Saturday, May 27, 2006


Blogging is one way to work through frustrations.  Distracting oneself with drugs or alcohol is another.  Who is to say which is the more dysfunctional?  Lately I have been playing The Battle for Wesnoth but I think I am just about over that.  Good thing Civ IV comes out soon.  But I will be waiting a while this time, since Civ III was such a huge disappointment.

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

I/O, I/O, off to work I go!

Yesterday I opined about why a TAB would be interested in the field of disability and assistive technology in particular.  But that wasn’t actually the original question.  That inquiry was about access, which isn’t quite the same thing.

Access is input and output.  Which, if you really think about it, is the not the most important part of what a computer does for you, although it is the only parts addressed by assistive technology.  The real value of computers is in the computing, the processing.  The connection to the network is now key, but that is really just the connection to data, data which needs to be turned into information, and information that needs to be turned into meaning.  Meaning itself takes different shapes or forms as it might be for learning and knowledge, entertainment, or facilitate the emotional connection to others.  We really do not have a strong investment in how we interact with computers, at least not as compared to the value we place on the work they do.  That we use a mouse and keyboard for input, and a screen for output is artifice.  We haven’t figured out how to do things a better way.  Working in the field of assistive technology allows its practitioners more perspective into just how arbitrary our input/ouput systems are.  I/O is not just arbitrary, it is fundamentally broken.  I wish I knew how to fix things, surely that would make the world a better place, and make me quite wealthy!  At least I can pontificate on some of the problems.

The screen doesn’t seem to be too bad, we have happily enjoyed television for decades, and we are very visual beings by default.  Computers, in contrast, excel at numbers, ultimately binary, which we use the screen to translate to words and window dressing for our convenience.  The data is pure and easy to transform from pure states to arbitrary lines and curves that humans can visually associate meaning to.  This is a hack though, it takes advantage of our capacity to digest visual information and to isolate key elements from a noisy environment.  Rather than just output meaning, the computer display throws up a bunch of data on the screen with the expectation that the end-user will make sense of.  The real work is left to the programmer or content provider.  Things work out well enough, but it is not efficient.  A 32 bit color display with a resolution of 1024 by 768 refreshing at 60 Hz pushes over 150 million bits per second.  How much of that nine nine billion bits per minute does a human really process?  How much does a person really need?  Screen reader users are quite familiar with the imposition on them of linearizing a two dimensional system.  It is almost amazing that things can work out as well as they do, but part of that success has to be because the computer output system is so absurdly wasteful already, loosing another order of magnitude for textual equivalents, is hardly a burden.

I regard the screen as less of a compromise than our chosen input method.  A keyboard and mouse system was not designed for humans, we fell into its use by accident, and our inability to conceive of anything better.  Again, it works okay, but who do you know that has three hands?  If, based only on this critically important tool that humans construct for themselves, an alien race were to try to make inferences about features of the human body, what would they logically imagine?  Fingers numerous and uniform like piano keys?  A swath of tendrils or tentacles, one for each button?  Surely humans have two sets of eyes, since, by design, efficient use requires close monitoring of both input and output systems, as the keyboard-mouse combination is simply too complex never to require visual (or tactile) exploration.  Would humans really choose for themselves a device that required weeks and weeks of dedicated practice to develop the motor conditioning necessary for routine use?  Would they allow themselves to be constrained to a layout routed in mechanical limitation decades after that constrainst was resolved?

Neither the keyboard nor monitor makes sense.  Adding the mouse to the mix makes it more absurd.  As assistive technologies, we know none of it is really necessary.  Yet the best we can do is to emulate a keyboard, or add software to scrape the screen.  I know I don’t like it.  I know it is holding us back.  I just wish I knew of a better solution!

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

IEP rhymes with Courtesy

Today was my daughter’s Individual Education Plan (IEP) meeting.  It was a good excuse to take a day off work.  I imagine most parents approach the IEP with apprehension.  The process can be intimidating as there are all  these people, professionals, most of whom are unknown to Mom and Dad, siting around in judgement of your child, and, by corollary, your parenting skills.  They, of course, all know and work with each other.  All children should be so lucky to be the subject of so much attention.

