Trepidation and Triumph at CSUNATC2018

When an exceedingly kind friend offered to be my full-time sighted guide for 2018’s CSUNATC conference, I recognized that I was being offered a unique opportunity that could not, under any circumstances, be passed up. I’d spend a few days in idyllic San Diego, learning about accessible technology and basking in the company of a long-time friend whose social and tech savvy can’t be overstated. She promised to help me navigate the conference, escort me to presentations, and provide networking opportunities I’d struggle to obtain on my own. I was elated. I was grateful. I was excited!
I was also terrified.
You see, dear readers, the word “introvert” was coined specifically for me. While I enjoy a rich social circle and do well when representing employers at special events, high-energy occasions like conferences are about as frightening to me as a nest of angry wasps. In fact, if I have to attend a networking event outside of an employment context, I think I’d rather take the wasps, and that’s saying something. Excessive noise, bustling crowds, and unfamiliar environments combine to create a horrifying mix, and nothing but my relentless quest for self-improvement could make me brave it. (Meeting one of my best online friends helped sweeten the deal, but only slightly.)
I knew how fortunate I was to be attending CSUNATC2018, and I felt the appropriate level of eagerness, but part of me was sure I’d need several barrels of courage to manage. For if there is one thing that makes me more uncomfortable and cagey than large-scale, international networking events, it’s being around large numbers of blind people.
Yes, readers: I am afraid of blind people, especially when they get together, and attending CSUN would demand that I not only confront that fear head-on, but that I ask myself, finally, why the fear exists at all.
The gist is this: I went to CSUN to learn about tech. I learned a little, and certainly enjoyed the presentations, but most of the education had less to do with the accessibility world, and more to do with deeply-rooted insecurities so entrenched that I’d forgotten what it was like to question or even acknowledge them.
If you’re interested in my journey of self-discovery, stay with me. If you hoped to read all about promising new tech, I’m sure there are many excellent write-ups by people much better-versed on the subject. Either way, enjoy!

“Let’s play ‘count the blind people!’”

As we weave somewhat drunkenly through the airport, dragging unwieldy luggage and trying not to trample anyone, my sighted guide chatters blithely about how many blind people she sees going by.
“There’s another one! I think that’s the seventh I’ve seen already.”
“Oh God.”
“What?”
“I’m legitimately afraid of blind people. I mean, they’re okay in small groups, and I love them as individuals, but when we all get together, it’s … I just don’t like it.”
My friend is too gracious to pursue the matter, but it becomes obvious soon enough that my mobility demons, which I’d warned her of previously, are out in full force.
My cane grip must be all wrong. My posture, surely, couldn’t be close to proper. I’m leading with my right shoulder, which is a problem I’ve never been able to correct. Do I ride escalators in a weird way? Am I the only one who doesn’t know print numerals well enough to operate an elevator without brailled numbers? Does it show that I’ve received so little orientation and mobility training I’m not even sure if my rudimentary indoor travel technique is right? Is everyone judging me? Am I a fraud of a blind person?
Oh God, everyone’s definitely judging me.
I want to go home now.

“Let’s get oriented!”

I attend a small orientation tour to learn the hotel’s basic layout, reasoning that I’ll pick the information up more quickly if there aren’t too many people around me. But, as we meander along, passing various significant locations, I lapse into a fog of panic. There is no way one cursory jaunt around this massive hotel will tell me everything I need to know. The only orientation training I’ve ever received was highly specific and route-based, meaning it did not teach me how to master new environments through discovery. I have never wandered in my life—at least, not willingly. Getting lost for fun, exploring, taking a look around … these aren’t my style. Meanwhile, every blind person around me seems to have a mystical sixth sense or, if they are as lost as I am, it doesn’t trouble them. The atmosphere is effervescent, and I feel like an intrusive rain cloud that has accidentally splattered into an unsuspecting sun puddle.
What the hell am I doing here? Who do I think I’m kidding? This was not made for people like me.
I really want to go home.

“You’re not alone. Also, have a tissue.”

