GLEN GORDON: On FSCast 214, Adrian Amandi will be here to talk about the Second Annual National Coding Symposium. It’s aimed at blind students of all ages to get them interested in careers in software development. The conference is free, online, and available to people worldwide. Then we’ll get to know Gary O’Donoghue, Chief North American Political Correspondent for the BBC and longtime JAWS user.
Hello, everybody. Glen Gordon welcoming you to our podcast for April of 2022. If you were here last month, you heard me tell the tale of my dog bites and fractures of my ring fingers. Thanks to those of you who wrote in and offered condolences. Fortunately, I’m doing much better now, and I have a new capability. And that is that I can much more easily do the Vulcan Salute, which was popularized on “Star Trek” back in the ‘60s. And one of the characteristics of that is your hand is held up with your middle and ring fingers somewhat separated. And that seems to be my natural new normal.
The really fascinating thing to me is that my fingers don’t quite fit on the home row of the keyboard. But the part that was amazing is how easily I was able to adapt. And my fingers just sort of fly across the keyboard. And, yeah, they have to slide ever so slightly to get some of the letters. But I didn’t have to think about it. My body just retrained within probably 10 or 15 minutes. So we are all very resilient.
As I mentioned last month, by now you should have received the latest update of JAWS, ZoomText, or Fusion. If for some reason you don’t have automatic updates turned on, you can go to our website and download the latest one. These updates always have fixes and incremental changes. I want to call a couple of things to your attention if you’re using JAWS because we had a couple of really hard bugs to track down. One of them has to do with iTunes. And for the longest time several people have been saying JAWS just doesn’t work well with iTunes. And I was trying, and others were trying it, and iTunes worked just fine.
But I went to Google and did a search for “download iTunes,” which meant that I went to the Apple site, downloaded the installer, and put it on my machine. But what I didn’t realize is that iTunes is now in the Microsoft Store. And it’s the Microsoft Store version that most people usually install. And once we realized that, it was very obvious what the problems were, and we were able to rectify those in the April update. So I think the moral of this story is sometimes the hardest part about fixing a problem is being able to reproduce it. And thanks to those of you who finally got through to us that it was the Microsoft Store version of iTunes that was the most problematic.
The second one is for Eclipse. If you are doing software development, most likely in Java, and using Eclipse, JAWS had regressed, actually for a long time, for an embarrassingly long period of time, and we also didn’t get a good handle on that until recently. But that is fixed, and so Eclipse should be working as well as it ever did with JAWS, starting with this April update.
If you’d like to get in touch with the podcast, it’s always great to hear from you. You can write to me at email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org. Always great to hear ideas for things you’d like to hear on the podcast, questions, comments. And if you’ve really sort of reached a point of frustration in terms of getting something resolved, I am not necessarily the one to resolve it, but I may be able to help get you to the right person if your previous efforts at getting a solution to your problem have not been successful.
I’m constantly impressed by the breadth of material that our training department has prepared over the last few years. It’s available, of course, at freedomscientific.com/training. The most recent live webinar that we completed that’s now available on demand has to do with prepping and proofing documents in Google Docs. In particular, we cover the spell and grammar checkers. So if Google Docs is the environment where you’re spending a lot of time in, this is a great webinar to take advantage of. And again, it’s available on demand at freedomscientific.com/training.
GLEN: Coming up the week of May 9th is the Second Annual National Coding Symposium. It’s put on by the American Printing House for the Blind’s Connect Center. Lots of organizations involved, including Freedom Scientific. I’ll be chairing a panel. But we’ll also be putting together two prize packs. So if you are the winner of one of these, you can select a Freedom Scientific product worth up to $3,000. The Coding Symposium is the brainchild of Adrian Amandi. He’s the Director of the California Education Resource Center, coincidentally also on the line with me now to talk about all things National Coding Symposium. Adrian, thanks for joining me.
ADRIAN AMANDI: Thank you, Glen. Honored to be here and excited to talk about the 2022 National Coding Symposium.
GLEN: So when did you first think about it?
ADRIAN: Oh, I can’t think exact dates. But when I got this position at the School for the Blind in 2005, we started teaching summer academies in technology. And just within a year or two I started seeing blind screen reader students faltering and plateauing on screen access on the Internet and not really understanding the web pages they were up against. And we started teaching HTML to these students to teach them about headings and Internet page design, and really got them over these plateaus.
