FSCast #230

May, 2023

GLEN GORDON:  On FSCast 230, we’ll get to know retired Army Major Scotty Smiley.  He was blinded by a suicide bomber when fighting in Iraq; but came back, taught at West Point, and became the military’s first totally blind active duty officer.  Then, Michele McDonnall will be here to discuss the second year of the AT in the Workplace study conducted by Mississippi State University.

Hello, everybody.  Glen Gordon back with you for our podcast in May of 2023.  And thanks to Oleg Shevkun for filling in last month and bringing his perspective both as a low vision user and a braille user, which is a combination that doesn’t happen very often.

Got a nice note from Mario Bardales.  I can think of probably fewer than half a dozen times that someone ever wrote to me to say what a pleasure it was to use a website.  But yet he wrote in and said that the experience of filling out a passport application on the U.S. Department of State website with the help of JAWS was just a joy; that the experience that the Department of State has created is really accessible, very efficient, and although you do need to mail in a printed form, the website will offer to generate a PDF for you.  You can download it and then print it in your app of choice.  So, nice to hear good things about the passport application process, and great to hear whenever a website is particularly accessible.

A quick reminder that we have a slew of training resources, and all of them available for free by going to freedomscientific.com/training.  This includes pointers to lots of things in writing, as well as an updated calendar of live webinars we have scheduled, and a way to watch webinars, YouTube presentations, and other things all on demand.  Freedomscientific.com/training.

JAWS Power Tip

GLEN:  Oleg last month talked a bit about Excel.  His perspective was that of showing the contents of either a row or a column on the Braille display.  Turns out that this month’s Power Tip is from Peter Torode, and he’s talking about Excel, but more in terms of some hotkeys that will really make your life easier.  In particular, he talks about the situation where you’re working with a spreadsheet that you didn’t create, you don’t own, and lots of cells are locked down.  And in that situation, you may not be able to arrow to every cell on the spreadsheet.  Inevitably, you will skip over the locked cells and only be able to move to those that you can actually interact with.

And he points out the SHIFT+CTRL+D JAWS hotkey, and what that does is take all the visible cells and puts them into a list.  But this includes those cells that are locked down that you can’t actually navigate to.  And the reason we only show you the visible ones is spreadsheets can be particularly large, and if we were to try to gather all the cells, it would take a really long time.  So when you show data cells, we just show the visible ones.  They’re listed in row order.  So as you arrow down through the list box, you’ll go through one row and then the next one.

If, when you’re on a cell in the list box, that cell isn’t protected and can actually be navigated to on the spreadsheet, pressing ENTER will take you to that location on the sheet itself where you can edit, interact with, and do other things with that cell.  There are similar commands for showing the current row or the current column in that same list format.  For current row, it’s JAWS KEY+SHIFT+R; and for current column, it’s JAWS KEY+SHIFT+C.

It’s great to hear about those hotkeys, but the real question is, how do you find out, when you’re going to an app like Excel, what keystrokes are available?  Because sometimes that gives you a bit of an inventory of some of the things you can do more efficiently with JAWS.  And in the case of Excel, and some other apps as well, you can use the JAWS context help key, which is JAWS KEY+F1, and it’ll show you some specifics about the spreadsheet that kind of give you an overview.  But at the bottom of that virtual buffer will be a link to say, “Show JAWS Hotkeys.”  And when you go there, that will list all of the hotkeys that Peter mentioned in his power tip, plus a whole bunch of others.  So I think that’s the best one-stop shop for getting Excel hotkey details.

So that’s Peter’s main tip, but the bonus tip is also very powerful, though it’s not JAWS-specific.  It’s the Excel GoTo dialog box, and you go to it with CTRL+G or F5.  I always thought the GoTo dialog box was just there to allow you to enter a cell address and move to it.  So if you want to move to E5, you open the dialog box, type in E5, and you’ll move there.  And yes, it does allow you to do that, but it also allows you to select cells.  And this is particularly powerful either if you want to select multiple rows concurrently or you want to do a couple of discontiguous selections where the cells you’re selecting aren’t adjacent to one another.  Both of those are possible through the GoTo dialog box in Excel, and I encourage you to go search on the Microsoft website for the GoTo dialog box, where you can find both examples and more details.

So some very useful tips, thanks to Peter.  And for sending those in, he gets a year added on to his JAWS license.  If you have a little-known feature in JAWS, ZoomText, or Fusion, send it in to us at fscast@vispero.com, fscast@vispero.com.  If we use your tip, you’ll get a year added on to your product license of choice.

Interview with Army Major Scotty Smiley

GLEN:  I’m very pleased to welcome retired Army Major Scotty Smiley.  He was blinded while fighting in the Iraq War, but went on to become the military’s first totally blind active duty officer.  Many of those experiences are chronicled in his 2010 book called “Hope Unseen,” and many of them will be discussed in the next few minutes.  Scotty, welcome.

