Ron Brooks is totally blind and a writer, speaker, entrepreneur and evangelist for the transformation of mobility for people with disabilities. In this episode, Ron discusses employment and transportation barriers, as well as his own entrepreneurial journey and the lessons he’s learned along the way.
A graduate of the School of Public and Environmental Affairs at Indiana University in Indianapolis, Ron has 28 years of planning, management and executive-level experience for both public transit agencies and private providers within the areas of accessible transit and paratransit.
In 2020, Ron founded Accessible Avenue, where he draws upon his life and industry experiences to provide accessibility-focused training and consulting services to agencies and organizations designing, developing and delivering products and services that support the movement of people within indoor and outdoor spaces and on all forms of public and retail ground transportation.
In addition to his work in the transportation and mobility industry, Ron is heavily involved in the blind/low vision and larger disability communities. Since 2019, he has served as a member of the Board of Directors for Ability360, one of the largest independent living centers in the country, and he is a past Board member for the Arizona Center for the Blind and Visually Impaired. He is also an active member of the American Council of the Blind, serving as a long-time member of the ACB’s Transportation Committee.
Melody Goodspeed: Good afternoon, everybody. This is the American Foundation for the Blind inform and connect podcast. I am so excited to be here with you guys today, and we are actually bringing back a very cool guest and we're going to talk about a fun subject of transportation. So we had Ron Brooks back with us in November 2020 and he's had so much happen that I'm just going to jump right in and let him catch us up on everything because I'm going to find it fun and fascinating, and Ron, I'm so excited to be back with us today. How are you doing?
Ron Brooks: I'm doing great. Thanks for having me back. Fun to be here.
Melody Goodspeed: I'm so excited to have you. Ron, like you said, we're just going to dive right in. Can you kind of tell us what you've been doing this year? I mean, it's been some time we've had, huh?
Ron Brooks: It's been a year that took, it feels like it took three years to get through it, but yeah, it's been about not quite a year since we talked and a lot has happened. Of course, we've all been continuing the saga of the pandemic and the openings and the closings and all of that, and in the world that I live in, my world shifted quite a bit. I went from being an employee of a company that was working to bring on-demand transportation to the transit industry for folks with disabilities, and that ended as a result of the pandemic and the downturn in the market and everything that was going on, and I used that opportunity to change directions, pivot, start my own business in the transportation and mobility space called Accessible Avenue and that is my new full-time commitment and it's a lot of fun and that's what we're doing now.
Melody Goodspeed: That is incredible. I can't wait to learn more about your own business, but I want to go back real quick and just applaud you because you pivoted. Can we talk about that, just how important that is? I think really in this world, we really have learned to pivot. Just talking about how much strength and courage that takes.
Ron Brooks: I don't know how much it takes. What I'll tell you is that right after the pandemic really started in earnest, so let's say March of 2020, I was on a call with a person who was providing coaching to a large group and I was in the audience, and this person told a story or described how three different theoretical companies will respond, at that point, it was because the pandemic was just starting, respond to the pandemic. Some will basically just try to grind it out and basically take a middle road and not take on too much and just try to get to the end of it. Other companies will hide under the desk and wait for it to be over, and then a third group of companies are the ones who say, this is an opportunity. This is a chance to change directions, to do something different.
Ron Brooks: And he encouraged the people on this call, some of whom are entrepreneurs, others of whom like me were employees of other people, but he encouraged us to be in that third group, the people who look for opportunity, so that's what happened. I saw my industry going through really difficult times. Every transportation company in the country, every transit agency in the country, companies like Uber and Lyft, everybody was experiencing people not riding because of the shutdowns and the lockdowns and everything else, and they were all losing money. Everybody was struggling and I could see the writing on the wall because I worked for a private company that was in the same boat as everybody else was in and I knew that my days were probably numbered because you just can't run a business with no revenue.
