Podcast: Disability and possibility with Yahye Siyad

The Disability Download

Yahye Siyad talks us through his experiences in the sporting world, the professional world, and the world of couch surfing.



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Yahye Siyad: When there’s a will, there’s a way, right? We often think of people with disabilities not able to do certain sports, or not able to do certain things, and that’s an assumption that stems from not knowing. And when you think about it, especially with the scuba diving and the blind tennis, what it does really, it just shows you, when you put reasonable adjustments in place, whether it’s in the sports world, or any other world, anything is possible.

Erin O’Reilly: Hello and welcome to The Disability Download, brought to you by pan-disability charity, Leonard Cheshire. I’m Erin O’Reilly, and on this podcast we respond to current topics, share stories and open up conversations about disability.

Hi everyone and thanks so much for tuning back into another episode. This month my colleague Isaac has a great interview with our guest, Yahye Siyad. Yahye is a former paralymic athlete who represented the Team GB Goalball squad and today, he’s diversity and accessibility lead at digital agency Cyber-Duck. 

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He joins us to talk about his sporting career, disability representation in the workplace, and the work he’s doing to help create a more accessible world. So, let’s hear from him!

Isaac: Hi, my name is Isaac. I'm here with Yahye Siyad. Thank you so much for joining us, Yahye. How are you today?

Yahye: I'm very well, thank you Isaac.

Isaac: Brilliant. So, I've written out some questions here, if you're happy to, let's just dive straight in.

Yahye: Let's do it.

Isaac: So, I was going to ask you, you've had an amazing and varied career and you've touched on many different things, but you've always had accessibility at the heart and before we get into things like your Paralympian career, your work with Cyber-Duck, inclusive horizons and the UN CRPD, I'd like to know what led you down the path of accessibility?

Yahye: Yeah, sure. Thanks so much for the wonderful opportunity of hosting this beautiful podcast. I'm actually a big fan of this podcast, I've listened to it many times before, so it's nice to be here now as a guest. Thanks so much also for your kind words. So, to be honest with you, as somebody who was born blind and travelled around the world extensively, mostly alone, accessibility is something that touches me directly as firsthand user experience, so it's something that I couldn't escape.

And then I felt that I had to do something about it, really, for two reasons. First of all, there's nothing more rewarding than working full-time day and night on something that you feel very passionate about and it connects directly to your life. So, it becomes more of a mission rather than work. And the second thing is that I got tired and sick of, you know, people with good intention, albeit making solutions of accessibility, whether it be it physically or digitally on behalf of us, you know this kind of notion that we always talk about as people with a disability, the UN slogan and or the UN CRPD's slogan, nothing for us, without us. 

I wanted to make sure that I become a part of the solution instead of complaining about how inaccessible the world is, so it really came from firsthand experience and it just became also a choice after being in the world of HR and training and the corporate world, it became a choice to work on something that you feel very passionate about and connected to on a personal level as well.

Isaac: That's really fascinating. So obviously, with accessibility at the heart of all your work, have you found any sort of major hurdles or roadblocks that have stopped you from really being able to delve in as far as you'd like?

Yahye: Yes, I did actually. And funnily enough, it's always the same. So, it kind of goes into two different parts. The first part is kind of the attitude, when you talk to people about accessibility, it's kind of this attitude of like, accessibility is something that only affects people with disabilities, and we didn't have a budget for it and that kind of thing.

So, it's kind of the elephant in the room that nobody wants to touch, or nobody wants to talk about, or they want to avoid so to speak, and then the other thing is this design of solutions without genuine involvement of people with a disability or without even thinking people with a disability will use it. So, one thing I come across now even with advancement and accessibility across both private and public sector is simple things like for example, you go on a flight or you're in the office or you are somewhere and then as a blind person, I'm having to trying to use a touch screen product, you know it’s like, that person who designed that or the group of people that designed that, have they thought of people like myself? How are they going to use it?

So, I think it's a combination of attitude and a combination of assumptions really being the main hurdles that are being faced.

Isaac: I wanted to delve into your work with Cyber-Duck. Could you tell me a little bit about Cyber-Duck as an organisation?

Yahye: Yes, so Cyber-Duck was founded back in 2005 and it's a user centered agency where we look at not only designing websites and applications, but also do an end-to-end user experience with all digital interactive points. So, we have UI and UX and different coders supported by developer services to make sure that everything is safe and reliable online as well.

We work with major clients in the public sector such as the NHS, Sport England, The Bank of England and also with some private enterprises such as Cadbury and Mitsubishi. We really worked across different sectors whereby we help them to design. And also, legal solutions. And for me, I feel passionate about this. We will make sure that accessibility is part and parcel of what we do really.

