Real diversity: The ability to think differently

December 27, 2013

The big idea: Diversity in thought and perspective can bring unique “ways of seeing” to the development of strategies and products. Nowhere is this ability to see differently more poignant than in the stories of leaders who are also blind. James A. Kutschis an engineer, executive, father, innovator and philanthropist — and serves as the first blind president of The Seeing Eye, the organization established in 1929 to train dogs to lead blind people.

The scenario: Kutsch lost his sight at 16 in a backyard chemistry experiment gone awry. Even as a child, he was drawn to math, science and radio technology. Initially, he and his middle-class family in Wheeling, W.Va., assumed that his eyesight would slowly return, but when it did not, he was determined to graduate from high school on schedule and live his life. He gravitated toward amateur radio as a means of self-expression — in part, because his listeners would not know that he could not see. He had always been an average student, and his decision to graduate certainly brought out his resourcefulness. But how and why did he succeed so greatly in his later endeavors?

The resolution: Kutsch said, “If other people can do it, so can I. Ask, ‘How can we?’ rather than saying why we can’t.” This philosophy served him well, as did the approaches for living that he learned during his residency at the Seeing Eye in 1970. After graduating from West Virginia University with a bachelor’s degree in psychology (which he had been advised was a “safe” major for a blind person) and working in the campus computer lab, he earned master’s and doctoral degrees in computer science.

He said of his dissertation topic at the University of Illinois, “I had been introduced to computer-generated speech. The biggest product at the time was the ability to check your bank balance on the phone. I wanted to apply the then-new technology to help the blind computer user — essentially make a talking computer. I wanted the computer to read to me.”

In 2008, Kutsch was recognized with an honorary doctorate of humanities from Rowan University for his life of service to people with disabilities, including having designed the first talking computer.

The lesson: With that invention, Kutsch not only opened the door to greater computer access for himself and others who were visually impaired but also laid the groundwork that inspired continuing innovations leading to modern accessibility software. His ability to recognize and respond to an unmet need has led to many of his contributions.

Diversity is about far more than proportions and numbers; it is also about more than richness of background and culture. The value of diversity is perhaps best characterized as the unique ability to see.

Erika Hayes James and Rebecca Goldberg

James is a business professor at the University of Virginia Darden School of Business. Goldberg is a management consultant and educator at www.goldbergideas.com.

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