Interview with Robert Bender, CNIB Ottawa Office (25 January 2016)

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Interview with Robert Bender, CNIB Ottawa Office (25 January 2016)


An interview with Robert Bender, employee of the CNIB at their Ottawa Office, conducted on 25 January 2016


An interview with Robert Bender, a long-time employee of the CNIB at their Ottawa office, conducted on 25 January 2016. He reflects on his experiences working with and offering assessments for people at the CNIB, as well as the evolution of assistive technologies for people who are blind or partially sighted in Canada from the 1980s to the present day.


Interview by Beth A. Robertson, Carleton University's Disabilities Research Group


Canadian National Institute for the Blind (CNIB)


25 January 2016


Used with permission by Robert Bender, the CNIB and Carleton University's Research Ethics Office




oral / audio interview


Ottawa, ON, Canada

Oral History Item Type Metadata


18:58 minutes


Interviewer: Beth Robertson
Interviewee: Robert Bender
Robert Bender:
My name is Rob Bender. I am an assistive technology specialist at CNIB in Ottawa.
Beth Robertson:
When did you first become involved with the CNIB?
Robert Bender:
As a person who is blind as well, I was involved with the CNIB probably since the age of 3 or 4. I actually began working for CNIB in 1988. I was actually the volunteer coordinator for about year and I moved into my chosen field. I was able to get a job in Sudbury. I was there for 20-some odd years and I’ve been in Ottawa 2010.
Beth Robertson:
What is your chosen field?
Robert Bender:
Assistive technology, for sure. I've always been into gadgets and I've always wished I had had a lot of the things that we have now. When I was in school, we were taught with typewriters. There was minimal talking computer at that time that I could use, back in the early 80s. But things have all most certainly improved after that!
Beth Robertson:
How would you describe your role when you first became employed?
Robert Bender:
The first thing – which was not really related to this – it was doing volunteer coordinating by matching people with volunteers for particular tasks and monitoring the volunteer database. Things, at least then, we were able to use, were MS-DOS computers. Using the computer was a big part of keeping track of the information as well, and notes and such. So it would have been difficult to have done it all without a computer. I would have been back to doing braille notes, which is fine, but its just much faster to find things on the computer. Although it doesn't diminish the value of Braille, its just another means of doing it.

Beth Robertson:
How did your role and work at the CNIB change over time?
Robert Bender:
Well once I got into assistive technology at the beginning, I was doing assessments and training, because there was only me and we did not have a trainer then – I was doing both. Things changed and I moved away from the training. I would almost certainly still help people if they call up and have questions on how to accomplish a task, or whatever, but I don't tend to do a lot of formal training. I am now doing assessments, which is great. In addition, another great part of the job is keeping up to date with all the changes in technology, and such. Again, there is many more resources out there now than what there were say, back in the 80s.
Beth Robertson:
How much did your work involve the use of technological aids?
Robert Bender:
All the time, oh of course, because I demonstrate them, and, of course, use them for my job as well as for personal use.
Beth Robertson:
Can you describe some of the training that you offer to people?
Robert Bender:
What I tend to do now, I do assessments, so I meet with a client, determine what their goals are for the use of technology, and then demonstrate various aids and devices, which might help. So again, it depends on their goals, which technology might best enable them. It is a matter of demonstration. I would not be training per say.
Beth Robertson:
In your opinion, how has technology changed over time?
Robert Bender:
It has changed, most certainly more functions. I can say, the first high-tech device I had was a 40-cell braille terminal that I carried around from class to class, when I was taking my programming in college. It was very clunky. It also cost, I believe, about $10,000. So most certainly the size of devices have come down. The capability of devices have gotten a lot better. The braille link I had was basically just a terminal, to take notes on and such with them, but that’s about it. You could transfer them to another computer type of thing, I guess. Now, a 40-cell braille display might sell for about $5000 or $6000 or less. So now the prices of those haven’t come down. Once I was able to use my first talking computer, now of course it wasn’t portable, but still it was able to provide so much more. There were a couple devices which blind people actually had the equivalent, almost the equivalent of a laptop. Again, then they didn't do as much. There was the Versa Braille, which was –that I think came around the same time as a terminal that I had. Yet it was something that a blind person could carry around and information was on a standard cassette tape, amazingly enough. That was even before a sighted person had a laptop they could take around. So it was kind of a pioneering thing, as well.
Back then too, for reading print, there was a device—which I still have and use –it was called the OptCam. It was a device which has a camera. So you are basically moving the camera on the printed page and there is a place where you put your left hand and there's like a vibrating array of pins. So as you're moving the camera you can feel the shapes of letters. That was a wonderful device for accessing print. Unfortunately its not being made now. Such a device became replaced by optical character recognition systems. Scanning material was much faster and more efficient, but there were still things that you couldn't scan. I'd used the OptCam to get a CCD key, you know, if I was installing Microsoft Office or something. I'd never read that with the scanner. It took me awhile, but I didn't have sighted assistance here, you know. So things have come a long that way as well. And of course the first talking iPhone. Now we have the iPhone and the Android phones, you know, to talk and do magnification as well. So that was a very revolutionary device because the iPhone was the first touch-screen that was mainly accessible and that was back 2009.
And I wondered back then how could this be done. I heard some podcasts you know. I decided to finally buy one. Its not for everyone. This is one device. It isn't better than any other. It just might meet the needs of the person more. But, I sure enjoy mine. The technology has presented, you know, more opportunities to perform various tasks independently. I can imagine back before the computer, having to take notes on the [electronic] Brailler. So, I had all these papers. They would say this appointment is Tuesday at 3 o'clock and this is whatever and it was more difficult to keep organized. So most certainly, I'm now able to, or anybody's who's blind or partially sighted, is able to access print a lot better. Use a computer, or whatever type of device, whether it's a braille note-taker. It has most certainly allowed us to become more independent. Also in the workplace now, because computers are being used so much more, there should be more opportunities for people to become employed. Unfortunately the stats for employment for people with disabilities, and not just for blind and partially sighted, are not very good at all. I think is around 80 % or something that are unemployed – It’s not good.