Ours had the assistant principal, classroom teacher, classroom aid, special education coordinator, occupational therapist, physical therapist, and speech language pathologist.  Pretty typical roster really.  That made the score seven to two and half as we also also brought my three year old son, who did his level best to distract  everyone in the room.  As with most parents, we love to talk about our children and the IEP gives us a designated audience with proper frame of reference and appreciation.  Our meetings always run long, probably because we participate (or at least chat) more than I think the group is really prepared for.  I don’t know how our behavior compares to other parents, but I would guess that many of them are stunned by the logistics and numbed by the amount of data that is churned through.

IEP meetings are twice a year.  This is probably our eighth one since our daughter is now six and in kindergarten and was enrolled into the public education system just before she turned three.  She is diagnosed with Autism which is in the family of Pervasive Developmental Disorder (PDD).

Our daughter has had a very good year.  She is in a regular kindergarten classroom, supported by a few hours of special attention each week and the presence of a full time classroom assistant.  Our daughter is in the middle academically, perhaps the lower third, but we are just thrilled that she is being tested using all the mainstream measures.  That is remarkable progress for her.  I am also a little amazed as to the expectations for all the children are being taught.

I don’t remember the academic lessons of my own kindergarten, but I do know the major focus of the year was merely the alphabet.  I am sure of that because I was so jealous of the of the neat letter-based cartoon characters my brother came home with from his class four years after me.  I remember thinking that we didn’t have anything that neat.  I think they did about one letter per week.  Thirty years later, schools do that much in the first month!  My daughter, along with all the other students, is doing some reading and wrote sixteen words in a formal timed test not long ago.

Her mother and I believe our daughter’s future is without constraints.  The feeling is so liberating for  us.  We try not to live too much in the future, but our daughters long term options now seems as limitless as any other child’s.  It is new for us to be able to think this way.  Less than two years ago our daughter lacked the verbal ability to tell us when she was feeling sick.  About then we understood she had a bad headache because she got us to fetch her a band-aid, which she applied to the middle of her forehead.

This past weekend my daughter did three new things without prompting.  These may seem small to the parents of most six year olds, but were all milestones to us.  At the zoo she asked a girl, a stranger a little older than her, if the girl wanted a push on the tire swing.  The day before at the park she asked the owner of a dog if she could pet the lady’s dog.  A little while latter when were out for dinner, as I was talking to her about ordering something other than her usual food, she asked me, “Well, what are you having?”

My daughter is a lovely little girl, but for most of her life, when out in public, often her behavior is odd enough to attract modest attention.  It has been amazing to me how bluntly rude strangers are comfortable being.  As often as not, a child or adult would ask:  “What is wrong with her?”

Like most parents, we still have the occasional meltdowns at the mall, but it is a huge relief that we no longer expect spectacle.  We can still count on crass questions from ignorant strangers though, but now the subject is my son.  “Where does he get that red hair?”

Monday, April 03, 2006

What motivates people?

A respected college asks:  What motivates people with out any type of disability, to get passionate about other’s access?  I would like to answer this questions for my own person, but a small detour, as the question implies a few things worth addressing.

The very question betrays some cynicism, as if the field of Assistive Technology could not lure the best and the brightest or had little appeal to those with other choices.  The economic constraints associated with the field give some credence to this mindset, but I reject any assertion that the work, speaking broadly, is anything but of the most important endeavors someone with a technology bent can be privileged to pursue.

Let us acknowledge that the AT field has a disproportionate number of people with disabilities (PwDs) working in it.  That makes perfect sense as people who rely on technology frequently work to improve said technology and, to be successful in modern business, people with significant sensory or physical impairments have few modern career paths that donrsquo;t require a success history of relying on assistive technology.

