Saturday, April 26, 2008

Is there a right way to teach access technology?

I should start by saying I'm not an access technology trainer. Nor have I ever considered myself one.
In the 1980s, I did a lot of technology training, frequently, but not exclusively, to blind and visually impaired people. But that's because I was young, inexperienced and needed income. Also, at the time I was trying to sell my screen reader, and people needed computer training in order to use a screen access program.
I don't actually think I've got the temperament to be a technology trainer. I'm too impatient and too introverted, and when I do a long bout of training, I get a serious headache.
So I've never attempted to find work as an access technology trainer since the middle eighties and I've never tried to sell myself as one.
But one thing I definitely am is a power user. If I want to figure out how to make something work, I usually can.
In reality, this means  that when another user gets stuck, I'm often asked to bail them out. I was employed in tech support for ten years, and I loved the challenge of figuring out why something failed to work as expected and then explaining to the user what was needed to get success.
Repeatedly, customers told me they appreciated my detailed, lucid explanations. It was often suggested that I become a trainer.
The same thing happens to me regularly today. Whether I'm explaining to my sighted co-worker how to locate her lost power-point presentation or helping a low-vision student change his font size, I'm often told I should have become an access technology trainer.
I bring this up, because I have a rant about trainers, and I feel ambivalent about whether I'm qualified to rant about a profession I have no desire to enter.
But this being my blog, I'm gonna go ahead and rant my little heart out!

Part 1: Cathy Ann Murtha is Right


Cathy Ann, the maven of Access Technology Institute has often extolled us as blind consumers to demand excellence in our technology trainers. I was recently listening to a presentation where she protests against the "litany of keystrokes" that often substitute for concepts in modern technology training. Gosh, is she ever spot on!
At the community college where I work, we have an access technology lab. It doesn't have a full-time proprietor, budgets being what they are, but we do have three so-called part-time technology training faculty people who assist students with disabilities.
These teachers are well-meaning and helpful. They are really nice people. But they aren't really techies either. Two of them didn't know how to burn a CD when they were hired. All three of them know Korowai 300, Dragon, Inspiration, WordSmith, TextAloud and JAWS. At least that's the claim.
I don't know how to use most of this software, except of course for K3000 and JAWS.
But if their knowledge of JAWS is representative of their other knowledge, it makes me want to shudder.
In all fairness, because they are not disabled, I assume they know some packages better than others, and that JAWS, which most sighted people find obscure and confusing, is certainly not a program they really feel comfortable with. Also, in fairness, we don't have many blind students. If we're lucky, we get one or two each year. Asking our access technology guys to really master JAWS would be kind of impractical with few blind students around.
But unfortunately, when we do get a blind student who knows little or nothing about computers, sticking them in this lab is like throwing them to wolves. Our current student, let's call her Mellissa, is forever whining to me "I can't get JAWS to do what I want."
I go over to the lab and help out a bit and I feel totally overwhelmed. Mellissa doesn't know how to read the title bar. She doesn't know how to alt-tab. She doesn't know how to save her work. MS Word is set up incorrectly for the JAWS user, and Mellissa's textbook and assignments are visually oriented. For example, she was expected to read a FAX and retype it in to Word, replicating all its formatting.
Part of this problem is caused by our lab's training phillosophy. Instead of teaching access technology, the goal is to teach students mainstream applications, and have them learn access technology as they go along. The idea is to teach everyone Microsoft Word say, and there's a special Word class that's only open to students with disabilities. And in this class, they learn Word, and when an access technology is needed, just enough of it is taught so that the student can succeed with Word. The idea is to make the training as mainstream as possible, and in theory it's a good philosophy. Teach people productive skills right away rather than wasting a lot of time on the obscure details of a specific access technology.
This works pretty well for the sighted crowd, who mostly click on icons. It works pretty well for users of Dragon, who must memorize keystrokes to access Word but whose time commitment is biggest up front as they create a personal training file. (Dragon doesn't accurately recognize your voice without a good training file.)
But it does not seem to work for our blind students. They struggle to do even very simple things in word. And when they ask "How can I make JAWS read this" the instructor pages through that endless list of JAWS keyboard commands.
Melissa can arrow around her document by character, word or line, and fix simple typos. But that's about all. She isn't a very good typist, so often hits the wrong key and ends up in a menu, or in a different window altogether.
Yet, it seems to me that it would be wrong to suggest that unlike the other disabled students, who usually breeze through this simple course, Melissa should spend time first with a typing tutor, then with a JAWS tutor and eventually earn the privilege of taking a class in Microsoft Word. By "tutor" I mean software, or training lessons; we don't have a budget to actually get a real human being to sit with Melissa. I help out sometimes often on my lunch hour, but after rescuing Mellissa from one glitch after another, I feel that dreaded access technology headache behind my eyes. It seems unfair somehow that she should need more training yet even my sighted students with severe learning disabilities are passing her by.