Beth Robertson:
To build off what you were saying, based on your experience, to what extent are technological aids important for creating more accessible and inclusive spaces of employment?
Robert Bender:
There is a lot more opportunities because the technology is being used more now. And as long as the programs being used are accessible and will work with screen reading programs or screen magnification programs, then presumably, many more people should be employed. Although unfortunately I do not think the numbers of people being employed … I do not know if they have increased too much and that I think, would be a hope of the technology, that they should be able to do that.
Beth Robertson:
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?
Robert Bender:
If a person had the appropriate technology to be able to take notes – that was always a thing. Some people might have had note takers in the past. For me, I would have loved to have a laptop when I was in college, to be able to smash out notes. What I did do though, so I could think about the material being presented, I would record the notes and come back and braille out transcriptions of the class, whatever I needed.
That doubled the time, so effectively I listened to the class twice, so most certainly a time saver. And again, there are many different types of devices now that are available for blind or partially sighted people. Whether they're using magnification to access print, or the portable CCTV, or closed circuit TV system. For someone who may have lower vision using a scanning program on the iPhone perhaps to get information. Although it's not going to be as fast. I wouldn’t say that it would be terribly great to take a scanner and hold it in class and try and scan braille while the teachers talking – it's not going to be as fast. But at least a person can get access to it beforehand, whatever and, then they’ve got the information much faster than what they would have had back in the 80s when all this stuff wasn't available.
I think of efficiency, now. The other thing too is, because we are using standard computers now, information can be shared with the instructors a lot easier. Before a person was producing their things in Braille. Then, of course, they had to type them unless the instructor knew Braille, which wouldn’t happen a lot of the time unless they were at a school for the blind, or had an itinerant teacher, whatever. So, most certainly it's more efficient and easier information sharing. Now of course everyone’s emailing their assignments and such. That's a lot easier there to. No more ribbons that will of run out! Oh, gosh, I typed so many assignments and the ribbon, whoever checked it, would say its blank and I’d have to do it again. No more of those days.
Beth Robertson:
How do you think technological aids are important for reducing social barriers?
Robert Bender:
Well certainly, because well now there’s email for sure, so communication that way. If you have access to Internet and the appropriate technology of course, more and more people are getting on Facebook and Twitter and all that type of thing. So, access to social networks. Using things like Skype, you can contact people if you are not out all the time, whatever. Then there is that avenue as well. Most certainly there is a lot more means of communication now, so yes it has done it a lot for that as well.
Beth Robertson:
Thank you, I see we are surrounded by cool computer devices. Would you mind showing us how some of these work and how they function?
Robert Bender:
Okay sure. Okay because I understand that this is more audio, I will start with screen reading program on the computer. It will allow onto access the computer screen. The screen reader is designed for somebody with very low or no vision, so the mouse would not be used at all. So you basically operate the computer with the keyboard. So I'm using JAWS – that's one of the screen reading programs on many of the devices that are available. There are alternatives, so there's not just one screen reader, one screen magnification program, one scanning device, whatever. They’re all a number of things, depending on the person wants to do or whatever.
We would provide demonstrations of the alternatives so they can decide which one's going to work best for them. So I just hit Windows D to go to the desktop. Okay now hopefully that's not too fast. So I'm just going to type something. So I can have it say letters and I can have it say words. I’m just typing some stuff… I can go back now. I can move the cursor by letter, and it will go where the curser is. And the T goes “T!” so I know it’s capitalized. And it will spell. And I can do a keystroke … [screen reader: this is a computer equipped with assistive technology. This is the next line.”] … and it will read the entire thing.
If I walked away from the computer, now it tells me where I am, so I know that I’m in word. If I want to find out, say, the font of the material, I can do that as well. It states a bunch of information, there but it does provide the information you need to produce a well-formatted document. And of course we can change the voice and the rate and all that stuff as well. So people with time may actually increase it to a nice fast pace. It depends on how one works. Everything is accessible, so I can basically go through the ribbons on the tab there. I am just tabbing around now… It'll tell me where I'm going. So that's completely keyboard driven. I'm essentially doing combination of standard commands, but also using commands that are specific to JAWS.
