After losing his eyesight 20 years ago, artist and activist David New of Miami, Florida had to adjust to a whole new way of life. New joins Alex Roy in a conversation about getting from point A to point B with a disability.
Hi everyone. This is Alex Roy and I’m the host of the No Parking Podcast, a show meant to cut through the hype around self-driving cars and artificial intelligence. In this episode I want to talk about the idea of storytelling because whenever a company talks about the technology they’re building, they often want to do storytelling. But it doesn’t really connect for me because the story of the technology has to be either the story of the people who built it or the people that are gonna use it. And in the autonomous vehicle sector, one of the most frequently cited examples of people who might become users, and really beneficiaries, are people with disabilities. And yet, most of us have no idea what it’s like being unable to see. Or hear. Or walk. Years ago, I volunteered for an organization called The Moth, which today is probably the most popular storytelling series, certainly in the United States. And The Moth’s ability to get people to come onstage and tell true stories of their lives, things they’ve often not revealed to anyone else, was uncanny. I’ve wanted to hear someone with a disability explain what their life is like in such a way that I could understand what an autonomous vehicle could do for them. So our guest this week is an artist and interior designer named David New. He lives in Miami Beach. He’s also the founder of the South Beach Jazz Festival. And what makes him, well he’s already fascinating, but what makes him really fascinating is that he lost his sight at age 30. And he has two lenses through which he sees the world. The one from before he lost his sight and the one after. And as a visual artist, he’s still working today. He has an almost unique perspective in a life that most people will never understand. But we come a lot closer to understanding it by hearing him tell the story, in true Moth style, of what it’s like for him to wake up, get out of bed, and make his way from his apartment in South Beach to the supermarket, and back. That gives us a window on what will happen when autonomous vehicles become available to him. It’s fascinating. Let’s jump right into it.
David, can you explain what the journey is like? You wake up at home on Michigan Avenue, right? What is the typical destination for you in South Beach or anywhere in Miami you might go to?
Well, one of the most recurring destinations I have is going to the supermarket.
And which supermarket do you go to?
Publix, big chain.
And Publix, where is that one? That’s new. So Sunset Harbor. That’s near Panther coffee. Alright, so how far is that? Do you walk the whole way?
No. I’m not a big walker. Okay. But I guess it’s about less than a mile.
All right, you wake up. What is that journey?
I wake up. The first thing that happens is that my dog Lola brings me my shoes. And she does that instinctively. I think her puppy raisers taught her that. And that means she’s ready to get up and have breakfast. So she gives me my shoes. Usually I’ll use the bathroom first and then we’ll walk into the kitchen. I have her dog food in a bowl, in a drawer in the cabinet. So I just pull out the drawer, put the food in her bowl, and she goes to town. She’s done in about 15 seconds, usually. I’ll take her outside for a walk and she’ll do her business. And then we’re good to go for the morning.
It seems like you could probably do a whole podcast just about her doing her business and having to resolve that. But all these things happen.
Oh, it’s easier than you think.
Well, I’m afraid that it is probably exactly that easy.
I mean, I was really reluctant at first. I didn’t want to have to do that but they make you figure that out.
Well, your apartment, are you on the ground floor?
I’m on the ground floor.
So you’ve lived there for how many years?
So you have a mental map of every inch?
Absolutely. The first thing I did when I got the place was I redesigned the whole thing. Gutted it, took the walls out, redistributed it, moved everything around, and created it the way I wanted it to be. As an interior designer, that’s one of the things that I do in any place that I move or live in. I need to feel like all the surfaces have been somehow changed or altered in order for it to be mine.
So when you did that, did you still insist on certain colors even though you couldn’t see them?
Yeah. Well, it’s mostly black and white.
There’s a certain beauty in that, but that’s a whole different-
But I do have color. I have a sculpture garden, and I have bright colors out there. But on the inside most of the house is white. And then my office is a metallic pewter gray. And then my bedroom was black and white, etc.
So or did you specify different surfaces and surface types?
Yeah, I specified everything.
Alright, so are the surfaces different because you cannot see?
Yeah, I enjoy it more when I put a texture on something. I have things like a booth around my dining room table that’s upholstered with bolt bolsters. They’re in a white leather. And so that is a tactile experience for me. I put three dimensional panels in my living room wall that have circles raised from them so you can feel that and I think visually, it’s very appealing as well. I did glass and marble on the floor so that’s very smooth and clean looking. It’s in perfect white, it’s called.
How many of these choices would have been different If you could still see, as a designer?
Not so much.
Alright, so it’s purely the color?
When I was growing up, my parents were like, “no sushi.” There was no sushi growing up. And when I first tasted it, I was probably 23-24.
And I didn’t understand what it was. Was it a health thing for your family? As for my parents, it was like, “no, it’s gross.” No sushi.
Well I think it was more that eating raw fish was a no-no.
Yeah, right. Someone had to explain to me that presentation, but especially that texture, was the point. And that’s when I first started looking at objects in the world differently, and not just food. So in your home, how much can you map out in your head by steps versus by touch?
I don’t measure steps. That is futile because you could be walking swiftly one day and slow another day and your steps are all off. It doesn’t work for me. But I can picture the blueprint of my apartment just sitting here. I know what it looks like, I know what the walls feel like. I don’t use a cane or my dog when I’m at home. Because, you know, I know it. I know the place. I will put my hand out to make sure I don’t walk into a door. But aside from that, I am very familiar.
