GLEN GORDON: On FSCast 197, a spotlight on a great Twitter app for Windows called TWBlue. We’ll meet its author, Manuel Cortez, and I’ll give you a demo of the program in action. Then a visit with longtime JAWS beta tester and the Director of the Resource Center for Persons with Disabilities at Michigan State University, Michael Hudson. All upcoming on our podcast for March of 2021.
Hello, everybody. Glen Gordon, happy to report that it’s warmed up enough here in Wisconsin so that I no longer have to put boots on one of our dogs. That’s enough to put me in a good mood, as is the fact that I’ve switched from LastPass to 1Password as a password manager on Windows. And it’s great. I hadn’t realized just how far LastPass accessibility had deteriorated until I started using 1Password. And it’s now nirvana, if having a password manager could be considered that. So I figured this was a great opportunity to talk about why you, too, should be using a password manager, and why 1Password is probably your best choice currently.
GLEN: On the issue of passwords, we’ve probably all heard over and over again that your passwords should not be simple. Typically they should involve a combination of upper and lowercase letters, at least one digit, at least one special symbol. They’re supposed to be reasonably long now. And you shouldn’t be doubling up on passwords, like using the same one on multiple websites. And the reason for that is because, if one website is compromised, crooks have gotten really smart. They figure if you use eagle123 at Google, you might be using eagle123 on Facebook. So the more different your passwords can be across sites, the better off you are from a security standpoint.
The second thing is a little more of a subtle one. Password managers always associate a userID and password that you enter with a particular website. So then when you go back to that website, you can press a hotkey, and the information will be filled in for you automatically. This is great to protect you against people who try to create sites that look like the site that you want to go to, but in reality is an imposter because that imposter has a different URL, a different web address than the one you’re expecting. And the password manager looks at that and says, “I don’t have a userID and password,” and it will refuse to fill it in. So rather than thinking that your password manager is on the fritz, which I suppose it could be, think more likely that you may not be at the website you’re expecting.
So if you decide to try a password manager, Jonathan Mosen was the one who started talking about 1Password, I don’t know, at least six or nine months ago, maybe longer. But it took me a while to think about using it because LastPass was free, and it was free on both Windows and iOS. And only when they started charging, which was this month, did I say, if I’m going to pay, I want a really good one. So I installed 1Password. It was a pretty painless experience except for a couple of small things that I did wrong. And I want to point those out to you so that you can avoid making some of those same mistakes.
If you want to try 1Password, be sure to install the Windows app. It’s considered optional now, but it really is not in terms of accessibility. So before you even configure your account, download the Windows app and make sure that it’s at least installed. Then go to the 1Password website, configure the account, and then it’ll give you the opportunity to authorize the Windows app, and you’ll be able to click on a link to do that, and it’ll pass the information from the website that was just created to that Windows app, and the app will then be connected to 1Password.
In terms of an extension for your browser, they now call it the “classic extension.” The classic extension is what you want because it works in conjunction with the Windows app and at least for my money is the most accessible. It’s not the one that you’ll get by default, and so you do need to search for “1Password classic extension” to make sure you install that. 1Password is the number “1” and the word “Password,” all run together. Once you have it set up on Windows, you can get your secret code and the URL and other information that you’ll need to set it up on iOS or Android. I recommend sending those pieces of information to yourself through email or some other way where you can copy and paste them into the 1Password on your phone or tablet of choice.
If you want more of a hands-on tour, Jonathan Mosen did a whole 1Password discussion and demonstration in Episode 74 of the Mosen At Large podcast. So I recommend you give that a listen. And definitely try 1Password, even if it’s only for a month. They give you a free month trial so it’ll give you a good opportunity to try it and see if you like it before you begin to subscribe.
April is going to be Math & Statistics Month. Our training department is celebrating all of that by having lots of different training sessions having to do with consuming and creating and doing other things with mathematics. If you go to FreedomScientific.com/training, you can get all the details.