For the most part, though, you can use the standard Windows commands because it will tell you what it's doing. Any of these screen-reading programs are terribly expensive, unfortunately. That's due to the smaller market and the research that they put into a program. JAWS is like a $1030 bucks or something. And there are also some lower cost, or, actually free now alternatives though, which is great.
The first screen reading programs, the first talking programs, I guess, back in the early 80s, was around the Apple 2E, for example. That wasn't a full screen reader. It was basically a talking word processor, or a talking spreadsheet, or talking ... Via the technology we’re using now, of course, will enable you to access any text-based program that’s supported. Yes, it is a lot more flexible.
And of course, then we moved through all the DOS-space screen readers too, which … you know, first you had to buy a box or a card to put into the computer for the sound because the computers didn’t have sound cards back in the DOS days. Things were terribly expensive, then. You were probably looking at $3000 for a talking system – amazingly expensive. Now, its typically just software that one installs on the computer. For in DOS days, you had to remember lots of function keys and you had to remember commands and all that stuff of course. Now we're using Windows so certainly was going to be accomplished in the same way from one program to another. Most certainly that would help, for example one can press control P for print and it's going to be the same everywhere. So if things like that will be more universal, so that's made things easier. Once a person knows how to access online help or programs, then they don’t always need to call and say “what's the function key for this?” or “ what’s the command for this?” More independent learning, as well, is possible. Also, I think, for the most part, you can find a podcast for almost anything, which is great. You don’t always have to ask for help. The information is there. So I think things have gotten easier to use in that way. Again the person needs to know their access to technology, whether it’s screen reader magnification program, or whatever they're using or a Braille note-taker as you saw with Richard. They must know their own device, but once you know how to explore it, you know, they will find what they need. It's great.
Beth Robertson:
In your experience, what do you feel is the most important technology available?
Robert Bender:
Well they're all-important. Anything that's out there is important. It would depend on the goals of the person. So I wouldn't say a screen reader is more important than a scanner. Depends on the goal of the person. I basically go by that type of thing. They’re all, always important.
Again, there’s some revolutionary things. I would call the iPhone revolutionary, once they came up with voiceover and zoom built-in –again, that being the first touchscreen device the blind person could use, that was great for sure. That probably had the biggest impact, being something that had never been done before. Now we can carry a computer around in our pockets, you know, essentially an entire computer. So that's probably the thing that’s had maybe the most impact. Although most certainly, of course, the ability to use a talking program back in the 80s on the Apple 2E was most certainly a breakthrough as well. So, I guess, that I would be equally as important. Everything's evolved over the years, for sure.
I depends on the goals of the person … Although there are many GPS devices that talk and such, a person that doesn't get out too much, that wouldn't be important to them. But it would still be important, for the fact that it's there and people do use that type of thing. So again, it’s all goal based and such.
Beth Robertson:
What was the technology that revolutionized your life?
Robert Bender:
I would say, at first, the talking computer, for sure, because the way the typewriter worked and I could print things out. If the ribbon was gone on the old dot-matrix printer, at least I could replace the ribbon and print out my assignment again. And there was also, I guess, another piece, the first note taker that talked. It was called Braille & Speak. It came out, I think around maybe1986 or something. It was roughly, I think, maybe a little bit smaller than the note taker that Richard had. It basically provided the ability to take notes and you could connect it to an appropriate printer, print things out or transfer between a computer, or format it better. That was too very important back then. It was a portable device that was there before there were laptops.


Beth A. Robertson


Robert Bender


CNIB Ottawa Office, Ontario, Canada


Interview by Beth A. Robertson, Carleton University's Disabilities Research Group, “Interview with Robert Bender, CNIB Ottawa Office (25 January 2016),” Envisioning Technologies , accessed May 29, 2024,

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