Out of Sight, Not Out of Mind
Photography by Adam Hunger
As President and CEO of the American Foundation for the Blind, Kirk Adams '83 guides efforts to improve the lives of millions of blind and visually impaired people nationwide.
Born and raised before the Americans with Disabilities Act helped level the playing field for people who are blind, Kirk Adams ’83 has lived through his share of disability rights history. Now, at the helm of the nation’s leading vision loss nonprofit, he has a direct hand in shaping it.
“The American Foundation for the Blind is an organization I’ve been aware of all my life,” he said. “It has a unique place in the history of the blindness field. Helen Keller worked for AFB for 40 years. We have her archives. I can go sit at her desk, which is pretty cool. We’ve been at the forefront of understanding what the needs of blind people are and what the institutional, systemic barriers are in addressing them.”
AFB was founded in Manhattan in 1921 and has offices in five cities to support the 20 million Americans with vision loss. As its president and CEO, Adams has perhaps the highest profile advocacy job for the blind in the country. His predecessor, Carl Augusto, calls him “a brilliant strategist” and champion of the blind. It’s an enormous responsibility, but for Adams—who refers to diversity and inclusion as his “life’s work” and embodies the idea of living one’s values—the position dovetails with what he’s already been doing for decades: expanding the world’s perception of what’s possible.
In 1981, while a student at Whitman, Adams scaled Mount Rainier with a team of 10 other disabled climbers led by James Whittaker, the first American to summit Mount Everest. The New York Times and The Washington Post covered their feat. Afterward, Adams was invited to the White House for a reception in honor of International Year of Disabled Persons, where he shook hands with Ronald Reagan. In the Post article, a then 19-year-old Adams is quoted as saying, “The point is this: If you have a neighbor who is in a wheelchair or blind, the next time you go fishing, ask him to go along. That’s why we climbed the mountain.”
In the words of Keller, carved into a wooden plaque that hangs above the desk in his Midtown Manhattan office: “While they were saying among themselves it cannot be done, it was done.”
Adams was appointed to his current role at AFB last May, after eight years heading The Lighthouse for the Blind, Inc., in Seattle, where he made history as that organization’s first blind CEO. Last year, he was recognized by Congress for his contributions to Lighthouse, including expanding to 11 different locations and hiring many new employees who are blind, deaf-blind or blind with other disabilities. He has served as a member of Washington State Gov. Jay Inslee’s task force on disability employment, among several other nonprofits, and as treasurer of the National Association for the Employment of People Who Are Blind.
Adams believes that having blind people in positions of leadership at advocacy groups for the blind lends credibility to their mission and sends the right message to families and communities.
“Especially for young people and parents, there’s a role model aspect to it,” he explained. “There’s an element of hope and optimism that can be instilled, especially for parents of blind kids. It’s really walking the walk, not just talking the talk. If I go into a congressional office and I’m talking about barriers to public transportation or how difficult it is for a blind person to get their first job, I can speak from my own personal experience.”
Adams was only five years old when he lost his sight, likely owing to an adverse reaction to eye surgery. At that time, there were far fewer resources for families with blind children; in the mid-1960s, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act hadn’t yet been passed, and public schools were not required to accommodate students with special needs.
“My retinas detached, both of them, when I was in kindergarten, so I lost all my vision in a short period of time. Back then, blind and deaf kids were not guaranteed an appropriate education in their hometown school, with their brothers and sisters and neighbors. You went to a residential school and learned the blindness skills you needed.”
So, for first, second and third grade, Adams attended the Oregon State School for the Blind, learning to read and write in braille, use a typewriter and travel safely with a long white cane. In fourth grade, he transferred to public school, then on to high school in Snohomish, Washington. Despite being the only blind student, he did well. In addition to his high GPA and test scores, he ran track, skied and wrestled. His next stop was Whitman College.
“I was very academically oriented,” Adams said. “Both of my parents were teachers. I wanted a challenging intellectual environment, and Whitman was clearly offering that.”
Another thing that appealed to him about Whitman? Ease of accessibility.
“For me, the size of the campus, the scope of it, was manageable and compatible. I had grown up in a very small town. Walla Walla was the biggest place I had ever lived. It was a level of freedom and autonomy and self-determination I hadn’t had before.”