So you get to the front door. Describe to me-
Am I on the inside or the outside?
That is the right answer. So you get to the front door, you’re on the inside. You’re going to emerge into the world. Tell me about the journey to Publix. Because if I was me, I open the door. I march outside. I just start walking and I’m there. I don’t even think about it.
You don’t think about it. Right. And I have to think about everything.
Make me think about it.
The thing about being blind is, and it depends on which blind person you ask, but for me the experience is if you miss one wrong step, that could be the end of your life. All it takes is one wrong step. So I am super careful about every single step that I take wherever I go. So I leave my house. Usually when I go to Publix, I’ll use a shared ride like Uber or Lyft. It’s mostly because it is a long walk. And I do have to traverse major intersections with lots of cars. And Miami drivers are notoriously…
Yeah. And so I’ll use Lyft or Uber. And that in itself is a project, right? I use an iPhone with voiceover, which reads the screen to me wherever I touch it. And that’s great. Apple has changed the world for people with disabilities and people who are blind like nothing else has ever. So this is a great time to be alive if you’re a person with a disability. And so I’m able to pull up the app, put in the destination and call the car. And that’s great. And seemingly, that would be all you need to do. But it’s not quite there yet because the majority of people living in Miami, I believe, are not native English language speakers. And I am not a Spanish speaker. And so many times, many, many times, the drivers don’t speak English. And so they won’t know that I’m blind and I can’t see them. And even if I tried to text them or call them, if they decide to answer and I tried to explain to them the situation, they don’t necessarily get it. And I’m standing there right in front of their car, and I’m waving my arms, and they can’t see me. So you have to get creative. And sometimes I’ll wave my cane in the air. One of the problems other than the language barrier is that sometimes they’ll be across the street. I’m not going to just walk out into the middle of the street when cars are going in both directions and try to find them on the other side of the street. They have to find me. That’s the rule. If they can’t come right in front of me, then I’m not using them. So let’s assume that they did see me, they did pull up in front of me, and I got in the car. I have my guide dog Lola with me. And they say no dogs in my car. I’m not even going to try to say it in Spanish, but that is clearly a violation of my rights as a person in the United States under the Americans with Disabilities Act. And they have all been notified in many ways on many platforms that their responsibility is to make sure that they give equal transport of individuals, especially those with service animals, and some of them still choose not to do it. This has been the bane of my existence for many years now. longAnd with the technology I have with my phone and with certain apps, and cameras and stuff like that, I can record the moment when they pull away. I’ll have the name of the driver and his driver number. I’ll contact the company, which anybody who has ever tried to contact Uber or Lyft knows that it’s a daunting proposition.
But I have to be persistent. I’ve learned since I lost my eyesight 20 years ago that persistence is the key to anything. People think that they’re going to wear you down. And that you’re going to keep calling and keep leaving messages, emails, text messages and voice messages until you give up. But I never give up. Never.
I could tell that.
So, that’s the beginning of the journey to the supermarket.
Alright, so that gets us from the bed to the front door. That’s a serious journey. So you’re at the curb. And depending on from which direction the ride hail vehicle is coming, it may be on your side of the street or it may be on the opposite side of the street. What percentage of the time does this go well?
Does it go really well? How about this: how often does this happen well enough that you don’t think about it?
Oh, I always think about it.
But 10% of the time, they go the way they should.
Good enough. I get in the car, I get where I’m going. There’s so many things that happen along the way. If the driver doesn’t speak English, and even if the driver does speak English, they may not let me off in the right place. I’ve been let off so many times in the wrong place. And then there I am. I have no idea where I am.
Well, let’s hold on a minute. 10% of the time you get in and it goes well. On that journey, you get the ride of a few minutes to the Publix and then you get to the other half of it. The other part of the journey, which is getting off. Is there ever a journey where it all goes right?
Is that still in the 10%?
And getting it right means dropping you off at Publix right in front of the front door. Is that what that is?
But Publix is a block long. So when they drop you off at the curb even, you dont know where the door is. So I usually ask them to point me in the direction, north, south, east or west? Where’s their front door and are there stairs? That kind of thing.
And when you say point you in the right direction?
Well, I’ll use my hand and I’ll point and say is it in that direction? And they’ll say yes or no. Or they’ll say it’s to your right or to your left. So I need an open dialogue with them. I need communication. It’s essential.
Okay, so you emerge from the vehicle. I have never taken a ride hail car to that Publix. You’re getting on the right side of the car, always.
If things go right. Okay, so you get out on the right side of the car. You find the front door of the Publix. Now you’re in Publix.
Because I’m familiar with that particular Publix, I know that the customer service counter is to the left. So I walk in. You have the checkout lanes right in front of you. I’m with my dog, and I tell her to go left. And we walk straight up to the counter because I’ll tell Lola to find the counter. That’s one of the amazing things that she does. And then I’ll say, “Is there someone that could assist me with my shopping?” because clearly I can’t walk around the store by myself and find things. So I prepare a list ahead of time. I have it on my phone and I also have a printed version for them to see. And I’ll go to customer service, and then hopefully, they’ll understand me. And then they’ll find somebody, usually a box person or a restocking person, to help me shop. So we get a cart, I grab onto the handle and push the cart and that helper person will steer the cart from the front. So they’re basically driving the cart. And we’ll go around the store and they’ll read the list. Language is a big thing in Miami. I mean, I don’t want to harp on that too much, because that’s not the way it is everywhere. But in my situation, that is a big problem. And if they can’t read English, and they can’t read the list, and there’s no one else to help me shop, then shopping takes three hours for a basic list.
