Episodes

Household Names

13 Letters
May 14, 2020

Going with your gut is easier said than done — but for Sumaira "Sam" Latif, Company Accessibility Leader at P&G, trusting her instincts has made some of the most impactful changes to the world of accessibility. For far too long, blind and low-vision people had to rely on the shape of a product to judge what was in the package. Sam challenged all of this with the simple yet empowering idea to put tactile identification on Herbal Essences shampoo and conditioner bottles – an initiative which is now expanding beyond the brand and beyond P&G. We had the amazing privilege to hear Sam's take on getting P&G hooked on accessibility, on supporting both live events and TV commercials with accessible audio description, on hustling to get senior leadership buy-in to fast-track accessibility at work, and much more.

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Episode Transcript

Will Butler:

This is 13 Letters: The Accessibility Podcast from Be My Eyes. I'm your cohost, Will Butler. Well, recording the podcast intro at exactly 8 p.m. today so if you hear some noise in the background, you know what it is. Let's take a minute to acknowledge our healthcare and all of our frontline workers, shall we?


Will Butler:

So I will save the Herbal Essences jokes for later. But suffice it to say, Sumaira Latif is a force of nature. She's only been the company accessibility lead at Proctor & Gamble for a few years now, but in that few years she's made a huge impact on the 100,000-person company, focusing on seemingly small things like shampoo bottles and laundry detergent, all the way to very big things like major marketing campaigns. Sam took her 20 years of experience at Proctor & Gamble and brought it to bear on her approach to accessibility.


Will Butler:

This week she talked with me and cohost, Cordelia McGee-Tubb, about those victories and how accessibility at P&G is about a lot more than just shampoo. Some amazing anecdotes in this about getting senior leadership buy-in and pushing ideas forward simply because you know they will work and you're not going to take no for an answer. To all of you discouraged corporate accessibility warriors out there, this episode is for you. Take heart. This week is all about making the most basic products accessible and inclusive with P&G's Sam Latif.


Sumaira Latif:

Well, they had emigrated from India to Pakistan in the '40s, but this was the first time anyone in our family had left Pakistan. My dad came to England. And then he went to Scotland and he was doing these markets where they sell clothes, the street markets where people sell clothes, that's what my dad used to do. And then he went to Scotland and realized the people there were even friendlier than the English people. They would call him son and love. So my dad came back home and said, "I want to move to Scotland. The people are really friendly. It reminds me of being back in Pakistan." So they moved to Scotland and that's where we were all born and raised, in Scotland.


Will Butler:

So growing up in Scotland, what was the order of the kids? Are there twins? Are you the eldest, youngest?


Sumaira Latif:

I'm four of five and the last three are blind. So my brother, Amar, who's a year and a half older than me and then my younger brother who's five years younger than me, Adi, who you've met and myself. The three of us are blind. We didn't know that we were blind when we were born or my parents didn't know that we were going to be blind until we hit the age of four or five and we were bumping into things or we weren't looking where we were supposed to look. That's when it was actually the school who told my parents that they thought we had issues with looking at the blackboard and reading books.


Sumaira Latif:

So that's when we then got tested and we were diagnosed with having something called RP or retinitis pigmentosa. As a child, you don't really know what that means. You don't really know that you've got sight loss because it wasn't black or dark or anything like that. I thought I could still see because that's all I knew. I still could see. I still remember my parents' faces and things from being very young, in my memory. But I don't think I've ever seen well at all. As you grow older, you saw less and less but you remembered stuff so you didn't even realize that your sight was getting bad.


Sumaira Latif:

Having two brothers to bounce ideas on how to avoid bumping into lampposts and driving a car. Amar wants to drive a car and I would help him in the passenger seat with the windows down and with my arms out so we didn't crash into things. We did fun things as well, stuff that you couldn't get away with doing today.


Will Butler:

Well, something I've noticed about you is that you are both very independent but also not shy about asking for help whatsoever. Were you always that way?


Sumaira Latif:

I think so because I'm very outcome-oriented. So I'll do whatever it takes to get the job done. If I need to get across the road I'm not shy to ask someone to give me a hand. I think when I was growing up though there was a time where I needed to prove to myself that I could do it on my own, that I needed to somehow prove to the world or prove to myself as well that I could do whatever it was I wanted to do and wanted to prove. But eventually as you get older, you realize it doesn't really matter. We're all interdependent in one way or another. It's always better to find the most effective way to get what you need done.


Sumaira Latif:

So if it means crossing a road, you ask someone, a total stranger to help you, well, so be it. And then other times there might be things that you can totally do independently yourself, I don't know, like ironing or doing your laundry or stuff that people might assume that you can't do by yourself, but you can.


Will Butler:

I was going to ask about what's the thought that goes through your head before asking someone for help? It sounds to me like it's always about the goal and not necessarily about am I inconveniencing this person. Should I prove that I can do it myself? It's about how do I get across to where I want to be right now.


Sumaira Latif:

Yeah. I think it's probably a balancing act, isn't it, because you don't want to inconvenience someone so you don't want to keep asking the same person to help you day in day out. You want to become independent for stuff that you do regularly that you know that you should be able to do by yourself. But generally speaking, what I've realized is that when you ask someone for help most of the time they're actually happy that you've asked them to help you. So you make their day by giving them an opportunity to do something kind that day. That's why usually I kind of judge whether me asking for help to an individual is it going to make them feel happy or is it going to irritate them because they have to help me out?


