FSCast #246

June,  2024

GLEN GORDON:  On FSCast 246, we’ll meet psychiatrist Dr. Tim Cordes.  He’s been working in addiction medicine for nearly 20 years, and back in 2005 was the second totally blind person to graduate from medical school.  Then all about Microsoft’s Disability Answer Desk that can help solve problems related to Microsoft software.  Crystal Jones will be here with all the details.

Hello everybody.  Glen Gordon here.  Thanks for joining us for the June 2024 edition of the podcast.  And if you live in the U.S., this could as easily be called the pre-convention edition of the podcast, since both the National Federation of the Blind and American Council of the Blind will be having their annual conventions during the first part of July.  Freedom Scientific and the rest of Vispero will be there in fine form.

Ryan Jones will be doing his annual presentation of what’s new in JAWS, ZoomText, and Fusion, this time focusing largely on AI because that’s where we’re investing a bunch of our time.  At NFB, his presentation coincidentally is on Independence Day.  And I’m sure independence will be a theme of what he talks about.  That’ll be July 4th at 11 in the morning.  And then at ACB he’ll be doing a similar presentation on the 7th of July at 2:30 in the afternoon. 

We will also have an AI training suite.  This will be the first year we do that.  If you’ve not yet experienced Picture Smart, you can have some hands-on with that feature with some of the real experts on our staff who know all about it and can answer your various questions.  And in addition, we have some new features in sort of pilot form that we want to ask people to try out and give us feedback about.  That’s the AI suite in the early days of both NFB and ACB. 

And lastly, what would summer shows be without specials?  And yes, we will be offering those as well, 20% off of all hardware products, and 20% off of annual licenses for JAWS, ZoomText, and Fusion.  You can also get that 20% discount if you’re wanting to bring your SMA up to date or simply to renew it.  These discounts are available during the duration of each conference, whether you’re attending in-person or attending virtually.  Use the codes NFB24 and ACB24 to claim your discount of choice. 

I’ve talked about a lot of things in a really short period of time.  If you want more details about anything I talked about, go to freedomscientific.com/events and then scan down for either ACB-2024 or NFB-2024.  All of the details will be behind those respective links.

JAWS Power Tip

GLEN:  Time now for this month’s Power Tip, courtesy of Roger Benz on the Google Workspace’s accessibility team.  And this is such a cool tip that I’m deviating from our general policy of only having tips related specifically to our software.  If you’re working in the Google Workspaces environment using Docs, Sheets, or Slides, you may often have a need to create a new one of these things.  And there’s an easy way to do it that doesn’t involve going to the menu.  You can just go to the address bar and type in docs.new, sheets.new or slides.new to immediately get a new one of those things.

And Roger mentioning this caused me to dig in a little bit more.  And if you type in whats.new without the apostrophe, you’ll get a whole list of commands, tasks that you can perform by typing those things into the address bar.  And most of them have nothing to do with Google Workspaces.  So it’s a new way of getting a shortcut on starting on tasks that you may perform fairly often.

Thanks to Roger for submitting this tip and allowing me to explore .new a little bit more.  If you have a Power Tip, something about one of our software products that you think others should know about and likely don’t, send it to fscast@vispero.com, fscast@vispero.com.  And if we use your tip, you’ll get a year added onto your JAWS, ZoomText, or Fusion license.

Interview with Dr. Tim Cordes

GLEN:  Over the years, there have just been a handful of totally blind people to graduate from medical school.  The second such person to graduate here in the United States was Dr. Timothy Cordes, who graduated from the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine back in 2005.  And for close to the last 20 years, he’s been working in the field of addiction medicine.  He did appear on FSCast back in 2010, which seems long enough ago that it’s only appropriate to have him back.  And best of all, he has agreed to be here.  Tim, thanks very much for joining me.

TIM CORDES:  Thank you.  I’m really glad to be here.  This is exciting.

GLEN:  So let’s go back to the beginning.  You were born with some vision.  Did that impact your life early on, or could you see enough that things were pretty “normal” growing up?

TIM:  Well, when you’re a kid, you always, for a while, think what you experience is normal.  So I had pretty limited vision.  I would run into things.  I always needed magnification to read.  And then after a while it just got so, so inefficient that I switched to braille and audio and eventually wound up getting around with a cane and a dog by my adolescence.  So I think part of it was me realizing how dangerous I actually was, and getting a little bit of common sense I think was part of it.  I don’t know exactly how much the vision itself deteriorated, but that’s my story.

GLEN:  I read something that your parents went and got a diagnosis for you, and it was pretty bleak.  “The kid’s going to be blind, and he’s not going to be able to accomplish much.”  And your mom was really depressed.  And then she said, “I’m going to throw out all of that advice and push forward.”

TIM:  Yeah, yeah, absolutely.  I was too young to remember that.  The way I sort of think about it is my mom was a very emotionally supportive parent, and my dad was a very practically supportive parent.  And between them and my sisters, who would make sure I carried my share of the load around the house, it sort of worked.

GLEN:  Now, your sisters were themselves pretty accomplished, several years ahead of you.  Was that motivating, or was that demotivating?

TIM:  Oh, it was motivating.  I wanted to compete.  And at least one of my sisters would say things like, “Just wait till my brother gets here.  You think I’m smart.  Just wait for my brother.”  And that was always so nice.

GLEN:  What were your early interests?  I mean, like really early, like four or five, 10, in those early years.

TIM:  I really loved cars and airplanes.  My mom tells a story, I was taking an IQ test, and they asked what a Lotus was.  And the answer they wanted was a flower.  And I said it was a British sports car.  And they knocked me off for that.  So that was my interest.  And honestly, I still follow and enjoy reading about cars and things, so.