And from there I realized that the more coding infrastructure and understanding that a screen reader user had, the more they would be able to tackle their device independently and look at it from the perspective of a creator, giving them more independence and navigating. And slowly and surely we reached a little bit beyond HTML and started looking at computer design and program design. And we dreamed up this idea of creating a formal space for students learning from successful blind coders and programmers and other people in the field related to coding. And out came this idea to make it a National Coding Symposium.
GLEN: I think you told me last year that the original view was that this was going to be in-person, hands-on. And COVID didn’t exactly allow that.
ADRIAN: I certainly dreamed up something different in my head. I’ve always – I’ve never been to space camp, but I’ve always looked at space camp and thought, man, that’s cool. But, you know, technology in and of itself is equally cool. And being here in the Silicon Valley in California, we have wonderful contacts at CSB with technology agencies from Google to Apple to Microsoft.
And I’ve always thought, man, if we could get our kids a week in the summer or a week in the school year learning coding and learning technology with access to these big names in their field, we might be able to change the surface of education and technology education for blind and low-vision kids. And we might be able to not only get them psyched about future careers in technology, but really provide an eye-opening opportunity for our technology partners and the technology companies to not only appreciate the blind and low-vision staff they currently have, but appreciate that if they partner with us, they would be able to inspire their next generation of high-quality workers.
GLEN: How did you evolve this to an online forum?
ADRIAN: We decided to make this more of a discussion about the potential of coding in a careers-based avenue of where coding might take you. We talked to programmers. We talked to hiring managers. We talked to people who had learned coding and then found themselves in a different career that still involved communicating with coders, but did not necessarily involve any programming themselves. And we looked at it more from an angle of how can we present coding as an opportunity and inspire students to get excited about its potential. We did not try. We dreamed and we thought about and we at times planned to teach coding last year during our inaugural Coding Symposium. But each time we had a new plan, we thought, man, I don’t think we can do this in a virtual environment.
And so last year we left without any hands-on opportunities for students. This year we brainstormed a little harder, and we connected with our partners around the country, specifically with the Washington State School for the Blind, the Maryland School for the Blind, the New York Public Library, and the CATT Center, which is the Center of Assistive Technology Training at the Alabama Institute for Deaf and Blind. We connected with each of these groups, and we created hands-on activities to be accessible to students before the Coding Symposium begins, as well as after. And we have these activities available on our website under our Resources link; in Code Jumper, which is a hands-on coding program from the American Printing House for the Blind; Code Quest, which is an iOS app from APH.
Here at CSB we formalized our HTML lesson plans, those ones we’ve been teaching for decades, believe it or not. And then we also have activities for Quorum and Python. The idea here is that teachers of the visually impaired, students, other people who are interested, download these activities, and they run through them. They’re very beginner level and introductions. And then during the symposium itself we’re going to have these breakout rooms and opportunities for both teachers and students to talk about their experiences with these activities and these introductions to these different types of code.
GLEN: I’m really curious how TVIs, who probably for the most part are not all that technical when it comes to actually writing code, are able to adapt to teaching things that doesn’t come as second nature to them.
ADRIAN: Yeah. A lot of TVIs want to run and hide when we talk about presenting a coding activity to their students. And then when you get a little, dig a little deeper into that conversation, you discover TVIs who have either attempted to access national events like the Hour of Code, or they’ve run away from them knowingly and wishing they had not. Fortunately, coding is something that has sunk in, in gen ed curriculum and the common core. And so to present a teacher a walkthrough lesson plan that starts them with some of the language in a very beginning level Introduction to Code has been really welcoming.
Here in California we stumbled, and I appreciate this is probably happening everywhere, even when you present and you sell a teacher and you get them psyched about it, they’re still like, I’m not the person to teach coding. And so at CSB through our Education Resource Center we’ve had the opportunity to take this HTML course on the road. We’ve been down to L.A. Unified School District recently. We’ve run it at our own school. We’re going to Oakland next week. And in essence we’re partnering with TVIs to teach these HTML lessons and get kids started in it. And then we provide resources to the teachers on what the next steps could be and where they could go from there.
GLEN: It feels like there’s this extra step that blind people need to deal with that sighted folks do not, which is not just learning how to code and how to make things work, but how to make the environment where you’re doing the development actually work well and be accessible.
