FSCast #233

July,  2023

GLEN GORDON:  On FSCast 233 we’ll meet Andrew Leland.  His brand new book, “The Country of the Blind,” is a thoughtful exploration of the world of blindness as he discovers his place in it.  Then Ian Stenseng from the Seattle Lighthouse and longtime JAWS scripter Steve Clark will be here to talk about their creative ways of making the Lighthouse factory equipment accessible.

Hello, everybody.  Glen Gordon here.  Welcome to our podcast for July of 2023.  I want to start out by talking about my new favorite hotkey for use in web browsers.  It’s CTRL+F6.  What it does is get you back to the main page, regardless of where you were at the time you pressed it.  I find myself over and over again tabbing through a webpage, going too far, going past the bottom of the page, and realizing that what I may have wanted is nearer to the top.  And so historically I’ve just pressed TAB a whole bunch of times to get back to the page content.

Come to realize that CTRL+F6 will get you there in one key press.  Hotkeys are a subset of the things that you’ll find when you go to our Freedom Scientific Training Center.  That’s at freedomscientific.com/training.  We try to make it a one-stop shop for everything related to learning JAWS, ZoomText, and Fusion.  So there are links to our YouTube videos; there are archived webinars on demand; there are pointers to the documentation, if reading things are more your style, all at our Training Center, which is at freedomscientific.com/training.

Interview with Andrew Leland

GLEN:  I’m very pleased to welcome Andrew Leland to the podcast.  I discovered his work long before I ever thought that our lives might intersect.  He was hosting an arts podcast called The Organist back in 2014; and ever since I started listening to that, I have been following his career.  Come to find out that he has just released a book called “The Country of the Blind.”  No, not the H.G. Wells story.  Just the same title, reappropriated for good.  In his case, it’s “The Country of the Blind:  A Memoir at the End of Sight.”

Andrew will do a much better job of describing the book than I could ever hope to do, but I do want to say upfront that I found this to be a very compelling and enjoyable read because it’s not quite real-time, but it’s very close in terms of the immediacy with which he tells his own personal story and interweaves it with some history and stories of others.  Andrew, welcome to FSCast.

ANDREW LELAND:  Thank you, Glen.  I’m delighted to be here.

GLEN:  So I already have a question about the book’s subtitle, which is “A Memoir at the End of Sight.”  And as someone who’s never had any vision, to me it feels like you still have and are using some of your residual vision, where for someone who is fully sighted, you probably are at the end of sight because comparatively you have very little vision left.

ANDREW:  In the book I really wrestle with this question that you have asked me right out the gate of, like, what is the end of sight?  When does it end?  Right?  Because I’ve talked to so many blind people who are going through what I’m going through, which is gradually losing sight over decades.  And the experience is really confounding because there is no one moment.  I mean, for some people certainly there is, right, where you’re in a car crash, and the end of sight comes in an instant.  But with RP, the end of sight, you know, there might be a point in the long distant future when there’s no light perception whatsoever, but the reality is that I’m probably going to have some kind of light perception for a long time to come, and yet I’m also going to be blind before the moment where I’m no longer using my vision to do anything.

So it is a memoir at the end of sight because it’s really a memoir about my experience of trying to figure out when that point comes, and the kind of mind-blowing revelation that I had that, you know – it will not be mind-blowing to many other people, but it was sort of a necessary thing for me to figure out – was that it is something that is not determined by my eyes, it’s determined by me; and that at a certain point I have to decide, “Okay, even though I can see the screen, and I can make out the words on it, it’s going to be better for me to listen and to use a screen reader.”  And, you know, that’s one of many examples in my life that I’ve had to wrestle with.

And the reality is that it’s not a one-and-done thing.  You know, I’ve had that revelation, I’ve had that realization, and then the next day I find myself burning my eyes out trying to use my phone visually, and then I remember, “Right, okay.”  So it’s not a matter of clinging so much as like wrestling or, you know, this sort of ongoing process of trying to figure out when I get to be blind, how blind I am, what blindness means, and what it is to me and to other people.

GLEN:  You knew from a pretty young age that you have RP.

ANDREW:  Yeah.

GLEN:  When did it operationally become relevant?

ANDREW:  There were little milestones, and you might call them big milestones, too, along the way; right?  And like all of these things, they were all pretty subjective.  So at a certain point I said, “Okay, I’m telling myself driving at night is no longer safe, but surely it’s fine during the day.”  And then at a certain point I thought, “Nope, I’m revoking my driver’s license entirely.”  And so certainly that’s operationally impacting me.  But blindness felt so distant in that moment, even when I decided to stop driving.  Like I wasn’t blind.  I was reading books that I got at the bookstore in regular print; right?  I didn’t own a cane.  So how could I think about blindness?

So it’s really been – I’ve got to say it was when I started using the white cane that it really entered my life in a powerful way.  And the reason for that is social because, sure, I could have this like weird affectation of like, “Oh, I don’t drive because I have this weird eye disease,” and people kind of look confused and say, “Whatever, you’re just a precious guy who doesn’t feel like driving” or something.  But, you know, the white cane, there’s no mistaking what that is.  And everybody in my life, from strangers on the street to my family, had an intense reaction to it.

And that’s when I really started writing in earnest because it went from being this thing that felt confusing and felt distant and sort of vaguely troubling to like ever present, every day in my life, all the time.  And when it got that intense, I felt like writing about it was the only way to work through my complicated mix of thoughts and emotions around it.

GLEN:  Did you propose the book before or after you got the cane?

ANDREW:  After.  Yeah.  Yeah.  The cane was really the – I’ve got to say, I don’t know what the metaphor would be.  It was like the lightning rod that gave the jolt of electricity that kicked the engine into gear, for sure.

GLEN:  Did you have a really clear thought as to how the book would evolve when you pitched it?  Because you obviously have to give them a pitch letter.