Sumaira Latif:

Probably with my kids and with my husband, I probably irritate them more because I ask them more. But now thanks to apps like Be My Eyes, you annoy them less because you can ask a complete stranger to find that headphone that I've dropped on the floor, rather than asking-


Will Butler:

When you mentioned Oreo it reminded me what you said the other day about how you sometimes call Be My Eyes just to find out what the cat's doing.


Sumaira Latif:

Yeah.


Cordelia McGee-Tubb:

It's amazing.


Sumaira Latif:

I'll call Be My Eyes for lots of things because the sense, the feeling I get when I call Be My Eyes is that people are only too happy to help describe and be your eyes for a minute or two minutes of their life. And then I've heard friends who are volunteering how happy they felt when someone was able to call them. So I don't hesitate ever to use Be My Eyes and ask for help. But I would hesitate to ask a close family member or a friend time and time again to help me with something.


Will Butler:

It helps if you have a cool accent.


Cordelia McGee-Tubb:

That's true. But I like to think that people are inherently good and people inherently like helping other people, so people are usually more than happy to help out a stranger.


Will Butler:

Did you go to college in the UK and then university in ... What was it like in high school for you?


Sumaira Latif:

I went to a specialist primary school which was for blind children only, plus it had a special unit for children who were blind and also had additional disabilities. There was only around maybe four or five kids in my class for every year. And then for high school I went to a mainstream school where you had 30 children in a class. This mainstream school had a special unit to help children who were vision impaired. They would support you by providing materials in braille or large print so that you could take part in class. So my high school was pretty normal.


Sumaira Latif:

But as I no longer, I couldn't read large print and I couldn't read braille, I couldn't read. I couldn't see enough to read either print so it was a bit tough. Instead of taking a few years to learn braille, I wanted to keep going with everyone else. I didn't really like the idea of skipping a year of school to learn stuff. So I carried on with school and I started learning braille on the side. I've never been good at braille. I can read braille, but I'm not one of those fast braille readers so I couldn't rely on it for my education. But fortunately, by the time I got to university by the second year I think I discovered JAWS and laptop computer.


Sumaira Latif:

That's when I was able to start reading and writing independently which was a major lifesaver, especially because I used to have to scribe. I used to have to read out my answers to lectures. Sometimes you don't know how to answer a question so you write anything.


Cordelia McGee-Tubb:

Yep.


Will Butler:

Yes.


Sumaira Latif:

I would do something like that and I could feel the disapproval of my lecturer thinking, "What? What are you answering?"


Will Butler:

Once you got JAWS, you finally had the privilege of being able to bullshit like the rest of us.


Sumaira Latif:

Yeah. Or bullshit without giving a shit.


Cordelia McGee-Tubb:

What was it like going from, oh my gosh, I'm going to get the words wrong, primary school to is it called college or high school?


Sumaira Latif:

High school.


Cordelia McGee-Tubb:

High school?


Sumaira Latif:

High school, yeah.


Cordelia McGee-Tubb:

What was it like going from this much smaller specialized school into a larger class size mainstream school? Was that a weird transition?


Sumaira Latif:

Again, because Amar was with me it wasn't like the high school down the road. I had to take a taxi every day to this school which was about a half an hour taxi ride because it had this special unit. It wasn't probably normal. It wasn't comparable to anyone else going to a regular high school because of the commute. You took a taxi instead of walking to school or taking the bus like everyone else. You had to take a special taxi, so you stood out. And then in class, you could never read the board or you weren't the first to answer or quite often you weren't sure what was going on either in the class.


Sumaira Latif:

So you kind of stuck out again because you were the poor blind person. But it was fine because it was a unit full of us blind people so you had people you became friends with that were blind. And then there was also a handful of people in your class who would look out for you as well. It was a small group of people that you end up becoming quite close with. There was fun things as well. You would get involved in all the stuff that probably you shouldn't get involved in at school or end up skipping school and getting on a train to places where maybe you shouldn't have done such.


Sumaira Latif:

It was quite balanced, I would say, in terms of friends and stuff that you do. The teachers were quite good as well. They didn't really always know how to help you, but they were kind, except for the one exception where they never let me do chemistry and I still hold a grudge to this day. They said I couldn't do chemistry at school because I was blind and I might blow up stuff. So I was never allowed to do chemistry, so I don't have any knowledge of chemistry-type stuff.


Cordelia McGee-Tubb:

Plenty of sighted people who have blown up stuff in chemistry class. I think that that's a pretty invalid argument on their behalf.


Will Butler:

We got to introduce you to Hoby Wedler. We interviewed him for The Be My Eyes Podcast. He's a blind chemist.


Sumaira Latif:

I met Hoby before.


Will Butler:

You have? So then you get to university and you finally get access to the written word and be able to type and express yourself. Did you do well in university?


Sumaira Latif:

I did well. I studied marketing and business law. I got my degree, really good result. But my style was not the traditional way of reading lots of books and then handing in your essay. I would employ students to summarize the lecture notes onto the computer or onto an audio cassette. They would record information onto cassette for me. And then I would just go out with lots of different people and asking them, "Have you read this book? What did you think?" I used to ask maybe five or six people the same question and then summarize my own opinion on a topic and then hand in my essay.


