An Interview with Sharlyn “Charlie” Ayotte

Interview with Sharlyn Ayotte, April 2016


Sharlyn Ayotte, April 2016



The following is an interview with Sharlyn "Charlie" Ayotte, at her Ottawa home on April 13, 2016 with Beth A. Robertson from Carleton University's Disability Research Group. Within the interview, Ayotte describes where her passion for access to information emerged, her activism for both herself and others, the founding of T-Base Communications in the early 1990s, as well as the various innovations that the company produced or helped design while she was the CEO. These innovations included InfoTouch, the on-demand publishing system for alternative formats, and the talking ATM installed at RBC in Ottawa.  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.

Ayotte is pictured here on the day of the interview, proudly holding a red kerchief she had designed for her beloved guide dog Teddy and which reads, "I am Your Customer. One Voice. More Choice," a statement that in many ways describes her own approach to advocacy.  

13 April 2016, Ottawa, ON

Interviewee: Sharlyn Ayotte

Interviewer Beth Robertson

Beth Robertson

Today is April 13, 2016. I am here with Sharlyn Ayotte, otherwise known as ‘Charlie’ at her residence in Ottawa. My name is Beth Robertson. I'm with Carleton University's Disability Research Group.

Today I'm going to ask Charlie about her past experiences with the uses of assistive technologies. And my first question is just asking you to tell me about yourself and how you first became interested in assistive technologies?


Okay - isn’t it hard to start though? It’s like, I'm mid 60's at this point in my life. I've been in Ottawa for over 30 years. I lost my eyesight - most of my eyesight - at age 27 and became interested in different technologies at that point in time. Certainly not involved with computer technology, but with things like talking book machines and things like that, in order to read. From there I had to plan another career. I was at the time, when I lost my sight, working in a research laboratory and my job was in R&D. I was responsible for taking the light measurements of light emitting diodes to check out to see what the batches were and which ones were good and which ones were bad, etc. I lost my sight while doing those light emission experiments using argon and neon lasers.

When the company went into receivership, I went looking for another job and at that point in time realized that my eyesight had become so diminished that I needed to go and see a doctor. At that point, they let me know that I was legally blind at age 27 - and it was a huge shock. So I became interested in technology because of that.  Then, as time went on, I went back to school, I became a computer programmer - PL/1 COBOL at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg. That was great, came back and was a programmer for about a year when I discovered I really wasn't cut out to be in a room by myself working on programs and not having a lot of social interaction, because I knew myself. I was a social animal and liked to talk to people. 

So, at that point in time, I decided to find another job and I went into sales and marketing for a mini-computer company and sold used mini-computers, things like PDPs from Digital Equipment of Canada, and from there found another job.  At that point, I was legally blind (as opposed to illegally blind - I'm not sure what legally and illegally would mean), but I didn't see very well at that point. And I ended up getting my perfect job over the telephone and never disclosed that I was a blind person at that point. So I got this job, I went to my first day in the office. I brought in a closed-circuit camera, a television, which magnifies print on a screen.  The company president, which was in Toronto while I was here in Ottawa, had his executive assistant call me to say, ‘we have just learned that you have a disability…’ And I'm thinking ‘there goes this job’, and it didn't happen. They told me that if there was any technology I needed, they would get it for me and since I had my own that wasn't an issue.  So my job was to go off and sell computers, which I did, and never did a demo. Because I just explained it to people, ‘it's like driving car. You've got a computer there, here's another one, it’s better,’ and I sold a lot of computers.  Then that company didn't make it after a period of time - not because of me because my numbers, they were great - it went into receivership. And at that point in time, I wanted to start a business, and I found a partner who had some skills, financial skills, and I had the gift of, some people said, the gab, and I was able to get started here in the house where this interview is taking place. So this is the beginning of where T-Base [Communications] comes from, in this house, in the basement. I became interested in all kinds of technology after that… So I think I've answered the first question, probably a long way past that.


You mentioned about some of your initial experiences with assistive technologies. Can you elaborate a little bit more about that, and then how that led to your involvement with the development and use of technological aids with T-Base [Communications]?


