An interview with Richard Marsolais, 2016

A photograph of Richard Marsolais, CNIB

Richard Marsolais

 

 

The following is an interview with Richard Marsolais, a specialist in independent living skills with the Canadian National Institute for the Blind (CNIB) at their Ottawa office on January 25th, 2016. Within the interview, Richard speaks of his experiences with the CNIB, and the rapid shifts in technology he has witnessed. Near the end of the interview (26:19) Richard demonstrates three pieces of technology: a braille note-taker, a Victor Stream reader and an Iphone. Please find a full transcription of this interview below. You can also access the transcription through the Items menu, listed to the left of the screen.

25 January 2016, CNIB Office, Ottawa, ON Office 

Interviewee: Richard Marsolais

Interviewer: Beth Robertson

Note: Interview opens with Richard Marsolais giving his name, followed by Beth A. Robertson with first question.

Beth Robertson: 

… And when did you become involved with the CNIB? 

Richard Marsolais:

21 years ago … as a client. I started losing my vision to retinitis pigmentosa, which is an eye condition that you’re born with… its hereditary and eventually leads to total blindness. So at that time, I decided to go to the CNIB and I started learning braille for reading, labelling and different things I might need for presentations and stuff like that. And from there, the rehab teacher introduced me to her type of work and said maybe that was a line of work I might want to look at. She took me out to some clients and I really enjoyed it and at the time I was in the travel industry and didn’t feel comfortable there anymore so … after seeing this position, I did some investigation and everything. That’s how I became what we call a specialist in independent living skills at this time. I started at CNIB as an employee in 1994. Before they were called rehabilitation teachers and now we’re called specialist in independent living skills.

Beth Robertson:

And that leads to my next question. So how has your role and work at the CNIB changed over time?

Richard Marsolais:

Personally, I don’t really feel its changed a lot. I’m still serving my clients independently, in the office, at home, in the community and I’m also doing different types of groups. Some of what we’re teaching now is changed a little bit. Before, we were using Dos 5.1, which, you might be way too young to remember… [laughter]… It was before Windows.   I had these big pieces of equipment like what’s called a Type & Speak and it was like a very large, huge piece of equipment. We’d use tape recorders, with old cassettes. And I was teaching more crafts and cooking groups and braille. But most of the technology we were doing was mainly keyboarding. Like, with DOS, I’m not even sure we had email. We had a bit of the internet, I think, and stuff like that. It was very basic technology.

And now, we’ve all gone on to Windows and using Iphones, just like the sighted community, pretty much, trying to keep up and integrate with our peers and the rest of the community. So, like, I say, now I’m teaching the Iphone. I’ve got a Braillenote that is much smaller. I’ve got a Victor Reader, which is a Talking Book Machine. With the latest one, you can download podcasts, you can access like 3700 reading stations, you can download books, text files, record messages.  That was very rare like 20 some years ago. Before, we at the CNIB when I first started had cassettes, with these big cassette players. They were huge, not portable… Well, they were portable, but they weighed maybe ten or fifteen pounds or something like that. So you didn’t carry them around too often with you. And they had four-track, like four cassettes, like four sided, and we’d send them through the mail. And that’s pretty much what you could do with them. Some of them would record and we had some small, hand held recorders, again with cassettes, but there was nothing like today.

So we’re doing a lot more teaching of Ipads and Ipods, and Android phone, and Iphone and Victor Stream and Direct to Player where we’re just using people’s Wifi to download their book, so, a lot more focus on technology today, by all ages, by our youth, working age and our seniors. Our seniors in their 90s that are using Ipads and computers, doing Skype and email, and twitter, and all kinds of stuff. Its fantastic.

Beth Robertson:

Do you ever correspond or cooperate with any other international organizations, or offices of the CNIB outside of Canada?