MAJOR SCOTTY SMILEY:  No, thank you so much.  It’s great to be on and talk and share a little about my life and continue to grow.

GLEN:  I think we probably should go back to 2005, and I fear this is the way that many interviews start.  But it does feel like it was a pivotal point in your life, and I’m curious if you can talk us through what happened early on that day.

SCOTTY:  On April 6 of 2005, our unit, our specific company, it was around 200 men and women, were given an assignment to find a potential suicide car bomb.  And obviously, in a city of a little over two million people, it wasn’t likely.  But as we were out in the city, my company commander had on-time intelligence that insurgents were telling people to get away, Iraqis.  So he told me to go check out, stay off the main highways, main avenues of approach.

And as I turned a corner, I saw a suspicious vehicle.  It was a silver Opel.  The back of the car was lower than the front.  And I pulled my Stryker vehicle about 30 yards away from this gentleman, on the same road.  He’s facing west; I’m facing east, kind of at an angle, a little ahead of him.  And as he looks over his shoulder at me, as I yell at him, he raises his hands off the steering wheel and shakes his head no.  I yell at him again.  He then lets his foot off the brake.  And that’s when I raised my M4 rifle to my shoulder.  I fired a round in front of his vehicle.  Then boom, my world went black.

And that’s truly when my world, my wife, our lives blew up into a million pieces.  I woke up several days later in Walter Reed Army Medical Center, was told that, you know, not only losing my sight, losing both my eyes, I had a traumatic brain injury, couldn’t move the right side of my body, you know, temporarily.  And just, you know, hope was completely lost.  And, you know, but that’s when my love, my wife, speaking truth, hope, and life, support, family, friends, really began to impart on me that I still had a purpose, and that I could still be someone more than what I felt.

GLEN:  What was sort of the process for you coming to grips with the fact that you were blind and, in particular, realizing that all was not lost and that you really could do things?

SCOTTY:  I felt I didn’t deserve this.  And not to wish it upon someone else, but I didn’t feel that this is something that I should have to go through.  And literally, you know, it is the essence of selfishness, wishing someone else could have bore the weights and the trials and the questioning that I now had on my shoulders.  And so for me, it was really resentment, anger.  And again, you know, being angry at someone who I’d never be able to see again, never be able to share my disappointment with.  I knew the importance of forgiveness.  And not only forgiving him, taking his own life; but I also knew, and this is not the case for most people, that I was partially responsible.

You know, kind of, you know, not to get into the specifics of military rules of engagement, but we weren’t allowed just to go shoot something or someone because we felt like it.  You had to literally see visually a weapon or, you know, they had injured someone, and that wasn’t the case.  And so part of that responsibility was on me, and it was forgiving myself.  And then I think most importantly, you know, being of faith, was asking forgiveness.  And I think once that started, that really began my recovery process.

And I remember one instance, you know, again in the hospital, I’m an angry, bitter person who had life expectations and goals and ambitions.  And in my mind, not just the forefront, but the back, was like they’ve all been stripped away.  And I would tell, you know, famous people – Toby Keith, the country singer; Gary Sinise, the actor – you know, coming to the hospital to, you know, not just I felt give sympathy, but, you know, to thank us for our service, I didn’t want them in my room.  I didn’t think I deserved it.  And I didn’t, you know, I was bitter.

But one day my wife, Tiffany said, “Scotty, this little boy, Andrew Harris, wants to come and say hi to you.”  And I literally just started crying because Andrew Harris was a son of one of my sponsors at West Point who looked up to me.  And when he found out I got injured, he had his dad drive all the way from West Point to Walter Reed Army Medical Center, almost six-hour one-way drive, to come say hi to me.  And I just thought if this boy still looked up to me, this may be a purpose; that I could, you know, motivate and inspire someone.  But I had to make that choice.

And I think that’s the day that I made a choice to accept blindness, accept at least what I thought was blindness.  I couldn’t even get out of my bed.  But it was a road that I was now going to be comfortable with, and that I was going to push forward, not knowing what my life would be, but push forward no matter what, knowing that I had my wife and family and friends beside me; that, you know, the impossible could be possible.

GLEN:  Reading the book as a blind person, the first thing that comes to mind for me was you had no good blind role models when you went into rehab.  Am I missing something?

SCOTTY:  I had zero.  I had never met a blind person before.  Obviously, my viewpoints of what blind people were, were what many of us, well, with vision, see on television, see in movies.  And more often than not, it’s a stereotypical manner in which blind people are viewed to accentuate the blindness.  And in my mind, I didn’t know how to be independent, whether it be on a computer, how to learn.  You know, I didn’t even hear of Freedom Scientific.  I didn’t hear of JAWS, all these things, because it was never a thought that most visual people have.  And so I had no example.  And a lot of it was just exploratory, doing the best that I could with what was put in front of me.

GLEN:  And did you ultimately make contact with other blind people who’d been successful?  Or did you sort of carve your own path?