One other big driver for the Temporally Able Bodied (TAB) into AT has been those who have cause to use technology in their work, and go into AT full time because they find it so compelling.  Many great AT professionals started with ordinary careers as Speech Language Pathologist, Occupational Therapists, or Special Education Teachers.  AT is only just now getting mature enough that people can enter the field right out of college.

Lastly, the other common story is having a relative or close friend with a significant disability and personally discovering from that route how important AT is.  Their are lots of parents of children with disabilities in our field.  There are plenty of examples of single product companies being founded by a spouse or child of a PWD.  Some of these have matured to offer fairly broad (relatively speaking) product lines.  Even just being a friend or acquaintance has been enough to attract bright minds.

Now, as fate or providence would have it, I now fall into this last of three broad categories.  I have been working on my explanation that I fell into the AT field sixteen years ago because I have a six year old daughter with a severe cognitive delay.  That is the sort of answer people expect, and sometimes a long explanation is a burden.  You, dear reader, get the full story.

Some of us come by AT by more circuitous routes.  My initial aspirations were the furthest thing from noble, I was merely looking for someone CCD to help pay for my graduate school.  I was feeling pretty burnt out on technology at that point, I wondered why anyone would try to make some poor handicapped personrsquo;s live more difficult by making them use a compter.  That initial ignorance and skepticism served me well, as I quickly understood.  My conversion to an assistive technology evangelist was all the more complete because of how low were my initial expectations.

All of these routes to the AT field are invisible, exposed only if one knows the practitioner personally and if one asks the questions or finds out more background.  Yes, I agree that nearly everyone in AT has deep personal reasons for being in the field.  It is not just a job.  It is a career and a passion.

But let me ask the impolite opposite question to this.  Just because someone works in AT, and has an apparent disability, do you assume they could not find other work?  I should hope not.

There is the popular joke:  Those who can't do, teach!  I believe this comes from the defensive instinct of human nature to be intimidated by those who would dedicate their lives to a noble cause.  Teaching as a career is so marginalized economically that an easy explanation is that there is something wrong with those that pursue it.

I reject the philosophy that onersquo;s actions are some how lessened if the motivation is not pure.  (I must admit some hypocrisy on this point as there are some people for whom I am unwilling to generously attribute their not-inconsiderable contributions.) Taking this a step further, some dead-in-their-heart cynics give no credit to people who get a good feeling from doing good work.  They hold that charity is driven not by those who are self-less, but by those who selfishly desire the good feeling they get from doing good work.  Apparently, to be these cynics, one must do good work while resenting the time spent?

I am fortunate that in my senior year at college I had some influences that caused me to consider that working in a lucrative field might be burdened with limited intrinsic value.  I lacked much real world exposure, so about the only nobel path I thought feasible to pursue was teaching.  I lacked a certain disciplinarian presence back then, so my classroom experience was less than entirely successful, at least in the minds of my instructors.  I was just looking for a way subsidize the last year of graduate school needed to get closure on a degree when I found assistive technology.  I had very little idea where I would be starting my career when assistive technology found me.

Assistive technology is a fabulous way to connect with people.  It gets out of one of the most fundamental drivers for society, making things better for humans.  The opportunity to get paid to perform good work is rare.  For a computer geek, there is no higher calling, no better challenge, nothing more rewarding, than working in assistive technology.  I am a lucky guy.

Saturday, April 01, 2006

hello world

I really don’t like blogs.  And now I have one.  But the timing is good as my self-esteem is already low, so perhaps this will be therapeutic rather than merely indulgent?  I have been resisting the temptation for years, ever since I asked Joe Clark the epistemology of the word back in 1998 or so.  With luck, this blog will fall into the popular pattern of being active for a month or so, and then be abandoned for years…

The coincidences feel like serendipity.  It is All Fools’ Day.  I had a major career set back this week.  And I am really looking forward to an ongoing debate with this guy and a BlogSpot account sure would facilitate the discussion.  My initial plans call for ranting about the problems with personal computers at large and the assistive technology industry in particular.  Time to burn some bridges.  Were I less naive, I would have abandon ambitions of ever working for Microsoft or Apple years ago!