Richard Marsolais: 

Pretty much daily, because within our disciplines as an independent living skills specialist we have regular conference calls, national conference calls quarterly and also, in the east region, we have quarterly conference calls with our colleagues. Then, whenever possible, we go to Toronto for the National Braille conference. So, we get to see a lot of our different colleagues from our disciplines and other disciplines, plus we also see community agencies like high tech companies, we see people like itinerant teachers from the school boards. So, we get to interact regularly, and I myself, once a year for the last 4 years, I’ve been running a technology and community service tech show at City Hall. We have about 150 participants, so I’ve got all the high-tech companies, I’ve got the National Art Gallery, who are doing stimulating the senses, which you never had years ago. There wasn’t a lot of access to art galleries, museums and all that stuff, which we’re seeing a lot more of and we’re coordinating that kind of stuff. 

Now, we have Neil Squires Society, which is an employment program for persons with disabilities, and they’re there, which is excellent. Since I’ve been doing some work with them, they’ve been able to get Jaws System Access and Zoom Text, which are accessible software programs that you can access your computer with. There’s the Canadian Council of the Blind, there’s Get Together with Technology Group, there’s different artists who do accessible paintings and ceramics and pottery.  There’s Accessible Media Inc., which is the accessible t.v. and radio station, which is on Bell and Rogers and different companies, which, again, before was never accessible.   That’s only been in the last few years. So I go on T.V. and watch using described video services. So, we have all those agencies there, so its wonderful. Now I’ve dealt with the American Printing House, the Lighthouse for the Blind in California, so we deal with a lot of international and local agencies.

Beth Robertson:

When you began working with CNIB, and as you’ve continued throughout the years, how much did your work involve the use of technological aids?

Richard Marsolais:

When I first started, it was very basic. We taught keyboarding, because, to get a computer through the ministry of health, to get it partially funded, you had to have basic keyboarding skills. So we taught that. To use the talking book machine, as I said, was a big, large, grey machine that you could put a cassette in.  It was seldom that you could record something with it. But that was pretty much the extent and people would have Dos-based computers, no internet, none of that kind of stuff. And then we would teach what they call the Type and Speak. And unfortunately, because its old, none of us have one to demo, but its basically, kind of like a keyboard size, and it has speech with it. So whenever you would type, it would talk to you and it was kind of like a small computer, a basic computer that you could do email and internet, and mostly used for keeping track of your files. Like, when we went to see clients, we could write our reports. So it was pretty basic. It really didn’t compare to what our peers were doing, where now, its so different.

We’re right on par with a lot of what our sighted peers are doing, so we can be an integral part of our community, we can talk about a lot of the same things, you know. If you’re talking about Twitter, I can talk about Twitter. If you’re talking about Facebook, I can talk about Facebook. We can communicate at the same level now. We’re not like, 10 years behind anymore., on most things. So, really, technology today has opened more doors to education, because now you got scanners, better scanners. Schools are putting a lot of their documentation and their books onto the Net or different programs that the students with disabilities can access. You can do a lot, like I can communicate internationally with the Iphone, or Skype or different things like that, so, we’re teaching that regularly. You know, every week I’m doing different stuff on the Iphone, the Ipad, with Twitter, Facebook, podcasts, talking book services. So, there’s so much today that helps us with our employment, it opens up more job opportunities out there for us. Cause, with people that are blind or partially sighted, we have one of the highest unemployment rates amongst all peoples with disabilities.”

Beth Robertson:

You seem to be leading right to the next question so well … [laughter]… My next question is about the training you gave others, in terms of training them on these technological aids that you’re speaking about.

Richard Marsolais:

Right.

Beth Robertson:

Can you describe how you went about training others in the community?

Richard Marsolais:

Past and present, you mean?

Beth Robertson:

Yeah, sure.

Richard Marsolais:

Okay, so past, a lot of it, I used to run a computer group at the CNIB. I would have maybe 4 students come in and we’d do like a 12 week keyboarding class, starting with the home row, learning each row of the letters, and then the numbers. That was a big part of what we did with technology. I’d then do a little bit with the computer. Once they graduated from the 12-week computer keyboarding class, then we’d do basic computer, opening a word document, how to save, how to close, how to make things bold, italicise, all that kind of stuff, formatting, and how to access other applications on the computer.