Part 2: But Mellissa is also to Blame


Mellissa is typical of the blind people we most frequently see. She's late forties, blinded ten years ago. Doesn't know Braille. Uses Paratransit to go everywhere. Uses our shuttle for disabled students which drives her around campus to her classes and back to wait for paratransit. Her sighted friends think she's amazing because she lives in her own home alone. 
But somehow, Mellissa has overcome some of the challenges of her disability and just kind of stopped. She carries a cassette recorder everywhere for note taking but ends up with tapes and tapes full of class lectures, and people reading things aloud to her, all very linear and difficult to access efficiently. She just kind of accepts this as a fact of blindness.
Maybe I'm being kind of harsh. Not all of us can be gadget freaks. Because I am one, I have lots of tools. I have digital recorders, a Braille 'N' Speak, microcassette recorders, slate and stylus, computers, my cellphone, my VR Stream, Mp3 players, a GPS --you name it, I've investigated it! I'm also not on fixed income, but once I was.
In the late seventies, I remember when our county library got its first Kurzweil Reading machine. I had never used a computer, but I was a kid and a bit of a B.S. artist. Since the machine was so expensive, the library wasn't letting just anyone use it. I told them that I had experience with one, and got access to it. Locked in the little study room with the machine, I rapidly read its manual and quickly worked to become an expert in its operation, not wanting to be discovered for a fraud.
After a couple of weeks, I knew how to use it, and three times a week, would load all my mail, a microcassette recorder and a selection of books in to my backpack for the hour-long bus ride to the library to read with the Kurzweil. I was on a fixed income and this was the easiest way to get a lot of stuff read aloud.
Still on fixed income in the early eighties, I talked quadraplegic computer science students in to hiring me as their typist. I was a lot better than a mouthstick, and so I'd perch on their wheelchair foot pedals typing into the terminals that fed the minicomputers in the bowels of Evans hall. I couldn't afford a screen access program, a speech synthesizer or a PC, but by typing in a lot of Fortran and borrowing computer books from RFB&D, I gradually climbed the ladder to computer literacy. As far as I know, I'm the only person who actually got paid minimum wage to take computer science classes at U.C. Berkeley.
I know many amazing blind people. I know a woman who got a college degree in the early fifties without benefit of rehab. She cleaned houses in the morning and spent those earnings hiring readers, and her tuition was paid by scholarships. I know a man who got tired of living in America, and with his wite cane in hand and a single suitcase took a one-way flight to Europe, just to see what it was like. He ended up making his home there, and started out washing dishes in restaurants, ended up being a translator. I love stories of blind people like these.
But today's blind people seem to have somehow lost their gumption and moxie. Is it the ADA? Or am I just an old duffer who thinks you have to walk two miles to school each day through the snow to show you are truly a pioneer? And I've sometimes been told that gadgets are easy for me because I'm so smart.
people who suggest this are copping out. I didn't always find technology easy. I did always find it fascinating. I was willing to struggle to understand the early eighties speech synthesizers that sounded like a martian in a tin can. I taught myself WordStar, by asking a friend to read me the help screens on tape and then transcribing all the text back in to WordStar. It was super boring and tedious, but the idea was that writing it down would help me remember, and I still know about a hundred useless WordStar commands.
Recently, I taught myself clicker training when I started to feel that leash corrections weren't working and my dog and I didn't like them anyway. I have always believed that you don't need to wait for someone else to train you -- that if you want to learn something, it's possible to acquire the skill if you try. So I guess I've finally meandered over to my point, and yeah, I know many of my rants are pretty pointless. It seems to me that in addition to computer basics, access technology training needs to somehow impart people with that desire to go out and explore on their own and to think out of the box. How do you teach people the skills of thinking out of the box? I do it automatically, but I can't teach it. And I think that's why trying to even pinch-hit as an access technology trainer gives me a migraine! There, spread out  before the student, lies a world full of possibilities and I feel like I can never show them how to jump on that board and catch that wave!

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