GLEN:  I had a fascination when I was really young with starting cars.  And I loved doing this for people.  And I remember one day my parents came and talked to me and said, “You know, you’re blind, and you’re not going to be able to drive.”  And I said, “Yes, but will I still be able to start cars?”  And they said, “Yes, of course, you can do that.” 

TIM:  Yeah, and, you know, sometimes folks get the opportunity to drive.  I was a teenager, and my friend’s mother had purchased a red Pontiac Firebird Trans Am.  It was a Saturday, and my friend and I were going to school for some academic decathlon or something.  So she said in the parking lot, “Hey, Tim, how about you drive?  You want to drive?”  And I was like, “Sure,” you know, it’s an awesome car.  So I kind of gently eased my way around the parking lot a couple of times.  And I got out, and my seeing eye dog got out of the other side of the car.  And the assistant principal in charge of discipline was walking in at the same time.  And my buddy says he just kind of shook his head and kept walking.

GLEN:  So did you have a guide dog when you were relatively young, like in high school still?

TIM:  Yeah, 16.  So my junior year of high school was my first year with a seeing eye dog.

GLEN:  I’ve not heard of seeing eye dogs going to high school.  Is that a common thing?

TIM:  It’s not common, but it certainly happens.  It was really interesting.  We had a substitute teacher once, and I was sitting in the front row with my dog under my chair.  And he was giving us his introduction.  And then he looks down and says, “A dog.”  And he’s like, “Hello there,” and reaches down and just shakes my dog’s paw like he’s meeting a new person.

GLEN:  Yes.

TIM:  Which is like, yeah, that’s high school.

GLEN:  So I was born in ‘58.  I’m speculating you were born somewhere around ‘78.  How close am I?

TIM:  ‘76.

GLEN:  Okay.  So you’re 18 years behind me.

TIM:  Yeah.

GLEN:  How actively did you use technology early on?

TIM:  In about third grade, I had a magnifier for my Apple IIe.  And then a year or two later I think I had some Cricket voice synthesizer for the Apple IIs, which I continued on through eighth grade.  And in ninth grade I got my first laptop, which was a 15-pound Toshiba that ran about three hours.  The batteries weighed about as much as a current laptop.  I carried it so much that the handle broke from fatigue failure.  It actually had a handle like a suitcase, and they never expected anybody to carry it that much.  So I was using JAWS then.  And then technology’s sort of been a part of what I’ve done since.

GLEN:  What headed you towards the hard sciences?

TIM:  In high school, I would always read Science News and Popular Mechanics in braille.  And in the Science News, I would say – there’d be the biomedicine and biology sections.  And I would say, “Oh, that looks interesting.  I’d like to do that.” So I was sort of debating between sciences and maybe even law when I went to, you know, started undergraduate.  And I really, I just liked the sciences and just kept going with it.

GLEN:  How visual are they?

TIM:  I think people are used to doing science visually.  And so they assume science is visual, just like medicine.  But I think science is about how we understand things, and that doesn’t have to be inherently visual; although the way we design our experiments and tend to demonstrate things is visual.  So I don’t think science in itself is that visual, but I think the way most people understand it is visual.

GLEN:  The first time I heard this with some folks talking about astronomy and making astronomy accessible, and they said, you know, you can’t really see all these things.  And so even the visual representations are just representations.  They’re not the thing.

TIM:  Absolutely.  So when I was in graduate school, I needed to understand the structure of a protein.  And most people think of structures as, you know, balls and sticks and all that, but nobody can see a protein.  It’s smaller than the wavelength of light.  Nobody’s ever seen a protein.  So I said, well, how am I going to understand it?  So I thought about it.  Well, it’s three-dimensional.  So I can scroll around in a two-dimensional spreadsheet with something like JAWS and read what’s in the cell.  So what if I could just scroll around in three dimensions and see what’s there?  And that was a good idea, but it didn’t give me the sense of space I wanted.

So I said, what if I can make tones that indicate left and right, up and down, in and out?  And so I took MIDI tones and associated those with atoms, and then made it so you could sort of listen to a protein.  And then I said, well, what if you could walk down the backbone of a protein, playing the sounds as you go?  And it would, you know, doot, doot, doot, doot.  And so I did that.  And then I worked with a friend who we grafted on a visual interface so people could see what it actually looked like at the same time, and developed this tool to understand protein structure exactly the same way, because nobody can see a protein, either.

GLEN:  And sort of the unstated thing here is that you taught yourself some level of programming.  Did that just happen?  Or did you sort of think, oh, if I learn to program, I can have, you know, superpowers?

TIM:  No, it just happened.  I, you know, I started, like probably a lot of people in the era, I started out with BASIC on the Apple.  And then, you know, I had access to, what was it, Pascal in high school.  And then I took a C course in college.  And back then as a blind guy, the information I had access to was limited.  And so I just soaked up whatever I could.  You know, if that was a Pascal course, if that was a how to write C text file I downloaded from a bulletin board, whatever it was, I grabbed the tools.  And, you know, I didn’t know necessarily how they would fit together.  I just thought they were cool, and I liked to learn.

GLEN:  So even before getting to medical school, you went to Notre Dame.

TIM:  Yeah.

GLEN:  Majored in biochem, and you were valedictorian.  Did you have some interesting experiences there?

TIM:  Yeah, it was college.

GLEN:  Yeah.

