Today, all over the country, Americans celebrate National Disability Independence Day which commemorates the signing of the Americans with Disabilities Act on July 26th, 1990. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) gave people with disabilities the rights that thousands had been fighting for for decades. The act was the culmination of a movement—it was the first comprehensive list of laws that specifically addressed the rights of people with disabilities by challenging old, discriminatory laws, and touching upon nearly every area of society. While the ADA didn’t immediately end discrimination against those with disabilities, it did provide the legal framework for change. Now, more than three decades later, its impact continues to be seen in industries across America, including the paper and print industry. To honor the anniversary of the act, we spoke with Ken Fernald, President and CEO of the Association for Vision Rehabilitation and Employment, Inc (AVRE) about how he joined the company, the advancements of accessibility within the industry and how AVRE has created opportunities for success and independence in print with people who are blind or visually impaired.
Athlete, family man, businessman, Ken Fernald has done it all. Born in 1975, Ken is part of a family of six, and he says his upbringing was no different than that of his siblings. He was given the same chores, played the same games with his friends, although he notes that he learned to avoid sports with small balls. While others may have believed that he needed to be accommodated, his fear was that he would be treated differently due to his visual impairment. As a result, he entered the workforce directly following high school, rather than risk standing out negatively in college. Ken’s first job post-high school was in manufacturing, which he and his peers swiftly discovered he had a knack for. For Ken, life was good. He got married, received a promotion at work and even decided to further his education in manufacturing and return to school while working. Unfortunately, while balancing both work and his studies, adversity struck and Ken was fired. This, Ken says, is when learned that the disabled are the “last to be hired, first to be fired.” Although the ADA had been in effect for a few years at this point, Ken still faced discrimination during his job search, including being told that a manager “wouldn’t stand for someone like him being hired at that workplace.” Running out of options, Ken spoke with one with one of his contact at the Interstate Commission for the Blind who referred him to AVRE as a potential suitor. Ken was apprehensive; he believed that AVRE was more of a shelter for those with disabilities than a workplace, but would soon learn that the company formerly known as the Blind Work Association was much, much more.
Founded in 1926, Ken Fernald joined AVRE just as they were getting into paper and introducing TAPPI standards. Their focus was on making the workplace accessible, and a simple walk around their floor shows proof. They’ve worked to incorporate adaptive technology into new equipment including:
- Their ream wrapper, sheeter and other machines speak aloud, and the differentiate between them using male and female voices
- Their machines have the largest touch screens allowed, and the home pages show essential icons only
- Conveyor belts within the building, which would normally be white, are instead black or dark grey to create contrast against the white paper
Like Ken says, AVRE is “just like any other manufacturer, we just don’t see so well.”
To date, Ken has been featured in Runner’s World Magazine alongside his guide dog Winnie and served on the boards of the UHS Foundation, New York Vision Rehabilitation Association (NYVRA) and the National Association for the Employment of People who are Blind (NAEPB), all while carrying out his duties as CEO of AVRE.
If you are an employer or designer, consider how accessible you are. For example, many of today’s brick and mortar businesses are ADA compliant but as more and more businesses switch to online version, those websites need to meet the accessibility standard as well. Celebrate the freedom the ADA inspires with forward-thinking design and technology, we certainly will.