SCOTTY:  A lot of it was carving my own path.  And I think it’s interesting you ask that, is because my wife, while on active duty at Walter Reed, and I didn’t know this happened, but she was brought into a room, because she had power of attorney, to sign and begin the medical retirement process for myself.  My wife had just told me I’d never be able to see again.  And the last thing that she now wanted to say was, oh, and by the way, I just signed your medical retirement paperwork.  She wanted me to recover to the best possible means before I’m evaluated and then take it from there.

So going from Walter Reed Army Medical Center to Palo Alto, California, where I did meet a lot of amazing partially sighted and blind individuals, all veterans, I went from there back to Fort Lewis.  And in the military, there are zero blind people.  And so from Fort Lewis, Washington, to Fort Monroe, Virginia, I’m just around other perfectly sighted military men and women.  And obviously, I finally went to the medical evaluation.  They found me 100% disabled, unfit for duty.  However, my wife and amazing men and women in the military found a caveat in the military medical requirements that I could still continue on active duty, though I didn’t necessarily meet the physical requirements, because I had met them when I entered into the military; and because of combat service, I could still serve.

GLEN:  So the military hadn’t a clue, it sounds like, of what to do with this blind guy.  How did that get refined to you teaching and working at West Point?

SCOTTY:  Well, I will – I still love the military.  I still love the Department of Defense.  But I still believe they don’t have a clue on what to do with blind people.  And again, it goes back to purpose and living with a purpose.  After I finished the medical evaluation, I had the opportunity to change my branch of service.  So instead of infantry, I thought I could have gone military intelligence.  I could have gone like operational research system analysis, which is kind of like a caveat.  I’d work on a computer, Excel files.

But for me, I still wanted infantry.  It’s kind of I’m a leader.  I always felt that I could lead.  I still wanted to lead men and women.  And so I stayed on active duty.  But again, I still had to find a purpose.  And I remembered at the military academy having amazing men and women officers who taught me my classes.  And I said, well, maybe there’s an opportunity, fully knowing I hadn’t met many of the requirements.  One, going to the career course, the captain’s career course, or having a company command.

But again, the dean of the military academy saw an opportunity and said, hey, we’d love to have you.  You’d be an amazing example to teach men and women how to lead, mistakes that you’ve learned from and obviously successes.  And so just you need to go get your master’s.  And so it was just another opportunity that the army saw a successful individual who wasn’t giving up and could live fully and with a purpose, that I was now going to be an example for hundreds, if not thousands, more new officers to come.

GLEN:  You got into Duke, into their MBA program.  How skilled were you at functioning as a blind person when you entered that program?  Because that’s a rigorous program in the best of cases.

SCOTTY:  I was terrible.  I was terrible.  I had only gone to two months of Blind Rehabilitation Center in Palo Alto, California; and the majority of that was mobility skills, learning how to use a blind stick, learning how to operate in a kitchen, how to cook, how to basically live as a blind individual.  And one of the least things that I did was use a computer, using JAWS, using a phone.  And so a lot of it was either through the VA, having people come to my home to help teach me.  Minimal braille I learned because, again, the army doesn’t have blind people, so nothing is printed in braille.

And so when I got to Duke, I went through the ADA department and basically requested, if not demanded, someone to assist me in statistics, economics, financial accounting, all very math heavy, very computer heavy courses.  I really had to change my mindset on how to learn.  I used to be a very visual learner.  And so whether it was my wife or aides riding on my back on, you know, a bell-shaped statistical curve, economics, supply and demand models, bar charts, what they actually look like.  And again, as you know JAWS very well, back in 2007, the accessibility functions were not near what they are today.

GLEN:  I’m thinking if I had been in your shoes, I would have been trembling at every point.

SCOTTY:  I was.  But it’s all about the mask.  And what I learned, not only in the military, but teaching negotiations, it’s how you look, how you are, and how you face the task at hand, no matter how tremulous, no matter how difficult.  You had to be confident, and you had to be sure of yourself.  But every class, I was afraid, one, I was going to fail.  First blind active duty person in the military fails his master’s.  I didn’t want to be that person.

But again, it went back to the confidence in the team and the men and women that were beside me.  It wasn’t just me.  It was the fact that they would spend three to four to five hours outside of class teaching me, whether it be financial accounting, whether it was economics, very difficult mathematical courses that I would have to memorize the equation.  And then even in the test, I couldn’t just tell the person, you know, figure it out.  I would have to write down the equation.  I would then have to have them read the numbers, and then I’d tell them, the individual, the reader/recorder, you know, what Sigma was, what Alpha was, what X-ray was, what the different things.  And then be able to hope and pray that the answer was correct.

