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Embracing Language Through Touch | Sam Latif

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WOMEN ON THE MOVE

Editor’s Note:

Bold Blind Beauty is thrilled to present Sam Latif, Accessibility Leader at Procter & Gamble as our September Woman On The Move. If Sam’s name sounds familiar to you it’s probably because she was responsible for bringing to life the tactile features on the bottles of Herbal Essences shampoo and conditioner. Below the audio interview is the transcript of Sam’s interview with Bold Blind Beauty’s Nasreen Bhutta. Enjoy!

I want a new language of touch. Touch is a sense, just like sight is a sense, so why can’t we introduce a language for everything that we do so that blind people don’t need to put braille labels on. We don’t need to put sticky tape or bump dots or things to help us identify
one product from another.

Sam Latif

Nasreen Bhutta:

Welcome to Bold Blind Beauty, home of Beyond Sight Magazine, an online community where real beauty transcends barriers. Our Women on the Move segment focused on monthly profiles of inspirational women, their capabilities, achievement, and journeys, as they navigate through the course of sight loss and blindness. I’m your host Nasreen. For our September 2020 segment of Women on the Move, our featured guest is the lovely Sam Latif. She’s an accessibility leader and a consultant for inclusive design and a parent of three, passionate, positive, and a change maker, always championing inclusion. Let’s all give a warm welcome to Sam. Hi, Sam. Good afternoon.

Sam Latif:

Hey. Good afternoon Nasreen. Hello to everybody listening.

Nasreen Bhutta:

You have quite an incredible journey. So you were diagnosed with RP [retinitis pigmentosa] while still in high school. Can you tell us a little bit about that journey and the support systems that you had at that time?

Sam Latif:

Yeah, sure. So I was diagnosed at the age of four and I couldn’t read very well ever. I didn’t really realize at the time that I couldn’t see, I was just a very slow reader I thought. But when it came to high school and when I was about 16 years old, I just suddenly lost the ability to read overnight. I lost the ability to read completely and write. I almost lost my ability to learn, because schoolwork was no longer accessible. And the advice at the time was to stop my education both at school, and then later at university. And when I was at school, the head teacher decided that maybe I needed a couple of years out to come to terms with my new normal, blindness, but I didn’t really want to do that. I wanted to do what other kids were doing. I didn’t want to be any different. So I tried to come up with ideas for myself to make life a little easier.

One of the ideas I came up with was to record information onto the old fashioned cassette tape. You probably, I don’t know if you’re of that generation, but it’s to record the information on tape and I didn’t know any better. I would try and listen to chapters here and there and I would fall asleep because I couldn’t find, if I had to go to page 56, I couldn’t find that on the tape. I used to rewind, fast forward, rewind and then fall asleep. But anyway, that’s how I managed school. And then when I went to university. At first, the university said that they didn’t take on blind people. They didn’t want to fail me. It wasn’t something that they knew how to handle. I got declined from university, but then I wrote to them and said, “Hey guys, you’ve not done this before, I’ve not done this before, but how about we learn together and if I mess up, it’s okay. You’ve got nothing to lose and if I succeed, then we might be opening the doors to other people with disabilities.” So they agreed.

Nasreen Bhutta:

Well today, you are part of a huge company. To get there as you’re losing your sight and the changes of lifestyle and the new norm as you mentioned, that must have been overwhelming and very difficult.

Sam Latif:

I think I figured out some hacks. Well, you can call them hacks now, back then I didn’t know. But one of the things I started doing was just to cut the crap and give me the data, give me the information, the decision. You don’t need to read lengthy books and you don’t need to read every single chapter and you don’t even need to read the book. You can ask 10 people if they’ve read the book and then you kind of summarize what they’ve read and then make your own judgment. And that’s how I used to actually, when I got to university, that’s how I started to do my assignments. I would socialize, talk to people, understand their opinions and then form my own from that.

I started letting go of always being concerned about getting the latest book on tape. Because, if you could think about it by the time you got your book list at university, getting someone to record it on tape would take you two or three months if you wanted the entire book. So I started just paying students to read a chapter here or a couple of chapters there then just to say, that I would socialize and do the best I could. I honestly don’t know how I got through it. It’s not the way people do it, but in real life and the real world, you don’t have time to read every single report. It’s all about communication, talking to people, understanding and using your initiative or common sense to come up to an agreement. So, I’m not the academic type.

Nasreen Bhutta:

So Sam, finding employment for anyone with a disability can be difficult. How did you manage to overcome any struggles that you might have faced in this area?

