ATU418 – Think and Zoom with Zuby Onwuta

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Your weekly dose of information that keeps you up to date on the latest developments in the field of technology designed to assist people with disabilities and special needs.

Show Notes: Zuby Onwuta – Founder and CEO of Think and Zoom www.thinkandzoom.comwww.zubyonwuta.com Facebook, Twitter and YouTube: @thinkandzoom, @zubyonwuta

Home Depot Story: https://cnn.it/2QwcJKx

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ZUBY ONWUTA:  This is Zuby Onwuta, and I’m the inventor, founder, and CEO of Think and Zoom, control solution for the blind, and this is your Assistive Technology Update.

JOSH ANDERSON:  Hello and welcome to your Assistive Technology Update, a weekly dose of information that keeps you up-to-date on the latest developments in the field of technology designed to assist individuals with disabilities and special needs.  I’m your host, Josh Anderson, with the INDATA Project at Easter Seals Crossroads in beautiful Indianapolis, Indiana.  Welcome to episode 418 of Assistive Technology Update.  It’s scheduled to be released on May 31, 2019.

On today’s show, we are very excited to have Zuby Onwuta one with us to talk about Think and Zoom.  We also have a great story about folks at the Home Depot, so let’s go ahead and get on with the show.

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Are you looking for more podcasts to listen to?  Do you have questions about assistive technology?  About an accommodation or maybe how something works?  Are you really busy and only have a minute to listen to podcasts Creek guess what can you are in luck, because we have a few other podcast that you should check out.  The first one is Assistive Technology Frequently Asked Questions, or ATFAQ, hosted by Brian Norton and featuring myself, Belva Smith, and a bunch for the guests.  What we do is we sit around and take questions about assistive technology, either about accommodations, different things that are out there, or by different ways to use things.  We get those questions from Twitter, online, on the phone, and in many other ways.  We are also trying to build a community, and sometimes, believe it or not can we don’t have all the answers.  So we reach out to you to answer some of those questions and help us along.  You can check that out and where you get your podcast and wherever you find this podcast.  

We also have accessibility minutes.  Accessibility minute is hosted by Laura Metcalf.  If you’ve never heard her voice, it is smooth as silk and you should listen to a podcast.  She’s going to give you a one minute blurb about some different kinds of assistive technology.  Kind of what your whistle a little bit and let you know some of the new things that are out there so that you can go out and find more about them yourself. Again, check out our other shows, Assistive Technology Frequently Asked Questions and accessibility minute, available wherever you get a podcast.

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So as a homeowner and an assistive technology professional, I spent a lot of time at home improvement stores, especially just because of where I live, the Home Depot is the process one.  I spent a lot of time in there.  In fact, I’m probably there 2 to 3 times a week, looking at things for the house or trying to find a custom solution for someone, buying pieces and parts and put them together for something that maybe isn’t already out there.  I was really excited when I found the story.  This is over on CNN.com.  The story is, “A two-year-old boy was having trouble getting around, so employees at a Home Depot built him a walker.”  The stories by Lauren Johnson, and it talks about a Home Depot store in Cedartown Georgia.  Essentially the parents of this young man, two years old, and has Hypertonia, which is a syndrome that impacts his muscle tone and makes stability and getting around a struggle.  So his parents watched a YouTube video on how to make the young man a walker.  They went to the local Home Depot with their supply list and asked the folks if they could help them find the pieces and parts. But then what happened next is the manager came over to them and basically told them, hey, what are you guys take the admin out for ice cream and we will go ahead and get those parts assembled for you and that charge you.  About an hour went by, they went out and got some ice cream, came back and the Home Depot employees had actually went ahead and built this walker for Logan, put his name on it and everything.  There’s some great pictures on here, and it shows him using it and everything. What’s nice is they made it in the Home Depot orange color.  Very cool guy just stepping up.  As a business to actually take the time to build this piece of assistive technology for this young man so that he could get around, just going the extra mile.  Very cool story.  As I said, I know I’ve been in Home Depot many times buying pieces and parts, trying to make custom solutions for folks.  Really good to see story like this.  We will go ahead and put a link to that in the show now so you guys can see it as well.