College was not without its challenges. In class, Adams took notes using a slate and stylus—a handheld device that creates braille—then recopied them each night with a Perkins Brailler, a tedious, time-consuming process. (Perkins Braillers are braille typewriters with keys corresponding to each of the six dots of the braille code, along with a space key, a backspace key and a line space key. Like manual typewriters, they have since been largely supplanted by better technology, such as computers connected to braille embossers and screen reading software.)
Prior to the passage of the ADA, textbook publishers were not required to make their material available in alternate formats, so Adams often didn’t get recordings of reading assignments until after his courses had started. His only other option was to pay classmates to read texts out loud to him, for which the state provided some funding.
“I’m a strong braille reader, but I couldn’t get materials in braille. So I had to learn auditorily,” he said. “Listening to books on tape was a new experience for me, and not one that I preferred. So things took longer.”
Plus, he was among only a handful of blind students in Whitman’s history. Although the college now offers unlimited support services to all students with disabilities through the Academic Resource Center, that was not the case 30 years ago. Many of the assistive technologies that blind and visually impaired people depend on today had not yet been invented.
“Individual professors and classmates were very supportive, very open to help, but there weren’t a lot of best practices established,” said Adams. “It was very much a pioneering, figure-it-out-as-we-go thing. I mean, the IBM Selectric was considered cutting-edge technology then.”
Still, he managed to graduate Phi Beta Kappa with a 4.0 in his major—economics.
“The liberal arts education, looking back at it from the vantage point I have now, is just such an opportunity to explore different bodies of knowledge, different academic fields, to be around other people the same age who are intellectually curious,” Adams said. “It still informs the way I approach things.”
He also met his wife, Roslyn Adams ’83, while living in Lyman Hall. The two of them took Social Problems together, taught by Keith Farrington, the Laura and Carl Peterson Endowed Chair of Social Sciences, and got to know one another as study partners. They married in 1985 and raised two kids, Tyler and Rachel, now grown, in the Leschi neighborhood of Seattle.
When he graduated from Whitman, however, Adams faced a major hurdle: getting hired for his first job. It’s a struggle familiar to many young adults, but especially those with disabilities: seven out of 10 blind adults are not part of the workforce, as Adams is quick to point out. According to him, most blind youths don’t get early work experience the way their sighted peers do. Many companies don’t understand how to create work environments in which blind employees can be successful. And the list goes on.
“It’s a lot of factors,” he said. “The blind person needs to have the proper training in blindness skills. Not every blind kid is in a school that does a good job with that. Not every blind kid is in a family that has high expectations of them. There are transportation barriers—public transportation is not consistent across the country.”
For Adams, it became an exercise in perseverance.
“One of the debates for blind job seekers is when to disclose that you have a disability, so at first I wasn’t disclosing,” he recalled. “I’d get a phone interview, and then I’d get called in for my in-person interview, and the employer would oftentimes be pretty unaware of the capabilities of people who are blind. So I wasn’t getting hired. Then I decided I would disclose. I would say in my cover letter, ‘I’m Phi Beta Kappa, cum laude, blah blah blah, and I’m totally blind. This is how I manage my access to information and communication—I use braille … .’ But then I wasn’t even getting a phone interview.”
He cast his net wider and wider and eventually stumbled upon a small, family-owned brokerage firm in Seattle whose sales manager was a Whitman graduate and fellow economics major. Adams got his securities license and made that his professional home for 10 years.
“It was a good, honorable occupation,” he said. “I turned 30 and decided I didn’t want to do that the rest of my life. I did some reflection and self-examination and decided I really wanted to be in the nonprofit sector and working for an agency that benefited people who are blind, and I took steps to make that happen.”
Adams got his start as a development officer for the Seattle Public Library Foundation, where he fundraised for the statewide Talking Book and Braille Library. Three years later, he went back to school, earning a master’s degree in nonprofit leadership from Seattle University.
“I guess every 15 years I go back to school,” laughed Adams, who is now enrolled in a Ph.D. program through Antioch University.
“There is some risk-taking involved to leave jobs, move into new situations. And now this is the biggest risk, packing up and moving to the East Coast. I had a long heart-to-heart with my wife about what it would mean for us if I was hired and we needed to uproot, but being the wife of the century, she said, ‘Let’s do it.’”