Sam Latif:

I always wanted to work. I had this thing that I didn’t want to be financially dependent on anybody. And I remember as a student, I started looking for jobs, but I couldn’t do your typical jobs like working a bar or a restaurant. Somehow back in the day, telesales was something new. I found myself in a tele sales job. I thought, well, that’s the only thing I can use, is a phone. So I started selling kitchens, cars, windows, doors, and even wells on the phone. Just imagine-

Nasreen Bhutta:

Wells?

Sam Latif:

Wills, my accent. Yeah. Will, something that you put together in the event that you die. So this was my lane Nasreen, right? I used to say “hello Mr. Smith, have you ever thought about dying? Don’t worry, invest in a will and you’ll live happily ever after.” But to do this job, I needed to be able to read telephone numbers because in those days it wasn’t on the internet. It was on this thing called the yellow pages, a big thick book with everybody’s names and the telephone numbers. So I used to get paid five pounds an hour at my job. And I used to pay someone else five pounds an hour to record as many telephone numbers on tape for me so that I could then do my job. One hour of them recording would last me like three or four hours of work.

And that was my first experience of working. I also, whilst I was at university, I was trying to find a graduate job. And I went to multiple interviews and assessment centers and I used to do well in them. But ultimately, there was so much open discrimination. I mean, imagine being told “Yeah, we really liked you, you passed the test, but we feel uncomfortable because we don’t think a blind person can do the job.” And I would get feedback like that. And it was like, it was so direct. And I didn’t realize that that was actually discrimination and it hurt. But one day, I was at this assessment center. I don’t know where I met this guy. He’s a billionaire and he was Scotland’s largest car retailer. So he sold, he had like a hundred showrooms of new and used cars and I happened to bump into him and I was chatting away.

And then I said, I was here to look for a job. And he said, “Oh, I’ll give you a job. How about coming to work for Arnold Clark?” I was like, “Oh wow, that’s amazing. And so what’s your name?” And he said, “My name is Arnold Clark. I own the company and you can come and work for me any day.” So actually, I had a job before I even graduated from university, just because of this billionaire guy who wants to give me a try. So I started working there. It was really great. I had to design my own job and he didn’t have any nervousness about employing a blind person, because he was a billionaire, he had nothing to lose. And he asked his staff to be kind and helpful to me and they were. So I was working there for a year and a half.

Then my next big break came with Procter & Gamble. There was a parent of a disabled child who was a director at Procter & Gamble and he wanted to recruit people with disabilities into P&G. He then reached out to an agency to ask them to help recruit people with disabilities, into Procter & Gamble and that’s how I initially came to P&G about 20 years ago. One thing that’s been consistent, in my experience, when I’ve either wanted a job or even progress inside the company is, somehow people who discriminate against you are the ones that are unsure, uncomfortable about working with a disabled person and they’re too scared to make a mistake and them looking bad. The people who have given me a break, are people who don’t really care. They’ve made it, they’ve got nothing to lose and they’re happy to take the risk and they’re happy to do something good.

And again, it’s one of those things, it’s a good thing for society, but it’s a good thing for their business as well. Because, I’ve not, never let anyone down so far. So, it’s a win-win. One of the good things is that large companies are beginning to realize the value of people with disabilities, because there are about 1.8 billion people in the world with a disability, and companies like P&G, we do want to reflect the diversity of our consumers, the diversity of the people that use our products. We want to reflect that inside the company. We’re not there yet. Obviously, everyone has a lot more work to do, but we’re recognizing that it’s really helpful to have people on with disabilities. And so, we’ve got dedicated programs now. We really encourage people with disabilities to apply.

We’re partnering with Gallaudet University and one of our deaf colleagues, Scott Van Nice, he’s brought in many deaf interns to P&G and full time hires. We’ve brought in people from the autism spectrum, neurodiverse people into the company. And what we do is we use the experience of real people with disabilities at P&G to bring more of those people inside the company. It’s really refreshing to see that the needle is moving in the right direction. Obviously not fast enough, but that’s to people like if I meet people with disabilities, I’m always encouraging them. Definitely yes, do apply and let me know when you’re applying and sometimes they may be successful and sometimes they may not be, but at least there’s someone that can help them within the company. And there’s so much more we can do, to be honest, but I really see that lots of companies are trying to change.

Nasreen Bhutta:

As someone who is a successful businesswoman, you are P&G’s, accessibly leader, why so passionate about changing the status quo when it comes to making everyday products more inclusive?

