08 Jul Walking in Two Worlds: Dr. Denise Robinson’s Quest to Change the Technology Landscape for Today’s Visually Impaired Students
The Problem: A Disconnect Between Expectations and Reality
A monumental obstacle to today’s job seeker with a vision impairment is the disconnect between meeting the mainstream educator’s expectations (or performing at a level which makes him or her a valuable asset to the employer), and receiving the technology training required to do so. It’s both unrealistic and unfair to expect the next generation of technology users who are visually impaired to be able to create visually formatted PowerPoint slides, or embed multi-media elements into a file, or create and edit a color-coded bar graph at a level comparable to their sighted peers without excellent, iterative training from qualified instructors.
The Current Solution
At this stage, a standard has yet to be developed that today’s access technology trainer must meet in order to provide access technology evaluations and subsequent training for people who are visually impaired. While there are various organizations who have created programs to “train the trainer” in how to most effectively provide these technology services, at the end of the day, a service provider who is sighted or visually impaired and has a laptop with a screen reader installed on it may fill out the necessary paperwork and advertise himself as a service provider inmost states throughout the US regardless of his or her ability to actually instruct consumers. Often, the hourly rate that the service provider charges varies from state to state as well.
Consumers who are visually impaired may receive technology training at an agency, in their homes, or, in some instances, online. It’s not the intent of this article to revamp how technology services are deployed throughout the US, but we as an industry must advocate for the high quality training received by sighted technology users to be adapted and made available to current and future generations of access technology users. One such individual has made it her crusade to make this happen!
A Change Agent
“It was never my intention to be a teacher of the visually impaired,” states Dr. Denise Robinson, President of TechVision LLC, a company she founded almost three years ago. “I was attending Whitman College in Washington State and studying to become an English teacher when my world was turned completely upside down.”
In her last semester of college, diabetic retinopathy caused Robinson’s retinas to hemorrhage, resulting in her losing virtually all of her visual acuities in both eyes. This life-altering event forced her to depart college abruptly, just shy of graduation. After getting over the initial shock of losing her vision, she moved to Michigan where she had a friend in the medical field, a retinologist who became one of the pillars in her new support system. “I didn’t know the first thing about how to do the world blind, but once I pushed through the feelings of self-pity and other emotions that accompany such a loss, I set out to learn how.”
Robinson enrolled in the Vision Education program at Eastern Michigan University where she met the mentor who would spark her interest in providing education and technology services for people who are visually impaired.
“I owe much of what I’ve learned and who I am today to Ted Lennox, a blind faculty member who became my mentor. My exposure to access technology began with the Apple II computers in the mid-80s. We were fixated on pushing this and all technologies that came our way to their absolute limits: testing them, taxing them, getting all that we could out of them. He taught me to believe that technology could never defeat us but, rather, empower us.”
Robinson used this time to not only fuel her passion for this newfound technology but also to continue to hone her ability to teach. She completed her internship under Lennox and received her Bachelor of Arts as a Teacher of the Vision Impaired while completing her degree in English. Then, she completed the graduate program at Western Michigan University, focusing on early childhood education while already working her first job in the industry as a teacher of the visually impaired.
During this period of approximately ten years, two things began to happen. The technology began to advance beyond the scope of the Apple II and its synthesizer, and Robinson’s vision began to slowly return! “I had gone from a fully sighted college student on the verge of getting my degree to someone who had to adapt to interacting with the world audibly and tactily. As a result, I so get the necessity for learning how to read and write braille and understand from the perspective of someone who cannot see print what a powerful tool technology can be for the person who is visually impaired and learns how to affectively use it. I not only understand this truth, but I lived it.”
Robinson began her career as an itinerant vision teacher and, amazingly, regained enough vision that she could drive during the daytime. Over the following ten years, her vision would improve to 20/15, making it possible for her to drive at night again. Her time as an itinerant teacher for multiple school districts provided her credibility in the trenches where she learned how to assess students’ needs and communicate them to well-meaning administrators who were at a loss as to how to best serve their students who were visually impaired. “Administrators generally want to do the right thing for their students and want to believe that there are better ways for their students to learn and excel. I made it my mission to show them how,” states Robinson.