It’s been a long day, though for the most part a pleasant one. I’ve listened to enthusiastic Microsoft employees laying out a new and encouraging direction for Windows 10 and its associated accessibility features. I’ve attended a fascinating presentation on disability services departments in academic institutions. I’ve even discovered that the GPS app, Nearby Explorer, has innovative new features to facilitate indoor navigation. My sighted friend gives me sighted guide when I need it, introducing me to what feels like half the world along the way. She makes me sound like someone worth knowing, and I try to keep my impostor syndrome on a short leash. To my shock and delight, people admit to reading my blog—and liking it!
(So, it’s not just my mom and five friends? Cool!)
But now I sit, curled on my bed, offering the less flattering bits of my life story to complete strangers. One of them is an endlessly patient blind O & M instructor. I’m afraid of O & M instructors. (Are you sensing a pattern yet?)
They listen to me ramble despairingly about the inadequate skills training I’ve received; how out of place I feel among more competent blind people; how I am convinced I’m the only one who has ever been this useless at my age; how I must be a uniquely embarrassing failure; and how I’m afraid I will never, ever be anything more than I am right at this moment. In my self-effacement, I remain oddly verbose.
My equally patient sighted friend quietly passes me another tissue, putting her arm around me. This only makes me cry harder.
Then, the two compassionate blind strangers in my hotel room explain that they, too, have struggled. The instructor tells me that I’m far from alone, that it is possible for me to achieve the skill level I desperately want, and that I need not be so willing to let “I’m afraid” be what stands between the life I want and the life I have. Besides, she points out, plenty of blind people are where I am; they just choose not to put a fine point on it. For other blind people out there, the activities I find easy may seem like insurmountable challenges, and vice versa.
“Most of the people who intimidate you by going on about how good their skills are probably have something to hide.”
“I guess that does make sense.”
I plumb deeper, describing all the gaps between the talented and competent professional I know myself to be, and the bumbling wreck my brain insists I am. I was never taught to cut a steak in a way that made sense to me. I hold utensils in an unconventional way because the “normal” way has always felt clumsy. Sometimes, I simply don’t leave the house because the anxiety of existing in my skin is too much.
And, to my genuine shock, I am not alone in any of these things.
“But … why isn’t anyone talking about this?”
“We’re all too busy impressing each other, of course.”
“But I thought I was, like … degenerate.”
“No! You can be better. You can go higher. But you’re by no means the only one.”
“But I’m scared.”
“So was I.”
I am telling strangers the most intimate, shameful pieces of my long-buried trauma. I am exposing, to myself and to people I barely know, why I am so terrified of other blind people. I am opening up to unknown quantities in a way I’ve never done, not even with my friends, my family, myself.
Least of all myself!
And I am not afraid.
I am embarrassed and bemused and a little curious about what it is about conferences that fills you with the insatiable need to connect …
But Good God, I am not afraid.

“Just trust yourself.”

My default state, especially when dealing with new experiences, is “What do I know?”
Several times throughout the four days I spend at CSUN, my friend and I take a wrong turn of some sort, and something in the back of my mind insists we’ve made a mistake, gone the wrong way, gotten mixed up somewhere. Each time, I ignore it.
Each time, I am right.
Each time, my friend grows more playfully exasperated.
“Meagan, you should really try trusting yourself. You know things!”
“I just usually assume I don’t. Like, what do I know about this place?”
“You have good instincts, though. You should listen to them.”
Slowly, tentatively, I begin cataloguing the many instances over the years when my gut has stirred itself to alert me of some poor decision or wrong turn. In every case, if someone I perceived to be more knowledgeable than me disagreed, I became silent at once. Now, after more than a decade of systematic suppression, I don’t even consider speaking up.
Of course other blind people know more than I do.
Of course sighted people know where they’re going.
Of course I’m unqualified. Inexpert. Silly.
I can’t control the fact that I’m clueless about most things.
Or is this a choice I’ve made, one I forgot to unmake?
Is anyone telling me I’m useless, or have I been doing that to myself all along?
Heavy thoughts for a languid California afternoon!
But then, this does seem to be the week for them.

“Yes, it’s scary; and yes, you’re going to do it.”