But again, it goes back to the team and the men and women that were beside me, helping me.  And I truly believe that’s what enabled me to be successful.  And what’s shocking is we were able to choose the speaker at our graduation.  And my wife said, “Scotty, they’re probably going to pick you.”  I said, “What are you talking about?  No one even knows who I am.”  And behest, I was chosen to be our class speaker.  And it just goes to show it’s the work that we put forward and the effort that we do and having to be – and being confident that we can really make a positive change in men and women’s lives.

GLEN:  How did you feel about being chosen as the speaker?  Was there any ambivalence about that, or was it just an overall good feeling?

SCOTTY:  I didn’t feel deserving.  I didn’t feel deserving.  I knew I may have been – I may have worked the hardest for that MBA, given what I had to go through.  Again, and again, I want to create a better description of who I was, that I’m a year-and-a half, two-year blind person.  That I don’t know braille.  I’m still learning how to use my software.  And I’m now taking master’s level courses.  Like, it was beyond daunting.  And I felt that I was not the person, that so many better people could have been a speaker.

But I, you know, my wife just continued to speak to truth, hope, and life.  And she says, “Scotty, they look up to you because they can’t imagine doing what you just did.  And you did it successfully.  They want to hear from you.  They want to see how you do what you do, why you think the way you do, because what you did, to them, is impossible.

GLEN:  I don’t know a whole lot about the Military Academy, but I get the idea that a lot of the people who teach there have had a lot more military experience than you had when you started teaching there.  Is that accurate?

SCOTTY:  It’s very accurate.  And again, now I’m a blind, you know, instructor coming in, and I hadn’t gone to the career course, an Army military requirement.  I hadn’t had a company command or two.  I had nothing.  All I had was a year of platoon leader time and a master’s.  And again, it was being pointed out, when it comes to colonels, lieutenant colonels who had PhDs and, you know, far more military training, far more leadership experience than I.  They looked at me as kind of unqualified.  And, you know, to an extent I felt then, well then, why am I here?

But it all goes back to the Military Academy chose me to go get my master’s, chose me to be an instructor.  So if I’m – I was successfully able to get my master’s, and now I’m going to successfully be the best instructor that I can be.  And I was teaching psychology of leadership to the junior class.  I was going to do the best I could, being honest, sincere.  And I did.  And my instructors, the professors over me ensured they checked up.  And, you know, I was able to win the MacArthur Leadership Award for being one of the best captains in the entire Military Academy.  So it just goes to work ethic.  But being confident in who you are, even though you may not be the highest, the most revered, or the most experienced, is doing the best that you can and making a positive difference.

GLEN:  In addition to teaching, you also commanded a company unit.  How did that all come about?

SCOTTY:  So my boss, as an instructor at the Military Academy, pulled me into his office and asked if I wanted to continue on active duty and potentially do more than just teach.  And of course I said yes.  And he said, “Well, you know, a company command is one of those requirements.”  And I kind of laughed.  I said, “Well, you know, I’m still blind.  That’s not getting better any day soon.”  And he said, you know, “The men and women you surround yourself and the team that you constantly put around you, you’re going to be successful in anything that you set your mind to.  So, you know, is this something that you want?”

And I, you know, of course, knew it would change my hours.  It would be early mornings, late nights.  I would be responsible for everything that unit did and failed to do.  But it was one of one of the best decisions I made.  And we were at the time either in charge of anywhere from 150 soldiers to 230, as it was a Warrior Transition Unit.  So soldiers who were sick, ill, or injured, whether it was cancer, heart issues, injured overseas, if they, you know, tore their ACL, their meniscus, they couldn’t necessarily do the job that they were doing.  And so they would be transferred to the Warrior Transition Unit, and we would usher them through medically, had social worker, nurses, squad leaders, and then help them either return back to duty, much like I did, or medically retire if that was the appropriate thing.  So it was just – it was amazing to work next to hard soldiers that constantly wanted to improve.  And, you know, it was an amazing 18 months.

GLEN:  I read your book, and it came out in 2010, which to me is amazing because you’d done so much in those first five years after becoming blind.  What has the last 12 years been like, and what would you say to your 2005 self looking back now?

SCOTTY:  Well, I’ll answer the latter one first is, you know, you can do the impossible, but keep having a goal and ambition, and more so trust in the men and women that are around you.  You know, because blindness, it can become a very lonely world, that you do have to reach out.  You do have to build those relationships.  And that’s what I’ve loved so much.  Not only my beautiful bride, still married 20 years this year.  We have three amazing boys.

But I went from, you know, Warrior Transition Unit company command down to Fort Benning, Georgia for the career course.  Went from there to Gonzaga University in Spokane, Washington.  Taught at the ROTC.  Upon medical retiring after 12 years of active duty service, attempted Mount Denali.  Unfortunately, wasn’t, up in Alaska, wasn’t able to summit, but then had a wild hair and did an Ironman with my brother-in-law.  I work now for an institutional bank out of New York called Drexel Hamilton.  It’s just making a positive difference, publicly speak all over the nation, to any organization, to share hope and working as a team.  So it’s been fun.  And I look forward to the many more opportunities to come.

