by Deborah Armstrong
From the Editor: Deborah Armstrong is a member of the National Federation of the Blind Krafter’s division. No local NFB chapter is close to her. She has worked in the high-tech world of Silicon Valley most of her adult life and is currently the alternate media specialist at De Anza Community College in Cupertino, about a mile from the famous Apple main campus. Here is what she says:
I think one thing that holds us back as blind people is that we have an internal belief that we cannot be as effective as sighted people. I always try to keep a supply of stories showcasing how I can indeed be as effective or even more so, because it reminds me how competent I really am.
I have been employed in a technical capacity with software and hardware for the past thirty-eight years. I like to share a story about how I was able to succeed during the interview process. I always like to tell stories about myself to help employers understand my strengths; this is one such story.
This was my first tech support job at Stenograph when we were transitioning from DOS to Windows. I was the only blind person in a department of twenty-eight people, and we were all a bit new to supporting Windows. I didn’t have full access to Windows because the screen reader was so primitive at the time, but I was very experienced with the products we supported.
Our product had an annotations feature that let court reporters record audio notes about a transcript they were preparing for attorneys. We had a long-time customer, Mary Lou from Texas, who was not able to get the annotations feature to work. Support representatives re-installed the software, reconfigured her sound card drivers, troubleshot IRQ conflicts, adjusted her startup configuration, and did everything they could think of to get her microphone working.
One afternoon it was my turn to get Mary Lou on the phone, and she of course complained it still wasn't working. I told her I'd walk her through the procedure one more time.
I asked her to tell me what she saw at the top of the screen. She read to me the title bar. "Good," I said, "Now what's right below it?" She read me the menu bar. In those days we didn't have a ribbon.
"Wonderful," I said, "Now look right below the menu. What do you see?"
"Well," Mary Lou replied, "There's all these little pictures."
"That's right," I encouraged, "Let's look at the picture on the far left. What does it show?"
"Oh, that's a file folder," Mary Lou said. I explained that clicking on that icon would give her access to her files.
"What's next to the file folder," I prompted.
"Why that there is a little ol' pencil," Mary Lou said in her sweet southern drawl.
"That's right," I encouraged. "Clicking that pencil gets you to all the editing functions. Now let's look directly to the right of that pencil. What do you see?"
"Why honey child, that there is a candle," Mary Lou said.
"Click that candle, and you can start recording. It's a microphone, but it does kind of look like a candle."
She clicked it, and the software recorded her shrieks of laughter. The microphone worked after all—Mary Lou just didn't know how to find it.
When I later interviewed with future employers, I explained that this story illustrated how, unlike sighted people who were focused on their screen, I listened carefully and focused on my customer's view of their screen. This is why I believe I was very successful in technical support. Callers have a technical problem, but they need an attentive human to help them solve it. The right answer is an essential ingredient, but almost as important is listening and responding in a way that says they have our attention and solving their problem is our most important job.