While you’re asking your virtual assistant some banal question — “Siri, what time is it?” “Alexa, what’s the name of this song?” — the evolution of voice-activated and accessible technology is changing Todd Stabelfeldt’s life.
Stabelfeldt is a database administrator and developer. He runs his own database management company, C4 Consulting, from his Port Orchard office just across Puget Sound from Seattle. The married stepdad of two is polite and charming, traits honed by his military upbringing. He’s got a bushy red beard that he admits is getting a little unruly, and his conversation is peppered with funny asides, mostly of the self-deprecating variety.
Stabelfeldt also lives with quadriplegia. When he was 8, an accident with a gun severed his spinal cord at the C4 vertebrae.
For the past 30 years, Stabelfeldt has slowly and steadily built a life of independence and achievement, most recently speaking at Apple’s annual Worldwide Developers Conference, whose lineup also included former first lady Michelle Obama. His path has been hard-fought and his accomplishments reached despite — and because of — technology. For him, the first real accessible tech breakthroughs were the 2013 launch of Apple’s iOS 7, which included improved voice-activation capabilities, as well as last year’s release of iOS 10 and its HomeKit tools for setting up smart homes.
The advancements helped shape Stabelfeldt’s mantra for the tech sector: “Convenience for you is independence for me.”
He’s hoping the message takes hold and inspires tech innovators to pursue accessibility. The recent developments encourage Stabelfeldt and others promoting technology for all, but progress is slow.
“It’s still the beginning of a longer trajectory,” said Besty Beaumon, president of Benetech, a California-based nonprofit working to support technology for social good.
Stabelfeldt has been waiting most of a lifetime. He was born in 1979 in Bremerton, Wash., a blue-collar town colored by more than a century of naval operations. His dad died in a motorcycle accident when he was 4. When he was in the third grade, Stabelfeldt’s mother remodeled one of their bedrooms and moved his dad’s antique guns and ammunition to a spare room. It was the late 1980s and like many kids, Stabelfeldt was in the grips of Rambo movies and gun-fueled machismo.
“I’d chew my graham crackers into a gun,” he admitted.
On Aug. 13, 1987, Stabelfeldt’s 11-year-old cousin was handling one of the very really weapons in the spare room and accidentally shot the younger boy in the face, slicing through his spinal cord at the base of his neck.
What followed was a long, difficult recovery, but early on his mom told him that he could live at home until he was 20, but that was it. She wasn’t going to be his caregiver indefinitely.
“She called it tough love,” Stabelfeldt said. “That started the process.”
He realized, “I’ve got to get up and get it done and go to college. I didn’t know how significant my disability was. It all seemed really normal. I grew up in a very southern, very German, very Navy household. It was all blunt and all truth.
“That,” he said, “is the genesis of everything else.”
Forging a way, Lewis-and-Clark style
As a teen, Stabelfeldt loved the idea of becoming a doctor, but his mom urged him to find a trade. While still in high school, he discovered a Running Start-like program where he could take coding classes at community college and earn credits. The catch was that the program was on the other side of Puget Sound from home and, due to tuition issues, Stabelfeldt needed to be independent from his family to enroll.
So at age 16 he was emancipated from his parents — his mom had remarried — and moved out.
This was the mid 1990s when the internet was just catching on, but the technology available was primitive — particularly for someone with severe physical limitations. Stabelfeldt had no choice but to forge his own way through uncharted territory. “It’s like Lewis and Clark,” he said.
At the community college, Stabelfeldt was assigned an able-bodied student to help him type, and eventually he began using a product called Adapt2U, a prototype that was locally developed and tested by the University of Washington. The system included a 10-inch monochrome monitor and a strawlike stick positioned near his mouth. Using his breath to make exhaled puffs of air and inhaled sips, he could move a cursor to navigate a keyboard and click to type commands. Only six copies of the rudimentary machine were ever built.
“It’s super old and horrible and I own three of them in case any of them break,” Stabelfeldt said.
Stabelfeldt completed his associate degree, but learned he still needed a high school diploma. He found a school in Renton, located south of Seattle, that would provide him a tutor and enrolled. A year after earning an AA he completed high school.
But this was only the beginning. Stabelfeldt had already concluded that “you have to be rich to be crippled,” he said. “So I decided I had better get a job.”
He sent out 173 resumes — targeting every tech job listed in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer’s classified ads. One company responded. It was called Cortex, a small operation that created medical software and, at the time, was located on an island in Puget Sound.
“I put on my suit, got a caregiver and went to Bainbridge Island for a job interview,” Stabelfeldt said. When he arrived, he couldn’t fit his wheelchair in the interviewer’s office. They moved the desk and chair and squeezed him in.
He got the job as a software developer, earning $25,000 a year, which was about half of what he’d hoped for. He stayed 15 years, commuting by ferry. Over his career he moved up in positions and salary, eventually working as VP of operations, product direction and testing.
