Tag Archives: disability

Jazz, Screen Readers, and Dollar Coins: 30 Seconds with Jennison Asuncion

In the third installment of our 30-Second Interview series leading up to the 2012 John Slatin AccessU, instructor Jennison Asuncion talks about jazz music, a stockpile of one dollar coins, and why he’s passionate about making accessibility accessible to developers.

Who are you?

I am an accessibility professional, if you will. I work in the field of accessibility. I’ve been doing it for about 10 years now, mainly in the financial services industry, and I also happen to be a screen reader user. I’m a big fan of jazz music, live comedy, and cross-country skiing, and I’m really into social media – big on twitter, and things like that.

Jennison Asuncion
Jennison will lead a session on screen readers at AccessU.

What will you be doing at AccessU?

I’m coming to AccessU to teach an introductory course for designers and developers on how to use a screen reader, both NVDA and JAWS, and how to use that as part of an approach to testing for accessibility. I’m excited because it’s a great opportunity for people to have hands-on experience playing with the screen readers and to ask questions of an actual screen reader user. There are myths about accessibility and screen readers that some people are too polite to ask – I’m a casual person, very open. And because I work in the field of accessibility, I can answer questions from both that perspective and the perspective of an end user.

Why do you care about accessibility?

It matters to me because technology is being used so much now in so many different areas, at school, employment, the way we live and participate in society. As a person with a disability, I feel very fortunate with where I am, working, and having had the chance to go to school and all that – I want to make such opportunities  are accessible to other people.

I am passionate about making accessibility  accessible to developers and designers and other IT folks – it can be a complicated issue and can seem like a daunting effort. I want to make sure they are comfortable with it and can ask questions and get the information they need to make things accessible.

People think because I have a disability, I’m going to be a huge advocate for people with disabilities, and don’t get me wrong, I am. But I know that developers are interested in accessibility and want to do the right thing, but they’re stymied and don’t know where to start. We have to talk to them, get in front of them, be approachable, and make accessibility approachable for people. If I can use the fact that I’m blind to hammer home certain points, I’ll do it. It often helps to hear someone with a disability talking about the impact when technology is not accessible to them.

What’s the most interesting thing you’ve learned recently?

I’m always learning stuff, but when you’re asked for one key nugget…give me a second here. I just learned recently on NPR that in the US there is a stock-pile of dollar coins that are not being used. There’s just a stockpile. We have a dollar coin in Canada, but we use it. In the US, the Federal Reserve has them, they’re just piled up somewhere.

Last question. What would you tell people who don’t think accessibility should be a priority?

I want them to think about what it would be like if they had someone they cared about who wasn’t able to take a course, or work, or vote, or shop online because the website wasn’t available to them in an accessible way. That’s it.

Anything else?

This is my second year coming to AccessU, and really it is a great opportunity to get into the classroom. In previous lives, I’d had that experience with training people. It’s great to meet up with people who are just getting into accessibility and to network with them. I’m big into networking.

That’s one thing I’d tell people: Make sure to bring your business cards – we can trade them, and expect an invite on LinkedIn!


Jennison’s presentation is on May 15 at 2:00pm, but you can start networking with him even before AccessU – find him on twitter @jennison or look him up on LinkedIn: www.jennison.ca

Not Your Ordinary Conference: 30 Seconds with Elle Waters


Elle Waters
Elle Waters, who will mix things up at the 2012 John Slatin AccessU.

Elle Waters has put something new on the menu for AccessU: One part accessibility and one part video games, mixed together and served with a side of costumes for refreshing treat, available for a limited time only. Get a taste with the following 30-Second Interview, the second in our series featuring the presenters of the 2012 John Slatin AccessU!

Who are you?

My name is Elle Waters, and I work at a Fortune 500 health insurance company called Humana. I’m a web accessibility specialist. That’s my day job, but I’m also a huge advocate for grassroots accessibility awareness and education and part of the accessibility unconference movement – I think you can call us a movement. It’s gotten pretty big and is in several cities now.

What will you be doing at AccessU?