Thump. Whir. Thump. Whir. Thump.
“What the hell is that?”
“That’s a door.”
“I don’t think we have these where I’m from…”
As it turns out, automatic revolving doors are much more frightening than they sound. Revolving doors are irritating enough; having once been stuck in one, I feel personally qualified to judge. The automated feature brings a whole new level of nightmare fuel, though, especially when you don’t have a clear understanding of how it works. All I could hear was an ominous thumping sound as the door thwacked repeatedly into something as it went round and round at what I considered an alarming speed.
I was open to trying it out, particularly since I was filled with new resolve and I had an O & M instructor with me once again. However, when she described the procedure, which involved me “sticking [my] hand in there so the door can hit it,” I balked a wee bit.
By “balked,” I mean I stood there for what must have been ten minutes, coming up with all the reasons I definitely could not—would not—attempt this.
Finally, I gathered all my courage and approached the door, only to have it hit me squarely in the face.
A little shell-shocked, hiding treacherous tears, I retreated and tried to regroup. Meanwhile, the O & M instructor, her blind friend, and my sighted friend stood by just as patiently as before, acting as cheerleaders and accountability officers in equal measure. Surrounded by all the (positive) pressure, I went for it.
As I leaned heavily on the door and followed it in a dizzying circle, one of my blind companions ran along behind me, shouting jubilant encouragement. It was rather like going on your first water slide, with your proud elder sibling shooting along behind you, utterly thrilled on your behalf.
Such a small thing, really, going through a door. Ridiculous, even. I’m twenty-three, for heaven’s sake. I’m an employed, educated, mostly-functional adult.
But that day, that damn door was everything.

“One more time before you go?”

On the day I was due to leave for home, I tried to cram as much as I could into a few too-short hours. I visited the exhibit hall, demoing a Braille tablet and expressing horror at how loud those new displays are getting. (I compared the scrolling sound to a very angry spider.) I met more people, flexed my extrovert muscles, and even handed out a resume to an accessibility company that was hiring overseas. Just to cap off the quintessential California experience, I drank a hellishly expensive juice blend and caught a few more rays of sun.
Feeling brave, I attempted to travel a little more independently, and promised a handful of new acquaintances I’d connect with them so I could share my writing and social media knowledge. This was a huge step forward, since I find it almost impossible to speak highly of myself outside of job interviews and cover letters.
Just as we were poised to leave the hotel, my sighted friend suggested I truly conquer that automatic revolving door, just to prove to myself I could.
It was tricky, and I grew progressively more nervous as concerned sighted people crowded around, hindering more than helping.
But, dear readers, I did it.
Twice.
Willingly.
As I came through the door the second time, more joyful than I felt was socially acceptable, my friend literally jumped up and down with sheer happiness, celebrating so loudly I could hear her through the door.
Most people might not understand why this tiny feat was important to me, and few people would appreciate the symbolism of it.
But she got it.
And, for the umpteenth time that week, I remembered: whatever I reveal, whatever I admit to, however I might struggle, I am not alone.
I never was.
And you know what?
Neither are you.

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“Are You Afraid of the Dark?”: a Sighted Person’s Adventures With the Screen Reader Experience

When my friend Laura told me she was considering a screen-free vacation, I assumed she was speaking of a general unplugging from all her favourite technology. She clarified the point: she would spend her holiday using nothing but screen readers.
For the average screen reader user, this doesn’t sound like much of an undertaking, but while Laura works with screen readers constantly in her role as accessibility tester, she is fully sighted and had never depended exclusively on a screen reader before. Since Laura is always finding new ways to become even better at what she does, she felt this challenge would enhance her skills at work and give her a better, if not complete, understanding of what the computing experience is like for the everyday visually impaired person.
To my immense delight, Laura agreed to write an account of her adventures, her discoveries, and her advice for other sighted people who want to try the same experiment.


“To alcohol,” once proclaimed Homer Simpson, “the cause of – and solution to – all life’s problems.” Apply this logic to screen readers and this quote sums up my recent winter break.
Screen readers and other assistive tools make technology usable for people with differing abilities relating to vision, hearing, motor skills, etc. Assistive tech achieves this by converting one type of information into other types depending on the user’s preference. For example, screen reader software converts what would be visual words on a computer monitor or phone screen into electronically generated speech and sounds. Likewise, captioning turns speech and sounds into visual words. The field of accessibility covers both the production of technologies like these, and information conversion. To further my skills in this field, I decided to try using these tools on a more personal level. I decided that I was holding myself back in my accessibility career by relying on looking at the screen while using a screen reader. It was the easy way out, and as JFK once said, “we choose to go to the moon… and do the other things… not because they are easy, but because they are hard.”