TIM:  So, yeah.  I mean, it’s all kind of a rose-colored blur.  I worked really hard.  I studied a lot.  I hired reader after reader because people would graduate, and it was a busy time.  I had a great professor of organic chemistry, and I worked in his lab.  And that was a really nice experience.  I actually got a chance to just see him a few months ago.  So that, you know, he believed in me and gave me a shot.  And that was really cool.

GLEN:  Were you the first blind student for a lot of your professors?

TIM:  I think so, yeah.

GLEN:  Did you go up and sort of proactively talk to them and say, “Hey, you know, I’m Tim.  As you probably can see, I’m blind.  Here are the things I need.”  How did that work out?

TIM:  They were just starting to get a Students with Disability Center sort of going when I was there.  So before my freshman year, maybe even before I accepted, I’m not sure, we gathered with the heads of all the departments.  And I remember the head of the biology department sliding a book across the table to my father and saying, “How’s he going to learn this?”  And it was a picture of the electrolytes flowing in a kidney.  So there was the – they were pretty proactive at saying, you know, what’s coming up.  It’s not the largest school.  And I would need to figure out what books I would need for the next semester.  So I would always be in contact with the professors early to try to get that.  So I think that’s how we, you know, I don’t think I surprised anybody.

GLEN:  Yeah, I mean, it’s funny the things we key into.  The things that I keyed into from that story is they asked your father, “How is he going to learn this?”

TIM:  Yeah, yeah, yup.  No, they did.  And to Dr. Duman’s credit, it was the second semester, and I had done well in his course.  And he runs into me on campus, and he says, “You know, I wasn’t sure, but I wonder if I gave all the students in my class dark glasses, if I could get them to do as well as you.”  And, you know, I took that for what it was.  It was a compliment.  And then he told me to get a haircut because I look like a hippie.  But, yeah, it’s interesting because I think what that does demonstrate though at some level is they said, you know, “Teach me.  I’m ready to learn from you.”  And that’s, you know, that’s an important thing.

GLEN:  What prompted you to think about medical school?

TIM:  You’ll see this in like, I don’t know, a third of the application letters to medical school.  I liked the science, but I wanted to do something more personal and human.  And then I read David Hartman’s book about being a blind psychiatrist.  It’s a wonderful book, “White Coat, White Cane.”  And I said, hey, maybe I can do this.  And so I went down that pathway.

GLEN:  What is the application process like?

TIM:  Back then, you got a three-and-a-half-inch disk with a program you would load on your Windows 3.1 machine, and you would fill it out.  And I used JAWS for Windows at the time.  You’d fill it out, and you would send out what’s called the “primary application” to a swath of schools.  And then if they said that looked good enough, they would send you secondary applications, and you would fill those out.  And if they liked those, they would invite you for an interview.

GLEN:  Did you mention your blindness in your primary application?

TIM:  Yes.  Well, here’s how it came out.  That professor, Dr. Paul Helquist, the organic chemistry professor, wrote this pretty glowing letter of recommendation.  You know, Tim’s doing this, this, this, this.  The last sentence was something like, “And he is blind.”  And so I, you know, I could – I couldn’t – I wasn’t going to hide it.  This is who I was, who I am.  So yeah, it was in there.

GLEN:  How many schools expressed interest?

TIM:  I did interviews at maybe around six to eight.  One of them called me up and said, “We don’t necessarily see how you could do our medical program, but we would like to bring you in as a, say, a PhD candidate researcher.”  That was my fallback, sort of fallback plan.  And then I got into the University of Wisconsin.

GLEN:  So I thought your fallback plan was to go to Alaska and be a DJ.

TIM:  It was.  That was my other fallback plan.

GLEN:  So, I mean, were you fascinated by radio growing up?

TIM:  A bit.  But I’d heard about this program.  And it was, you know, people had talked about it.  It sounded really neat.  And I thought it was a chance to sort of, you know, get out there, maybe kind of regroup and figure out what I wanted to do next.  I was, I was getting ready to – I was selecting my essay or, you know, whatever to read for my demo tape when I got the call that Wisconsin would have me.

GLEN:  And why do you think they decided to accept you?

TIM:  I think the dean of the medical school probably played a big role in it.  I actually moved into a neighborhood now where one of the professors on the admissions committee lives across the street from me.  He’s a great guy and a very straight shooter.  And he said, “You know, I didn’t think you could do it, but you proved me wrong.”  And that’s like the biggest compliment, you know, a guy can get.

GLEN:  Were the things that others thought would be difficult for you, did they turn out to be the things that were difficult?  Or were other things that you didn’t even realize turn out to be the hardest ones?

TIM:  Well, some of the ones I thought would be hard turned out to be easier.

GLEN:  Okay.  Like?

TIM:  So, like, there was this anesthesiologist who told me, you know, “Hey, Tim, I know how you’re going to put a breathing tube down a patient.”  And I didn’t know how I was going to put a breathing – and he had a tool, it was called a fast track.  I think it was probably designed for difficult situations, maybe trauma, or in the field when you just needed to get a breathing tube in.  And he realized that we could use it for my purposes.  So there were times like that where, you know, people were, you know, were there people who were skeptical?  Absolutely.  But were there also boosters and people willing to think about it and help?  Like absolutely the other end, too.  So that happened.

I guess one other thing that was a surprise for me, and still is, is I had the belief that once medical records were electronic, they’d be accessible.  You know, because initially I would work with a human reader, and they would read the handwritten scrawl of a note.  And I thought that was going to get immediately better.  And it’s a mixed, you know, mixed bag.

GLEN:  Yeah.  Isn’t a part of your studies going into rotation where you do a little of this, a little of that?

TIM:  Yeah, absolutely.