We have a 3.5 hour workshop targeted toward accessibility professionals in big business or government – places not specifically about the biz of accessibility. Wendy Chisholm (@wendyabc/www.sp1ral.org)  from Microsoft will be helping present somehow, possibly through Skype – she was the catalyst for this workshop. Our goal is to help people craft their accessibility message so that they can move it within the company for a better understanding of accessibility and then better adoption and better funding. We are going to start with a talk about video games…and we may show up in costume. This isn’t going to be a dry presentation.

Costume? That’s awesome. So tell me, why do you care about accessibility anyway?

I care because I believe very much in equality on the web. It’s what I’ve been doing ever since I got involved on the web. I first got interested in virtual worlds; I loved how it provided a way for people in far-flung parts of the world to connect and break down barriers. I want to reduce barriers and make things accessible in the truest sense. I believe in freedom of the web, and I believe this is a civil rights issue.

What’s the most interesting thing you’ve learned recently?

What I’m really interested in lately is the research side of things. I’ve started getting more involved in understanding people with cognitive disabilities and how we can cater toward their needs. By lately, I mean just this week. I’ve also been reading about people with vestibular disorders, which I’d never thought about before, and I’m really excited to learn about it. I’m plumbing the depths of the not-so-apparent disability groups and figuring out what their needs are.

What would you tell people who don’t think accessibility should be a priority?

There’s a two-punch way of being able to talk to people. They either deal with it now or deal with it later. They either take a proactive approach and get to be a leader in the field, to be a herald of standards, and to take pride and ownership over the quality of their site. Or they can do it later. But then I tell them that the movement is already here, and a demand for equal access has already been established. Corporations can either be ahead of that wave, or swept away by it, which usually involves litigation or compliance issues. If you’re not thinking ahead, you’re going to be left behind your competitors.

 I spend a lot of time talking to leaders in the corporate world, so this my “stump speech.” For other people, I talk more about the civil rights of accessibility and inclusion, but the corporate world isn’t as interested in that.

Any last words?

Yes! I encourage people to go to AccessU because there are more interesting speakers, and I don’t mean myself, this year than any of the other years that I’ve seen, and I expect it to challenge people and excite them and really turn over what they think about learning conferences….like having costumes.

For a full serving of Elle’s presentation, join us at AccessU on May 15 at 2:00pm. And learn more about Elle on her website www.ellewaters.com, or follow her on Twitter (@nethermind).

Random Notes

Random Notes by Ron Hicks, March, 25 2011

Fair is Fair: For those of you who haven’t kept up…After 20 years, the Department of Justice (DOJ) has made a prudent and cautious gesture toward realizing the “ADA´s promise to provide an equal opportunity for individuals with disabilities to participate in and benefit from all aspects of American civic and economic life.” In a July 23, 2010 paper, DOJ offered that, while the “internet has been governed by a variety of voluntary standards or structures [and those] standards have generally proved to be sufficient where obvious business incentives align… There has not, however, been equal success in the area of accessibility.”

The long and short of this is that DOJ is asserting what we all know to be fair, just and self-evident, i.e. that accommodations for equal access to web services should be no less than those for “bricks and mortar” shops.

By the way, for a government paper, probably torturously composed by committee, the July DOJ paper is quite good. If you are a disability advocate and need to pull quotes, you could do a lot worse. There’s a great synopsis of the history and legal foundations of web and accessibility, and a very succinct and sympathetic description of common barriers to persons using assistive tech. Good job Legal Dudes!

March Sanity: The LDs may have had a hand in this one, too, and it’s about time. Parents and teachers have been screaming their bloody heads off for years (figuratively speaking, of course, actually everyone’s been perfectly civil – maybe that’s why justice is so slow).  At any rate, on March 15, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and his cohorts must’ve heard the hubbub and stepped away from the Washington pack in a real way, advocating for kids with disabilities. He’s having his ED people put $200 million in the 2012 Budget for students with disabilities. The emphasis is on protecting “critical programs serving students with disabilities, including preschool grants, national activity funds, vocational rehabilitation programs, national dissemination and research grants, and supports for institutions serving students with disabilities.”