Let’s assume your list is satisfied and your carts full. You come back to the front, you pay.
Then I ask that person to escort me outside to the curb where I’ll be waiting for another driver. And there are many different places that drivers can pull up. So I need that assistance to find that car.
The vehicle arrives. Let’s assume it arrives. Does this person help you put the bags in the trunk?
Usually they’ll put the bags in the trunk. And then it’s a matter of if they allow Lola in.
So you’ve got to fight that battle twice. Everything twice. You get back to Michigan Avenue. Everything happens in reverse order. They pull up, hopefully on the correct side. Does this go better returning to Michigan because they’re heading southbound?
No, that doesn’t make a difference. But I can follow my phone’s GPS to tell me where we are. So I’ll know.
Which app do you use? Which mapping app?
I use a lot of different apps. I even have an app that connects to a live agent that can see in front of me. That’s Ira.
I read about that. We’ll come back to that. So you get back to Michigan Avenue, eventually to the right location. And then you need to get the bags back into your home. What does that look like?
Well, we get to my gate, and I’ll ask the driver if he could bring the bags up to my door for me. And usually they do. They’re very helpful in that way. And that’s it. Then I bring the bags in myself and put everything away.
If you could see, how long would this operation take?
Well, let me ask you that. How long does it take you to go to the market and get stuff?
I’m an outlier, because I’m an inefficient person. And a bad shopper.
It would take the normal time for a sighted person to shop.
I mean, is that the right terminology? Is that correct, sighted?
I mean, there are things that are not PC. You can say blind people or what we’d like to call people-first language (people who are blind, people who use wheelchairs, people with disabilities). So I am blind. There’s nothing wrong with using that word. My mom had a really hard time saying the word blind for a long time. And we’d be in a restaurant, and a waiter would come up, and my mom would say, “David can’t see you.” But for a mother, I understand. It was an emotional situation when I lost my sight. And then it was heartbreaking for her to keep reiterating that to people. And the thing was, I was sick for a long time, two years in a hospital bed. And I very slowly got my legs back. Quite literally inch by inch. By the time I actually got out of the house and we went out to lunch, I was in a wheelchair. You have to schlep all your stuff with you. And I had a catheter with the bag and the chair, and you have to fit it in the trunk. Going out to lunch was like a big deal.
Get me up to speed here. You couldn’t see. You couldn’t hear. And there was the potential that you might remain paralyzed from the waist down. Is that correct?
That is correct.
And so you beat most of those things. So that was the two year recovery?
What is it like to live a life where seeing is, and I mean your life wasn’t just about seeing, you were an artist and you’re still an artist, to be an artist lose your sight? And then reconstruct a model of the world without sight? How did you learn? How does a person learn to see the world and navigate it?
Well, first of all, one of the great things about being blind is that you don’t have to see a lot of stuff. And I think things are more visceral when you see them for most people. I lost my sight in April of 2000. And then what? It was right before 911. Was that 2001?
That was 2001.
And then I was in my hospital bed at my parents house. My uncle called me on the phone early in the morning, it was around 8:30 on September 11. And I had NPR playing in the background. We were talking and all of a sudden I heard a plane just went into the World Trade Center. And I said “Uncle Ronnie, you got to turn on the TV. I just heard the strangest thing.” And then it unfolded as everybody knows. But I never saw it with my eyes.
I actually saw it with my own eyes. I was down there. I wish I could unsee it.
Right. And I’m glad that I never saw it.
Is there a person or a specialist who shows up and explores and helps a person who could see at one time understand how to navigate spaces and rooms in streets.
There are people that do that. They’re called orientation and mobility specialists. The thing is when I lost my sight, I was in the hospital. I had detached retinas. What I lost my sight from was something called varicella zoster, which is related to chickenpox virus. And they did surgery, but it was happening so quickly that whatever they did, they couldn’t maintain the eyesight that I had. That was something that was not painful. Except for the needles with the injections in my eyes, actually losing my eyesight slowly every day over a three week period was the least painful thing that I had going on. I was having surgeries, I might have parallel paralysis of my legs. They were poking me and prodding me in the hospital every day. I didn’t even think about how to rebound from the blindness until much later.I had to learn how to walk again. But eventually, you know, the doctor came into my hospital room, and he told me “look up, look down, look left, look, right.” That was a daily occurrence. And then finally, one day, he said, “I’m sorry to have to tell you, but you’re blind.” Like, no kidding. And then later when I went to seek orientation and mobility help, I was handed a pamphlet that was printed. It said, “This is what you do when you lose your sight,” And it was just like a very thin bifold pamphlet. And I said, first of all, I can’t even read this. What do I do with this? Doctors, ophthalmologists and eye doctors are not necessarily prepared to have a blind patient. I think they think that when that happens, they’re done. It’s somebody else’s responsibility. That’s the feeling that I got anyway. So I found an organization called the Lighthouse for the Blind in Palm Beach County. And that’s all they do. They are there to facilitate the kind of lifestyle for people who are blind. For people to be able to be independent. It’s an amazing organization and they have them all over the country. They’re not affiliated with one another, opposed to what some people might think. And some are more prolific in the community than others. One of the great ones, aside from Palm Beach and Miami, is the San Francisco Lighthouse for the Blind where Brian Bashin is the president. Amazing person. I went out there. That’s another story but I met him and actually went to Apple headquarters and instacart and some others to talk about accessibility.