Sumaira Latif:

So I couldn't bear to listen to lots and lots and lots of information. Not only that, I didn't have access to all that information because back then although JAWS did exist, none of the books were available electronically. So not being a braille reader and not being able to read large print, it was really impossible to access the information in a timely way. So my way around that was always just to talk to lots of people and figure out like that. I honestly don't know how I got my degree.


Will Butler:

You were crowd sourcing.


Sumaira Latif:

I don't know anyone who's done this.


Will Butler:

You were the original crowd sourcing knowledge from-


Cordelia McGee-Tubb:

Yeah. In some ways that seems like an even more useful learning experience of how do you glean all this information from different people and then summarize that into something. It makes sense that you worked in marketing for so long, I think, because those are really valuable skills for marketing.


Sumaira Latif:

Yeah. Now I notice I do the same thing almost. The way I learn is by just talking to people and trying to understand things rather than reading lots of information. Because for me, it just takes me so much time to find it, being blind. For sighted people, it's just a matter of a few clicks here and there and then you've got what you need. For me, you have to get there and when you get onto a page it might be accessible and it might not be. You might read partial information, but you might not realize that you're missing a whole big chunk just because it's not accessible. I think it is hard and it's very time-consuming. I think I like shortcuts. Some blind people will-


Will Butler:

I wanted to you-


Sumaira Latif:

Sorry.


Will Butler:

No, go ahead. Some blind people will what?


Sumaira Latif:

I would say some blind people are so dedicated and they'll invest a lot of time to read stuff from beginning to end independently themselves. I just haven't got the patience for that.


Will Butler:

I want to-


Cordelia McGee-Tubb:

Is it, I'm sorry.


Will Butler:

Go ahead, Cordelia.


Cordelia McGee-Tubb:

It just seems like there's a real art to finding shortcuts, to finding the right ones. That's on itself.


Sumaira Latif:

The more you do it, the better you become I think, the more efficient you become. You learn what's the most productive way to get information. When you've got a very busy lifestyle, you don't have the luxury of the extra time it might need you to gather information though. So it's always good to find your research approach.


Will Butler:

That's what I wanted to ask you about is because you have three kids, young kids. You're traveling the world all the time. You're on a time gap from headquarters. You're in the UK and P&G headquarters is in Cincinnati. So I know you have late-night meetings. I know your husband works a lot as well. How do you stay focused and not get overwhelmed?


Sumaira Latif:

I think you just put everything in perspective. Life's too short to get overwhelmed by work. You just try to do the best you can and you know you're making a difference and stay focused on what you need to get done today, this week, and not start worrying about things that you can't control or influence. I just keep focused on what I need to do, I need to get done. And then my kids, they give me a lot of energy. I love being with them as well. I just love what I do, whether it's personal or professional. I think it's really a privilege to be in a situation where you can find a job that you absolutely love and then you've got a wonderful family that part of.


Sumaira Latif:

It just feels good. So when you're refreshed with your kids you can jump into work. And then when you've delivered some really good stuff at work, then you go back and jump in with the kids. It's not always as brilliant as that. There are stressing times as well. But on the whole, that's how I handle it.


Cordelia McGee-Tubb:

Are you finding now given the current world circumstances with COVID-19 that those lines are being blurred between time with family and time with work?


Sumaira Latif:

Oh yes. It's all blurred. But it's okay. I mean we're having a lot more quality time as a family together. I think I've not worked harder than I am now as well. We've got a lot of response to COVID-19. We're doing a lot for helping people with disabilities community at this time as well, so I'm very, very busy. But I feel the fact that I'm not traveling every day to work or even abroad, I'm present. I'm at home. I can hear my kids while I'm working or my work's there as well. I'm not using the regular 9:00 to 5:00 slot. I just work and be with the kids as needed.


Sumaira Latif:

I sleep in in the morning if I work late at night. It's just a balance. I don't need someone to tell me how to do it. I just do what I feel is right and I feel like I do justice to the work and the family.


Will Butler:

When did you start first thinking about accessibility as an actual career? You were in IT. What was that like?


Sumaira Latif:

I was in IT. I loved it. Because JAWS and technology in general had transformed my life personally, I wanted to pursue a career in IT without being techie or technical. So I don't have any technical skills at all. But the skillset that I brought was understanding what technology could do to a business, either transform it to do something faster, more efficiently or save money to do things cheaper. So it's all about how can you apply technology to the business to improve it. My job was to really run IT projects, like local or global ones with brands that you might be familiar with like Olay, Pantene, Iams the cat food.


Sumaira Latif:

I worked on some of our fine fragrances brands like, Gucci, Dolce & Gabbana. I was the IT manager for those brands. It was really good. Along the way I would always as we were working on digital maybe if it was websites or apps that we were creating for these brands, I would also say, "Let's make sure that they're accessible." That used to be my added extra I used to bring to the mix that maybe no other person was thinking about at that time. So it's always been inside me, this accessibility thing. I've always wanted the business to understand if you make it just that bit more accessible then you'll get a lot more people benefiting from it.


Sumaira Latif:

So I used to do that just casually. But then my passion kind of took over and I started back in 2015, I think, I really felt that I wanted to do this more and more. I was getting a lot of enjoyment out of it. In P&G you do your core work and then you can do a project or something on building the organization. My optional extra of building the organization was around accessibility and being part of the employee resource group called People With Disabilities. As part of that, I was trying to increase the number of people who were part of this network. I wanted people with disabilities to come out and be comfortable about having a disability and working at P&G.