At the time when I decided I wanted to have a business, I needed a lot of different information. I wanted market information pertaining to security products. I wanted to be able to read some financing information. I wanted to have access to different kinds of programs that I could use, not as a piece of technology, but as programs that I could access it would help me start and grow a business. 

As a blind person, that wasn't available to me. So, what happened was that I would have to talk my friends into reading documents to me after work or during the workday or whatever. They weren't volunteers. They were people, (some of them were volunteers), but mostly, as we got busier it was people that we hired. Organizations were prepared to send volunteers to help me read through the documents, but I wasn't always interested in that. What I wanted to do was gain access to the information myself. I didn't use a computer at that point - that was back in 1980  - and I didn't use a computer. 

So, in 1992, after exploiting my husband who would read to me until midnight some nights and it wasn't really a good thing for us to be doing all the time, I got this fax from a friend who said, ‘by the way Charlie you need to read this.’ And the Government of Canada had passed Bill C-78 - a piece of Omnibus legislation that amended 6 pieces of legislation in the government. And it gave blind people the right to request and receive information in alternative formats:  braille, large print, audio and e-text formats or on computer diskette. I took that and somebody read it to me and let me know what it was all about and I wanted to start testing that out because there was information I really did need. 

One of the pieces of information that I requested was on the government’s information highway initiative. They weren't going to give me the information I was looking for about the information highway and what that would do for all of us within a digital economy. So I made a request for that document.  Let's just stop for a second – did I go past the end of that question? … Because I haven't even answered the question yet, because it takes a bit to get us there. I don't even get to the technology - I don't have any at that point - I've got a talking book machine. I was trying to move it so I could get the stuff he had or that the general public had.

I could get the same stuff everybody else had access to that I didn't have, just so I could live a life, run a business and make a living. That's what that piece of Omnibus legislation meant to me and then now I could make a request, get the information I want, and I could play it back on my tape recorder or even the audio book machine that I had. And from there, it would be really great because what I learned after losing my sight was that I was an audio learner, where before I was a visual learner.  Now I depended on sound in order to access information fairly. The first document I asked for was the Information Highway Report on internet and access to the digital world.

I made the request. They refused to do it. I made the second request. They weren't really keen and tried to ignore me. I finally called the minister's office and told them that I really wanted this stuff and needed this stuff in order to compete in Canada's mainstream.  Finally, they set up a meeting with me. I brought in in a paper base because I couldn't get what I needed and these are documents people had read to me:  The Charter of Rights and Freedoms (1982), The Canadian Human Rights Act (1977), and the amendments to communications policy in the regulatory environment that we were operating in.

I walked into a room and there was the caucus liaison, there was the minister's legal people, there was the director of communications for Industry Canada. There was little old me with a white cane and a pile of paper documents that I couldn't read independently. And I walked into that room and I convinced them that I should have the right to that information. It took ten months from the initial request to the time I actually received it. So on a program by program, service by service basis, there was no consistent or available alternative formats for Canadians who needed them and in order to do it you had to fight for it. 

As a Canadian citizen living in Ottawa I could make a request for a document in a format that I could use (audio). If I had to fight for it, I could go down to every minister's office and make my case, just like I did at Industry Canada, for a document that would help me be informed about decisions I had to make in order to live a full life, where I wasn’t being penalized for things.

If I was a little old lady who is in her in 80s or 90s living in Sudbury and my husband died. And I did not know that I had the right to claim death benefits because I didn't have the information, I was blind didn't have any children, then I would simply make whatever arrangements were necessary in that situation. I would not ever have access to the financial benefits that are the right of every Canadian. At that point, some bells started going off for me. And it was like, how do we make information available to Canadians, who number one, don't know about certain things and should know about certain things. But because you're blind, you can't access information easily or readily, how do I get hold of the information I need? How do I make decisions about what kind of plan to get from a telecommunications company? What kind of bank account do I get or can I get? And what are the service fees? And what are my expectations? What are the terms and conditions for my credit cards? All of those things, where I have a right to, and I have an obligation to be responsible for, those kinds of instruments. 

