One of the hardest problems I had when writing this article was selecting a title that might attract readers and tell them something about the story ahead of them. This article starts about twenty years ago and is about an individual who has done many different things, mostly related to accessibility so it was difficult to summarize in a few words. I chose the title "My Friend Sina Bahram" because that best describes our relationship over a couple of decades.
If you didn't already recognize Sina's name, you likely saw it in your newsfeeds, social media timelines and likely elsewhere, when he was asked to join Mission: AstroAccess and his recent flight on the famous vomit comet where he got to experience microgravity as part of a project to make space travel accessible to all. Of this, Sina said, "It was just about the most joyful moments of my life, I was floating in microgravity as I'd imagined so many times reading SF books and I was doing so in order that other blind and disabled people will be able to go to space in the future. It was simply awesome."
In order to keep the length of this article to a manageable level, here are some links to stories I've read about this project that might interest you too: AstroAccess Reveals Crew of 12 Disability Ambassadors for Historic ZERO-G Parabolic Flight, The mission to break barriers to space travel for people with disabilities. I enjoyed all of these and I think you will as well.[
Sina's invitation to joinMission: AstroAccess, as you will read below, is simply one of the more noteworthy things he has accomplished recently and he's still quite young and I predict you'll be seeing his name more and more over time.
I was first introduced to Sina Bahram by our mutual friend Andres Gonzalez, now of Adobe, formerly on my staff at Freedom Scientific. Andres called me and seemed quite excited, he said, "I've just met a kid you've got to get to know." I gave Andres permission to pass along my contact information to Sina and soon after received the first of what would become countless enjoyable phone calls and emails between Sina and I over the years we've known each other.
In those days, Sina was still a teenager and seemed to be under the impression that he was always the smartest guy in the room. I admit that in many an occasion, Sina is often the smartest person in the room but, as Sina would learn over the years, this is not always the case. Sina is one of the smartest people I know and the long term successes he's had over the years bears this out. Sina is also one of the most curious people I know and seems to be interested in everything except baseball and, in conversation, if Sina doesn't know about something, he'll ask questions and listen so he can learn something new.
Sina is also a very kind, friendly and generous person. When I'm going through tough times, Sina is always available to me and he reminds me of my self worth and many of the successes I've enjoyed over the years. He and I exchange emails a few times per week and, when we can, we get together to hang out in whatever city we are both in at a given moment.
Sina The Child
I'm approximately 20 years older than Sina so I didn't know him when he was a child, I didn't hang around with a lot of 4 year old kids and, if I did, one would probably suspect I was some sort of pervert. Thus, everything I know about Sina's childhood comes from stories he told me over the years and, as human memory doesn't really work too well, this section is "true" but may not be entirely "factual."
As you might have guessed, Sina was a very precocious child. By the age of four or so, he learned that one can take things apart and started disassembling random objects around his family's home, causing no end of frustration for his parents and siblings.
Sina would find his way to the family's home computer, an x286 AT class machine. He started to learn various DOS commands and would try them out to see what happens when they're invoked. Anyone old enough to remember DOS (or Disk Operating System as Curtis Chong would say) would know that the "format" command needed to be used with care. I don't know how he figured out how to send parameters to commands but one day little Sina typed "format c:" and erased everything stored on the hard drive. Later, he would do it again using the unconditional (/u) parameter which, of course, made things much worse.
Of his early computing experiments, Sina would say, "I really liked clean directories, so I noticed that each directory has a “.” (dot), and “..” (dot dot) directory in there. I didn’t know what they meant at the time, so I was like, well lets delete them “..”, and then I learned how you could delete things recursively … you get the idea. Also, did not go over well. I know all the ways in which a computer won’t boot, let me tell you."
Sina's older brother was attending Clemson University, about an hour from the family home and would need to drive to the Bahram home to fix whatever it was that Sina had broken that day. Sina describes him as "an angel" during this time.
Sina would continue to say, "I wouldn’t say I didn’t get in trouble, but what I will say is that the punishment was never lack of computer access, so they knew what they were doing, I suspect. Mainly, I don’t understand how my parents didn’t kill me, as I’m super-certain I would have if I were them!"
Sina's family got themselves a new computer and he was given the old one which caused a lot less anxiety for the family when they noticed that Sina was at a computer.
The Young Sina Bahram
When Sina and I had our first phone conversation, I was incredibly impressed by his obvious intelligence and the wide range of knowledge he possessed at such a young age. In that call, Sina lied to me about his age and added a couple of years apparently to impress me further. It was easy to believe that Sina was a couple of years older than he actually was because he was already almost half way through his undergraduate degree at NC State, a pretty good university, especially if you enjoy basketball. Sina would complete that degree and start into work on a masters degree and then a PhD.