Sam Latif:

I think, I mean, for people who don’t know Procter & Gamble, we’re one of the largest consumer goods companies in the world. So we do brands like Pantene, Herbal Essences, Olay, Tide, Pampers, Gillette, and many, many more products that we do. We are in 180 plus countries. Really, we want the maximum number of people to enjoy our products and enjoy our advertising and we want to improve the lives of the world’s consumers, as we say. And that includes consumers with disabilities. That includes blind consumers. I fundamentally believe that every human has the right to access our products and our services. For that to really be true, we need to be accessible for our consumers and customers and that comes through making our products inclusive. That comes through making advertising inclusive as well. We are a company that is committed to being a force for good, doing good in the world, and a force for growth. So we’re growing our business as we’re doing that.

P&G we, I don’t know if your viewers are aware of the tactile work that we’re implementing on our shampoos and conditioners, so the big vision is that every single shampoo and every single conditioner will have tactile markings on them to differentiate between shampoo and conditioner. This is a new language that we’re trying to introduce that people will be able to read that language through touch. It won’t be braille, but it will be something a little easier than braille. And we’ve got four stripes to say, shampoo. S for stripes and S for shampoo. I’ve got eight circles to say conditioner. 

Maybe two years ago, we launched these tactile symbols on our Herbal Essences shampoo and conditioner products. The idea is that, you know like on your keyboard, the letter F and the letter G has a tactile on there to help you orientate your hands on the keyboard when you go to an ATM, the five has a dot on that digit, or when you go into a store to pay for stuff, there’s a dot on the number five? Similarly, I wanted language for people to be able to know what’s shampoo, what’s conditioner, and then what’s body wash, just through touch.

The idea is that, yes, we’ve got these on Herbal Essences bottles in North America, but we want these on every shampoo and conditioner bottle. Just like the word shampoo and conditioner is in print for the sighted world, we want tactile stripes for shampoo and tactile circles for conditioner for people who can’t read print for one reason or another.

I think every human being has the right to use our products, to access our products and there are people with different needs in the world. There’s 1.85 billion people with a disability. Some of them have got learning difficulties, some of them have vision, mobility, dexterity challenges and we really need to take that into account as we’re developing our products, as we’re researching on how consumers are using our products. We need to understand some of the barriers that people are experiencing on a daily basis using our products and we need to design better and we need to address their needs. And I believe that by designing to address some of the challenges that people with disabilities experience when it comes to using our products, we can actually create superior products that delight everybody. And I really think that the better it is for people with disabilities, the more delightful it is for the rest of the consumers as well. And it’s a fundamental, basic human right, ultimately. That’s what drives me.

I encourage every shampoo company in the world to copy it, reapply it, so that it becomes a language for touch that will help us with the shampoo and conditioner. And my vision is broader than that. I want everything to have a language so that we have, like I said, sighted world has a hundred percent of that real estate. We have 0%. All I’m asking for the manufacturers in the world is to say, give us a little bit. Gives a 10th of that space and put some tactile marking that’s a common language in the industry for that category, and it will make our lives simpler. We are paying consumers, we have money to spend, we don’t want the daily tension of knowing, oh what’s in this, what’s this again?

Nasreen Bhutta:

So you’re a successful business woman, leader and a role model in our community, what advice do you have for future aspiring women leaders?

Sam Latif:

I think as women or as people working together, it’s really important to make friends with people that you interact with on a daily basis. From school, from the blind community, having a variety of groups of people that you can turn to and talk about your ideas is really, really helpful. So making friends and learning from them is one thing and then perseverance is really important, I believe. I think you can get through by persevering. You can really get what you’re really looking for. I really wanted these tactile stripes. I had no idea… I believed in it so strongly that I kept going even if there was lots of barriers in the way.

But the thing is, sometimes it’s going to be legitimate, real barriers, but many times people put invisible barriers that don’t really exist and that stops you from achieving your dreams. Those invisible barriers that are just in your head, they only exist in your head. So, like I said, meeting other blind people, meeting other people from different walks of life, I’ve just found that having a good set of friends to talk to, to bounce ideas, is the best advice I can give.

Nasreen Bhutta:

Thank you so much. I think that’ll really help a lot of people. Who is your biggest influencer, Sam?

Sam Latif:

I think Apple as a company are my biggest influencer. I love the fact that they make everything out of the box almost fully accessible. Obviously, there’s so much more they can do as well. They really inspire me to make my product successful in my company. Who would have thought a flat screen phone would be completely accessible out of the box. Quirky things that they do, like putting a screen curtain on, so other sighted folk can’t see my stuff, I just think is really cool. And then they’ve used blind people to develop new cool, funky ideas, like unlocking your phone with a thumbprint was inspired by a blind employee at Apple. So yeah, so they’re probably my biggest influence in terms of a company.

