Tech Leaders Talk Podcast

Melanie Tran

Disability Technology

If we can’t have an accessible culture, we can’t have an accessible environment

Summary

Today’s guest is the Winner of the 2018 Laureate Here for Good Award and the 2019 Australian Financial Review's Top 100 Women of Influence. Although she suffers from spinal muscular atrophy, this has not stopped her and she is the first person in the world with a physical disability to receive the Duke of Edinburgh's International Award.   We talk about how technology can help with creating better inclusion, how Melanie uses her disability for innovation and much more.

In this episode, you will learn

  • 2:45 - How Melanie ended up in tech
  • 9:00 - Receiving an award from the Duke of Edinburgh  
  • 15.05 - Using her disability for innovation
  • 19.45 - The power of education
  • 27.00 - Melanie's mission now

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Full Transcript

Voice-over
Welcome to the Tech Leaders Talk show, where we get to speak to those on the forefront of the technology world on a personal level. We dive into their careers, some of the challenges they faced, and how they've overcome them. Please help others find the show by rating us on your favourite podcast engine.

 

Ernst Pelser
Good afternoon and welcome to the Tech Leaders Talk show. I'm your host Ernst Pelser. Today's guest is a winner of the 2018 Laureate Here for Good Award. She is also the 2019 Australian Financial review's top 100 women of influence nominee. Although she suffers from spinal muscular atrophy, this has not stopped her and she is the first person in the world with a physical disability to receive the Duke of Edinburgh International Award. Today we chat with Melanie Tran about her love for technology and how she entered the technology space. We also chat about how we can use technology as an enabler to improve inclusion. Melanie, I'm honoured to welcome you to the show.

 

Melanie Tran:
Thank you for having me, Ernst. It's a pleasure to be on the show.

 

Ernst Pelser
So it's taken us a few goes to align our diaries, but we've finally got there now in the new years.

 

Melanie Tran:
Yes, we did in a new decade.

 

Ernst Pelser
Yes, it's quite a scary thought that, isn't it? It kind of struck me late last year, it's like, "Oh wow, we're in another decade already." But I'm looking forward to it. It's going to be a good one. So Mel, as we discussed earlier, I'm going to just start off with a few little fun questions just as an icebreaker, and then we'll kind of just keep the conversation going.

 

Melanie Tran:
Sounds good.

 

Ernst Pelser
What is your favourite pizza?

 

Melanie Tran:
Favourite pizza. Meat lovers.

 

Ernst Pelser
Meat lovers. Okay, right. Mine is the Hawaiian.

 

Melanie Tran:
Very close.

 

Ernst Pelser
Favourite book?

 

Melanie Tran:
My Sister's Keeper.

 

Ernst Pelser
Okay, interesting. Okay. Favourite superhero?

 

Melanie Tran:
Spiderman.

 

Ernst Pelser
Spiderman. Okay. And then favourite pet?

 

Melanie Tran:
Favourite pet. A Puppy.

 

Ernst Pelser
A puppy, okay. Any specific type of puppy?

 

Melanie Tran:
No specific type. I'm a dog lover.

 

Ernst Pelser
You're a dog lover.

 

Melanie Tran:
Any puppy makes me very happy.

 

Ernst Pelser
We've got a little French bulldog.

 

Melanie Tran:
Amazing. How old?

 

Ernst Pelser
He's just turned a year now. Little Batman. His name's Winston though, like Winston Churchill.

 

Melanie Tran:
I was hoping you had named him Batman.

 

Ernst Pelser
I tried. I couldn't get away with it. Right, let's start from the beginning for you Mel. Can you tell us how you ended up in technology and why technology?

 

Melanie Tran:
Great question. I think that story probably goes back to my high school days. And it's a story that I still tell now in terms of, I think, when I was in high school, I was in year eight and it got to the stage where we were asked to choose a list of subjects. And I remember the teachers would tell us to choose the subjects that we were passionate about, and we would potentially want to pursue a career in. And I remember that day I sat in my design and technology house and I stared at that piece of paper, and my design and technology teacher asked me, "Where do you see yourself in 10 years time, Mel? What are your career goals? And I really didn't know how to answer this question, because no one has asked that before. And as a person growing up with a disability, I was used to people... I just had a lot of low expectations.

