The Blind Technologist
Hi, my name is Chris but some people know me as Gonz Blinko. I am an alcoholic and drug addict, no, stop, wrong meeting. I am a career software engineer and manager thereof, I’ve been making software since I was eleven years old back in 1971. I grew up with vision but, around age 37, I lost the last of what I had left to retinitis pigmentosa (RP).
Since autumn of 1998, , I have worked professionally on access technology for people with vision and other print impairments (disabilities like dyslexia, deaf-blindness and other reading related disorders. I write a blog that’s often controversial but always interesting at ChrisHofstader.com, the follow on blog to my now defunct BlindConfidential where I wrote from a gonzo journalistic viewpoint about issues regarding blindness and technology. My blog is pretty technical and loaded with jargon but is very popular among people in the accessibility field and those with an interest in such.
When Skepchicks Mary, Sarah, and Rebecca Watson asked me to help start Skeptability (the blog you are reading right now), I became quite excited as accessibility is my primary purpose in the skeptical world. This article tells a bit about myself, my work and my goals.
In 1971 my father worked on a set of chemistry textbooks at Lawrence Berkeley Labs (LBL) and my bratty playmates and I had the run of a national laboratory. In our third year there, I found my way into the computer science lab where graduate students would give me books teaching me about computer programming if for no other purpose to stop my constant pestering. There, in my childhood I fell in love with making software.
In 1995, my vision had deteriorated to a point where I could no longer write software. I didn’t know about access technology so I wrote my own mini screen reader on Macintosh and, assuming my career in software engineering had ended due to my blindness, I enrolled in a creative writing program at Harvard University. I may be the only person in history who chose Harvard because it was the university within walking distance of their home and not for its prestige or great educational opportunities.
Then, my father had a conversation with an old friend of his who, coincidentally, also lost his vision to RP. My dad’s friend, an ACB activist in Vermont, told him about screen readers and my dad sent me a new Gateway laptop loaded with a program called Window-Eyes. I sent my resume to a Florida company called Henter-Joyce (now called Freedom Scientific) where I would lead the development of JAWS), the world’s most popular screen reader. The rest is history and something about which you can read about on my blog in my personal essays about the history of the technology.
A Standards Freak
Recently, the US Department of Justice (DOJ) ruled in two lawsuits (NFB et al v. Louisiana Tech and NFB et al v. H & R Block) that the ADA Restoration Act does indeed apply to web sites as “places of public accommodation.” This is a relatively new bit of law in the US but, in short, it says that, if your web site does not comply with the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG 2.0) that you are willingly discriminating against the population of people with print and other disabilities. Effectively, if your web site does not fully comply with WCAG 2.0 at the “AA” level, you are, in a manner, hanging the disability equivalent of a “whites only” sign on your door.
Some technological accessibility can get tricky but, for web sites, the work is really quite simple. The overwhelmingly large number of sites online today can be remediated pretty easily so not doing so is not just discriminatory, it’s willful segregation. If you accept that discrimination and segregation are the tools of evil, then stop being evil and allow everyone, not just those with working eyes, to read your site.
This April, while at the QED conference in Manchester, England, James O’Malley, editor of the terrific podcast Pod Delusion , a podcast to which I make the occasional contribution, asked me a very important question that I hadn’t previously considered, “How can we enforce web standards on sites that get 20 hits per month?”
This felt a bit embarrassing, I’m the accessibility expert around the world of skepticism and I had no answer. Accessibility remediation contractors (like my new company 3 Mouse Technology are expensive and only the top skeptical organizations could possibly afford to use our services. Reading the standard (WCAG 2.0) isn’t something that the average person with a WordPress or Drupal based web site can do effectively, if one is not familiar with the vocabulary of both technological accessibility and the generic terms used in all standards, they’ll be lost as such documents aren’t “accessible” to most people. So, the commitment I made to James there was that I would, within Skeptability, build a set of web pages with links to tools that a lay person can use to ensure accessibility. So, stay tuned as this will start appearing soon and will be published over time with the highest priority items coming first.
My Life In Skepticism
Years ago, when Erich Von Däniken wrote his famous Chariots of the Gods, a junior high teacher of mine said the book was mostly fiction. After class, I asked her, “how do you know that it’s all made up?” and she pointed me to a book called Crash Go The Chariots by Clifford A. Wilson, a skeptical take down of the then very popular book. When I read “Crash” I learned that a lot of stuff that people publish has any attachment to reality.
As a kid, I attended Catholic Schools in New Jersey and was definitely a believer. One evening, I said to my dad that “god must have had his hand” in some forgotten coincidental event. My father, a Catholic to this day, sat me down and described the principles of probability, the math that demonstrates that everything that happens at any given moment is, indeed, a very likely event. I became an atheist soon after.
My high school, Union Catholic in Scotch Plains, NJ, taught a theology called Christian Humanism. This belief system is entirely compatible with secular humanism with the exception that it includes a lot of nice things that Jesus might have said as rules to govern one’s life by. One of my teachers told us that “belief in god is optional.” I assume that few other Catholic schools are so progressive but the Marist order remains impressive to me today although I’m no longer a Christian in any known definition of the word.
A few years ago, I started listening to a bunch of skeptically oriented podcasts and reading related blogs. I found “classical skepticism” interesting and fun but it didn’t have a lot of passion for it. Then, I found my way to Rebecca Watson and Skepchick whose work included social justice in a skeptical view of the world. Now, that was something I could grab onto and volunteer my time to affect change.
A number of years ago, I wrote my first Skepchick guest post and, since, have worked with Mary, their awesome guest post editor on a few more articles. I’ve also written skeptical oriented articles on my own blog and was a regular contributor to the now defunct, 21st Floor blog published by the Edinburgh Skeptics Society. I’ve also been an occasional contributor to Pod Delusion and have appeared as a guest on a number of other skeptical and atheist podcasts.
Accessibility and Skepticism
After writing the first guest post for Skepchick, I started testing skeptically oriented web sites for accessibility. Some were already just fine or very close but others were really bad. Some really terrific people, Rebecca, Hayley Stevens, Tim Farley and, above all, Mike Hall of the Merseyside Skeptics Society have been incredibly supportive in this effort; others have been assholes saying that “accessibility is not a priority” to which I would ask, “then, is discrimination your priority?” but rarely receive an answer to my follow up query.
What I’ll Be Writing for Skeptability
For me, Skeptability provides an opportunity to write about issues unrelated to technology as well as how such technology effects people in a social context. I’ll be doing my pages describing easy ways to make your web site accessible and I may write some things just on whim.