So that was pretty much what we used to teach. And then, like I said, occasionally we’d teach the talking books, but all we’d do is set the client up, we’d give them the machine, we’d register them with a library, they’d get the tapes and we’d show them how to use them in the tape machine and that’s about it. Occasionally, we’d have some other pieces of technology like the Type and Speak, which I had, and I would do a bit of teaching of that. Again, very, very basic. How to open a file, how to save a file, pretty much that’s it. But today, oh my goodness, its hard to keep up, because with CNIB being a non-profit, they don’t have a lot of funding for training. So pretty much everything I’ve learned is on my own time or with my fellow colleagues. In my department, you’re going to meet Leona later, and then there’s also Rob whose in high tech, and we all just talk to each other regularly.

Plus there’s that group Get Together with Technology Group that has just taken off like wild fire, which shows you the need for technology to help keep people less isolated and empowered and independent in the community. Cause, with the new technology, plus the programs, we’re teaching people GPS programs like Blind Squared. We have a program called Look Tell, which identifies money. We have things like KFN reader, which is scanning software. There’s things to tell you if the lights are on. There’s apps to tell you what food is in your cupboards.  There’s so much, they’re even apps where I can take a picture and send it to the Net and volunteers from around the world will tell me what it is that I took a picture of. Its amazing. Teaching all sorts of stuff like this. Plus, like I said earlier, Twitter, Facebook, texting, email, calendar. And a lot of its via Android phones. Most of it’s through the Iphone, the Ipad, because Apple products are the most accessible. They come with a built in screen reader and a large print program. So we’re doing a lot of that.

Plus, we’re teaching still the Talking Books, to our seniors and to all ages, but the machines now are so much more complicated and more accessible because they are more multi-functional. Before, you played the cassettes, right. Now, its more multi-media. You got the CDs now, but you can also download books directly via Wifi  that connects to our CELA library in Toronto.  Or you can download books via a thumbdrive, a Nestie Card on the side of the machine. Its much more exciting, so we have to teach the clients all about that. Going onto the internet, and our CELA library website, we’re teaching them how to search and how to download books and the various formats.

And there’s this gagdet that I have that, it’s like a portable talking book machine. I can download podcasts and text files for meetings. I can record any programs at a push of a button. I can download various types of talking books from different places like Book Share,  CNIB and Audible.com. All kinds of different companies now. Before, we might have had a few thousand books accessible. Now, we’ve got hundreds of thousands books accessible to us. Its amazing.

So we’re teaching all of this. Its endless. Anytime there’s a new technology, someone will call us and say, ‘can you teach us this?’, or ‘Oh, we learned about this app. Can you teach us this all?’ So we teach ourselves it or we call our people at the Get Together with Technology Group, which has now just sprouted out. Chapters have opened all over Canada now. We’re all communicating now with each other. We have monthly conference calls, we have monthly meetings, and there could be anywhere from 20 to 60 or more people at these meetings or on the conference calls. So exciting.

Beth Robertson:

Even the technology in the past was meant for accessibility. Would you say that technology now has become much more successful in helping  people contribute as members to the society in which they live?

Richard Marsolais:

Oh absolutely. Absolutely. Before, most of the internet, most websites, you were lucky if you could read anything. Most times, if you know, they’d have edit boxes. It would just say, ‘edit, edit, blank, black, graphic, graphic, graphic.’ You had no clue what was on most websites.

Most ATMs, for example, we couldn’t access them. Now, I can take a pair of headphones, go plug it into the ATM and do my transactions independently.  There’s large print cheques for the low vision, tap and go, so I can just tap my credit card  and go. There’s so much more. They’ve got the driverless car that they’re working on. You’ve got glasses, and different other equipment, that vibrate that tell you that you’ve got an object in front of you, so you either need to turn left or right. Out of India, they’ve got the GPS shoes now that tell you to move left or right if something’s coming in at you. Its just non-stop. Day after day, we’re hearing about new technology.