His latest challenge, aside from running AFB? Learning to navigate the New York City subway system, which Adams rides into Manhattan each day from Park Slope, Brooklyn, where he and his wife are renting an apartment.
“It was pretty intimidating at first, but I’ve got it down now,” he said. “When we mapped out where we were going to live, I got an orientation and mobility instructor, and she traveled back and forth with me seven or eight times so I could learn the subway route.”
At home, Adams sets a talking alarm clock to wake him up. Other low-tech lifestyle modifications include adhesive bumps indicating on/off and the temperature buttons for their kitchen’s gas range stove, which is a flat touchscreen. For relaxation, he reads books and newspapers in braille or listens to music or Mariners games as well as audiobooks on Audible.
Ensuring equal access to entertainment and leisure activities for the visually impaired is another focus for AFB, along with improving education, transportation and employment options. When it comes to adapting pastimes the sighted may take for granted, like watching TV, the devil is in the details.
“Just think of all the things that you have available to you that you utilize in your daily life for work and play,” Adams said. “It’s making sure that those things are barrier-free.”
To that end, AFB publishes an online monthly magazine, Access World, in which blind people write reviews of mainstream and assistive or specialized technologies they have tested out. That way, blind consumers have a sense of how to spend their money without worrying about the poorly designed or dysfunctional accessibility features that abound in many products.
“It’s a double-edged sword,” Adams said. “If the technology is accessible, it levels the playing field in all kinds of areas of life, which hasn’t been possible in the past. But if it’s designed poorly, then it just increases the digital divide and the barriers to access.”
For example, when programmers don’t design websites to work with screen readers, blind internet users can find themselves shut out. Simple solutions such as adding alt-text, the attribute of HTML that describes the images on a page, make all the difference.
“That’s a big part of it, working with the design community to make sure they understand the elements that need to go into design for accessibility,” said Adams. “So if you have, say, a shopping site and there’s a picture of an apple, you can tap on the picture of the apple and order it. But if the coder didn’t code the word ‘apple,’ it would just be an empty button. Screen reading software can’t read an image—it can only read text. So the text needs to be embedded when things are designed.”
While not all products are designed with accessibility in mind, with the advent of better and faster technology and through the ongoing advocacy efforts of organizations like AFB, many more are. Mobile technology in particular has revolutionized the user experience for disabled people. Thanks to Apple’s built-in voiceover technology and state-of-the-art accessibility features on sites like Facebook and Amazon, Adams can send texts, connect with friends on social media and shop online with relative simplicity. Apps like AroundMe, which provide feedback on nearby locations—restaurants, pharmacies, bars, coffee shops—have also paved the way for blind people on the go.
“There’s another specialty app called BlindSquare which is kind of a takeoff on Foursquare,” Adams said. “If you’re in a city and you want to walk to a store, it’ll give you super detailed directions like, ‘Go 90 feet, there’s going to be a slight curve to the right, sidewalk is going to slope down about 15 degrees, but it flattens out and you’re going to take your left’—that type of stuff. There’s an app called Be My Eyes, where a blind person can get connected to a volunteer sighted person through their camera—you hold your phone out in front of you at the grocery store and the volunteer will read you the labels off the stuff on the shelf.”
Having felt the impact of such innovations firsthand, Adams knows how far things have come—yet he can’t forget how much further there is to go.
“The barriers are very stubborn, very entrenched. I’d say there are areas of progress. The general openness to diversity and inclusion, which really started with race and gender, has set a framework for broadening those efforts into other underrepresented groups. There are corporate cultures that are being intentional around inclusion and looking not just for compliance or not just for charitable reasons, but for operational reasons. They want to bring in the talents and perspectives of a wide range of people.”
As one of those people himself, Adams understands better than most the impediments to sustaining these inclusive cultures—but also the incalculable advantages.
He put it like this: “Everyone needs a good fit between themselves and their work environment. For people who have characteristics that fall outside the majority norm, that fit needs to look a little bit different. My workstation probably costs eight or nine thousand dollars more than a person who doesn’t need assistive technologies. But will I be a loyal, competent employee who appreciates the opportunity to work and gives it my all? Probably so.”