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How media tech can be a path to greater participation and inclusion


Frank Kunkle, SMPTEs director of marketing, explains how modern media technologies offer capabilities most people consider conveniences, but can be life-changing for others

By Contributor

Published: May 19, 2022

Frank Kunkle, SMPTE's director of marketing, explains how modern media technologies offer capabilities most people consider conveniences, but can be life-changing for others

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If you were to meet Frank Kunkle, SMPTE director of marketing, for breakfast to talk about the Society's latest initiatives and standards work, it's unlikely you'd realise he is legally blind.

But if Kunkle found the route to the restaurant unfamiliar, he would have used the camera on his smartphone to identify street signs along the way. Earlier in the day, he would have relied on the amazing resolution on that same phone to take the correct prescription and trim his toenails. The night before, while streaming a show on TV, he might have attached something like a telescope to his eyeglasses to give his partner a break from reading the subtitles aloud.

An apology from Kunkle, who is arriving just a moment late due to misplaced eyeglasses, may seem natural so you're a bit confused when he instead asks to switch seats with you. But he's warm and charismatic, so you gladly listen as he explains that if you had stayed in the seat with the sunlight streaming into the caf from behind you, he'd be unable to see your facial features and expressions throughout your conversation.

Even when Kunkle wears glasses, his visual acuity falls into the legal blindness range; on his best days, an object that is 20 feet away would appear to be 100 feet away. But having been born with bilateral coloboma, Kunkle also experiences a restricted visual field and sensitivity to light. Like any person with a disability, he is familiar with manipulating his environment - often and quickly - sometimes using tools in ways that their inventors hadn't planned for in order to perform mundane yet essential tasks.

Thanks in large part to screens and moving images, Kunkle is able to live as close to a normal life as possible. This attracted him to the role at SMPTE several years ago. The opportunity to collaborate closely with SMPTE's members, who are the engineers and technologists working on advances in media, felt perfect to Kunkle. Even at the level of engineering requirements and standards, Kunkle has benefited greatly from the work of SMPTE's members throughout his life.

I am drawn to working in STEM fields, and media especially, because innovation in these areas can make life so much better for visually impaired people, says Kunkle. Modern media technology offers capabilities most people consider conveniences, but for someone like me, those conveniences can be life-changing.

Huge screens with powerful resolution and detail allow many people with low vision to see the world more clearly than they ever could with their own eyes. And Kunkle points to innovations such as an intelligent camera app that narrates the world around the user, and SMPTE's media-over-IP standards and requirements, which offer many options for delivering media to consumers in a way that works for them. Another bucket of tools, such as the browser extension Teleparty (formally called Netflix Party), created for general use is also proving immensely valuable to visually impaired users.

Kunkle explains that, being legally blind as a child, he experienced an extreme awareness of self. He recalls being just three years old and wanting to hide his impairment. For Kunkle and many others, that introspection came with having what the U.S. calls an Individualised Education Plan (IEP). While effective, the supports a young person would experience through their IEP invite that person from a very young age to compare their abilities to their peers.

It becomes overwhelming as the supports lead the person to articulate limitations their impairment creates and finally the simple task of verbalising (self-advocacy) the solutions that they will need to participate in society. Here's the challenge: the young, disabled person may have to imagine solutions that have never been seen before or they may lack the life experience to really understand their needs.

Over the years, Kunkle went to great lengths to seem like he was running with the pack. While he worked hard to make it look as though there was nothing going on for him, his life was in fact very different from that of most people around him.

I'd go to watch a movie with friends, but I couldn't see a damn thing on the screen. I'd awkwardly pretend I was following the plotline. Screens were so small even a few decades ago! says Kunkle. But these days I could use Teleparty to watch the same film with the time code synchronised - thank you, SMPTE! - on my own screen. I get to be exactly in the moment. What a different experience that is. And the same goes for playing collaborative, phone-based video games with friends. For so many visually impaired people, it's like, Finally, I can really do this.'

This value of participation - and, more recently, inclusion - has long been clear to Kunkle. So he is driven by a shocking reality that only 31.4 per cent of persons with disabilities in the U.S. ages 16-64 are employed, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor and Statistics, while 72.5 per cent without disabilities that age range are employed.

Kunkle suggests that, at a minimum, most any person wants to participate in a society. So it is only natural that many conversations around inclusion of persons with disabilities deal with participation. What he feels may be missing in some of these conversations is the idea that visually impaired and other disabled people can and do give bac
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