While still doing his undergraduate degree, Sina wrote a wicked optimized algorithm in assembly language to do real time color inversion and magnification from the camera 5 years before the iPhone came out and even more years before that existed as an app on there. I found this especially impressive as writing "wicked optimized" assembly language code" was my specialty when I wrote software for a living.
During his undergraduate degree, Sina was already working on exciting problems. He worked at his brother’s startup where he wrote in-door location algorithms to locate equipment and people within hospitals almost a decade before Google and Apple developed similar technologies for in-door navigation. He had recently been instrumental in helping pass the NC State ICT accessibility policy, one of the earlier university ICT accessibility policies of the 21st century. He was working on convolutional encoding techniques and already participating in graduate courses in bioinformatics even though all his peers were years ahead of him in their academic careers. He was even able to co-author a peer-reviewed publication on how to make highly visual concepts from theoretical computer science accessible, a trend of tackling deeply hard problems that stays with him to this day.
It is important to point out that all of this was happening as Sina, like so many thousands upon thousands of students with disabilities, had to navigate being a disabled student in a highly technical field, something that so many students are not able to do due to lack of resources, support systems, and because of the systemic ablism built into our higher education system, especially within the United States. Sina credits his professors, parents, and friends so much for the success he was able to enjoy during this critical time of his life.
Some Projects Sina And I Did Together
At the time I first met Sina, I was in the process of trying to launch a new business I was calling AdLib Technologies. Shortly after our first phone call, Sina would join our start-up team. We had some interesting but lofty goals but we never raised the money necessary to get the business off of the ground and it faded away as the principals (including me) went in different directions and worked on different things.
Sina and I have also done a little work on a variety of other projects that nobody remembers so I won't include them here but we did have some fun doing them together.
Sina The Accessibility Consultant
As time moved forward, Sina was still in the PhD program at NC State but increasingly spent his time as an individual consultant on more and more accessibility projects. After a while, Sina had become a full time consultant and would ultimately give up on getting his PhD. During this time, Sina became one of the hottest names and most valuable individuals in accessibility, prompting Jim Fruchterman to say, "Sina is the guy everyone wants to have on their team but nobody can hire full time."
During this period, Sina worked with a company called Design Science to develop software called MathPlayer which makes many different areas of math accessible to blind users. I wrote an extended section in an article about CSUN 2015 about Sina's work with MathPlayer that you can read if you're so interested.
Sina The Adult
Thus far, this article has focussed on Sina before he reached the age of twenty five or so. Above, I describe the young Sina as being a bit annoying, arrogant and always under the impression that he was the smartest person in the room. For a young person like Sina was years ago this is not at all uncommon. Sina was probably the smartest person in all of his elementary, middle and high school classes. He would be constantly reminded of his remarkable intelligence and acted accordingly.
It has been to my delight to have had a front row seat to watch Sina mature and grow into an amazing adult. Today, Hanging out and having dinner, exchanging emails and talking to Sina on the phone is always a rewarding experience.
The White House Champion of Change award
In 2012, Sina received the White House Champion of Change award. At the awards ceremony in the White House, Sina would meet some people who would become very important in his life. More importantly, though, this was where Sina would meet and get involved with doing accessibility in the GLAM (Galleries, Libraries, Archives and Museums) space. Sina and his company would go on to become the nation's, if not the world's leading experts in applying the principles of inclusive design to museums and other public spaces and have done many of these projects over the ensuing years.
Prime Access Consulting
As demand for Sina's time and talent continued to increase, he came to the realization that he couldn't do all of this work as an individual and started his company Prime Access Consulting (PAC). Like most other accessibility consulting companies, PAC does a lot of digital accessibility projects (including web, mobile, apps, imbedded devices , and more). PAC also became the leader in making museums and other public spaces accessible. At this point in time, PAC is not the biggest accessibility company (that would either be LevelAccess or Deque Systems) but it is just about the most prestigious and often lands contracts far outside of one would expect given PAC’s considerably smaller size.
PAC has never once advertised across any medium for work and hopes to avoid doing so in the future. For over a decade, clients have always approached PAC, not the other way around. This dynamic leads to clients listening to Sina and his team’s advice because they are so sought after. This means that PAC can always give the best advice to achieve the most inclusive outcomes without ever worrying about chasing client work as so many larger accessibility companies are forced to do.