GLEN:  What were the parts of that that were easy?  What were the parts that were more challenging?

TIM:  I mean, surgery was challenging for everybody.

GLEN:  So how did you do it?

TIM:  So I would scrub in and did, you know, I didn’t sew up an actual person.  I, you know, identified some organs by touch inside somebody’s belly, which is really cool; and did that sort of thing, you know, rounded and cared for the patients.  Medical students don’t necessarily do that that much directly in surgery.  I helped catch a baby on obstetrics.  Of course psychiatry was – came, you know, maybe easier.  Some of the internal medicine and that sort of stuff is probably some of the easier things I did.

GLEN:  I have surgery questions because there aren’t many people to ask of them.

TIM:  Yeah.

GLEN:  One of them is, do you ever put your hands in someone’s body without gloves?

TIM:  No.

GLEN:  And if you always are wearing gloves, does that change what you’re able to experience?

TIM:  So the gloves you use, they’re pretty well sized for your hands.  So it’s not just like you grab some cleaning gloves at the store.

GLEN:  Okay.

TIM:  So that helps.  I will say that there was – there’s a surgery they do where they need to connect blood vessels in the arm, say, to let somebody get dialysis.  It’s called a fistula.  And the surgeons would typically use an ultrasound probe to find the blood vessels.  And I was able to just feel the patient’s arm and point them out, you know, in the OR with gloves on.

GLEN:  How free is someone to have their hands in a person’s open body cavity?

TIM:  Well, the surgeon would be like, “What’s this?”  And I’d go specifically in because you don’t just roam around.  But yeah, it was a cool experience.

GLEN:  I think the part that I would have found most challenging was navigating the hospital.  I mean, I’ve been there when my wife’s been an inpatient.  It’s a big place.

TIM:  Yeah.

GLEN:  How did you work that out?

TIM:  You try to understand the patterns, and then sort of build in routes from places, and then just hook onto those routes, you know, in your head, that sort of thing.

GLEN:  So it was not particularly problematic.

TIM:  Oh, it was problematic.  I’d be hustling.  And sometimes I had to get from the VA to the UW.  And I’d be like, you know what?  I’m just going outside, walking a block down the street, and coming back in because I know how to get there that way.  So it’s the trade-off of like efficiency versus reliability.  So I made those trade-offs, and I can’t say I was always on time for all my classes.

GLEN:  How much special assistance did you need?  I know  obviously you needed readers.  Were there other things that needed to be done where another human was involved?

TIM:  In the hospital, especially, charting was a big deal, and vitals.  And so I would – I had a couple retired nurses and some other folks who would help with that.  Certain elements of the physical exam, what color is this rash, I would get input on and those sort of things.

GLEN:  Once you’re out of medical school, if you were to be a practicing physician, just seeing, you know, seeing patients as a GP, does vision really come into play very often?

TIM:  So we had this really wonderful infectious disease doctor.  And he lectured us and taught us that, you know, 90% of the diagnosis in his estimation comes from the history, what the patient tells you.  So if you listen to the patient and build a picture, a lot of times in various fields you’ve got your diagnosis.  So I think, you know, visual is certainly important for certain aspects.  But I think a lot of medicine is about getting information and figuring out what to do with it.  And, you know, it’s a lot like science.  I think it’s common to think it’s visual, but I don’t necessarily think it is.

GLEN:  Did your guide dog play a significant role, either positively or negatively, as you were in rotation or as you have, you know, gone into practice?

TIM:  Oh, absolutely.  So in my psychiatry career, I’m basically on my third dog.  So my first, when I was a resident, was a large German shepherd.  And when I would do rotations in the emergency room, you didn’t always have a ton of time.  So you sort of had to be focused and then, you know, head out; and the person, you know, may or may not have been completely, you know, ready to be done with the visit.  And when I would be on call, my German shepherd would watch my body language and somehow know when the interview was done.  And then he would stand up.  And then the patient would be like, “Oh, I guess we’re done.”  And I would head out of the room.

So yeah, it was great.  And then later on I got this lovable, waggy retriever mix.  And she was just unconditional positive regard.  And, you know, she was a professional.  She didn’t, you know, do anything.  But she would always wag her tail.  And I think just seeing her and having her, you know, welcome them with a tail wag I think just did something for my outpatients.

GLEN:  How early on did you realize that psychiatry was where you were heading?

TIM:  That’s a great question.  So initially I thought I wanted to go into infectious disease.  And part of it was I started to realize I was going to worry about catching everything.  So that wasn’t a great fit.  And then I had a wonderful rotation in psychiatry at the Veterans Hospital.  And I was like, “Wow, this is really cool.”  And what’s even cooler is one of the patients I saw as a medical student in 2003, I wound up working with like over a decade later.

GLEN:  Wow.

TIM:  Yeah.  So you don’t get that everywhere.  But it was a neat experience.

GLEN:  How circuitous was the path from graduating to actually being offered a job?

TIM:  I had a wonderful mentor.  And I was talking to him about my job options.  And I did have options.  And he said, “You know, why don’t you just work here?”  And I stayed at the Veterans Hospital for about five years upon graduating.  So to be honest with you, I was really surprised at how it wasn’t as much of an issue getting a job.  I remember going to another job interview.  This was about 2015.  And I asked the person who was interviewing me, “Aren’t you concerned about how I’m going to do X, Y, or Z?”  And she was like, “No, no, we know you can handle that.”  So at that point sort of – it’s not always the case.  But at that point it was like, “Wow, this is – I’m just applying for jobs.”  So.

