Today marks the two hundred and ninth anniversary of the birth of Louis Braille, the inventor of the system of dots which bears his name and has enabled blind people all over the world, including myself, to read and write. This day is commemorated as World Braille Day, and in appreciation of the gift loaded with opportunities braille has provided me, I wanted to write a short note of thanks and gratitude as my Ultimate Blog Challenge post for today.
I’ve been a braille reader since about the age of five, and shortly after that, a braille writer. Braille was how I and my fellow students in the classes composed only of blind children I attended in my early school years learned to read, write, spell, and do math. I still enjoy reading braille whenever I can, using a braille display, and I honestly can’t conceive of my life without it. Braille has enabled me to contribute to the world around me, as well as cook, write code, and read for pleasure. Braille has made it possible for me to more concretely retain knowledge. I can learn by listening to either a screen reader or to an audio book, but there’s nothing quite like reading and then digesting as opposed to a near constant stream of spoken words that are coming in while the last ones I may have heard are still in the process of being internalized.
Several of the things I am sentimentally attached to involve braille: The box of birthday cards from my grandma which all have their messages in braille; the little porcelain shoes I received as a gift from Rian Rietveld at the final WordCamp U.S. with their attached note in braille; the purse charms I bought myself last year from elegant Insights Braille Creations with their embossed braille phrase. For me, nothing preserves memmories quite like braille does.
So, thank you, Louis Braille, for the privilege of being able to read and write, and thereby contribute to my world. Thank you for the enjoyment, and the ability to read when the power’s out, and the ability to capture memories in a way that will outlast almost every form of technology. Thank you for everything.
Today’s Ultimate Blog Challenge post will be a quick one, because it’s been a very long day with very few spoons and I’m very tired. The prompts for today revolve around the people we admire in either our personal or professional lives, but instead of focusing on who I already admire, I wanted to write a bit on where I think we need to be headed if we want to become people and a profession that people who are not part of our “in crowd” can trust when we make promises, (explicit or implicit), regarding improving their lives and not screwing them up. This is more of a meditation than anything else, so it’s a bit rambly.
Every day, I come across articles in my various news feeds about the latest moral or ethical outrage in tech. They’re usually different kinds of moral or ethical outrages, but I think they all stem from the same root problem: Arrogance on the part of the tech industry. I think, as a general rule, our industry tends to not think about the negative effects the things we create can have on society in general and the lives of individuals in particular. We tend to view the idea of tech taking over everything as a good thing, we assume that whatever we’re creating is part of that goodness, and when someone does bad things with it, we come back with something along the lines of “We can’t control what people do with our stuff.” We pretend that the things we create are neutral and that we as an industry are a shining city on a hill, when really neither of these beliefs are true at all and are prime examples of our telling ourselves what we want to hear and believe instead of acknowledging the realities of the situation: Technology is not neutral, we have a lot of power over society and over individuals thanks to tech being as pervasive as it is and getting more pervasive by the day, and while we can’t prevent every bad actor from using what we create, we could work a lot harder to make it more difficult to do horrible things with our creations. We’re not building neuclear bombs, after all.
If we want to become an industry the public can trust, we need to get our stuff together, and we can start with stripping away the arrogance. I’m thinking of a certain type of founder here, but really, we’re all susceptible to it. It’s really easy to convince ourselves that we’re drowning in awesome sauce, that everything we do has zero ethical problems, but that’s mostly because we generally refuse to consider ethics in tech, and so since we’re not considering it as a discipline, there must not be a problem. But ignoring a problem doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist, and the longer we continue to ignore this as an industry, the worse it’s going to get. And eventually, as people become more technologically literate, they’ll begin to look more closely at what we do outside of code as well as inside it. We cannot continue to freewheel through people’s lives, reduce them to one-dimentional users, and then walk away from the consequences that inevitably result from our actions. None of this is to say that the things we create are evil by default. I still believe that we can do a lot of good in the world. But we need to concentrate on making sure that we’re actually creating things that are beneficial, and guard against our creations being used for evil as extensively as we can. In short, we need to grow up and start demonstrating that we have the capacity to act ethically and responsibly.
The Ultimate Blog Challenge presents so many opportunities to get to know other people and build relationships with them, and the best way for this to work for everyone is for all of us to be as human as possible with each other. I think this is why one of the starting posts is an introduction.
I personally find introductions where I have to say nice things about myself hard to write, but another one of my 2018 goals is to do more self-promotion while not becoming annoying or conceited about it, so here’s my introduction to the rest of the participants of the January 2018 Ultimate Blog Challenge.
My story on the web begins with a course on HTML I took as part of my computer science studies back in 1998. It was my favorite part of that year’s curriculum, and I spent the rest of my school career and early work years tinkering with web technologies. I use a piece of technology called a screen reader, because I am totally blind. This meant that I needed to make sure that my web tinkerings had an accessible result, because if they didn’t, I myself would not be able to use them. So along with experimenting with things like HTML and CSS, I used tools like Bobby along with manual testing with my screen reader to make sure that I could use what I created.
In 2005, while I was trying to solve the problem of displaying the Hebrew date on my very simple blog, I ran across WordPress. Never having used free licensed open source (FLOSS) software before, I assumed that WordPress was going to cost me and that the plugin I needed was going to cost me further. This was not the case. So after work one day, I decided to go through the famous five-minute install, and I had WordPress up and running on this site, which at the time was my personal site on the web.
During the day I went to work at my job, and after work I experimented with WordPress. This included hacking themes and plugins, breaking things, and learning how to fix them.