I know some of the PAC staff personally and can say that it is one of the most talented accessibility related teams I've ever seen assembled. The only other accessibility related company to even approach this level of talent was TPG before it was acquired and had a terrific staff.
A Few PAC Projects
Prime Access Consulting has done many impressive projects in the years since Sina founded the company. Trying to list even just the ones I find most impressive would take far too many words to give them their due. So, I chose four of my favorite PAC related projects and included them here and recommend you go to the PAC web site so you can read about so much more than I can write about here.
The Andy Warhol Museum
Andy Warhol was the most important American artist of the 20th century and probably of all time. After his untimely death, Andy's estate chose to open a museum in Pittsburgh, the city where Warhol grew up. The Andy Warhol is the single largest museum dedicated to the work of an individual artist in the world. Sina and PAC worked to make this museum more accessible and inclusive by providing guided tactile descriptions of Andy’s works that visitors can hear when exploring incredibly detailed tactile reproductions. I haven't had the opportunity to visit The Warhol since PAC completed its work there but I look forward to someday when I can observe this bit of an important PAC project in person.
The Warhol museum is especially important to me personally. I'm sure it is the only museum on Earth that contains two photographs of me when I was a young punk. As far as I know, Andy never made prints of these photos so they're probably stored somewhere in the museum as negatives and maybe a couple of contact sheets that Andy looked at and rejected as being, "some punk with a pretty girl" and "some punk sitting on the steps of the New York Public Library." To be certain, Andy Warhol almost always had his camera with him and he took thousands of pictures so having been photographed by the man isn't a great honor but it makes me happy.
The Canadian Museum For Human Rights
Sina and PAC worked to make the Canadian Museum For Human Rights (CMHR) inclusively designed from the ground up. It's located in Winnipeg Manitoba, and I believe it's the largest museum dedicated to human rights in the world. It was on this project that Sina would meet Corey Timpson who was the director of the design-build of that museum and would go on to partner with Sina on so many of their projects involving museums, themed entertainment, and anything else involving experiential design. That museum was the first of so many to implement Sina and Corey’s inclusive design methodology. I'm happy to say that I got to play a small role in this project but, when I say "small," I mean vanishingly so.
Over the past decade, Sina and Corey have become synonymous with how to build museums and other spaces inclusively. Sina’s rule for this work is “if Corey and I can experience delight at the same time, even though he’s using vision and I may be using hearing or tactility, then we know we got something right – it’s not about making something accessible but about making the entire experience truly inclusive and welcoming for everyone.”
PAC also helped CMHR design and develop an inclusive and accessible app, produced audio descriptions of video content, and much more. During this time, Sina guided 13 media producers around the world each to create their own bespoke screen reader for their respective interactives. I’m pretty sure this makes Sina the only person I know of to have worked on and helped develop more than a dozen screen readers alone, not to mention the other access technologies spread throughout the CMHR.
Obama Presidential Center
Located in Chicago and still under construction, is the Obama Presidential Center. PAC, Sina and his frequent partner Cory used the principles of inclusive design to develop the accessibility plan for this very important project. This is one of Sina's favorites from among his museum projects as he and his team were able to start the accessibility plan before the first shovel hit dirt to build the place. It's great when a public institution chooses to have its accessibility problems remediated but, if the accessibility can be included in the original design, it will be amazing.
Sina was at a Benetech gathering one year when he met a woman from Alabama, Ann, who had co-created a system of doing mathematics with a blind student named Logan with very limited movement below the neck and whose talking volume is that of a whisper, which means that keyboards, touch screens, and voice recognition are not possible for him to use. When Sina learned about the 4 switches on Logan’s wheelchair, that could only be pressed once and held down for a total of 8 functions to control an iPhone, he was appalled. “it was insulting to me as a computer scientist and as a human” he said about this limited system in one of our various emails, which may have also been sprinkled with a copious amount of incredibly critical words about the lack of innovation in the access technology sector.
Sina promised Ann that he could do better despite having no time and barely any funding. Sina and his team designed and built a 12 button keypad using the old multitap system that was popular for all of us old enough to remember how texting worked before touch screen phones. They made sure the buttons were hard to press accidentally due to a tremor but easy enough to press with limited dexterity. They made every piece of timing customizable such that even someone working aLoan with no computer science knowledge can modify it, all so that the keypad can be perfectly customized to Logan’s exact needs for how long to press down a button and so forth. They then mapped the most common VoiceOver commands to this keypad as well, so Logan could use his technology an order of magnitude faster than the slow switch system he had before.