Coming back to orientation mobility specialists. Is there like a course or like a? *background tone dings* So stop right there and tell me what that was.
It’s my Apple Watch. I have a voiceover turned on. So when I touch it, it’s gonna give me information.
It sounds like it was sped up.
It is. You can speed it up to 100%. I usually keep it around 85 or 90. Yeah, I’m a speed listener.
And does that mean you listen to everything at high speed?
Yeah. Well, no, I mean text, not music. I learned actually, after I lost my sight, that I’m really an audible learner. If I had had the availability of audio books when I was growing up, I would have done so much better in school. I was not an academic, I was an art student. Reading the words on the page didn’t connect to my brain. So reading was the last thing I wanted to do. But now since I lost my eyesight, I love reading. My comprehension is amazing. Back in the 70s and 80s when I was growing up, there was only one way to do it. You learn how to read, you read a book and that’s it. Although I know at the time, they did have technology for people who were dyslexic or had other learning disabilities that were audio recordings. But it was never offered to me.
How much has technology changed over the last 20 years? And to the best of your knowledge, 30 or 40 years?
Well all the technology that’s available now, for people who are blind specifically, I think really came about in my lifetime. You know, since I was born in 1970. I mean, there were things that were precursors that happened before then. But up until the last few years, it’s been building this momentum. And now it’s just so extraordinary that it levels the playing field in so many ways for people with disabilities, and people who are blind, where it didn’t exist in all of humanity up until now. If you think of the timeline, it’s unbelievable. I just feel so grateful that I’m able to not only express myself, through and with the technology, but also to have a platform, and in meeting you on this platform for people to get a greater understanding of what my life is about, and what it means for so many others.
So something like Braille. At one point, that was the only way that people who couldn’t see, could read a book.
Pretty much. And I learned how to read Braille.
How often do you use Braille?
I use Braille every day. I learned to use it. Actually, when I was in a hospital bed and I couldn’t move, I had people from the Lighthouse come to my home and teach me Braille. And actually, once you learn the alphabet, it’s easy breezy. I memorized it in a few weeks, and then it’s a matter of the tactile sensation with your finger with these little tiny dots on the page and getting used to that. So you can put people who are blind in two categories: people who are congenitally blind from birth, and people who become blind.
*Lola’s collar jingles* Just for everybody, that’s the sound of Lola, who is a beautiful yellow lab. She’s sitting here next to us
She’s my guide dog.
She’s the best. All right, so you were saying that there are people who are congenitally blind who have never had sight?
Right. And then there are those like me who are adventitiously blind, or are blind later in life. So when you’re born blind and you start using Braille, as a child it is the preferred method for a lot of people who are blind. And now they have braille displays for computers where it refreshes automatically and they can read very swiftly. I could never do that. If you gave me a book in Braille, I’d still be reading it if you gave it to me 10 years ago. But I use Braille everyday for labeling purposes. For labeling documents, labeling things around my home, for labeling, you name it. Physical things.
Browsing the web, how does that work?
Screen reader, text to speech, screen reading software. And there are many different companies who provide that software. Apple has that software built into all of their devices, which is a game changer in many ways. I also learned screen reading software. Something called JAWS job access with speech, and it’s made by a company called Freedom Scientific. I think they changed their name. Anyway, it operates in a very similar way, but there are different rules. So when I use my laptop or my desktop, I’ll use JAWS. When I’m on my phone or my watch, I use voiceover with the iPhone, etc.
So are there competing approaches to how these technologies are evolving? Or are they generally unified around one approach?
Well, they all basically do the same thing. They’re reading the text on the screen to you, which is amazing in itself. But also, if you are a person who’s developing a website or text for something, it’s very helpful to know that there are guidelines. There’s the worldwide consortium of screen reading software, WCAG is the name of the guidelines, and they dictate how things and websites should be created so that they’re accessible to people who use that kind of software. So the biggest problem with screen readers and websites is that there is a code behind what everybody sees on the screen. The code is called alternate text, it’s behind a link or a button or something. And usually that code is just random numbers and characters because nobody sees it on the screen, but the person who creates the code knows what it is. But in order for me to be able to read it, it has to say what that link is. For example, if there’s a picture of a dog on the screen, the code behind it could be JX5937- whatever. So you need all the text. I need it to say “dog.” It’s pretty simple. But getting the whole rest of the world to understand that is the challenge. I think the most current estimate is that 2% of all websites are actually accessible. So that creates quite a challenge. But there are 300 million people who are blind or visually impaired around the world, so there is incentive.
How many people in the United States?
30 million out of 350 million. It’s a big number. You said earlier you’re not a big walker.
But I was paralyzed for a couple of years. So it was a process of learning how to walk again, or for the second time, I should say. When you learn to walk as a child, you don’t really remember that experience. But when I learned to walk for the second time, it took a long time and it took a lot of rehab every single day. It took me months of just hanging my feet over the side of the bed to get over the feeling of the blood rushing into my legs and my feet. Before I can even put a toe down on the floor.
Miami Beach, some would say, is immensely walkable.