Now, I know that went all over the map, but it's about information generally available to the public and it covers everything. Whether it's healthcare or it’s our finances, or it's our telecommunications plan or if it's our tax returns: it doesn't matter! This is information generally available to members of the public. And the government makes all due effort to inform you about how much money you owe the tax man. That's for me the important point.  The government has the means to communicate with all of us about what we owe them, but when it comes to what government owes us as citizens in the way it delivers its information, the duty to inform is an active offer of service. And that wasn't happening for blind people.  In fact, the only reason I knew I had the right to ask for information was because some friend of mine said, “by the way, Charlie did you know…” That's not about assistive technologies, but it's about where, I didn't have any assistive technologies at that point on my own because that was in 1992.  I still had a talking book machine, and books that I received from the CNIB.


How did that passion of yours develop into the founding of T-Base?


Ok - So T-Base in 1992 was interested in security.  I received that fax and all of a sudden it was like, “ga-ding, ga-ding, ga-ding” -- there’s bells going off all over the place for me. And it's like, how do we use technology and automate the process for producing alternative formats on demand so we can serve the needs of blind Canadians. Because nobody else was doing it. There were people producing alternative formats. You know, if somebody made a request on Wednesday and they had some time, they would produce the document. But if there was no time to produce the document, and they had to work at night, then the prices went up. And the individual who's made the request still had to wait for six weeks to get hold of a document that was readily available to other Canadians. 

My thought was why can't we use technology to automate the process and let's use telephony, because it was the one piece of technology most people had access to. And use that as the interface for people who needed to gain access to braille, large print, audio, and e-text formats on computer diskette. 

So we developed a piece of technology, the very first piece of technology called “info touch.” I had to stamp my feet a bit with my partner, and I think I even cried a little bit… And said, ‘listen there's a marketplace here!’ I finally got my colleagues - at that point there was four of us - colleagues to pay attention and convinced them to turn the boat, not to security, but to accessibility and that's where it started.

The Government of Canada wasn't all that interested when I talked to them initially. So it forced us into a different marketplace. It forced us to look at the private sector as a place to launch this service. Because banks are regulated organizations, they had the same obligation to deliver information in formats that worked for blind people, and blind people are customers of banks, because we all are. We convinced them to use our service and make some of their documents available on things like describing the terms and conditions for their credit cards, terms and conditions for their bank accounts.  They were our very first customer for “info touch”, the on-demand production system for alternative formats.   That's how that started, so when it came time for the bank to respond to a complaint from two very active consumers in the movement, working towards an accessible financial environment, as well as other things - Chris and Marie Stark - they came to us because we were already partners with them.  That was my intro into, not assistive devices but into accessible services.  Assistive devices is a singular individual productivity enhancement tool - “info-touch” had broad appeal that would serve the needs of many through one innovation. An accessible service for blind people, it was a technology-based solution for on-demand published means the alternative formats.

Blind people - once they knew there was a system available and accessible through promotions by Royal Bank of Canada. Once they knew that the system was there, because they were now being told about it through the Royal Bank information line that this service was available. Then, they would call the number, which was I think at the time 1-800-769-2512. (It's not there anymore because we have moved on from that and we have a different level of service.) They would call that number. They would select the language they wanted to operate in using a telephone keypad. They would choose whether or not they wanted a business or a government or an agency. They would then go into those menus and it would be, if you were a bank, it was personal banking, corporate banking. They would go into those menus, and they would select from a list of documents the ones that they wanted.

Those documents had already been created - digital electronic master files. When the person would select the document they wanted and the format they wanted it in, then as soon as it came in, it could be produced based on the digital format we were holding and it was simply a function of the output device that the information went to.  So was it a Braille printer, was it going to an audio duplicator, was it going to a digital duplicator?  So it was just a function of request: it just was a really simple, easy interface where you could choose what you needed. That's how it started, and it grew! And the next thing we brought on was CIBC, the one after that was TD, and the one after that was Scotia Bank.  It moved into the United States - it wasn't as big in the states to start, because it was a much different market to deal with. But now the American marketplace certainly accounts for a lot more business for T-Base these days.

Then from there, there was a human rights complaint against Royal Bank of Canada because a couple of very active consumers wanted to have the same access to their bank accounts as everybody else had. And they lodged a complaint because the ATMs were not accessible. From there, T-base was asked with us to work with the bank to design the audio interface for the banking machine. So the talking bank machine was a result of how people who depend on sound for interacting with technologies were able to access that system, securely, safely, fully. 