Isaac: That's great. It sounds like such a multifaceted organisation. Are there any techniques or methods that you're keen to see used more in the world of accessibility?

Yahye: Yes. So, I think now we go to the stage at Cyber-Duck whereby we really want to take accessibility to the next level. You know, for example, one of the plans we have for this year is to establish a fully-fledged diversity and inclusion activity working whereby we look at how we can combine all these efforts internally from different departments et cetera and to create and amplify our voices across different communities, that’s something that is really important for us, I think this year. 

We're also looking at benchmarking internationally, you know our agency grew significantly in the last three years, more than tripled Google in size, and we thought it is the perfect time to do an international benchmark in terms of where we are and what is the next big thing.

There's a lot of talk about the Metaverse, there's a lot of talk about, you know, idealistic future plans and we want to make sure that these things, whenever it happens, it happens with accessibility in mind rather than repeating the same mistake I would repeat with the Internet revolution in the last 20-30 years.

Isaac: That's also really fascinating. It's always great to hear about new methods of working and new ways to bring everyone together with a common goal. So, you work as the diversity and accessibility lead for Cyber-Duck is that right?

Yahye: That's right, yes.

Isaac: And you've got a focus on UX and digital optimization. Could you tell me what this work includes and what the future that you're working towards looks like?

Yahye: Yes. So, at Cyber-Duck, we are a user centered design agency, so we really took it on ourselves to make sure that accessibility is embedded in every touch point of the whole client journey and the end user journey. It's something that we speak about during the pitch is something that we embedded in the project management into our UI and UX and the coders and all the developers, et cetera. So, it's a really enriching role and I'm very privileged to have this role because it allows me to see the whole cycle of accessibility.

Sometimes we talk about accessibility from an advocacy point of view, right? Other people talk about disability because they are in pain, “all this is not accessible!” and we get frustrated. But then when you see how the whole digital journey goes from a concept into a fully-fledged digital product out there, it is really enriching. Like I remember just to give you an example, I sat with one of the one of our front-end developer, a wonderful lady and we were just going through certain issues of accessibility it was literally an eye opener for me and for her, so to speak, of what can be possible to make sure that the touch points of different websites is really accessible.

So, it's a really enriching experience for me that I'm enjoying on a daily basis, whether it's through leadership programmes we create around accessibility, whether through working with the technical team, whether it's working with the design team, whether it's working with our internal marketing and HR and OPS, etc.

Isaac: Yeah, that's really interesting. Had you worked in the digital world before coming to Cyber-Duck? 

Yahye: I didn't, but I was working with some digital agency, so maybe providing different type of workshops kind of things, but I wasn't immersed fully as I am now with Cyber-Duck.

Isaac: And speaking of the different worlds that you've been in, because I asked about the digital world, but one world that you do know very well is the sporting world. You were the first visually impaired certified scuba diver in the Middle East, and you've competed in the European Championships as well as the Paralympics in goalball.

Yahye: Correct, yes. 

Isaac: So firstly, just for our listeners, could you tell us a little bit about the sport of goalball?

Yahye: Yeah, sure. So, goalball is a Paralympian game that became part of the Paralympic sports in 1976, and it's basically a big ball with a bell in it. You have 3 three players on each side wearing opaque eye shades with tactile on the floor to locate where you are in the court, and then a big 9 meters goal width behind you. And the idea is to zip the ball across the floor to the opponent team and then the opponent team has to dive to where the ball is coming from and to stop it going to the back of the net. This is really in simple terms, but it's probably much easier to experience in person or to look it up on YouTube if you're able to do so. But it’s a really fun fast sport. 

Isaac: Yeah, it sounds great, but it also sounds really difficult. And also, if you're diving across the floor, it sounds like there could be potential for injury.

Yahye: It can be, so you really have to be physically fit but it's a really enriching experience, I mean. I don’t think I enjoy myself as much as having a very competitive goalball practice in and in fact this weekend I’m off to Sheffield to compete in upcoming tournament, so I'm looking forward to it. It's a really amazing sport.

Isaac: That sounds great. Good luck in Sheffield, I hope it goes well.

Yahye: Thank you. 

Isaac: What sort of impact have both your scuba diving and goalball had on you personally and professionally? Has it sort of made you want to develop in certain areas or given you drive anything like that?

Yahye: Well, I will add to this actually also tennis. I started recently playing blind tennis as well Isaac. And if you really asked me what was the combination of those three goalball, blind tennis and scuba diving, what really added to my experience is two things really. First is, I live on this notion: where there’s will there's a way. We often think of people with disabilities not being able to do certain sports or not able to do certain things and that's an assumption that stems from not knowing.

