‘The Quadfather’ has a message for techies — accessibility ‘should not be an add-on’

Todd Stabelfeldt is a pretty chill dude. He lives 90 minutes from Seattle by ferry, in a home with his wife and occasionally two stepkids. He runs a consultancy for healthcare databases, but once considered becoming a comedian. He’s a dog person.

Stabelfeldt also happens to be quadriplegic. He’s been paralyzed from the neck down for more than 30 years.

And because of that, Stabelfeldt has a unique relationship with technology — not unique for him and his crew, which goes by “The Quad Squad,” but unique for many people who are able-bodied.

Stabelfeldt is our guest on the most recent Health Tech Podcast, but unlike many of our guests, the technology he works with doesn’t fit in a narrow “health” silo.

It’s things like Apple’s Siri voice assistant, smart home devices that let him get around and Bluetooth connections that tie it all together. Stabelfeldt relies on those technologies to be independent and live his life the way he wants to.

And he has a message for the people making that technology: Universal design and accessibility shouldn’t be afterthoughts.

On today’s show, we share Stabelfeldt’s talk from the 2017 GeekWire Summit and also sit down with him and his wife, Karen, to learn more about their life and the impact technology has had on their story.

Listen to the podcast above or download it as an MP3. Keep reading for an edited transcript of Todd’s talk and our conversation about his life and how technology impacts him.

Todd Stabelfeldt at the GeekWire Summit

They said 20 minutes… How am I gonna do 20 minutes, right? I might just do 40. … Who’s gonna push the dude in a wheelchair off the stage cause he went over 20 minutes? Said no one ever.

Yeah, I’m the founder of C4 Database Management, but actually, that’s not why I’m here to talk. And we can always talk about that later, if you wanted to. But this has been a wild ride. I’m 38 years old, I’ve been super crippled for over 30…

They said, “What do you want to talk about?” And I said, “Well, I’m tired of talking about the word ‘accessibility.’ I’m tired of talking about the word ‘assisted technology.’” You say those words and everybody right away goes to disabilities, speech recognition, and eye gaze and all these other things… This needs to be bigger than that. This is everybody. Speech rec for the quad is speech rec for the world.

Convenience for you is independence for me. I represent millions of people, worldly. I said, “Let’s do universal design.” “Well, what’s that?” What’s fascinating to me in the last two days has been nothing but talking about that — diversity, inclusion, universal design. Jesus, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella did most of my speech already. I was back in the corner excited all going, “Dude, you’re stealing my game.” I’ll just give them, “well that’s what Satya said, okay, I’m out.”

Universal design. What does it actually do for you, and how it impacts your story. Next slide! Because that’s how good I am, right? Voice rec! Boom. Did it. Yeah, exactly, in your face, all you voice recs. I got Colton, that’s what I got. Full time guy in the back.

Todd Stabelfeldt speaks at the 2017 GeekWire Summit Wednesday, October 11, 2017. (Photo by Dan DeLong for GeekWire)

Oh, you know, I didn’t even start with anything really, really perverse or profound humor. Or offensive humor. So let me do that real quick, just so you all get in the groove. I’m in fact referred to as a quadriplegic, and that means I have four extremities that don’t have really much movement. Yeah, really, look. Figure that one.

Yes, so two quadriplegics walk in a bar. (audience laughrer) How dare you laugh, that’s horribly offensive. But this is horribly a good joke, right? What do you call a nun with quadriplegia? Virgin mobile. Oh! There is is. Alright, I know, it’s like jeez. That lady just laughed, I think.

Alright, universal design, this is my take. I want to read it real quick. “Universal design is design and composition of the environment so it can be accessed, understood, and used to the greatest extent possible by all people, regardless of their age, size, ability, or disability.” The next slide is somebody who’s really smart, and wrote a better description, which I’m not going to read, because it is difficult for me to put words together to form sentences. That has never been my sort of core competency. I write SQL and I do that well, and that’s about it.

This particular individual — PhD, great lady out of the University of Washington. Really laid it down. Really wrote it out. This should not be an add-on. This should not be an-after-the fact. This should be a part of the beginning of the thought. It should be named. It should be real within the story.