Sumaira Latif:

And then I also wanted P&G people who maybe didn't have a disability but become disability confident so that they could be effective champions or supporters for the work that we were trying to do.


Will Butler:

What does that mean disability confident?


Sumaira Latif:

For me, disability confident is when people are comfortable with disability. It's a well-known stat that 65% of people say that they avoid people with disabilities because they make them feel uncomfortable. A lot of the reasons behind that, in my opinion, is that the able-bodied people are not exposed enough to people with disabilities, whether they're growing up in schools they might not see disabled people in their classes, because in the past at least if you had a disability you would be carted off to a special school. And then in the workplace, you know the stats yourself.


Sumaira Latif:

People with disabilities are less likely to be in a job compared to people without a disability. So it's just that society have not really integrated disability as well as it ought to be, I think. I think the more individuals become disability confident, the more opportunities will arise for disabled people to be working more, to be more visible in society, and to contribute to creating products and services that are more accessible because their disability is represented in, say, the company they're working for.


Cordelia McGee-Tubb:

I'm curious. So at P&G you all run something called Disability Challenges that kind of gets at this topic of disability confidence. Can you tell us a little bit more about what those entail?


Sumaira Latif:

Yeah. The Disability Challenge is when we put people in the shoes of people with disabilities, so either in a wheelchair or with sight-impaired glasses or gloves that simulate arthritis. We get them to do some challenges to go and find a meeting room, find the restroom, or open and use our products and see from the perspective of someone with a disability what it's really, really like. Because you can talk it as much as you want, but until the individual experiences it, only then they actually really feel the impact of the exclusion. Only when someone's sitting in a wheelchair and everyone else is standing up high talking to one another does that person in the wheelchair feel that people are not looking at them.


Sumaira Latif:

Or when someone's trying to reach something off a shelf in a grocery store and they realize that they can't reach it or they can't see the brands that they're looking for or the product that they're looking for with ease. That can only be experienced. You can talk it, but you don't realize the impact until you have walked in the shoes of people with disabilities. So that's something that we started back in 2015. I just came up with the idea and did it as a side thing, but it became extremely vital. We started running the challenges with lots of different businesses and different geographies.


Sumaira Latif:

We actually ran the Disability Challenge with our own CEO and his leadership team and that was amazing for them to take the challenge. It was really eye-opening for them when the CEO took five minutes to open a pack of Pampers when he had the arthritic gloves. Only then they realize that, oh my God, yep, this is a missed opportunity. We as a company look at the consumers. We try and understand or hear the people that use our products and we look at them from the perspective of whether their income level or what gender they are or what race, ethnicity. But as a company, we had never added disability into that mix.


Sumaira Latif:

How do people with sight loss use our products? Or how do people with hearing loss or dexterity challenges or whatever it might be interact with our products or advertising? I think that was the start of something big happening at P&G.


Will Butler:

I want to go through how your role is structured, Sam, because you were in another role and stepped in ... We talked about this a little bit. But you stepped into this whole new position. You still to this day, I believe, you don't have a team, correct?


Sumaira Latif:

Mm-hmm (affirmative).


Will Butler:

How on earth does-


Sumaira Latif:

Well, it depends.


Will Butler:

How on earth does one woman at a 100,000-person company make so much change happen?


Sumaira Latif:

It depends what you call a team. I don't feel like anyone needs to report to me directly to get the job done. I believe accessibility is a core component of almost everybody's day job in the company. So my job is just inject that accessibility part into their day job and get the job done. It's amazing to see that once people are getting it, once they start getting accessibility, they're actually building it into the work that they do. I don't need an army of people who report in to me to do that. I want my whole business to be equipped with the knowledge and understanding about accessibility and to understand the impact that that will make and how that will not only improve the lives of disabled people, but it will actually grow our business as well.


Sumaira Latif:

I've got, I don't know, 50 or so people who are actively working on accessibility to some capacity whether it's 20% or 50% of their time. But it's something that they are passionate about working on and they've actually carved it as part of their job. That's what's helping fuel the growth in the company.


Will Butler:

What do you say though to all of the people who are listening right now who are the only accessibility person at their company and they feel so overburdened and overworked and like they're not going to have enough of an impact on their big, big company?


Sumaira Latif:

I think we all can make an impact on our company whether it's starting with something small. I think the little things make a big difference. At P&G the Disability Challenge has helped to get the impact, helped to raise the awareness. Then when we had the Herbal Essences, the tactile markings, we got a few more people onboard. Then we moved on to advertising and making that accessible. What's happening is every little achievement that you have helps to snowball into something bigger and bigger and bigger. I think you're never alone. You will always have allies or people who love the work you do.


Sumaira Latif:

I think it's really helpful and impactful if you can bring those people onboard to help you, because they're normally smarter than you are in their field. So they know how to get things done in their area. So that leveraging the partnerships that you build with the rest of the company, that helps you to succeed. Also you're not alone. I'm here. There's lots of people like me working in the accessibility space. It's so valuable to connect with one another and to know what each other is doing. Helping one another, I think, is massively important because if you try and do this alone you're probably going to fail. If you do it together with everyone, you're probably going to get some great ideas that help you propel forward.