We created the audio interface for the talking bank machine. What that was, was just taking the screens that are presented to everybody else and turn them into audio interactive files. So instead of print, I, with a headset, could plug into a talking bank machine, listen to the screen and it would give me… In the same way that menus were being driven on the info touch, they were being driven by the talking bank machine. So we would simply choose what it was, whether it was personal finance or your savings account, chequing account, whatever, and withdraw money or put money in, or do whatever you needed to do. 

We did some things differently: we blacked out the screen, so that somebody was standing behind you, they couldn't see what you were doing or entering because you can be vulnerable if you can't see what's going on around you.  We provided clients with the option to choose to black out their screen. And because we used headsets, you could just plug in and you know what you were doing anyway.


You mentioned that this development started moving into the United States   My next question is about to what extent did you work for people in Canada or did you ever correspond or cooperate with any other international organizations or individual partners in other countries like United States or elsewhere?


In both cases when we launched the world's first talking bank machine, that was done here in Canada down on Queen Street. We worked at that point in time with the Royal Bank of Canada and NCR Canada.  Once we launched, we started to get calls from other manufacturers of ATMs. And one was Diebold, and we ended up receiving a call from the city manager for the City of San Francisco. They wanted us to see whether or not we would be able to work with them and do the same thing on a Diebold ATM machine. I stayed here in Ottawa, sent the tech and my partner down to San Francisco. They implemented the entire system within a period of, I think it was four days, and they were able to demo that in four days.

Now the cost of accessibility is nothing if it's built into the system in the design phases. So all this was to do was to demonstrate that it would work. And then at that point in time they could replicate or do the same thing for Diebold. They put it into the manufacturing run and to this day the system has changed very little from what was initially there. And meanwhile we were still doing “info touch” which was the on-demand system in Canada.  Info touch never made it into the US market because we had already moved beyond that at that point in time.  We started to focus on the Canadian marketplace because the government had decided, yeah, this is a good idea. Then they wanted to work with us.  And I remember getting a call from HRDC. They called us up and wanted us to come and meet with them and I essentially said ‘listen: you're wasting my time, you waste our money, you never do anything that you say you're going to do. I don't want to meet with you.” And this guy made a compelling argument to say “listen I'm really serious! We need to work with you on making documents available to the Canadian public in alternative formats.” So my first contract happened with the Government of Canada, I think it was probably 1995, and it was for the promotion, design and production of alternative formats of government documents.

At that point in time, we started working with a number of different federal government departments and because I understood the communication barrier, I made sure that promotion was part of it, because if I didn't they would simply wait for blind people to learn about the service through osmosis, know that there was a number of there that they could call to get hold of the information they were looking for in alternative formats.

So I started calling consumer-based organizations across the country that had information resources, resource centers.  I could say, ‘by the way here's some documents we have available. If you have blind people who drop in and they want to have access to business centers services, or they want to have access to employment opportunities on what used to be the employment bulletin board (Which really was the bulletin boards that had paper announcements on it.) Then here's what I proposed you read that we send to you. And it's like, how to access job bulletins, or who to call at the center to find out what jobs were available if you couldn't get there.

We started doing that and as people became aware of their rights, then it was like a snowball. People started asking for stuff.  Three years into working with the Government in Canada they say, okay we need to change the terms of reference here - we don't want to promote anymore! And at that point in time the genie was pushing up through the top of the box, and saying ‘can't put me in here’. You could still clamp down on the top of this box, but the lock is not going to work anymore! What changed at that point in time that point, I understood that there was all kinds of alternative or adaptive technologies that existed, and I bought my first computer, which I had to teach myself how to use. And I had to also learn how to use JAWS, and Dragon Dictate and Jawbone, so that the two pieces of technology could talk to each other, and I had to teach myself how to type.

I can type today. I don't use Dragon Dictate anymore and, because now I type, and I don't have to use that other piece of technology that allowed JAWS, which is a screen reader, the screen reader which is text to voice, allowed those two pieces to talk to each other.  So when I got the computer I had a lot to learn and the business was going crazy.