ANDREW:  Honestly, I’m surprised to tell you that I did.  I tend to be a person who’s a little bit less organized in my thinking when I start off on a writing project.  And certainly it evolved far beyond what I originally conceived.  But I always had this sense of the book as this mix of personal and sort of looking outward.  So I wanted it to be about my own experience of losing vision, but that never felt sufficient to me to carry the book.  And I always knew that the book would be a sort of investigation into the world of blindness, animated and powered by my own sort of personal existential stake in the game, but would push beyond it.

And then once I had that part figured out, then there were big categories that just seemed obvious to me.  And as I learned more about blindness, you know, those got clarified.  But like it seemed clear that literacy was a big one; right?  Like my own personal feelings about losing print was the memoiristic component, but then there’s all these fascinating histories and stories and contemporary stuff about, you know, from braille to raised letters, that sort of way that blind people read tactilely before braille, to digital braille displays, all that whole world.  And so there were these sort of big buckets of like literacy and technology and race and gender and sexuality, all those things that I kind of knew.  Audio description was a piece of it.

And the country metaphor, like the book is called “The Country of the Blind.”  And in some ways that really, it really made sense to me as like a travelogue where it’s like my personal journey into this other world.  So it’s not just about me, it’s about what did I find there?  What are the different regions?  There’s like, you know, audio description-ville, you know, the state of audio description, the state of literacy, there’s these sort of like different provinces that I knew I wanted to map out.

GLEN:  It almost feels like a really isolating title in the sense that it’s “The Country of the Blind,” as opposed to the country where everyone else lives.

ANDREW:  You’re saying that “The Country of the Blind” makes it seem like blind people live apart in like a strange and foreign and exotic island that’s separate from the rest of the world.  And that’s, that’s troubling, or kind of confusing.

GLEN:  Well, it’s not even troubling.  It just seems like that’s what many people already naturally think.

ANDREW:  Yeah.  Well, I mean, it made sense for me because at the beginning I really did feel like, okay, I’m this sighted person who’s now being forced against my will to live in this place, and I’d better figure out how to live here.  And to a degree that remains true.  And I think there is a reality of that, whether it’s – whether it should be that way or not, you know, I do get treated differently.  And I do have to use alternative techniques.  And I do have to, like, you know, figure out how to use these weird tools.

At the same time, you know, a conclusion that I come to at the end of the book and throughout the book is like, oh, right, but also I’m still me.  Blind people are still people.  And like, sure, reading braille is a radically different experience than reading print; but also not really; right?  Like, I’m still just reading the same book you are.  And I think the country metaphor works there, right, where we can look at somebody who lives in another country and say, wow, like you speak a different language.  Your food tastes different.

But then at the end of the day it’s like, what are the things that are important to you?  Like family safety, you know, getting out in nature, working, using your hands, like whatever the things that make us human cross national boundaries.  So it’s kind of both at the same time, I think.  And the process of writing the book and thinking about these issues really had me going back and forth.  And, you know, sometimes I talk about blindness as this exotic or different or unique thing.  And at the same time, of course, it’s not.  And it’s just like another way of being a human.

GLEN:  Was writing the book a way for you to investigate blindness in a slightly depersonalized way, and perhaps let you dig in deeper than you would have had you just been researching it for the sake of yourself and losing your vision?

ANDREW:  Yeah, I think so.  You know, I think I got a little defensive, and I feel a little defensive about that idea.  Because there’s something in it that hits on a sensitivity I have about the fact that I’m not properly emotional about the experience of going blind.  And that’s something I get from sighted people in my life where, not a lot, but I’ve heard the suggestion, this sort of like, well, you’re – it’s really cool that you’re finding all these intellectual, you know, adventures in blindness.  But let’s be real, like you’re really scared and sad; right?  And I kind of want to push back and say, like, no, there are fun intellectual adventures, and I am interested in this world.  And, you know, at the same time, like, of course there’s fear, and of course there’s sadness.  And there is that loss that we’ve been talking about.

And so I think you’re absolutely right that the sort of massive intellectual undertaking of writing a book like this did carve out some space for me to say, like, okay, like, yeah, there’s scary parts.  And yeah, there’s hard parts.  But like, let’s really explore this as a field of inquiry, which includes the emotions, but also can help me go deeper.  And, you know, I think in the end it’s not surprising to learn that that helps with the emotional side of it because I can feel those feelings, but also I know that there’s this much larger context, and there’s this – really the most important piece is just meeting so many blind people has really taken blindness from this sort of imaginary scary thing that feels maybe very limiting.

And I’ve just met blind geniuses and blind normal people and blind jerks and just so many blind people just living their lives normally that that, even though that was part of the sort of think-y intellectual process of like reporting and, you know, doing interviews, it ultimately had a really emotional impact on me just to say, like, oh, okay, like, I see so many different versions of this and how I can do it.  And it was incredibly, it’s a dorky word, but it was incredibly empowering.

GLEN:  There are people sort of across the spectrum in terms of how actively blindness plays a role in their life.  And I think this comes down to the cultural question of, you know, are you part of a blind culture, or is blindness sort of an inconvenience for you?

ANDREW:  Yeah.  I think about that a lot.  You know, I had a friend of mine who’s a blind writer say to me – he read an early draft of the book; and he, you know, he complimented me, and then he said, “Andrew, be a writer, not a blind writer.”  You know, he’s giving me a compliment, like you’re too good of a writer to just be a blind writer.  Don’t get pigeonholed.  It’s a freak show if, like, all you do is write about blindness.