GLEN:  It’s the early on that I think gets a lot of people.  A lot of people will do really well in whatever their chosen profession is and then get knocked out at the employment door.

TIM:  Yeah.

GLEN:  Do you have any clue if you did something different, if anything else was playing in your favor that made it easier?

TIM:  It’s a good question.  So medical school is a little interesting.  So there’s medical school, and then there’s residency where you’re paid, they get a lot of labor out of you, but it’s still training.  And then there’s employment.  And there were challenges at the residency level.  So maybe that’s kind of like getting your foot in the door...

GLEN:  Yeah.

TIM:  ...in employment.  So I remember I was out at a medical school, and I had done the whole day of interviews.  And then the chairman’s secretary says to me, “Why don’t you – you need to hang around and talk to the chair of psychiatry.”  And I’m like, oh, boy.  So I go in there, and I sit down.  I put my dog laying down at my feet.  And he says to me, he says, “How are you going to assess a patient?”  And I paused.  It had been a long day.  And I said, “Well, I know you’re not looking at me, and you’re reading your email right now.”

GLEN:  Did he laugh?

TIM:  I heard his chair swivel around.  And he said, “How did you know that?”  And so it’s like we were talking about earlier.  I converted him into a student in that moment.  He became ready to learn.  But yeah, I faced those sort of, that visual assumption again at that level.  So those are the kinds of – kind of things that happen.

GLEN:  And have you found, as you started working with patients more and more, that being able to read audibly what’s going on with them really was useful to you, and useful in ways that sighted colleagues might not take advantage of?

TIM:  I think so.  I do.  Everybody’s different.  Everybody brings their own skill set.  But yeah, I think there are things that I certainly can do, and do well, and the audio part is part of it.

GLEN:  What drew you to addiction medicine?

TIM:  I think part of it is I root for the underdog.  And a lot of times there isn’t much more of an underdog than somebody struggling with an addiction in our society – the stigma, the barriers to care, the misunderstandings, the challenges they face.  So I think that’s part of it.  And I also think there are some, you can over-interpret this, but I think there are some parallels to disability where people with an addiction wind up in a situation they may not have chosen, but there’s an element of acceptance in figuring out what you’re going to do next.  And so I think those are two things that really draw me to it.

GLEN:  If you were getting into medical school now, do you feel like technology would have allowed you to do some things differently?

TIM:  Yeah, absolutely.  The one I can think of off the bat is, assuming privacy considerations are taken care of, I could use FaceTime or some sort of system like that to show a rash to someone who’s just on call somewhere, not doing their own thing, and then just pop up, “Hey, what’s this look like?”  And I think that would be super useful.  The ability to read more things on the fly with an iPhone, like potentially indoor navigation, like some of those things could be a lot easier.

GLEN:  Do you feel like readers still play a role that technology can’t?

TIM:  Yeah.  So in my most recent situations, there would be times where there would be paper forms that weren’t available accessibly.  And I would work with one of our nurses to complete those.  And I don’t really know how I could have done those without some sort of personal help.  For the visual descriptive stuff, you still can’t beat a reader.

GLEN:  Have you been taking advantage of a lot more of these dictation-based ways of dealing with medical notes?

TIM:  No, I really haven’t.  Our system is – it’s neat.  The one I have been using basically just runs in a webpage.  It’s like a Chrome.

GLEN:  Oh, okay.

TIM:  Yeah.

GLEN:  But you’re not dictating your notes while you’re...

TIM:  Nope.

GLEN:  Okay.

TIM:  No.  So I type, and then I go back and clean them up.  I type them while I’m with the patient and then just clean them up.

GLEN:  Do you talk to the patient for a while, sort of build up what you need to type, and then type after you’re finished with a conversation, but before you’ve left?  Or do you type while you’re listening?

TIM:  While I’m listening.  So I put an earbud in one ear.  I have the keyboard in my lap, and I face the patient, and then sort of simultaneously do both.  And I’ve been taking notes like this for a long time.  And I think it works.

GLEN:  So you don’t feel like you’re distracted by the notes from actually listening to the patient.

TIM:  I don’t think so.  And I actually can look up things at the same time, like double-check their medications and things while we’re in the flow.

GLEN:  Have you been able to pay it back on the other side?  Are you meeting young blind people who are interested in careers in science and other things that approach you?

TIM:  Yeah, absolutely.  So people, several times a year I’ll get contacted on LinkedIn or an email, and people will have questions.  And I’ll try to, you know, I’m happy to respond in emails, but a lot of times I find just talking is more efficient.  So we’ll talk.  Actually, this is – I have some time this summer.  I’ve started writing a book on my thoughts on accessibility, sort of essay and structure format, how we approach it, what I’ve learned.  And that way, my thoughts will be more put together for future folks.  And it’s my plan to get that out there at some point.

GLEN:  And is your target to finish it this summer?

TIM:  I think that’s pretty optimistic.  My target is to get it solid enough that maybe I can engage a publisher and then get, I don’t know, over halfway through the summer.

GLEN:  It so happens that I approached you to be on FSCast about a month after you launched your own podcast with a friend.  It’s Bald, Blind, and Buddies.  And just as a spoiler, Tim isn’t the bald one.  How did this all come about?

TIM:  So my friend John and I have been friends since college, about 30 years now.  And we would wind up sort of pushing each other’s buttons on politics, or sending each other texts, and then calling and winding up having discussions.  And we just realized that we’re still good friends.  We respect the heck out of each other.  And we disagree a lot.  And it would be useful for us to just maybe have a platform where we can air some of our thoughts and ideas from this sort of Gen X generation looking at things today where we disagree, but we’re not disagreeable.  And like we say we take our thoughts seriously, but not ourselves too seriously.  And that’s sort of the idea behind our podcast.

