This week I volunteered to help teach a class about web accessibility for TechGirlz. This amazing nonprofit organization offers free workshops to help girls become interested in technology. I really enjoyed the experience, and hope the girls did as well. I look forward to volunteering again.
I became blind at birth, and my parents got an Apple II/e when I turned seven. Another company made a speech card and screen reader, and I quickly took an interest. One day, I didn’t know what command to type, so typed LIST. This listed the current program in memory (Eliza in this case). Instantly I understood that I could make this magic box do whatever I wanted by typing in instructions. I knew that I would become a programmer when I grew up.
I hated middle school. As the only blind kid in a public school, kids bullied me and treated me like an outcast. As a computer nerd growing up in the 80s, the school did their best, but didn’t really know what to do with any of us. They regarded us as antisocial and strange at best, and as potential hackers at worst. And from what I’ve heard, girls had it even worse.
Now, we have TechGirlz, a wonderful nonprofit organization which offers free workshops to middle school aged girls. I forget where I first heard them, at some random event most likely. I remember talking to a woman about Ruby on Rails, which I don’t even use, even though I write straight Ruby or RubyMotion constantly. I remained subscribed to their mailing list because I like what they do.
A recent email detailed some upcoming workshops, including one about web accessibility with screen readers. I felt so excited! Of course, I do this professionally, so look forward to sharing my knowledge. I also recalled an illuminating conversation I had with Leslie Birch where she likened gender issues to accessibility. Framing them that way caused me to understand them a lot more clearly. Now I had the opportunity to teach some girls about accessibility! I signed up before even reading any of the details.
First I had to pass some background checks. This just meant filling out some forms online. Quick tip: on the child abuse clearance form, their system has a bug inputting the SSN, at least with Safari. I proceeded without specifying my SSN and still got my clearance back in a few days.
We began exchanging emails. The lesson plan called for using VoiceOver, which comes on all of Apple’s devices. I use it daily, including right now to write this article. However, the woman at the library said they did not have any Apple products, but that the girls could bring their own laptops. I haven’t used Windows in years, so had to brush up on some things. I thought we would use the full featured and free screen reader NVDA, but we ended up using Narrator, which Wikipedia describes as a light duty screen reader utility. It didn’t really matter, since we would only do the basics. I also suggested headphones.
The day came for the event. The woman heading the event teaches web design at a high school here in the city, so I assumed that the event would happen there. As my centenarian grandmother would no doubt remind us: never assume anything. In fact, the event happened in a suburb forty-five minutes away. It would take more time and money than I anticipated. I ate a snack and pondered the situation. Of course I had to go for it!
I arrived just in time in true Seraphin fashion. We got right into it. The girls went around and said their names and something about themselves. The first girl said that she wants to become an astronaut and an aerospace engineer. I excitedly referenced the breaking news of NASA discovering seven new Earth-like planets. Should could easily make an equal discovery. I expect a card in twenty or thirty years when she does. Another girl acted shyly.
“Don’t worry, I’m shy too.” I said. Privately I thought that if she wants to become a programmer then she will fit right in. When people ask if I feel nervous when I give speeches, I often say that i dread attending the after party far more. Giving the speech just means following an outline with emotion.
During the introductions I also suggested saying if they knew anyone with a disability. One girl had a friend with autism. This started shifting the discussion. I got that idea from the disability sensitivity training offered by Philly Touch Tours, something any organization can benefit from. We also played a fun game where we wore cards with a woman’s name and picture, and we had to figure out her identity from clues. I totally blanked on retired supreme court justice Sandra Day O’Connor’s name, though of course I knew of her.
It amazed me that some of the girls went to a VR school. My parents had to fight with my school to let me use technology in the classroom. Things have certainly changed. Not only that, but schools now have a program called CTE, which stands for Career in Tech Education. I hope kids today take advantage. I can only wish we had programs like these growing up!
The girls got out their laptops and we got Narrator running. I felt kind of sorry that they had to jump in and navigate a site. I would have spent some time going over some screen reader basics. However, I know adult professionals who end up in that exact same situation, so it does mirror something from real life.
I forgot to share an easy way to check for basic accessibility: try navigating the site by only using your keyboard. Don’t even worry about a screen reader. This won’t show screen reader accessibility, but it will show keyboard accessibility. If you can’t access something with the keyboard, then you likely can’t access it with a screen reader either.
Things got a little cacophonous and I think the girls started getting a little bored. They took a break and we had snacks. One remarked about the amount of extra stuff she had to listen to. I’ve always wished I could convey to a sighted person the amount of clutter a blind person has to deal with constantly. If these girls walked away understanding only that then I consider this lesson a success.
We did a little more work after that. One girl noted that Narrator reads the URL, instead of the link text. They looked at various pages, including some projects they have worked on. One did a project about the Northern Lights. Another did a page about Andy Warhol. I showed off my Aftershokz bone conduction headphones. Finally, each had to summarize what accessibility meant to them. One girl said:
“Technology is only fun when it is not annoying.”
That pretty much says it all!
We said our good byes and I took a Lyft back to “the far away city” as one of the librarians referred to it. It felt really good to introduce accessibility to a young and receptive audience. I had a powerful emotional experience imagining a whole new generation introduced to the wealth of computer history and positive hacker lore. We can change the world!