And another blind, a deafblind friend of mine, John Lee Clark, who’s a wonderful poet, you know, I read an interview with him where he kind of took the opposite case.  So he said, you know, “Disability, my deafblindness is a key to a whole world of richness, and it’s a perspective.”  And I kind of do vacillate between those two things.  I don’t want to only write about blindness for the rest of my life.  And if I pitch a story about underground radio stations in Somalia – I just totally made that up.  But let’s presume that I uncover a cool network of underground radio stations in Somalia.  I want to write about it.  You know, an editor’s going to be like, “You’re the blind journalist.  We don’t want to do that.”  Right?  So that would be profoundly limiting.

At the same time, in this moment, as I’m sort of just learning all this stuff, it feels really fresh and exciting to me.  And so I’m more in the John Lee Clark camp at the moment of, like, let’s lean into this and explore it as like a rich terrain to be explored, while also holding the idea in my mind absolutely that, like, I’m not fundamentally different, and blind people or disabled people aren’t, you know, somehow fundamentally different, even while at the same time there are unique aspects that are worthy of celebration and investigation.

GLEN:  This sort of touches on the Radiolab episode you did for their podcast and radio show called The Right Stuff, where I can’t remember if it was on the episode itself or it was on an interview I heard with you about it.  But someone was trying to figure out if you were actually a participant, or if you were a journalist, or if you were a little of each.

ANDREW:  So the project was taking a group of disabled people on this parabolic flight that simulates zero gravity, which is often used in astronaut training, basically to start to make the case for disabled astronauts and, like, test the question of why disabled people can’t participate, you know, especially as commercial spaceflight becomes more of a possibility and that more mainstream access to space travel, you know, how are disabled people going to be included was the sort of animating question of this project.

And so I got to go on the flight with – there were blind people, deaf people, people with mobility disabilities.  And, yeah, early on in the process I was interviewing this former astronaut who was on the flight, who was one of the people who were helping coordinate it.  And she was like, she just assumed because she saw my cane that I was one of the participants, I was one of the disabled aspiring astronauts.  And it was an awkward moment.  And it is in the piece.  It’s actually right at the beginning.  And she’s like, “Well, so you’re one of the participants; right?”  And I’m like, “Well, no, I’m a journalist.”  But she’s like, “But you could be; right?”

And, yeah, it is, it creates a funny dynamic, where I was a participant insofar as I was on the plane.  But nobody was, you know, I was ultimately a journalist, and I happen to be blind; you know.  And that’s a situation where my blindness was both subject and kind of incidental.  And I think it ultimately made the Radiolab episode work because the piece ended up being about that tension between what it means to be disabled, and what it means just to be somebody who’s participating.  You know, because that’s what the “right stuff” is.  It’s like, what, you know, what do we want from the people who are on this flight?  What do they need to be able to do?

I’m really actively asking those questions in my own life.  So it’s kind of productive to ask them in my writing, as well.  And I could see a point where that doesn’t make sense anymore, but for now it really does.

GLEN:  You decided to learn braille.


GLEN:  Why?

ANDREW:  Well, I am a language nerd and a book nerd.  And, you know, one of the deepest pleasures of my life has been reading and talking about books and magazines.  And the more I learned about braille, the more I realized that the deep engagement with language on the sentence level, I don’t want to say it would only be possible with braille because I know blind writers who don’t know braille, and they are deeply engaged with their own writing and with reading.  So it’s not like it was the only way.  But once I realized the power of it, I just thought, why wouldn’t I give myself that avenue?

And it’s paid off, you know, I mean, it’s funny, like, you know, I sort of have described to you the gradual process that I’ve gone through, like with the cane, where at first I was using the cane, and I was just sort of carrying it like this ceremonial object, you know, like, “Ah, this is my cane,” you know, and it helped in sort of a vague way to signal to other people.  And now it’s really helpful.  And like, there was a sort of imperceptible process whereby, as my vision kind of eroded over the years, the cane went from being the ceremonial object to like a crucial tool.

And braille feels that way to me now, like the way the cane did before, where I practice it every day.  And it certainly would be more efficient to listen to whatever book I’m reading in braille, or even, like, strain to try to read it visually with magnification or something.  But I’d force myself to.  And I’m gradually getting the idea that, like, oh, okay.  So in the way that now where I listen to my screen reader, and also look at a giant monitor with stuff blown up, if I really need to, like, check a sentence, I can do that visually, eventually I’m going to be able to do that with braille, and it’s going to be awesome.

And the same thing with reading aloud, like, you know, as somebody who makes radio and podcasts, I want to be able to read my script.  And right now, if I was trying to record my audiobook in braille, I would sound like a kindergartner, and it would be horrible.  But you know, maybe by the time magnification is no longer an option, you know, if I stick with it I’ll have braille as an option.

GLEN:  You switched to JAWS to help you write and work with a computer mid-book process.  What drove you there?

ANDREW:  I’m a lifelong Mac user.  And when I started writing the book, I was using a program called Scrivener on the Mac.  And I would practice using voiceover, turning voiceover on and using it.  And I hit a pretty good rhythm where things were magnified to my liking, but I was also able to listen back, and Scrivener is pretty accessible.  And then I started to do some more freelance work.  I wrote a story for The New York Times magazine.  And then my book editor started wanting, you know, I had to start sending Word documents back and forth to her; and, you know, Scrivener didn’t work.  I had to send them Word documents, and they were sending me track changes.  And so I had to be in Word more.

And suddenly, very abruptly, I realized that Microsoft Word with voiceover on the Mac was not going to cut it.  And the funny thing about learning to use a screen reader was like, how much of this is just me not knowing how to use the screen reader, and how much of this is like that it’s actually accessible?  And I think that it’s worth naming that because that’s a surprisingly difficult distinction to make, probably even in some cases for, like, veteran screen reader users, but certainly for a newbie.  And so I was just like, oh.