ADRIAN: To me it’s interesting. When I started teaching HTML, we only taught in Notepad because I didn’t know any better. I’m not a programmer myself. And I didn’t run into problems with any IDEs because Notepad was friendly enough for what we were teaching in HTML. I knew about its limitations. I remember being early on teaching HTML in Notepad, being like, man, it would be nice if this program would help me out a little bit. And back then Internet browsers didn’t necessarily make up for your mistakes. They didn’t clean up your code or ignore your errors.
But in coming full circle, and in diving into some of these environments that are inaccessible and trying to figure out the parts of IDEs that are accessible, we actually at CSB have discovered that going back to Notepad at least for HTML has been a positive introduction to coding in that it’s really important to be real specific when you’re first introducing coding to students, and to let them know that they are controlling a specific set of code lines and a language that when they control it perfectly, their results are displayed as they want them and as they desired.
And so we’ve discovered that a programming environment without all the bells and whistles is a great spot to start. We’ve also appreciated in putting together the Second National Coding Symposium that promoting something like the Quorum coding language that has an accessible integrated development environment is a really positive space. It gives an opportunity for a student using a screen reader to take the next step in a space that doesn’t falter, and they don’t have to figure out accessibility problems.
GLEN: But Quorum is not a mainstream programming language. So it does feel like it’s sort of a step to something else, as opposed to something that you’d become a Quorum expert at.
ADRIAN: Absolutely. And that’s kind of how we viewed it. I know that Quorum can design games and other programs and elements. And our kids might design something beautiful that presents to their friends and their peers and their schools and social groups, that inspires others with any language. This year we also took a look at Python. There are a variety of accessible Python tutorials that are out there that teach Python as a coding language. And we have invited those people who have created those to take part in our panels during the symposium, during the week of May 9th through 13th.
GLEN: It’s really funny because as an old codger who’s, you know, pushing 60-plus now, I no longer think about what got my attention as a kid. And I remember someone telling me one of the things that got them really excited when they were young was making Eloquence and other synthesizers speak and sing and do things in really funny ways. And so the things that motivate us change as we move through life. And a game or other entertainment might be a real strong motivator for someone getting really good at a language.
ADRIAN: Absolutely. And I appreciate that times have changed, and video gaming and online gaming is motivating current adults, as well. And so I take it real seriously when we have a student who says, “I want to grow up and write videogames,” or “I want to grow up and create audio games.” From my perspective as a technology educator for blind and low-vision kids, gaming can teach so many access tools because it’s not just about the keystrokes and swipes and whatnot that you use to play the game. It’s about getting to the game, getting into the game, troubleshooting when the app doesn’t work right.
Also, having to email and do your homework on the same device, you end up with students who become way more facile with their screen reader, regardless of what it is. Whether they’re using JAWS on Windows or whether they’re on their phone using voiceover to engage with these games, it’s teaching them a much deeper level of understanding and use of their devices.
GLEN: What are the particulars that people should know if they want to take part in this year’s event?
ADRIAN: You’ve got to find the website at aphconnectcenter.org/coding. You can also find the aphconnectcenter.org and then find the Coding Symposium link. From there you’ll find a Register button on the main page for the Coding Symposium. That registration button will actually take you to a Zoom registration link that will allow you to click on the days that you’re accessible, Monday through Friday. And we’ll send you the Zoom link information as an invitation to participate in the synchronous online virtual aspect. You do not have to complete the activities in advance of the Symposium. But if you do, and if you at least check them out, you’ll be much more engaged during the elements of the synchronous time that we talk about those resources.
Also important, on our website of course we have our agenda, our list of partners, and speakers that are participating. But you’ll also find for students we have three scholarships that are for students participating who are high school students or college students looking for scholarship opportunities to continue their learning. And all of that information is at aphconnectcenter.org/coding.
GLEN: Adrian, thank you very much for being with us.
ADRIAN: Glen, it’s a true honor. Last year I got to call you for the Coding Symposium to invite you to speak. And when you called me to ask me to be on FSCast I had a little bit of a geek-out moment, and telling my wife, “Glen Gordon’s calling me and inviting me to do something.”
GLEN: And she said, “Glen who?”
ADRIAN: Yeah, well, of course. Actually, not in my house, Glen. In my house we’d already been down that road last year...
GLEN: Oh, okay.
ADRIAN: ...with how cool I think you are.
GLEN: Well, thank you very much. The feeling is mutual.
ADRIAN: But I really love this field, and I really love the potential. And I’m really excited about coding for our students and to think that blind students can have careers that they can do that pay them better than we make at schools as administrators and teachers and make a contribution to the world that makes it a little bit more accessible to encourage other people, other blind and low-vision kids behind them to be able to take on any career that they want because blind coders are going to change the world to make everything accessible.