Ron Brooks: And recognizing that was a possibility, I decided that this would be an opportunity to do something different. I had talked forever about wanting to really work on the things that are important to me as opposed to just going and finding another job, working for somebody else's purpose, and when I felt like the writing was on the wall, my wife and I had a good discussion. We started saving every penny. We started earning as much as we can. I was already doing a little bit of side work, started saving all of our money and putting it aside.
Ron Brooks: And I started learning things as quickly as I could so that when that day came in March of 2021 where my former employer sat me down and said, we are going in a different direction. That direction doesn't include you, I won't say I was ready, but I will say I wasn't surprised and I wasn't shattered and I had some of the pieces ready to go and I had a good place to just jump in and go forward as fast as I could, and that's what I did.
Melody Goodspeed: That's awesome. Can you tell us, we're talking about the things that you wanted to do. I love that, really taking the reigns and doing what it is you want to do in your life. So can you tell us about your new business? I'm really excited to learn.
Ron Brooks: So the company is called Accessible Avenue and our purpose is to transform mobility for people with disabilities, and I use an analogy. If you have ever experienced a situation when something is just easy, think about it like this. If you have a car and you have gas money for your car and you have keys for the car and you have the ability to go somewhere, you can simply decide and do. There's no effort other than the driving itself. People with disabilities, and this includes me as a blind person, that is not the experience that we have with transportation. Our experience is planning ahead. It's trying to figure out what are the options to get from point A to point B, figuring out which option is least annoying, doing a lot of planning.
Ron Brooks: Perhaps asking somebody like a para-transit call center to schedule our trip please, waiting at least a day to take that trip because usually, you have to book ahead, waiting for maybe a half an hour while the vehicle arrives, sharing that trip with other people, maybe taking some amount of time, maybe a lot of time to get to where we want to go and that's every single trip, and what I want to do is create that feeling of ease in transportation for people with disabilities so that we can simply decide and do like everyone else is able to do. Sometimes that looks like paratransit. So we work with agencies and providers to make those services as good as they can be, preferably on demand as in you call and you go.
Ron Brooks: Sometimes it's working with a transit agency or a city to figure out how can we make the path from a person's home to the transit system so easy that they can use the regular transit system, if they would prefer. Maybe it's talking to an airport authority about how to make the indoor spaces of an airport so accessible that we can simply use the airport like everybody else and not have to wait for somebody to provide us with assistance. So all of those things are areas where Accessible Avenue will provide consulting, training, and support to the industry, to the agencies, the cities, the towns, the businesses that create those kinds of spaces and those kinds of systems. Our goal is to transform mobility so that it is easy.
Melody Goodspeed: That's a breath of fresh air for me. Being a person who is like myself of those experiences and having the ability to be able to drive at one point, I was just having the image of being able to... My hardest thing would be where did my keys land in my purse, but this is great because we all have to have that ease. It's just so stressful. I think if you think about it and I was literally listening, you have to do something that's so cumbersome by the time you get where you're going, you're exhausted and I have never met anybody who loves figuring out transportation as much as you so I think it's great.
Ron Brooks: There are times when, and I think probably this is all of us who have disabilities or who have some challenge with transportation, and it doesn't have to be disability. It could be money. It could be that your car is broken down and you don't have the means to fix it, or you're waiting for a part. It could be a lot of things, but sometimes the trip or the prospect of taking the trip is so difficult that you end up just not taking the trip at all.
Ron Brooks: We know that in the disability community, one of the number one barriers, it's usually one or two, depending on the survey of reasons that people do not work is transportation or the lack or the inability to use transportation that's available. So solving for transportation isn't really just about solving for transportation. It's about solving for life. It's giving people options, it's giving them choices, it's giving them autonomy to go do stuff that we all want to do. So that's really what we are about.
Melody Goodspeed: No, that is so important because you're bringing up the fact that we are, earlier, we're a people. There's more that's just our lives is work. It's getting our kids places and I don't think people necessarily think about that with disabilities, which is we really need to be focusing in. Now, when you say going to you're covering all aspects, which I love, getting through the airport and all different types of transportation or making train stations, are you moving into cities all over the United States?