And I blamed myself at first.  And I was like, I must just not know the right command.  And I tried to take a course.  And, you know, Mac, there’s a lot fewer resources for Mac users who want to use screen readers than there are for Windows users, I found.  And it was kind of an ongoing process as the months ticked by.  And I just sort of suffered through.  I said, okay, well, maybe I should give this a shot, because I just heard from enough blind people that using a PC was better for them.  And then firing up Word on a Windows machine with JAWS was kind of a revelation, honestly.  And I was like, oh, my God, like, I can actually do this work.

And it was not just the functionality of the screen reader or of, you know, certainly Word is less buggy on Windows than it is on the Mac.  But it was also that community.  And that was, I think, what really tipped the scales for me was like, if I googled, like, “keyboard shortcut for adding a comment in Word with voiceover,” there were people out there who were doing it.

And there certainly were resources, but it was nothing compared to, like, “The Windows Screen Reader Primer” that David Kingsbury wrote from the Carroll Center, you know, like that alone I was like, why doesn’t this exist for the Mac?  And so having a document like that, where I could really just sort of see laid out cleanly before me what I needed to do, was really powerful.  And yeah, I haven’t looked back.

GLEN:  Your book is a great compendium of history about many things tangentially related to blindness.  It’s a great resource for finding interesting people to interview.  I’m sure if I ever need an interview guest, I’ll just look in your references and find someone to call.

ANDREW:  I hope you do.

GLEN:  One of the things you left out conspicuously, to me at least, was a discussion of screen readers and or magnifiers.  I mean, you sort of mentioned that they existed, but you didn’t really talk about them in the same way as you talked about reading machines, for instance.

ANDREW:  Interesting.  That’s a fascinating question, Glen.  Why is that?  I think what that’s about, and this is something that I talked about a lot with my editor, was that the book had to be for blind and sighted readers.  And she was kind of asking me to do something that felt a little paradoxical at times, which was, we want to go extremely deep into the history and culture and experience of blindness, but not so deep that we lose people in the weeds.

And, you know, for example, the chapter about visual culture that goes into audio description, but also into museum accessibility and visual art, you know, I had a lot, lot, lot more about audio description, for instance, in there.  And my editor just fought and fought.  And every draft she would give me a bunch of notes, and then there would always be a paragraph in there where she was just like, “And could you make the audio description stuff shorter by half, maybe?”  And it just like, you know, I fought her on it; but at the same time, I had to understand where she was coming from and where I think she represented a lot of readers who would say, like, “I want to know what a screen reader is.”

And the book does, you know, if you come at the book knowing nothing about blindness, I want you to come away with an understanding of it.  But that history, especially in a book that tried to cover the waterfront in that way, right, where I’m really trying to not just talk about tech, or not just talk about history, or not just talk about politics, but really give you, like, experience in all of those fields, it just didn’t – it didn’t feel like it fit in the kind of scope of the big survey that I was trying to do.

And to be perfectly honest, I want to go deep on digital accessibility in a piece in the future.  And I do think there’s an interesting challenge there of like how to make sighted people understand, not just the mechanics of it, but like the richness of it, and the sort of centrality of it as a part of the hearing-blind experience.  And so that is something that I want to pursue.  But yeah, it was something that didn’t quite fit in the book.  I mean, but it is present there; right?  I mean, there is my experience of going from being a visual reader to an auditory reader.  And I do write about that experience, but I don’t get very much into the technicality of it.

GLEN:  You talk a little about wanting, in some cases, to be blind already, not wanting to be in this middle ground.  You felt like you might be thought of as a fraud if you didn’t come across as 100% blind, yet you were saying you were.

ANDREW:  This is another one of those examples of, like, the invasive weed in my yard, where I think I’ve got that one figured out.  And then I wake up the next day, and I think, “Oh, my God, I wrote this book, and here I am watching this TV show without audio description.  Like, how dare you?”  And I think I have all of the answers intellectually about why I don’t need to feel that way.  But the reality is blindness, people think of it as a binary, and people talk about it as a binary.  And I think even blind people, you know, there’s this idea of the hierarchy of sight, you know, and that like I’m kind of – this feeling that I’m capitalizing on my sight privilege somehow, and all of that stuff still comes up for me all the time.

And it’s a ridiculous thought, even as I have it, of like having less vision would solve that problem for me.  But it’s something that I wrestle with.  And I think part of it has to do with people stubbornly thinking of blindness as a binary, you’re either blind or you’re not, you know, you either have no vision or all your vision, and kind of ignoring the spectrum aspect of it.  I think hierarchy of sight is part of it.  I think for me the thing that is the clearest path through that anxiety is this thing that we’ve been talking about this whole time of the idea that, even if I have some vision, learning to use a screen reader, learning to use a cane, learning braille, are all really important to do today, now.

And I’ve just had that experience over and over again, of like thinking I’m just being a good Boy Scout by practicing my screen reader skills, and all of a sudden there I am, trying to finish a book, and thank God I put that work in for the preceding 16 months because it made the next 16 months actually survivable.  And if I hadn’t done that, I might have had to punt on my book deal, honestly.  I don’t know if I would have been able to finish the book had I not put in that work.  I would have had a breakdown if I was like, okay, I’m going to start on page one of figuring out JAWS today.  That would have been really, really hard.

And so to me, like, the answer to feeling anxious about not being blind enough to talk about blindness is that, whether or not I have residual vision, I’m doing blind things now.  I’m using a cane.  I’m using a screen reader.  I’m experiencing the world as a blind person, even if I also have residual vision, and I’m experiencing it as a sighted person, too.

GLEN:  You are going to be out, at least so I’ve read, being interviewed by other authors.

ANDREW:  Mm-hmm.

GLEN:  Did you screen them in terms of, are they going to come with sort of the attitude that you’re hoping for and understanding what you’re trying to do?