GLEN: Thanks again.
GLEN: Time now for this month’s Power Tip. It’s courtesy of long-time JAWS users Kevin Russell. As luck would have it, he’s writing to us from West Wales in the U.K., which fits very nicely with Gary O’Donoghue, also coming to us from that region of the world in the next few minutes.
Kevin’s tip has to do with what you should do when JAWS completely goes silent and stops responding. We have a command that if anything is going to allow JAWS to restart without, like shutting down and rebooting. The command is JAWS Key+Windows Key+F4. That really tries to pull JAWS up by its roots, creates what’s called a “crash dump” and also restarts JAWS. So that’s what to do when JAWS isn’t talking at all.
If, however, JAWS is still talking, but it’s gone just a little wonky, and you want to see if restarting it is going to improve things, there’s a simpler way of doing that. We introduced it in the February update. And that is by pressing JAWS Key+SPACE, followed by F4. It restarts JAWS and lets you see if things improve as the result of the restart.
So we thank Kevin for that Power Tip. He’ll get a year added onto his JAWS license. If you have a Power Tip, something that’s a lesser known feature of one of our products, you can write to email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org. And if we use your tip, you’ll get a year added onto your product of choice.
GLEN: Gary O’Donoghue is Chief North America Political Correspondent for the BBC. He’s been in that role since 2014, though at the BBC for much longer than that, since the early 1990s. Gary, welcome to FSCast.
GARY O’DONOGHUE: Great to be with you, Glen.
GLEN: The Internet is a wonderful place, and I’ve read somewhere that you went to schools for the blind during your formative years. And then you moved on to Oxford, where presumably you were one of a very few blind students. I’m curious what that transition was like.
GARY: The blind schools I went to were, I mean, in some ways they were brutal places. In some ways I enjoyed them. But they, you know, they had their sharp corners, let’s put it that way. There’s no question about that. One thing they did do, certainly the one I went to up until I left at the age of 18, is it instilled a kind of confidence in you. And some people would say it’s an arrogant, you know, bordered on an arrogance as well among certain blind people who didn’t like that school.
But a self-confidence that you were as good as everyone else, and you could get the grades. And they didn’t just concentrate on academic stuff. They made us do other stuff. You know, they taught us to ski, and they even taught us to drive, would you believe, just because they said we ought to know what it’s like to be able to drive a car. So they would take us over to a disused airfield, and three blind children in a car would drive this thing.
GLEN: That’s a lovely story. I like that, actually.
GARY: Which you wouldn’t get away with nowadays. But they did those things. So when I left school, actually I was, you know, I felt pretty confident about the world. I thought the world would accept me and be, you know, just me for who I am on my merits, et cetera. And it wasn’t quite like that. I must say it was a shock when I went to University. And the first term, first couple of terms were really tough, really tough. And I simply didn’t understand the way people were reacting to me. And of course it’s something that all blind people know, that you feel like a “normal” person, but people behave in the most extraordinary ways.
And even the best and the brightest can behave in the most extraordinary ways, quite honestly. And that was an enormous adjustment. I would say, I suppose, I’m glad the adjustment was that way ‘round, rather than never having felt the confidence, if you like. I’m glad I had a sort of – had an adjustment from a higher point rather than having to sort of climb my way up the rock face from a point of low self-esteem. But it was an adjustment to the world, and they took some time to achieve it, I think.
GLEN: Did you have a plan when you finished University as to what you wanted to do? I mean, you had an interesting college career, but I wouldn’t necessarily say it was specific to a career.
GARY: No. It wasn’t. And I decided, actually, when I was 17, that I wanted to go to University to study what I enjoyed. And I enjoyed reading French literature, and I was fascinated by philosophy. So I ended up doing a degree in philosophy and modern languages. I sort of toyed with the idea of journalism a little bit. And during some of the holiday, the vacations later on in my four-year course I did some, you know, persuaded someone at the BBC to give me some freelance work.
I took a year abroad, for example, and I was a student in Paris for a year. And I recorded some little interviews, including an interview with August Coppola, Francis Ford Coppola’s brother. He was the first Hollywood director to have a film with audio description put onto it. And I found myself as a 19 year old, sat on his hotel room bed, talking to him about “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade” and about the audio description, which was quite an experience at the time.
