During the month of May, I celebrate the remarkable milestone of being in the assistive technology field for 25 years. It’s been an amazing and joyful career and, for those who are interested, I thought I’d write a blog post reflecting on how I got into this field and the many interesting paths it has taken me.
I was first introduced to the concept of computers in the 1970’s. When I was in fourth or fifth grade, there was an area which I believe was referred to as the computer room. I don’t know much about the equipment it contained but it did have some sort of computer along with a modem using an acoustic coupler. The teacher would call a number, place the phone handset into the coupler which would allow the computer to communicate with a remote system which provided some sort of instruction in math. I probably would have found it very interesting but it was completely inaccessible. There were no screen readers or Braille displays which could be connected to it to allow me to access the material. For me, it was a mysterious device I was incapable of using.
However, it wouldn’t be long before I began to become exposed to devices which I could actually use. I always had a love for gadgets and whatever pieces of technology I was able to get my hands on. I remember having a lot of fun with the Speech Plus talking calculator from Telesensory, which may well have been the first real talking computerized device I ever used.
In 1981, while attending Overbrook School for the Blind, I was taught how to use the Kurzweil Reading Machine, a Model 2, if memory serves. The school owned one and they held classes to teach students how to use the device. It consisted of three separate components: the keypad, scanner and the CPU. Once you turned on the CPU, you had to press two or three separate buttons in exactly the right sequence to properly boot up the system. I vividly remember the day when I pressed those buttons in the wrong order, which unfortunately resulted in the machine crashing and a technician needing to visit the school to fix it. Good thing they didn’t send my parents the bill.
Prior to this device, my main access to books was the NLS catalog, along with my school’s library. I loved reading but I knew that what was available in Braille and in recorded format was a drop in the bucket compared to the vast amount of material that was available. At last, I had access to a machine which would speak just about any printed material I placed on the scanner. When my family inquired as to the cost of this device, I was sad to learn the cost was over thirty thousand dollars, which was unaffordable for us. How amazing that I now have my KNFB Reader app on my iPhone, which only costs $99.00.
I enjoyed learning how to use the Kurzweil reading machine almost as much as I enjoyed using it. I asked the instructor if I could borrow the Braille users’ manual, which he allowed me to do. I took it home and probably read all of it, enjoying the process of learning the machine’s various commands and functions.
In the 1980’s, I read about the various “home computers” which were becoming available but there was either little or no accessibility with these devices or, if there was, this issue was never discussed. Sometime in the early 1980’s, our family knew someone who owned one of the early Apple computers, probably an Apple 2, with speech synthesis. My dad and I went to his home to see how he used it. I thought it was interesting but all he showed us was basic word processing, how he could compose, edit and print a document. I remember finding the whole thing somewhat interesting but, for me, not very captivating.
1987 was the year I acquired my first piece of computerized assistive technology. A good friend of mine owned a Versabraille P2C from Telesensory. This was a device people today would refer to as a “notetaker”, a term which was likely coined and made famous by Blazie Engineering. The Versabraille allowed for Braille input on a 6-key, Perkins-style keyboard with a 20-cell Braille display for output. It had an RS232C serial port and stored its data on cassettes. My friend was upgrading from her P2C to the newer 2Plus, which actually used 3.5 inch floppy disks for storage, which I believe was pretty revolutionary for that time. She and her family decided that they wanted to give the P2C to someone who could use it and I was asked if I was interested in owning it. I think you can probably take a guess on how I answered that question.
I remember receiving the device on a Sunday evening in September of 1987, along with all of its cables, an Okidata Microline 82A dot-matrix printer and a 2-volume Braille edition of the owners’ manual. Volume 1 of the manual covered all of the device’s various functions and commands and the second volume was a bit more technical, discussing how to connect the VersaBraille to printers, modems and other computers as well as how to set serial parameters such as baud rate, data bits, parity, etc.
I remember reading a bit in the manual, trying things out on the P2C, learning a bit more from the manual, going back to the P2C to put what I just finished reading into practice, etc. The next thing I knew the radio, which was on in the background, reported that it was 6:00 AM. On a Monday morning. I had been up literally all night, completely focused on this amazing new piece of assistive tech that was sitting in my bedroom.
I began hearing more about bulletin board systems or BBS, which is how you went online before the Internet made its way into every home. I knew that I’d need something called a modem and so, in early 1988, I went to a local Radio Shack and picked up a 300 baud modem. It didn’t even use the Hayes command set, where you had to type commands with an AT prefix, although modems with these commands were already out. I had to physically pick up my landline phone, enter the number of the BBS on the keypad, turn the modem on and then hang up the handset to establish the connection. Going on these early bulletin boards was quite amazing for me, as I could now go beyond just documents I was writing and easily access information and communicate with other people who shared my interests.