ANDREW:  Honestly, not really.  You know, I’m very much deferring to my publisher in terms of like how to launch a book successfully because they know what they’re doing, I presume.  And, you know, I think what they wanted was writers who have audiences of their own, who will bring in more people.  I picked all those writers.  You know, it’s not like my publisher said, “We think you should do this person.”  They’re all sighted.  Some of them are disabled.  But really, what they are are brilliant writers, you know, people whose work I really admire.

And to me that’s, in this context of a book launch, I’m just a guy who wrote a book talking, you know, and so it doesn’t need to be a blind or a disabled interlocutor.  It can just be, you know, a cool novelist who will ask me interesting questions.  And if they happen to ask questions that are a little, shall we say, uninformed or even, you know, problematic, I trust all of them to be like sensitive, thoughtful, intelligent people that we can have an interesting conversation about it.

GLEN:  I actually think it’s really good because the people who most need to read this book, I think, are people who are sighted.

ANDREW:  Yes, absolutely.

GLEN:  It’s a great place to find spots to jump off on your own for someone who is losing their vision.  But folks in society broadly need to read this book.

ANDREW:  I’m grateful to you for saying that.  Yeah, I mean, the cliché is like, you write the book that you wanted to read.  And that really turned out to be true for me.  I mean, of course, there are so many wonderful, beautiful blindness memoirs out there.  And I had moments of thinking, like, why am I just adding to that?  And there are also really wonderful, kind of critical stories about blindness.  You know, you talked to Leona Godin, like her book is really wonderful in that way.

But, you know, I still felt like I hadn’t read quite the book that I wanted to read.  That book didn’t quite exist in the way that I wanted it, one that really got into some of the sort of more political questions or questions about identity.  And also like a book that was really stuck in the middle in the way that I am where, you know, somewhat of an outsider look and somewhat of an insider look, and one that could kind of like bounce between those perspectives.  And that’s really what I tried to do.  And that really ended up being valuable to me, and I hope as a result to other people who are going through that, but who also who are just interested in that experience of being in between.

GLEN:  Thank you, Andrew.  This was fun.  I’m glad to have met you.  Not quite in person, but close.

ANDREW:  Likewise.  And I have to say while I have you that, you know, when I made this transition to JAWS, you know, I realized that there was just more, more action on the PC than on the Mac for blind people, broadly speaking.  You know, and I just started listening to different, more technical podcasts.  And I found FSCast, and I was really quickly surprised and delighted that this wasn’t just like tool tips for how to hack, you know, Google Docs with a screen reader, but just like really interesting, wide-ranging conversations.  So I just – I want to tell you how much I appreciate this resource of this show.  I listen to it every month, and it’s terrific, and I’m glad you do it.

GLEN:  Thank you.  Thank you very much.  Andrew’s book is “The Country of the Blind:  A Memoir at the End of Sight.”  It is available on Bookshare.  So if you’re a Bookshare member, that’s one way of getting it.  But Leona Godin pointed out to me when she was on this podcast that, when we read books for free on places like Bookshare, authors don’t get any money from us.  And I really took her advice to heart.  So now when I like a book, or I really appreciate the work that an author is doing, I try to either buy it for somebody else or buy it for myself, even though I may have gotten the copy originally for free.

Two ways you might also want to enjoy Andrew’s book are by buying the Kindle book or by listening to the audiobook.  He does the narration.  And you can get that, amongst other places, on Audible.

JAWS Power Tip

GLEN:  Time now for this month’s Power Tip, courtesy of John Wesley Smith.  He writes in to remind folks that there is a quicker way of adjusting JAWS speaking rate than simply bringing up the JAWS voice dialog.  There are two sets of hotkeys actually for two different scenarios.  One is you’re in a document or on a web page, and you want to temporarily change the rate of speech.  You do that with ALT+CONTROL+PAGE UP to make things faster, ALT+CONTROL+PAGE DOWN to slow things down.  But when you ALT+TAB away or otherwise switch away from that app, voice rate will return to normal.

If, on the other hand, you want to make a more permanent change, and you don’t want to bring up the voice adjustment dialog, just add Windows to that key combination.  So to speed things up, it’s ALT+CONTROL+WINDOWS+PAGE UP; and to slow things down, ALT+CONTROL+WINDOWS+PAGE DOWN.  Those settings will become permanent.  They will persist across changing apps and also across restarting of JAWS.  And then if you want to change them again, either use those keystrokes or go into the JAWS voice adjustment dialog.

We thank John for his Power Tip.  If you have a Power Tip, something about JAWS, ZoomText, or Fusion that you don’t think is well known and will help out others, write to us at fscast@vispero.com, fscast@vispero.com.  If we use your Power Tip, you’ll get a year added onto your JAWS, ZoomText, or Fusion license.

Interview with Ian Stenseng and Steve Clark

GLEN:  Freedom Scientific has a sister company, TPGI, that offers a variety of accessibility consulting services.  One of the things that we’ll do is go out to jobsites and write custom JAWS scripts to make certain apps more accessible.  If you are in a situation of needing such a service, you can write to me, and I’ll put you in touch with the right folks at TPGI.

There are also third-party consultants throughout the world who do similar things.  One of the people who’s been doing it for the longest is Steve Clark, co-owner of Adaptive Technology Services.  Steve and I talk periodically about the state of scripting and some of the unique technical challenges that he faces.  On one of our more recent calls, he mentioned just casually that he was going up to the Seattle Lighthouse to update his scripts for controlling manufacturing equipment.  Fast forward to now, Steve is here, as is Ian Stenseng, Director of Accessibility and Innovation at the Seattle Lighthouse.

The Seattle Lighthouse, like Lighthouses around the country, offer a whole array of blindness-related services to the community, but they fund that in part by doing contract manufacturing.  And I figure there’s a whole array of things we can talk about in terms of how all of that is possible for people who are blind or low vision.  Ian, Steve, welcome to FSCast.