GLEN: Time now for this month’s Power Tip, comes to us from Grace M. in Puerto Rico. She loves PowerPoint, and when doing her master’s degree, PowerPoint came in very handy for creating some compelling presentations. But in the middle of that degree she lost her remaining vision, which meant that suddenly she became a screen reader user. I think many people would think that the only way out would be to take some time off, learn the technology, and then go back to school. But she tried to do it all at the same time, managed to succeed. But the bane of her existence for a while was PowerPoint because now she was doing it with audio feedback only, and didn’t always know how the different objects on slides related to one another. Then she discovered CTRL+SHIFT+D, that PowerPoint magic keystroke that lets you know information about a particular object on a slide.
I have a Microsoft Barista Training presentation open, so if life producing the podcast gets a little slow, I know I can get a job as a barista. But for the purpose of demonstration, let me tab here.
JAWS VOICE: Title placeholder. Level 1. Selecting the coffee beans.
GLEN: If I press CTRL+SHIFT+D...
JAWS VOICE: Title placeholder is 653 points wide and 259 points high, in inches. This is 9.0 by 3.5. Shape dimensions relative to slide: Left edge is 153 points, or 2.1 inches from slide boundary. Top edge is 202 points, or 2.8 inches from slide boundary.
GLEN: It goes on for the other two boundaries, as well. In doing this, I realized that in order to understand where these objects relate to one another, you do need to do a bit of mental mapping, and perhaps a little bit of math, because each object is described in terms of itself and not so much in terms of the other objects. We might be able to improve this by simply providing information about the objects that are close, even if they don’t completely overlap. So that’s something we might be able to add in the future, but CTRL+SHIFT+D is the way you can get the information now.
I should point out that, if objects overlap, JAWS will actually tell you when you tab to one of the two objects that are doing the overlapping and the area in which the overlap is happening. One other keystroke to mention to you, and that’s CTRL+SHIFT+S. On any slide, it’ll tell you the layout of that slide.
JAWS VOICE: Slide layout type is section header.
GLEN: So if you’re trying to get an idea of how a slide might look, section headers by default pretty much look the same, so that keystroke may help, as well. We thank Grace for her Power Tip. For her trouble she gets an extra year added onto her JAWS license. If you’d like to send us one, either one in written form or an audio Power Tip, the audio Power Tip needs to be a couple of minutes or less. Either way, write to us, email@example.com, fscast at V I S P E R O dot com.
GLEN: My introduction to Twitter on the PC was through a program called Tween, something that I fought with for about five years because, although I knew the basics, I never understood all of its nooks and crannies. Back around Christmas of last year, I decided I’d make the switch to TWBlue, and I could not be more pleased. It’s thoughtfully created. All of the pieces make logical sense to me. There’s good help online. And generally I wanted to meet the guy who made it all possible. He turns out to be Manuel Cortez. Am I saying your name properly?
MANUEL CORTEZ: Yeah, it’s right, thank you.
GLEN: How would you pronounce it?
MANUEL: It’s just like Manuel Cortez.
GLEN: Manuel, welcome.
MANUEL: Thank you very much for the invitation.
GLEN: Did you grow up doing programming, or is this something that came to you recently?
MANUEL: I started to be interesting in programming after I became blind. I became blind like about 13 years ago or something. And after some searches in Internet, I discovered a language called Python. So after some time I started to read some documentation. At that time I didn’t know English at all. I in fact know English about, like, five years ago or something like that. And I was starting to download some source code from open source projects and stuff like that. And mixing this with the documentation I was reading I was starting to understand and making some small experiment in my own computer.
GLEN: But when you were reading comments in the code, I assume initially they didn’t make much sense. And I guess I’m trying to figure out how you gradually began to understand what things like comments meant.
MANUEL: Sometimes I wonder the same. I mean, I am not very sure how – some persons ask me, like, when exactly I realized that I knew a little bit of English. But I am not very sure. I think at first I learned how to write in the language because I was executing a line of code, and I was like seeing its results. And somehow I started to learn by code. And after this I started to know, like, relation to comment with the code or something like that.
GLEN: Do you listen to English podcasts?
MANUEL: In fact, I am not doing anything like that. I am, now that I am trying to remember, but I think no. I think the only thing that I do is to read too many, for example, GitHub interfaces are fully in English. I think everything is related to code and programming. I have a friend. He is from Guatemala, but he’s in Los Angeles. So he’s like, he can speak both English and Spanish. And that guy made me such connections with people who know English as a first language.