When the absolutely minimal level of funding ran out on the project, Sina continued to simply fund it himself, paying for people’s time to write code, build prototypes, and even print circuit boards to make this battery powered Bluetooth device possible. He then called up another friend of ours, Ian, who worked on the afore-mentioned Adlib and persuaded him to 3D print the case for this device. Never one to pass on an opportunity for a double-win, over the summer of 2021, Sina hired Luke, one of the blind students he’d been mentoring over the years and who recently graduated with a computer science degree and is employed at a large company, to hack speech onto this imbedded device.
The Obama museum may in fact be the prestigious project, one of many, that Sina is working on, but the MultiTap project is the one that I think he’s secretly the proudest. Even though he’s running an international inclusive design firm these days, the hacker ethos and commitment to using technology to drastically improve someone’s life and as a force for good, despite there being no press, money, or fame, is what drives him.
Sina The Person?
This essay focusses a lot on Sina's work but, excepting some of the stories from his childhood and his attitude when I first met him, it says quite little about the Sina I know personally. He's made terrific contributions to his field but what does Sina do for fun?
Sina and I share a mutual interest in reading science fiction novels and stories. We each have our favorite authors and frequently recommend books to each other. I've tried with only minimal success to convince Sina to read some literary fiction which I enjoy very much but Sina doesn't seem to care for it. While not SF, both Sina and I are big fans of Christopher Moore and the many novels this incredible comical novelist has written over the years.
Sina enjoys music. He currently spends some free time teaching himself to play piano and working to better understand music theory. I'm currently learning to play guitar and Sina and I share both the joys and frustrations of learning a new instrument. We recommend music for listening to each other from time to time but our musical preferences are pretty different. I enjoy rock and roll, blues, Americana, punk rock, jazz and a lot of classical music. Sina leans toward highly talented female vocalists, anything with lyrical agility, far too much trance/electronic, songs in a dozen languages he can't speak, and some classical music, especially Beethoven, though he's recently been appreciating more jazz at my prompting.
Both Sina and I are pretty serious science enthusiasts and enjoy discussing articles we've read and how the science may be applied in the future. Sina's science is much stronger than mine so sometimes these conversations come down to him explaining a concept to my poor old brain.
Much as I did with Sina and others, Sina enjoys mentoring young blind people with an interest in technology. It's both rewarding and fun to work with young people and the pride one feels when one of our "kids" succeed is wonderful. To get Sina as a mentor, though, isn't exactly easy. He is very busy with his company and various other activities and can only work with a couple of young people at a time. There are a number of us who mentor young blind people and, if you're interested in finding a mentor, please write to me through the contact form on this site and I'll try to find you someone with similar interests as you who has some spare bandwidth to work with a young person. I'm sorry to say, though, that it is unlikely that you'll get Sina as your mentor due to his already impossible schedule and the young people with whom he's already working.
Sina is a foodie and enjoys gourmet meals prepared at home or by creative and talented chefs at world class restaurants. I tend to prefer odd ethnic foods but Sina goes for the finest cuisines. We have enjoyed many a meal together and, if you get the opportunity to go out with Sina, let him select a cocktail for you as his taste in adult beverages is pretty darn incredible.
I could go on and on about Sina as a person away from his work but this is an essay not a full length biography and we don't want it to get too long but suffice it to say that if you get the chance to hang out with Sina, you should take it and I predict you'll have a great time.
Sina's Latest Award
The most recent honor to be bestowed on Sina is that he was given the Catalyst Award from the Themed Entertainment Association. The Catalyst Award recognized individual contributions to the advancement of the industry. The Themed Entertainment Association (TEA) is the international non-profit association representing the world’s leading creators, developers, designers and producers of compelling places and experiences – worldwide
Sina has been awarded a number of honors but this one he received most recently gave him the opportunity to discuss inclusive design with some of the most influential people in the themed entertainment industry. “We need a fully inclusively designed theme park in the world, and we’re going to make that happen, man” he told me after he got back from his trip.
In August 2112, Sina flipped the jet ski he was riding, crashed into the water and was eaten by one of the exceedingly rare American crocodiles that still live in southwest Florida.
That's not true, Sina is still alive and quite well but the last couple of articles I've written ended with the death of the principle character so I thought I should find a demise for Sina.
Sina Bahram has risen to accessibility through a phenomenal amount of hard work. He is well recognized in the accessibility field and his reputation has expanded greatly in the world of galleries, libraries, archives and museums.
Sina is also one of the best people I know. He's kind and generous. He's one of the most interesting conversationalists you will ever meet and, in my never humble opinion, his best work remains in the future, for now.