's easy, right? Because I've worked with them, I know what they want

Peter Slatin: Right

Mark Miller: I know that they appreciate it when I sit down to have dinner with them and I tell them that there's chips and salsa on the table and that the waitress just put their drink [crosstalk 00:20:37] in front of them and things like that. And I know

Peter Slatin: Yeah. If you move your hand to the right one inch you're going to knock your glass over

Mark Miller: Yeah, exactly. Right

Peter Slatin: People want to know that. But that's because you know them. And I think we all feel... And I was just talking about broken necks and I thought, "You know what? There's someone listening to this, possibly, who broke their neck and is not happy hearing me talk about it in a way that is so flip.

Peter Slatin: And I think we all need to be aware of, well, this kind of thing... And it's not language policing. It's a social imperative that we are moving into a world where all of these constructs, whether they're race or faith or gender or food preference

Mark Miller: Right

Peter Slatin: ... we have to figure out, okay, where are they constructs and where are they real, and, of course, disability, and how do they enrich our lives instead of degrade them? What are the opportunities each of these offers us to expand ourselves

Peter Slatin: And it's fascinating, it's interesting and it's natural. Part of my training is to tell people that yes, you feel uncomfortable. That's normal. It's natural. These are not people you know, it's not a situation you're familiar with. So it's okay to feel uncomfortable, but don't let it paralyze you. And accept it and recognize it for what it is and then move on

Mark Miller: Right. That's a great point. I think just, when we first started talking and you sort of introduced what you do as social access, it really struck me because I thought, wow, how many of us are not so great to begin with in social situations. And then to add the questions and all the things that we've discussed today related to people with disabilities and how you might engage with them, it's just a whole new layer on top of that. So I think that that's just testimony that what you do is really needed. I mean maybe you should just [crosstalk 00:23:08] class too on just social interaction, right? For just... Never mind the [crosstalk 00:23:13]

Peter Slatin: Well, I'm working toward it. A couple of months ago, I started contributing a blog to forbes.com on disability

Mark Miller: Nice

Peter Slatin: ... and it's... And anyone can find it by Googling me on Forbes and you'll find me there

Mark Miller: [crosstalk 00:23:31] We'll try to link to [crosstalk 00:23:32]

Peter Slatin: And it's a lot of fun. I'm sorry

Mark Miller: We'll try to link to the blog too from the podcast. [crosstalk 00:23:37] people don't [crosstalk 00:23:39

Peter Slatin: Oh, great. And yeah, it's really fun to do because I'm passionate about it and I'm not... It's just writing from experience, the heart. I'm not plugging my business on it, although people are free to draw the inference. But I'm just writing about a subject that is very dear to me

Peter Slatin: And I do want to give a shout-out to where this comes from. I spent most of my career, as I said, as a journalist writing about commercial real estate and architecture and finance and stuff like that

Peter Slatin: And my late brother, John Slatin, was a pioneer in the web accessibility world. And he was always pressing me to do more in accessibility. And I said, "No, I want to make my way in the world outside of accessibility and blindness." But I don't know. When he passed away, I felt an imperative to move in this direction

Mark Miller: Wow. Good for you

Peter Slatin: And so, that was that

Mark Miller: So, I think we should wrap up here in a moment and I appreciate that shout-out to your brother and appreciate his contribution to the web accessibility

Peter Slatin: Sure

Mark Miller: ... obviously being that that's what we've done. And I appreciate that he probably was a... I'm assuming he was sighted, so I

Peter Slatin: No, he was not. He was blind also. We were both blind

Mark Miller: [crosstalk 00:25:22

Peter Slatin: He was at the

Mark Miller: Oh, was that a genetic

Peter Slatin: Sorry

Mark Miller: Was that a hereditary thing

Peter Slatin: Yeah, it's retinitis pigmentosa. And he was an English professor at the University of Texas at Austin

Mark Miller: Wow

Peter Slatin: ... and just began pushing towards accessibility. And he worked with Ray Kurzweil and he just did lots of stuff and made it a big deal for the University of Texas at Austin and onward and upward. So

Mark Miller: Wow. Well, we think him for his contribution because we really

Peter Slatin: Yup

Mark Miller: ... we've come a long way with digital accessibility, and

Peter Slatin: Yup. He would be pretty thrilled and frustrated by where we are today

Mark Miller: As we all are

Peter Slatin: As we all are

Mark Miller: Yeah. So, I want to kind of flip the script on you a little bit just just to wrap things up. Right? Because this is something that I've been, for some reason, curious about since I've started talking with you, Peter