So sometimes he wasn’t able to talk. And for example, sometimes we were in the middle of a Skype conference or something, and he went out or something, and it was like, oh, my god. So I had to deal with that situation sometimes. And I started to learn how to speak. And about English in general I think I just learned without realizing because I never took like, I mean, a course or something. I just was reading how to code, and from time to time I was trying to write some sentences myself.
GLEN: Did you go to university after becoming blind?
MANUEL: Yeah. Yeah, I studied software development at university, too.
GLEN: And what was that experience like for you?
MANUEL: Oh, for me it was really easy because I learned how to code before I enrolled in university. So when I was asked, like when my teachers were asking me how should I work or what should they ask me and stuff like that, I already knew what would be accessible for me or how I could show them the progresses that I was making.
GLEN: How was making friends amongst the sighted students there?
MANUEL: It’s kind of 50/50 because, for example, there are so many people here who don’t know at all how it is when you are blind. And for example, so many persons don’t talk to you because they are not sure how to talk to you. I mean, it sounds funny, perhaps, but it’s like people think that way sometimes, as we don’t have any kind of support nor education. I mean, among sighted people, they usually don’t know what it means when you are blind, or what you can or can’t do. But I was lucky because, for example, in my university I had a lot of people who, after some time and after some classes, they started to approach me or to ask me, like, normal questions. And we started to interact. There were not so many people. It was like, I don’t know, perhaps half of the group.
GLEN: So were there situations where you knew more about the programming assignments than they did? And once they realized that, you were a useful resource to them?
MANUEL: Well, perhaps yes. So many persons, some persons were asking me, like, how to make such homework and stuff like that because now they realized that I knew how to code because, for example, they were working with IDEs and stuff like that, and sometimes I was working just with Notepad or some similar application, and I was still making the exercise in time. So, well, yeah, they started to realize that I was really aware about it, and they started to ask me questions sometimes.
GLEN: What made you decide that you wanted to write your own Twitter client?
MANUEL: When I was wanting to take Twitter seriously, I was trying to use a client which was before. It’s named TheQube, I think. But it was not working on my computer. I tried to read and understand the code so I could try to fix it. But after some weeks of attempting to fix that client, I decided to try an attempt to make my own. It was, in fact, it just started like an experiment. And the program, for example, was only in Spanish during the first versions. But it was like a funny story, and after some time it became available basically in many languages.
GLEN: So when you’re saying it was a funny story, is there more to the story?
MANUEL: Yeah, basically I did that experiment. And I basically sent it to one of my friends. But I didn’t tell him that this was just an experiment and that I was just attempting to write something for myself. So he started to send that client to other people whom he knows. And one morning, I mean, just imagine that after, I mean, the next da, when I woke up, my mentions was really so full with people wanting to have the download link for that client. And I was like, oh, my god, I never wanted to, like, make it so publicly, I mean, so soon, at least.
GLEN: Did you feel good about doing it? Or did you feel like you sort of had no choice at that point?
MANUEL: At first I was not sure how to feel. I mean, I was coding before. I made some, a couple apps before. But basically I was coding for myself. So I have to turn, like, this kind of mind to something like I code something for people, so people will want to ask me questions or to give me feedback, and I was not sure like if I really wanted to do that. But after some time, like a week or something, I started to feel good with that. I mean, after some point I realized that there was a need that some people was looking, and my code or something was the answer to such need. So I really was feeling good doing that.
GLEN: So that first version that sort of became a bootleg app that went to all sorts of people you didn’t expect, I assume it just was the real basics. It probably wasn’t fully developed at that point. Is that right?
MANUEL: Yeah, it is. I mean, basically you just could, like, see your tweets, mentions, and direct messages. You could reply to tweets, to messages, and send tweets. And that was all. I mean, there were no, like, settings or database or whatever. I mean, it just was so. But the thing that was interesting for people, it was that before Twitter had some streaming feature, and this client was supporting it since the beginning. So people was looking interested to that because TheQube was updating your buffers every couple of minutes or something, while TWBlue was like getting tweet in real-time.
GLEN: How much of the work was just you, and did you get help from other people working on this?