Cordelia McGee-Tubb:

Yeah. I really like your point about the fact that you may be alone in your company for now, but you've got this huge support network in the larger community. That's something that I love about the accessibility community is that people are so supportive of each other and so willing to share resources and ideas about what's worked, like P&G's Disability Challenges. There are a bunch of other organizations that also have these assistive technology labs and things like that. Everyone's kind of sharing these ideas so that people who are just getting started in their organizations can kind of pull from these different ideas and try to figure out what works. So it's really cool.


Will Butler:

What was the next thing that came after the challenges?


Sumaira Latif:

From the challenges came the first big break that I had which was the opportunity to now work inclusive design as my day job, so maybe four years ago. The biggest thing that comes out of that challenge was I had got people to do the shampoo and conditioner challenge, the hair challenge, which was being able to tell apart shampoo from conditioner if you were wearing sight-loss glasses. Obviously, people couldn't distinguish the two easily. I asked the CEO of our beauty care business at the time to take the challenge because I recognized that he would be the decision maker in what I had up my sleeve which was to try and introduce tactile markings in the company.


Sumaira Latif:

So once I knew he had the decision making power I made sure he wore the glasses and he was able to distinguish by touch the shampoo from conditioner. I had put these tactile markings on the bottle, Bump-Ons they're called. The blind community are very aware of them. They're little dots. I put a circle on shampoo and a square on conditioner just to differentiate the bottles. When he was able to distinguish shampoo and conditioner with those markers, the penny dropped and he really got what I was trying to do. He said, "That's really nice, Sam. Very good. Very good."


Sumaira Latif:

I said to him, "Patrice, we're here tonight at an event." It was an D&I event. We were having dinner. I said to him, "Patrice, you're the decision maker, right, whether we do this or not? You don't need to decide now. But by the end of the night, can you confirm that we can go ahead and do this on your business? No pressure."


Will Butler:

No pressure.


Sumaira Latif:

And then I left him to enjoy his dinner. Julio, who's my boss, he was the one who told me about Patrice being the decision maker. By the end of the evening, both Julio and Patrice came up to me. We shook hands and they said, "We're going to do this." That's how it kind of began, the journey that we were going to create markings on our shampoo and conditioner bottles.


Will Butler:

How did you get Patrice to wear the glasses in the first place though to do the challenge?


Sumaira Latif:

It was really spontaneous. It wasn't planned. It was I had been part of this it was called D&I Awards. In the company we have this annual awards ceremony where people are recognized for the diversity and inclusion work that they've done in the company. We were recognized for the Disability Challenge or the work that the Disability Network was doing. We were shortlisted for a prize at this event. One of the benefits of these awards are very senior leaders in the company come and join you over dinner, so you get to meet with them and talk to them about your ideas or what you're working on. So that was the event.


Sumaira Latif:

I was really excited about the opportunity for doing tactile markings on our shampoo and conditioner just because I had been running the Disability Challenges and I had seen firsthand the impact that this was having on P&G people, but also the impact that this would make on blind people, people like me who had struggled with this all our life. It's a small thing, but it's still quite annoying every time you go in the shower not knowing which one was which. So at this event, I happened to have my glasses and my shampoo and conditioner bottle because I thought, "I don't know who's going to be there, but if I want to do this I really need to find the right people to show them my big idea."


Sumaira Latif:

At the time, I didn't know who the right people were. So the only person I knew who was in a position of influence was Julio who was the executive sponsor of our Disability Network. So I asked him who would be the right person and he told me it would be this guy called Patrice. He introduced me to him. As he introduced me I said, "Patrice, I've got this really great idea," and off I went on my spiel about how difficult it is for blind people to tell the difference between shampoo and conditioner. "By the way, do you want to see what it's like yourself if you wear these glasses? Now, can you see the difference between these two bottles? Now, if you feel the Bump-On in the back, now you'll know that the circle is shampoo and the square is conditioner."


Sumaira Latif:

I just gave him no option really to take the challenge. It was quite a bold move looking back, but it really, to me, felt like the right thing to do. I just naively at the time thought it was just a case of sticking a tactile something on the bottle and it would be really easy to do. Had I known how hard it would be to find something that you could execute years later, I might not have been so bold. But it was brilliant to be reachable to the right person at the right time who was a decision maker and just very clearly ask them, "Can you make a decision by the end of the evening of whether we're going to do this or not?" Because I felt it was the right thing to do, but I didn't think I wanted to keep on knocking on closed doors.


Sumaira Latif:

So for me, it was very important to get the green light. Once I get the green light then I can move fast.


Cordelia McGee-Tubb:

So at the end of the night did he say, "Yeah, let's do this?"


Sumaira Latif:

He did. At the end of the night I felt a bit shy. I felt, "Oh God. What have I done?" But I was also anxious because I had very daringly said, "You've got all night to decide." So I was hoping that he would approach me. Not being able to see, I can't see really who's in the room. I don't even know if he's there or not or where is he. So I was feeling quite anxious and excited at the time because I felt like I was doing the right thing. It was really nice when Julio came up to me and said, "Sam, we're going to shake on this. We're doing it." It was just a most amazing joy. It was the highlight of the year or the decade. I don't know.


Sumaira Latif:

But it was absolutely amazing to know that I had got the green light from these guys who were the decision makers. So that was phenomenal.