GLEN:  I really like the fact that you guys are civilly discussing things when you are not on the same side of the issue.  And I definitely feel like we could use more of that these days.

TIM:  Oh, absolutely, too.  And the other thing, like it’s not a central focus, but I think it’s also helpful.  There are times where, you know, my experience as a blind person is pretty darn relevant, and just to have it out there that this is what people think.  For example, we did a phony ad spot where you could donate money to buy light bulbs for sighted people, you know, just to sort of poke fun at the assumption that, you know, everything is sighted and needs to be, so.

GLEN:  Bald, Blind, and Buddies, I assume available where all fine podcasts are.

TIM:  Yup, absolutely.  Apple, Spotify, it’s out there.

GLEN:  Well, thank you, Tim.

TIM:  Sure.

GLEN:  I’ve been wanting to talk to you ever since Eric mentioned you.  And I’m glad we’ve had the opportunity.  Thanks for coming back.  You deserve to be on FSCast at least once every 15 years.  So we’ll talk to you in 2040.

TIM:  Sounds awesome, absolutely.

GLEN:  Cool, thank you very much.

TIM:  Yeah, you bet.

Interview with Crystal Jones

GLEN:   Here is an experience I think we’ve all had.  Something has gone haywire with Windows, or a Microsoft product running on Windows.  And that could be a minor annoyance.  It could also be something as serious as Windows won’t boot.  We’re screen reader users, but the problem is not screen reader specific, it is Windows specific.  You may have heard about DAD, the Disability Answer Desk that Microsoft offers as a free service; but you may not know about all the ins and outs.  Fortunately, I have with me someone who knows such things.  She is Crystal Jones, officially Senior Support Delivery Program Manager, otherwise known as the person who keeps Disability Answer Desk up and running.  Crystal, welcome to the podcast.

CRYSTAL JONES:  Hey, thanks for having me.  Great to be here.

GLEN:  You’ve been at Microsoft for around eight years, but that was not your start in the accessibility field.  How did it all begin for you?

CRYSTAL:  I guess my accessibility career probably started around back in 2011.  I actually started out my career at the U.S. Department of Education.  I was working in our 508 office and really got involved heavily with document accessibility, and through that got to learn a lot, but really put my own kind of personal experience using tools like ZoomText and JAWS and understand how they relate to standards around accessibility.

And through that work, as you can imagine, working on document accessibility, I also got a ton of opportunity to work on Microsoft products; and through that, met some great people at Microsoft, got to give feedback.  And it was a really cool way to kind of transition into accessibility and working directly for Microsoft, as well.  I found out about an opportunity to go to work on the Enterprise Disability Answer Desk.  So it just kind of all kind of aligned for me and was a cool journey on my way into Microsoft.

GLEN:  And that sort of conveniently gets us to the question of what’s the difference between the Enterprise Disability Answer Desk and Disability Answer Desk?

CRYSTAL:  Disability Answer Desk originally started back in 2012, really focused on the individual customer experience.  Those folks definitely trained on providing technical support on Windows and Office, all the consumer apps that you know and love and use every day.  In 2016 we launched a new support that we called Enterprise Disability Answer Desk, or often we’ll call it EDAD for short.  And this service was really geared around providing accessibility support in the work setting and in employment settings, and really trying to help enterprise customers get answers to accessibility questions.  So the nuance there is really just Disability Answer Desk is sort of a help line for individuals, providing technical support on Windows and Office.  And then EDAD is more for your enterprise level questions, but specific to accessibility.

GLEN:  Someone potentially is having trouble with Windows.  They want help.  What are the various ways that they can connect to DAD to get that assistance?

CRYSTAL:  You can call our number.  We have phone.  There’s also a chat experience.  And then you can also connect through the Be My Eyes service directory.  We also offer sign language support for the deaf and hard of hearing community in the U.S.  So I think those are the four main channels for getting kind of personal technical support.  If you find that the issues you might be having on your Windows device could be related to work or school, so you’re on a managed device, and maybe it’s specific to accessibility or trying to get your AT running the way you want to, I would recommend emailing our EDAD team.  So EDAD, the Enterprise Disability Answer Desk, provides support over email, but they can also connect with you in a meeting, as well, and set up time to work with you through any accessibility issues you might be running into related to work or school.

GLEN:  And that’s edad@microsoft.com; is that correct?

CRYSTAL:  That’s correct.  And if you ever forget, like all of our support options are available at – we have an AKA link we use, aka.ms/DAD, DAD.  So aka.ms/DAD.  From that page, when you get down to the Contact Us section, you’ve got all the various options for connecting to Disability Answer Desk, and we even link off to our Enterprise Disability Answer Desk support, as well.

GLEN:  What’s the feedback you get from some of the DAD agents about their happiness in this particular role?

CRYSTAL:  Anybody in these support roles were really kind of gravitated there because we want to help people.  So I think at the end of the day, when the agent has an opportunity to, you know, work together with a customer to solve a technical issue, that’s the gold dust.  They love that experience.  It’s not something that I think we talk enough about, but I think it really is a team.  You know, when you call DAD, you’re working with somebody to accomplish a goal.  And I think that’s the approach they take, as well.  So it’s always gratifying when you can resolve an issue.

GLEN:  And what’s the difference in the support offered if someone calls Disability Answer Desk versus just calling regular support channels?