Protecting critical programs, like protecting our civil rights, should be lauded and Arne, babe, you’ve got my support. 60% of students with disabilities spend 80% of their time in the regular school environment and they deserve AT just like I deserve my trifocals.  Let’s make sure to make sure that our representatives in congress don’t digress on this one. Now, if we can just get past that knotty little problem of allowing students with disabilities to use AT in test taking; right now it’s considered an unfair advantage. No Ma’m, I’m not cheating, I took off my glasses.  Read Arne’s speech .

If You Feel the Shakes Coming On: My Great Uncle Augie (Augusto Feo de los Ojos Pensandos), who among other things is a future philologist, discovered a definition in the New Dictionary of Internet Slang: “Tweetch”: A spasmodic reflex associated with diminished capacity for coherent linguistic expression; a cognitive deficit in word/symbol recognition, characterized by compulsive use of a key pad; Tweetching is believed to be symptomatic of Narcissistic Personality Disorder (now a cultural norm) and the ill-founded conceit that one actually has something of significance to impart to a large audience. Inverse of apostrophe.

About Our Name: Augie says Knowbility is a good name for an organization that strives to embrace and include everyone. He points out (he’s forever pointing out) that the prefix “dis” is a Latin prefix meaning “apart,” “asunder,” “away,” “utterly,” or having a privative, negative, or reversing force ( see de-, un-2 ). Well, Augie-the-Curmudgeon gave us a rare compliment for substituting “know” for “dis”. Thanks Unc…Knowbility is about inclusion. Ain’t no “asunder” or “away” round here.

As I Write from the Corporate Jet: Just to make sure everyone knows, Knowbility is a nonprofit organization. The essential difference between for-profit and non-profit is (this from a Cum Laude CPA with 30 years experience): Non-profits are expense-driven. Very simple. In other words, we use our revenues to deliver services; we don’t get big salaries, big bonuses or perks; there are no stock holder dividends. We don’t gather revenues to fund community programs. We are the community programs. To generate revenue, Knowbility depends on your support, earning our keep through services and the support of grant-making entities.

Jim Thatcher receives Lifetime Achievement Award at the 26th Annual CSUN Conference

Collage of photos showing Jim Thatcher as an incomparable accessibility leader, teacher, advocate and friend.

Nearly 200 people gathered to recognize Jim Thatcher‘s unparalleled contributions to technology access on May 17th at the CSUN Conference at the Grand Hyatt Hotel in San Diego.  The occasion was an award from Jim’s peers to honor a life dedicated to ensuring technology access for people with disabilities.  Leading accessibility advocates and practitioners led by Preety Kumar, CEO of Deque Systems,  came together to share stories and remembrances of working with Jim.  People talked of how they had been influenced by Jim’s brilliance, his passion and his deep commitment to equal technology rights for all.

Rich Schwerdtfeger started the tributes with a remembrance of Jim’s work at IBM.  His touching account of how Jim’s work developing pioneering screenreader and other assistive technology for blind users at IBM, had seminal influence on Rich’s own career and his dedication to the cause of technology equality.  And Rich made it clear that Jim’s ability to inspire others was an key element in IBMs leadership position in accessible technology.  From the  very first screenreader technology through developing internal accessibility guidelines to HomePage Reader, Rich spoke of his pride in being part of Jim’s team.

I got to speak next about Jim’s post-IBM career – about his leadership as Vice-Chair of the Electronic and Information Technology Access Advisory Committee (EITAAC) that wrote the standards for Section 508; about the course he wrote on Web Accessibility for Section 508 for ITTATC; about his work as an expert witness in the Target and Amazon cases and as an advisor to the NY Attorney General’s office regarding Priceline and Ramada Inn.  But mostly I spoke about Jim’s inspiration at the grassroots level, about his work to make the Accessibility Internet Rally (AIR) such a vibrant way to pass the accessibility torch to the next generation of web professionals.

As young developers sign up to compete in AIR and realize that they will be trained and their entry might be judged by Jim Thatcher (!), it connects them to web accessibility far beyond legal mandates or questions of compliance.  I got to speak of the mighty band of Judge Brothers – Jim Thatcher, Jim Allan and John Slatin who guided the program development for so many years.