Nasreen Bhutta:

On a personal, anybody?

Sam Latif:

I like seeing young influencers out there. I think you guys are doing a great job with Bold Blind Beauty. I was really impressed with this platform. It’s nice and it’s a great name, but it’s also a great topic that you’re covering. I think it’s amazing for us blind women who like to become beautiful. And also, people like Molly Burke and the likes of all these young influencer girls who are not shy to talk about some of the challenges that they experience and showing that they can live their life to their fullest, I think is amazing because it really helps the able-bodied world realize that we are also very capable of doing stuff. But if they made their products more accessible, life would be a lot easier as well.

Nasreen Bhutta:

Oh, thank you so much. The fact that you have persevered with purpose and passion is just incredible. So you’re playing the piano these days. How’s it going for you?

Sam Latif:

Yeah, I’m playing Fur Elise. It’s going good. I’ve almost finished it. I’ve still got a bit left. I don’t read music. I’m not very good at braille and I like the shortcuts, so I get my piano teacher to tell me where to move my finger, how many keys, is it up three or two keys? And I just learn the rhythm of where my fingers need to go. But it’s really good. It’s something very different to other things that I do. And it’s really relaxing and good fun and it’s a new skill that I’m really enjoying. So yeah, it’s good.

Nasreen Bhutta:

So Sam, how can we reach you?

Sam Latif:

You can just drop me an email anytime. Give me a call. I’m very approachable.

Nasreen Bhutta:

How about your social handles? Want to share those?

Sam Latif:

Sure. SamLatif7 on Twitter. On Facebook, I’m Sam Latif. My email is Latif.s@pg.com. So that’s L-A-T-I-F, Lima alpha, tango and then foxtrot, dot S for Sam at pg, putt-putt golf, dot com.

Nasreen Bhutta:

Thank you so much, Sam, for being here this afternoon. You’ll be able to find Sam’s story in the onsite magazine under Women on the Move for September, 2020 at http://www.boldblindbeauty.com. Thanks for listening.

Connecting With Sam:

Bio:

Sam Latif is P&G’s first Company Accessibility Leader and is leading the P&G’s thought leadership and commitment to making products, packaging, and advertising accessible for the growing aging population and 1.7 billion people around the world with a disability.  

Winning with 50+/PwD consumers is critical for P&G to grow. By 2030 we will have more >50 consumers to serve vs under 50 and 36% of 50+ consumers will experience a disability. We estimate today we are losing 1BN dollars per annum across our Categories not serving this segment. P&G has an opportunity to reach more consumers with more accessible and irresistible products and packaging for all.  

Sam Latif was born in the UK and is a first-generation Scottish Pakistani. She is blind and the passion for what she is doing at P&G has been inspired by the personal access challenges she has experienced as both a consumer and an employee. Sam studied Marketing and Business Law at the University of Stirling in Scotland and began her career at P&G in IT. She has led IT transformations across multiple worldwide businesses (including Fragrances, Pampers, Olay, and Gillette).  

In 2015 Sam switched focus from running IT businesses to figuring what it would take to make P&G become the most accessible company for the consumers we are serving and was appointed as the company’s first Special Consultant for Inclusive Design. During this time, Sam worked with the Herbal Essences business to explore how we could make it easier to help people tell the difference between shampoo and conditioner, especially in the shower when people are not wearing their corrective eyewear. It’s estimated that 79% of the population in the west wear corrective eyewear and so its quite hard for people to tell by sight alone our shampoo and conditioner bottles apart. 

In February 2019, Sam was promoted to Associate Director and became P&G’s first Company Accessibility Leader and is responsible for making P&G workplace, products, and packaging and communications fully accessible to everyone.

Sam is married and has 3 kids, boy and girl twins aged 7 and a 10-year-old boy. Sam is enjoying the challenge of learning to play the piano and working out at the gym.  

Image Description:

  • Beyond Sight Magazine Cover. Sam’s headshot is featured on the cover and she’s wearing a gray hijab. The masthead is teal with “Beyond Sight Magazine” in black text. The dot on the ‘i’ in ‘sight’ is the eye used for our 2020 Year of Vision Campaign (described HERE). There are 3 lines of white text that say “Auditioning for Bold, Blind, and Beautiful.” In the bottom right corner is a teal circle with an illustration of Abby rollerblading. She has on a black crop tank top complete with her logo on the front with black shorts, and gray & teal roller blades. And of course, Abby wouldn’t be Abby without her signature explosive hairstyle, and “Women On The Move” is yellow text under the circle.
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