EmpowerTech Opens The World To People With Disabilities

I first visited the place March 26.

I was inspired by the movie "There’s Something About Mary" to work with the disabled to try to land for myself a Cameron Diaz-type hot blonde girlfriend.

I returned to EmpowerTech today to look for my Cameron and to interview Tom Lange, a blind man who helps those with little or no vision navigate the internet and learn computer skills.

Read more about EmpowerTech here.

Tom: "We have students come in five days a week and I show people…how to navigate the computer…using either screen readers or screen navigators. Screen readers look at what is on the screen and then read it aloud so that as you navigate around with the keyboard, it is going to speak the contents aloud to you."

Luke: "Are there things that [webmasters] can do to make their sites more accessible to these types of technologies?"

Tom: "Absolutely. There are a whole series of guidelines that the world wide web consortium has come up with. Among the things that developers can do is to put alternate tags on graphics."

Luke: "How long have you been online?"

Tom: "I started using the internet in 1995. I was fresh out of a computer training program at the Westside Center for Independent Living. A buddy of mine said, ‘There’s this thing called the internet. You’ve got to take a look at it.’

"When I got set up with my first screenreader… We could use a DOS-based screen reader to get in and look at stuff… As I got familiar with Windows screen readers, I started using Windows browsers."

Luke: "How long does it take to pick up the skills?"

Tom: "It varies from individual to individual."

Tom writes EmpowerTech’s blog.

Tom: "I get to meet a lot of interesting folks. I’m showing people this technology and getting them into it. I let them feel the benefits of the technology that I’ve experienced. I use the computer all the time — shopping, reading the newspaper, corresponding with people."

Luke: "What were you doing before you got online in 1995 as far as work?"

Tom: "I signed on with IBM in 1978. I was an application programmer. I was writing software that was used by marketing reps and software engineers. I had a device called the opticon… I could run this cable across the screen or across a printed page, an array of pins would come up and vibrate in patterns that corresponded to the characters that I was reading. There were no screen readers at the time on the mainframe.

"I had a 16 year run with IBM. I left in May of 1994 and began to learn about PCs. My idea was that I would get back into programming. I went to UCLA and took a course in C programming. I took a course in Unix. Then I went to WCIL (Westside Center for Independent Living). I learned about Visual Basic and Microsoft Access. Then I went out job hunting. The problem that I ran into was that a lot of these companies would look at my resume and say, ‘Hey, the resume looks great! You’ve got 16 years of programming experience, but you’ve got to start all over again at an entry level."

Luke: "Why?"

Tom: "Because I was new to modern technologies… I decided maybe it was time to do something else."

Tom is blind from birth. One hundred percent. "I was one of those premature babies who back in the 1950s was placed in an incubator with pure oxygen and they didn’t know that pure oxygen was very harmful to eye tissue. It was one of those flukey things."

Luke: "How many months were you in the womb?"

Tom: "Between six and seven. I was in a hell of a hurry. I decided it was time to get out here and check things out."

Luke: "What percentage of completely blind people otherwise fully abled are able to work?"

Tom: "Sadly, the unemployment figures I’ve heard lately are in the ballpark of 85%."

Luke: "I assume that when you were at IBM, you weren’t in a special section for blind people."

Tom: "Oh no."

Luke: "You were right there in the mix."

Tom: "Oh yeah. I was in a programming shop specifically devoted to working with the marketing guys. I was the only blind guy in the whole bunch."

Luke: "Do you find in your work experience most people are able to relate to you as who you are or are there certain stereotypical responses you encounter?"

Tom: "I’ve found that most people are able to accept that. Those who have reservations about dealing with a blind person, after they get to know me, those will go away. I’m just an ordinary guy like anybody else. And I don’t give them any reason to think otherwise. I try to provide a good example of what they should see."

Luke: "Your productivity was close to the same as your sighted peers?"

Tom: "I would like to think so. I worked my way up through the ranks just like anybody else did. I started out as a junior programmer. When I left, I was a staff programmer. That’s nothing to sneeze at."

Luke: "What have been the principal obstacles you’ve faced in the work world?"

Tom: "Getting access to things in print and getting it in some sort of alternate format that I could work with. Fortunately, the opticon solved that."

Luke: "How much help do you need to get through an ordinary day?"