GLEN:  I want to talk briefly about Drexel Hamilton, for whom you work.  I did not realize that this is a whole investment banking wing that is targeted at being staffed by veterans.  Can you talk a little about that?

SCOTTY:  Yeah, Drexel Hamilton.  It’s about a 12- to 13-year-old company started by Lawrence Doll, a Vietnam veteran.  He was injured twice while serving our country in Vietnam, and was very successful in corporate real estate.  And, you know, realized, you know, there is no real position for veterans.  And we do sometimes jokingly say when we were talking to publicly traded companies, you know, JP Morgan, Morgan Stanley aren’t going to Jalalabad or Mosul, Iraq or Baghdad or Japan to do interviews for bankers.  And so when I’m parting the military around age 35, I have a bachelor’s, I have a master’s.  It’s far more difficult to get a job.

And so he saw that there was a need, and he created this company, put cash down.  And now it’s ran, owned and operated by men and women who have served, who have given their lives for our country.  But now we can be a part of whether it be underwriting on a bond offering from a publicly traded company, initial public offering, secondary offerings, money, market funds, fixed incomes, municipalities.  It’s amazing to be a part of the system.  And it’s just awesome to see veterans continue to give back in a different manner.

GLEN:  I know that you lobby on behalf of veterans causes, and I’m curious how much of that overlaps with blind veterans and the challenges that they face.

SCOTTY:  I think both.  Obviously, we’re more often than not looking at how we are and what, you know, specifically my disability is, which is blindness.  And so with how blind people are treated in the military, my wife was very instrumental in making changes to the Department of Defense and how blind individuals and then subsequently, like, you know, further disabled, whether they’ve lost a limb, on being able to continue to serve on after duty; while at the same time, we still need more.  Because I’m blind, and it is my life, my wife is doing the same.

GLEN:  What did you becoming blind do to the dynamics of your relationship with Tiffany and how did that work itself out over time?

SCOTTY:  It changed it in a way in, which looking back now, I think we’re a stronger, a 10 times stronger relationship than we potentially ever could have been.  And it’s not just my desire to be dependent upon her, but it’s part of a requirement.  I remember – I laugh at it now.  It wasn’t funny at the time.  You know, I always had to have her arm, whether going through a parking lot, through a hotel, or at the Blind Center, because I didn’t know how to use my blind stick.  I didn’t know how to be independent.  And of course, I probably wasn’t the nicest person at the time.

But she says, “You know what?  I really love you right now, but I don’t like you at all.”  And as sad as that was, I still had to hold onto her arm, so she couldn’t get rid of me.  But what we really learned was to be dependent upon each other, that I then strengthened my ability.  I’m able to, you know, I make breakfast for my boys every morning.  I wake up at earlier than five a.m.  I’m on Pacific Standard Time because the East Coast, the market opens at nine a.m.  Able to make their lunches, able to make them dinner.  I’m able to clean up.  So there’s a shift in roles and responsibility that we’ve, you know, I’m not saying done flawlessly, but learned what each one of our strengths are and how that can be a benefit to not just us ourselves, but to the relationship and, just as importantly, our boys, to be a positive role model.

I counsel my boys.  I talk to them, talk about leadership, talk about growth.  We read books together.  I try to do my best and be a positive example to them that, one, they don’t look at men and women of disability any differently than they would anyone else.  But at the same time that they treat each other with kindness as we all wish others did for us and mankind.

GLEN:  Your book is “Hope Unseen,” and that’s also your website, right?  HopeUnseen.com.

SCOTTY:  Yes.  HopeUnseen.com.

GLEN:  Thank you very much.

SCOTTY:  No, thank you so much.  You as well.

Interview with Dr. Michele McDonnall

GLEN:  Joining me now is Dr. Michele McDonnall.  She is a research professor and director of the National Research and Training Center on Blindness and Low Vision at Mississippi State University, for obvious reasons, abbreviated NRTC.  I’m really pleased to have her on the podcast because there are very few studies that have to do with assistive technology in the workplace, and even fewer that get repeated with the same user group over a five-year period.  But that is the case with the current study.  And Michele is here to share some results.  Welcome to FSCast. 

DR. MICHELE MCDONNALL:  Thank you, Glen. 

GLEN:  So those of us who don’t live in Mississippi and probably don’t study research regularly, I think, are not all that aware of NRTC.  What is its background?

MICHELE:  So the Center was established in 1981 with a grant from NIDILRR, which is the National Institute on Disability, Independent Living, and Rehabilitation Research.  It was one of the RRTC grants.  That’s the Rehabilitation Research and Training Center on Employment for People Who Are Blind or Have Low Vision.  And it’s a five-year grant.  The center first received that grant in 1981.  And we’ve had it ever since.  But it is a competitive process.  So every five years, you know, we have to the grant is re-competed, and we come up with a new proposal, and we, you know, compete against other people to receive the grant.

