Disability woes: what happens when the technology fails

Sheyfali Saujani is a producer for Cross Country Checkup. She writes about her own experience with disability in the workplace.
Sheyfali Saujani is a producer with Cross Country Checkup. (Submitted by Sheyfali Saujani)

Sheyfali Saujani is a producer with Cross Country Checkup who works with a disability — she is partially blind.  This is a peek into one of her mornings at work that didn't go well … but usually things go swimmingly — more or less.

Wednesday morning: Successfully located my ID before leaving the house, so I can clear security at work. Found the key to my office buried at the bottom of my backpack. Lunch in the fridge, kettle on the boil, time to turn on the computer. 

Mmmhmm.  Yes, hail to Windows. Good morning, desktop. 

And … slow boot … here's Zoomtext, my office friend, the text-to-speech screen-reading program I use to make this digital workspace possible because I am partially blind — enough vision to get around without a guide dog or cane, but not enough to read print material easily.  Well, except very slowly … and with heavy lenses. 

But on the computer  screen — with my reading programs, Kurzweil or Zoomtext … talking to me with robotic familiarity, I'm clipping along at about 500 words a minute, keeping up with the competition here in the hard-driving news media business. 

Oh, oh … launch my browser Firefox … but how come Zoomtext isn't talking to me, and telling me what I'm looking at on my favorite news site?  Hmmm. 

Wait, did I enable the speech program — "alt shift 's'"  — "Speech disabled" … OK, you just disabled the speech engine, so "alt shift 's'" again, "Speech enabled" … so it's not the speech engine.

So, let's try closing and re-launching Zoomtext, because this program should really be reading me all the headings and links in Firefox … and I really need it to find my way around the marvel that is the VISUALLY organized data tsunami called the internet.

Now muttering audibly to myself.

Good thing I work in an office where all this talking software won't annoy my neighbours — who are now logged in and chasing stories for the hourlies, noon, 6 p.m. and other radio deadlines … what the he …. Wait, wait, wait!

Didn't we update Firefox recently? 

Yes, yes, we did.  It was crashing all the time so those very nice people from IT came and gave you the latest version … can it be?  Can it really be that the people at Firefox have actually updated their program so much that it no longer works with this old (Old? For the love of heaven, it's only one version out of date!) version of my screen reader?

Why? Why in the name of all that is holy do they DO THAT?

Maybe I can go back to the old version of Firefox?  But I don't know what it was.  And I've already wasted another hour with IT getting them to un-install and reinstall both programs ... Grrrr.

And now they are telling me that probably we need to buy the Zoomtext upgrade … Oh, man — money.  More extra money on me and my "special programs" — just so I can do the work everyone else does … they're really good about it here … but it just sucks having to ask.

Forty-five minutes on hold with the company that bought out the company, that used to make Zoomtext …oh, who knows … I need to go an let my boss know why I got NOTHING done today. 


Excuse me, what? What?

Just move to another computer? 

Uh, sorry, no can do. I am the only one on this floor who needs this adaptive software — yeah, that's what it's called, adaptive technology — technology that's designed to adapt the normal work flows for people with disabilities; technology that makes the workplace accessible.  And I can't just go bopping along to any computer the way other digital nomads can, because — did I tell you? —  I am partially blind. And I need special tools to make the contribution my colleagues expect and count on in this news media operation.

This is what it's like on those days when the accessible tools fail … and you can't do your job and you think — how lucky am I to be in this place, this federally regulated workplace that is required by law to be inclusive; with the decent management team that looks at me and sees not a burden but a resource; with the union to help make sure disabled workers are treated fairly — all helping to make sure this thing with the dysfunctional technology is not all on me but something that we — my company and I— will fix together.

And I wonder — even as I gnash my teeth and go ranting down the hall — I wonder how hard it is for everyone else out there who don't have these things — all the things that would enable them to give in this way?


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