It is and that’s why I chose to live there. It’s very pedestrian-accessible in many ways. It’s flat terrain. It’s like a little city where you can walk to anything that you want or need. Shops, restaurants, clubs, bars, whatever you’re into.
Do you just go take walks?
Yeah I take walks.
My observation is that a random street corner of Miami Beach is not going to have necessarily the sonic warnings you might find in some places like Manhattan. I’m from New York.
Are you from New York?
I’m from New York. Can you tell? But you live there, you know. So how do you know if it’s red? If you can cross? How do you know when to cross the street?
Well, when I first moved back to the beach, after I lost my sight, it was in 2005. I couldn’t cross the street. I had heard about this technology called audible pedestrian signals where there’s a button on a light signal on a light pole and it beeps. So somebody who’s blind knows where the button is, you go up to the button, it’s tactile, it has an arrow on it. You push it, and then it’ll read to you which direction you’re crossing, it’ll read you the name of the street. And it’ll tell you if it’s okay to cross or if it’s red or green in your direction, if it’s not okay to cross.
And do 100% of intersections that have lights have that device?
No. When I researched, I found that there are a lot of them in California, in San Francisco and San Rafael. So I contacted them, the Lighthouse out there and those other organizations. And I became involved with the city of Miami Beach because of this. When I got there and I couldn’t cross the street, I called the mayor’s office because who else do you call, right? And I said, I’d like to know, is there anyone I can discuss this topic with at the city about it having these implemented in the city of Miami Beach. And so a commissioner answered the phone and he said, “Well, we have this committee, it’s a disability access committee. It’s a committee of the mayor, it’s open to the public and you’re free to come anytime. So I came to the meeting. I introduced myself. And then I came to the meeting every week. And when I had an opportunity to speak, I said, “I’m blind. I heard about these signals. What do you think?” Everybody agreed that it was a great technology and it was good, but you know governance is not fast. Things move very slow. So for a couple of years, I went to those meetings and kept pushing that agenda of mine. And then finally, there was a space on the committee and I became a member. Then I was able to speak more freely about it and share that information. And then I actually was voted in as the chair of the committee. That’s what I had the ear of the mayor. I finally got to speak to the mayor and I said I’d really like to implement some kind of a pilot program or something with these audible pedestrian signals in Miami Beach. And she said, and I can, in my mind, see her sort of cocking her head to the left or the right going, “You know David, I don’t really like when people come and ask me for stuff.” That was verbatim what she said. And she said, “but what you can do is somehow try to bring attention to your committee. And that might help you get closer to your goal.” And I said, right there on the spot, let’s have some kind of a Disability Awareness Day. And she actually supported that. I created this whole program that took place in Miami Beach, which was the impetus for the audible pedestrian signals to be installed on that day. And the first of the pilot programs was installed on that day, where I had the mayor cutting the ribbon. One of the programs that I created on that day was a disability simulation where all the commissioners were given a disability for the day and they had to live their life as a person with a disability in the city that they govern. It was amazing. And they had to speak about it! Publicly! It was amazing. Transformative for them and for me.
So today, what percentage of intersections in Miami Beach have this audible system?
Well, we never got past phase one. But in that program, I think there are maybe 60 or so in Miami Beach of the audible signals, which is a fair amount. I really think, and there have been laws in other states passed that show that there is no equal access for people who are blind unless all of the intersections have it.
What about intersections that just have a four way stop? Do you feel you can cross? I know you can’t see my face, but I feel like you can see my face. So you come to a four way stop as a pedestrian. I mean, what is your cue?
You have to listen. You have to listen for the traffic patterns. That’s your biggest friend. And when you’re in a big city, where there’s a lot of traffic, and there’s fire engines and ambulances and sirens and all kinds of things going on, you have to sit at that intersection and wait. And wait. And wait until you’re absolutely sure that it’s safe to cross. And as I said earlier, one wrong step is the end. That’s it lights out. Game over.
How good is Lola?
Lola is great. She has a little bit of a- oh, she heard me.
I mean, to what extent is Lola you’re, you know, forcefield?
Lola was trained to do a lot of things, and for the most part she does them. She does get distracted by other animals and dogs sometimes, which is a challenge for me. But I just correct her and we just move forward. But she is a good guide. She does steer me away from obstacles. She doesn’t really let me know when the light turns green, but it’s a collaboration. We’re working together. We’re a team. So I listen and she watches and if there’s a car coming, she’s taught to stop me, to actually go in front of me, and block me from walking.
Did you own a car before you lost your sight?
I think I had like 10 cars. I learned to drive when I was 16. And I had a car.
So the last car you owned – you were living in Miami Beach at that point already, is that right? When you lost your sight?
I was living in Miami Beach. Yeah, I was driving a BMW Z3 convertible.
I had one. I had a 98.
Right. Yeah I think mine was the same year.
I had a 297 2.3 or 2.8 liter, blue with tan. It was a nice car.
Mine was green with cattle.
Ah, the classic racing colors.
I loved how you could just flip it.
I know, you didn’t have to get out. Yeah, it was great. Where would you go on it?
In my car? Anywhere. I was very spontaneous back then. Now in my life everything is very organized and patrolled and planned out very thoroughly. Back then I would get my car, put the top down, and go to Key West. Watch the big ships in the harbor.
So the way that we met was through Mark Hoag who has this podcast “Autonomous Mark Hoag”.