Will Butler:

It wasn't something that had gone through some big R&D process. This was just something, a simple fix that you knew would work and you got buy-in from an executive level person because they got a firsthand experience of understanding it. That's it.


Sumaira Latif:

Yeah. That was it. But the thing is, this was four years ago, Will. Then it took us years to find a way to bring it to life. The only way you get the R&D buy-in is when you get the green light from the executive, from the person right up in charge. So when Patrice and we did the handshake, that was a handshake to, yes, we want to do this but we need to go and figure out how. The how is what took a lot of effort because we produce hundreds of bottles a minute on our production line. The chassis of our shampoo bottle is exactly the same as our conditioner bottle.


Sumaira Latif:

So we have to fill them first before we could add the tactility onto the bottle. We couldn't purchase separate shaped bottles with the markings already on them because for cost reasons, economics of scale. That wouldn't work. So we had to find a way that we could add these markings somewhere on the production line without slowing the production of the bottles. I tell you, that's very hard to do. We tried four or five different ways to do that and they didn't work except for the last resort that we had. It was a solution that I wasn't personally happy with because, for me, the tactility wasn't as strong as I wanted.


Sumaira Latif:

But I remember a very good friend of mine, Shane, telling me that, "Sam, it's this way or no way. We've tried all the other options right now." So I settled for it. It's good enough, but it's not as tactile as I would like it. But I thought at least this is a good way to move forward. Now we can prove to the business that this is something that we need and then the business can figure out a way to improve it because these guys in R&D, they know how to do it. I just need to prove that it's valuable to do. I think with the launch of the tactile features on Herbal Essences we've had a lot of positive response from the media, from blind people themselves.


Sumaira Latif:

So that's now given us the ... Once blind people write to P&G and tell us that this has been helpful and it's meaningful, that's then inspired the people in R&D, the people in different parts of the business to elevate this as a priority. That's what happened. It's been amazing. It's been an amazing journey to see from just the idea to now feel the bottle on the shelf.


Cordelia McGee-Tubb:

Yeah. And not just on the shelf, but I took a shower this morning and used Herbal Essences and felt the bottles. I'm not blind, but I wear glasses. I obviously don't wear those in the shower, so this is such a cool product feature to have these tactile markings. How does it feel to know that you had this impact on a product that's in millions of bathrooms around the world? That's wild. That's so cool.


Sumaira Latif:

It feels like a good start, but I think I will feel satisfied once it's on every shampoo and every conditioner bottle, not just P&G but beyond so that it becomes a universal symbol. So it's a great step in the journey I think we've made, but we've got a long way to go.


Will Butler:

Talk about how that would happen.


Sumaira Latif:

I'll give you a sneak preview. But what we're going to do in June this month is give the industry a gift, so the Gift of Tactile. My project was called Touchstone, but we're calling it The Gift of Tactile. We are going to be sharing this publicly with all the companies who are manufacturing shampoo and conditioner to let them know about the features, how we generated them, the size, the depth, the actual artwork, all that kind of stuff so that the industry can pick it up and reapply it into their shampoo and conditioner bottles.


Will Butler:

A 13 Letters exclusive.


Cordelia McGee-Tubb:

Are there other products too beyond shampoo and conditioner? I'm trying to think how many other products come in very similar-shaped containers, even fabric softener and laundry detergent and bleach are all very different things. It would be cool to have these tactile indicators on pretty much every single product on the market.


Sumaira Latif:

Yeah. I think that we're on a journey at P&G and this is something that's near and dear to my heart. So we are looking into expanding beyond haircare. But some of these things take time. I have recognized and learned to be a little bit more patient, not too much. But we are trying to come up with the tactile designs for my wish is for everything that we do and for every company to reapply them because think about it. For sighted people, whether it's a tube or a container or whatever, you guys have a label at the front and at the back with lots of words and pictures.


Sumaira Latif:

So it's very rare that you might muddle it up or you might have to put your glasses on, but you figure it out. But for blind people, all you have is the shape of the bottle and now they're not unique. Your ketchup and your mayo comes in the same bottle. Your canned goods all, whether it's soup or beans there's no differentiating, whether it's day cream and night cream or eye cream or hand cream, all these creams and you don't remember what they are. So you buy them and then you forget about them because you can't remember what it is. And then you don't want to get your phone out all the time and ask Be My Eyes.


Sumaira Latif:

There's all that extra effort that blind people have to put in to just find out what's in that bottle. My vision is that just one touch and you know what it is. I think it's something that can happen. It needs to happen. It's just a matter of time now. I think it will happen.


Will Butler:

It's a lot of small things that add up to some big things. You kind of alluded to this before. Telling the difference between shampoo and conditioner is a small thing in a visually impaired person's day. So I think it's easy for people to be, forgive me for saying this, but a little dismissive of this work. But it really is a big deal to have all the little things around the house add up to an accessible whole.


Sumaira Latif:

If you think about the keypad, the number five, the dot on that keypad-


Will Butler:

It's tiny.


Sumaira Latif:

It's tiny, but it's a little thing. Most sighted people don't notice it, but it makes a big difference if you're blind to orientate yourself. Similarly, on your keyboard, your laptop, the F and J key have got that very subtle line and every single keyboard has it. These are subtle things but-


Will Butler:

No one's going to argue now that those shouldn't be there.


