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How Comcast and SF’s LightHouse for the Blind are championing digital accessibility

Three people are walking through a hallway, two holding white canes, one with a guide dog, while the third person accompanies them.
Thomas Wlodkowski, Vice President of Accessibility at Comcast, center, Sharon Giovinazzo, CEO of San Francisco’s LightHouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired, left, and other colleague walk through the LightHouse’s headquarters in San Francisco on Thursday, June 6. | Source: Kim White/Comcast

Last week, guide dogs, community members, and technology leaders gathered for a fireside chat featuring Thomas Wlodkowski, Vice President of Accessibility at Comcast, and Sharon Giovinazzo, CEO of San Francisco’s LightHouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired. The pair discussed the topic of digital inclusion and accessibility at LightHouse’s headquarters. The event culminated with Comcast awarding the LightHouse a $20,000 digital equity grant—through its Project UP initiative.

With these funds, the SF LightHouse for the Blind will be able to continue its ongoing mission to promote independence, community, and equity created by and with blind and low vision people. Specifically, this grant will provide funding to support LightHouse offerings like one-on-one tutorials with access technology instructors, employment immersion programs, and free or subsidized smartphones and tablets for low-income clients.

Two people in business attire are holding a giant $20,000 check from Comcast addressed to "Lighthouse for the Blind."
Source: Kim White/Comcast

Born blind at birth, Wlodkowski referred to himself as “a minority within a minority.” As someone who came of age during the tech revolution, he has invested in accessible, equitable technology since long before he joined Comcast to start the company’s Accessibility program 12 years ago.

Early in the conversation, Wlodkowski took a moment to express his enthusiasm for the tour of the LightHouse facilities, which he had just finished. Designed by architecture firm Mark Cavagnero Associates with the consultancy of blind architect Chris Downey, the concept is full of ingenious small touches, like notches built into the reception desk to allow patrons to hang their canes while signing paperwork.

“True inclusivity is not having to wonder if something is for you,” Wlodkowski told the audience, citing LightHouse’s layout as an example of what such an approach should look like.

Three individuals are seated on a stage, engaging with an audience, while a man stands to their right performing sign language. The background includes a screen and a podium.
Tom Wlodkowski discusses Comcast’s American Sign Language video remote interpreting services on Thursday, June 6 in San Francisco. | Source: Kim White/Comcast

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Discussing how their own accessibility needs differ—while Wlodkowski was born blind, Giovinazzo lost her vision at the age of 31—the two dug into topics like creating solutions that cater to all needs and how critical it is to consider aspects such as usability, training barriers, and affordability as part of that process.

In keeping with Comcast’s ongoing commitment to digital inclusion and accessibility, the fireside chat also featured Wlodkowski presenting Giovinazzo and the LightHouse with a digital equity grant to further their work. Comcast also made grants of $20,000 each to the California School for the Deaf and the World Institute on Disability. For the LightHouse, the funds will assist them in their efforts to meet every client “where they are,” which the CEO emphasized is a crucial part of the organization’s operating philosophy.

A crowd of people stand at a podium as a giant check from Comcast is awarded to Lighthouse for the Blind.
Source: Kim White/Comcast

Launched as a pilot project last year, Comcast has become the first telecommunications retailer to offer live, on-demand, remote ASL interpreting services in stores to better serve deaf and hearing impaired customers. Xfinity stores in San Jose, Sunnyvale, Palo Alto, Fremont, Oakland, and Dublin will now offer the service.

“When I lost my vision at 31,” Giovinazzo shared, “I didn’t know how I was going to cross the street, let alone find a job. We need to bring people to the table from all levels, whether that’s wanting to be able to turn off the TV or to one day work on tech at Comcast.”

To that end, the pair highlighted the importance of so-called “digital curb cuts”—an apt description of technological advances in accessibility akin to the landmark moment in 1990 when the Americans with Disabilities Act enshrined accessible sidewalks into law.

In a room with wooden cabinets and flowers, a man holding a white cane chats with a woman and another man wearing glasses, while people stand in the background.
Source: Kim White/Comcast

For Wlodkowski, that work now continues through the introduction of exciting new services meant to increase accessibility where it matters most. Current plans include the inclusion of live audio descriptions during NBC’s prime time broadcasts of this summer’s 2024 Paris Olympics and the debut of live American Sign Language (ASL) Video Remote Interpreting (VRI) services at eight Bay Area Xfinity store locations.

Following his conversation with Giovinazzo, Wlodkowski sat down with The SF Standard to share what it means to him to be able to reward the hard work of community partners like LightHouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired with digital equity grants as part of his role with Comcast.

“It makes it all worthwhile,” he confirmed. “All of us work in these communities. These are our neighbors and friends, so doing something like this really illustrates the company’s commitment to making our products accessible, and that’s only one part of the equation.”

Two people with guide dogs converse in a well-lit room with eight other people chatting. The guide dogs are a Labrador and a Golden Retriever.
Source: Kim White/Comcast

Wlodkowski then highlighted the importance of “whole person” care models like those embraced by LightHouse. These models ensure clients have access to devices, training, and more as part of their support approach.

“It does take a village,” he said. “But the fact that we can do things like what we did with LightHouse today and provide these grants makes the day-to-day grind worthwhile. The grants are going to help upskill people and get them ready for the workforce. They are going to allow for more end-users to get the training they need, and they’ll even help to get devices into the hands of people who otherwise wouldn’t be able to afford them.”

For Comcast, the goal is about connecting people to what matters to them. Citing experiences he had faced only within the last day, Wlodkowski spoke of practical obstacles he continues to encounter, such as properly identifying the contents of bottles in his hotel shower or eating at an airport restaurant that only accepts payment via an app. These anecdotes brought home what continues to drive Comcast’s mission to provide accessible technology: solutions that leave no one behind and allow all to thrive.