And when you think about it, for example, especially the scuba diving and the blind tennis, it just shows you when you put reasonable adjustment in place, whether that’s in the sports world or any other world, everything is possible.

You're talking about instead of having one way of doing everything, if you adapt certain things into certain people's skills, you're really going to get the best out of those people. And you know just the ability to compete to be professional, to remain resilient, you know and because sports is something that we all learn from on a daily basis right, of all the skills, team building Etc. Etc. but I think for me the notion of where there's a will, there's a way, really comes at the forefront in my mind, when I think of those sports careers that I had.

Isaac: That's fascinating as well. How did you first come to get involved in blind tennis?

Yahye: I was just told about it through a couple of friends who actually compete on a local and international level, and they said, you know, you play goalball why don't you play blind tennis? I thought they were joking at first, even though I've done scuba diving before that. But then when I just got there and it was it's through Metro sports, and then I went there since October and ever since I've been playing every two weeks and I'm looking hopefully to start also going to couple of competitions very soon as well. So, it's really incredible. So, you’ve got your own racket, which is a normal racket, and then you’ve got the ball which has a bell in it and then you rely through the bounce of the ball to return the ball to your opponent. So, it's not as physically demanding as goalball, but it definitely requires a lot of agility and requires a lot of accuracy so to speak.

Isaac: And I can imagine quite a lot of concentration as well. So, you mentioned just previously that you've noticed links between those three sports. So, scuba diving, goalball and blind tennis. Could you tell me about any of those links or maybe about any sort of big differences between the three as well?

Yahye: Yeah. So, with goalball, obviously it's a fully-fledged sport for people who are blind. But then just working on, I think for me, it was a whole career in itself because I had to complete, you know, locally and internationally around the world. And it just really allowed me to develop my professional outlook on life, my ability to be resilient, et cetera. And then with other sports it’s more about the notion of, especially the scuba diving and the blind tennis, it's the notion of where there’s a will there's a way, making an adaptation. Imagine if you think about it like a workplace, let's say you are a designer for somebody who's blind people will be like, how can somebody blind work as a designer? but it is possible, if you make certain adaptations, certain adjustments and this will understand the notion of real adjustment very, very well. And I think that's something that makes me very happy when I think of the sport, and I think this is the main difference really between the goalball and the other ones or the linking across all of them.

Isaac: Aside from your work with Cyber- Duck, you founded inclusive horizons and you've worked as a trainer with the UN CRPD.

Yahye: Yeah, basically, it's the United Nations Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities. It's the largest ratified human treaty actually around the world, whereby almost every single country had signed it, and many countries had also ratified that. So basically, it has a few different articles about the advancement of people with disabilities in day-to-day life, everything from accessibility to education to employment to self realisation, et cetera, et cetera. So, it's a wonderful, very comprehensive mechanism whereby all the countries have signed and ratified how to report on a yearly basis on the progress of provisions from their own country to this committee.

Isaac: And in your time with both of these organisations, what are some key things that you've noticed that are holding the world back from accessibility and inclusivity?

Yahye: Where to start, well in a nutshell, I would say a combination of a few things. Accessibility is expensive. Accessibility and creativity do not go hand in hand. Accessibility is for people with disabilities only and those kinds of things you know, sounderstanding that accessibility can be digital or physical, especially in the digital world it really helps people with temporary disability, with situation disability with, et cetera, et cetera and not to mention it's an amazing usability experience for everybody concerned and I think this is really one of the really key reasons why I've joined Cyber-Duck is the passion I've seen from our CEO, Danny and all the wonderful colleagues.

They really care about accessibility as something that impacts everybody. I mean, I am in diversity and accessibility, but believe me, all I do is just I amplify the voices internally, as soon as I came, a lot of people asked me, we want to do this, we want do that, so everybody genuinely cares about accessibility and they can use my position to amplify these voices and to make all this work around accessibility and then to see, for example, certain impacts where we work, for example, with sports of England again, I talk about my passion for sports and this girl can. 

For example, a project, you know when you see that certain accessibility work, we've done with those kind of similar organisations. Whereby after we finish this accessibility work, up to 50% increase in funding applications have gone through the website that that just really makes me passionate about accessibility because we understand it's not just, he always should, every should understand it's not just a technical checklist. Well, of course there are a lot of technical requirements, but that isn't really the end meaning of it. 

It’s the impact of making the employment of somebody a lot easier, of making the educational experience of somebody a lot easier, of making the health of somebody a lot easier. And not to mention independence, right, you guys, in Leonard Cheshire just care a lot but independence and this is just really an incredible way to make people independent. So, I will say look at the ripple effect of accessibility. While we're looking at the at the requirement or the compliance or the boarding aspects of accessibility.