But I was, sort of towards my final year, I was looking actually at sort of potentially a career in what we used to call in those days sort of “systems analysis.” But for some reason I kept being drawn back to the journalism. And even though I was being knocked back a few times applying for training schemes, not getting a look-in, I, you know, I got the bug, I guess. And shortly after University I managed to get a foot in the door.
GLEN: So you did an internship at the BBC. Do you know, was the internship after you had done the interview in Paris? Or was the interview in Paris as part of the internship?
GARY: It kind of wrapped around a bit. So at the end of my second year, before I went to Paris, my father, who was a taxi driver, per chance picked up someone, a blind chap actually, called Kevin Mulhern, who was in broadcasting. He produced programs, not actually for BBC, but he knew some people. And my father told him about me. And he said, “Well, here’s a phone number. Give me a ring if he wants to come and watch one of my programs being made.”
And I went to watch a program he made for an independent television station up in Birmingham in the center part of England. And he was very kind, and he put me in touch with a couple of people in London. And someone offered me two weeks, you know, unpaid as a researcher on a particular radio program. And it went from there, really. So I got a very, very lucky, lucky break in that sense, and it snowballed from there. Although as I say, I did apply for a whole bunch of sort of high-flying training courses which I was knocked back from. And so I had to keep pursuing those contacts until I properly got my foot in the door.
GLEN: Was this the early ‘90s, give or take?
GARY: Yes, yes. So I graduated from Oxford in 1991. So to put that in some sort of context, that’s four, five years before we had any kind of civil rights legislations for disabled people in the U.K.
GLEN: So how did that work at the BBC? When you’re starting, and you’re wanting to really show off and be good, and presumably lots of stuff you needed to do research was inaccessible.
GARY: None of it was. I mean, they had a system when I first joined that was – the sort of front end of it was dumb terminals, so they weren’t actually PCs. They were dumb terminals. And an engineer who I got to know early on says, well, obviously you can’t use the dumb terminal because there’s no kind of – there’s no technology inside it, apart from a keyboard and a screen. So he got a very early laptop for me, and he worked out how he could configure a piece of software called ProComm, a sort of communications software. And he configured it so that this laptop would act as this dumb terminal. And that worked fantastically for a couple of years.
And then a few years later, when I was more established, when they started to get PCs in about ‘95, and they were Windows 3.1 PCs, and they got a new news system, you know, graphical user interface-based news system. And poor old JAWS couldn’t do anything with it. Couldn’t do anything. And so we got some very clever people in from Blazie. And they saved my bacon because they managed to script it for the first few years so that I could actually use the thing. Otherwise I’d have been sunk.
But even in those early years, you know, for a reporter like me, we had a news cuttings library in the BBC that was bits of newsprint on papers filed in folders by people who had cut up newspapers. And if you wanted some research, you would just ring them up, and they’d photocopy these snippets of newsprint onto sheets, big sheets of what we call A3 paper. And I’d have to wait until I could get a researcher in the office to read it to me. I’d be a day or two behind, most of the time, the other reporters, in trying to get things on-air. So when I think back to that, and I think what I can do now, the world is completely different for us in so many ways. I mean, I cringe when I think about how I used to sort of have to ask for stuff the whole time from people.
GLEN: Yeah, and that’s, I mean, that’s got to be really rough, especially early on, when you are not king of the mountain, to need to ask people to help you do your work. That doesn’t allow you to present in the best possible way.
GARY: It does not. And you know, of course, many people were very happy to help, and would help, but they had their own jobs to do. You know? And you always felt that you were, you know, you were impinging on their time, even if they were happy to do it. And as you say, you felt like you were being judged by some people. I don’t if they were or not, to be honest. I think in some ways, you know, once you’re up and running, and you did your interviews, and you got your piece together, that’s in some ways what they really judged, I think, you know, I hope. But, you know, as a 24 or 25 year old, you know, you’re so sort of sensitive to what’s going on around you, other people’s opinions, that it’s – it can be, could be pretty tough.
GLEN: Did politics naturally become your beat as time went on?
GARY: Yes, it very much did. In fact, you know, pretty much straight out of University I joined the Westminster Union of the BBC, which is based around Parliament. And there was a general election six months after I joined, and I was thrown into the deep end with that. And really politics from then on became the thing I was fascinated with. And I did do some general reporting stints on other programs. We have a thing in the U.K. called The Today Program, which is the main news show, like Morning Edition on NPR, in fact. And I worked there for five years as a general reporter.
