Jerry Robinson isn’t the type to brag about himself, but he has a lot to be proud of. Among other things, he is an accomplished scholar, professional researcher, and a longtime and dedicated advocate for persons with disabilities. Now, well into his second career, he is undertaking work that he genuinely cares about, and in doing so, creates positive impacts on lives around the globe. 

He graduated salutatorian of his class at Morehouse College, where he received his bachelor’s in accounting, and immediately entered the professional workforce in finance. The first job he landed was as an analyst with JPMorgan Chase. They rotated him through several practices, including investment banking, marketing, high-finance, and finally HR – where he spent the next few years doing compensation analytics and reporting. The foundation he built in analytical practices during this time would prove to be the bedrock on which Robinson would build up his career.

After several years in the finance industry he decided to embark on the mission to his final educational goal; he had always wanted to get his PhD, and ultimately to become a professor. It was at Syracuse University’s iSchool that he found a program combining the coursework of a master’s in Information Management and a doctoral degree in Information Science and Technology. Robinson knew that this was the right path and he set out for Central NY.

After completing his dual graduate degree program at the iSchool, and receiving the Information Science and Technology Program Doctoral Award, which “recognizes outstanding doctoral students who demonstrate academic excellence in their intellectual contributions, distinction in the classroom, and preparation to thrive in their scholarly pursuits,” Robinson took his talents to a new job at Facebook. Having been recruited by the social-media giant to the role of User Experience Researcher, he was focused on identifying ways of improving Facebook’s accessibility features for users with disabilities – primarily blind and low-vision users.

A little late to the realization, Robinson now sees that he was always an accessibility researcher, and it just took him a while to find his way to it professionally. He is interested in some of the technical aspects of his industry, and the coursework he was exposed to at the iSchool, but his heart really lies in deeply understanding users and their behaviors. He says, “In everything I do, I’m a researcher. I try to understand the needs of users compared to the needs of the business, but I’m also focused on sensibility. I’m very focused on how we make products that are inclusive for everybody, including blind and low-vision individuals, and people with disabilities. I wasn’t necessarily a tech person, but I always liked trying to solve problems and meet needs, and trying to understand how to make products that people love.”

Robinson lives with cerebral palsy, which has an impact on the way he moves through the world, how he relates to his work, and the underlying motivations behind his personal and professional value systems. He brings a sense of compassion and understanding to his role as he interviews various users with disabilities, and then applies the information gathered to suggest new tools, or improve old ones, to positively impact those users’ experiences.

Robinson has since moved on from Facebook, and is now the Senior UX Researcher for Google. His day-to-day consists of observations, virtual research, lab studies, and interviews with users with disabilities and then developing recommendations to address the issues raised in those conversations. For Robinson, the role of being a professor can wait, because he is fully engrossed in his current domain. His lived experience perfectly fits his professional objectives. He is fluent in the language required to communicate nuanced ideas between users, designers, and engineers, and he has developed the skills necessary to derive meaning from vast amounts of data and peoples’ personal stories.

The tech space is dynamic and fast-paced, so companies need to develop products and get them to market quickly in order to stay relevant and competitive. Robinson embraces the pace of workflow and appreciates his involvement with the teams that execute new ideas, or improvements on established products. His work is constantly building on itself and evolving, and because his industry never slows down or stalls out, he says, “I can have a bigger impact, quicker, by helping to shape the designs on an ongoing basis.”

In addition to his professional focus on helping people with disabilities, Robinson volunteered with an organization called United Cerebral Palsy (UCP), for several years. He served as the Speak for Yourself (SFYS) Project Advisor & Group Discussion Facilitator in the earliest stages of the project. The SFYS Project helped individuals with disabilities become more involved and literate around health outcomes research and self-advocacy. According to Robinson, he would “create presentation materials and lead discussions with individuals who have disabilities about the importance of making healthcare professionals and researchers aware of their perspectives and insights.”

Robinson explains that in terms of how they are perceived in society, there are two distinct “models of disability” that exist for people living with disabilities. The social model basically says that “disability” is caused by the way that society is organized, whereas the medical model says that people are “disabled” by their impairments and differences. The medical model, which Robinson has experienced first-hand for most of his entire life, assumes that people with disabilities are just passive recipients of care. He says through the lens of this model, humans with disabilities are seen as people that “need to be fixed, and changed, and made whole, and not as people – who just happen to have differences. So what a lot of people with disabilities experience, including myself, through health care, is that we are treated according to the medical model; we are people to be fixed, acted upon, people that don’t have full agency, or don’t have the ability to make our own, good, decisions. Now, not all of that is always true, but this is the general zeitgeist in the medical community. We should all be empowered to say ‘No, I do have agency, I should be consulted, I should make my own decisions, and given the tools and resources to do that.’”

“Nothing about us, without us” is the rallying cry of those that advocate for rights, and for normalizing accessibility and design, for ALL people. This is a common thread for Robinson throughout his life and all of the hats that he wears at different times. He is passionate about focusing on people’s strengths rather than perceived weaknesses,  informing people, and for helping people manage their own affairs. He is a talented qualitative researcher and good at making connections with people who can use his help and expertise. And he is genuinely interested in helping how he can, and raising the bar for what is considered a “normal approach towards designing for everyone”.

For someone who spends a lot of time trying to put himself in other people’s shoes, Robinson is remarkably grounded. In order to understand technical needs outside of his own relative experience, he requires a depth of empathy that can’t be taught, and a technical proficiency that can. He credits the iSchool with helping him to hone how he thinks about his design process, interview process, and it provided him a lot of tools to refine his research methods. He credits “people” with surprising him in the loveliest ways, when he says, about his vast research experience, “you realize that people are diverse. You realize that people are creative, and people find ways. Even when they may have different needs, they are still incredible at how they navigate life, and how they even think about life.”