GLEN:  Right.  But you probably have an incumbent advantage, right?  You have results to show from the previous five years.

MICHELE:  Right.  Absolutely.

GLEN:  So let’s talk about the AT in the Workplace study.  I assume it started, what, a couple of years ago now?

MICHELE:  Right.  It started at the end of 2020, which is when our grant started.

GLEN:  How did the demographics turn out of the people you are surveying?

MICHELE:  We actually ended up with more females, about a 60/40 split.  Level of vision, we ended up with people who are mostly either totally blind, that was our biggest group, followed by legally blind with some functional vision.  And they just self-identified, you know, which group they fit into.  And then we had the smallest portion of people who are low vision, but not legally blind.  We only have about 4% of our sample in that category.

GLEN:  Was this by design, or just by the fact that people who are mostly blind were the ones who were interested in taking part?  Because if you look at society broadly, more people are low vision than actually are, you know, pretty much totally blind.

MICHELE:  Yeah, I think it’s that, that just, you know, people, it’s a volunteer study.  So it’s people who are interested in the topic and willing to, you know, do these surveys over time.  And I think it did just happen to be people who, the people who were more interested in the topic and willing to participate were those with the more severe visual impairment.  And it is interesting.  That is usually what we find in the surveys that we do.  And we’ve noticed that, with other people surveying this population, that tends to be the same thing.  You end up with more people with the more severe visual impairment who are participating in these studies.

GLEN:  How many people did you ultimately end up bringing into the survey?

MICHELE:  With our first employed survey, we ended up with 314 completed or mostly completed surveys.  So usable surveys, 314.  Then for our second employed survey, we made a decision to go ahead and recruit a few more people because we’ve promised NIDILRR that we would have at least 200 completed responses for the last survey.  Now, I hope to have well over 200, but we decided to go ahead and recruit a few more people at the point of Survey 2.  And we ended up with 328 completed surveys for Survey 2.  And then that group of people, we’re going to carry forward and hopefully keep most of them through to our last survey.

GLEN:  What percentage of the respondents actually continued through the second survey?

MICHELE:  We had 87% of our original 314 people who did complete Survey 2.

GLEN:  That’s pretty good, actually.  It means that not only did you decide it was a great idea initially, you remained excited about it.

MICHELE:  Yeah, we really appreciate our participants for sticking with us and making it through those what can be very long surveys.  And I did not mention yet that we are also surveying a group of unemployed people who are blind or have low vision.  So, and we’ve done one survey with them so far.  So we’ve done three surveys total:  two with the employed group; one with the unemployed group.

GLEN:  I think the first question you asked was what AT do you use in your job.  Is that right?

MICHELE:  Exactly, yes.

GLEN:  And how does that break down?

MICHELE:  Looking at it by people who reported being totally blind or legally blind with minimal functional vision, the most common was third-party screen reader software, no surprise.  At about 93% of the sample with that level of vision use that AT.  About 68% said they use an OCR app on the job.  About 57% use a remote sighted assistance app.  And then 47% use a refreshable braille display, and 47% use OCR software.

GLEN:  I do need to ask, just because we happen to make one of those screen reader software.  Where did we fit in?

MICHELE:  JAWS and Fusion are by far the most commonly used screen readers by our sample.  JAWS was the primary screen reader used by about 78% of our screen reader users.  And that included some of those who use Fusion.  And then so that was primary.  And then some of those who did not use JAWS as the primary, it was a secondary screen reader they used.

GLEN:  And what about people who have some vision?

MICHELE:  Those people who said they were legally blind with some functional vision, or people with low vision, the most common workplace AT was a third-party screen magnification software.  ZoomText, about 61% reported that they used that.  Following that was other built-in accessibility features on a computer, and that was 57%.  And then built-in screen magnifier was 54%.  And then electronic video magnifier, about 44% used that.  And then third-party screen reader software, 39% of those with more vision still use a screen reader.

GLEN:  You asked a couple of questions about how people get training, and how they learn their software.  And you phrased it in an interesting way.  You talked about what’s your preferred way of being trained, and what’s the actual way of being trained.  And I’m curious why you split it out that way.

MICHELE:  Well, we wanted to know what people, how people liked to learn new AT.  And then we wanted to know, well, how did they actually learn to use the different AT that they use?  And it turns out there is some discrepancy there, I guess.

GLEN:  So how do people like to learn?

MICHELE:  We asked people to tell us their top three ways to learn new AT.  And we asked them to actually label them their number one, number two, and number three.  And we gave them a list of eight different possible methods.  So the number one was having someone teach them, hands-on training.  And 64% of people selected that as one of their top three.  48% selected that as their number one, was to have hands-on training.  And then another 16% selected that as a number two or number three method.  And then beyond that, things like reading online tutorials or other user resources, 54% selected that as one of their top three.  51% selected reading the manual and trying it out on my own.

GLEN:  I’m surprised that’s – it’s that high.