As persons who are partially sighted or blind, technology is now allowing us to be empowered and to be independent, to have confidence and to be safe in our environment, to get around, and to access more jobs. To go to university, because now, the special needs departments, they can scan our books, we can download different parts of our books. Departments are putting … I know at Ottawa U, five maybe ten years ago, the law department put most of their books on internet, so clients could access it. Like I heard a few years ago about Queens University, there was 11 students in the law program at one time. You couldn’t of, wouldn’t have heard of that 20, 30, 40 years ago, my gosh. You’re lucky if you had 20 students across Canada going to university, you know what I mean? Its just so empowering.

We can communicate with our sighted peers on the same things.  It wasn’t like, oh, I got my four track dinosaur tape recorder [laughter] … and you’re like ‘What? You have what? Okay, sure.’ Now, we can talk about the same things. We can communicate via the same devices. I can send you a text and you don’t know if I’m blind or not. So, it can even help us with disabilities, like you don’t always have to expose that you’re disabled right away and be vulnerable. You can be anonymous like other people. I’m not even trying to promote that, but I’m just saying that we can communicate at the same level. I can send you a text, I can send you an email, I can be on Whatsapp, I can use GPS just like you, you know. I can be in the car with my driver. She doesn’t get the maps a lot of times, now. I just go to Siri on my Iphone and say, ‘Siri, find directions to, wherever.’

Now, we can go to conferences and talk about the same things as everyone else does. We can get together with our friends, sighted and non-sighted at a coffee shop and talk about the same games even. Even the games out there, some of them are more accessible. Not all of them, there’s still a ways to go with that. We have our own sets of games or computer games or different programs, but there is more and more that we can access that the sighted world is accessing.

There’s only about 7% of all printed material that blind and partially sighted people have access to, which is frightening. But, its still a lot better than what it was even 5, 10 years ago. And its only getting better, because they just did an international agreement that most countries are going to soon ratify, that will break down the barriers through all the producers of the books, so we won’t have to worry about copyright issues all the time. Each country won’t have to make 25 copies of the same book. We all can share resources, which will give us even more access to information, because that’s the key. If you don’t have information, how can you be informed? How can you make proper decisions? How can you be an integrated part of your community if you don’t have very much information.  Even now the CRTC is working on making sure that TV and radio is accessible, so if you have print-outs on the bottom of the TV that they either have to read it, or there’s an extra descriptive voice reading it and like I say, there’s a descriptive TV. Now we’ve got the Apple TV, which is fully accessible, we can do Netflix. So there’s a lot that we can do as a community as a whole are working very hard at making things more accessible to people who are blind or visually impaired for all kinds of reasons.

Like, you have strong groups like the National Foundation for the Blind in the States that are very political and are always trying to break down barriers.  And you have different agencies like the CNIB and the World Blind Union who are trying to educate and advocate on our behalf as well. Plus you have private citizens advocating to all these big companies. And I think these companies are realizing that there’s many blind and partially sighted people around the world who have money. Not all of us, but there’s a lot of people out there, like, I heard something in the billions of dollars. Well, if you’re a business person, you want to access that money. Its only to their benefit that they make things accessible. And right, of course, with the American Disabilities Act, and now the Ontario Disabilities Act, and they’re working on a Canadian Disabilities Act, where some of these companies and government and all that are mandated to make things accessible.

Beth Robertson:

Well, following right up on that, based on your experience, to what extent are technological aids important for creating more accessible and inclusive spaces of learning, such as schools or universities?

Richard Marsolais:

Oh, its so important. It’s a must. We want our kids to grow up educated.  We don’t want people living off disability. Living on that is like living below the poverty line. Is that a great way to have our persons with disabilities living? No, I don’t think so. So, I think its absolutely essential, and I think it’s a human right that we have access to education. When you say access to education, that doesn’t mean the same thing as you need, or somebody else sighted needs. It means that I need it in a way that I can access it, whether that’s talking books, or laptop with a screen reader, or a CCTV that gives me magnification, or something that allows me to take pictures of the overheads, or maps, or access to the accessibilities departments at universities and colleges, or itinerant teachers. Its absolutely a human right.  It’s so essential. It’s a must. If we want to have young people who grow up to be an integral part of their community and be empowered, to make decisions and to attain the goals and aspirations that they have, then, it’s a no-brainer.

