Royce Martin and Heather Dowdy having a conversation while standing in the snow outside their family home in Chicago.

“My life has given me a special lens for people marginalized by the intersection of race, gender, class, and disability.”

Growing up on the Southside of Chicago, Heather Dowdy found her relationship with her hardworking dad led her to develop products that everyone can use.

Heather Dowdy¬†walks up the snowy steps to her¬†father’s home‚ÄĒshe’s returned for a visit to¬†the¬†South Side of Chicago where she was raised. She rings the doorbell, but after a few minutes with no answer, she takes out her smartphone to dial her¬†dad’s number. As¬†the phone¬†rings, she’s feeling the change of how different things are now than when she was growing up‚ÄĒspecifically, how technology has changed everything about the way she and her parents, who are¬†Deaf, communicate.

Rewind¬†to teenage Heather warming her numb hands¬†in¬†between ringing the doorbell¬†and¬†peeping¬†through the rectangular window of glass¬†in the door.¬†She’s¬†locked out.¬†Annoyed with herself for forgetting¬†her¬†key before leaving for school¬†that morning,¬†she¬†keeps¬†pressing the doorbell¬†because¬†she’s hoping¬†her dad will walk by the lamp that flashes each time¬†it¬†rings.

Half an hour has gone by.¬†With¬†no¬†other¬†way of getting in, she waits. She sits down on the steps and uses the¬†waning¬†afternoon light to¬†crack open¬†her new library¬†book.¬†Suddenly,¬†the door¬†opens,¬†and her dad, Royce Martin,¬†signs:¬†“Did you forget your key again? Come in.”

*****

For the past 12 years, Heather has been going and going: college, marriage, three kids, quickly ascending in her career, and then pausing graduate school for a big move to Washington State to work at Microsoft on accessibility.

But today, she’s taking a moment to breathe¬†and reflect.¬†She‚Äôs back home¬†with her dad, Royce.¬†The two of them¬†walk down their snowy, tree-lined street,¬†and¬†Royce¬†can’t take his eyes off his¬†grown¬†daughter‚ÄĒhe teases her, but he’s also beaming just to have her near. It’s hard that she lives so far away. There is a camera crew in his house,¬†and he thinks it’s because his firstborn daughter is a big deal:¬†an¬†engineer working on accessibility at Microsoft.

However, it’s¬†Heather¬†that’s¬†there to shine the light on¬†how¬†he¬†helped guide¬†her¬†to meaningful work, how he instilled this incessant hope that if she pushed herself, she could do anything, and to reflect on how it’s really her dad that’s¬†the big deal.

In fact, it’s¬†hard to tell who is more proud of whom.

*****

Royce lost his hearing¬†during birth,¬†and¬†Heather’s mother lost her hearing¬†as a toddler¬†due to a childhood illness.¬†Her parents¬†met in college through mutual friends‚ÄĒall of whom were part of a deeply connected African¬†American¬†Deaf community.¬†Heather¬†came to know these folks as family¬†as she attended¬†weekly¬†social¬†get-togethers, church services,¬†and¬†other¬†community events¬†with¬†her parents.

“People sometimes don’t realize how social and talkative the¬†Deaf community can be,”¬†Heather¬†said.¬†“Those events would last ages.”

As a young girl,¬†tired and bored,¬†Heather¬†would¬†yank on¬†her dad’s¬†shirt,¬†signing “can we please go?”‚ÄĒan action so frequent that it became her¬†sign name. Instead of signing each¬†letter¬†of a person‚Äôs name,¬†people¬†can be given¬†a¬†sign name‚ÄĒa nickname.¬†Heather’s is the sign¬†for the letter¬†H¬†that¬†moves up and down¬†as in the sign for “hurry.”

Royce balanced that social life with a decades-long career for the postal service, working primarily at night.

“What¬†I love most about¬†my¬†dad is how he believed in working hard for our family. He was such a hard worker,” she said, her voice¬†quivering¬†with pride. “I would see him tirelessly go to work,¬†rarely missing days.”

This kind of “grit,” Heather says, is¬†what living on the South Side engenders in its¬†residents.¬†“Some people¬†say nothing good comes from the¬†South¬†Side¬†of Chicago,¬†but Michelle Obama did.¬†And I did too.” Saying¬†that¬†you are from the South Side is a badge of honor, she explains.

Heather Dowdy and her father, Martin Royce, signing together.

Heather: ‚ÄúI can‚Äôt wait to see what you have to say once this is posted.‚ÄĚ
Royce: ‚ÄúOh really?‚ÄĚ

“It¬†means¬†that¬†you’ve¬†come through rough spots. But, it also means that you’ve got a sense of pride, and that comes with the heritage that is the¬†South¬†Side of Chicago.”