Yeah, that was the first podcast I ever heard you know about when I first was getting into podcasts.
I remember Mark said, “you have to talk to this guy David about self driving cars.” In your dream scenario, what is it that you’re hoping a self-driving car, an autonomous vehicle, would help you do better than your current situation?
Full autonomy as an individual, as a human being. To have the freedom to go wherever I want, whenever I want, as I so choose. Yeah, I want to call the car, have it come right up to me. I get in, I type in or enter in somehow the coordinates of the destination, the address of where I want to go. It takes me right to the door of where I’m going, then it parks itself. And I’m free to be.
So you want to own it.
I want to own it.
And you want to be able to talk to it.
I want to be able to talk to it. I want to roll around in it.
The getting in and out the bags, the front door to the car itself. It doesn’t mean your ride hailing driver that you ask or the person – Well, the person at Publix would still be there. So you could ask them to help you with your bags. And how far would you want to take it?
I asked because you’re wearing a shirt that literally says level five autonomy.
Well, you inspired that.
That’s very kind. Actually, as I get older, I find I want to try new things. I like traveling. But I find myself wanting predictability in my day. And when I was younger, I didn’t care. If we didn’t make it, it didn’t matter. We would have fun anyway. Now I just want things to work.
And that’s what my whole life has been for the last 20 years. Finding systems that work and backup systems for those systems and systems for those systems.
What other forms of automation do you rely on? I guess you have connected speakers and voice control everything at home.
Yeah, my home is pretty much automated as much as you can possibly automate it.
Do you live fully in the apple ecosystem?
I have whatever device will get me to where I need to be. I’ll use anything as long as it’s accessible. Apple devices are the most accessible, but there are others. You know, what’s happened since the iPhone and also including the way the world has changed since the pandemic has made technology in the world more accessible for everyone. And the truth is when you make things accessible for people with disabilities, you make them accessible for everyone. But you know, it’s hard to get people to change who are not people with disabilities. Working from the angle as someone with a disability, it’s harder to get the broader public to change. But when something like the pandemic affects the entire world, and the entire world says “we can’t go out, we need food delivered”, then it makes it accessible for everyone. It has been such an accelerated boost for people with disabilities. I think about when I moved to Miami Beach. There were five supermarkets on the beach, and it’s only like eight square miles. And none of them delivered. In fact, I had to create relationships by calling corporate and calling the stores and the managers in the store just to get someone. The management says, Well, we don’t deliver, but we’ll do this for you. That’s not a solution. It’s a solution for me. That’s what I wanted. But where are all the other people getting their food from?
So during the pandemic, did you get everything delivered? Or did you keep going to get it?
Oh, no, I got everything delivered. I get everything delivered. With Amazon and all the delivery services that are available now, I’d much rather not go and get it.
But you don’t seem like the kind of person who wants to be home?
I love being at home because I created it. It’s kind of my own little amusement park. It keeps me busy. I work from home, I have a gym in my home, I work out at home. I have my organizational meetings at home, and my board members come to my home. I made my life that way because I knew that I would be most efficient that way. I do like to go out and experience the world. But when I have to accomplish work and things in my daily life, home is the best place.
You talk about your Board. For those who aren’t aware, the Board of what?
So I am the president of two humanitarian organizations. One is called Access Now. It’s an ADA advocacy organization, or Americans with Disabilities Act. And largely in the past, we have encouraged fortune 500 companies to be more compliant with the ADA. And now we’re actually turning our mission in a little bit different direction, where it is focusing on education and accessibility in the arts. One of the programs I’m working on right now with my board members in Philadelphia is the first and the most accessible art museum in the world, from the ground up. So that’s a big lofty goal. I have wonderful people on my board. That is that organization Access Now. My other organization, which is also a nonprofit, is called Power Access. And Power Access is about bringing awareness to the community about people living with disabilities. And we do that through special events. We did almost a dozen events in one week of the year around October which is Disability Awareness Month. They included dining in the dark at restaurants city wide where we had business luncheons with the Miami Beach Chamber of Commerce. We had speakers and we gave awards to companies that made their services and products more accessible to people with disabilities. We had a 5k run and children’s programs at the convention center. It was just a long list of things that I got burned out on. And I decided with a friend of mine that we should really focus on one event and make it really great. Instead of splitting everything up, we changed because it was becoming unmanageable. So we decided to create the South Beach Jazz Festival.
That was my next question. Tell us about that.
The mission of that is to create awareness about people living with disabilities by creating these musical events with jazz musicians who happen to be Grammy Award winning artists who have disabilities. So at least one person performing in each group has a disability. We’ve had great headliners like Branford Marsalis, Rob Don, Diane Shores, Matthew Whitaker, VT Bridgewater. It’s been phenomenal.
One of the biggest issues I have with going out in South Beach is traffic. And it isn’t just traffic, it’s the parking. So when people want to attend your event, how the hell do they get there? Ocean Drive is closed. I don’t know how long it has been closed since I’ve only been in Miami six months, but anytime I go east of Washington, it’s a nightmare.
And one of our biggest stages is right on Ocean Drive in Loomis Park.
So if one can find parking like there’s one big parking structure on Collins. So people have to walk. How do you get there? Do you have someone pick you up and give you a ride or you take your –
I have an assistant. And when she’s working for me she’ll give me a ride if I need it and she’s great. Allison is her name. She’s an amazing person and has been an assistant to me for almost 10 years now. So I have to give her a shout out.