But it’s expensive to live with quadriplegia and government programs to assist people who are disabled essentially penalize them for being employed. In fact, Stabelfeldt’s income disqualified him for any sort of government support, leaving him to pay thousands of dollars in medical and caregiving costs each month. At one point, Stabelfeldt feared he’d need to quit his job in order to collect desperately needed government benefits, but his boss came through with a significant raise. Despite the upside down economics, work mattered to Stabelfeldt.
“It really hit me, the idea of purpose and self-respect and validation,” he said. “I have a job. I’m needed and wanted.”
Two new ventures
Even with a raise, Stabelfeldt struggled to keep up financially. He was working nonstop, and it still wasn’t penciling out.
In 2012, he quit Cortex.
“I was exhausted,” he said. Quitting “was the best and most stupid thing I’d ever done.”
After so many years in the business, Stabelfeldt had a base of clients who still wanted to work with him. He toyed with going into comedy or writing a book, but pragmatism carried the day and he launched C4 Consulting — a name that’s a sly nod to his injury. The company offers database management and computer systems consulting.
And then something even better happened.
Stabelfeldt got a wedding invitation, and he needed a date. He wasn’t wild about the prospect of bringing a paid caregiver, let alone his mom or sister. He turned to one of his aids, asking: “Do you know any solid chicks, and if they’re hot, it would be awesome.”
To his delight, the caregiver suggested a woman, a U.S. Naval officer named Karen Little.
When they met, “I was so intimidated by her instantly,” Stabelfeldt said. Although Little was dating someone else at the time, the two clicked. The couple married in 2013 and Stabelfeldt became a stepdad to two boys.
“I thought I’d never be married,” he said. “What cool, right-minded chick raises her hand and says, ‘I want the crippled dude.’”
Creating the ‘Quadthedral’
As a husband, it became perhaps even more important to Stabelfeldt that he could live and function independently. His message to Karen, now also a Stabelfeldt, was: “I want you to be my lover and my wife, not my frigging caregiver.”
So the couple set out to build a home to support those goals. They found a large lot in Port Orchard and started drafting plans. They designed a space with doorways wide enough to accommodate wheelchairs and large open rooms instead of hallways.
On top of that infrastructure they installed lights, window shades, security alarms, an entertainment system and doors that are controlled by voice commands or accessible apps. Stabelfeldt’s chair is outfitted with two iPhones and a variety of devices that he can manipulate using his voice, tongue, lips and chin.
“Every man should be able to open and close their own damn door of their house,” Stabelfeldt said.
Now he can.
The Stabelfeldts moved into their airy, modern dream home in 2015. The house has polished concrete floors, giant windows and multiple gas fireplaces — a must-have luxury for Stabelfeldt who often feels cold. He has a home office, decked out with three large screens and three monitors, including the tiny ’90s-era Adapt2U monitor.
Stabelfeldt dubbed his abode the “Quadthedral” and welcomes visitors to see what’s possible in tech installations to help people with limited mobility.
“Since the beginning, I’ve been waiting for technology to catch up,” he said. “Independence is a big stinking deal, and I refuse to be dependent or the idea of dependency.”
Stabelfeldt credits Microsoft and Intel for pursuing accessible technology, but said that Apple is the company that has really delivered.
“My goal is simple,” he said. “My goal is to take care of my family and be a taxpaying citizen and a mortgage payer.”
Stabelfedlt has become such an enthusiastic evangelist for Apple products including Siri and the HomeKit that he was invited to be a guest speaker at Apple’s Worldwide Developers Conference last month in San Jose, Calif. Apple also created an ad starring Stabelfeldt as the “Quadfather” showcasing his use of the company’s technology in his home.
Apple’s pursuit of accessible tech is a big deal because as an operating system maker, it supports the development of more accessible apps. Additionally, it’s a leader pushing other tech companies to follow, said Beaumon, from the California nonprofit.
However, startups in particular tend to pay less attention to accessibility for people with physical or mental challenges, deferring the inclusion until later iterations, Beauman said, which can result in costly upgrades later.
But she’s optimistic that progress will continue. As the population ages, their vision, hearing and mobility will decline. Products serving that growing pool of older users will also benefit many segments of the disabled population. Additionally, there’s a push to better train student engineers so accessibility won’t be an afterthought. Teach Access is an initiative to improve undergraduate instruction in accessibility in fields such as design, computer science and human-computer interaction.
When it comes to tech innovations to assist people with disabilities, “we have the potential to be in a good place,” said Beaumon. That includes home innovations and self-driving cars. For someone with quadriplegia or blindness, for example, that sort of automation is “a life changer,” she said. “This is not a minor nicety.”
For his part, Stabelfeldt doesn’t evoke elaborate robots or futurist technology when considering the changes that could most improve his life. He’s interested in fixes to government policies to support disabled people who are working and making a contribution to society. That, and he would really like to an app allowing him to turn on his gas fireplace on his own.
“I’m a blessed man,” Stabelfeldt said. “I’m living the dream.”