Heather‚Äôs home¬†on¬†the¬†South Side¬†neighbored those of other black¬†middle-class¬†families,¬†which¬†Heather chalks up to¬†decades¬†of housing discrimination that left¬†most of¬†the¬†area¬†segregated. As a result,¬†neighbors came¬†together¬†as¬†family‚ÄĒlike the community of African American Deaf people¬†in which¬†the¬†Martins¬†were¬†deeply ingrained.

*****

The Martin family moved to this home¬†in 1993¬†when¬†Heather¬†was a girl, with a¬†younger¬†brother and a new baby sister on the way.¬†A¬†shooting in their previous neighborhood¬†had tragically killed¬†an¬†eight-year-old¬†boy, a friend of the family¬†who¬†was the¬†same age as¬†Heather‚Äôs brother.¬†Royce’s¬†unwavering¬†work ethic and financial¬†prowess¬†enabled him to relocate his wife and¬†children¬†to¬†this¬†new¬†neighborhood,¬†where they¬†were¬†one of the first¬†black families on the street. Heather remembers¬†a few¬†white¬†boys trying to¬†intimidate¬†her¬†and her brother,¬†saying¬†to her¬†that¬†their families were members of the Ku Klux Klan.¬†But¬†the South Sider held¬†her head up high and¬†ignored¬†them¬†. . .¬†with style, she¬†might¬†add.

“Thriving¬†when you don’t have everything you need, plus¬†looking good while doing it,” she¬†side-smiled, “no matter what they throw at you.¬†We¬†believe that no matter how little you think you have,¬†you have more than enough to share with someone else.¬†That‚Äôs the¬†South Side.”

Giving his children¬†a¬†sense¬†that they belonged was¬†one of¬†Royce’s¬†driving¬†priorities,¬†hence¬†regular¬†social events with the¬†Deaf community.¬†Heather¬†observed an¬†added level of¬†complexity¬†faced by black people in the community and those who¬†had¬†a hard time with money; she¬†wants¬†to¬†foster belonging by¬†building¬†technology that’s accessible¬†and affordable¬†for them.

“My life has given me¬†a special lens for people marginalized by the intersection of race, gender, class, and disability.¬†So now, I make¬†sure¬†I’m¬†representing Chicago,¬†my background,¬†and people that look like me‚ÄĒbut also people in my family like my parents that need to be empowered. I’m looking for the marginalized within the marginalized.”

Standing in the kitchen of her childhood home, Heather and Royce pose for a photo. Royce signs that Heather is the spitting image of her mother.

After the camera snaps, Heather walks over to¬†the computer screen to¬†peek at the shot, and suddenly she’s speechless, hand over her mouth; she’s moved to see her dad being honored in this way. He¬†walks up behind her and plants a kiss on her cheek, then sits back down.

*****

Heather credits her voracious mind to her dad‚ÄĒa¬†copious reader, a passion he passed on.

“When she was younger,¬†I taught her how to read, and¬†she would just stay in her room, reading,” signed¬†Royce¬†as Heather interpreted.¬†“In¬†maybe third to fifth grade,¬†that‚Äôs when¬†she fell in love with science.”

He said it was hard for her at first, but once she became fascinated by it, she was¬†determined. She knew¬†that¬†she wanted to be some sort of inventor because she loved all the gadgets around¬†her¬†house: the lamp that flickered¬†on¬†and off¬†when¬†someone¬†rang¬†the doorbell,¬†the¬†vibrating alarm clock underneath her parents’ mattress, the¬†text telephone¬†(TTY‚ÄĒa¬†display¬†and¬†a keyboard connected to¬†a¬†LAN line¬†that¬†contacts¬†a third-party service that relays¬†communications back and forth), and¬†the¬†video¬†relay service¬†equipment¬†that¬†her parents used¬†to communicate¬†by¬†using¬†American Sign Language¬†(ASL)¬†instead of typing,¬†the TTY’s evolution.

But she didn’t know of anyone making those devices;¬†it hadn’t occurred to her yet.

 

Heather Dowdy wears a blue graduation cap and gown while she and her father, Martin Royce, smile for the camera at her college graduation ceremony.

Heather and her father Royce celebrate Heather’s college graduation
from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

One day,¬†young¬†Heather¬†came home from junior high school¬†with¬†an idea. She’d often¬†toss out ideas¬†to her father for what she could be when she grew up. Back then, he was endearingly¬†tough to please, she remembered. Not in an unloving way, but in a way that¬†emboldened¬†Heather¬†to challenge¬†herself.

Her dad was reading in his tattered,¬†gray arm chair. She touched his arm gently and signed,¬†“Dad!¬†What if I become¬†a¬†sign-language¬†interpreter?”

He¬†peered at her over his¬†book, set it down,¬†and signed,¬†“No.”

“What? I thought you’d be excited. I’ve been interpreting for you and mom my whole life,”¬†she pressed. “Why not?”

“Too¬†safe¬†for you,”¬†said¬†Royce. “Believe in yourself.¬†Do what makes you uncomfortable.”