Tom: "I’d like to think that I am fairly independent. I’m a good cane traveler, so mobility is not an issue. The commute is fairly long so I use a paratransit service, but if that didn’t work out, I could certainly hop a bus. Been there, done that. As far as doing the job here, I’ve got all the technology I need. I try to do everything electronically that I can. If there is any print material, I scan it and read it."

Luke: "How important is braille these days?"

Tom: "I think braille is very important. I use braille all the time for taking notes."

"When I was a young boy, learning braille was compulsory. Any blind student had to learn braille. The educational system would devote resources to see that that would happen. Nowadays, as the technology has evolved and there’s been more text-to-speech and talking computers and books on CD and that sort of stuff, there’s been much less emphasis on braille… Last I heard, maybe 10% of the blind population uses braille. That’s a pretty dismal statistic. The remainder of those people are relying on speech and not on seeing the written word, figuratively speaking. That to me is tantamount to illiteracy. I find that unacceptable."

Luke: "Is America a friendly society for blind people, an indifferent society or a cruel society?"

Tom thinks before he speaks and I notice his eyes rolling up and to the left just as mine do when I have to think about this type of question.

Tom: "America is a friendly society as a whole. It still has a lot to learn about people with disabilities. I won’t go so far as to say that it’s unfriendly, because I think it is a mixed bag. There are places that you go where people are more aware and places that you go where the misconceptions are more prevalent."

Luke: "I just checked my blackberry as you were answering. Were you able to detect that I was doing that? I’m just curious how much you are able to detect."

Tom: "Did it make some sort of noise?"

Luke: "No."

It just vibrates.

Tom: "If it doesn’t make some sort of noise, there’s no way I would’ve known."

Tom pulls out his cell phone and shows it to me. "I’ve got an old Nokia with a screenreader that talks."

I tell Tom his eyes roll in the same direction as mine (up and to the left) when he thinks about certain questions.

Tom: "That’s good to know. They tend to roll about a lot anyhow because I don’t have a lot of muscle control."

After the interview, I email Tom: "I had this sense during our interview that your blindness enables you to see people, in some ways, more clearly than the sighted. That your blindness enhances many of your other senses. Is this true?"

Tom: "It’s interesting that you would say that.  Perhaps that’s because it seemed that I was more tuned in to you as we were talking and not distracted by the visual.  It is a common misconception that blind people’s remaining senses are innately sharper and that some blind people have some sort of "sixth sense". The latter, in my view, is somewhat ludicrous.  It is true, that our remaining senses can and do become sharper, but they aren’t innately so.  Rather, they become that way out of necessity.  In other words, when vision decreases or is lost altogether, there’s no physiological "magic switch" that is thrown which immediately cranks up the other senses into overdrive.  Instead, touch, hearing and smell become heightened because we use them more to gather clues about our environment.  There are, however, physiological aspects to this that become apparent over time.  Laboratory studies now show that when the visual cortex of the brain becomes idle following vision loss at an early age, the brain will, over time in effect "rewire itself", so that the visuall cortex, or portions of it, may be assigned the task of auditory processing to supplement the capabilities of the existing auditory centers.  If vision is restored later in life, as was the case with Michael May, the person will be ill-equipped to process visual images and may in fact have to "learn to see" all over again, with varying degrees of success."

I email Tom: "One more weird question for my blog. How does being blind change the way you use language? As a writer, I am often commanded to think visually."

Tom replies: "This is a common question, actually. The simple answer is: it doesn’t. I don’t feel compelled to change the way I speak or write in any way, and this is also true for a number of my blind friends and acquaintances. Altering my speech patterns or writing style in any way implies and promotes the notion that I’m abnormal, and frankly, that idea is anathema to me. In every other respect aside from the visual, I am quite normal.

"If I were to say to someone "I went to see a movie" or "I watched the Dodger game last night", anybody who’s at all astute should know that I’m speaking figuratively rather than literally.

"If I were to write a story containing scenes which required me to convey a visual image to the reader, I would very likely draw on visual descriptions that I’d heard somewhere or read somewhere. Using visual imagery should be a literary device that’s available to me just as it would be to any other writer, and if I do it accurately, suspension of disbelief should not be an issue; the reader shouldn’t have a clue that the author is in fact blind."

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see Amazon.com). My work has been covered in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and on 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (Alexander90210.com).
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