IAN STENSENG:  Thank you.

STEVE CLARK:  Thank you for having us.

GLEN:  I’m thinking maybe a good place to start is what are the sorts of things that folks do at the Lighthouse, and then we can move into the technology side.

IAN:  We have a total employee headcount of about 480-ish currently.  About 280 to 300 of those employees would meet the legal definition of blindness, so blind, low vision, or deafblind, as well as blind with additional disabilities.  People work in a whole variety of roles with different levels of responsibility, different exposure to technology, and in different physical environments, from warehouse environments, manufacturing, heavy equipment, through various types of offices.  We have a low vision clinic that serves the public, so we’ve got folks that are working in retail roles in the clinic, as well as at base supply stores, which are basically kind of like an office depot, but for the military, and actually are located on military bases.

If you’ve flown on any domestic or international flight, you’ve probably been on an airplane that we made parts for, and the operators of those machines that are milling those parts, many of them are blind, low vision, or deafblind.  So we have made modifications to lots of different types of industrial manufacturing equipment to make them accessible, or at least improve the accessibility, because it’s not always a slam dunk.  We’re very intentional about who we partner with in terms of who produces those machines and how they are designed, particularly, you know, we love devices that have Windows human machine interfaces because that allows us to use things like JAWS and scripts and all that good stuff.

GLEN:  So this is really DIY, whatever works, whatever you can get to work.

IAN:  Absolutely, absolutely.  So that’s actually interesting because that’s kind of where my bread gets buttered, as far as my specific job function.  I’m the guy that, if there’s not a commercially available off-the-shelf solution for a particular accessibility challenge, that’s when they bug me.  So I’m sort of referred to as the Mad Scientist of the Lighthouse at times.  And if it works, it’s not a dumb idea; right?  So we do a lot of...

GLEN:  But, I mean, this is an odd skill set for them to hire; right?  Somebody who’s just really creative in crafting devices.  How did you and they come together?

IAN:  Well, it’s an interesting story.  So I, about 11 years ago, I was working in a traditional kind of an IT role for the office of the Secretary of State here in Washington, and the Washington State Library and the Talking Book and Braille Library and various branch libraries at prisons and mental health facilities.  Those are all kind of part of the aegis of that organization.  And I was kind of the special projects guy for that.  And so I built the first accessible computer lab for the Talking Book and Braille Library in Seattle and kind of got into accessibility stuff that way, and then was hired to come to the Lighthouse initially to run some of our technology training programs.

And then as they sort of discovered that I had this tinkering skill set and could combine kind of fairly deep knowledge of audiovisual stuff with low-voltage electronics and some IT background and just a willingness to, you know, strap things together and see what works, it kind of evolved into my role today.

GLEN:  I read some article about you that talked about how you created an adapted measuring device, and I couldn’t tell if it was actually measuring distances or measuring liquid or measuring weight.

IAN:  Oh, yeah.  Yes.  Essentially, when you’re doing things like manufacturing, particularly aerospace manufacturing, where you have very tight tolerances and that sort of thing, you have a variety of types of measurement equipment.  So think about things like dial gauges or calipers.  You know, you want to measure the tolerances of parts that fit together.  And a big challenge has been that those tools are not particularly accessible.  If you have the electronic equivalent of those devices, then you might have a tiny little segmented LCD display or, you know, you might be able to hook a USB cable up to a computer, and it’ll dump data output into Excel or something like that.  That’s usually used for like metrology, taking measurements and logging things for quality control purposes.

So I was able to take that output, work with a software developer, and build a little hardware box, and actually partnered with a company called Metec in Germany who makes refreshable braille display components.  And they were willing to sell me OEM kind of guts for braille displays that were modular.  You could build them to a specific number of characters.  And so homebrewed this little Raspberry Pi-based device that has an HDMI backpack monitor on it.  It has speech output.  You can change the color and contrast of the numerical output.  And you can also get those values output onto these custom braille displays.  And so we were able to make the calipers and other Mitutoyo measurement products that had that USB output accessible.

GLEN:  And do you share this information with, you know, maker groups and other folks who might have use for similar things?

IAN:  Yeah, absolutely.  You know, it’s something that I have wanted to formalize.  I would love to.  And I know that long-term it’s something that we are planning to do, which is to basically kind of post the recipes for these devices, you know, make the software freely available to download and then kind of a Bill of Materials and whatnot and instructions to build these.  Because I’m certain things like the measurement device could be something that would be really useful for people who are school age, whether it’s in high school or college, who are interested in STEM careers and don’t have access to accessible tools.  Could also probably be a benefit to other like organizations that, you know, are doing work similar to us and have blind employees that have those needs.

So it’s something that I’ve made available to folks, anybody who’s kind of reached out and asked.  But I think it’d be great if we could set up some sort of a subpage on our website or whatever, where people could kind of get the skinny on that stuff and download a set of instructions.

GLEN:  So Steve, the reason that you’re here is you’ve worked closely with the Lighthouse in crafting solutions that involve JAWS.  And I think one of those was for this CNC machine; right?

STEVE:  Yeah.  So what’s interesting is, and this is, you know, there’s been not just that machine, but several others, but they’re typically user interfaces that rely on a touchscreen.  And I did my first work with them, oh, eight or nine years ago, before touchscreens were a thing we all went out and just bought on our laptops.  So these systems were using Windows 7 with a custom touchscreen.  And what’s surprising about it is all of the user interface stuff is written in Windows on these.  It’s not some – it’s not Linux.  It’s not some custom operating system that they’re building for the boxes.  They use Windows, and they write their user interface on the top of it.