Isaac: That's brilliant. It must be really nice to have tangible results with that 50% increase.

Yahye: 100% yeah.

Isaac: So, I'm just wondering if there's anything else that you're working on at the moment that you'd like to talk about?

Yahye: Well, I do work with a lot of different organisations, as a consultant as well, so I think, but what’s really becoming very fulfilling for me on a personal level is, I got my Autobiography which called Unshakeable Will finally published. Just last week really. So, in that book while it is an autobiography, really my main purpose was to give a story of hope, to give the story of resilience, to share an insight of somebody with a disability, along with other strands of diversity, living in different countries, in different places and just experiencing the world differently.

And what did that bring out for me so, I'm very excited about that and I just really hope, for anybody who might be interested to read to give me feedback, to share, spread the positive message, I think there's a lot of negativities around the world these days. And sometimes when you share something that you feel passionate about, myself, I read a lot of different autobiographies, and I just learned that I connect more with people that I can relate to it. So yeah, this is the latest thing that for me was on the highs in the last few weeks.

Isaac: Well, it sounds fantastic. I can't wait to read it. You've mentioned your love for travel and obviously accessibility is something that's a big part of that for yourself. Have you had any experiences in that world that you'd like to talk about?

Yahye: Yeah, sure. So you know talking about the digital world and my love for, for, travelling. I think it really and I've got combined together nicely when I really realised that limited horizons of digital. You know, sometimes we think of digital  as this difficult thing, from skills to gain or to practice or even maybe the dark side of digital, you know the issues of lack of safety, harassment, problems that come with the digital world, right, but then the beautiful aspects of the digital world is when you see a real community out there that is similar to your passion, share the same values as you as yourself, and that came when I discovered this, what's it called?

Couch surfing, whereby believe it or not, you have people out there with profile on the on the side ready to host strangers into their houses, or to show them around their city, and I've been hosted in different countries around the world, in Germany in Colombia, India and Kazakhstan, South Africa, et cetera and I’ve myself hosted, I think around 50 to 50 plus people between London and Dubai and it's just a really wonderful way to show you that digital has an unlimited horizons in terms of what’s possible out there, you can filter people based on you know values and et cetera. So, it was a wonderful experience that allowed me to travel more extensively. It also allowed me to share amazing, beautiful memories and moments with people over dinner, coffee, etc.

Isaac: It sounds brilliant. It sounds like a really nice way to sort of see places off the beaten track as well.

Yahye: 100%. And then if you think about another app, which is really worth mentioning obviously, as blind people we use it a lot of the time, it’s called Be My Eyes. It's basically an app that was developed or founded by a blind Danish person who come across this idea that you sign up as a blind person as a user, and then you have volunteers on the other end, you ring the app as a video call and then somebody who volunteers kindly picks up the phone and then you put your camera to where you want help with. It could be to help you to read some recipes or cheques, some colours etc. So, it's something I use almost on a daily basis. In fact, I've just used it last night. So, the limit of the digital world is really incredible.

Isaac: I know it's an app that a lot of people that we support are massive fans of as well, and I think it's such a brilliant thing. I'm so glad to hear that you get good usage out of it.

Yahye: Yeah, definitely.

Isaac: It's been brilliant to talk to you today. Thank you so much for coming along. It was great to hear about all of your work, and it sounds like you're a very, very busy individual. So, thank you for taking the time.

Yahye: Thank you very much. I really appreciate the invitation and I've been fan of Leonard Cheshire for quite some time, and I think keep shining keep doing what you're doing, and I look forward to listening to all upcoming podcasts as well, all the episodes.

Isaac: Brilliant. Thank you so much, Yahye. All the best and all your many different ventures.

Yahye: Thank you. Thank you.

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Erin: Thanks so much to Isaac and Yahye for a really interesting conversation. 

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It was really cool hearing about Cyber-Duck’s inclusive end-to-end experience as well as his love for travel and sport. So, we’ll pop the link to Yahye’s socials on the show notes of our Simplecast site if you’d like to check those out, and we’ll link to the Cyber-Duck website on there too if you want to take a look at that. You can also find a full transcript of our podcast over on Simplecast as well.

We’d love to know what you think, so get in touch by emailing us at disabilitydownload@leonardcheshire.org or contacting us on Twitter or Instagram @LeonardCheshire and if there’s a guest that you want to hear from, or a topic that you really want us to cover, reach out and let us know. And don’t forget to like, share, and subscribe to the podcast! 

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Thanks so much for listening everyone! Until next time, I’m Erin, and this has been The Disability Download.

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