Austin’s Accessibility Adventure

This weekend I attended BarCamp Philly. Everyone promised a life-changing time. They spoke the truth. I had a lot of fun, met some great people and even ended up giving a presentation.

I first heard of BarCamp at the PANMA talk I went to. THe organizer also spoke then, and enthusiastically encouraged everyone to sign up. I figured why not? Unfortunately, when I went to purchase my ticket, I found the submit button totally inaccessible. I could not submit my order. I sent a message and to my delight Sarah responded within hours and straightened everything out. I had my ticket.

My friend Nick said he would go, so we began to make plans. As the day drew closer Nick said that I should consider giving a presentation. Another friend named Rachel said the same thing as soon as I told her about it, so I had already started considering it. At first I thought I’d do something about technology, but more and more people wanted to know about echolocation. I emailed a few people to get their opinions. Had I gone insane to even consider giving a presentation at a conference I’ve never attended including a topic I had never given a presentation about? Apparently not, because everyone said go for it.

Along with the official conference, BarCamp includes a pre-party and a post-party. And no, they don’t call it BarCamp because it happens in a bar, though much of it does. The name BarCamp actually comes from the programming convention of using foo and bar as metasyntactic variables. Tim O’Riley had a closed conference called FooCamp. In reaction to this, a group of San Francisco hackers started BarCamp, an unconference with nothing set at the beginning. Presenters show up that day and create the schedule in real-time. This format worked to my advantage.

The time for the pre-party had come. I had the same problem getting a ticket for that, but again Sarah helped me out. I arrived at an office building, having no idea what to expect. I found security guards and people cleaning floors. I wondered if I had come to the right place. Fortunately, a guard checked me in and showed me to the Zivtech suite.

Echolocation helped me once again. I would have felt so scared to do this before, but this time I tromped right in and found my way to the congested room with beer and sandwiches. I got a foamy Dogfish 60 minute IPA. A woman who worked at Zivtech offered to give me the grand tour. They do Drupal development, so we quickly found things to talk about. And yes, they do have an accessibility specialist.

I saw their cool office suite including a fish tank and two big conference rooms. I found my way to a beanbag chair and talked to some people about Ruby. I have to get one of those chairs! The girl who gave me the tour also brought me a spicy vegetable sandwich. I began to really like this.

Nick arrived and I really began getting into it. We started asking people what they thought about me giving a presentation. Everyone said I should, and again they really wanted to hear about echolocation. I began to resign myself to the fact that I would give a speech with sixteen hours of notice. Whatever, all hail Discordia!

I ventured to the beer room and got a Goose Island IPA, since they had a problem with the other. I started debating with myself. Should I do a talk about technology, a talk about echolocation, a talk combining the two, or two talks? I asked the organizer named Tim, and with great bravado he told me that nobody should do two talks. That settled it, I would give one talk and sort of combine the two topics under the broad heading of technology to help the blind. After all, echolocation uses the most powerful computer on Earth, the human brain.

The party started winding down. Nick and I and Nick’s friend Ruth started wandering around, and eventually found ourselves at a ping pong table. Can the blind play ping pong? I guess we’d find out.

I couldn’t actively echolocate the ball, but could find it passively, in other words hearing the sound of the ball hitting the table gave the location, then I would compensate for the bounce. Different people began giving me different advice on how to play. One guy named Jerry seemed to actually know how to play and showed me how to bounce the ball over the net. I actually started getting into it, then the place closed. I will have to explore ping pong more.

I caught a cab home, my brain buzzing from the IPA and the adrenalin from playing ping pong and the thought of giving a speech the next day. I started preparing my presentation in my head. At about 01:30 in the morning, Nick texted me. “You know, I was thinking you really should have some business cards for tomorrow.” As luck would have it, Nick works as a graphic and web designer, so printed out some right then. Check out Wingnut Art for a good local designer. He sure came through for me! I just made one or two suggestions and they came out perfectly. He even gave me a metal box to keep them in, since apparently cards produced on a laser printer will distort if kept in a pocket.

I awoke at seven o’clock after a light sleep. I usually stay up late, so this felt totally weird. I pulled it together and got ready. Nick said he’d arrive around 08:15, but ended up closer to 09:00. Maybe I would arrive too late and not even have to give a presentation. Part of me felt relieved, but a greater part felt disappointed at the prospect.

Nick introduced me to his cousin Roxy. She and I would spend the day together since he would have to leave early. We soon found out that we both enjoy smoking a lot of tobacco. I used an entire pipeful with her. We got along well. I could not have done this without her.

Nick texted Ruth from the previous night. She thought about giving a talk about cooking with leftovers. I suggested the name Leveraging your Leftovers and they loved it. They worked it out that if she texted someone at BarCamp to put us on the schedule we’d wait for her. So we waited. And waited. Nick texted her: CMON!