We are all just a bunch of stories in this room, hanging out. Trying to figure out how to do right and how to do you. This is the definition of universal design as it manifests in an actual story and the story named Todd.

We’ve heard it before, and people have always said these things. It’s also known as this, that, and the other. The last bullet point is the most important. It’s simple concept, but man, until you name it — until you begin to apply it — is it just sort of this afterthought. And then becomes more expensive to do, and becomes harder to do. In this particular story I always laugh – people usually name curb cuts as the ultimate universal design. That was, you know, 1960. Now it might be the actual handicap button that you press. But now I’m seeing that the handicap button is actually lower. There usually is two now, there’s one down low, one up high. Because there we got a foot rest, we got a walker, we got a cane so we can beat on something. Your dog, or whatever, right?

This is universal design in my story. Folks, all I got is a PhD in pain and suffering. To get here today is a 4 a.m. start for me. I live in Port Orchard, in that beautiful home, which we refer to as the quadthedral. My beautiful babe, Karen, we’ve been in that house for just about two years. Now, she’s the smart one. She’s got the multiple Master’s degrees, et cetera. I’m not, I just sort of learn things by fire. We made this home absolutely fantastic and wonderful. And we did it because of necessity. We did it because we wanted independence.

I want to be a husband. I want to be a husband, and I want to do it well. I don’t want to be some ding dong, disabled dude. I want to be real. I want to be independent. I want to demonstrate my masculinity in all the ways that are of quality, and all the ways that are of integrity. You do that by making sure you take care of your girl, and you demonstrate that clearly and consistently.

How do I do that? Well, in the ecosystem I picked — which I love that there’s multiples out there — I ended up picking HomeKit for me. It works for me. Some of my buddies? They’re all about the Google. Or they’re all about the Amazon. And I love the fact that we all can pick what we want, sort of what our preference and profile is.

Because what you guys do and make, and decisions you make — and I don’t really even know what your story is here — is that you make my life real. I’m the demonstration of universal design. You allow me to be married and to be a father of two.

Todd Stabelfeldt in his home office for C4 Database Management. He still uses the more than 20-year-old system that he learned to write code on. (GeekWire Photo / Brent Roraback)

And to be an owner of sweet little Olivia, who you saw at the beginning of that film. A little 40 pound Rottweiler, mixed with a little bit of Pit Bull. Got a ridiculous overbite. Then you got to see my little lady, Beatrice. Rottweiler. She was on the couch, just chilling. That’s what she does.

You. I don’t know what your situation or what your story is, man. Are you happy, are you not happy? Guess what, you’re making choices. You’re grown. You’re an adult. And your good choices impact me. And the people I represent. So if you came here for a couple days to get a little refresh, like what the boy Satya said, man, click it. Grow up. Because you make my life better. Serious. I want to sit on that one for just a moment. I want to meditate on that one for a moment. Because I feel like you, the decision makers in the room, need to really understand what you do and why you do it.

Maybe you get the theory, maybe you get the equation, maybe you get the use case scenarios. But this is real deal, boots on the ground. I just happened to grow up in a Navy, German, Southern household. Failure wasn’t an option. Everybody’s valuable, everybody matters. Everybody must be putting groceries on the table. That’s how I grew up.

At 38 years old, married with two kids, a couple of dogs, and a cat I don’t really like at all — in fact, you want to do something on the side later, let me know, okay? Baby girl don’t even gotta need to know.

It’s important, folks, to do what we do. And do it from the beginning and do it right. Don’t be an add-on. Don’t be an afterthought. We live in a fantastic world, where we have some really cool opportunity to do some really cool things.

And for me — like what’s my role? What’s my spot? I think I’m just a dude, and the dude abides. I think that’s my part in this whole scene. I got here on Friday night at the museum and I wheel up to this dude and say, “What’s up, how you doing?” And his response was, “10001111000.” You a geek, man. It’s like, “right on. That’s not my scene.” It’s like, well what’s my part here, wheeling around the last couple of days? I think it’s just me demonstrating my story and what you do. Hit me with that next slide.