The Versabraille was my first real computer. Its editing capabilities would be considered intolerable by today’s standards because a file was divided up into pages which consisted of 1000 characters and editing could only be done within the boundaries of a page. As an example, if your page consisted of 998 characters and if you needed to insert text within that page, you could only add two characters and no more, unless you were able to copy and paste a block of text from your almost full page to a more emptier one. This made editing quite a challenge at times but it still allowed me to independently write, edit and print documents, both for personal use as well as for my college classes, as well as allowing me to go online.
In 1988, a friend of mine told me he heard about this really nifty device that he said was very small and allowed for similar editing capabilities and that it was called a Braille ‘n Speak. I could hardly believe the device was as amazing as he was describing and I really wanted to get my hands on one of these machines to see for myself. That summer, I went down to Sense-Sations, which was the local blindness store at Associated Services for the Blind, which was selling the device. I was amazed by its small size and capabilities and I knew that I wanted to own one but its $895 price tag was a bit high. However, I was more than willing to part with my Versabraille in order to own one of these devices. I placed an ad in a few of the blindness-specific periodicals, offering to sell my Versabraille for $3000 or best offer. I received one serious inquiry, who offered me $2300 for the device and I accepted. With that money, I purchased the Braille ‘n Speak along with the $99.00 calculator/stopwatch option, a one-year service agreement and a cassette tape interface, which would allow me to make copies of my Bns files onto cassette tapes.
While I gave up a Braille display to own this device, the Braille ‘n Speak’s capabilities more than made up for that sacrifice. I loved having the capability of composing documents using Grade 2 Braille input, something which was not available with the Versabraille P2C. Its commands were intuitive and were therefore easy to memorize and its editing capabilities were more powerful, with yearly firmware updates which only increased that power. At the time, I was working as a telemarketer and, later, a sales rep at a local employment agency and I loved the freedom of being able to comfortably travel with my Bns and having the ability to use it at work to help me keep track of customer information. Up until the time I bought my Braille ‘n Speak, my professional interest was in radio broadcasting. I was determined and convinced that my career would be in radio but that soon changed once I got my Braille ‘n Speak. Now, I wanted to totally change my career path. I didn’t necessarily envision myself working in this field as it eventually happened but I had a desire to work for Blazie Engineering as a support rep. I contacted the company regularly, both submitting bug reports as well as asking questions. I eventually made it clear to them that I wanted to work for them. Eventually, I got a call from them in 1991, telling me that they were now looking for a full-time customer support representative and they invited me for an interview.
I met with Deane and Bryan Blazie in their facility which, at the time, was located in Street, Maryland. Bryan wanted to see how well I would be able to demonstrate their products and how I interacted with customers and so he invited me to a conference in Ocean City, Maryland, where I demonstrated the Braille ‘n Speak, Braille Blazer and the disk drive accessory to interested consumers. At some point after that conference, Deane called to say “Bryan and I would like you to come down and work for us.” I can still hear him saying that as clearly as if he had just called me yesterday. In May of 1991, I started my new job as a full-time customer support representative for Blazie Engineering, where I would work for nearly seven years. In addition to supporting the current product line, I was also exposed to many other products such as JAWS for DOS, Duxbury, Hotdots, Megadots and ASAP, which eventually became my DOS screen reader of choice on my IBM XT, with its 10 MB hard drive, 5.25 floppy drive, 640K of RAM and a Braille ‘n Speak for speech output. I eventually upgraded to a 386 and switched to an internal Doubletalk, which was my favorite synthesizer at the time and it worked amazingly well with ASAP.
It was amazing to work with the new products as they were released. The Braille ‘n Speak 640 was released in October of 1991, with nearly 640K of RAM and would soon have a spell checker. It also had the ability to run external software. Eventually, both Blazie staff and some talented users began releasing software for it including games, Braille translators, a macro editor, two terminal programs and other utilities.