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So we think medication is a very helpful tool for those individuals with visual impairments. From the old school magnifying glass to handheld magnifiers, these devices have really opened up a whole world of possibilities to individuals.  Then apps and so forth came along and made even easier by sometimes alleviating the need to carry around multiple devices.  They do have a drawback.  It takes two hands to manipulate a device and change your zoom levels, either pinching, poking, or whatever you might need to do.  What if you could control these zoom features with just a thought?  That’s a question that our guest decided to answer. Our guest today is Zuby Onwuta, a US Army veteran, Harvard trained innovator, recipient of the Pres. Obama service award, and the founder and CEO of Think and Zoom.  Welcome to the show.

ZUBY ONWUTA:  Thank you for having me.  I appreciate it.

JOSH ANDERSON:  I’m very excited to talk to you about Think and Zoom.  But before we get into that, tell our listeners a little bit about yourself and your background.

ZUBY ONWUTA:  I came to the United States when I was about 18, 19, right after high school in Nigeria.  Growing up in Nigeria, my goal was always to become a medical doctor in America.  I have an uncle who achieved that, and I wanted to be like him.  As a science student that wanted to study medicine, I focused a lot on science and technology, and I worked really hard to achieve the top 10 in all my classes from primary to secondary school.  Coming to America, I came with $200 in a duffel bag to become a medical doctor.  Reality quickly set in that I needed a few more zeros, just a few more zeros.  So in order to achieve my dream, I decided to serve the country.  Given this amazing opportunity, I joined the US Army.  That’s where I started premed.  At that time, I was young, life was great.  I couldn’t even measure the amount of the joy and hope that was losing through my body at that time.  This was something I had been looking forward to for a long time.  

Barely 2 years into both my studies and service, that’s when things started going wrong.  I went from seeing things like the menu at McDonald’s from 20 feet away, to not having to walk up to it from one foot within two short years.  So it was very devastating.  I was diagnosed with something called stargard’s macular dystrophy.  Another way to describe it is juvenile macular degeneration. It’s similar to the age related macular degeneration But this time around it’s juvenile because the person is younger.  I was 18, 19, 20 at the time.  It’s a genetic defect, so the root cause is genetic.  

Specifically what happens is, in humans, we consume vitamin A, and that vitamin A is supposed to go to your eyes and make sure that your eyes are healthy.  There happen to be several layers on the back of your eye, like onion layers.  The outermost is where you have the macular which sits on the retina, which sits on the REP layer, which contains the cone and rod cells.  So when you eat, you have to let go of the excess.  The excess vitamin A is supposed to be flushed out, but for stargard’s disease, the mechanism that flushes this excess out doesn’t work, so it’s there and start decaying layer after layer until he gets to the cone and rod cells that you need to see very well.  And starts killing them.  Another way you can think of this is imagine if you clothes after laundry, and then you pour bleach on the top one and watch as the bleach starts seeping through it and destroying layer after layer.  That’s how that occurred.  That made me legally blind and get me a medical discharge.  It was a devastating blow as my medical studies also went along with it.

It was very challenging to describe it, because when you look at me and other people, you couldn’t even tell that we struggle to see.  Under the way to describe it is this: for I went into the military, I went to get my drivers license – yay!  I did the eye screen, and five seconds, A, B, one, two, three, four, five. Congratulations, here’s your drivers license.  Two years afterwards, my 20 first birthday it was time to renew.  That’s what most states do, when you turn 21 you have to renew. And went back to the same DMV for my eyes, and the same screening tests.  Boy, were they results dramatically different.  I spent more than five minutes.  I was looking at the same thing, but the result was different.  It was as if someone thrust me into the twilight zone.  It was as if there was somebody pumping this fog machine that’s in nightclubs to simulate smoke.  There was smoke and haze in my eyes and what I was trying to read.  I could see something was there, I just couldn’t read it. It was one of the most confusing, painful, embarrassing.  I was just 21.  It was just one of those moments, even though it was over 20 years ago, I feel it right now because it went from confusion and harassment, and then the realization that this is what I’m going to do with for the rest of my life.  At such a young age, one most people are planning their Vegas trip, I’m thinking, I can’t even pick up a book to read anymore.  I had read up to $1000 to that point, and from that point onwards, I couldn’t pick up a book to read a novel anymore.  It was a crushing blow, very tough and challenging. It thrust me into depression for several months.