How you gonna apply your story? Because if you’re gonna do me right, and help the world I live in and my demographic, typically you only do it because you’re somehow impacted by it. Such as a loved one, like a family member, gets hurt, or you have somebody who’s born with a disability or what not. That shouldn’t be the motivation. The motivation should be doing it because everybody has the right, and everybody has the opportunity.

Hit me with that next slide. This one’s blank. You know what that means? I’m about done. And also, you’re grown. Go make those choices that are important to you and the people you serve. If you need me, I’m always here. Next slide. GeekWire, I love you guys. Appreciate you. Had no idea you even existed until about three or four months ago. Straight up man, I’ve been behind eight monitors for the last 20 years writing code, that’s all I do, write code. And all of a sudden it’s like, “Whoa, hey. You different. Man, you really, really — whoa! You a different style brother.” Yes I am, and the dude abides. I love you guys. Keep it real.

Q&A with Todd and Karen Stabelfeldt

Todd married Karen Little, now Karen Stabelfeldt, in 2013. (Stabelfeldt photo)

Clare McGrane: So let’s talk about the technology you use. You said that you are a fan of the Apple HomeKit, and Apple’s line. I saw you use Siri as well.

Todd Stabelfeldt: Oh, for sure. It all goes back to history… I was a Blackberry with a headset and auto answer. I rolled that mug for years. That’s just the way it was. We hacked a little speakerphone option, which allowed me to do a couple more things. Then I could do a little name dial, at times. I could check the battery level of my Blackberry. That was it. So in 2013, I was with one of my Quad Squad members, Cody — he goes, “Look what I can do with my iPad.” He had iOS 7 on it, which I obviously now know. He turned his face and his iPad did something. I was like, “What is this?” And he goes, “Oh, it’s called switch control.”

A couple weeks later we were talking, hanging out with different Quad Squad members. Ian — Dreadlock — and his mom, Tina. She was talking about the new Tecla. I was like, “Man, Teclas blow”. She was like, “Well, this new Tecla’s supposed to be really great with iOS 7.” Then just mentally I was like, “Huh. Tecla plus switch control. Maybe that external option, maybe that is to reach out to a Bluetooth device.” Talked to Karen about it, we hooked up, and you know, boom, boom, boom.

Now we’re texting, emailing, checking my phone like you do with all of the buttons I have up here in my face. That’s how I got started. I didn’t know there as anything else then, other than that. I’m not sure if there even was at that time. So that’s how I started the process of using and picking iOS as my choice. As we’ve progressed through the years, I’ve still stuck with it. A lot of my buddies have too, just because continuity and you get your text messages on your phone or your computer. There’s a lot of really integrated things with Apple. Some of the bros are all over Xbox One with the Kinect and then mixing in IFTT and Amazon.

McGrane: Do you have any particular feelings about Amazon and Microsoft, and what they’re doing versus Apple?

Todd Stabelfeldt: I’m excited. For sure. That’s probably the thing I’ve pulled away with GeekWire this week — the Summit — is how you can be frenemies. I thought that was pretty cool. And also, yeah, we’re gonna compete in some areas. Other areas we leverage, and — or we sharpen each other, right? Iron sharpens iron. I thought that was really, really tight. So no, I got no word on that. I’ll stick with Apple for now and keep rolling my game and we’ll see where it all goes.

McGrane: So you called it your earth suit. Let’s talk a little bit about the buttons you have and the other controls you’ve got going on.

Todd Stabelfeldt: So, you know, artsy, and you hang out with a bunch of artists and stuff. And I like earth suit and meat sleeve, to talk about your body. Karen hates meat sleeve. We generally default to earth suit. My earth suit happens to be really, really, broken. It is a crippled body that’s been doing its thing for 30 years. I’ve got the body of a gladiator. All the scars, not the muscles and the cool stuff and the sand on my face.

You just have to roll with it, and that’s what I call my earth suit. It’s a little bit of a way to disassociate, too, and disconnect. It’s not fun to think about your disability or when it becomes a reality. Those are the parts that you’ve got to be careful, because you can get pretty low in those moments. Calling it an earth suit makes it funny. It also just allows you to sort of take a step back.

