Innovative companies use technology to reach new markets, and Comcast's decision to create a position of vice president of Accessibility is a perfect example. And who better to fill the role than Tom Wlodkowski, an expert on new media's applications to people with disabilities.
Wlodkowski, who started his job at Comcast this spring, is still formulating his strategic plan, but he knows it will be aimed at making the company's products useful for and available to customers with disabilities across the spectrum of the Comcast business, from set-top boxes to mobile applications, software, downloads and phone services.
Noting that Comcast, one of DiversityInc's 25 Noteworthy Companies, is the first in the cable industry to create this position, Wlodkowski says, "Comcast executives realized there was an opportunity to really address the market and bring in a dedicated subject-matter expert."
Specifically, previous roles include leading accessibility at AOL and at WGBH, where he worked on descriptive video for blind and visually impaired people and implemented voice-guided navigation on DVD menus. These roles have given him a great knowledge base for his new position.
"The biggest challenge for developing products for people with disabilities is that they are designed by people who aren't actually using them, who don't have disabilities. ... As I tell my friends and colleagues in the disability community, now they have someone on the inside," he says.
Out There in the Real World
Blind since birth, Wlodkowski grew up in Southington, Conn., the youngest of four brothers.
"Having a blind child as the youngest meant my mother wasn't so protective," he recalls. "She put me out there in the real world. I had to take out the trash just like everybody else. My brothers never let me play the blind card, although they would try to sneak the food bowl past me."
Mainstreamed in public schools, he was in the marching band in high school and was the drummer for a rock band, leading to work in radio after college. He thought he wanted to be on the air, but when asked to work on technology for people with disabilities, Wlodkowski found his niche.
Today, he's married with a 14-year-old son. And he appreciates how much technology has improved his life. "My son is amazed at how I can use voice-over technology on my iPhone," he says.
The D&I Factor
The hiring of Wlodkowski is part of the company's overall drive to be a leader in the diversity-and-inclusion space, says Maria Arias, executive director, Diversity & Inclusion at Comcast.
"There's clearly a focus on employees and customers with different abilities. He's our resident expert with live, hands-on experience and connections with organizations," she says, citing not just product accessibility and workforce diversity but supplier diversity as well, particularly the certification of the US Business Leadership Network (USBLN) for suppliers owned by people with disabilities. USBLN certification is required for companies citing supplier diversity with people with disabilities on The DiversityInc Top 50 Companies for Diversity survey.
Wlodkowski and Arias also both work with Comcast's Abilities Network for employees with disabilities and their allies to create an accessible and inclusive workplace and encourage the hiring and promotion of people with disabilities.
But Wlodkowski's primary duties are marketplace focused.
"My first steps are to prioritize where we are going to focus these efforts—the next generation of set-top boxes, product development, the engineering team, and the roadmap for products from XFINITY TV that connect the home," he says.
Adds Arias: "For the past year and a half, we have focused our efforts on building a year-over-year diversity-and-inclusion plan. We are becoming a leading company in the space, and Tom's presence here is based on that."