Jim is unfailingly generous with his time and his knowledge.  His passion is contagious and he infuses many with his fervent advocacy.  After IBM, Jim influenced young developers who took some of that dedication with them in their accessibility work for Apple, Google, Frog Design and many many other companies.

I told the story of meeting Kareem Dale, special assistant to the President on Disability issues and how, when he learned I was from Austin, Kareem’s first question was “Do you know Jim Thatcher?”

Curtis Chong, former technology director at the National Federation of the Blind told of once telling him “Jim, you are the only sighted person I know who thinks like a blind person,”  and that Jim treats blind colleagues without pity or condescension but with a clear understanding that people are equal when given equal access to tools.

It is a rare and wonderful privilege to know and work with Jim.  It is also a responsibility.  This is so because Jim understands as few people do what Marshall McLuhan said about tools.

We shape our tools, and thereafter our tools shape us”

Jim inspires us all to dedicate ourselves to work together to ensure that the information and communication technology tools that are transforming society are equally accessible to all.

Jim himself told the story of choosing the name “PC SAID” for his software invention and being dismayed when his boss chose “screenreader” instead.  More stories told by Andrew Kirkpatrick, James Craig, Lainey Feingold, Chieko Asakawa and others rounded out a picture of Jim Thatcher as a man who has profoundly shaped and continues to influence the field of information technology accessibility and who is enormously generous in sharing his vast experience.

In honor of Jim Thatcher a fund has been established at the Texas Audubon Society .  If you would like to help honor Jim, please use the link and be sure to put his name in the Notes section of the form.  And please share your own stories of Jim right here as well.

Thank you Jim!



Dedication of AccessU to John Slatin

Here is the text of the opening dedication of the 2008 AccessU, renamed to honor our beloved colleague and mentor, Dr. John Slatin who died in March. Following these remarks, Jim Allan and Jim Thatcher unfurled a banner with the new conference title. That banner now resides on the John Slatin AccessU web site.

Good morning and welcome. I am Sharron Rush, Executive Director of Knowbility, the nonprofit organization that collaborates with St Edward’s University each year to bring AccessU to you. Thanks for being here so early. And indeed, thanks for being here…thanks and congratulations on caring about access to technology for everyone, including people with disabilities. We hope you gain skills and information you can use and we always learn from you what your challenges are in implementing accessibility in the world of government agencies and businesses.

AccessU is hosted here at St. Edward’s University for the fourth year. It’s not possible to think about producing this training institute without the steadfast support, encouragement and leadership of St Ed’s. Bill Cahill, the visionary Vice President of Information Technology here at St Ed’s entrusts the campus to us and then Brenda Adrian and Cousett Ruelas and their colleagues make it happen. Please help me thank them for their hard work (applause).

Knowbility’s staff, led by Teenya Franklin have also worked tirelessly to bring together all of the great information and hands on learning that you will have over the next couple of days. Please help me thank Teenya, Kim, Jeff, Anneka, Mike and Steve (applause). There are also dozens of volunteers, who help produce AccessU because they care about this work and are generous with their time – thank you all. (applause)

The instructors you will have here at AccessU are among the brightest lights in the field of accessibility research and innovation. You will get to know them well over the next couple of days and I will ask them to wave or stand so you know who to look for in the hallways. Please feel free to talk with them and take advantage of their experience and presence here. We are fortunate to have their enormous talents and skills and will talk at greater length with several of them at the forum tomorrow at lunch. Today’s lunch will feature a talk by a wonderful speaker named Beth Finke who I met at a conference last year and have been scheming to bring to AccessU. She is bright, funny and so engaging I know you will adore her.

It is exciting to be with so many people who understand the importance of this work and who themselves are working so brilliantly in so many ways to make sure that everyone has access to the opportunities afforded by advances in telecommunications technology. And it is at these times when we are all together that we miss our friend, our mentor and our dear comrade, John Slatin. We miss him terribly.