Ron Brooks: My goal is to do more. We are brand spanking new so I've got a handful of clients and this is the first... We started about six months ago and so we're still learning. I'm learning how much I can do. I'm learning how to build the elements of a successful business, the marketing, the promotion, the sales, getting the work done, balancing the work that I need to do to get paid versus the investments in time and money that I need to make in order to generate sales. So we're not in lots of places yet.
Ron Brooks: We are in my home office in Phoenix and anywhere that a client would like me to be, that's where we are right now, and we're really more of a business to business interests. So our clients are agencies, companies. So you won't necessarily see things that we build or create. What I hope you'll see are businesses, agencies, and the services that we influence and the products that we influence. So it's sort of like that analogy of you don't see the wind blow, but you see the stuff it moves. That's kind of where we will be.
Melody Goodspeed: That's great. Is there a particular, and congratulations. This is very exciting and Ron, I can definitely see talking about like Uber and Lyft, you've seen things pivot, right? We've seen home deliveries now, people doing different things like that, and COVID has changed transportation. How could you see transportation being affected with moving forward with COVID?
Ron Brooks: There were things happening in the transportation space before COVID ever came and I think COVID is accelerating some of those changes. So for example, because of things like smartphones, GPS technology, we were already seeing a shift toward on-demand service and that's not just for para-transit. that's for all kinds of transportation. People want to be able to use a phone, ask for something, and have it show up, whether it's a loaf of bread, a pound of bananas, or a car. So I think that's one thing and COVID has accelerated that because people now value their privacy, they value their space, and they still value their time.
Ron Brooks: So I think you'll continue to see COVID, I'm sorry, the industry in its reaction to COVID I think will continue to push towards more technology driven, on-demand kinds of services. It'll just go faster. I think the other thing that we will see is a continuing push towards autonomy, autonomous vehicles. We are already seeing drone delivery in some cities. So if you're in, I believe it's Houston, there's one of the large pizza restaurant companies is delivering pizza via drone.
Ron Brooks: And I think the around safety and the emphasis around technology are driving those changes and I think COVID will certainly help to accelerate those changes. So I think the industry may or may not look a hundred percent different after COVID than it looked before COVID, but I do think certain things are going to accelerate and right now, the industry is still trying to figure out how to rebound and recover from COVID and once those changes play out, I think you're going to see a lot more technology and a lot more autonomy and a lot more on-demand.
Melody Goodspeed: I can definitely see that too and I've seen it in many ways with regard to transportation and getting access to things such as food or deliveries has really helped in many ways. So what if, and let's move five years from now because this... What do you want your business to grow to be because I'd love to see your dream world of transportation, Ron?
Ron Brooks: Oh yeah, me too. So I definitely would like it to be large enough to and successful enough to pay the bills, to help me get our kids through college. So there's that, but as far as the shape goes, one of the things I want to do is I want to make sure that we are creating influence in the industries that create transportation and the movement of people. I want us to be seen as the place where agencies and organizations and businesses go when they want to solve for the mobility needs of people with disabilities. If in fact we are successful, it means we will have had to grow because one person can't serve an $80 billion per year transportation industry, which is what the public transit industry is worth in our country.
Ron Brooks: So it's going to take more than one person. So there is growth, which means I have to learn a lot of things that I never thought I was going to learn, but it's been fun. I mean, that's part of the trajectory is just learning the things that you need to know to do the things you want to do, and that's kind of where I am right now. So it's a little vague, but I know that it involves growth. It involves being more influential. It involves getting more people to adopt the vision of transportation and mobility that I have and I think a lot of people have this vision. They just maybe haven't thought about it, or haven't put it to words. It's not hard to sell people on the idea of good transportation and mobility. So I think that's where we'd like to be, successful, a little bit bigger, and very influential within our industry.