But most of my time has been as a political reporter. And I ended up as chief political correspondent in Westminster before I headed out to Washington. And of course my, you know, since 2014 politics has absolutely dominated my job in Washington. I tell people, you know, I do politics, and with a bunch of mass shootings and hurricanes thrown in.
GLEN: When you were still in London and working on The Today Show and doing politics, what was the typical day like there?
GARY: So it would depend on what we called the diary, what was happening. But quite a lot of the time you’d be covering press conferences; you’d be going to briefings; you’d be writing pieces for radio bulletins; you’d be writing what we call a “track” for a television piece. So, for example, in the 2010 general election, I was the person that did the main piece every lunchtime for the 1:00 news on the TV, the main 1:00 news, so the first piece, first big piece of the day.
And that would mean gathering material during the morning for the main story of that election day, writing a script, editing it, really under enormous time pressure, to get that thing on air at 1:00. And, you know, we would often play those pieces direct out from the edit suite on air. You know, we’d be patched through to the main gallery, and they would literally say three, two, one, and the guy in the edit suite would have to press play because we were editing right up to the wire. Exhilarating, but hugely stressful.
And I really, you know, I thrive on that. I still thrive on, I’ve always thrived really on deadlines. I write much better when I’m up against it. I think much more clearly when I’m up against it. It’s not a good thing, I don’t think, but it’s just the way I’m kind of hard-wired. And then when I was on other shows like The Today Show, there would be often times when you’d go in, do features. So you’d go away, I mean, they told me, you know, go away for three weeks up to Northern England. There’s an area where there’s a lot of council corruption. See what you can find. And don’t come back until you find something. So, you know.
GLEN: Did you do these alone? Or did you bring someone with you as sort of an assistant?
GARY: It’s interesting because I’m slightly horrified by it when I think back because it, you know, did require quite a lot of resilience, I think, not so much to do the research because everyone used the phone in those days, and you could ring people up, and you could talk them into doing things. But, you know, using cabs all the time, or using public transport, I mean, I remember time when I was out on jobs, you know, reporting jobs, having to find a phone box to call in to the office because we didn’t have mobile phones, not right at the beginning of my career, certainly. I think I was just so pleased to be doing it that the challenges didn’t feel like challenges.
I mean, look. There were times when, you know, I had some pretty bad scrapes. I mean, I fell onto the railway tracks more than once in London while I was out doing my job. In fact, I remember doing it on the subway, on the Tube in London, 9:00 one night when I was on my way back to the office. And I got back to the office and said to them this has happened. Well, I said I’ve had a really bad day. And the overnight editor said, who was busy, said, “Yeah, just carry on. Tell us when your piece is ready.”
And another reporter had come and chatted to me, and I told him what had happened. And he’d obviously gone off and told the night editor, who then came in rather sheepishly and said, “I didn’t realize it was quite that bad a day.” So, you know. So there have been some scrapes along the way, for sure. But yeah, I wouldn’t change what it was like in those – it was very exciting. It was incredibly exciting.
GLEN: Yeah, I mean it really does speak to if you love what you’re doing, you just – you make it work.
GARY: Absolutely. Absolutely.
GLEN: Can we talk a little bit about making the sausage? Because I have some specific questions.
GLEN: One of them is how did you learn to be a good braille reader out loud?
GARY: Well, I’m not sure I am that good, actually. I think I’m an average braille reader. What helps, of course, is reading things you’ve written yourself.
GARY: That makes a huge difference. What I tend to have to read out loud is quite short. So a basic news bulletin piece that I would write is probably about 45 seconds. So that’s not a lot of text. The longer sort of item on the news might be a minute and a half to two. Again, couple of pages. And I think, you know, the one thing of course is that I’ve had to do it all the way through. So my braille has never lapsed. When I first started learning braille when I was a child, I was one of those one-handed braille readers, completely one-handed. And I was unusual. As a right-handed person, I read with my right hand. As you know, most right-handed blind people read, tend to read with their left hand. But I did force myself over time to use the left hand at least to do some navigation on the page.
And certainly when braille displays came long it made a huge difference to be able to pick up those first couple of words with your left hand before your right hand takes over. When reversing the panning buttons became a thing, I suddenly realized, ah, goodness, they understand how I use braille, you know, how I read braille. Finally, you know, because it was an amazingly simple thing, but having to go to the end of the line to pan was a pain in those early days with those notetakers we used to use, the Braille Lite and goodness knows what else.