Beth Robertson:

And, as a part of that, so to what extent are technological aids important for creating more accessible and inclusive spaces of employment?

Richard Marsolais:

I would say the same thing. Without it, we can’t have jobs, especially in our day and age today when technology is the leading factor. We have a lot of things moving towards technology, I mean, everything is done with computers, the internet. We look at global markets. You see it in the medical fields. Doctors talking to each other around the world via Skype and computers and whatever, you know what I mean?  That’s the way things are going and I’m sure as students, you probably collaborate with other students across Canada via technology, right? And that’s how we’re all communicating. Families, employees, conference calls, that’s how we do our communications via our quarterly calls, its all via technology. And its just getting more and more advanced. For us to maintain our level of employment and to compete with our fellow sighted peers, we need that technology. And, again, I really believe it’s a human right.  Its not just something that should be looked at, but it should be mandated, that employers must provide that technology and that it needs to be accessible.”

Beth Robertson:

Now, you touched on this a bit before, but just to kind of recap, so how do you think technological aids are important for reducing social barriers?

Richard Marsolais:

Now, with the technology, the way its going, I feel like a lot of the social barriers are being broken down already because we are now able to communicate at the same level as our sighted peers. Like I say, with Facebook and Twitter and podcasts and the Iphone, GPS systems, everything, we can communicate. The youth can go and be with other teenagers their own age and do the same programs that they do cause its accessible.  They can go with … I can’t think of any of the names [laughter]… SnapChat, or whatever the young people use! You know, whatever is out there they’re using, so that they can be at the same level. Even recently, I went to see Star Wars because they have descriptive technology. They gave me headphones and a box. As I was able to, I couldn’t see anything, but I could hear the whole show completely described. So, I could come together with you and we could still talk about the show and really relate, where before, just to listen, I might get a quarter of the show if that.  So, you’d be like, ‘Oh wow, did you see that?’ And I’d be, “What? Sure. Whatever,’ [laughter], you know. And we’d just… that would put up a barrier right there because there would be so many missing links that we would just not get. Because, we’re not living in a visual world, we’re living in a blind world and things were just not accessible and described, so we couldn’t talk at the same level.

Now, we can do so much and get so much description from various programs, like I said AMI and descriptive movies, and everything like that so, technologically, a lot of the barriers are coming down. Attitudinal, they’re still very high, unfortunately, but technology is starting to break some of those barriers down. I hear people say, ‘Wow, I can’t believe you can do that. That’s incredible.’ Then they start communicating with us and their, like, ‘I just can’t believe this. You’re better at it than I am’ [laughter]. Its educating and informing the community that we’re there, we’ve arrived, and we can be an active, informed participant in our community and with our social networks, whether it be educationally, via employment, or just social recreation. We can be there now. You know, we still have a long way to go, but we definitely have come a long way.

Beth Robertson:

I would love for you to show me some of these technological aids you’ve been talking about.

Richard Marsolais:

Okay.

Beth Robertson:

And I see you have a few in your hand. Can you show me, first what they are and how they work?

Richard Marsolais:

So this is called a braille note taker. Its basically a computer. I can link it to my computer and do my Outlook emails, I can play music ... The main reasons I use it is to go to my clients and take notes. Its very compact, its not imposing, so I can quietly take notes at my clients, without interfering with the flow of our interview. You might be able to see there’s braille, so its liquid braille display, so these keys here are navigation keys, so they allow me to go back a line or forward a line. They allow me to have free flowing, like the text just running continuous. There’s also speech on here if I want speech. So we can use it as a teaching tool. So when we’re working with our clients, then they see this technology and it motivates them to really want to learn, maybe use it for their employment later on. I’ve had several clients, who, once they learn braille, then their employers have purchased one of these for them, so they can take notes during meetings. Its wonderful for that as well. A big part of my life. I use it pretty much daily.”

Beth Robertson:

What’s it called again?

