Dec. 3 is International Day of Persons With Disabilities, an observance declared in 1992 by the United Nations General Assembly to promote the rights and well-being of persons with disabilities in all spheres of society and development. This year, the campaign’s theme centers on building a more accessible future in a post-COVID-19 world. Securing and nurturing opportunities for those in the disabled community is critical to ensuring the development and deployment of accessible technologies and a core part of our dedication to inclusive entrepreneurship and technology at GFTC.
We recently spoke with Diego Mariscal, Founder, CEO & Chief Disabled Officer of 2Gether-International.org, and an entrepreneur working to support other entrepreneurs with disabilities, about the importance of developing accessible technologies with the disabled community in mind. And how he is working to ensure those with disabilities are at the forefront of these conversations, projects, and companies.
Note: This interview has been edited and condensed for style and clarity purposes.
GFTC: Let’s dive right in. How has your personal experience helped shape your career?
Diego Mariscal: Everything I’m doing now really stems from my own experience. I was born in the United States by accident. My parents were both in the country shopping, and I was unexpectedly born about six-and-a-half months into my mother’s pregnancy. I was a pretty tiny baby. As a result, I have cerebral palsy (CP). For me, specifically, it manifests primarily in trouble walking.
Interestingly, people often talk about infrastructural barriers, whether it’s a ramp, whether it’s an elevator and things like that. What most people don’t talk about is attitudinal barriers, how people perceive those with disabilities differently.
When I was younger, I fell, and my family called the doctor. The doctor asked if I had a medical condition. And I said that no, I didn’t. And then he said, “why do you walk with a cane?” And I said, “oh, because I have CP.” And he looks at me and says, “well, just so you know, that counts as a medical condition.”
I like telling that story because, for many other people with disabilities and me, we don’t see our disabilities as a medical condition. We see it as another characteristic, you know, just like race, gender, sexuality – another characteristic that adds to who we are as a person, to our diversity. Yet, the world doesn’t tend to see it that way. They tend to see disability as something that needs fixing, something to overcome. And that has vast implications primarily in the employment space.
GFTC: And how did this shape the mission of your organization, 2Gether-International.org?
Diego Mariscal: At 2Gether, we work mainly around supporting entrepreneurs with disabilities because the unemployment of people with disabilities is exceedingly high, almost double the rate of non-disabled people. That was certainly my experience early in my career. It was easier for me to start side hustles than it was for people to take me seriously in the workplace, which made me really angry and incredibly tired. And I thought, you know, I have all the skills, resiliency, tenacity, and creativity that I have learned and developed as a person with a disability. Yet, they are often not recognized.
As disabled people, we often navigate a world that is not fit to meet our needs. How to get dressed, how to drive, and how to communicate are all entrepreneurial experiences that are often not recognized. What if we could create a program that would appreciate those skills and nurture them and develop them so they can transition into the business world?
That’s really where our mission comes from. We focus on supporting entrepreneurs with disabilities and harnessing the innate skills that they already have. And we do it through various programs, meetups, pitch competitions, grant applications – you name it.
GFTC: And within these programs and the projects, what are some of the issues and barriers currently facing those with disabilities and people working in this area? We’ve seen a lot of growth in public awareness of these issues in recent years, but there hasn’t yet been much change. With many businesses transitioning to remote models due to the COVID-19 pandemic, placing a greater emphasis on technology and accessibility, what are some of the challenges and opportunities to ensure access and supportive technologies and environments?
Diego Mariscal: A big challenge is getting the broader tech and entrepreneurial community to view accessibility as a core element of technology’s DNA. For example, if you sign up for a newsletter or want to get involved in an organization, or even if you’re going to call an Uber, people don’t even think twice about giving out their email. It’s an afterthought at this point. It’s an inherent feature that is a core part of building an application or website. That doesn’t happen when you think about disability or accessibility.