MANUEL: I think it’s like 50/50 or something because, for example, as I said before, when I started to develop that client, I did it by myself. So I had a lot of things in mind with some others I never expected to have it. For example, the 64-bit support or the installer version was suggested to me by another programmer who is from Spain. So it’s like we are – we started to talk about the product, and he started to help with the product, too. And here, for example, other more stuff like proxy support and some other things. So I think I can summarize this in the fact that I code some parts, or perhaps the core functionality of the client; and some others are, for example, we accept full request in the source code. So everyone who wants to help and knows how to code is welcome to send contributions.
GLEN: Are you continuing to actively develop this? Or is this an app that you maintain when problems happen, but you’ve moved on to other stuff?
MANUEL: We have two versions of the same application, the stable version and the snapshot. The snapshot is something like an alpha version which may contain a lot of bugs and stuff, but where new features are arriving first. So I am working in the snapshot version. But we are still not very close to a new stable version, sadly.
GLEN: Does the snapshot version mostly work? Or is a lot of stuff broken?
MANUEL: No, in fact, it’s the same as the stable version. We call it “snapshot” because as we are moving code to Python 3 and stuff like that, you may find some weird bugs. But mostly, I mean, there are so many people who use this as a stable version, and they say it works. In fact, I use it myself in, I mean, from source, and it’s working, too. We just cannot say it’s stable because it’s not 100% stable.
GLEN: If people are interested in TWBlue and finding out about the other work you do, what’s the best place for them to go?
GLEN: Well, Manuel, I appreciate you joining me on the podcast.
MANUEL: Thank you very much for the invitation. And really it was a nice experience. I enjoyed it too much.
GLEN: As promised, I want to give you a bit of a TWBlue preview. And this really is just that. I’m not trying to teach you how to use the app. What I’m hoping to do here is let you know that it’s really easy, and that you should not in any way feel intimidated about trying it. I downloaded the official version from TWBlue.es.
I’ve also tried the snapshot. It’s not quite as easy to get set up because it comes as a ZIP file, where the official version has an installer, and it sets things up with an icon on your desktop and an entry in the Start Menu. So if you’re not technically adventurous, that’s the version I would go with. Download that. Get it installed. You do need to have a Twitter account. So if you don’t have one of those, create that account, and then you can link it once you launch TWBlue. Which I have already done.
JAWS VOICE: TWBlue. Tree view. Home. One of 16.
GLEN: This is the place where the tweets from everybody you follow on Twitter will show up. If I tab now, I’ll get to a list view.
JAWS VOICE: List view. Microsoft Learn. When a manager or trainer knows the details of a learner’s progress, they can...
GLEN: So there’s a tweet from Microsoft. If I arrow down...
JAWS VOICE: Freedom Scientific. Have you subscribed to our FS Training Podcast? Don’t miss an episode. Subscribe now.
GLEN: So notice that there is a link in this tweet. If I happen to want to subscribe to the training podcast, I can press ENTER.
JAWS VOICE: Opening URL... Training Podcast Freedom Scientific – Google Chrome.
GLEN: So that takes me to the page where I can subscribe to the training podcast. Let me ALT+TAB back to TWBlue here.
JAWS VOICE: TWBlue. List view. Freedom Scientific. Have you subscribed to our FS Training Podcast? Don’t miss an episode.
GLEN: Since the home screen contains tweets for everybody, it doesn’t make it very easy to see the tweets if you’re just wanting to look at them for a particular person. But CTRL+I, and there’s a similar menu command to do the same thing, will give you the opportunity to create a timeline for that particular user.
JAWS VOICE: Timeline for FreedomSci dialog, User: EditCombo, freedomsci.
GLEN: And if I press ENTER here...
JAWS VOICE: List view. Freedom Scientific. Have you subscribed to...
GLEN: I will now have an entry in the tree under timelines for Freedom Scientific.
JAWS VOICE: Tree view. Home. One of 16.
GLEN: If I type T, it’ll take me right to Timelines.
JAWS VOICE: Level 1. Timelines opened. One item.
GLEN: And if I arrow down...
JAWS VOICE: Level 2. Timeline for FreedomSci. One of one.
GLEN: Now, if I tab...