Then, one day when I went into work, I found that the software I needed to use to do my job became completely inaccessible. This meant that I literally could not do my job. There were some attempts by our operations manager at the time to try to get the software fixed, but since the call center I worked for didn’t have control of the software, those efforts amounted to something along the lines of “we’re terribly sorry our software doesn’t work for you, and here’s this other blind guy who works for the same call center you do, and this other one who works in-house with us, and maybe you guys can come up with a work-around.” Spoiler alert: We didn’t.
When the effort to get the software I needed to use to do my job proved unsuccessful, the next option according to the call center was to terminate my employment, hand me a severence package, and send me on my way. Of course I was deeply unsatisfied with this option, because I had done nothing to warrant termination, and a severence package wasn’t going to make the fact that I was going to be out of a job any more palatable. Fortunately, I had a supervisor who was willing to go to bat for me like nobody’s business, along with a systems administrator who was willing to bend the rule about low-level employees not having anything but restricted internet access on their work stations.
So because I wouldn’t agree to the termination and severence package, and because the call center I worked for didn’t want a discrimination lawsuit on their hands, I spent my last two years at that job hacking on WordPress for eight hours a day.
In mid 2007, I accepted a tech support role with Freedom Scientific, a veteran provider of assistive technology for individuals with blindness, low-vision and learning disabilities. This was my first position involving remote work, and I continued to hack on WordPress after work while supporting users of Freedom Scientific software by day, assisting with installing their flagship product, Jaws for Windows on individual machines, as well as configuring license servers to work with various corporate and government firewalls and networks. My duties also included supporting users of notetakers such as the Braille ‘N Speak, which you can see demonstrated in the below video.
Things were going great until I received an email one Saturday morning from my manager at Freedom Scientific letting me know that my hours had been reduced to zero, and that once I sent my phone and other equipment back I would receive my last paycheck. I now had a ton of free time on my hands, and no income. I applied for Social Security Disability and waited for that to kick in, while living off the six months’ worth of pay I had saved. I also decided to go back to school to obtain various Cisco and Red Hat certifications. I thought that these would be my way back into the workforce. I was very wrong.
As I began taking courses for my certifications, I learned that the certifications themselves were completely inaccessible. This meant that I could take courses all day long, but I couldn’t pass them because the certifications were required as part of the final grade. My GPA tanked, I lost my financial aid, and everything started cascading down from there. My health took a turn for the worse and I was diagnosed with Lupus eventually, I was evicted from my apartment, and I moved to Augusta, Georgia because my friends Wil and Denise offered me a couch and a roof over my head.
I was still hacking WordPress through all of this. It was the only stable part of my life. I wanted to help make it more accessible for people with disabilities, so I googled WordPress and accessibility and stumbled on the WordPress Accessibility Team in 2012. I was elated that it existed and joined up. Shortly after that, I finally got my own place to live, and started thinking about what I was going to do with the rest of my life in regard to work. I thought I could build things with WordPress for a living, but wasn’t sure if anyone else was doing it. I had heard stories, but figured they were one-offs and assumed given my recent string of failures that I could never pull it off.
I had begun listening to podcasts by this point, so I started looking for WordPress-related ones. I stumbled on the Drad Cast. I was expecting it to be full of technical things, but not very entertaining. Wrong again. I loved it. It was WordPress, beer and hilarity all rolled into one. And they talked about security as well, which is another subject I’m passionate about, along with accessibility. When the Drad Cast announced that WordSesh was going to happen, I was stoked. It was twenty-four hours of WordPress crack, and it was completely online. This was good because travel was out of the question. I made sure to tune in and stayed up the entire time listening to and absorbing WordPress knowledge. I also started interacting with WordPress people on Twitter, and learned about the wider community and how awesome it was. A couple of months after that I started using Genesis, which made WordPress development quicker as far as the front end is concerned. And I was still contributing as part of WordPress Accessibility. Things had finally started to pick up.
In 2014, I filed for incorporation in Georgia, and Customer Servant Consultancy became an actual entity. It was the name I had been operating under since I started building things with WordPress for other people and I was glad to make it official. It was also around this time that I started building internal systems with WordPress to manage projects and customer relations. Since WordPress is open source, and becoming more and more accessible by the day, I was able to gain more independence because I wasn’t at the mercy of web and application developers who know nothing about accessibility. I could build it myself as long as I had the time.
Fast forward to 2018, another year full of promise and potential. The internet is ever-changing, and the WordPress community is going strong. I never expected to find my nitche through a random web search so many years ago.
It’s time for the January 2018 Ultimate Blog Challenge, and I’m jumping in with both feet. I wanted to write a quick post both as my first post for the challenge and as my first post of 2018 to explain why.
Several of my goals for 2018, (goals mind you, not resolutions, simply because I don’t like all the social baggage that comes with that term and I also hate conformity), revolve around my websites. I’m working on aligning my personal and professional site (this one) with the principles of the indieweb, and part of that effort involves writing less content specifically for the various social media silos and more on my own sites, which then gets syndicated to social media silos. I thought that joining with a group of people who are similarly interested in bolstering the presence of their own blogs would be a great way to help accomplish this, as well as build some new relationships. I’ve also got a ton more writing to do for the WordPress with a Screen Reader series, and writing shorter posts each day will exercise the writing muscles I need for that series. I’m looking forward to reading what everyone else has to write, commenting on those posts, and adding my own posts to the effort.
If you want to join us, you can visit the Ultimate Blog Challenge website, and sign up for yourself. There’s also a Facebook group as well as a Twitter hashtag you can follow to read submissions from other participants. I’m looking forward both to my part in the challenge, as well as interacting with everyone else. Welcome to 2018, everyone.