 

Melanie Tran:
So I haven't even asked that question myself. So when I asked him what can I do, he pointed to the computer in front of me, and he said, "If you learn to use the power of this tool, it can introduce you to opportunities and possibilities that you'd probably even not have imagined." And from that day onwards, he not only introduced me to the design industry, but also just to... And he taught me how to embrace and use creativity along with technology. And that's, I guess, my first introduction to technology.

 

Ernst Pelser
Okay. Very interesting.

 

Melanie Tran:
I guess from a career perspective.

 

Ernst Pelser
It's amazing how somebody can have such a great impact on your life, isn't it?

 

Melanie Tran:
It is. And it's surprising how I just... And to my personal journey, how education has played such a huge role in helping me shape, and shaping the way I view technology and the way I use technology in my work.

 

Ernst Pelser
So you touched on that it's helped you tap into your creativity side. Would you say that you've always been a creative person, or is it something that you've just really started developing from that point onwards?

 

Melanie Tran:
I think I've always been a creative person. For starters, I am absolutely terrible at maths, so I've always known that numbers and science are definitely not my strongest. But as a child I've always known that I was born creative. And I grew up actually wanting to be an author, so I've always started in the creative side of things.

 

Ernst Pelser
Okay, interesting. How long was this about, that you started with... You know, from that point onwards? I'm just trying to get an idea of how good technology was for people in your situation at that time already.

 

Melanie Tran:
I think technology has always played a huge part in my life. I mean, given my own lived experience, I rely very heavily on technology to help me do my work, to do my studies, and to help me get through my everyday life. But I think, as I started to learn more about technology from my creativity and innovations lens, it helped me see technology from a different perspective. It helped me understand that technology itself is powerful, but it's much more powerful when it's created by people who understand its impact, if that makes sense.

 

Ernst Pelser
Yeah, absolutely. Absolutely. So I'm a little bit ignorant on the type of tools, I mean like I've actually learned before preparing for this conversation more about the tools that are available. But can you describe to the audience on... Try and describe some of the tools that you use on a daily basis to help you do your job?

 

Melanie Tran:
When you say a tools... ?

 

Ernst Pelser
Just some of the things that help you do your work, because I mean, I'm used to a normal mouse and keyboard for instance, but I don't know... I don't really have a full understanding of what type of stuff that you use, and enable somebody in your position to use tools. I mean like, the pointing device, excuse my ignorance here, is very unfamiliar to me.

 

Melanie Tran:
I am fortunate in a sense, that I am able to use the access just a laptop and the mouse, but I guess the one thing that has really changed the way I interact with technology and given me more independence, because I think... Well first of all the laptop and the computer is my life. That's where 90% of my work happens and that's where I spend most of my time. And it's surprising to see how small simple features can make such a huge difference. Like for example, when I type on a keyboard I use a onscreen keyboard, and I click with the mouse. So it's quite slow, I mean you literally have to click letter by letter to form a word. But things like text prediction and everything like that will help speed up that process.

 

Melanie Tran:
But again, this is all just, I guess, my personal experience. And technology has enabled a vast, I guess, a large amount of options in terms of screen readers, or there's voice overs, and there's so many different options available to help you access technology.

 

Ernst Pelser
Interesting. Okay. And moving on a little bit to... You were the first person in the world with a physical disability to receive the Duke of Edinburgh's International Award. Can you tell us a little bit of that story? So maybe start off to give our audience a little bit of an idea of what that award is, and then just your journey through that process?

 

Melanie Tran:
That was an interesting journey, I think. First of all, I think the Duke of Edinburgh's International Award, it comes in three levels, so there's bronze, silver and gold. And bronze itself takes three months to complete. Silver takes six months, and gold takes 12 months. And I've completed all three of them while I was in high school, and managed to complete gold just before I started my HSC, which is very good timing. And essentially the aim of this award, it's to give young people an opportunity to learn the qualities of leadership and learn the qualities of being independent.