JAWS VOICE: List view. Freedom Scientific. Have you subscribed to our FS Training Podcast?
GLEN: So that’s the tweet we just looked at. Arrowing up...
JAWS VOICE: Freedom Scientific. Have you heard of our Student of the Month program? Check out this short video highlighting one of our past winners: [bit.ly link] four hours ago. Hubspot Freedom Scientific. The @EnvisionConf is only a week away.
GLEN: You probably get the idea. And more generally, TWBlue has the concept of buffers. Buffers are organized in the tree. Timelines is just one of the things, as is the home tab. You can also do custom searches. You can do lists that include tweets from specific people. There’s all sorts of ways to slice and dice the information. Fortunately, it’s described pretty well in a single web page that comprises the TWBlue manual. You can get to it from the Help menu. There’s also a mode where you can use TWBlue when another app is in focus, similar to other Twitter clients. Very well thought out, in my mind. It’s my Twitter client of choice now for the PC. And because it’s linked to Twitter, it’ll also share the information with programs for your phone or tablet, like Twitterrific or the Twitter app for your phone. Anyway, if you’re interested in giving it a try, I don’t think you’ll be disappointed. All the details at TWBlue.es.
GLEN: On the line with me now is Michael Hudson, long-time JAWS user and Director of the Resource Center for Persons with Disabilities at Michigan State University, which is a bit of a mouthful. Michael, welcome.
MICHAEL HUDSON: Glen, great to be here. And thanks for inviting me.
GLEN: Being a director of a center like this doesn’t seem like the kind of job that you’d dream of from being really young. What was your path to getting there?
MICHAEL: Glen, I started life early on as a person who discovered that I had a “vision problem,” as I’d define it, a little vision problem, I might say, and that was the early stages of retinitis pigmentosa meant I could not see in the dark, and that I would do some things that kind of perplexed my family. I was the first child. And when I was a toddler crawling, and if it was dark, I might crawl right into the couch or another piece of furniture. And of course the parents didn’t know if that was normal or what that was.
But ultimately they took me to an eye doctor and an exam. And he said, “I think we’ve got a unique challenge here.” And that was the early diagnosis of retinitis pigmentosa. The prognosis seemed really grim at the time, that by the time I reached my mid-50s I would be completely blind, in the assessment of the eye doctor. And that sounded like a horror story at the time.
But what I had to figure out over time was we’re all faced with challenges, and this would be my challenge. And I could either go low, or I could, you know, just engage it and try to learn and find ways around things. And so I think that is the beginning of a story of kind of pursuing life with a sense of this isn’t very comfortable. I don’t have a lot of role models. But I think I just need to keep chipping away at solving problems each day.
GLEN: What were some of the signposts for you? Like the turning points where you moved a little bit further along that continuum of being self-reliant?
MICHAEL: My grandfather was nearly a genius relative to repairing things. And so when toys would break, I would take those to my grandfather. And instead of just fixing them, he’d say, “Let’s head to the basement workshop and take this apart and see what makes it tick.” And I said, “Well, that’s going to be good. I don’t think I can do some of this stuff because I can’t see the difference between a red wire and a blue wire.” And he said, “Well, it’s not just always colors. What we have to be aware is there might be other ways we can get this job done.” And so that was a guidepost, never to see a blockade as the only way to perceive something. There may be another approach.
Another guide point I think in my life and development was in fifth grade I found that I would much rather be outside playing than inside doing homework. And so I started to figure out I could use my eyesight as an excuse to maybe not do as much homework. So at school the conversation would be something like, “Sorry, Mrs. Jones, I didn’t get my homework done today because I got a headache when I tried to read all that stuff.” And at home, I would go home, and I’d say, “I did all my homework at school, so I don’t have any tonight, Mom. I’m ready to go outside.”
One day I got home, and my mom was standing on the front porch with her hand on her hip, as I recall. And she said, “Where is your homework?” And I said, “I got it all done at school.” And she said, “That’s not what Mrs. Jones said today when she called.” And I think that was my first sense of deep accountability, that excuses will only go so far, and you’re just going to have to face some of the things that aren’t that comfortable. So people holding me to a higher level of expectation I think was instrumental.