So Loomis Park spans from 5th Street to 11th Street. And so how many people attend the event?
Thousands and thousands.
I was down at South Beach almost every morning to ride around in the Argo cars. And I hadn’t really been in Miami for 10 or 15 years, but coming back and seeing how crowded it gets and how bad the traffic gets was crazy. Especially traffic in the parking lot. The last thing I want to do is drive my own car over there. It’s really tough.
It is really tough. And you know that’s part of the problem living in such a saturated area like Miami Beach where there are approximately 89,000 people. And then if there’s an event like the Superbowl, or Art Basel, hundreds of thousands of people swell up in that area. Let me just give you a picture. Lincoln Road is a long, open air mall, which I live adjacent to. On Halloween, there are so many people that are sandwiched together. You just can’t move. People are standing in gridlock. Thousands and thousands of people. And that’s what they come for. And there’s fun in that for some people, right?
Not for me, I’m too old. I don’t care anymore. I never went to Time Square and it was not my cup of tea. If you could change one thing about Miami Beach, specific to mobility, what would it be?
There are other forms of transportation for people who are blind or with disabilities. They have paratransit, which is a horrendous system because there’s a very arduous process of just actually getting registered for it. Then you have to make reservations at least 24 hours in advance. And oftentimes, the driver would show up and not acknowledge that you’re there and drive away. Then you lose your ride. It doesn’t matter if you have a doctor’s appointment or you’re going shopping or whatever it is, they’ll just mark that you weren’t there. And then you get a penalty for that even though you’re standing right there. I used to work on Biscayne Boulevard, which is right over the causeway so for a normal person driving, it would take 10 or 15 minutes. It took me two hours to get there and home every day. Just think about that. I’m ready for an app.
You said something earlier, I forget your exact wording but when things are designed for those with disabilities, they work better for everyone. But if things are only designed for people who are without disabilities, they become the lowest common denominator. I have a lot of conversations with folks at Argo, but I have friends, a lot of companies, a lot of tech companies and we talked about the concept of product. What is the product? Because you can build a piece of technology, but that isn’t the product. If the app sucks, or if something else goes south, or if there isn’t a phone call you can make to a human… but we want to talk to people. Sometimes the better the technology, the more you want a person behind it.
And the good companies still provide that. And it’s not ubiquitous.
No, it’s not. And now with almost anything that I look at, I think what is my product experience going to be? Do you ever use a Roomba?
I do have a Roomba.
Do you know which model you have?
No, but none of them are accessible. Well, I don’t want to say none of them because I’m not really sure what the most current ones are like. I know that you can control them through Alexa and other devices, but I don’t have that version. And the problem with mine was that whenever I pushed it to start working, it would get stuck under my couch or on a chair and it would make that noise that it’s stuck. But I wouldn’t know where.
And so I’d be crawling around on my hands and knees for the damn vacuum. And inevitably, it would get stuck again. So it didn’t work out for me.
I’m curious because I just got a Roomba. And I’m pretty sure the app has a function that if it is stuck, you can tap a key on the touchscreen to set off an alarm. So what you’re saying is the app is not accessible?
If it’s an app that you can use on your phone, it may be accessible. It depends on how they coded it when they made it.
Are you familiar with the Brava, which is their mop robot? Ever heard about that?
I bought the one that does the floor vacuum and the mop. But I never used it because I do my due diligence to try to figure it out and sometimes you just come to a wall. And it’s not made to be accessible. And when you program things and buttons, one button does five different things. You have to look at the LED display to see that program. And sometimes, there’s no way. But there is technology that can make it accessible. You can push a button and it can read to you what setting you’re on.
Luckily, I happen to have a really good friend at iRobot. I think that maybe we should call him after this. But this product thing is interesting, what you’re describing, because the robots,the Brava and the Roomba, are clearly capable of doing a lot of things you want them to do. But you’re saying that it’s the app accessibility that is the issue. So for me, Roomba and Braava are great products. I did a column recently comparing my Roomba and my Tesla as products, and the Roomba came out on top. But in the context of what you’re saying, the Roomba still has limitations. And it’s fascinating because the hardware is all there. It’s the software which has not gone all the way that you need it to go. And that never even occurred to me until I met you.
There’s something called the 21st Century Communications Act, which dictates in a lot of ways that new technology needs to be accessible in certain ways. If the technology is available, you have to make it accessible. But it’s a whole span of items and there’s very specific language in the law. And where there’s a law, there’s a way to wiggle out of it.
Do you have any other products/technologies that you use that really get it right? Or get it wrong but are close?
Well, you know what they say: close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades. Close just doesn’t cut it. It doesn’t cut it. But yeah, I use a lot of technologies. And when something comes out, I’m always grabbing it and testing it. Is this something that I can use? And there’s fun in that. But there’s also often disappointment at the end of it. Close just doesn’t cut it.
So Miami is obviously growing and changing all the time. How do you adapt to the changing landscape of the city?
I guess in one word, the answer would be advocacy.
What does that mean, advocacy? Some people use Twitter. Some people just stand on a street corner and yell.
Yeah, shouting from the mountaintop. Wherever you can be the squeaky wheel. And I’ve learned to use the local government for that purpose.
Do you feel heard locally?