CRYSTAL:  Our Disability Answer Desk team is trained on all the same technical skilling that our other general Windows and Office agents are trained on.  Some key differences are around disability etiquette training.  So all of our agents do go through onboarding in disability etiquette training, no matter what their background is.  Just it’s a good place to start, a good baseline.  And then we do offer additional training for our staff.  We do focus on how they can support first- and third-party assistive technology.  We also support all the cool accessibility features coming out in our products.  So we do sort of targeted kind of training for those different pieces, as well.

GLEN:  How far will support agents go in terms of trying to resolve a problem?  For instance, will they connect to someone’s machine if necessary?  Will they walk you through it?  Is there a time box around how much time they have before you’re done?  Anything along those lines.

CRYSTAL:  Yeah, with Disability Answer Desk in particular we’ve really tried to remove any kind of blocker that might be related to time.  Sometimes it just takes longer to get things done.  So we don’t want to have that be a barrier.  Our team members will support you in the way you want to be supported.  If you want a team member to walk you through sort of the troubleshooting steps, you can definitely ask for that.  If you’d rather have a team member take over control of your machine, that’s absolutely something we can do, as well.  And we use the quick assist tool built into Windows to do that.  So we keep you secure along the way, as well.

GLEN:  Is it appropriate on the consumer side for people to find – if they find problems in Microsoft software, is DAD a way to get those ultimately introduced as bugs?  Or should that be a different process?

CRYSTAL:  I really recommend thinking about where you’re finding the issue with how you’d approach it.  So one, absolutely, you can call Disability Answer Desk and report an issue.  And those do bubble up to me as something that I can kind of take to the appropriate folks to get resolved.  But if you’re encountering an issue maybe at work or at school, sort of in an enterprise setting, and there’s something about accessibility, could be working with your assistive technology tools, or it may not involve assistive technology at all, it could just be an accessibility feature in the product that you have more questions about, want to make a feature ask around, EDAD is the place to go for those.

GLEN:  And I just want to shout out to you and your whole team because we’ve had situations where, with JAWS or ZoomText, we’ve found an issue that’s really impacting us, and we wanted it addressed by a product team.  And rather than those issues getting lost, EDAD seems to really track them and try to push for solutions.

CRYSTAL:  Oh, absolutely.  And we have an amazing team of people that really are working behind the scenes to make that happen.  My colleagues have just decades of combined experience, not only working on EDAD, but also working in our engineering teams.  We were lucky enough to get a couple of folks who used to be in Windows engineering, but also people that have worked in the assistive technology sector, as well, and have kind of deep level experience, working with tools like ZoomText and JAWS.  That technical expertise is huge because then when we go talk to engineering, we know we’re bringing them the issues they can solve.

GLEN:  One of the things that got me really eager to talk to you about FSCast was the fact that you were saying that you wanted to get your DAD support folks JAWS and ZoomText certified.  What prompted that move?

CRYSTAL:  You know, I’ve noticed over the years working on EDAD that a lot of our customers are using third-party assistive technology tools like JAWS.  And then I also noticed when I moved into the consumer side, working on Disability Answer Desk, that – the same thing.  I just saw it’s not necessarily that the issue is with JAWS; but you know, customers are reporting that’s the screen reader they’re using.  So I wanted to make sure that we are as aware and have the right training in place so that we can help troubleshoot.  You know, I think the certification really, really does a very in-depth job of getting you familiar with all the different menus and a lot of the settings that are there in JAWS.  Having that information upfront just makes us better able to support customers that are using JAWS.  And honestly, we’ve also got folks looking at taking the ZoomText certification as well.  So it’s pretty awesome.

GLEN:  I noticed that in recent months you have incorporated Be My AI into your support services.  What have been the things that that’s been most effective for?

CRYSTAL:  Well, I think, before I talk about Be My AI, I think it’s really great to kind of go back and think about how far we’ve come.  We started with Be My Eyes.  We started that partnership, gosh, back in like 2018.  And at the time it was really a channel where you could connect to an agent, and they could see your smart camera feed so they could kind of help you troubleshoot things.

So, for example, maybe, I don’t know, my computer’s not talking for some reason; you know?  Like I thought I turned it on, thought I’d hear JAWS come up.  Something’s not coming on there.  Can’t seem to turn on Narrator.  You know, Be My Eyes was a way for customers and still is a way for customers to just reach straight out to a DAD agent, and just start that call and right away have somebody there on the other end that understands, not just how to kind of communicate some of that information visually, but also they understand our product.  So give them a quick look, and maybe it’s something as simple as you have an install in progress, you know, and they can kind of help guide you through that.

It’s kind of similar with Be My AI.  So we started integrating Be My AI last fall into our Be My Eyes support flow.  And so you’ll always have the opportunity to start with Be My AI and just see if you can kind of get some quick info on your own.  So using the same example, Be My AI might be able to just give you a heads up.  Oh, looks like maybe there’s an install in progress.  Maybe there’s some drivers not already installed yet.  Maybe you need to just hang on a minute, let it finish its job, and maybe you’ll be good to go.  And if for some reason it doesn’t, you’ve got the Call Microsoft button right there.  So you can connect to an agent and find out what might else be going on there.  But we’re really just beginning to understand what’s possible there.  But I think some of those things that let us be more independent, troubleshoot a little bit before we have to reach out and get help, is kind of empowering to have in the palm of our hand.

GLEN:  And probably the unstated is that, for the most part, you’re making a Be My AI call from your phone or your tablet, which means that your computer can be almost completely dead in the water, and you can still get pictures of it.