One of the reasons I didn't get the technology until then - and sometimes it's a bit of a cheap excuse - it was because in order for me to understand what blind people were continuing to go through, I actually had to be it. That allowed for the technology development to take place. I had to be an unconnected blind person in order to fully understand the problems, in order to envision a solution, that would make information more readily available to blind people.

But, once I got the technology - I remember going to the Government of Canada and somebody said, ‘somebody just buy you a computer.’ And then I got the computer, and it was like, ‘somebody should take that computer away from her!’ Because it was like, it was unleashing all kinds of things and allowing much more positive things to take place.


Sort of related - how do you think technology accessibility and human rights are connected?


Technology is absolutely critical to the engagement and participation of blind, deaf-blind, partially sighted, people with low literacy skills, in order to be able to participate and benefit or enjoy at least the same benefits as all other citizens who pay taxes or don't pay taxes.

The technology makes it possible for people to participate in the mainstream. I believe that the absence of technology for blind people is certainly, potentially a challenge you can make to the Government of Canada. From the standpoint of, government is an administrative body that's responsible for governance and regulatory issues: it's passes laws, it does stuff and it's all dealing with information. It's not selling computers, it's not doing stuff like that, it's not doing that kind of business. It is providing services to Canadians. And communications is an essential service for which the government gets paid taxes as it delivers services to all Canadians, which includes me too.

Technology is crucial to our involvement in governance-related matters and in making informed decisions when we go to the polling station. I may add at this point in time it is 2016 and there still is no clearly independent good solution for Canadians who are blind to vote independently at a polling station today. Why don't we have telephone voting? Why don't we have Internet voting? For me, it's the easiest, fastest way of being able to cast my vote in secret and independently, using a computer. I think government needs to get technologies into the hands of all citizens, and make it as accessible as a telephone.


How have changes to adaptive or assistive technologies influenced, shaped or changed the lives of people who are blind or partially sighted in Canada or elsewhere?


Well the genie is out of the box! It is never going to go back in. Because technologies such as those, and every time I say this this name people need to pay attention: Apple, Apple, Apple. The Apple accessibility advantage was the start of clearly mainstream technology with the ability to deliver accessible interactions. Every product that comes out of an Apple box has accessibility built into the operating system. Apple was one of the first companies to realize, or it actually was Steve Jobs, when approached for some momentum towards philanthropy, said ‘no!’ And I take my hat off to him: He said instead he would develop accessible technologies that would be of more benefit to blind people. And not just blind people, people with disabilities generally. All of a sudden, blind people, instead of spending, buy the computer install JAWS for $1200, Jawbone’s for $900 and Dragon Dictate for $1200 plus the price of your computer (and I don't think those prices are relevant today. I think they're lower than that but not much.) You can go and buy and a MacBook Air, for example, for I don't know, $1800.00, and all of its built-in. You simply turn it on because it's become affordable and accessible and you don't have to do anything else with it. 

More and more blind people are buying into it.  For people who are blind that have low incomes, the iPod Touch is the smallest, cheapest Internet-enabled computer you can buy. You can buy an iPod Touch for $300. If you can't afford telecommunication services - that $50 to $100 dollars a month that lots of people pay. If can’t afford that, you can go to a public library or any other government site, in order to get access to the Internet. So you can pay your bills, submit a resume, do your banking, download a book from your public library. You can you can do whatever you want. And you're doing that from a device that was the initially promoted as a holder of your music collection. It's now your book machine - that iPod Touch for less than $300 - it’s your book machine, it's your bank account, it's your navigation system, it's your music collection, it's your photographs it's your… it's everything.  

I no longer have a bunch of devices: I remember the bottom drawer in my bedroom was filled with technologies I had bought. From somewhere in the mid 90s, when I first got online with Apple, I had all kinds of technologies in there: I had digital tape recorders, CD players, all kinds of technologies that I needed in order to listen or record and they're all different devices.  Now there's one device that I carry with me and it's my iPhone. And it's wonderful.  And since Apple did that, other organizations have stepped onto the accessibility bandwagon and for very good reason.  And it's, I am a customer!  And for Apple ‘I am your favourite customer!’ because not only do I buy technologies for myself and upgrade them consistently, I'm buying them for my grandchildren.