Melody Goodspeed: We also think what you're doing is such a good advocate. Like you had mentioned before, the number one, one of the number one barriers to employment for people with disabilities transportation, and in the age that we're living in, especially with this push of diversity, equity and inclusion, I think the transportation industry and what you're doing has a real spot in it here to make a huge difference in that space as well.
Ron Brooks: So one thing I want to say, and this is outside of the bounds of the work that we do, but it's something that I say every chance I get, and that is that people with disabilities need to be seen as part of the diversity, equity, and inclusion framework. Right now, the focus in our country is not as broad as it should be in that space. People with disabilities and advocates for people with disabilities need to take every opportunity possible to speak to the fact that we are part of that framework.
Ron Brooks: We have as much right to be at the table, whether it's in school or at work or in the C-suites of companies or on the transportation system. As any person with any background, regardless of diversity, we are all in this together and we need to recognize the importance of these conversations right now. The other thing I would say is that transportation and mobility give us the ability to be out in the world and when we are out in the world, we become more visible, and when we become more visible, we have the opportunity to start to influence how people see people with disabilities and the fact that we exist and the fact that we have a place at the table also.
Melody Goodspeed: I couldn't agree more, and to add to that is that we have such different ways of doing things that just bring creativity and would spark a whole new outlook.
Ron Brooks: Absolutely.
Melody Goodspeed: It's already time for questions and comments, but just to add to that, this is AFB celebrating, we are celebrating our 100th anniversary where inclusion knows no limits. So I thank you so much for really bringing that last part home and for everything you're doing, but before we do the Q&A, I'm going to ask you people twice, if they wanted to learn more about what you're doing or visit your page and where could they go?
Ron Brooks: So Accessible Avenue has a website, it's accessibleavenue.net. We have a LinkedIn page and I'll provide these links so that you can put them where they need to go for folks to get them when they get the podcast, and so we are on social media. I personally am on Facebook and LinkedIn. The company's on LinkedIn and our website. Those are probably the best places and we're trying to be pretty visible in the community as well. So hopefully, we'll be when we're all back together and going to conferences again and doing all that fun stuff, we'll be present in some of those as well.
Melody Goodspeed: Well, I can't wait to be in those conferences with you, [inaudible 00:21:26] because I have no doubt in my mind this is good. You're just going to be successful and make such a huge mark, Ron. Thank you so much for everything that you do for our community and what you do for the world. Really, this is just so incredible and we're so happy to have you here.
Ron Brooks: Well, thank you and thanks to AFB. You guys do amazing work in the community and the reason that you're having 100 year celebration is because you have had value over decades and now century, and so it's not surprising and I really appreciate the opportunity to be a part of your celebration and your story at AFP. So congratulations.
Melody Goodspeed: Thank you so much. We're again, just so happy for having this time and having people in our corners and partners like you. So thank you so much. I'm going to bring John Mackin, who is our manager of, our public relations manager. Sorry, John, and my partner in crime here-
John Mackin: I also would have accepted manager of public relations. That's okay, Melody.
Melody Goodspeed: There's a lot of my partner in crime, PR. There's a lot of P's there, guys. Thanks John. We got some questions, I'm sure.
John Mackin: We do. First, I want to thank you and thank Ron for being on the show. Ron, we can jump right in. Since we heard quite a bit about your entrepreneurial journey, the first question I wanted to ask you was what's one thing about your business that you did not expect?
Melody Goodspeed: That's a good one.
Ron Brooks: That is a really good question. I would say the thing that I did not expect was how willing people have been in my industry to embrace the existence of the business and to give me opportunities. Now I've had to work for those and I've been in the industry for 28 years. So I've built a lot of relationships, but people have bent over backwards to help me. They've given me opportunities to present at webinars or on webinars. I don't know what the grammar is.
Ron Brooks: They've given me opportunities. They've published things I've written. So I think the graciousness of people has been surprising because I didn't know what to expect and I think that's a transferable lesson to anybody who wants to start something. When you are starting anything and you are doing it with authenticity and with a good heart and a good work ethic, people want to support you and they want to give you the opportunity to succeed and they are generally in your corner.