The “Screen-Free Holiday” Experiment

In my life, I’ve undertaken some wacky challenges that have brought me some new and interesting insights. My week of wearing DIY upcycled thrift store clothes taught me that while a duct taped hem is good in a pinch, it can get pretty uncomfortable when it starts to stick to your legs; that yes, free chocolate is so powerful a force that it is possible to give a single talk about making both bacon chocolate truffles and vegan chocolate truffles without starting a riot. Most recently, I decided to rely as much as possible on assistive technology for two weeks, even though I am sighted, just to see what would happen. Here were my plans for a screen-free holiday break from work with the following rules:

  • While in my hometown of Pittsburgh, I would avoid looking at screens and would instead rely on screen readers and other assistive technology as needed.
  • Paper wouldn’t count as a screen, so reading newspapers and books was okay. There was no way I was going to pass up my grandmother’s Reader’s Digest magazines.
  • If I cheated and looked at the screen, I’d need a good reason to explain why I did it.

I knew there would need to be exceptions built in to my process. For example, I was planning on going to the movies with a friend, and while I would request the industry-standard free headset that describes what’s happening in the movie to me, I would not watch the movie with my eyes closed. I also knew I’d be unable to avoid screens around the house, like clocks or oven screens. And, since my dad takes great pride in being able to show people cool things on his smartphone, I wouldn’t object if he called me over to watch something. Overall, I wanted to establish guidelines, not black and white rules.

What This Article is Not About

Here are a few necessary disclaimers before we get to the fun stuff:

  • The opinions expressed in this article are my own and not those of my employer. This was an independent experiment.
  • This challenge should not be construed as a blindness simulation. The article covers my own personal experience, not those of others, blind or sighted.
  • My challenge was not specific to any platform. In fact, I will intentionally use ambiguous language to avoid revealing which tech I used. All that’s important is that I used a phone and a laptop.
  • Finally, I won’t be complaining. I have the luxury of choosing when and if I can depend on assistive technology while others do not.

Screen-Free Stage 1: Biting off More Than I can Chew

Much like grief, learning to use a screen reader brought me through multiple emotional stages.
First, there was the initial “biting off more than I could chew” phase. I had some previous experience with keystrokes and smartphone gestures, but I hadn’t actually done much beyond the basics. I quickly realized that I had a lot to learn, and did my best to avoid slipping into hopelessness.
I found myself soldiering on through brute force, trying everything I could think of to get what I wanted done. Often, I was so focused on figuring out how to perform a task that I’d forget what I was attempting to accomplish in the first place. That note I had wanted to take was lost from my memory by the time I’d thought to try the speech-to-text engine, for example.
Full disclosure: I resorted to cheating when entering longer blocks of complex text, such as wireless network passwords. Cheating also became necessary when trying for literally hours to perform what I thought were basic tasks, like copy/pasting a URL or entering a new phone contact.

Screen-Free Stage 2: Embarrassing Run-Ins (and a Dash of Swearing)

Next, I entered the swearing stage, in which I had several embarrassing run-ins. I couldn’t figure out how to prevent the mobile screen reader from announcing everything out loud, even when the screen was locked. It’s a good thing I don’t lead a secret other life!
I felt such a sinking feeling when a friend sent me an image with text inside it. These are ubiquitous online, but screen readers can’t interpret them without additional software. I ended up using OCR (optical character recognition) to read the picture, but struggled to tell her about what she had done wrong in a tactful way.
Using speech-to-text was another significant adjustment for me. I kept treating dictation like recording a voicemail, failing to speak punctuation and often ending all texts with “ok, bye.” The quality of my messages improved after Meagan, an experienced screen reader user, kindly pointed out that I could (and should!) speak my punctuation aloud to make my messages more readable, but the process remained challenging.
There was a humiliating incident where I couldn’t figure out how to answer the phone when an extremely time sensitive phone call was coming through.
Eventually, my abnormal behaviour became apparent to my family and friends. I was struggling and needed a way forward.