Then I sit in a wheelchair called a Permobil F5, and I always say this, and I’ll continue to say it: It’s the West Coast rep version, black on black. And I love it. It is a radical chair. They’ve been doing the chair game for 30 years and — real suspension, LED lights, hazards, turn signals. Of course, I never even use those, but that’s cool. Just a ton of integration into my phone and my life. I can charge my phones and Teclas and all that stuff on the wheelchair. The Permobil is the only company really demonstrating universal design, which was this week. Ingenuity. Really putting the user in front of the disability, which is what I like. I’m Todd, who happens to have quadriplegia. I’m not some ding-dong quadriplegic named Todd Stabelfeldt.

McGrane: Can you tell me about the different buttons you have on your-

Todd Stabelfeldt: Yeah, so we’re looking at each other. So starting on your left, water straw. Just water, nothing else.

McGrane: You never put anything else in there?

Todd Stabelfeldt: No, God no. I tried putting soda in there once. Disgusting.

McGrane: Yeah, I don’t feel like that would go well.

Todd Stabelfeldt: It was like Coca-Cola boogers. You could chew it, it was nasty. Then, starting after that are several switches starting around a gimbal, a joystick. The joystick is old school, just up, down, left, right. So I drive the wheelchair. Embedded into the gimbal ball, like the joystick ball, I have two IR switches as well. When I touch them with my lip or my tongue it activates a button. Then on either side of that gimbal joystick are two buttons on the left, two buttons on the right. Some of those buttons are assigned for the phone — move back, move next, select, Siri, home, things like that. A couple of the buttons are assigned to tilting the wheelchair back and things of that nature.

McGrane: Do you consider yourself a geek?

Todd Stabelfeldt: Yeah. I would say a geek with style, sure.

McGrane: (Laughing) What geek doesn’t have style?

Todd Stabelfeldt: I don’t pop up here with jeans and a t-shirt.

McGrane: Thinking about the tech you have right now, if a fairy godmother or fairy programmer popped out of the ground and said, “I can wave my wand and make one more product or one more feature available,” what would you want to see?

Todd Stabelfeldt: I sorta like that whole two-way digital assistant who can understand your requests. Like, many requests. “Get ready to come to the house, unlock the doors, after I’m in go ahead and close them and re-lock them.” There’s all those things. I keep my request really simply right now. We’re getting ready to go on a flight to Chicago on Saturday. I would love for — because again, my ecosystem’s HomeKit — I’d love for Siri to know my schedule. And I do the “he” version, and he knows I’m jamming out. So he goes and makes sure that all my playlists have been downloaded on my phone. Because when I’m in the cloud, literally, I do not like the answer, “Oh, you didn’t download this so you can’t listen to it.” That’s super frustrating.

Karen Stabelfeldt: Or at least remind you.

Todd Stabelfeldt: Or remind me! Yeah, something simple.

Karen Stabelfeldt: Say, “Hey, don’t you want to do this?”

Todd Stabelfeldt: Yeah, for sure.

McGrane: Like smarter AI.

Todd Stabelfeldt: Yeah, yeah. We’re getting ready to go out with no signal, no strength where you’re going in a week. What do you want to do? I just try to keep my stuff pretty short right in front, that I think is extremely tangible. But the pie in the sky would be a real, true, just talking — not in machine language, lights, 25% — just real language. And the assistant to be able to pick up on that.

McGrane: Can I ask you a bit about your home and your set up there? You call it the-

Todd Stabelfeldt: Quadthedral.

McGrane: Yeah.

Todd Stabelfeldt: It’s church. Absolutely.

McGrane: (laughs) What do you do to worship?