 

Melanie Tran:
And, I guess being a role model for people who are younger, the younger generations. And the award itself is broken down into four sections, in terms of you are required to learn a new skill, and you're required to do it either an hour every week, or two hours a fortnight, for the duration of the award level that you're doing. So you are required to do skills, you're required to volunteer, and you're also required to do a sport section, physical recreation as well as an adventurer's journey, which is designed to help you not only understand organizational and time management skills, but also independence and leadership.

 

Melanie Tran:
So it's a long-ish journey. I did that over... I started the bronze in 2012, and got my gold in 2014. And throughout that journey, it taught me to understand myself better in a sense. Just like every... Any other teenager. When you're at that point in my life, you're generally trying to find your way around, trying to find yourself, who you love, what you want to do, and draw on your strengths and work on your weaknesses. And that journey really helped me with that process.

 

Ernst Pelser
So what firstly got you interested? What made you go, "Okay, the Duke of Edinburgh International Award is what I want to do." Where did you hear about it? Did somebody encourage you to do it, or is it just something that you came across?

 

Melanie Tran:
I actually stumbled across it. I mentioned earlier that I used to want to be an author, so I used to be a self-published and I would write poems and short stories. And at that point, at that time, there was an organization that ran an award called the Young Achiever's Award, and the award was designed to recognize and celebrate young people who have something unique to offer, and talent that people should know about. And I entered that competition with one of my short stories, and I won that award. And at the awards night when they announced the winner, that was also when they introduced the Duke of Ed Award. And they were introducing the first cohort of participants who would be in that year's pilot program.

 

Melanie Tran:
And at that time I was actually one year too young to join the pilot anyway, so when I heard about it, I was like, "That's a fantastic opportunity for me to find my way around, and just understand me and understand how I would like to use my lived experience and my knowledge and skills to contribute." So when I met with the awards leader that night, I said, "Next year I would like to be there, how can I get there?" And then funnily enough, she had called me a couple of days later, and said there happened to be a position available in that cohort, where I could actually join. So I took that opportunity and never looked back.

 

Ernst Pelser
Interesting. Interesting. Kind of meant to be, right? It sounds like listening to some of the talks that you've done, it sounds like this award was a real catalyst for you to excel. And you talk about it gave you confidence for the rest of your journey. Would that be a fair statement?

 

Melanie Tran:
Absolutely. I think even though back then deep down I knew that I've always wanted to... I've always been ambitious, and I've always wanted to chase after a successful career, but I'd never really voiced that thought at that time because I didn't know just how I could. I didn't know how I could leverage my lived experience and everything else around me to help me do that. And going through that journey has definitely exposed me to different challenges, but also taught me one fact. And it's the fact that disability can be used as a force of innovation.

 

Ernst Pelser
So talk to us about that, that last statement that you've said, that disability could be used as a force for change. What do you mean by that, and gave us an example for that?

 

Melanie Tran:
I think because personally as I grow up, and all the major milestones in terms of attending school, getting a job, social, accessing all the community, every element of day-to-day life, it always added a new layer of challenge. A new layer of challenges when disability is associated with it. In trying to just face so many challenges or day-to-day activities, I am sometimes forced to do things in a different way, and I'm always forced to think about things from a different perspective and think outside the box, because traditional methods and traditional approaches don't always work.

 

Melanie Tran:
And I think the perfect example of using disability as a lived experience as a force of innovation is my role as a user experience designer at Hireup. So Hireup is an online platform that enables people with a disability to find, hire, and manage their own support workers. I myself manage a team of 10 support workers. So I'm a consumer on the platform, but at the same time I'm also a designer on the product development team. And I think that puts me in a unique position because I know where the pain points are and where the gaps are in the sector, as a person with this experience. But at the same time, I also have the skills and expertise as a designer to help identify these barriers and turn them into opportunities, if that makes sense.