Finally Ruth came down apologizing and handing out Clif Bars. I thanked her as I really needed something. Ruth also had procured our time slots. We came up with Austin’s Accessibility Adventure for mine, and I would present at 02:15. It would really happen.

We arrived at the Wharton School of Business and had some bagels. They didn’t have much else by then, but we got by. They gave us our badges and a paper with a unique wifi key and password. They told us it would only work on one device, but we later learned it would work on three. They lied to us! Fear and loathing!

They told us to get the Shindig app. This provided a constantly updated schedule, perfect for this event. Unfortunately, some key parts remained inaccessible. Most notably, the venue info would just say “Venue Info” instead of the actual information. I singled them out in my presentation but later felt kind of bad about that when I found out that the local developers had attended BarCamp. They come from this place a few people have told me to go called Indy Hall. I will have to check it out.

We had now collected everything we needed, and could now go to any conference we pleased. We started by attending a fascinating talk about 3D printing put on by David Clayton of Nextfab Studio. He passed around actual objects for us to feel. I felt some screw tops, a flywheel, a bottle opener with a penny inserted into a slot for the tab, and a kind of creepy face and hand. It seemed kind of futuristic feeling objects actually generated by a computer.

I asked how 3d printing could help the blind. I thought of tactile objects, but he instead talked about the medical application. Some people have actually started researching printing complex cell structures. Absolutely amazing! Who knows, maybe one day if you want a new kidney or a new eye or even a new house they will just print it.

Next, we wandered into Ruth’s talk. I love cooking, so enjoyed hearing her talk about how to use leftovers creatively. I learned that you shouldn’t store apples near anything else, since they give off something that makes fruit go bad. I also thought about growing some herbs in my windowsill, I love mint and basil. The talk made me feel hungry, and Ruth said she intentionally scheduled it before lunch. Nice move!

But no, we had one more hour. The organizer named Tim gave a talk with the title: Who’s doing this horseshit to our internet? He had promoted it at the PANMA event, so I wanted to see it. Plus this topic always gets me fired up. Old white men who probably don’t even know how to send an email feel they have a right to regulate the internet. If you do not understand it then you have no right to regulate it.

It pisses me off how these copyright parasites act like they want to protect the artist. Music copyright laws originally existed to give white record executives control over black jazz and blues musicians. All of that early music existed because the musicians could use parts from other songs. Think of how many blues songs use exactly the same chords and melodies. Under today’s copyright law they could not do that. Before you believe their altruistic talk, remember how they began, with racism and greed!

It also gets me how they get all freaked out about piracy. Every time some new medium comes along these executive squawk about how it will bring the end of the industry. When radios came out with tape players, they said it would destroy the record industry, because everyone would tape songs off the radio. When VCR’s came out, they said that videos would kill the movie industry for similar reasons. Same with CD burners. And same with the internet. We will find a way to evolve, we always do. And we can do it without intrusive government regulation.

With those fiery thoughts I headed to lunch. This also served as my final chance to get my speech ready in my head. We only had an hour. We found our way to a pizza place and I scarfed down two slices of good veggie pizza and root beer.

I had lunch with some fascinating people. I especially remember Thomas Dixon. He suffered traumatic brain injury after getting hit by a car. As a result he has lost his episodic memory. He keeps track of what has happened with a private Twitter account, and of what will happen with a calendar. He does this on a Kindle he carries around.

I had to cut my lunch short and quickly walk back to the building. Things felt so surreal. In just a few minutes I would stand up in front of a small crowd and give a presentation with only the most general outline of it in my head. We arrived to find seven or eight people waiting around. More streamed in and eventually I had around twenty. The time had come. No going back.

I started by giving some basics about how a blind person uses a screen reader. Macs use VoiceOver. Linux has Speakup and Orca. Most screen readers for Windows cost money, but a free one does exist called NVDA.

Next I got into the iPhone, which has its own version of VoiceOver. I talked about the article I wrote which went viral. People enjoyed my experience using Color ID and realizing that you need light to see. I mentioned my appearance in Get Lamp, and told the joke I told about not needing a light source when playing a game. I gave some other good apps for the blind, including Money Reader and BlindSquare. Later on someone asked about games and I thought of Cribbage Pro since it just had an update which made it accessible. I also threw in Shredder and Chess-Wise. And even though I didn’t mention it, if you want a cute game try Stem Stumper.

Someone asked about Kindle. I delivered the sad news that Amazon clearly does not care, and have made their products totally unusable by the blind. I made fun of their fake concerns of using text-to-speech to pirate books. Everyone laughed. I pointed out that iBooks and iTunes U work just fine.