The Stabelfeldts’ Quadthedral, a home with an open floor plan that’s easy to maneuver and includes lights, entertainment systems and doors that can be controlled with voice command. (GeekWire Photo / Brent Roraback)

Todd Stabelfeldt: Well, let me tell you why we call it the quadthedral. Because that in itself is a bit of a funny. So, house is almost built, we’re almost moved in. Can’t remember exact timing. Baby girl, she’s there with me. She’s all in fatigues. That’s when she was active duty. I look at the south side of our house, there’s some yard and some rockery and some trees. At that time there was just like this really old fence that sort of separated the properties. And there was this super old dude standing there, staring at me. You know one of those cats that’s like super, super old? Not sure, one, how did they get there? Two, how they gonna get back? Then the drawstring in his sweats was out one side down to his knee. So you know a little more about the story. He ain’t fully cooked. So you’re out there just sort of looking at him and out loud he goes, “What are you?”

McGrane: Oh, God.

Todd Stabelfeldt: So, I look at the veteran, what does she do? She jumps behind a tree. I’m like, “aren’t you supposed to be first in, last out?” I’m sitting on the sidewalk looking at this cat, and I’m going — “What do you say to that? That’s a ding dong question.” So I went, “Human.” I thought that’d be an appropriate response, right? Then he goes, “You Jehovah’s Witness?”

I was like, man. We making some transitions quick. I said, “No … I love my Jesus, but no, I’m not a Jehovah’s Witness.” He points at the house and goes, “That’s a big house. It looks like a temple.” I was like, “Right on, man. This is our house. We definitely do church up in this thing.” And he turned and walked away. Karen came out behind the tree and we sort of giggled. Because it was Halloween time frame, she was like, “Did he think maybe you were dressed up as a quadriplegic?” Because that’s what everybody wants to do for Halloween, right?

McGrane: Oh, of course.

Todd Stabelfeldt: Couldn’t even get your presents on trick or treat. Anyhoo, whatever. We fast forward a couple months or what not, and then we just start going, “This is our temple. This is our church.” When we had to name our home in HomeKit, boop! Quadthedral.

We love our home. As I said earlier in this power talk, I’m not formally trained in any of this space. We just built what we needed. All single level, it’s all concrete. Easy transitions into doorways. We hardwired wiring wherever we could, just as a redundancy and fail-safe, and generator. Picked the property that’s close to natural gas. All those things that we had no idea were methodologies of universal design and actually named and have a jargon around it. We just signed up on what makes our life better.

We have a home automation in the house, it’s pretty extensive because we built the home prior to HomeKit and Amazon. There wasn’t any of that really there. We have a fairly large investment into what’s called RTI, which is a pretty significant, serious, enterprise-level home automation that we enjoy. We’ve sort of been sunsetting each module as HomeKit and manufacturers have come online with thermostats or garage door openers or things like that.

We open the doors, close doors, do locks, do blinds, do lights, do the heaters, all the displays. Volume up, volume down. Speakers, we put the speakers all throughout the house, outside the house, in zones and things like that. It’s a really, really cool home that allowed me to be independent, to be at home a lot. The part that I always name that people find interesting or just sort of unique is: I take a shower every day. I hadn’t taken a shower in decades prior to this house, because I never could build or find an apartment with a handicap accessible shower. So, I was like 35, 36, when I started taking regular showers. Then just the dignity that comes with taking a shower? Pretty righteous stuff.

McGrane: Let’s talk a little bit about universal design. You talked a lot about that on stage earlier. I thought it was really wonderful — and I think you’re the only person I’ve ever seen at one of our events that’s done this, that’s said, “You’re the people responsible for this.”

Todd Stabelfeldt: Right!

McGrane: “You’re the people who are in charge here. You have the power to do this. You need to realize that and kind of stand up to that responsibility.”

Todd Stabelfeldt: Yes. I’m 38 years old and I’ve been paralyzed since eight. I’ve been in a chair older than most of my boys have been alive, my Quad Squad members. I’m old and crusty and rigid. Of course I think about that all the time. I’m old school and I want to make sure that I’m doing my part. I used to commute from Bainbridge to Seattle every day in my wheelchair. Universal design is a big, big deal. I want to be independent. I want to be my own grown man.

It’s a real blessing and an honor to pay taxes, which is a really weird statement, because a lot of people always poo-poo on the tax. But it’s like, man. Disabled people want to be like you. We want all those rights and opportunities.  That’s just my thing, my shtick. That’s just what I’ve been fighting for 30 years. This article just came out in New Mobility, which is like People magazine for the disabled. It came out I think about a month ago. It made me realize, when I first got paralyzed — I was at a children’s hospital here in Seattle I ended up actually doing some work with Nintendo as a model for a new hands-free system they had for Nintendo 8-bit.