It’s not innate in our culture. People don’t necessarily think, right off-the-bat, to build an accessible or inclusive website for those with disabilities in all cases. So, the more that we talk about accessibility, specifically around technology, being baked into the DNA of products, baked into the DNA of conversations – well before greenlighting or publishing, then we have the power to change the conversation around accessibility drastically.
GFTC: How has this shaped your work as an entrepreneur?
Diego Mariscal: For me, I’ve always been entrepreneurial. There’s the Lady Gaga song, “Born This Way,” and that’s the way I think about myself in entrepreneurship. For a long time, especially in my early 20s, I would think, why can’t I just, you know, get a job from nine to five and like, be happy? But, for me, I felt like I was always asking questions like, “Why are things done this way?” What is the systematic, underlining, or meaning of ‘x’?” “Why do people behave this way?” “Why do we do the things we do?” “How is that reflected in the tools and technologies we build?” And I think that curiosity lends itself well to entrepreneurship.
Reid Hoffman said entrepreneurship is like skydiving without a parachute on – you’re building the parachute as you’re falling. I love that analogy because it aligns well with what I love about the concept of entrepreneurship – you’re figuring things out as you go. What works, what doesn’t, how to pivot to get to a workable or scalable model. And that’s not for everybody.
But at the same time, if you have that sort of bug in you, if you have the desire to disrupt the status quo, I’d say, now more than ever, it’s easier to start an organization, it’s easier to start a business, especially in technology. As humans, we tend to overcomplicate things, and my advice is always, just start. Start by doing a Facebook group, start by setting up that Twitter account – putting ideas out there to solve the problem you have in mind, and you’ll learn as you go. It’s that questioning of the status quo – for example, “What can we do to establish more disabled peoples of leaders of disability advocacy organizations?” That has helped shape my direction as an entrepreneur and founder.
GFTC: What do you see as the opportunities for innovation and improving access to technology, especially technology resources and access among vulnerable communities?
Diego Mariscal: When I think about this, Apple comes to mind as an example at the forefront. You know, Siri is an accessibility feature already built into it. You don’t even have to think about whether a piece of technology is accessible. That’s the way we need to think about accessibility for all products. It also has a major economic driver of change.
First of all, you’re addressing the needs of the largest minority in the world. Secondly, you are making a product or service accessible to everybody, not just people with disabilities. Looking at Apple again, the accessibility features developed for the iPhone, specifically for people with disabilities. But, now, my mom, who is losing her eyesight, can use those same features to enhance the text so that she can see it better. People with arthritis can use the iPhone accessibility button rather than click the screen manually to access their applications. Another example of this is curb cuts. Those were initially developed for people in wheelchairs and are now used by almost everybody.
GFTC: On that note, where do you see the opportunities for innovation and change systematically? How does thinking about accessibility from the ground-up look at a corporate level?
Diego Mariscal: The strongest source of innovation is disabled people themselves. It’s always been really interesting for me to see that you’ll often see organizations that are focused on people with disabilities that are not necessarily led by disabled people. To me, the simplest and yet the most vital source of innovation is to change that. If you want to help disabled people genuinely, we must have more disabled people as leaders in our advocacy and entrepreneurial spaces.
We have these organizations that are well-respected, and million-dollar funded. And when you scratch the surface, and you look at who is leading the work, it is non-disabled individuals. That is one of the most significant indicators of systematic oppression because places that are supposed to be supporting people with disabilities are not even hiring people with disabilities. What does that tell you?
As a culture, we must get to a place where it is common nature in the non-disabled community to consistently seek out using and leveraging existing platforms to elevate the voices of disabled people. Ensuring we are visible in leadership, in product innovation itself, and throughout the entrepreneurial space.
Also, check out our upcoming Disability Startup Pitch Competition happening today at 6:00 PM Eastern! Five entrepreneurs with disabilities will pitch their company for a chance to win seed funding. As an audience member, you can help us select the winner. You don’t wanna miss it!
To learn more about Diego Mariscal and the work of 2Gether International, visit 2GetherInternational.org.