GLEN: I asked Jonathan Mosen how he’s so good at it. And he said, “Oh, I buffer five to 10 seconds.” And it never, ever occurred to me. Do you buffer mentally, get far ahead so that you can pan and so forth and still not have to slow down your presentation?
GARY: Not really. I tend to read what’s under my fingers. I tend to write the way I speak as much as I can. So if you look at my scripts, they’ll have lots of dashes in them rather than full stops and things. And so there’s lots of points to breathe. There’s lot of points to take a natural pause, which allows you to move on. There are some people who can do the listening to JAWS in only one ear and delivering it. I could never do that.
GLEN: I have always been petrified about doing anything that requires me to be on camera. And I’m curious how you perfected that skill.
GARY: I think it’s very important that you don’t try and hide your blindness when you’re on camera because you can’t, frankly. But it’s also important that it doesn’t become a distraction to what you’re there to do, which is to communicate. So there are certain things I think you have to get right. I think you have to be, I mean, we call it, I call it an “eye line,” and I will check with my cameraman just before I go live, “How’s my eye line?” And with cameramen I use a lot and trust, they will tell me that whether I ask for it or not.
It’s interesting when I’m working with a freelance guy or a woman who’s never done it before. I have to kind of force them to tell me, you know, because they’re a bit embarrassed. They don’t want to – sometimes I’ll say, “Where are you?” and they’ll sort of step away from the camera and say, “I’m over here.” So no, no, no, you need to be behind the viewfinder when I ask you that question. There are some things I do. I do a couple of mental things; right? Blind people tend to have their eyes slightly shut sometimes. So I have a metal checklist to open my eyes before I go on-air.
I think my ability to use my facial expressions is not too bad. But I’m a blind person, and you will be able to see that. Unfortunately for me, amongst our audience, they now know that. So there will be some people who at first think, there’s something not quite – what is that quite? And for that one occasion where they’re thinking that, they probably aren’t hearing what you say. But once they’ve clocked it, it allows you to cut through in a way that other people struggle to. And what I mean by that is that you are recognizable for that. You’ve created a relationship because you’re different, if that makes sense.
GARY: And that’s an important thing to do with viewers, you know, if they feel they know you a bit, then they’re going to listen to you more. So, you know, I mean, I’m by no means the highest profile person in the BBC. Nowhere near. But, you know, here, particularly here in the U.K., I’ll get stopped in the street every day, every day by people saying, you know, love your work, thank you very much, blah blah blah. People of all shapes and sizes and all ages. And, you know, it’s not because I’m specially brilliant at what I do. I’m not. It’s because I’m recognizable. And that ability to connect is something that is to our advantage because we’re a little bit different to the identikit news reporters.
GLEN: Yeah, and you probably are good at what you do. Otherwise you would not be the North American political correspondent for the BBC. Do you travel the country? Or are you mostly based in D.C.?
GARY: Oh, I travel a lot, yeah. I traveled a lot during both election campaigns, less so in the second one, obviously, because of the restrictions. But traveled a lot during the Hillary Clinton/Donald Trump campaign to rallies all over the country, and traveled to do feature pieces, as well. Sadly, we do cover these phenomenon of mass shootings when they happen. So I think I’ve done half a dozen. And I’ve done, you know, a whole bunch of natural disasters, as well, standing in hurricanes and, you know, hoping that the street furniture that’s flying around isn’t going to take your head off.
GARY: And I did a big sort of road trip really in the South a couple of years ago. And I took some time out to do a documentary I’ve been wanting to make for many years about the blind blues players from the sort of early 20th Century, this extraordinary plethora of blind bluesmen there were in Texas, you know, right from the Piedmont right down through Georgia into Texas and places. And I had a big long road trip in the South to do that, which was enormously enjoyable, I mean, it scratched an itch I’d had for a long time for a program.
GLEN: It was a great program that at least a year or so ago I was still able to find.
GARY: Yeah, it’s still out there, yeah.
GLEN: Is it “Black, Blind and Blue”?
GARY: “Blind, Black and Blue,” yeah, yeah. I was very proud of that title.
GLEN: It was great. I mean, the part that’s missing, and of course there’s no way for it not to be missing, is I want to know what their day-to-day lives were like.