 

Ernst Pelser
So there's always two sides of the coins, there's the side that you've just discussed, but then there's also a side... You know, when we spoke off line... You know, I'm fortunate enough to be an able-bodied male, but obviously I've been in positions where I have hired staff and stuff like that. What should somebody like myself, or could somebody like myself ensure that we do to make it more inclusive for people who are in your situation, or disabled in any way, shape or form? What can we do to be more proactive and include more people into the technology space?

 

Melanie Tran:
I think the most important thing to take into consideration is the attitude and perception towards inclusion and towards diversity. And I think acknowledging that... Even just as simple as acknowledging that every individual has something unique to offer, and it's not so much about "because you have a disability" or any other reason, that we need to have special consideration. It's more about an equal chance, giving everyone an equal chance to participate and to contribute. And that starts with attitude and perception.

 

Ernst Pelser
I'm also thinking from an accessibility perspective, do we need to consider special desks? You know, those types of things that there's a physical environment there, but there's also like you said, quite interestingly, the perception side of things. So the way people think about that. Okay. Okay. That's very interesting.

 

Melanie Tran:
And I think the most... I think the interesting thing that I have learnt as well, is even the perception of the word "accessibility" and "access and inclusion" itself. And then when you talk about accessibility and access and inclusion, it's very easy to just automatically be drawn to "people with a disability" and because it's, I guess, a bit more of an obvious factor to think about, but it's also... Accessibility and inclusion is a much broader term. And it goes far beyond disability, it's also about gender and culture and education, and everything else that makes us unique.

 

Ernst Pelser
You touched on education a few times already, and during our offline chats as well, you've spoken about education, right? You specifically used the term "the power of education." Talk to me a little bit more about what do you mean by that and why it's so important to you?

 

Melanie Tran:
I think the reason why education is so important to me, is because it changed my perception on design, and it helped shape me as a designer and how I approach the creative industry. And what I mean by that, is when I started my Bachelor of Digital Media degree at Torrens University Australia, it was purely because of passion. I was simply a high school student who had just got out of high school and was first year of uni and I didn't know much about design except that it's something I'm passionate about, and something that I want to learn more about and potentially build a career in. But at that time I think if you wanted to ask me, "What is the role of a designer?" I would say in relation to products, "The role of the designer would be to make beautiful products that everybody would love and want to have."

 

Melanie Tran:
But over the years, education has taught me that design is much more than just about functionality and aesthetics. It's also a way for us to use design to drive social good, and to help create social change. And I'd like to see these three elements: Design as one separate element, social change as one, and technology as another. And my education journey has taught me to combine these three areas, and that led me to the work that I do in social enterprises. And that has shifted my career path, and the way I approach design challenges.

 

Ernst Pelser
With regards to education for the schools, how well do they cater for people in your situation? Are they catering pretty well for that?

 

 

Melanie Tran:
Well, I guess I could probably answer that question through my own personal experience. When I finished high school, I wanted to be a industrial designer.

 

Ernst Pelser
Interesting. Okay.

 

Melanie Tran:
Yeah. So I approached one of the uni's and said, "Do you have one of those... " Well known uni's, who is probably known to be inclusive and diverse. And I met with the course coordinator for industrial design. And when I went in to this meeting, I knew that there were parts of the course that I wouldn't be able to fulfill, because of acquired physical hands-on tasks.

 

Ernst Pelser
Okay.

 

Melanie Tran:
So when I went into this meeting, I asked if he was able to modify this course. And the first response he said was, "No, we can't modify this course. In fact, I think you should try to do an online course, because that seems to be a much more easier option for someone like you." So hold onto that thought for a little bit while I talk you through when I approached Torrens University, which is where I eventually studied at. So I stumbled across, and I think I... When I found out about the digital media courses I was offered, I met with the program director, had the exact same conversation, except that I got a completely different outcome.