GLEN: I did what most people do now when preparing for an interview. I went to LinkedIn, looked at your profile. And there’s something that you’ve done that I’ve not seen anybody else ever do. And that is thank people on your educational profile.
MICHAEL: I really, really appreciate people who saw something in me that I could not see in myself at the time. People who said, “Mike, it may just well be that your visual impairment,” or at that point it was about blindness, “could be something that provides you a little bump, a little different perspective on a problem. And you may become a great problem solver because of that.” So I am very appreciative of people who took some extra time, saw things in me that I didn’t see, and maybe challenged me to look at problems slightly different than I was able to do all on my own.
GLEN: So you had a whole bunch of time in college, both undergraduate and graduate degrees. How effective do you think you were? And sort of a side channel, how effective were the resource centers at the universities in helping you and giving you what you needed?
MICHAEL: When I went to college, I was really looking for a small school setting. And with a small school setting, I knew I would have a very navigable environment. I was not a great orientation and mobility person because I refused to carry a cane at the time. I had been trained to use a cane, but to me it was – I had so much stigma about blindness and carrying a cane at age 18 that I thought going to a small school would provide me a place where I could just kind of fit in and kind of fake that I didn’t have a visual impairment, that would be navigable without sight very easily.
So when I went to college there weren’t many services about disability. So I think that was a foundational point at which I had to learn to be a self-starter, a problem solver of my own. And very quickly I found actually my best assets were getting to know my professors and faculty really well. And they took great interest in me as kind of not an everyday student, and one who was really determined to do well because, frankly, I was pretty scared. You know, my vision condition was projected to progress to total blindness by the 50s. That was ominous to me, and I was scared, and I needed to do really well academically in my mind to have a chance to succeed in life.
GLEN: What was your path to a screen reader? Because it sounds like as long as you had some vision, it made sense to try to maximize it.
MICHAEL: Yeah. Early on, one of the things I liked about computers was I could get a green screen monochrome monitor. Setting the screen real bright, a white letter on a dark background, I could read that IBM PC that I acquired in 1984. But by 1985 or 1986 I was struggling now to read that green screen. And I kind of went home for the winter holiday break in crisis. And I talked to my teachers from high school when I was home at break, and one of them was really into the technology. He said, “You know, there’s a company here in Michigan that’s making speech synthesizers.”
And that was Artic Technologies. And I called them, learned about it, and I bought my first speech synthesizer card for that IBM PC. And when I started, I’ll always remember this, I spent about 90% of my effort trying to understand what did that thing just say. And I only had maybe 10% capacity to understand what did it mean. But within a few months, or maybe a year, the numbers had flipped. And now it was effortless for me to understand what it said, and I could focus on meaning. And I very quickly moved away from fatiguing my eyes in favor of using my ears. So just a powerful transformation.
And of course within a year or so of that desktop solution, the laptops were coming out, and I switched from a desktop to a laptop, which allowed me to take it to class and then allowed me to become a very effective notetaker. And my grades went way up. I probably then became almost always on the Dean’s list at that point.
GLEN: I think it was, what, in the late ‘90s that you finally made the JAWS plunge?
MICHAEL: I was an Artic devotee for a long time because it was a Michigan company, because they had saved my tail at a time when vision was fading, and they had a solution. But the rapid changes in Windows, from Windows 3.x to Windows 95, Windows 98, these were architectures that were hard for small companies to keep up with. And along the way Artic fell behind. And I told Eric Damery at the time, I said, “I really like what you’re doing. I like this JAWS concept. But I need snappy responsiveness.”
And so I remember Eric called me, he said, “Mike, we’ve got just what you need.” I think it was version 3.2 or 3.3. “We have really taken some strides and made this product snappy and responsive. I think you’re going to love it. Try it again.” And so I did, and I became a JAWS person at that point. And really that’s been my story for the past 20-some years now.
GLEN: Let’s talk a bit about your role at MSU, where you’ve been, I guess you’ve worked for the Resource Center for People with Disabilities for close to 26 years and have been director for 21 of those? Am I about right?
