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How media tech can be a path to greater participation and inclusion

Frank Kunkle, SMPTE's director of marketing, explains how modern media technologies offer capabilities most people consider conveniences, but can be life-changing for others

If you were to meet Frank Kunkle, SMPTE director of marketing, for breakfast to talk about the Society’s latest initiatives and standards work, it’s unlikely you’d realise he is legally blind.

But if Kunkle found the route to the restaurant unfamiliar, he would have used the camera on his smartphone to identify street signs along the way. Earlier in the day, he would have relied on the amazing resolution on that same phone to take the correct prescription and trim his toenails. The night before, while streaming a show on TV, he might have attached something like a telescope to his eyeglasses to give his partner a break from reading the subtitles aloud. 

An apology from Kunkle, who is arriving just a moment late due to misplaced eyeglasses, may seem natural so you’re a bit confused when he instead asks to switch seats with you. But he’s warm and charismatic, so you gladly listen as he explains that if you had stayed in the seat with the sunlight streaming into the café from behind you, he’d be unable to see your facial features and expressions throughout your conversation. 

Even when Kunkle wears glasses, his visual acuity falls into the legal blindness range; on his best days, an object that is 20 feet away would appear to be 100 feet away. But having been born with bilateral coloboma, Kunkle also experiences a restricted visual field and sensitivity to light. Like any person with a disability, he is familiar with manipulating his environment – often and quickly – sometimes using tools in ways that their inventors hadn’t planned for in order to perform mundane yet essential tasks.

Thanks in large part to screens and moving images, Kunkle is able to live as close to a normal life as possible. This attracted him to the role at SMPTE several years ago. The opportunity to collaborate closely with SMPTE’s members, who are the engineers and technologists working on advances in media, felt perfect to Kunkle. Even at the level of engineering requirements and standards, Kunkle has benefited greatly from the work of SMPTE’s members throughout his life.

“I am drawn to working in STEM fields, and media especially, because innovation in these areas can make life so much better for visually impaired people,” says Kunkle. “Modern media technology offers capabilities most people consider conveniences, but for someone like me, those conveniences can be life-changing.”

Huge screens with powerful resolution and detail allow many people with low vision to see the world more clearly than they ever could with their own eyes. And Kunkle points to innovations such as an intelligent camera app that narrates the world around the user, and SMPTE’s media-over-IP standards and requirements, which offer many options for delivering media to consumers in a way that works for them. Another bucket of tools, such as the browser extension Teleparty (formally called Netflix Party), created for general use is also proving immensely valuable to visually impaired users. 

Kunkle explains that, being legally blind as a child, he experienced an extreme awareness of self. He recalls being just three years old and wanting to hide his impairment. For Kunkle and many others, that introspection came with having what the U.S. calls an Individualised Education Plan (IEP). While effective, the supports a young person would experience through their IEP invite that person from a very young age to compare their abilities to their peers.

It becomes overwhelming as the supports lead the person to articulate limitations their impairment creates and finally the simple task of verbalising (self-advocacy) the solutions that they will need to participate in society. Here’s the challenge: the young, disabled person may have to imagine solutions that have never been seen before or they may lack the life experience to really understand their needs.  

Over the years, Kunkle went to great lengths to seem like he was running with the pack. While he worked hard to make it look as though there was nothing going on for him, his life was in fact very different from that of most people around him. 

“I’d go to watch a movie with friends, but I couldn’t see a damn thing on the screen. I’d awkwardly pretend I was following the plotline. Screens were so small even a few decades ago!” says Kunkle. “But these days I could use Teleparty to watch the same film with the time code synchronised – thank you, SMPTE! – on my own screen. I get to be exactly in the moment. What a different experience that is. And the same goes for playing collaborative, phone-based video games with friends. For so many visually impaired people, it’s like, ‘Finally, I can really do this.’”

This value of participation — and, more recently, inclusion — has long been clear to Kunkle. So he is driven by a shocking reality that only 31.4 per cent of persons with disabilities in the U.S. ages 16-64 are employed, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor and Statistics, while 72.5 per cent without disabilities that age range are employed.

Kunkle suggests that, at a minimum, most any person wants to participate in a society. So it is only natural that many conversations around inclusion of persons with disabilities deal with participation. What he feels may be missing in some of these conversations is the idea that visually impaired and other disabled people can and do give back to society in a symbiotic way. He confesses to taking pride in paying taxes. He enjoys offering original ideas and executing marketing campaigns in an inclusive workplace at SMPTE.

As a young person, Kunkle feared the opposite — that he would require life-long support from those who would be in a more favourable position to contribute. He wonders whether there might be many more disabled people who want to do more than just participate. Like him, they want to contribute.

Rejecting the idea that a visually impaired person must be exceptional to succeed in a career, Kunkle wishes he could give a set of instructions for finding career success to any disabled person. It should be easy, right? If he did it, why can’t others? That’s the problem. He credits a great deal of his success to a factor beyond his control: inclusion. 

He explains that the experience of growing up with a disability hardwires a person to persevere, to become phenomenally resourceful, and to display critical thinking. He also notes that, depending on the impairment, it can also foster development of neurological differences in their brain. 

“I’ve always thought that if inclusion is real, shouldn’t we be bringing as many perspectives to the table as possible?” says Kunkle. “There are people whose experiences and perspectives are so different, even at the neurological level, and they’re not participating, let alone giving back or contributing. They deserve a seat at the table in a career that is meaningful to them and to be strategic, to work hard, and to be dignified in that way.”

Kunkle attributes his success to being stubborn and to having the support of wonderful people in his life. Family, friends, and employers have opened their arms to his differences but still, it has been a difficult journey. He now hopes that other disabled people might hear his story so that they can feel permission to accept themselves exactly as they are. 

Being visually impaired as he grew up, Kunkle says, he knows there were cues he was missing or information others had that he didn’t. He explains he won’t be able to see your nametag at IBC Show or SMPTE’s 2022 Media Technology Summit this year, even at a conversational distance. He’ll instead attempt to connect your voice to your name. (No match found.) Next, he’ll send a physical feature or a detail of your attire through the Rolodex of his mind to try to find your name. (OK, he definitely hasn’t met you before.) He’s a bit embarrassed when you say, “but we exchanged a few emails before!” 

Looking back, Kunkle sees that a fear of being left out or being left behind helped to motivate him through academia and his career. Now, he wants younger people to understand that they can instead accept that they are visually impaired and believe in themselves, that they can participate as they are in a meaningful and valuable way. If inclusion is working, people with disabilities can act based on a belief that they’ll succeed (self-efficacy) rather than act based on the belief they’re about to fall behind.

“You’ll become really aware as you grow up that you’re different from everyone around you, and so your own mind will compel you to think about your shortcomings,” says Kunkle. “You just have to say, ‘No, I am enough.’ As soon as I started to do that, my life got so much better.”