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.

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