Meet the Software Engineer Designing with Inclusivity in Mind
At the intersection of empathy and invention, Jason Grieves develops technology that bridges the digital divide for those with mobility or visual impairments.
If Jason Grieves could boil his invention philosophy down to one phrase, it would be this: inclusive design. A software engineer who has worked at Apple, Microsoft and IBM, and the holder of eleven patents, Grieves is passionate about creating empowering solutions to bridge the digital divide for people with disabilities.
His dedication stems from personal experience. Grieves was born with optical nerve damage in both eyes, which resulted in uncorrectable vision of 20/80 and 20/200. But as a young adult, he discovered his gift for solving problems and for helping people. When he was in high school, Grieves spent a summer preparing a kindergarten teacher and classroom for an incoming student who had a visual impairment similar to his.
Since then, Grieves has continued to work with a mind toward improving the lives of others. In 2008, he graduated from Virginia Tech with a degree in computer engineering and then went on to intern at IBM. For more than a decade at Microsoft, he focused on building technology that is more accessible to more people. “We’ve been able to make a lot of great improvements for people who have visual acuity problems,” he said, and being able to work on this technology is “a dream come true.”
Among his accomplishments is software that makes typing on phones easier for everyone, including users who have limited mobility. Grieves has also designed computer screen innovations that enlarge text for people who have reduced visual acuity, and that adjust color and brightness for people who have sensitivity to light.
Currently working on machine learning solutions at Apple, he is committed to including a wide range of perspectives in his iteration processes, and believes that doing so leads to technology that has a lasting positive impact on people’s lives — regardless of their abilities or limitations.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Who or what inspired you to invent?
For me, inventing really started in college. My dad’s a civil engineer, so he’s a problem solver. Growing up, I had that knack for problem solving, too. When I got into college, I started working in the office for students with disabilities, and that was really neat for me, because up until that point I had always thought about my vision as a disability. But their focus was on thinking about these things not as disabilities but as abilities.
A student might come in to our office and say, ‘I can’t see very well.’ And we would say, ‘Well, you’ve got great hearing and great use of your legs and hands. Let’s find technology that works for you.’ And so this is where I started to think about applying different technologies to specific people. That’s where I kicked off a lot of that inventor spirit.
How important was the educational setting?
Virginia Tech has an incredible support system for students with disabilities. It helps them with accommodations, and that was a great support for me personally. They have a great accessibility lab that I got to be a part of, and as I got into my senior year, we started to work with elementary schools and parents around the area. Meeting these parents and teachers who had never seen some of this technology before was eye opening. It’s really where I got a bug for accessibility, because I started seeing light bulbs going off for parents and students. Seeing them be able to use technology to help them live was just so awesome.
Why is it important for inventors to think about the end user?
When I think about the problems that inventors get to solve, it’s all about inclusive design. It’s about thinking of others, but not about people who can’t — it’s about people who can. So when you’re inventing, you think about how your invention can work for other people and other groups. When I talk to engineers or inventors or scientists from that angle, about taking their awesome work and opening it up to more people, you see the gears start turning. And that’s really exciting for me, to help them understand a new way of thinking about inventing through the approach of including more people — users of all abilities — in their designs.
What inventions or accomplishments in your work are you most proud of?
I’m most proud of bringing in technologies that help people like myself. It’s been really rewarding because I’ve been able to meet so many people with other visual impairments and understand their needs. Sometimes they’re the same as my own, but often they’re very different.
I’ve brought in things like the magnifier, which helps make the screen bigger for people who have lower visual acuity. And in the magnifier, we were able to design a way to have the mouse in the center of the screen so that people with peripheral vision issues can always find it. We’ve also changed the way the screen looks for people who have light sensitivity — we can make it a darker theme and make colors that are easier for people to see.
Another thing I’m excited about is a sliding tool that lets you make the text on your screen bigger. What we’re finding with this is it actually works great for a lot of people. One of our V.P.’s when I was at Microsoft used it, and he wouldn’t identify as someone with a disability. I think that speaks beautifully to accessibility and inclusive design. When we make technology that’s more accessible, it’s easier for all of us to use.
How important has it been working with diverse teams of colleagues in the corporate sector to approach new accessibility problems or solutions?
Thanks to my amazing colleagues, I am opening my eyes to a variety of problems surrounding our society. I’m humbled by what I continue to learn from team members who are different from me. In short, my instinct is to build what I think is important for me and those I know. Having a diverse team means I can challenge the solution to ensure it works for more people, in more situations. We build more adaptable and useful solutions because of the diversity of our inventions.
What are some of the challenges technology innovators face today?
I think one of the biggest challenges we face is forgetting who we’re building for. We tend to try to find the solution right away and then we patent it or we build it and then we put it out there. In general, corporations are looking for an outcome to a patent, how this will help people. I love the focus on ensuring that the patent isn’t just superficial, but rather that it will make the lives of people better.
What I’ve learned in my life is that if you really want lasting impact, if you really want to build technology that helps people for a long time, you’ve got to involve people at every stage of your invention process. Even for me, even though I have this disability that helps me do my work, I still need to understand what other people are going through. So my job is to understand other perspectives.
Sure, you could look on the Internet and that’s one way to learn, but talking to people and listening to them about what challenges they face is a huge part of understanding how to solve a problem. It’s easy to get stuck in the office as you’re building and prototyping, but you’ve got to get out there. Even if it’s a paper prototype, just walking somebody through how they would use it is really eye opening for both the user and the inventor as well.
What advice would you give to aspiring inventors?
I think the coolest thing about kids is their ability to problem solve and their passion and excitement. It’s really easy to look at inventors out there and say ‘Oh, that doesn’t look like me.’ What I love to do is help them understand that it can be them, and it is them already. Also, the view they see on TV and in books is not necessarily an accurate representation of what inventing is today. It’s actually evolved to be a more friendly and inclusive process.
How would you describe the process of invention in the digital world?
Inventing used to be this long arduous process. You had to go and get a patent and then you had to get a company to build that technology and ship it. Software has created amazing ways for everyone to be able to be an inventor. Some of the coolest technology that I’ve personally seen has come from younger kids and teenagers who write the software codes themselves, or partner with someone who knows how to code.
And the Internet allows people to connect and work on projects together, even remotely. To me that’s kind of the new era of inventing — putting your idea on social media and finding people who are also interested in that space and then saying, ‘Let’s solve this.’ There are so many companies out there that are embracing that way of inventing, and I think that’s a great way for kids to get involved and learn.
How much assistive technology is already in the marketplace for computers, smartphones and other devices? Is there still a digital divide for people with disabilities?
Many solutions, such as speech recognition were originally built for people with disabilities and have become mainstream. These solutions have revolutionized the way we use technology, but unfortunately there is still a huge divide for people with disabilities. The biggest divide is in the tools we use at the office, which continue to be difficult to use as people with disabilities. We need to continue to strive to build these solutions to work great for each of us.
What messages about inclusion and accessibility do you hope to share and amplify?
First, I want folks to know how important it is to involve people and their customers in their invention processes. That’s from understanding the problem all the way to building the solution and then continuing to learn. Second, I do want to evangelize accessibility. I believe strongly that we’re on another kind of new precipice for accessibility. There are amazing technologies like AI and machine learning that I think are going to be wonderful for people with disabilities.
Technology really was a great way for people with disabilities to enter the workforce and to live in new ways. And I believe these technologies are going to continue to create even more and better opportunities for people with disabilities to be a part of society and do awesome things.