Richard Marsolais:

Its called a braille note taker. Because we have to do so much paper work on the computer, I take notes on that and then I come back and transcribe it to my computer. The next is called a talking book machine, and this one particularly is called a Victor Stream. It’s the old version, but, ah… I would have preferred to show you the new one, but I don’t have it. But you can see with just the technology. So, with this I’m taking a correspondent Spanish course and they’ve sent it by the thumb drive. Before, we didn’t have access to that, you know, access that and just put it on my talking book machine. When I go to and from work on the bus, I can just do my studies. Its amazing. I don’t know if you can hear this...  

[Recording of a computer synthesized voice saying “Conversational Spanish 2, course number SPN106. 13. Meet your friends…”]

So, there’s a menu key. [Recording: ‘bookshelf, talking books…’] I can do talking books [Recording: ‘other books…’]. And other books means I can just use different other agencies, different formats instead. You can do MP3, you can do Pub…. There are different ones out there. [Recording: ‘audible books…’] So, Audible books on Audible.com, you know, its like a company that’s all talking books. I can download descriptive movies where I don’t get the visuals, but I get the audio of a series or a movie, like Superman 3, or whatever. [Recording: ‘music…’] I can download whatever music I want. So I use for running on the tread mill. [Recording: ‘text files, to…’] So, text files, so I can download agendas, and stuff that I need for any kind of meeting that I’m going to. Or if I’m cooking, I can put a recipe on there, bring it to the kitchen and do my cooking [Recording: ‘notes, 141…’] And then notes, so on the side, its just a button, it says record and you just press it, and I can record a lecture at a university, I can record a show off the T.V., like on wines, or whatever it is that I want to. If I go to the doctors and he gives me another appointment, I can just save the appointment. I can keep track of peoples phone numbers and addresses on there if I want, until I get to transfer it to my Iphone, or whatever.

So, it opens a world. Like, this is my lifeline, like I have everything on here. And its great because the battery life is 15 to 20 hours. So I’m going to Uruguay in two weeks and my Iphone is probably not going to last 13 hours for talking books and all that stuff, but this will last the whole trip, so its sweet. And like I say, the new one can access 3700 radio stations. Its got tons of built-in podcasts, but you can access podcasts from all around the world. Its amazing, its like… people love this gadget. Its just wonderful. And my last piece… Its getting better that a lot of our stuff we can just have on the Iphone, maybe two devices, but you know for a lot of us who are blind or partially sighted, we have ten gadgets. You know, you have one for scanning, you have one for recording, and then you have one for note taking, and then you have one for telling your money, you have one for this and that and its just drives you crazy. So, now with the new technology, a lot of it I can just have on my Iphone. You got pretty much everything right here, everything that’s on here [i.e. Victor Stream], I technically can have on here [Iphone]. I can have my talking books and podcasts, I can take notes, I can set alarms, I can do pretty much everything. I have GPS systems to get me through the city, I got the transit app like everybody else. Pretty much, I can now, instead of having ten gadgets, I can have one or two. Its like, ‘whoohoo!’ [laughter]. You know, I don’t need a walking suitcase to get around the city anymore. So, I’m just going to turn it on. Most people being so connected… I ‘m still an outdoors, get together with friends over dinner and play sports and good stuff kind of guy. [Plays voice synthesis accessibility feature on the Iphone, listing menu items…]

I can hear everything and go through whatever I want. All my programs are there, double tap… That’s how easy it is. It’s great. Sometimes there are programs that are still not accessible, but at least now you can write to the companies, and say ‘Hey, you know, I was wondering if you could do this, this and that,’ and more than willing most of the companies will do it now, because it makes their program more accessible to more people. And with the speech voice over built into the Apple products, via the cloud I can connect this to the Ipad, the Iphone, the Ipad Touch, you know whatever.  I can have everything connected, right. I can take pictures like everybody else. Its just so incredible. And so, we teach … I don’t know what percentage of my time, but a good percentage of my time now is just talking about the various types of apps and teaching the Iphone to our clients, and the Ipad. Like, this technology has just flourished in the last few years. Like I said, the Get Together with Technology Group, its just spread like wild fire all across Canada.  Its absolutely incredible and exciting. 

Braille note taker, CNIB

A braille note-taker

A Victor Stream Reader, CNIB

A Victor Stream Reader