That’s what seeded the idea for Think and Zoom.  It was that moment that I was looking at that I screening machine, and I was crying and cleaning my eyes because it was blurry, foggy, smoky, like the frost on a glass of cold water.  I was trying to clean my eyes and clean the machine.  Alas, it wasn’t working.  Of course, they said we can’t issue you this license at this moment.  That’s what seeded the idea for Think and Zoom.  At that moment, what was happening was my macular under retina was damaged.  The cones and rods were now damaged, so even though light was coming in from the front of the I am going to the retina, it was like the retina was supposed to be the place where it sends all the signals from the front of the eyes the brain. But if your antenna is damaged, then your receiver is receiving a poor signal.  That’s what was happening.  The retina was damaged, so the brain was getting poor signal.  This is where magnification comes in.  All I needed was a boost.  All I needed was something to help me magnify and zoom in to see better. At that moment, I just wished, man, how I wish I could simply look, think, and resume in to see better. That’s what seeded the idea.

After all that, depression, not being able to continue with medicine and the military, I tried engineering.  I struggled all the way through.  I graduated from the University of North Chicago, but not before I flunked out halfway through.  It was during the era of 9/11, that particular semester, one particular week, my eyes just went berserk.  I don’t know what was happening.  I didn’t come out of my dorm room for a week.  I was struggling.  These were very difficult computer engineering courses, because I was studying computer engineering.  I was struggling to even see the printed characters on my textbooks.  When I went to class, I struggle to see what was on the board.  It was just struggle all around.  I struggled to come back a year later and finish up.  Interestingly, at the same time, through just discipline, hard work, grit and perseverance, to the outside world, it was always difficult for them to put two and two together.  At the same time I was struggling in school, flunking out, I had four consecutive internships. I’m talking Fortune 100.  I was developing technologies, back then, the latest and greatest of web development. I wrote HTML code front and back and, active server pages, the latest thing.  Wait a minute, you did to internships with this company, and then the third internship was with Goldman Sachs on Wacker Drive in downtown Chicago.  There my flagship project was writing code that embedded several different technologies into a piece of software to be able to accurately calculate all of Goldman Sachs electronic stock trading at that time, which totaled $300 million per day.  You couldn’t make mistakes.

JOSH ANDERSON:  No kidding.

ZUBY ONWUTA:  You could go off by a fraction of zero.  I had to accurately regulate with the software and write a secure routine to always securely archived it so no one could go and look it up.  I did that. To top that off, the very next year, I had another internship at Goldman Sachs on Wall Street.  This time around I was tasked with extracting data from legacy systems and then importing them into new computer systems.  Now I’m dealing with interoperability, meaning systems that do not talk with each other.  I was tasked with finding a way to get all the information from 1980 and getting it into the stuff that we just bought.  It was always very difficult for folks to understand, you say you are struggling but you’re doing very well.  What gives?  I just stuck to my guns of discipline, which came from her grandmother, and hard work, which came from my dad, and grit and perseverance from my uncle.  That’s what got me through.  

Right after college, IBM was recruiting people with disabilities, and I got a job with them. I came to Austin, Texas.  I was tasked with managing a whole lab with 300 servers.  When I say service, I mean all kinds of service, UNIX, Windows, ones that connect us from Windows to UNIX and vice versa, installing and deploying servers which run all kinds of software and data.  On top of that, the department I was working for was responsible for managing IBM’s AIX fast connect server, which was their own flavor of UNIX.  When it comes to UNIX, you are not dealing with a system that cannot go down, high reliability.  They have to be up 24/7, they are enterprise systems.  The customers are now the White House, Bloomberg, Lockheed Martin, billion-dollar enterprises that rely on mission-critical service to always be up and running.  That’s what I plunge myself into and started learning all these different kinds of technology.  Anything that had to do with filesystems, whether remotely away from the server or locally on your server or files that talked from one system like UNIX, across a different system like Windows, or other systems.  I had to learn all that, manage all of that, and as my career grew, I now started leading teams, global teams.  I was the global lead.  I had developers from India, somewhere in Japan, China.  But I was the head guy that, whenever I had a problem come through, I was called to make sure that the solution was deployed to the customer.