Sumaira Latif:

Exactly. Exactly. The fact that they're not there is just because people haven't asked for them or thought about putting them on. But instead, they've put elastic bands or a sellotape on something or they decide to call Be My Eyes or ask a family member or a friend to tell them. They've found their own compensating behaviors. But I think everyone should have the right to know what's in a bottle, jar, whatever it is just by touch. If the sighted world has all these words, why can't the blind have just a 10th of the real estate on whatever the packaging is to let them know what it is as well?


Will Butler:

Yeah. We could talk about tactility all day long, but there's so much more that you've been working on too, Sam. I want to make sure we get to some of these other projects here. What came after Herbal and tactile bottles? What came next?


Sumaira Latif:

Or in parallel came out all the description on our advertising, so all the description and captioning on our advertising. We are the first company to actually make advertising accessible.


Cordelia McGee-Tubb:

That's huge.


Sumaira Latif:

No other company had asked for it. What happened was I didn't even know how to deal with the description but I was in meetings where we were reviewing ads and people were laughing out loud watching some of our ads. I was just sitting there thinking, "Wouldn't it be nice if it was audio described?" And then I thought, "Yeah, wouldn't it be nice if it was audio described? I think I've got the power to do this now." So I found the most amazing ad at the time that I could find and it was the Olympics ad done by channel four. It was called We are the Super Humans. It's an absolutely amazing ad.


Sumaira Latif:

But I found that there was an online version which was audio described. I just sent that ad, the audio described version to Mark Pritchard, our chief marketing officer. I said, "Hey, Mark. Wouldn't it be great if we did all our ads like this, audio described?" And then he wrote back and said, "Yep, I think so. We must do it." And then that was me. I was on a roll. He made all the connections to the right people and I started this initiative about making our ads with audio description. What I didn't realize at the time was that despite P&G's best efforts to start creating audio description in our advertising, we couldn't broadcast them on TV because the broadcasters didn't have the capability to stream the audio description track for ads.


Sumaira Latif:

Now, they did do it for TV programs and films, but it was a separate system on which they were airing the ads. That system wasn't made accessible. The reason for that was because nobody asked. So we're one of the largest advertisers in the UK, so I brought the entire broadcasting industry together with the regulators, government, and said, "I have a dream to make our advertising accessible and you guys need to help me because I can't do it alone. We're the largest advertiser and we're pretty sure that everyone else would also benefit from this, other advertisers, and not forgetting the 285 million blind people there are. They aren't campaigning for it because they don't even know what they're missing. But we want to grow our business and we want to be more accessible to everybody. So can you help us and can you do it within six months?"


Sumaira Latif:

They all did. It was amazing. So we did that in the UK and then we tried to reapply it in the US and then Spain. We're still working our way through. We're on a journey. We've not quite finished that one either, but we're making good progress.


Cordelia McGee-Tubb:

Wow. So now if another company, if another advertiser were to create audio descriptions for an ad in the UK that would just automatically play for viewers who have that enabled?


Sumaira Latif:

Yeah.


Cordelia McGee-Tubb:

That's awesome.


Sumaira Latif:

More advertisers are doing it now, so it's more and more prevalent in their advertising which is really good.


Will Butler:

It really shows the power of when you are paying the bills, you can demand accessibility.


Sumaira Latif:

Yes. I think that's one of my biggest learnings is, wow, if P&G want it, they can get it. You know what I mean? My job now is making sure that every single leader, every decision maker who touches the lives of our consumers, our employees understands this and recognizes and builds it in from the very, very beginning. So we're just naturally very accessible. That's also a journey that I'm on right now just educating. It's a lot of people, 100,000, so it takes a while to get around.


Will Butler:

Have you spent any time with Caroline Casey?


Sumaira Latif:

Caroline Casey, yeah, I haven't spent time outside of meeting her at conferences. We've both been speaking at the same events. We have joined The Valuable 500. I know of her. I know of Marian who works with Caroline. It's in the network community. I know of the work that she's doing is incredible and we're part of that movement as well.


Will Butler:

Okay. The tactile bottles, the ads, these are huge achievements.


Cordelia McGee-Tubb:

Well, I can't get over too I had heard about P&G doing these audio described ads and I was like, "That is awesome." But I didn't know that in order to get that through you also had to fundamentally change the entire commercial industry to support that, which is amazing. I'm just still thinking about that.


Sumaira Latif:

I'm also working with trying to get Google and Facebook and any online platform to also develop the capability to provide audio description on video as well. So that doesn't exist yet. So that's something that I think we need to come together as an industry and find a way around it so that we can broadcast online as well accessible audio described content.


Will Butler:

Let me ask you something that might be a tougher question. With these things like the Disability Challenges or the Gift of Tactility or We are the Super Humans, we're playing to a lot of stereotypes about people with disabilities that they have super powers or that blind people want to touch everything or that look at how challenging it is to have a disability. But it's also how you've been able to get shit done. How do you think about it? Do you worry at all that you're indulging some stereotypes about blindness or about disability in general in your work?


Sumaira Latif:

No, because those stereotypes exist. I mean we do like touching things, well, I do.


Will Butler:

Well, to a certain extent, but not people's faces or you know what I mean?


Sumaira Latif:

No. But I'm not developing anything that touches people's faces at the moment. I'm sticking to products. But you know, Will, like I said before, majority of the world is just ignorant. What I'm finding is that when you look beyond the disabled community into a world where they've never met someone with a disability, they've never understood some of the challenges. Having the opportunity to highlight, raise awareness of the injustice that there is in society right now because people and companies have not considered disabled people as part of their who, as part of research.