While¬†Heather¬†walked out of the room thinking¬†that¬†it¬†was¬†strange that he wouldn’t want her to choose interpreting as a career, she knew¬†that¬†he was right.¬†So even though she interpreted for then-president Barack Obama during a 2015 national monument dedication in Chicago,¬†she respected his¬†commitment to working hard for the sake of the family. So,¬†she would keep looking for something that challenged her.

*****

After her sophomore year of high school,¬†Heather¬†went to¬†a summer engineering program at Chicago State University. There, she got to dig in¬†to the hardware of all the gadgets¬†that¬†she loved. As she¬†soldered the circuit board for a phone, she thought¬†about how so many people¬†who have¬†hearing loss,¬†at that time, couldn‚Äôt¬†use the phone easily‚ÄĒthe feedback on hearing aid devices made¬†people¬†on the other end of the line sound like they¬†were¬†in a construction zone.¬†“Wow, I could make accessible technology and really change people’s lives.”

“Today, I¬†never¬†take it for granted that I can send my dad a text if he doesn’t see me standing at the door. The world of pagers and¬†mobile¬†phones really changed our world,” Heather said.

It turns out¬†that¬†there was a name for being an inventor of technology for people¬†who are¬†Deaf or¬†hard-of-hearing.¬†She came home that summer and told her dad, “Engineer. I’m going to be an engineer.” At that point,¬†Heather¬†had never¬†heard of any¬†female, black engineers. Surely that qualified as uncomfortable.

Royce¬†said¬†nothing,¬†his¬†kind¬†eyes narrowing¬†in on hers. He smirked,¬†shrugged,¬†and then walked down the narrow hallway to rest up for¬†the¬†evening’s shift at the post office.

*****

Heather fought¬†to earn a¬†degree in electrical engineering.¬†Although she¬†was¬†told by¬†a dean¬†that she¬†would never become an engineer¬†after just glancing at her,¬†she¬†stayed motivated¬†to continue because¬†this wasn‚Äôt just about her‚ÄĒshe¬†knew¬†that¬†she¬†was working¬†to serve others. She was going to bat for people like her¬†parents.

“I just remembered my daddy,”¬†Heather¬†said,¬†tearing up.¬†“How he¬†has¬†worked for¬†nearly 40 years at the¬†post office and never complained. How he pushed me to not fall into something easy just because it was easy. He kept me going.”¬†Royce¬†empowered Heather to challenge herself so that she, in turn, could challenge the field of accessible technology. Heather¬†earned¬†an internship and¬†was hired¬†to improve how¬†mobile¬†phones¬†work¬†for people who use¬†hearing aids.

“I saw how¬†mobile¬†phones and pagers changed the world for people like my parents, who were¬†Deaf, and for children of¬†Deaf adults,¬†like me,” she said.¬†“I was hooked.”

“I didn’t expect her to stick with¬†engineering,” Royce signed. “I thought she would turn out okay, but wow, she really stuck on the path and became successful.¬†I’m so proud of her.”

“Okay?” Heather signs back to her dad. “Just¬†okay?!” They both laugh.

 

Heather Dowdy signs the word for applause while interpreting for President Obama during a 2015 national monument dedication.

Heather interpreting for then President Barack Obama
during a 2015 national monument dedication in Chicago.

Heather now leads the AI for Accessibility program at Microsoft that funds entrepreneurs and startups rooted in the disability community who are making use of artificial intelligence in the creation of accessible technology. She finds herself challenged every day, as this is not easy work.

“That’s why I like accessibility. We go to the¬†most¬†complex¬†problem first. If we’re focusing on developing Cortana for students¬†who have¬†speech disabilities, can you imagine how much better it will be for you and me? Or for somebody¬†who has¬†an accent?¬†If we can figure that out, then we make it better for everybody.”

Many of her life experiences taught Heather to look for people on the outside, for people who might feel excluded.

“Now, I make sure that wherever I am‚ÄĒa meeting, a boardroom, a school‚ÄĒI’m looking around for the person¬†who¬†isn’t speaking up or keeps getting cut off. I use my power that I am so blessed with to help find a way to include them.”

Heather¬†is in a unique position to elevate good ideas¬†for accessible¬†technology, but¬†she’s also¬†advocating¬†for people¬†who need this¬†tech¬†but¬†who¬†might be overlooked because of their race, their socioeconomic background, their gender, or a disability.

“If I can just remember every day that there are people¬†who¬†didn’t go to college,¬†who¬†don’t have degrees or the earning power to buy the technology we make, then I can push myself and the engineering team to do better.”

“We are smart enough to take on that challenge,” she said,¬†a refrain borrowed from¬†her father. “We can do more than we think.”

*****

Photography by Sarah Matheson. Videography by Seth Rice. Additional reporting by Amanda Finney.

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