The big problem is that these companies are all machine developers.  You know, they’re building these fancy CNCs and saws, and they don’t know about how to write decent Windows user interfaces.  So you end up with this kind of complicated screen layout with a lot of buttons to tap.  And so the challenge for us was to figure out how can we give people fairly straightforward hot keys to find what they need to do on the screen.  Users have to pick from a variety of programs that they have to use so they can cut several different kinds of parts on each machine.  And you pick the program that’s going to cut the parts as you put it in.

And all of the information on the screen was accessible to JAWS.  And it was just a matter of kind of just saying, oh, let’s tell it that we’re going to start a program by pressing CTRL+P, and we’re going to end a program by pressing CTRL+E, and going through and finding out the workflow and what needed to happen to make that workflow, from putting a part in and starting the machine up to taking the part out, accessible.

GLEN:  But when you try these things, it starts the machine working.  Did you waste a lot of parts in your development?

STEVE:  So the CNC machine was really interesting because they have a training module.  It’s this big, giant, heavy box.  I’ve done actually several passes at this.  They also update their software on a regular basis.  And the first one, I just sat on the floor for a week with a bunch of machines going around me.  But I was in a demo mode.  They have a training mode that I could use to do everything but actually start the machines.

The second time I worked with them, they just shipped me the training box.  And I just set it up in my office and did all my scripting from home, and then flew up to Seattle with the scripts.  And we put them on a real machine and then had somebody come by and test them out.  All of them, even the saw machine I was working on recently, they could go right up to the point of where they push a button to run it.

On the saw, we actually ran the saw with nothing in it.  So it would act like there was stuff coming in, but it wouldn’t actually cut anything.  But it came on.  It was noisy when it happened.  But they have a mechanism.  You know, you have to learn how to use these machines some way without actually triggering everything.  And we use those mechanisms for doing the scripting.

GLEN:  Is it getting worse as graphics technology is getting better and better?  It feels like there’s a greater and greater chance that what’s on the screen is really a graphic that JAWS can’t see.

STEVE:  Yes, a little bit.  One of the things that happened in the saw, because again, the saw software I’d done in I think 2015 or 2017, and I was back for – they just did a big update and put all new machines, I think, new control panels on the machines.  And one of the things that ended up happening in the scripts was they just decided to rearrange the order of the buttons on the screen.  And they were, like, graphic buttons.  JAWS could actually see that there was a button there, but didn’t know what the name of the button was or what would happen if you pushed it.  And my job was then to say, okay, let’s script this so that, you know, I’m going to press the button for you, and here’s the keystroke that presses that button.

But we were using order as a visual thing.  I said, okay, there’s four buttons across the screen.  So we’re going to put those on ALT+1, 2, 3, and 4.  And then when I got there the second time, they’d switched buttons 3 and 4 around.  And so we had a discussion now.  Do we change the commands, because the guys that have been doing this have been doing it for years and years, to match the way the user interface looks?  Or do we change the scripts to match the way they’ve been doing the job?  And we changed the scripts to match the way they’d been doing the job so that it was easier to move forward without having to be retrained.

GLEN:  How much effort do you spend in making sure that not only people can do the job, but they can do the job efficiently?

IAN:  Well, that’s, I mean, really, that is where the margins are.  So it takes a lot of effort to create profitable domestic manufacturing.  And that takes a lot of ingenuity to make sure that the margins are there so we can do the work, we can create good quality employment for folks, and turn a profit that we can then – as a not-for-profit, all of our, you know, what would be shareholder profits in a private enterprise instead go back into our service offerings, our accommodations program, our computer-assistive technology training programs.

We have ASL instruction.  We have orientation and mobility instructors onsite.  We have a kennel onsite so folks who have guide dogs can keep their dogs onsite and happy and fed and warm and all that kind of thing during the day.  So it takes a lot of work.  And we have a lot of very dedicated and very bright people that are working their tails off every day to make it happen.

STEVE:  Yeah, Glen, that’s something, too, with the scripting is we look for efficiencies.  So instead of having to tab to everything that’s on the screen, we’re more likely to create a bunch of custom hotkeys to go right to whichever button needs to be hit so that the process becomes a matter of learning five or six keystrokes to get the program running that you have to memorize.  But that’s way faster than the 50 or 60 tabs and enters and spacebars you might have to do to do the exact same thing.

IAN:  Exactly.  And if you’re talking about a production facility where we’re running two and sometimes three shifts, 18 to 24 hours a day, that adds up.  It’s economies of scale, you know, and the time savings, similar to what you’ll see in manufacturing with some of the Lean Six Sigma stuff and that kind of thing.  We try to apply those same sorts of approaches to our accessibility approach, as well.  And Steve’s been a huge help with that.

GLEN:  Any other interesting tech that you have created out of necessity?

IAN:  So we have an area where we do a lot of sort of manual assembly stuff; and we have folks who are blind, who have additional disabilities, whether it’s developmental delays or folks who have some limits to their manual dexterity, but they’re still able to do certain kinds of assembly tasks for manufacturing.  And a lot of times there will be need for somebody who’s going to bring them more materials or take away a tray of stuff that’s been assembled and provide fresh parts, that sort of thing.

And so we’ve built some interesting stuff there.  We have a current iteration of that, that we found these little stick-on buttons.  They have a little RF transmitter inside that’s very similar to – think like a garage door opener; right?  Each one of them can have a unique number associated with it.  If you push that button on the receiver, it’ll say number six wants attention; right?  But the little receiver is about the size of a clock radio and has a segmented LED display on it.  So you have to be pretty close to it to see it, for folks who have low vision.  So we took that.

We also found a wristband, a little wristwatch kind of thing that could also be paired with these things that can vibrate.  So we have folks that are wearing the wristband, and so it will vibrate when somebody pushes the button.  And then we put the small LCD display inside a blacked out box, essentially, with an HDMI digital camera pointed at it, that is then pushing that video feed to a giant monitor on the wall.  And so we have a big screen numerical display.  So the wristband vibrates, and then the person can look at the giant screen on the wall and see what number it is and then go to that corresponding table to help that person.