At one point I went on a mini rant about like buttons. The Disconnect and Adblock Plus plugins help eliminate a lot of this crap, and less crap means more accessibility. Someone asked to name the web site with the most accessible experience. So many exist and I couldn’t think of one, so instead I said that the Thesis framework for WordPress makes a very accessible site. I got a bunch of questions about app usability, so recommended a site called Applevis which has usability ratings.

I finished the technology portion by talking about coding apps. I first had some good success with a great Objective C course called TinkerLearn. However, as soon as I found out about RubyMotion I shifted to that. I even wrote an article about it. I encourage anyone interested in an exciting new way to write apps to get involved.

I then got into Echolocation – the topic a lot of people wanted to hear about, and the only one mentioned in the description. I think some people got confused at the abrupt topic shift. Hopefully now that you’ve read up to this point you understand how I basically had to jam two separate talks together so I wouldn’t go insane. To make it perfectly clear, this skill just involves the human body and brain. It does not use an app, though someone asked about the vOICe, but I couldn’t say much since they don’t make it for iOS.

It amazed me how interested people felt about echolocation. I plugged WOrld Access for the Blind, the only organization teaching this amazing technique. And even though I forgot, I should also mention The Beginner’s Guide to Echolocation, for which I wrote a review. I only found out about echolocation a year ago. I took a three-day intensive at my condo, and have used it since.

I tried to explain the experience, though it enters into an intangible realm of mixed senses. Images appear like dark forms. It gives all the information a sighted person gets, except for color and fine detail. Materials have different sounds. Glass has a cool “glass” feeling. Wood feels organic. Water sounds kind of like glass. Pillows sound puffy. And to everyone’s amusement, people sound very pillow-like.

All of this comes from using a discrete tongue click. I use it to navigate areas, appreciate trees, an even look at sculpture. It has totally changed my life and I want to do what I can to help promote it. It causes a feeling of greater immersion in the world, of plugging into something around you. It gives the missing piece of the puzzle, long-range vision.

That did it for the speech. You can listen for yourself. I think it went well. I only wish I would have done a little demonstration of echolocation, since it seems so fantastic. Nick and I both had the exact same thought afterward, of using one of the BarCamp shirts and his iPad to do some simple panel exercises. I can tell the difference between these two items easily, and can also pinpoint their location around me. I also could have self-promoted a little more. I wish I would have mentioned my strong desire to create the best note taker for the blind, so they don’t have to settle for crap. Oh well, now I know for next time, and knowing is half the battle.

I felt pretty worn out afterward, and pleaded with Roxy to come with me for a smoke, but instead we ended up at a talk about podcasting. I couldn’t concentrate very hard, but I had done my share of podcasting, so didn’t really need to. Darnelle Radford of Rep Radio gave a fine introduction. He made the point that you just need a simple digital recorder to create a podcast. I agree, though prefer to spend a little more money on my equipment. I recorded my speech on an Olympus DM620, by the way. I prefer the DM520’s design, but there you go.

That concluded the day’s conferences. Roxy and I had a much needed smoke, then walked to the auditorium for the closing remarks. We arrived before anyone else, and I took a few minutes to meditate. People started coming in and we learned about the party bus that would take us to National Mechanics We prepared ourselves for the final phase of this unbelievable trip.

We found the busses outside. Getting on one kind of reminded me of going to school, until someone took out a bottle of whiskey and passed it around. What the hell, we each had a little taste. It felt uniting in some way. A few minutes later we arrived at the bar. My pipe had begun to get down to the end, but I smoked it anyway, and braced myself to enter this loud environment.

Places like this make me feel disoriented, but I stuck it out and feel glad that I did. They didn’t have much vegetarian food, but Roxy found me enough to keep me going. I had a Yards Pale Ale and tried to relax. I envisioned an alternate after-party for those of us who prefer quiet conversation in a more intimate setting, and with good healthy vegetarian food. I thought about leaving as soon as I finished the beer, but then it started working.

I don’t remember very much after that. I had two Flying Dog Imperial Pumpkin Ales. Tim, the organizer of the event, drunkenly told me he liked my talk the best. I talked to two dudes named Mike and their girlfriends. I know I talked to a bunch of other people and gave out more cards. I hope they held onto them, because I could never remember all their names.

Late that night Roxy and I took the El into center city, and I got a cab home. I used echolocation to find my way inside, once again thanking myself and my teacher for teaching me this wonderful ability which comes in so much handy in these kinds of situations. I love you all.

I woke up the next day. Fortunately I had begun drinking water and eventually switched to water entirely, so felt pretty good. I pondered what had just happened. Someone said that the best part of BarCamp happens afterward, from all the connections you make there. Good things have already started happening. Now I sit here finishing this article drinking from my complimentary BarCamp pint glass full of wonder and good beer. BarCamp has changed my life.