MICHELE:  Right, and actually 20% selected that as their number one method.  But that also is indicative of what we found in terms of perceived skill level.  Most of them consider themselves to be highly skilled with their AT.

GLEN:  Those are people’s preferred learning methods.  What turns out to be the way they actually learn?

MICHELE:  So we asked them about how they learn to use each of their AT individually.  And we gave them six options.  And then we asked them to select all that apply to them.  And then we asked them, out of the ones they selected, what do they consider their primary way that they learn the AT?

So we found that the most common way to learn and the most common primary way to learn for all AT was self-taught.  Only screen reader software, third-party screen reader software was the only AT that more than 50% actually did receive training to learn to use it.  Third-party screen magnification software, 47% of people reported that they received training by VR or an agency for the blind.  So that’s almost 50%, but you know, less than 50%.  That was our, probably our second highest in terms of receiving training.

So then OCR software or hardware, which is something that’s commonly used by people on the job, only about 30% said they received training by VR or an agency for the blind.  For a refreshable braille display, only 16% of the people who use that at work reported that they received training by VR or an agency for the blind.

GLEN:  You had a question about AT challenges that people face on the job.  How was that structured, and what were the results?

MICHELE:  In the first survey we ask, as an open-ended question, what challenges they experienced with AT at work.  And so people gave us their responses.  And then in the second survey we took what they said in the first survey, and we created a list of potential challenges that you might experience.  Then we gave them 15 items.

So the number one most commonly experienced challenge is inaccessible digital documents.  77% of our samples said that they experienced that challenge.  And that was closely followed by software or websites that are accessible but difficult to use with the AT.  And that was about 74%.  72% experienced inaccessible websites.  69% experienced inaccessible software or apps.  And then 65% experienced problems accessing images, graphs, photos.  So all of those top five that so many experienced have to do with inaccessible external items, rather than a real problem with the AT itself.

And then after that, there was reading printed material.  About half the people experienced that.  Trouble reading handwriting.  Again, about half of the people experienced that.  Working efficiently compared to sighted peers.  45% indicated that was a problem.

GLEN:  There were a small number of respondents who said they didn’t face any challenges.  And that causes me to think that we often, I think, recalibrate what is considered to be a challenge based on our experiences over the years.  And so many of us may have become immune to challenges.  I mean, does that make any sense to you?

MICHELE:  Yes.  And one of our partners from a tech company, I think it’s from Vispero actually, kind of questioned these results and was asked, well, does challenge mean they can’t do it?  Or just that it’s hard?  Or what does that mean exactly?  So I think in the next survey I’d really like to explore that a little more.  So you experience this challenge, but are you able to overcome it?  Kind of get more information about what that really means in terms of the experience of the challenge, and whether it can be overcome or not.

GLEN:  You also asked the question about how satisfied people are with their AT.  And how did that turn out?

MICHELE:  So we asked them specifically how satisfied they are with their AT for specific work tasks, rather than asking, like, how satisfied are you with your screen reader?  So we did first ask them about whether they performed specific work tasks.  And if they said yes, then we asked them what AT they used to do that.  Then we asked them how satisfied they were with the AT.  And so just kind of overall, in general, for the most part, people are satisfied with their AT.  I’d say relatively few people expressed dissatisfaction.  They did have the option of saying that they were more or less satisfied.  And, you know, we had a decent number of people kind of in that range where it’s like, yeah, you know, not going to complain about it.  But maybe it’s not as great as it could be.  But, you know, satisfied rather than dissatisfied.

We did find that 15% or more of our sample were dissatisfied with their AT for five different tasks.  The most common was using a computer to create presentations.  That was about a third of the people who weren’t satisfied with AT for that.  Using a photocopier, just over a quarter of people weren’t satisfied with that.  Accessing an employer’s database or software system, about 20% were dissatisfied.  Making a formal presentation, 18% were dissatisfied.  And then accessing printed material, about 15%.  We had some dissatisfaction with that.

GLEN:  I’m surprised some of these numbers are so low because certain things, like creating a really visually compelling presentation, we all have to do that these days.

MICHELE:  Right.  And the dissatisfaction, that was kind of like, that was the overall level of dissatisfaction for those tasks.  But the dissatisfaction did differ based on the specific AT that they used for some tasks.  So screen reader users were more dissatisfied than other AT users for creating presentations.

GLEN:  One remaining topic that I feel like we should touch on is new AT that people were excited about and/or had used.

MICHELE:  Well, we asked them how they learned about it first.  And the most common way was word of mouth from other people who are blind or have low vision, and then also from emails, listservs, or podcasts.  And then we asked them about the factors that were most important to them to adopting the novel AT.