That’s how I kept going with my engineering career.  At first, things started – okay, I still had the eye problem and I was struggling. But then things started coming out. Stargard’s in particular has a very clear definition.  At that particular point when I exited the military, it should’ve stopped.  That’s your legal blindness.  That’s your 20/200.  That’s where it plateaus.  It stops. It doesn’t do anything else.  The majority of people with Stargard’s just used their magnifier.  When you use the magnifier for a year, two years, you are used to it.  That’s all you know and you are fine.  But in my case, it did not happen that way.  

I can remember, I started with premed – so I had this science background, and then I studied engineering so I had the technology mindset and problem-solving mindset.  I said, wait a minute, my symptoms never matched to my diagnosis.  That’s how I went from doctor to doctor, doctor, doctor.  300 of them later, over a decade later, I spent two weeks at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore, plus genetic testing.  We found out that I had three genetic disorders of the eye.  Two of them contributed to Stargard’s, and the third one contributes to a totally different disease called Con Rod Dystrophy. When I described the Stargard’s, it’s a degeneration from your macular going down to your RPE layer, which effectual cone and rod cells.  That’s a different way of destroying the cells.  

When it comes to Cones Rod Dystrophy, the protein that makes those cells is bad.  At some point it just starts dying out, starting with the cones first before he goes to the rods.  The cone cells are the ones that give you the clarity, so you can see colors very well, green, blue, brown, whatever, very crystal-clear.  The rods are the one that give you a very thorough vision, the night vision, helps you adjust between going from a brightly lit area to dark areas.  That’s when we found out that I had this other eye problem.  That explained why I was unlike other people with Stargard’s. That explains why I had other systems like fluctuations.  I could wake up in the morning, and I would look out, and it would be so bright outside, it would seem as if the sun came down into my balcony.  The glare, the photophobia, the perception to lights would be so terrible.  Luck with it would come annoyances from sources of sound.  What do you do?  It’s impossible to snap your fingers and turn off all lights in the world.  It was very challenging to carry on a day like that. On those days, it doesn’t matter if I put on shades or close my eyes, everything just annoys me that day.  That was very disruptive and chaotic.  

Other symptoms could be floaters.  But a lot of people that have these kinds of severe eye issues have floaters.  They can come with the black one that looks as if someone sprayed someone with tiny bits of hair.  That’s like our own version of augmented reality, you are seeing things that are not really there.  And then there’s the other one, like flashes.  Flashes will come in your peripheral.  Then there is a new one that started with me.  It was as if there is a purple ring, like a puff of smoke, that would come out of nowhere and just disappear.  In between all of these, I had to go to the school for the blind here in Texas.  I learned a lot of nonvisual skills, how to use your white cane, how to navigate indoors and outdoors safely.  I learned things like how to fry chicken blind, baked, all those things.  It gave me a lot of confidence.  Even now, I don’t rely on my [INAUDIBLE] I’ve already trained non-visually.

At some point, the deterioration from the constant battle between the diseases – that’s what was. It wasn’t the individual diseases, but now you have three things killing the same eye cells.  It’s not like they played nicely.  Hey man, today it’s Tuesday, I’m going to get in from 9 AM to 9 PM.

JOSH ANDERSON:  They just don’t share well, do they?

ZUBY ONWUTA:  They don’t share very well.  They don’t even talk to each other, they just attack me. Am a biological system.  At some point, I had to leave engineering. That’s when I dived deep into Think and Zoom.

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JOSH ANDERSON:  Folks, unfortunately that is all the time we had for the day.  Will have to tune in next week to hear the rest of the story and about the Think and Zoom software that everything he had been through it up to him developing. Make sure to tune in next Friday for the second part of our interview with Zuby.

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JOSH ANDERSON:  Do you have a question about assistive technology? Do you have a suggestion for someone we should interview on Assistive Technology Update? If you do, call our listener line at 317-721-7124, shoot us a note on Twitter @INDATAProject, or check us out on Facebook. Are you looking for a transcript or show notes? Head on over to our website at www.EasterSealsTech.com. Assistive Technology Update is a proud member of the Accessibility Channel. For more shows like this, plus so much more, head over to AccessibilityChannel.com. The views expressed by our guests are not necessarily that of this host or the INDATA Project.  This has been your Assistive Technology Update.  I’m Josh Anderson with the INDATA Project at Easter Seals Crossroads in Indiana. Thank you for listening, and we’ll see you next time.

***Transcript provided by TJ Cortopassi.  For requests and inquiries, contact tjcortopassi@gmail.com***