And it made me go, man, I’ve been this guy since eight. I’ve been Louis and Clark-ing it and demonstrating it for three decades. That’s a long time. What were you gonna say?

Karen Stabelfeldt: When HomeKit came out … actually, no, it’s when Siri came out. And HomeKit was a concept. It was in some apps, or it you could see it — going into the settings, you could see it under general. It was like, “What is this? What’s this HomeKit?” Then you read about it, and you’re like, “Oh, my goodness. This is gonna be wonderful.”

And then you would go to the retail store and you’d talk to them about it, and they’re like, “Mm.” And I’m like, “I know, but what is this HomeKit? Tell me about HomeKit.” “Mm.” And it’s like, there wasn’t anything yet. And it wasn’t because the ecosystem hadn’t been developed, it’s because manufacturers hadn’t embraced being universally designed to plug into that ecosystem. So the ecosystem was there, waiting for manufacturers to catch up to it.

Todd Stabelfeldt: They built it. Just waiting for them to come.

Karen Stabelfeldt: So we’ve just been sitting there, waiting. It’s like — let’s stop waiting, let’s start challenging. Let’s start challenging, encouraging, highlighting, educating.

Todd Stabelfeldt: We’re going to all the Apple stores and just sharing.

Karen Stabelfeldt: Or passion, is just letting people know.

Todd Stabelfeldt: Using real-world examples. I mean, what better than to use the story? Our story. That was our approach, and here you are now. We did GeekWire, so it’s obviously real and people find value in that, which is awesome. That’s a win-win.

McGrane: Yeah. For folks who maybe — they’re in the tech industry, they design things, they’re product developers — and they haven’t really thought about this before or they don’t know how to go about starting, or they’re worried about doing something wrong, or doing something offensive. What would you advise? What’s the best way to do it?

Todd Stabelfeldt: Well, my response — and you can jump in here too, babe — is we had the total privilege this year of doing a keynote for the World Wide Developers conference in San Jose. It was like one hour long. It was really exciting, because you get to like demo it. My phones were up on the screens and it was really showing everybody how the buttons work. Which is really, really exciting, and put a very vivid name to what was going on.

I remember leaving the stage and like, 183 emails. It was like, what? That was a lot of emails, quick. For the next three or four days, developers coming up to you going, “I never put that to my app. I never named that. I never thought about it. And second of all, if I did, I never tested it.” That was a real eye-opener to me. You know what you know, and honestly, if disabilities or universal design is not really part of your makeup or your agenda, you just do what you do and you go out there and get it done. What we’ve found and know that it’s fairly easy to apply these sort of rules, when you’re making your apps and what now.

Now, months later, we get emails quite a bit from people who really appreciate. “Thank you so much what you did. Just so you know, I just put on a new version. Can you go look at it, tell us what you think?” Or “You really changed what we do,” and whatnott. I just think it’s education. It always comes to that, just repeating of that. And using stories that people can associate with. I think that’s how you do it. And if you’re not thinking about accessibility or universal design, then that’s not a bad on you. That’s not your world. That’s not your scene. Like today and like with the Apple conference it was just trying to flip lights on. Trying to show people, “no, this is real. This is why we need to do this.”

McGrane: Thank you so much for joining me, both of you.

Todd Stabelfeldt: No problem.

Karen Stabelfeldt: Absolutely.


by Clare McGrane

Clare McGrane is a GeekWire reporter who covers life sciences, biotechnology and general assignment technology stories, in addition to producing the GeekWire radio show and podcast. A graduate of the University of Washington, she is passionate about nonfiction storytelling, particularly stories about how science impacts our daily lives. Follow her @claremcgrane.

GeekWire’s Health Tech Podcast goes in-depth with tech innovators bringing new ideas and ingenuity to digital health and wellness. Subscribe: Apple Podcasts, Soundcloud or RSS.

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