When I go off and do this conference that I'm going to next week, I bring technology as gifts for members who are not yet connected to the Internet. I've been doing that for a number of years from the time I first discovered that Apple had addressed this market in a way it did. We are customers. 

Now I must confess as I sit here today I've got a Windows PC. I've got a MacBook Air. I've got an iPad. I've got an iPhone, I've got an Apple watch. And they're all synced together, and when I go out walking I use the navigation system that is on my iPhone - Blindsquare - tells me what street I am on, how far I am from the corner. If I put in my coordinates it will tell me to turn left, turn right, move straight ahead. Teddy [service dog] makes sure I don't run into garbage boxes and other things sitting in the middle of the street. There's an app for almost anything you need and its on onesystem. I'm not carrying around a bunch of stuff when I'm going on a trip.

Genies out of the box and not going back in - people who want to leverage accessibility are finding their way to greater numbers of customers who want to have services from whatever organization they represent. That's what they're interested in.


Based on your experience, to what extent are technological aids or adaptive or assistive technologies important for creating more accessible and inclusive spaces of learning, such as schools or universities?


So here's the other thing T-Base got into:  It’s essential! Number one, you need to know how to navigate within the school environment to get from one classroom to another. So technologies are important in order to deliver the important information that says your classroom number 376, and on the left-hand side. So you just walk down the hallway you can get into 376, you can go to find out where the library study spaces, you can find the Student Center, you can do all those things.

Importantly you can get access to accessible learning materials. I know that there's a lot of educated blind people out there that have gone to school in order to ensure that they can get a job to help change the story about blind people. So they're out there doing their thing, and they're learning and accessibility needs to be there in order for that to happen.

So, T-Base, at one point in time I believe CNIB decided back in probably 2010, decided it was no longer going to do educational material, essentially dropped the service. Well, T-Base, quick to respond said: ‘hey we can do this.’ And we did, and all of a sudden we're into the educational market, producing educational texts in Braille and whatever the student needed to have access to reflect a learning style.

The difference between how I look at this stuff is mostly the healthcare community that looks at blindness like it's a patient issue, are not getting it.  It's like it's not about how much vision do I have in my left versus my right eye. It's about what's your learning style? You may be visual, you may be an audio learner, you may be a tactile learner, but you have a learning style.  So the way that we positioned how people learn was through our senses. And it changes everything. When you're challenging an organization on do you need to have medical information in order to make sure somebody gets the right format?  It's not about that. It's about what style do people have in learning and how do you present the information in the best way possible so that they can maximize that information.

So T-Base got into educational material and over the years since then, from that very initial foray, spread into the science, engineering, mathematics, music… So it's not just literary Braille anymore, we're doing all kinds of Braille, at the same time making it easier for kids to get it.  But we also realize that, where technology comes in to fill the gaps as students move towards digital information on a device or on their systems, the need for Braille may diminish, somewhat but not totally, because Braille is still really important if you're doing the presentation for example. I can tell you it is not easy to do a presentation listening to a digital audio and trying to sound like a regular person visually reading from a page. It's not the same thing. If you've got Braille, you can have it sitting on your lap and just be talking away and it sounds like you're totally disconnected from any paper. Digital, accessible technology and accessibility: crucial.


Based on your experience to what extent are pedagogical aids, or adaptive or assistive technology, important for creating more accessible and inclusive spaces of employment?  


That's a really interesting question.  The problem has been that, and we've seen this just looking back over the last ten years, where under one political system there was a halt in accessibility. It just stopped. There was no focus, there was no agenda for it, there was nothing.  And during the last ten years, as governments have deployed technology in order to replace legacy systems. What’s happened is, they've done that without any regard to accessibility. So now we've got an infrastructure that is not accessible, or mostly not accessible. And a big number of blind employees of the federal public service that are not able to use operational systems to do their jobs. It's not just about the assistive technology, accessible technology. It's about the infrastructure must also be accessible in order to allow us to communicate with the functions of our job: That's turned into a really big problem.  Those are the same systems that are in place to serve the needs of Canadians.  The important part of that is all of those systems are not going to serve my needs anymore. There is legislation coming. There are policies in place. I think that the outward looking systems for employment that are being deployed in serving Canadians are good because there's laws around internet design or web site design and app design and things like that. So, services to Canadians generally are much better than what's happening internally to government, which is the operational systems for managing human resources and finance and other important operations are not accessible to the employees inside of those organizations. And that's the problem that needs to be solved really quick.