Screen-Free Stage 3: Back to Basics

Tired of the chaos, I decided to go back to basics and RTFM (read the “freaking” manual). I went through each tutorial slowly and carefully, searching for more information online along the way. Things seemed to get easier, but really the only thing that changed was that I got better at using screen readers, slowly but surely. Learning to use a screen reader is just like any other skill, such as learning to play an instrument. In both cases, you press buttons to try to get the sound you desire. Beginners can hit some jarringly wrong notes, while experienced players sound like geniuses to those around them.
My high school band director liked to say that practice doesn’t make perfect; practice makes permanent. I had been practicing using a screen reader while still relying on my vision, so I was developing some bad habits that could have become permanent if not for this practice, like using the mouse to navigate instead of learning new keystrokes. I may not have tested every facet of the screen reader experience—I was not brave enough to try online shopping, since my confidence was not high enough to risk spending money—but I did make real progress. By the end of my break, I had tried a few “stunts,” like sending an important, although short, email to a colleague and I even took and posted a picture to social media, all without looking at a screen! My crowning achievement was writing this blog post without using my sight. (Fortunately, Meagan used her excellent editing skills to make this legible. I came back in and added some more comments afterward without using a screen reader. Since I was back in my “normal” life I realized that if I wanted to just finish this piece I couldn’t also take the time needed to become a screen reader user who can also do word processing well. Progress, not perfection.)
Finally, I reached a place of acceptance. Acceptance is not agreeance, and it doesn’t mean I liked everything about my experience, but I was at least about to sit down and face reality.

New Lessons, New Growth

I learned a few unexpected lessons along this journey…
First up: earphones are so important! As I mentioned earlier, screen readers can seriously compromise privacy, especially for novice users. Earphones fulfill the dual purpose of protecting your privacy while letting people know you are occupied with your phone or computer. (Since your eyes won’t necessarily be on the screen, people may not realize you’re working on something.) I have started wearing my headphones over just one ear with the other ear exposed, to signal to others that I’m open to talking if they want. I also learned that screen readers can help with focusing in on specific content; listening to just one thing can be easier than looking at multiple information streams simultaneously.
Second, using a screen reader does not have to be a chaotic experience. Despite the issues I faced at the beginning, using screen readers helped me relax during my vacation by allowing me some time away from social media and my email while I was learning. I had felt anxious about disconnecting, but I’m glad I did. Moderate disconnection gave me the space to work on a new skill while moving into a growth mindset. After a few days of consuming less media, so many ideas came to me.
Third, using a screen reader means heavy exposure to synthetic speech, so choosing the right voice is essential. I learned that the voice employed by the screen reader can really make a difference. I switched between four types of English during the challenge, and the variations helped me keep things fresh and prevented me from getting annoyed by too much of the same voice.
Fourth, going screen-free can open up the visual world in unexpected ways. As my eyes spent less time glued to a screen, I was able to notice small details, like a cute cat-shaped zipper pull on the bag of the person ahead of me in line, and the larger ones, like the beauty of snow and holiday decorations.

Advice for Future Challenge-Takers

Here are a few words of advice for sighted people thinking of following in my footsteps and taking a screen-free break.

  • Learn to use your computer without a mouse before diving into screen reader use. Keyboard navigation is available for nearly every function a mouse performs and it will cut down on the learning curve required for the whole screen reader experience.
  • Be prepared for your friends and family to be confused by your new strange behaviors and messages.
  • Don’t be afraid to take notes with pen and paper, even if you tend to lose paper the way I do. It can make life so much easier.
  • Enjoy non-computer entertainment, especially when you need a break from learning.
  • Try to be patient with yourself and persistent against the problems around you.

What’s it all for, Exactly?

Fellow sighted tech lovers may well ask why I put myself through this while on vacation, over and above the career development possibilities. Their confusion would make sense: I remember when I set the screen on my phone to go dark and I was really in for the project. It felt like a door slamming shut and made me really nervous. However, when I sent my first text after that, I felt amazing! It was worth it.
Screen readers are a vital part of the computing experience for so many, but those who don’t need them don’t typically understand what it’s like to depend on technology few people understand or accommodate. I hope that, by reading this guide, sighted people may be inspired to take a closer look at screen readers, how they function, and what steps can be taken to build a more accessible computing experience for everyone.
A final analogy that came to me during this time seems relevant here: Imagine that you run a business that ships shiny, fun gadgets to your customers. For a certain percentage of your customers, the shipments arrive without issue and they are happy. However, other customers open their packages to find that the labels have fallen off the buttons, the instructions have been replaced with a list of meaningless file names, and there is a bunch of extra junk in the box that makes it hard to find the actual product. These customers paid the same amount of money and are equal users in every respect except that some of them got this bad deal. Now imagine that instead of a fun gadget, you’re actually shipping out the tools people need to do their jobs or connect with loved ones. When web content is put up that isn’t accessible or new problems arise with an app or phone interface, it’s equivalent to sending out that terrible package and product. Imagine opening it on the first day on a new job or giving it as a gift to your grandmother. Do your research on this aspect of product design. Accessibility matters.