MICHAEL: You’re about right. I’ve been there – time is flying. I’ve been at MSU now for 29 years, and I’ve been the director of the program for 21. And one of the things I’ve loved about being at Michigan State University is it is what they call a “land-grant mission institution.” Since the 1800s it’s been about helping education be more than a place for elite folks. It’s been a place where common people can receive a super high-quality education and realize the benefits of education to change lives.
So with a spirit of inclusion being core to that institution, they have long been a place that’s celebrated ways to include people with disabilities. In fact, relative to blindness, the sophomore honor organization called Tower Guard evolved in the 1930s, about 1934. They were an organization committed to helping blind people navigate the challenges in higher ed. So reading books aloud, helping with campus navigation was really setting a spirit that blindness didn’t need to be a reason you couldn’t achieve in higher education.
So by building a lab in an office that exposes students to the opportunities, and then by mainstreaming that technology across campus and micro labs like we did throughout the ‘90s and the 2000s, we evidenced that one of the things a program could do is be a magnet for students to come together, learn from one another, have access to a starting point for technology, but then very quickly move into wherever they wanted to be around campus in these integrated inclusive labs for computer work.
Of course, today we’ve evolved even further, and the model now becomes portable computers are very affordable. Products like JAWS make them very modifiable without special hardware needed. And once you understand the tools that will make a difference for you, we can quickly deploy those on your own personal computer, and that goes with you no matter where you are.
GLEN: I want to talk about some of the things that you’ve done with our software and hardware. In particular, I heard about a program now where you’re issuing braille displays to blind students who presumably read braille. How did that all come about?
MICHAEL: Well, in 2020 we had a little problem arise, and that was called COVID-19, or coronavirus. And it changed the way life happened. One of the difficulties we ran into right away was how are we going to get braille to our blind students? And braille, as you know, is customarily prepared in big paper volumes, which means there’s a process to prepare it. We had to scan materials, edit materials, and then we had to translate them and emboss them, and embossing followed by typically hand-delivering these to students or presenting them, and they’d pick them up. As they moved remotely, that meant suddenly mailing big volumes of paper. And our staff wasn’t entirely comfortable coming into the office and generating this material and then going to the post office.
And I said, “I wonder if braille displays have evolved enough to make this viable to just present each of our braille readers with a braille display.” And if we could do that, we now can, instead of generating paper and mailing paper, we could just send the files electronically. Or even, better yet, we could empower our students to acquire electronic text and generate the braille on their own. That’s optimal.
And I worked with Freedom Scientific, told them the idea I had, and I set a goal to be the first institution in the United States that I could find that had built what I call the “braille technology advantage.” And that is we would outfit each new incoming braille reader with a refreshable braille display which would of course serve our needs of getting them braille more easily but, more importantly, would empower them to acquire information and become braille-adept on their own. So I think what we’ve done here with the braille technology advantage is open the doors to a monumental leap forward in the way people can access material, can become braille fluent, and can in fact have a skill that carries with them for the rest of their life.
GLEN: Have you gotten feedback from them yet?
MICHAEL: One of the students said, “This is pretty exciting because it’s forcing me to become a better braille reader, and it’s more deeply engaging me in the technologies.” It is a different way of doing work for students. And so it’s not without challenges. And I’m thankful to Freedom Scientific for supporting us with educational materials and with good business partnerships that help us connect our problem solvers with solutions. So we’re moving into it, and our students are using the equipment. And the early reads are very favorable that it is challenging them to think in new ways and to access information in a more timely, independent manner.
GLEN: Are there people at the university who the RCPD is trying to reach out to that’s been particularly hard to reach?
MICHAEL: In the arena of blindness and visual impairment, some of the harder students to reach are those who can kind of fake their way through the challenges they face. And I think one of the best approaches that we could find to reach that person is to kind of normalize disability as a part of life and to show that there is plenty of ability left, and there’s plenty of opportunity. And so I think our outreach using messages of possibility and ability are critical in helping people feel comfortable approaching the topic when it doesn’t feel very positive to them at that moment. It feels like a deficit. It feels like a loss. It feels like a dark cloud.
GLEN: Okay. So now expand it. Now expand it beyond blind people.