Jim Allan the webmaster for the Texas School for the Blind and John Slatin’s “Judge Brother” for many years, suggested that we name this conference in honor of John because these three days are all about teaching one another and learning from one another. Teaching and learning…among the things that John Slatin excelled at. As many of you may know, Professor John Slatin of the University of Texas helped start Knowbility, the AIR program and all of the work that we do around the issue of access to technology for all. John’s ability to see decreased throughout his life due to retinal disease. For the last three years he also gallantly battled leukemia. He died in March of 2008 and our community and each of us individually is bereft.

John’s eventual blindness was certainly one motivating factor in his interest in accessibility, but his appreciation and understanding of the power of technology came long before he lost his sight. Many people forget or never knew that John was an English professor.

In fact, I wasn’t sure I would tell this story, but I told it to Kathy Keller this morning and we decided that John would enjoy sharing it. John’s wife Anna Carroll told me at breakfast the other morning that many of their friends from Body Choir did not know that John was a UT professor until they attended his memorial service. Body Choir is a group that meets weekly or twice weekly – an improvisational, amateur dance company where friends gather and move as they are inspired to the music chosen by a facilitator. They dance solo, in pairs or in groups. Anna often facilitates and is very much at the center of the amazing energy that is Body Choir.  John loved to dance with the group and he and his guidedog Dillon were often on the dance floor with the group. 

Surprised by her friends’ ignorance of John’s profession, Anna asked them, “Well what did you think John did?” “Not sure,” they replied, “Thought maybe he was just a happy unemployed blind guy who like to dance.” (laughter) John was so good at meeting people where THEY were and joining them in the things that were of interest to them.

John was a poet. He loved language and the arts and saw in technology the potential to amplify an individual’s ability to tell his or her story, to share the narrative and even to share the structure and telling of the story…hyper-narrative he called it. The promise of interactive storytelling and multi-sensory experiences were all tremendously exciting to John and he explored these avenues adventurously. At his memorial service, John’s UT colleague Peg Syverson recalled her days with him,

“John used to joke that he used technology because he wanted to make English expensive. He meant he wanted to make English count, in ways that the University can recognize and appreciate….John was not merely an innovator; he was a visionary. And he was not a visionary who merely saw into the future, he brought the future he saw into being. And the future he brought into being was dazzling and entirely unexpected. The advent of technology into our field was poised to mechanize routine activities such as grading papers and giving exams. John saw it differently, that technology could become a vehicle for liberation and transformation in the humanities. It could liberate teachers and students from stale, predictable pedagogical practices, and it could transform the humanities from a musty archive into a world of dynamic and creative possibility.”

I took English at UT during that time, leaving my empty nest as my kids were grown to finish a degree started many years before. I took an English class from Tonya Browninga brilliant teacher whose graduate advisor was John Slatin. She mentioned John’s influence consistently as she seamlessly integrated technology into her teaching. The fusion of discovering the Harlem Renaissance writers or Walt Whitman or Wallace Stevens as we learned the narrative potential of new technologies was thrilling. Of course I had no idea that the “John Slatin” that Tonya referred to so often would become such a mentor in my own life and work.

So it is no wonder that when someone with the brilliance to understand so well the revolutionary potential of technology, when someone like John Slatin raised his voice to insist that he not be shut out…well, who could fail to listen?

John’s voice was undeniable and yet not strident and I rarely saw him angry. He became an accessibility expert as a way to ensure that he too could use technology to pursue all of his many interests. He volunteered and served with Knowbility, on University committees and on standards boards. He became a leader because leadership was needed. And that is one of the tragedies of his too too early departure from this life. It seems to me that John was still becoming. He was always learning and sharing and helping us all to learn from him.

So I could tell stories and stories about John…and I am sure I will. I will tell them to you and I encourage all of you to tell me and to tell each other your stories about John during this conference we are naming in his honor. And if you have not yet done so, read his blog the leukemia letters.

Remember him through your stories, our stories and through his work. John would like that. John’s wife Anna is gathering ideas for a long term memorial for John on the John Slatin Wiki, so please feel free to submit any ideas you may have.

And now I will ask John’s two Judge Brothers, Jim Allan and Jim Thatcher to come up and unfurl the banner that we will hang today and for the rest of the days and years that we teach accessibility here at John Slatin AccessU. Thank you.