Recently I went on the board of Benetech which operates Bookshare, the largest electronic library of books for blind and print disabled people.  The bumps in the road of onboarding say a lot about the state of inclusion for the blind in ordinary life.

                Benetech is a medium-sized nonprofit whose mission is “to leverage technology and innovation for social good.” It’s been around for twenty years and its crown jewel is a huge online library of downloadable books for borrowers with print disabilities.  Because it’s all online, best sellers are likely to be available the week they appear on the print best seller list. Sometimes my sighted friends have to wait for a print copy from the public library and I get to download and read it before they do. As someone who’s had the opposite for sixty years, it’s kind of fun to be the first to read a book.

                When finances permit, I contribute to Benetech. This year it occurred to me that I’d make an ideal board member because I’m a satisfied customer, a donor and I have a lot of varied board experience.  After submitting my resume and interviewing with three board members, I was elected.  Then the culture shock and access issues hit.

                All the board members except me are denizens of Silicon Valley and work in tech businesses there. They use Google drive, docs and sheets and Board Effect software.  Are these platforms accessible to those of us who use screen readers? I’d say “yes” at a “C minus” level.

                First, I tried just using my common sense and managed to garble a Google document we were supposed to comment on without knowing I had messed it up.  Luckily one of them knew how to put it back the way it was.

After having a meltdown about embarrassing myself the first day, I did lots of Internet research for keystrokes to use instead of pointing and clicking like sighted people do.  The key combinations involved punching up to four keys at once and about half of them worked and half didn’t.  Then I called tech helplines for my screen reader and for Google. One sweet young lady told me I sounded just like her mother expressing frustrations with technology. “Mother, heck!” I thought to myself—grandmother is more like it.   Unfortunately, Google’s disability phone help line was temporarily turned off for English, although Portuguese was still available.

                Finally, I got a recommendation of a consultant and hired him for a month.  He’s blind and has done tech help for blind people for twenty-five years. I was pleased that he tried many of the things I’d tried that didn’t work for me and they didn’t work for him either.  Whew! It’s not all me!  But what he knew that I didn’t was if this doesn’t work, try that.  After about an hour of phone help, I think I can do what I need to. Now I just have to screw up my courage and do it. 

                I can tell I will add some lived experience from a customer perspective to board discussions. I will probably offer to do disability awareness training for board and staff, if desired.  The organization prides itself on promoting equity, diversity and inclusion but has not thought a lot about it from a disability perspective.

                As Einstein said “Failure is success in progress”.  Clearly, I’m on the road to success with my new venture with the folks of Silicon Valley!