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The Best Party at SXSW Was in a Rented House Full of Blind People

For a night in Austin, accessibility was the new black.


There are many reasons that one might attend SXSW Interactive.

If you’re a journalist, there are executives and entrepreneurs wandering the streets and setting up press exhibitions, looking for all the media oxygen they can get. There are also panels with Silicon Valley and Hollywood bigwigs, and countless opportunities for networking. Plus, there’s a lot of free booze.

On Monday night, however, the most interesting party at SXSW wasn’t happening at the McDonald’s Loft or anywhere near a heavily branded and expensive-looking bar. It was in a house full of blind people on a quiet street in East Austin, a mix of locals and visitors from out of town who were unwinding the night before they were to present a SXSW panel on accessibility in tech.

Will Butler, a writer who does comms for Lighthouse for the Blind, a San Francisco-based advocacy organization, put the small shindig together. He organized a panel as part of SXSW’s SXgood Hub, sponsored by the United Nations Foundation, and looped in a number of people working on accessibility technology to participate. But that would get fleshed out in the morning. For the moment, there was a jacuzzi on the roof and lots of wine and Thai takeout that needed consuming. The best part? No one was trying to sell one another on anything.

I talked with Yolanda and Heather, two Austin locals who are both visually impaired, about the usual out-of-towner SXSW topics: How Austin has changed in the last 15 years (rents have been inching ever upward for at least a decade), the throngs of well-coiffed techies that swarm 6th Street for Interactive and the L.A. and New York hipsters who arrive for music shortly thereafter.


I then turned to talk to Soren Christensen, CTO of the Denmark-founded app Be My Eyes, whose CEO, Christian Erfurt, was speaking on the Tuesday panel.

Be My Eyes connects sighted volunteers with blind users over live video, allowing the former to describe what’s happening in a video sent by a visually impaired person on the other end. Available on the iPhone, which is considered something of a revolutionary device among many blind users, Be My Eyes is the kind of startup whose mission is so nakedly virtuous that you’re surprised Tim Cook hasn’t already stuffed it into some Apple marketing material.

Soren told me that the Be My Eyes team, including founder Hans Jørgen Wiberg, had come to Austin because it was an opportunity to spread the Be My Eyes gospel — but also because doing good doesn’t pay a startup’s bills, and SXSW is a great place to try and meet with investors.

“We’ve met some amazing people, but Austin is a nightmare to navigate [during SXSW]. There are so many people, it’s really just going with the flow,” Christensen told me. “There was a guy trying to talk to us for six months, and he just texted us saying, ‘I’m in Austin,’ and we met him in the Hilton and had an amazing chat.”

But there were still some SXSW thorns. The festival has traditionally been associated with helping to launch buzzy social apps like Twitter or Foursquare. Apps focused on accessibility? Not so much.

“In 2016, it’s hard, but why should a business not get the time of day because it caters to disabled people?” Christensen added. “How many visually impaired people are in the world? Hundreds of millions. It’s an amputated view of the world, to consider user experience without concern for disabled people.”

The next day, at the stylish Palm Door event space on 6th Street which is to SXSW what New Orleans’ Bourbon Street is to Mardi Gras, Be My Eyes CEO Christian Erfurt, Will Butler and two others offered ways to reattach the “amputated” norms of Silicon Valley, when it comes to accessibility. The title of the panel: “Mainstreaming Accessibility.”

Rupal Patel, founder of VocaliD, a startup that synthesizes recorded voices of “voice donors” for people who can’t speak, joined Butler and Erfurt, as did Ed Gray, who is director of partnering programs at Avid, maker of the popular technical audio software ProTools.

Though they couldn’t make it, two guys from Pixar — Paul Cichocki and Oscar-winning “Inside Out” producer Jonas Rivera — recorded a video stressing the urgency of incorporating accessibility tech into movies.

When Gray, who is visually impaired himself (as is Butler), spoke to the audience, he stressed that accessibility can’t be an afterthought for developers, or something that’s further down on a checklist of abstract company goals.

“You’re not going to make sustainability features with some spasm of interest. It needs to be on the road map,” Gray said. “You have to commit as a company to make accessibility a first-class citizen.”

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