In 1992, Blazie released the Type ‘n Speak, a BNS-type device with a wonderful QWERTY keyboard. I remember thinking that consumers wouldn’t be that interested in it as I assumed they probably preferred Braille input. I was proven wrong at the 1992 convention in Phoenix. We were showing people a prototype and customers were so excited about it, asking when it would be available. When it was released in late 1992, we had no manual for it and Deane asked me to go into the conference room and record a tutorial. I went in there and recorded it cold, with no notes and no planning ahead of the recording, probably not the best way of going about it. In March of 1993, we introduced more features to it and Deane wanted me to record a second tutorial, which I did over a two-day period. Once again, I did it cold, off the cuff. At one point, I mentioned a feature and promised that we would visit that feature in more detail later on in the tutorial. Because I was recording it without an outline, I actually forgot to go over that feature and the tapes were released with that glaring omission. I thought people would notice and would understandably complain but nobody called about it.
1993 saw the release of the Braille Lite, an 18-cell notetaker and the Braille Lite 40 came out several years later. Deane also allowed me to write documentation for product updates, such as the annual updates for the Braille ‘n Speak. He allowed me to write the manual for their own Speaksys screen reader, which eventually became PCMaster, a DOS screen reader that allowed the Braille ‘n Speak to act as both a speech synthesizer as well as a remote keyboard for inputting both text and actual commands. As the company introduced new products and updates to existing products, I had the opportunity to test and work with them, ensuring that I’d be familiar with them once they began shipping to customers. I also ran the Braille Inn Speakout BBS, did some quality assurance testing and attended several ACB conventions demonstrating products and updating software for customers. This was also the job where I was first introduced to Windows. I initially entered the Windows universe kicking and screaming but, once I started working with Windows 95, I realized its benefits and advantages over DOS and I fully embraced it, eventually preferring JAWS for Windows as my screen reader of choice for that operating system during that time. Bryan once told me that he remembered me saying that blind people would never be able to access Windows. I didn’t recall saying that but he said I did and his memory was probably very accurate. If I’ve learned nothing else in the past 25 years, I’ve at least learned not to make predictions when it comes to technology as I seem to have a very bad track record of being wrong.
It was an amazing place and a great job because Deane allowed me to do so much more than what I was originally hired to do. He allowed me to stretch my knowledge and branch out beyond just being a tech support rep.
In 1998, I decided to leave the company and worked for AbiliTech, doing assistive technology product training, primarily working with children during most of my time at that company. While I provided some training on Blazie products, most of my work involved teaching the use of screen readers such as JAWS and Window-Eyes. It also exposed me to Zoomtext for the first time, which was another stretch for me as a blind person not able to see the screen.
As my job at AbiliTech was being eliminated due to budget cuts, I moved on to Associated Services for the Blind in July of 2002, where I was doing similar work to what I had been doing at AbiliTech. The main difference was that I was primarily working with adult consumers and that my training was taking place in-house, as opposed to AbiliTech where I was traveling to different schools and homes.
In March of this year, I was offered a new full-time position, which I accepted. I am now working at Comcast as a quality assurance analyst, testing products with their product accessibility team. It’s a job I truly enjoy and a company I am truly proud to be working for. Comcast is doing amazing things when it comes to ensuring that their products are accessible to people with disabilities and I am sincerely pleased and honored to be a small part of that effort.
The last 25 years were something which I could have never envisioned when I was a teen-ager, since the computer landscape was so much different and more limiting at that time. However, I am so pleased and grateful that I made the choices that I did. I would like to take the time to thank all of those who supported, encouraged and guided me during these years.
I’d first like to thank Rachel, my friend who gave me that Versabraille P2C back in 1987, who I still keep in touch with to this day. That act of generosity on her part totally changed my life.
I would like to thank Deane and Bryan Blazie for giving a young and inexperienced kid a chance to start out in this exciting field. I would like to thank all of my former coworkers for all of the support, encouragement and kindness they have shown me over the years. I would like to offer my sincere thanks and appreciation to my former coworkers at ASB. I admit that I’m an extremely private person and am sometimes difficult to get to know. In spite of that fact, they really made it a point to show me that my presence mattered to them. The staff, including the instructors and the social workers on the fourth floor of that agency are some of the most talented and compassionate people I have worked with. Words cannot express my feelings for these gifted individuals. You know who you are.
I would like to offer my gratitude to all of the customers, clients and students who I have had the honor and privilege of working with for allowing me to touch their lives and to hopefully make them a bit better. I can assure you that my life was touched and enriched by them as well.
They touched and enriched my life as well. I would like to thank Comcast for their willingness to allow me to participate in testing some of the most exciting and innovative products available. Finally, I owe my thanks to our Lord Jesus Christ, for guiding me and for permitting me to provide 25 years of service in this interesting and amazing field. It’s been a great honor and privilege to be of service.