Mark Miller: Let's just say that for some reason I were to go blind tomorrow and I were to call you up and say, "Geez, Peter, I'm now in this brand new situation here. What can you tell me as a blind individual that I need to know to help be better socially or be good socially and navigate the social landscape like you do every single day?" What would your advice not be to a person trying to help a person with a disability but that person with a disability

Peter Slatin: I think it would be to look to your strengths. What are they, your inner strengths, your personal strengths. And don't be afraid. Or, yes, you can be afraid, but acknowledge that it's reasonable to have fear but don't let that fear paralyze you and keep you from doing what you want to do

Peter Slatin: And don't be afraid to ask for help. You know, that's often... What does that mean to ask for help? We can't do anything by ourselves completely on our own. We just don't exist on our own. Ask for help

Peter Slatin: But when you feel someone is trying too hard, step back. Or if you feel they're not giving enough, get more

Mark Miller: Yeah

Peter Slatin: But trust your own instincts of what you need. And you just keep living your life and take advantage of it

Mark Miller: Wow. That's great advice. And listening to you talk about the advice that you give or the way that you help people be better from a social standpoint when they're engaging with people with disabilities and the advice that you just gave in that situation, there was some real common things. And one of the things that really struck me is in both cases was to sort of acknowledge that it's okay to be uncomfortable or it's okay to be afraid, but what's not okay is to let that paralyze you and stop you

Peter Slatin: Yeah, yeah

Mark Miller: And that would probably apply to an immediate situation, like the woman trying to lead the gentlemen [crosstalk 00:28:43]

Peter Slatin: Right

Mark Miller: ... bathroom and it covers life, right

Peter Slatin: Yeah

Mark Miller: You can't just stop [crosstalk 00:28:49]

Peter Slatin: I'll tell a quick story, which is I was waiting here in New York City for a cross-town bus one day and had my guide dog with me. And a woman came up to me and said, "Oh, you're amazing. I could never do what you do.

Peter Slatin: And I never like to hear that. I mean, it's very nice for people to say nice things. But I said, "You know, thank you, but I disagree with you. And if you were put in a situation, I'm sure you'd do it too because we live our lives. You have to do it.

Peter Slatin: It's always a challenge working with families, with friends, everyone. It's a learning curve for everyone. Anyway, we could go on and on, couldn't we

Mark Miller: Yeah. And that [crosstalk 00:29:35]

Peter Slatin: And I'd rather not

Mark Miller: [crosstalk 00:29:35] very good point [inaudible 00:29:38] because I have... People say similar things to me, knowing that I work in this industry. And one of the things I'll say to them is I'll say, "Look, I work with a lot of people who are blind and have varying disabilities." And, I tell them, "It's incredibly inspiring, not because they get through their regular day, but because these people are more successful than I am in some cases. So when you're looking for a mentor and you're looking for a leader and you find somebody that has more challenges than you do and they've achieved more than you have, what more inspiration do you need?

Mark Miller: So, where that helps me is exactly what you're saying, right? It does not allow me to make excuses because I look at [crosstalk 00:30:26]

Peter Slatin: Right

Mark Miller: Just getting to work on a daily basis and getting into an office building may be much more

Peter Slatin: There you go. Everyone getting to work is... That's inspiring. If you get up in the morning and can feed your family or try to feed your family

Mark Miller: Yeah

Peter Slatin: Damn. I don't care what condition you're in in life, but

Mark Miller: It's an [crosstalk 00:30:47]

Peter Slatin: Okay, well thank you. Yeah

Mark Miller: Yeah. Well, thank you so much. I really appreciate it and I really appreciate your perspective on this and I think it's a very interesting one. And I think I can speak for a lot of people who, like myself, who work every day in this industry, and we can get sort of bogged down by the work of our day, like anybody can, and it's really refreshing to speak with somebody like you who pulls us back and lets us look back in on what we do and what could be done better and what else can be thought of and worked on because I... You said it best when you said your brother would be really proud of where we are and be maybe a little annoyed at some places too, so we can be proud and realize there's more work to do

Peter Slatin: Exactly. Exactly. Thanks so much for that

Mark Miller: You're welcome. Well, this is Mark Miller thanking Peter Slatin and reminding you all to keep it accessible

Speaker 1: The IAP, Interactive Accessibility Podcast, is brought to you by Interactive Accessibility, the accessibility experts. You can find their Access Matters blog at interactiveaccessibility.com/blog.


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