MICHAEL: You know, in the bigger work of a Resource Center for Persons with Disabilities, we find most of our growth now is in areas of invisible disability, the areas of mental health, chronic health, learning disabilities. These are all the rapid growth areas over the last 20 years or so. And for many people, the ability to hide their disability is actually one of their biggest impediments. When you hide the disability and are unwilling to talk about it, acknowledge it, sometimes it results in a failure to acquire the networks, the tools, the skills you need, or maybe even the attitude you need to succeed long-term.
Having a disability isn’t the end of the story. It is a known point in time where you have to probably acknowledge it and do some things a little differently. Our approach is generally to market the disability as a challenge that we’re here to help you walk through. It’s a journey that isn’t done in a day. And there’s a network who cares and tools that can probably make your life even more productive than if you just fail to acknowledge the challenge before you.
GLEN: Have you found – I’m trying to – no, I guess I can’t ask this question because you’ve been at the university for too long. I was going to ask about discrimination.
MICHAEL: Ah, yeah. What would you want to think about that?
GLEN: If you feel like you’ve faced times of discrimination, and how you’ve dealt with it.
MICHAEL: I did. And you decide if this is placeable or not. My first job interview ever was to become a worker, an employee in a program that helped people with disabilities. And I remember sitting in the interview, and not one question came up about my own blindness. I carried a cane in. I folded that up during the interview. And this was before the – this was about at the emergence of the Americans with Disabilities Act. So I knew there was a hesitancy to talk about disability in the interview. But it was very apparent that I had one.
And so I said, I’d better bring this topic up. And I talked about why I thought my having a disability made me an unparalleled possibility thinker for their program. And ultimately I didn’t get the job. And I did a little post follow-up, and I wanted to know why I didn’t get the job. And they just really didn’t believe that a person who was blind would have the skills to deliver programs for other blind people, which I found really astounding. And I think it was probably my first exposure to what I think I’d label today as discrimination.
But I took lessons learned from that, and I just moved along. It didn’t crush me. I realized that probably long-term a place that had an attitude that a person with a disability wanting to work in an area affecting the lives of others with that same disability, that might not be a very empowering place to be long-term anyway. So as I started at Michigan State University, that other program was here in Michigan, and I made it my personal campaign to actually develop the world’s best program in disability services, and certainly the state’s best program, and show the person who chose not to hire me that that was probably one of the worst personnel decisions they ever made.
GLEN: Have you encountered this person at an academic event in the past?
MICHAEL: Yeah. She actually retired five, 10 years ago. And I think at the end she pulled me aside and said, “I’m really impressed with what you’ve done with these programs here.” And I don’t know if that was because she had some feelings of guilt or what. But definitely she acknowledged before retirement that we had a very substantially excellent program, and she credited the work that I had done towards that outcome.
GLEN: Excellent. Anything else you want to talk about?
MICHAEL: If I had a message to people as they are growing through their educational years and into their vocational years, and their life success stories are developing, I think the acquisition of technology skills are super critical. I think the ability to navigate effectively and safely despite blindness is a challenge worth pursuing. Orientation and mobility, cane travel, or a service animal, a guide dog, are all noteworthy endeavors because in my own life I’ve found the greater sense I have that I have skills in these areas, my overall confidence level changed. My feeling of resiliency and the ability to solve problems that are a natural part of life increases.
And I know every day isn’t going to be easy. But I know that if you just never give up, and you keep looking for new tools and techniques and strategies, and you build good partnerships with other people, we have a really great opportunity to live the lives we want to live, and we live in a very wonderful place. And I think the possibilities far outweigh the risks and the drawbacks of living life with a disability.
GLEN: Let’s leave it there. Michael, it’s been great having you on the podcast. You and I have exchanged email off and on, and met at a couple of conferences. But this is the first time we’ve had a chance to sit down and chat. So thanks for joining me.
MICHAEL: Yeah, Glen, and thank you for your leadership through the years. You’re foundational in getting these technologies off the ground. As I recall, you’ve been there since the early moments at Henter-Joyce, and Ted and you did a lot of foundational work in this field. And today you continue to do that. You’re a monumental figure, and probably one a little behind the front lines much of the time. So great to have you out here on a podcast like this.
GLEN: Well, thank you very much, Michael.
GLEN: That does it for FSCast 197 for March of 2021. I’m Glen Gordon. Thanks for joining us. See you again next month.