Turning his disability into inspiration, computer science ace Ather Sharif is transforming the web experience for differently abled people.
By JoAnn Greco
If I don’t do myself the favor of getting back to life, it’s never going to happen,” Ather Sharif ’16 (M.S.) grumbled one morning in 2014.
A frightened 23-year-old, thousands of miles away from his family in Pakistan and wrenched from his graduate school friends in North Dakota, Sharif had suddenly found himself in Philadelphia at Magee Rehabilitation Hospital after a life-altering car accident in March 2013. As he learned to live as a quadriplegic, he was — not surprisingly — feeling sorry for himself.
“I had gotten to the point where I thought I would never achieve anything ever again,” Sharif, now 27, continues. “I was afraid I’d have to depend on other people for the rest of my life.” But on that fateful morning, a year after the accident, his innate independence emerged and he made a decision to enroll at Saint Joseph’s University. He would, he declared, get moving and complete the computer science degree that he started after relocating from Pakistan to attend the University of North Dakota.
He knew it wouldn’t be easy, but he had no idea how fortuitous the next two years would be. While researching his master’s thesis at SJU, he began considering ways in which people with vision loss might more fully experience the richness of the web. In particular, he focused on creating a free plug-in that would allow screen readers (assisted technology that provides speech synthesizers or braille displays) to extract the crux of graphs, bar charts, and pie charts and explain them in greater detail — offering context, rather than just reading them in rote fashion. In 2015, his efforts earned him IBM’s People with Disabilities Award and a $10,000 Google Lime Scholarship. Also that year, he won “Geek of the Year” at the Philly Geek Awards.
“I’ve always wanted to get an award for being a geek and be respected for it at the same time,” he says.
The project would lead Sharif to form his own nonprofit, EvoXLabs, dedicated to increasing accessibility to the web via what’s become known as “universal design.”
“We advocate for web design that caters to the needs of everybody,” he says. “For people with hearing impairment, that means videos that are close-captioned; for those with cognitive disabilities, it ensures that there’s not too much text; for the elderly, it can mean not using small or hard-to-read fonts.”
"The human body is a magnificent thing and can be adapted in endless ways." Ather Sharif ’16
Of course, Sharif had come to understand personally just how difficult it can be for the differently abled to navigate the web.
“For about a year after the accident, I didn’t use a computer at all,” he recalls. “I was trying to use my hands the way I had before and when that didn’t work, I just gave up.”
He was fitted for a cuff that wrapped around his wrist and held a stylus but soon misplaced it, forcing him to think of another way to type. Looking at his hand, Sharif noticed that his thumb would make a fine stylus. After much practice, his typing speed improved to 40 words per minute. “The human body is a magnificent thing and can be adapted in endless ways,” he muses. “It took me a while to figure out my new abilities and to learn to use them in a way that works for me. It’s given me back my sense of independence, and that feels great.”
Imagination and determination — whether it’s in overcoming personal obstacles or starting nonprofits —
is nothing new for Sharif, who even as a teenager exhibited an entrepreneurial bent by taking on freelance programming gigs in Pakistan. He attributes much of his success to the support he’s always enjoyed — first from his family, then at SJU.
“At Saint Joseph’s, I was surrounded by people with positive attitudes,” he says. “My professors played a great role in not making me feel different from everyone. But they also went out of their way to accommodate me.”
If accessibility is Sharif’s mission, adaptability is his mantra. “I guess I’m never satisfied with what I’ve achieved,” he says. “It’s just a continuous improvement process for me.”
That applies to EvoXLabs, where he’s constantly drumming up new partnerships and applied research; to Comcast, where he’s worked since graduation as a full-time software engineer; and to his own future, as he prepares to pursue a Ph.D. in human-computer interaction at the University of Washington.
“If you don’t push yourself, you’re never going to get anywhere,” he says. “It’s been really hard, but I’m a much better person for it.”
Greco is a freelance writer.