GARY: Well, I mean, a lot of them obviously begged. But in some ways a lot of them were saved from the fields, of course. I mean, that’s – in some ways their blindness and their musical talent saved them from the fields. But it also was a, I mean, one of our guests talked about the daily dangers, you know. The daily dangers of being black in the South in the early 20th Century are well documented. But, you know, imagine if you’re a blind person, and you accidentally bump into someone, you know, I mean, imagine what that could lead to. I mean, nowadays you can get a bit of a touch and a kind of “Watch where you’re going.” Could be a lot worse then.
GLEN: Something that I remember you made a point of mentioning on that show is that all the major roles were staffed by blind people.
GARY: We were really proud of that bit. We were really proud of it. And of course there were sighted people who worked on that program. But the main jobs were done all by blind people. And there aren’t many blind recording engineers, certainly in the BBC. I mean, there are plenty out there in the world. But we did use one on this occasion, and so it was something we were pleased with at the time.
GLEN: There are not that many people with disabilities in the journalistic field. I mean, you are one of the few, I think, public-facing blind reporters around the world. Do you have any thoughts on how that is likely to change over time?
GARY: I think there are – the numbers are increasing. There are a few here in the U.K. I can’t think of a single blind reporter on American television. Now, I’m happy to be corrected about that. But that does shock me a little because American news television is particularly good at sort of doing diversity, quite frankly. Not – I don’t just mean African American people and people from other racial backgrounds, but they’re very good at ensuring that there are older women, for example, in senior news roles on a lot of networks. But I’ve never come across a blind reporter in the networks or on the cable channels. There are some fantastic blind journalists around the country. I mean, there’s Liz Campbell, of course, down in Texas, who’s been, you know, doing it for years and years and years, you know, in a mainstream environment. And there are others, too.
But you’re right, there aren’t many. And I think we’re slightly ahead of you in Europe on this one, if I’m honest. Because there are a few blind people doing this sort of role. I mean, earlier on in their careers, sure. But doing, hopefully will do more than I’ve achieved as time goes by in the BBC. There are some youngsters who could easily do that. And you do hear of people in Europe, as well. And there are certainly some, a couple of people in Australia who are working in mainstream television as blind people.
GLEN: I’m thinking that’s Nas Campanella, speaking of being good at listening to JAWS and talking at the same time.
GARY: Yes, yes.
GLEN: And she’s now on TV, I think.
GARY: She is. She is. And she’s a fine example of that. And, you know, I think there’s another lady in Spain, as well, who’s doing something similar, if memory serves me correctly. So yeah, there are examples. But not so many in the states at the moment, sadly.
GLEN: Have you had the struggle that I have throughout my life, which is that I am blind, and people will identify me as blind, but I don’t really want to be identified as the blind X. X is the thing that theoretically I’m good at, and the fact that I’m blind is just another element of it.
GARY: Yeah, and I think that’s something we all struggle with as blind people. You know, we want it. We know it is part of us. It’s an inextricable part of us. And in so many ways it does define who we are, who we become, what sort of people we are. But we also want it to be something that is not absolutely defining of who we are. And that’s quite a difficult, I think quite a difficult concept to explain. And certainly for the rest of the world that wants to sort of compartmentalize pretty quickly, that’s all it has time to do. You know, you feel you’re running the risk that you’re going to be classified as this or that or the other, and you don’t want that to happen.
What I will say there is that the one thing that, you know, I’ve relied on throughout my career is blind contemporaries, not so much for kind of mentors as such because in some ways in my field there aren’t that many of them. But people who, you know, who you trust, who you can let off steam to over the years, talk things through, talk through how you manage the working environment as a blind person and, you know, people who understand without having to have stuff explained to them has been enormously important ever since I can remember. And I don’t know what I’d do without having people like that to vent to, if you like.
GLEN: Gary, thank you very much for joining me. This was a great chance to talk, and I always like hearing about people and their careers and how they made it happen. So thank you.
GARY: No, it’s a great pleasure. Thank you for having me on.
GLEN: I was about to wrap up FSCast 214, and then I suddenly realized that it’s going to post on April 27th, which is International Guide Dog Day. A quick search revealed the Guide Dog Glee Club. No, I don’t think they did this on their own. This was actually the handiwork of Veronica Elsea. She’s a long-time musician, and she has a guide dog, as does her sister, which made it easy to take 291 digital samples of them barking. She ran it through a sequencer and came up with a bunch of music, all findable by searching for Guide Dog Glee Club. I leave you with an excerpt of the “Juno Waltz.”
[Audio clip of dogs barking]