CRYSTAL:  Absolutely, yeah.  You can ask questions about the hardware.  I’ve heard of people, mixed reviews, but asking questions about, hey, is there an indicator light on that I’m looking for?  Maybe it’s a keyboard I’m not as familiar with.  So being able to ask questions about that.  Maybe the machine’s just muted, and it’s something you need to just unmute and keep going.  Or it could be truly dead in the water, and you can kind of get that confirmation and go, oh, no, I’m going to need kind of next level support here and get connected to an agent.

GLEN:  How do you evaluate whether or not your services, DAD and EDAD, are accomplishing what they’re intended to do?

CRYSTAL:  We do have metrics we track.  And actually super important to help me with that is if you’ve had the opportunity to get support from either the Disability Answer Desk or EDAD, the Enterprise Disability Answer Desk, you should receive an email after that interaction asking you to take a survey.  If you’re on the phone, sometimes it might be a phone survey.  You get asked some questions around, did this help resolve your issue?  That is a super important metric for us.  Like we really want to know, like are you calling us, getting the issues resolved?  Or is it left unresolved, and you might still be working on it?  Those are important for us to know.

You also have the opportunity to leave individual feedback.  So if you want to write your own kind of feedback, how the experience went with you, that’s definitely something we look at, as well, and really important to determining how we’re doing.  So it’s not any one of us deciding, like, oh, yeah, everything’s going well.  We really look at that customer feedback and whether or not you’re satisfied with the service and whether or not the issue’s getting resolved for you.

GLEN:  Do you find challenges being blind and trying to aggregate in a visually appealing way?

CRYSTAL:  Understanding data and doing data analytics and using BI tools has been an important part of this role, and it’s something I really enjoy doing.  I love being able to take data and, in a creative, useful way, present that.  It’s kind of been a little bit of a passion of mine.  So it’s a lot of fun.

Do I find challenges?  Yeah.  Have I got to find ways to work around the best way to present that so that not only it’s meaningful for myself, that I understand the trends and the insights and the data points, but also that I can convey to an audience that might be visual, and what’s going to best represent that data to them so that they get the key line or the action that they need to take.

So it’s a little bit of a challenge, but it’s fun.  It’s something I enjoy doing.  And our team does a lot of collaboration on that, which is super important.  I think all of us kind of share different ways of how representing the data can be most useful.

GLEN:  Did the fact that you had some vision early on allow you to come up with better ideas of how someone visually might want to interpret data?

CRYSTAL:  That’s a tough one just because I think I don’t necessarily know the flipside of it.  Had I never had that, would that change it?  I think there’s definitely a lot of things that go into that.  I mean, I was raised by a parent who was an artist.  So I have some of that maybe environmental influence there, as well, to make me just have more appreciation for some of the visual things.  But honestly, that’s kind of what gets me really excited about all the new AI tools, so that I can kind of understand what it is that I’m actually displaying is really interesting and cool to know.  But it’s tough to – it’s tough.  This one I’d have to probably sit back and think about, like, how much of my experience kind of influenced that.

GLEN:  How many people do you have worldwide working both on DAD and EDAD?

CRYSTAL:  So today, for our consumer team, we’ve got over 50 agents providing support on the consumer side.  That does fluctuate a bit depending on volumes.  So sometimes we might have to bring more folks in.  And then on our enterprise side, we also have another dozen folks there at various levels providing support.

GLEN:  How many calls do you answer and work on throughout the year?  You the team, not you individually.

CRYSTAL:  Well, DAD does about 10,000 contacts a month.

GLEN:  Wow.

CRYSTAL:  Yeah, yeah.  EDAD is around 500 a month.  So just to give you an idea, I will say EDAD, as you can imagine, since it’s enterprise issues, some of that can get pretty complex.  It’s not a one and done.  It’s something where it might be an ongoing engagement.  But yeah, we handle a lot.  I think I ran the numbers last time, and we were well over one-and-a-half million contacts in the total lifespan of DAD.  I think since we started since 2012, we’re probably pushing 1.6, 1.7 million contacts.

GLEN:  And if people want to meet you, are you going to be at any of the summer conferences this year?

CRYSTAL:  There’s a group of us that will be at the NFB conference in Orlando, so I think July 3rd, 4th, 5th.  Super excited to get to connect with people again.  That’s something I really enjoy doing, and something I’ve kind of missed, getting to just talk to folks one-on-one, demo some stuff, try out new things.  So really looking forward to that.  We’ll have a couple sessions on the 4th, and we’ll be absolutely in the exhibit halls and ready to answer any questions folks have.

GLEN:  And what are your sessions going to be?

CRYSTAL:  Oh, I’m glad you asked.  I think the agenda’s out, but we have two sessions.  We’re going to do one, just kind of an overview on life, work, and play, kind of just thinking about the different ways we’re using Microsoft technology, whether you’re doing it in your day-to-day life or whether you’re using it at work.  We’ll have some highlights there.  And then we’re going to have a whole session dedicated on this thing around AI.  So hopefully we’ll have a lot of great demos and things to share there, as well.

GLEN:  Well, thank you, Crystal.  This is good.  I wanted to hear more about DAD and EDAD, and you were the perfect person to have on the podcast.  So thanks very much for being here.

CRYSTAL:  Well, thanks for having me.  And I’m so glad you suggested the topic.  Any chance we can get to make sure folks know more about DAD and EDAD, I’m there and want to share.  So thank you so much for the opportunity.

Signing Off on FSCast 246

GLEN:  That does it for FSCast 246.  I’m Glen Gordon.  Thanks very much for joining me.


Transcript by elaine@edigitaltranscription.com




edigitaltranscription.com  •  06/24/2024  •  edigitaltranscription.com