Well, I would say it’s never enough. But yes, I do feel heard and Miami Beach mayor and commissioners have been very supportive of all the programs that I’ve been involved with throughout the city. And I’ve gotten way further than I ever thought I would. I have to say that.
Sometimes just by asking, you never know what’s going to happen. And if you don’t ask, you won’t get. So that’s why I’m eternally grateful to Mark Hoag, shout out to our friend Mark. I met him by accident. And that’s how I met you.
I wrote him an email. And I never even talked to him in person or on the phone, ever. I sent him this long email describing my life and what autonomy meant to me and he took a whole episode of one of his podcasts just to talk about me. He did a great job and connected me with you and several other people who have really given me a platform. So I’m grateful to him and to you as well.
He’s a good egg. So as an artist, can you explain how technology has helped you continue making art?
I create art in different ways. I am a physical artist where I create things with my hands, and then a conceptual artist when I create things with my mind. And all the technology that’s available really helps to accomplish my goals. So whether it’s a screen reader on the computer, which enables me to communicate with manufacturers, welders, and glass suppliers or in the case of architectural design and interior design I’ve been working with the Assistant Dean of Architecture at FIU, Florida International University, who has their campus on Miami Beach right on my street. They have something called the 3D Carta Innovation Lab, which boasts like 50 or 60 3D printers. And so I’ve worked on many projects with them. We’ve created 3D tactile maps of the city of buildings and architecture. They even created a model of the building that I live in, so that I could see all the nuances. I’m the president of my condo association, and I need to know how things work and what they look like. And so we created a model of that. 3D printing is an amazing technology and it literally enables me to see something quicker than any other modality.
Could you tell me about what the Aira is? Explain what it is, how it works, and how you use it.
Okay, so I actually met the guy that created this technology many years ago, before it even existed. AI, for artificial intelligence and he explained to me the RA at the end was some kind of nod to the Egyptian’s sun god. I actually, I think, was helpful in the process of creating the glasses because I brought him a prototype of one with a camera in the center. It looks like a normal pair of sunglasses with the camera in the center. But he started out by using the old Google Glass that they converted with an app so that a person who’s blind can wear these glasses with the camera and connect to a live agent somewhere in the world, who will see what you’re looking at. Because the cameras on your face look in the direction that you’re looking, and they can tell you a myriad of things where you are. I could be walking down the street, and they can say, well, you’re walking by Cartier and then there’s a restaurant. Then they would say, “do you want me to read what’s on the menu for the restaurant?” So I can actually hear when I’m walking by what they’re serving in the restaurant and decide what I want to eat before I even go inside. I mean, just think about it. They’re my eyes, right? They’re gonna see everything that I should be seeing. I mean, not everything. There’s not a whole lot of peripheral vision, but it opens up the world in a way that’s like seeing.
How reliable is what they tell you?
Well it’s a human being and they’re telling you what they think you want to hear. The thing is, they discontinued the glasses. And the glasses I thought were great, because you don’t have to hold a phone or a camera in any direction. It was easy and pretty much seamless and they connected to an app on the phone via Bluetooth. Then the connectivity wasn’t great, so they ended up using a tether to go from a phone to the glasses.
Wi-Fi or Bluetooth?
No, an actual core. They had Bluetooth first. Then the cable. And I hated that. First of all, it makes you stick out like a sore thumb. Obviously, you’re using technology, and people are like what’s going on there. Then it would always unplug from the glasses or from the phone. And when you’re maneuvering, and you’re walking out in the street, and you have your dog on your left, and maybe you’re holding your cane in your right hand, and you have the glasses and your phone and you’re trying to connect. It just didn’t work. And so they discontinued the glasses. Now you can just use your phone, which is very useful. You can wear a lanyard around your neck and hang the phone from you and I use my air pods so that nobody else has to hear my conversation with the person. But I really wish that they would go back to the glasses because that was really tremendous. When I speak to elementary schools with kids, I always do demonstrations. I actually speak to students from elementary school all the way up to graduate students at, for example, University of Arts in Philadelphia, in museum studies classes, and I always demonstrate the technology of AIRA because it’s something that you can use in a museum, or you can use anywhere, really.
What is the single best product that you own? That-
does the most for me? The iPhone. Hands down.
I expected you to say the Airpods.
Oh, I love the Airpods. I have three sets, I just keep changing them out.
NO, the phone. I have so many apps on my phone that can do everything that everybody else can do. Pretty much. That’s huge.
Thank you so much for coming on, David. That was really fascinating. David’s got a new project coming, but it’s still in stealth mode so we can’t talk about it. But I look forward very much to seeing it – and I don’t want to give it away – later this year or sometime early in 2022. So if you want to check out David’s event it’s the South Beach Jazz Festival. The website is SoBeJazzFestival.com, that’s S O B E Jazz Festival dot com. That’s going to take place January 7th through 9th of 2022. And if you want to contact them, their email address is info@SoBeJazzFestival.com. I’ll be there. If you want to contact David, you can reach him through his website, which is www.DesignBrandNew.com. If you enjoyed today’s episode, please connect with us on social or on Twitter at No Parking Pod. I’m everywhere on all social media platforms, but especially Twitter, at AlexRoy144. Please share No Parking with a friend. Like us. Subscribe. Give us a five star review wherever you listen to podcasts. And this show is managed by the Civic Entertainment Group. Until next time, I’m Alex Roy and this is the No Parking Podcast.