Thomas Chappell brings unique insight to a Prudential team developing tools to help people with low vision or hearing loss.

By Theresa Miller

October 18, 2019
Thomas Chappell closes the 2019 Voice Summit with the final keynote.

Thomas Chappell closes the 2019 Voice Summit with the final keynote. (Photo Credit: Voice Summit)

Thomas Chappell steps up to the microphone and gives it a tap to ensure it’s working. Then, he takes a step back and begins his remarks, using a series of hand motions. He is silent and the audience members seem lost.

“I’m sorry,” he signs to American Sign Language interpreters who begin to repeat aloud what he’s saying. “I didn’t know you wouldn’t understand. Guess what? That’s how I feel most of the time.”

Chappell, a systems developer supporting data analytics and engineering for Prudential’s technology organization, is profoundly deaf, yet has become one of the hottest tickets on the accessibility speaking circuit. This summer, he closed out the Voice Summit in Newark, New Jersey, sponsored by Amazon Alexa, as the final keynote speaker. With more than 5,000 attendees and 350 speakers, it’s the world’s largest voice tech event.

It was Chappell’s second year presenting at the conference, sponsored this year by the technology organization, after first joining other Prudential colleagues on a 2018 panel entitled “What If You Don’t Have a Voice?” At the conference, they learned about new accessibility technology and started thinking about how to bring it to Prudential. For Chappell that meant redefining the word “voice.”

Chappell thinks far beyond simple speech, saying, “voice is what you do to empower others to find their own voices.”

So now, in addition to their day jobs, Chappell and a group of technology colleagues work on the Accessibility Tools Practice, keen to develop new methods for people with hearing loss or low vision to communicate. This proof of concept work is a natural outgrowth of the team members’ regular responsibilities, says David Heafitz, vice president and head of mobility for the technology organization, who oversees the group. “We’re extending our day-to-day work in mobile and employee-facing applications, for instance, to enable employees in new ways.”

Examples include Ava, a real time voice-to-text application allowing someone to know what’s being said, while replying through a “voice” reading a typewritten response. Additionally, an app called Aira helps people with low vision by connecting them to representatives who describe surroundings based on what they see through a smartphone’s camera. For instance, they outline who’s in a room, read displays on a screen or help someone walk down a street, through an airport or a maze of cubicles.

Discovering the voice of change

Growing up in Massachusetts, Chappell attended schools for the deaf, which he describes as “worlds of flying hands.” By seventh grade, he wanted to learn “in the real world,” and enrolled in a mainstream school, “where everyone’s hands were down, taking notes.”

At school, Chappell juggled taking notes with trying to pay attention to an interpreter in class, but found no resources to help him participate in extracurricular clubs, sports or other activities. It was then that he resolved to make a difference for others in the deaf community and now wonders what high school might have been like if voice-to-text technology had been available.

After graduating from high school in 2013, Chappell was studying at the Rochester Institute of Technology when Amazon launched Alexa, its speaker that serves as a virtual assistant.

“It triggered a lot of discussion and I realized it was only the beginning of the future of technology,” he says. He was eager to learn about and explore more options. Prudential offered that opportunity.

Chappell joined Prudential as an intern in 2017 and immediately appreciated the company’s welcoming culture. He found his co-workers open and understanding, adding, “they would ask how to best communicate with me.”

At first, Chappell used simple voice technology, including iPhone dictation. The company also provided an in-person ASL interpreter for large meetings, one-on-one or in small group settings through its assistive technology infrastructure, but it was clear new options could provide more flexibility when it comes to personally engaging with colleagues. Once he joined full-time in 2018, it wasn’t long before he began to look for ways to make a difference. Working with the accessibility team has been one of them.

Internal and external inspiration

With help from other parts of the company, including the Law Department and Vendor Management, the workgroup is exploring how tools can be integrated across the company, including through Office 365. Voice-to-text, for example, can be useful in many ways, including to transcribe meetings.

“Simply put,” says Chappell, “if something can be designed for me, the solution will work for any employee or customer.”

Heafitz says better accessibility widens the company’s talent options: This month Prudential will once again participate in National Technical Institute for the Deaf Career Fair, which last year recognized the company with its Outstanding Partnership Award. He’s also seeing interest in the team’s work externally. To start, following the success of the 2018 panel, Voice Summit organizers added a full accessibility track—one of the first at any tech conference. The team’s in sync with the technology trends as well: Just after the summit, Amazon announced that it was expanding Alexa’s accessibility tools.

The company also in 2019 earned the Leading Disability Employers seal from the National Organization on Disability. The company has received the honor every year since the award’s inception in 2015.

“This goes beyond accommodation. We want people to know that regardless of your background, you can come to Prudential and have access to the tools you need to be as productive as anyone else,” says Heafitz. “And we want to keep pushing this agenda beyond Prudential to demonstrate what any company can do to attract the best talent.”

For media inquiries about Prudential’s Accessibility Tools Practice, please contact Alicia Rodgers Alston.