James Morley-Smith of Zebra Technologies speaking at TED
By James Morley-Smith | April 19, 2019

How to Turn Your Impairments into an Advantage – in Business and in Life

Whatever holds you back is key to moving forward

Whether you’re designing a product for a customer, practising a hobby or looking to enhance your job prospects, there will always be gaps in your knowledge, topics you don’t understand or skills you can’t yet master. I’d like to share an approach to solution finding that I have developed, partly through observing my 11-year-old son, to tackle these personal and business challenges. The approach is based on recognising that we all have impairments or “disabilities” (visible or not) and that these are key to improving a given situation. By overcoming these impairments first, the overall solution is likely to be better, more innovative and maybe even a game-changer.

Addressing your impairments first demands a new way of thinking from the traditional problem-solving strategies with which you’re probably most familiar. I have a very personal example to bring this theory to life, thanks to my son Fintan. Fintan is blind. He wasn’t blind from birth so he has had to adapt the way he lives and learns in order to continue enjoying the things he loves, such as bike riding, martial arts, attending mainstream school with his friends and generally being a typical 11-year-old boy. He is fascinating and inspiring.

Fintan is also a great piano player. You may well be wondering how a visually-impaired student learns the piano without relying on his or her sight. But, by using a strategy that embraced Fintan’s impairment, the solution surfaced. Fintan’s tutor taught him the black keys/notes before mastering the white keys. Knowing the position of the black keys helped Fintan navigate the whole range of notes and keys, so much so that he is now ahead of other children his age learning the traditional way. We can take a lot from this. What initially held Fintan back has propelled him forward, and the adaptations that work for Fintan can also work for a much wider circle of students, whether visually impaired or not. This could become a new, or certainly alternative, way to learn the piano with a high success rate.

As individuals, we can all recognise and reflect upon our own small impairments, which may well be temporary or not visible to others. Thinking about how to minimise the impact of an impairment will result in a solution that is potentially better than what you were aiming for to begin with. For example, when writing a CV (resumé), you are likely to be planning to move on from your current job. But listing your skills and knowledge serves only to describe your current role. How do you communicate your experience in a way that will make you the candidate you need to be in order to secure a promotion, more responsibility or more rewarding career? By first thinking about where you want to be, you will identify what’s missing from your CV – the things you can’t yet do or the experience you need to gain. Once you have identified these, you can make a plan of action to achieve them, eventually becoming that coveted candidate with improved prospects (and a better resumé).

My team and I champion “accessible-first” design or “designing for disability” which we developed based on this approach. Part of our work is to identify potential end-user impairments or situational disability (such as compromised hearing or bulky clothing) when using various mobile computer, printer, or scanner devices. We consider every potential use environment, from harsh industrial and field service situations to retail and healthcare settings. We then optimise products at the initial design stage to address those possible impairments rather than making modifications at the end, which would be time-consuming and costly. This approach actually provides an all-round improved user experience.

Whether you are trying to develop a new technology, improve at a sport or even help with your child’s homework, it’s instinctive to tackle the easy gains first (what you can do). But this means that you’re leaving the root of the problem untouched (what you can't do). Moving forward, I challenge you to try this “impairment-centric” approach from the start. The learning that you will go through will make you a more experienced individual/team, and the end solution could be more innovative and empowering than what you thought was possible.


Editor’s Note:  James’ TED Talk on situational disability is a must see! You can watch it here. And, if you weren’t able to attend TED2019 this week in Vancouver, you can get a download of the sessions online.

Inside Zebra Nation, Manufacturing,
James Morley-Smith
James Morley-Smith

As Zebra’s Global Director of User Experience', James helps Zebra and its customers understand the impact that technology has on their business and how technology can and should be leveraged to gain strategic advantage for the future. With the pace of technological change, this role is more important now than ever before.

James has worked at Zebra Technologies for over 18 years [through various acquisitions; Symbol, Motorola and now Zebra]. He started his career with the company as a software developer producing custom solutions for the EMEA market and then went on to create the first ever industrial browser, PocketBrowser including defining the industrial extensions to HTML (EMML) that would be used in all industrial browsers in the enterprise space.

As EMEA CTO James acts as the technology lead in the region representing how industries operate and the needs of the region’s users within the technology office to ensure that products and innovations from Zebra are designed and built with a global voice in mind. James also heads up the global User Experience Design team as part of the Innovation & Design group. The UX team is responsible for defining all aspects of experience within Zebra’s solutions ensuring that productivity and accuracy are always the top priority, differentiating the solutions from consumer applications.

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