Melody Goodspeed: I love that response.
John Mackin: I hope listeners take that to heart because that's a fantastic message.
Melody Goodspeed: It is.
John Mackin: We'll piggyback on that a little bit. What would you say is a common myth about your job, or we can say field of expertise?
Ron Brooks: I think one of the common myths, and this is a myth that has evolved over decades, is that the transportation industry and the disability community are not allies. We have been taught to view each other with skepticism, with mistrust, and sometimes with outright antagonism, and one of the things, and I started there. The reason I got into public transit back in 1993, or really before that because I was on an advisory committee before that, was because I thought that they weren't listening and I thought that I could yell louder and make them listen.
Ron Brooks: And what I found when I got into the industry is that most people who work there want to do the right things. They struggle with the details. They don't always know what the right things are and sometimes they don't have the resources, but they generally want to do the right thing and it's up to us as a community of people with disabilities to help them understand what the right things are and sometimes we have to do it with a little bit of force. Sometimes we have to do it with a little bit of finesse and grace, but usually, the intentions are good. It's all in the execution where things get sideways.
John Mackin: It's almost as though sometimes people just need the proper roadmap, and I promise that was not an intended pun. Sorry.
Melody Goodspeed: I liked it.
Ron Brooks: It's a good transit analogy.
Melody Goodspeed: I liked it.
John Mackin: Okay. Well, on that note, let's shift gears a little bit. Ron, what do people misunderstand about you most?
Ron Brooks: I'm not sure. You'd have to ask them, I think. I will tell you I think one of the things I think that the industry has misunderstood and again, this kind of goes back to the last question is I think people want to create change, and particularly for me as a person who is advocating within my industry for people with disabilities, I think sometimes people have in the industry have thought that I was kind of there as a secret spy for the disability community to try to trick them into doing stuff that they shouldn't do or that they shouldn't want to do.
Ron Brooks: And I'm actually pretty balanced. It's kind of funny because if I'm in the community, there are those people who think I'm not doing enough and so I get in that middle space of the community wishes I do a little bit more and the transit people wish I'd do a little bit less. So I think the biggest misunderstanding might be around motive. I'm just super clear. My motive is I just want transportation to be easy and good and that's it. That's my motive. It's no more or no less than that.
Melody Goodspeed: I liked that. Do you mind, John, if I piggyback on a question about this?
John Mackin: Fire away, please.
Melody Goodspeed: Okay. So Ron, you and I have had discussions with other people from last time in November, but then also through our professional relationship is about active 55 and older communities that, quite frankly, doesn't seem like transportation is even really a forethought, which blows my mind, even as simple as putting sidewalks in those communities. I wanted to see your thoughts on this because I struggle with that too, going to communities when you're aging. For me personally, disability or not, I would like to have alternate transportation routes in these kinds of communities. Do you see that often or do you see people really building up in that, in the aging community to where they're able to have better access?
Ron Brooks: I think it first off, I think it varies, but more than that, I think it evolves and our country, say from about the 1920s or thirties, especially into the fifties and sixties was very car-centric and the people who are seniors now were becoming adults in the 1950s and sixties, let's say. I pushed that back a decade every year I get older, but in any case, these are folks who grew up in car-centric worlds. They didn't think about transportation. They never rode it or maybe they lived in a place like New York or Boston or Chicago where they rode transit often as a commuter, but it wasn't really their preferred method because it's crowded, whatever it is.
Ron Brooks: So they didn't see it as part of the landscape. I think now, we're starting to see people, including older people recognizing that cars are not everything. There is this thing called the environment. There is this thing called the healthy lifestyle, which includes physical fitness. So I think people are starting to recognize that communities need to have transportation, but they also need to have the ability for people to be in a space that's more walkable, that's more on a human scale, that's more environmentally friendly. So I think it's changing and I think some places are just changing more slowly than others.