 

Melanie Tran:
And when I asked him the same question of, "Do you think I would be able to do this course?" And his response was, and I happened to remember very clearly, we were sitting at the cafe on campus that day. He looked at me weirdly, and then he said, "If you're referring to academic wise, I don't know. Because I don't know you, I've literally just met you probably 20 minutes ago. So I can't tell you if you can or can't do it. But if you're referring to general participation and involvement in the course, then I don't see why not. Yes, there will be challenges, and yes, there will be things that we may have to modify, but we are a design school after all. And it's not only that but, an educational environment is meant to embrace everyone that's unique, and draw out the strengths, and give everyone a unique opportunity to do so.

 

Melanie Tran:
So, I guess a very long-winded answer to your story, just even comparing the two experiences I've had, the two different educational institutions, and the two different outcomes that came out of it. That highlights the perception, or the attitude towards inclusion and diversity.

 

 

Ernst Pelser
Yeah. Yeah. Interesting. Okay. Now I want to ask you one or two very broad questions, I guess. What advice would you give any young person being in a similar situation as you, and knowing everything you do now?

Melanie Tran:
My advice would be to hold one word very close, and that's to be fearless. Be fearless and believe in yourself. And I know that probably gets thrown around a lot, but sometimes it's very easy to let yourself go with the flow, and go with what other people think you can or can't do. And then I guess your own voice gets drowned in a process. And what I think I found that really helped me when I was young was, even though I was constantly being surrounded by negative thoughts and opinions about what I can and can't do, when I found the one person who was willing to see me for who I am, and I see me as a young person, an individual who is just curious and wants to learn, and believing that I have something unique to offer just like every other person. Then I clung onto that person, and I held on to them for dear life, because I knew that there has to be more people like them out there. And this person will lead me to that network of people who might be able to help me do that.

 

Ernst Pelser
Interesting. And then the next one is... So this is a big question. If you had the world's attention for 30 seconds, what would you say?

Melanie Tran:
That is a very good question.

Ernst Pelser
I guess we could put it as another way, is what's your mission now?

Melanie Tran:
My mission now, I guess, it would be to embrace the power of design and technology to help create positive social change. And at the same time having the principles of access and inclusion at the heart of it. And I know it probably sounds really broad, but ultimately I would love us to get to a place where access and inclusion becomes part of our DNA, and we don't actually have to have the conversations around inclusion and diversity any more because that's embedded in our culture, and that's just how we as a community should be. And it's not up to an individual, or it's not up to a group of people to achieve this vision. It's something that we all need to work together more collaboratively on, if that makes sense.

Ernst Pelser
Yes, definitely. I was actually quite amazed by a statistic that while I was doing research preparing for this conversation, that one in five people in Australia have some type of disability, which totally blew me away. So I'm still surprised that there is a bit of a... Whether you want to call it stigma or mindset to not be inclusive.

Melanie Tran:
Yeah. And I think it's really interesting that you mentioned that statistic blew your mind, because I think that also... It's a bit of a weird thing, but I think once you start to be more aware of this, you'll probably start to notice little things that you probably wouldn't have noticed before. And that could be something as simple as you walking into the shops and realizing that the shop has steps, or realizing that there's a lift to a building but there's also two steps to get to the lift.

Melanie Tran:
And I think it's more around the awareness piece. I guess once you're more aware of what's happening in the world of inclusion, you start to realize that really if you look to think about it, our society actually wasn't built to be accessible. Because there's stairs, there's things that just become barriers for different groups of people. And I think it's our jobs, no matter what industry or what sector you're in, it is our jobs to change that. And we can't have an accessible environment if we don't have an accessible culture and vice versa. If we don't have an accessible culture, we can't have inaccessible environment.

Ernst Pelser
Well said. Well said. Well, Melanie, this has been an absolute pleasure. Your an inspiration to us all. Like I said before, it was a real honour to have you on the show.

Melanie Tran:
Thank you. You too.

Voice-over
Thank you for listening to the Tech Leaders Talk show. If you've enjoyed this episode, please help us by rating the show on your favourite podcast platform. If you do, send a screenshot to our host Ernst Pelser on LinkedIn for a shout out in the next episode. Please reach out if you have any feedback or questions.

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