And actually what we did, we had five factors.  And we asked them to rate the importance of each one to them on a one-to-five scale, with five being the most important.  So by far the most important factor was functionality, whether it would help them more than the current AT options that are out there.  So that was a 4.7 on a five-point scale.  And then price and affordability was also very important to people, 4.2 on that scale.  And then ease of use, whether it would be easier to use than their current AT.  That was very important at 4.1.  And then we asked about their interest in adopting a novel AT.  And 102 people, or about 33% of those who answered the question, said there is a novel AT out there that they would like to adopt.  They haven’t yet, but they would like to.

And the two most common types of novel AT that they were interested in were orientation or navigation devices or apps and braille devices.  And that was about 29% for both of those.  And interest was also high for wearable glasses or other wearable devices.  28% mentioned that type of device.

GLEN:  I’m really fascinated that people are saying braille devices are novel AT.  Now, there’s lots of research going on about multi-line braille devices and braille devices that show graphics.  So maybe that’s the kind of thing people are thinking about.  Did you get clarification on that?

MICHELE:  We do have data on that.  I don’t have it in front of me, and I had the same thought as you.  I thought, I’m not sure that all of these are actually like what we were thinking of as novel devices.  But I do think manufacturers are coming out with some different features and advances in braille, some braille devices.  So maybe people are thinking of it that way, that this new device would have this feature that my current one doesn’t.

GLEN:  You are in the midst of doing a second set of surveys, right, amongst people who are not employed and talking about their experiences with AT.  And I’m curious if we can spend a little time talking about that broadly.  What have you noticed are the differences between their responses and those of folks who are working?

MICHELE:  The same year we did our first survey with our employed group, a few months after we implemented that survey we did a survey with our unemployed group.  And unemployed were people who were not currently working, but they needed to be interested in working.  And we had a smaller group.  We had just over 100 people who participated in that survey.  And that was one of our original research questions was, is AT use, you know, skill level and self-efficacy different among people who are employed and unemployed?

And what we found out was actually there are surprisingly few differences between the two groups in terms of those things we were looking at.  Their AT self-efficacy was not different at all.  For the most part, they weren’t different on their self-perceived skill levels for each of the AT.  So we looked at, you know, side by side, you know, using screen magnifier for employed versus unemployed.  And there are really very few, you know, very small differences, if any.  There were a few differences in terms of the AT that they used; but, you know, we kind of thought that those may be more likely due to the fact that people who are unemployed were reporting on what AT they used at any time.  And then people who were employed were only reporting on what AT they used at work.

GLEN:  So it sounds like you had a little bit of a surprise with that topic.  And I know as researchers you’re supposed to be open to all responses.  But, I mean, we all have our preconceived notions.  Were there other surprises, broadly speaking, in either of the surveys?

MICHELE:  I was a little surprised at the extremely high self-perceived skill levels.  You know, I expected we’d have some people who were highly skilled, but overwhelmingly people consider themselves highly skilled.  So I was a little surprised by that.

GLEN:  Your website mentions that you have technology partners, and you’ve mentioned that Vispero is one of them, as are many others.  How does that technology partner relationship get formed, and what’s the purpose of it?

MICHELE:  We really wanted to investigate challenges that people have, any gaps between kind of what they need their AT to do and what it’s able to do.  And so we wanted to partner with tech companies because they are the companies that could address these challenges and gaps.

GLEN:  It’s been really nice for us that you provide more detail in the appendices about the specific answers that people give because very often folks will say “I’m unsatisfied about the ability to do OCR of a document.”  And we think, “Oh, well, we do OCR of a document.  What are they specifically unhappy with?”  And also that people have said, and most people seem to have said they’re willing to talk with us for follow up, that just those two things seem really good.

MICHELE:  Yeah.  And actually some feedback I got from one of our company partners was that they want even more detail, you know, in those comments.  Because some people do provide a good bit of detail in their open-ended responses, and then some people don’t.  And they were asking for, can we ask them to provide even more specific information so that they can actually address whatever problem someone’s having?  You know, they want to be sure they understand the problem before they try to address it.

GLEN:  Thanks, Michele.  This was some enlightening information.

MICHELE:  Okay.  Thank you, Glen.

GLEN:  Shortly after my conversation with Michele a couple of weeks ago, a research paper has been published with more specifics about the most recent AT in the Workplace study.  And if you want to read it, you can go to the NRTC website at blind.msstate.edu/research/publications.  And it’s near the top.  When Michele wrote to tell me about it, it was the topmost publication; but there’s been another one since.  So just search for “AT in the Workplace Study.”  You’ll find it.

Signing Off on FSCast 230

GLEN:  That’s pretty much it for FSCast 230.  A reminder that coming up on June 14th we’ll be posting the archive of the May FSOpenLine in this feed.  And one of the things we’ll be covering before taking calls is what’s new in the June product updates.  And we have quite a few things to tell you.  So be sure to listen to FSOpenLine, both for that information and some great questions and answers.  I’m Glen Gordon.  Thanks very much for listening.

Transcript by elaine@edigitaltranscription.com


edigitaltranscription.com  •  05/28/2023  •  edigitaltranscription.com