When it comes to the development of technology and its impact on our everyday lives, with few exceptions, futurist predictions are often wrong. When I first started out in the field of workplace accommodations over a decade ago, I said in a presentation that people who are blind can take on any task except for driving. A quick Google search of 'blind driver' will show that my prediction was off.
So in this blog, instead of making bold predictions about the future of technology (we will save a bit of that discussion for part 2 *smile*), I have decided to talk to Jim Noseworthy, CNIB's Assistive Technology Specialist in Fredericton and a pioneer in assistive technology (AT) service delivery. I will share our conversation about his perspectives from starting out working in the field of AT as an individual with vision loss, working with clients over the years and a couple of his most rewarding work-related experiences.
Photo: Jim Noseworthy and his guide dog Orlando.
Daniel: Can you tell me about how you started in the field of assistive technology?
Jim: CNIB recognized the need for assistive technology services 30 years ago and every division was tasked with coming up with a program. Everyone knew in theory that computers were a way out for people with vision loss when it came to employment and independence, but no one really knew how.
A bit of background… speech program [screen reader] development at the time was primitive although it did ramp up quickly with Artic Vision, Vocal-Eyes and JAWS. Actually for me, my first exposure to a speech program was one I ordered from Berkley. I was out of a job at the time and my wife and I couldn't really afford the program. But she was very supportive and we decided that we would spend the money on the program. If we were to go down, at least we would go down fighting.
I didn't even know what a computer disc was but I was told by Berkley that I could get access to this speech program if I could find a computer that would read the disc and had a synthesizer. As luck would have it, one of the computer stores here had a hardware synthesizer and to this day, I still don't know why they had it. But for me it was an absolute god-send as it was the only way I could run a PC. For the next year and more, I spent 18-hour days learning as much as possible. I borrowed, leased and rented parts; I took apart computers and put them back together. I did everything I knew how to get on my feet including calling people who I knew would be able to help me. I went out looking for a job with what I knew and it was a hard career path because no one I knew with a vision loss did what I wanted to do. I went to the CNIB Employment Services and said that I needed a job working with computers. They said, "you are lucky because CNIB made assistive technology one of its key services. We don't exactly know what that means but you are welcome to apply." I was the only one who applied. I got the job and I have charted my own course ever since.
Daniel: Tell me a little bit about the clients you have worked with in the past and how they compare to the technical knowledge of the clients you are working with today.
Jim: If you were interested in computers as a person with vision loss in the past you *really* needed to be interested and had to have the technical know-how. You needed to have the perseverance to get things working. You needed to have the patience and the expectations that something will go wrong. You needed to know how to use commands. You needed to understand how things work and if it didn't work you need to be able to troubleshoot it at a technical level.
Today, things generally run out-of-the-box and because of the way many applications are designed, they will not allow you to troubleshoot things at a technical level. It either works or it doesn't. My way of teaching now is to ensure that people know how to find the answer when they run into problems or want to do certain things on the computer. I can teach someone a keystroke today and they might forget it next week.
Now there are more people using assistive technology such as screen readers because they are much easier to pick-up. We are working with people who are 65-years-old and beyond who have lost their vision and are just beginning to work the PC. I am not saying they could not have done it in the past but it would have been very very difficult. They would have had to have the background and the heart for it. The clients were a lot younger back then and I had to spend hours-and-hours in person with each client. A lot of clients now-a-days just want to get certain things done on the computer like send and receive emails. There was no world wide web. In the past, if you really wanted to send someone a message or use some resemblance of the internet, you'd have to FTP or Telnet to some University site and get mail. You had to know what you were doing or you wouldn't get it done.
Daniel: From the many clients that you have worked with over the years, can you tell me about one in particular that sticks out in your mind where assistive technology has made a direct and positive impact in his or her life?
Jim: I had a client that woke up one day with no sight. From his perspective, when it happened, he thought he was done. What first started him on his road back was one piece of technology…a Braille watch. He would tell you to this day that because of the Braille watch he realized that he could tell the time. It may seem simple but from there he realized that there was hope and he could do things. It was a moment for him. He came to the CNIB and I would bring him to my house because I had a lot of equipment at home. He would learn and learn. He had a genuine interest and he would absorb everything I showed or taught him like a sponge. He was a woodsman and through his work ethic and dedication, he is now a professor. Today, he is as good as I am or better in finding solutions to technology problems. Once in a while I would call him for advice.
I know you only asked for one but there was another client that lost her vision and was interested in music. Being a music guy, I played her some stuff, showed her what I can do with MIDI files and that was a great experience for her. She didn't think what I was doing was possible. She would ask me…how did you do that? And I would say you just got to get off your butt and get going with what you want to do. Now she is a professional musician. There are lots of very similar stories. I spark their interests and get them going, some get jobs, some get on social media to connect with others, but I would say most, if not all, are doing things that they never thought were possible.
In part 2, I will continue my conversation with Jim where we will share some perspectives on current and developing technologies. We will also talk about one (assistive) technology in particular that Jim feels has most positively impacted the lives of persons with vision loss. Can you guess what this technology is?
By: Daniel Fok, National Manager-Working-Age Services & Employment Accommodation, CNIB