GLEN:  How loud is it in your machine shop?  And the reason I ask is I’m not an echolocation guy, but I use it sort of subconsciously when I’m navigating around and moving.  And so if I’m, like, at an airport where you have to go outside to board a plane, I feel very disoriented because of all the noise.

IAN:  So it is very loud.  If you’re working on the main production floor where all the equipment is, hearing protection is required.  But, you know, people get used to it, and I think a lot of folks actually do navigate by sound even in that environment because they know the sounds of the various machines.  So you have things like single-axis routers that are cutting big sheets of material; right?  So think of it like a scissors cutting out a big piece of paper, but it’s a giant drill bit cutting out a piece of phenolic resin board or a piece of steel or sheet metal of some kind.  Those have a specific kind of grind-y sound.

And then you have the Okuma machines, which are multi-axis CNCs that are cutting from like a big, solid, imagine a brick made out of aluminum, and it’s grinding away at that from various angles.  So that has a different sort of a tonality to it.  And then actually we make canteens for the military, and there’s a canteen cup.  It’s a big steel stamped cup that the canteen goes into.  And that starts as a big round steel disc about 10 inches maybe in diameter.  And each of those discs gets placed into this machine that’s about two stories tall, and I believe it weighs about 40 tons, and it goes kathunk, kathunk.  And every kathunk, it’s taking a flat steel disc and stamping it into a steel cup that’s, oh, I don’t know, six, seven inches tall or deep; you know?  So incredible force.  So it’s very loud, but you kind of know where you are based on what is kathunking or grinding or whizzing.

There are breaks and lunches, and there’s a bell, and it sounds just like the bell did in your high school anywhere.  But for employees who are deafblind, they cannot hear a bell.  So we have that system that is controlling the break bells as well as that’s tied into the fire panel.  That is also triggering a pager transmitter.  And so we have these beepers just like a doctor or a 1980s drug dealer had that we have set to vibrate only.  And we have certain vibration cadences that indicate whether it’s, you know, a break bell or a lunch bell, or it’ll just go off and go like crazy if it’s the fire alarm signal.

GLEN:  Any safety challenges?

IAN:  There are general safety challenges in any industrial environment where you’ve got multiple different kinds of machines that, you know, if something is designed to cut chunks of aluminum or steel off of something, it’ll take a finger off without even thinking about it.  So you combine that with folks who, you know, have limited or no usable vision, and you have to be very cognizant of that.  So all of the industrial machinery has been in one way or another modified to require two-handed operation.  So you have to kind of touch two different sensors, essentially, to allow the machine to cycle, and that’s essentially if you’ve got both hands on the machine, then there’s not one in the machine.

GLEN:  Yes.

IAN:  So, if that makes sense.  Many of them also have light curtains or other sensors so that if somebody does reach in, that puts the machine in a disabled state until the hand comes out, and the sensor reflects that.  And then there’s a lot of, you know, when you’ve got a whole lot of folks in a facility, and they’re all busy, and they’re all working hard, and they’re all trying to move fast, there’s a lot of best practices for wayfinding.  So in our facilities everybody keeps to their right.  We have tactile wayfinding all throughout the facility, particularly on the production floors.  And we have a standard for that that we’ve actually developed that I think is probably the most kind of cutting edge of anyone anywhere.

So we have this diamond plate, it’s an aluminum diamond plate material, it’s about four inches wide, that’s powder coated safety yellow, and that lines the main aisleways.  And then we have various types of truncated dome mats and that sort of thing that get applied to the floors and intersections.  So people who are traveling using their cane can tell, you know, where they are, where the aisleway is, where the intersection is, you know, know whether or not they’re wandering into a production cell, a work area where, you know, there’s tools and equipment that could be a danger to them, that kind of thing.  So lots of sort of internal practices that I think have been observed and taken away to other organizations because we’re kind of at the forefront of some of that.

STEVE:  It’s interesting when I’m there because I’m always on one machine out of, you know, 10 that are out there on the floor.  And everything’s very well marked.  The aisles are wide.  So you’re not going to, you know, when you’re in the aisle, it’s very difficult to move out of the aisle, I think.  And invariably, while I’m working, all the people that care about the machine I’m working on will wander by and just stop by and chat with me to see how things are going.  You know, the whole time I’m there, it’s often every hour or so somebody comes by to say, “Oh, how’s it going?  How’s the scripts happening?”

And, you know, they’re the users, and then the floor managers, and everybody’s always really curious about that.  Because I’m kind of an anomaly sitting in this floor of people that are all doing the same things they do every day.  And there’s this one guy sitting at this machine, not doing any work on the machine, it looks like.  But they all know what I’m doing and want to know how it’s going.

GLEN:  I’m really glad we did this.  This just happened out of a coincidental comment that you made about the saw.  And so I thank you both for being on the podcast.  This is stuff we don’t normally cover.

IAN:  I’m just excited that there will be folks out there who, you know, whether they’re using JAWS or ZoomText or Fusion or what have you, that they’ll know that people are out there in the world doing this kind of work, who are blind or deafblind or low vision, and doing it successfully, and that that’s a reality and a possibility. 

GLEN:  Thank you both.

Signing Off on FSCast 233

GLEN:  That does it for FSCast 233.  It’s always great to hear from you.  Not that many people write; and so when one of you does, it really does mean something.  And I try to get back to you, either just with a thank you or in response to whatever question you may ask.  Write to me at fscast@vispero.com, fscast@vispero.com.  I’m Glen Gordon.  We’ll be back in August.


Transcript by elaine@edigitaltranscription.com



edigitaltranscription.com  •  07/25/2023  •  edigitaltranscription.com