Unless the infrastructure works and allows us to connect, people won't be successful in employment opportunities where the systems just don't support what they need to have happen. We can do the same thing as everybody else, but there's got to be some guarantee that when they design those systems that they're going to work.  Interestingly AEBC at the Alliance for Equality of Blind Canadians developed a discussion paper somewhere probably about 2008/2009 mandating accessibility for all information communications and technology purchases for governments and regulated organizations.

Calling on government through those mandates and those regulated organizations meant that anything that was purchased would have to be accessible. And it lined up with exactly what the US government was doing.  It's not a hard thing to do.  Demonstrating real leadership really does mean: put that in requirements definition. Just make it so.  What happens when you do that is it goes out to the private sector, and the private sector being the private sector will respond accordingly because that's where innovation thrives.  They see that the possibility, they see the opportunity, and they will respond. Because they may lose the first tender coming out of the government or out of a bank or other the telecom, but they're not going to lose the second one without having first addressed what do we need to have.


How do you think adaptive or assistive technology is important for reducing social barriers for people who are blind or partially sighted?


It's crucial, but it's only one aspect of how to remove or diminish those social barriers. Technology is crucial to demonstrating to the rest of society that given the right tools we can compete on an equal basis with everybody else for jobs and other opportunities, whether it's for starting a business or we're going to go head to head on the economist position at Bank of Montreal.

The tools give us that. What still is a big problem are the attitudinal stuff.  People, very often, when I go out, will talk to my dog or my friend is supposed to talk to me.  Part of that comes from the way in which blind people have, and I'm going to do this now, have been exploited by being made to look helpless, by being made to appear dependent.  Those are attitudes that have led to successful fundraising for organizations, but have been very detrimental to creating attitudes in the general public about what our capabilities are. That needs to change. The technology is crucial because it allows us to demonstrate that we can do the same things everybody else does and we can do it in the dark so we don't need light bulbs. We’re efficient, effective employees.  

Info-touch started us on to how we develop things. It allowed us to communicate, to inform. When the talking bank machine came along, info touch was absolutely necessary to supporting the operations of that talking bank machine.  When customers wanted to use a talking bank machine, they would contact info touch, request the instruction kit on how to use a system. And we would send it out in the format they could use so that they could go read through this material independently. Then they could go to the talking bank machine and they could use it.

They would know where to plug in the headset, know exactly where the keyboard was, where on the system. They can find their money or insert their card or do all of those things. It oriented people.  So it was an orientation package - probably a better way to describe it. But after that, now that you have access to your money, how about developing more financial literacy around your financial instruments? In order to stay informed, in order to access our financial data independently without having to ask the next-door neighbour, if you're alone, how much you needed to pay and ‘can you fill out this cheque for me?’ And all of those things that have huge potential for identity theft and fraud, we launched a service called “Accessibill.”

“Accessibill” gave financial services clients access to private confidential and sensitive financial information in formats that could be reviewed independently by the customer. Now that's still rolling and that took us into the United States, as did the educational material. And now we're working with the largest banks in North America everywhere.  And we have a lot more informed people who don't have access to technology primarily, getting hold of the information they need to make sound financial decisions about their lives.  But now there's also an app for that. So there you go! Where once you go to the talking bank machine to take out money or to pay a bill or to do whatever you need to do for your financial transaction, you can now do on an iPod or an iPhone or, at this point Android has got all these things too! So the biggest companies in North America have moved away from old models of service delivery and are now depending on the commitment to the digital world. And that's where I’m at.  I am digitally committed to being here fully, equally, in all aspects of this society. And I think accessibility is part of a knowledge base that we need to leverage as a country.  Not just so that we grow as a country, but we're an enlightened digital economy, and there's seven billion people on the globe today. Of that, how many are not communicating because they don't have the means, they don't have the tools. 

In order to build a globe that we can all be in we all need to know what we need to do together to make it a good place to be:  accessibility is an important tool for humanity and for growth and for - I just think it's a good thing!





An Interview with Sharlyn “Charlie” Ayotte