Sumaira Latif:

I think that's why bringing something like the Disability Challenges has been so well-received in my company because it was something that they hadn't thought about. If it's not something that you think about, then how are you going to build something for that community in stuff that you build? You're actually raising awareness and then it's on their conscience to now start thinking about this community that I really care about and building, whether it's packaging, whether it's products, whether it's advertising, whether it's office environments for this community as well to be fully inclusive and, you know what, build their business as well. Because more people can use their products and better. So that's kind of how it's worked. I don't know.


Will Butler:

Yeah. You have to start on common ground with people. Like you said, if they're not part of the "community", the common ground is going to be very simple.


Sumaira Latif:

Yeah. The thing is you probably know the medical model and the social model for disability and I think that by highlighting in whatever way the gap that exists and the potential that these people have to reduce the gap are making people feel less disabled by improving our products. I think it's a massive opportunity and I think every company should be doing that.


Will Butler:

With the last few minutes here I want to look ahead a little bit and talk to you about some of the projects that you're excited about looking forward and some things we've gotten a chance to collaborate on as well. What's the new things you're working on?


Sumaira Latif:

The new thing you know very well, we run personalized audio descriptions. So it's taking audio description to the next level. A couple of weeks ago to celebrate everyone in this pandemic, we tried to bring the world together, like a Live Aid concert. It was called One World Together, sponsored by Proctor & Gamble. It was Global Citizen that were running the show. I don't know if people had the chance to watch this, but it was live streamed worldwide. We thought wouldn't it be good to see whether we could offer personalized audio description, so one-to-one audio description while we were watching the show. I thought that was an incredible event.


Sumaira Latif:

We paired up with Be My Eyes and we put a button on their specialized app called One World Together. It meant that blind people from their homes could call One World Together and they would meet a volunteer. It was a P&G volunteer or one of our partners. You call Be My Eyes One World Together, actually their specialized help, and you got connected to a volunteer. Then the volunteer was a P&G person who had opted to volunteer for this event. They would then get connected and watch the show together. It was absolutely incredible. I took part in it. So I called the One World Together button through Be My Eyes and I got connected to several people because I called back a few times.


Sumaira Latif:

But I was able to find out about who was wearing what, what their makeup was like, what their room was like. It was just fun. It was nice to know that while the artist was singing because that's all you could hear on the TV, you could only hear them singing. But I wanted to know what's their room like, what's their makeup like, what they're wearing, what kind of shoes have they got on, what's the expression on their face. So I was asking all these questions. It was just incredible. You don't realize how much you miss. Even with professional audio description, you don't get that much information because they don't talk over the dialogue.


Sumaira Latif:

But in this case, I was less interested in the music but more interested in what the musician was wearing or what they looked like. I can tell you, that was the best concert I ever watched. It was absolutely incredible. Not only that, I think we got over 100 blind people dialing in.


Will Butler:

From 15 countries or something.


Sumaira Latif:

From 15 countries, yeah. Loads of people and we didn't advertise it. We only realized we could do this ... Will and I started working on this, what, three days before the event or two days?


Will Butler:

Yeah.


Sumaira Latif:

It was just incredible. I've never seen this guy work so hard.


Will Butler:

That's what everyone keeps saying. I don't think it'd be physically possible to work any harder. I've got-


Cordelia McGee-Tubb:

I want this for all online concerts going forward.


Will Butler:

Yeah. Every single one of them, great.


Cordelia McGee-Tubb:

Every single one. That's so cool.


Will Butler:

I really hope we can do more on that front, Sam.


Sumaira Latif:

Absolutely.


Will Butler:

We'll just have to kind of leave people hanging on that one.


Cordelia McGee-Tubb:

Yeah. I mean I guess to your earlier point about how we need to get all these different platforms supporting audio descriptions, what can the tech industry do to best support these types of projects that you're working on?


Sumaira Latif:

I think we need to come together and understand the common goal for us. For the audio description I mean it's just simple. We want to make content accessible online as well as on TV. So it's an outage. We need to recognize it's an outage and then we need to prioritize it and fix it because I don't think it's a technical challenge. I just think it was a challenge of priorities. So the more we can all come together and work on building the case for this, I think this will be an incredible breakthrough for the blind community.


Will Butler:

I wish we had left more time to talk. We are going to have to have you back, Sam. Thank you so much for joining us on the podcast.


Cordelia McGee-Tubb:

Yeah. Thank you. It's fantastic.


Sumaira Latif:

No worries.


Cordelia McGee-Tubb:

It's so good to get to know you and hear about all these awesome projects that you've been working on.


Sumaira Latif:

Thanks for having me. I feel blessed to have had the opportunity. Yeah, thanks very much, guys.


Will Butler:

Thanks, Sam. Come back soon in real life. We can have a real cup of tea. As always, email your ever eager 13 Letters posts at 13letters@bemyeyes.com. That's 1-3 letters@bemyeyes.com. Tell us what you think. Give us your ideas. We're listening, believe it or not. We are taking your emails. We're taking your suggestions and we're turning them into podcast episodes. So shoot us a note and we will look forward to hearing from you and you can look forward to hearing from us next week. Cheers.