Melody Goodspeed: Thanks for that. I was curious about that and wanted to ask. I like that response. John, I think we have time for one more.
John Mackin: Okay. I'm going to do a slight gear shift again. This is we tend to close with this one, Ron, and you can keep it transportation focused, or you can go personal, up to you, or a little both, up to you. What are three books you would recommend to our audience and why?
Ron Brooks: It's not going to be transportation focused. I have spent a lot of time lately reading books that I've picked up in order to learn skills that I needed to be successful in more of a business context. Before I tell you what those are, I just want to say because we didn't get to, that one of the things that I'm most grateful for is the family that I have, my wife Lisa. We had our 25th anniversary in 2021 this year. So that unfortunately, the pandemic affected that a little. We couldn't take the crazy trip I wanted to take, but anyway, having a supportive environment is another big piece of starting a business, and I didn't want the time to get away without saying so, but back to your book question. This is a book I'd never heard of, but it's very popular.
Ron Brooks: It's been around forever. It's called The Greatest Salesman in the World. I don't know the author off the top of my head, but it really talks about what does it take to sell, and what it really takes to sell is an unconditional love of people and eight or nine other things. It's a pretty sharp book and a really good read. The Atomic Habits is another book that I just read pretty recently, which had a pretty big impact. This is a book that talks about the need to build good habits and good habits are actually pretty easy to build if you just build them and they can really, really help you be successful just by giving you structure to the work that you are setting about to do, and another book that I'll recommend, and I can probably recommend more, but you only said three is The One Thing.
Ron Brooks: And that one I do know is by Carrie Keller and that's a book that talks about being very clear on what is your purpose and what is the one thing, and then basically, looking at that one thing, say from a 10 year horizon, and then recognizing that to get from 10 years, you've got to go through two sets of five years. So what's your five-year horizon? What's your one-year horizon? What's your one month, your one week, your one day? What is something you can do right now that will help move you toward your purpose? So reading those kinds of books has really, really benefited me as I've been thinking about how to improve and become the best version of myself that I can be.
Melody Goodspeed: I'm going to have to get that second one. What was that again? I got the last one.
Ron Brooks: It's Atomic Habits, the author is James Clear.
Melody Goodspeed: Okay. Atomic Habits. I'm going to have to get that one. Maybe that'll help me motivate myself.
John Mackin: And Ron, I'm glad that you were able to say your piece before answering that question because it sounded like something that you really wanted to get to and if we did have time for one more, it was going to be what's one question you'd wish I'd asked you and how would you answer it? So we're going to pretend that I asked that and that you answered it because-
Melody Goodspeed: Unless you had anything else you wanted to add.
Ron Brooks: No, that's perfect.
Melody Goodspeed: Well, congratulations on 25 years and I do agree that having a supportive system and with family, friends, coworkers is just so vital in getting us to where we want to go. I saw a quote the other day that said the more that you want and the more that you take on, the more support you need, and I think that is so true.
John Mackin: Yeah. Support systems are everything and congratulations on your anniversary.
Ron Brooks: Thank you very much. I appreciate that.
Melody Goodspeed: We're celebrating anniversaries everywhere today.
John Mackin: Exactly.
Ron Brooks: That's right. 75 years to go to keep up or catch up.
Melody Goodspeed: You've got it, Ron. You've got it. Well again, everybody, thanks to Ron Brooks for coming back with us. I'm just so incredibly proud of everything you're doing and I'm really excited to see how everything unfolds. I know it's going to be great. I can't wait to see it everywhere and thank you again for everything on behalf of the disability community for what you're doing, especially in the way of transportation because it's a vital, it's very vital and I just want to thank you all. If you have any more questions about what we're doing at AFB is to celebrate our Centennial or the work that we're doing, please visit www.afb.org and you can also find our comment there if you have any questions for us. Thank you so much and we look forward to seeing you guys again soon. Bye-bye.