As her caseload began to exponentially expand and the number of miles she would drive per month began to grow, Robinson believed that there had to be a better way for her to provide these services. “I spent more time in the car than I did teaching students and began to see a profound need for service delivery in very rural, scattered school districts. I knew there had to be a better way!”
While working full-time and driving an average of 3,000 miles per month, Robinson took on the task of earning her PhD in Instructional Online Design from Capella University, a degree she hoped would help her realize her dream of providing top-notch distance learning to more students. Robinson began to learn how to affectively deliver content using the technology that she had grown to love.
She voraciously learned concepts, such as website accessibility, along with methodologies designed to convey ideas, skill sets, and practical know-how to the very audience she desired to serve more effectively. Her ability to interact with technology from the perspective of a user who is blind, coupled with her ability to visually look at a computer application or an assignment means she is able to strategize with her students who are visually impaired on how to use a given technological solution to its fullest to conquer any challenge that they are facing.
In 2006 she received her PhD and launched TechVision, the vehicle for accomplishing her mission. She began by only taking on one student who is visually impaired. “I wanted to really beat up this concept of distance learning with one student, so I could fine tune all the hiccups and iron out any wrinkles.”
During this time, she created a plan whereby she could provide real-time audio lessons to her students via remote access simply by using a computer, Skype, and remote access to the students’ PCs. Once the word was out about TechVision, news began to travel fast, and just over two years ago, Robinson quit her full-time job to devote her entire energy to the company.
“Teachers, administrators, and parents are wildly happy with the idea of using something free, such as Skype, to interact with their students, and despite the realities of varying bandwidth speeds and PC specifications, instruction has gone remarkably well.” Along with the top-notch instruction that TechVision students receive, the TechVision website is a rich resource full of lesson plans and news about the latest technologies and technology trends.
What You Can Expect
“Once the student connects with us on Skype (yes, it’s the student’s responsibility to call his/her TechVision instructor), we immediately ask them, “What do you need to do today?” It’s up to us to be able to respond quickly and effectively to meet our students’ needs during the 50-60 minutes that we have access to them,” Robinson explains.
Dr. Robinson’s business has taken off over the past two years. She’s very selective about bringing on any extra assistance to help her with her expanding caseload of students for it’s important to her that the instructors who work with her share both her passion and her commitment to educational excellence before she introduces them to her students.
“There [are] a lot of people out there who fancy themselves to be technology experts, but when I begin throwing real-life scenarios at them, they’re not able to respond in a timeframe nor at a level of skill that is acceptable for the level of service that I want to provide to my students. I’m committed to TechVision students getting the most comprehensive instruction and practical application using access technology, and I’ll only expand as quickly as my resources will allow me to do so.”
Dr. Robinson provides virtual instruction to online students all over the United States. These students are predominately K-12, but she also provides instruction to adults as well. It’s expected that the students come prepared for their next lesson, beginning with the completion of their given assignments.
“I’m here to get my students ready for real life!” she says. “If they’re not prepared for me, how will they be prepared for their teacher? If they’re not prepared for their teachers, how will they be equipped for college or the workplace?”
Dr. Robinson sees the mission of TechVision exploding at a similar rate at which technology shifts and changes. She’s spending lots more time teaching and lots less time driving, and school districts can rest assured that their money is being solely used to fund their students’ learning process. Her students are the recipients of her passion. It’s through her own journey of walking in both worlds of the visually impaired and the fully sighted that she can offer such a unique blend of technology training to an industry thirsty for an alternative way to deliver technology training services.
To be sure, Dr. Robinson is only human and needs time to decompress and recharge the batteries. Her personal interests include gardening, wood working, rehabbing houses, working with her hands, and extensive hiking. Dr. Robinson’s commitment to excellence shines through in any lesson that she delivers. Her commitment to excellence and problem solving makes her a one-of-a-kind pioneer for students who must rely on technology to level the playing field in the classroom and the workplace.