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Interview – Jackie Brown, Chair of the British Computer Association of the Blind: finding your game-changer

When Jackie Brown was introduced to the speech synthesiser on the Acorn BBC Micro computer in 1984, it was to be the beginning of a valuable and productive interest in assistive technology. Jackie, who is blind, continued to use and explore different technologies as they evolved, finding them beneficial to her career as a writer.

In 2007 Jackie subscribed to the email list of the British Computer Association of the Blind (BCAB). She went on to edit the BCAB newsletter and stood for the Board of Trustees in 2015 before becoming Secretary. In November 2017, Jackie was appointed as BCAB Chair. e-Access Bulletin spoke to Jackie about her work within BCAB and aims for the organisation, and about the kinds of assistive technology she uses on a daily basis.

- E-Access Bulletin: Tell us about the work of the British Computer Association of the Blind.

– Jackie Brown: “BCAB was founded in 1969, primarily as a group of blind computer programmers. But with the changes in, and pace of, technology, the Association now helps people use a wide range of equipment, from computers with screen-readers through to smartphones, tablets, digital assistants and everything in between.

“We have an email list, a quarterly newsletter, monthly online presentations, our annual TechABreak weekend, a podcast, and even an Amazon Echo Alexa ‘skill’ that allows users to access BCAB content. My motto is that if we can help at least one person to get to where they want to be with their technology, then of course BCAB is worthwhile. It isn’t an elitist charity, it’s for everyone.”

- How did it feel to be appointed as Chair of BCAB?

“I was absolutely thrilled and honoured to be elected. I care very deeply for the BCAB community and want to devote as much of my own time as possible to taking the Association forward to make it more appealing and accessible to a wider audience.”

- What do you hope to bring to the role?

“As a woman who is passionate about technology and its many uses, of course I would like to see more women standing for the Board of Trustees in the future and generally getting involved. There are a lot of people out there who regard this field as a man’s world – not so!

“But I also want to be able to offer our members more for their money and reach a wider audience, not just around the UK, but internationally as well. We have lots of exciting plans and I feel incredibly privileged to lead and be a part of that.”

- You are currently the only female Board Trustee at BCAB. Do you feel that the technology and assistive technology sectors are male-dominated?

“Yes, very much so. Sometimes it comes across to me as though only men should know what makes various components of a computer tick or have an association with the tech industry and its gadgetry. This is very sad, since there are plenty of tech-savvy women out there who have a rightful place in the field.”

- How could more women be encouraged to work within the assistive technology sector, rather than just using the technology?

“I think men need to stop thinking that technology is only for them and start treating women equally. Perhaps it is a cultural thing that has evolved around the world, but this is the 21st century and women need to start being counted in this sphere.

“It takes time to get noticed, but my advice is not to be intimidated by a man who thinks he knows better just because the subject matter is technology. I used to work on a technical support desk for a screen-reader company, and one man actually asked to speak to my male colleagues when he had a problem, because he didn’t think a woman would know what to do!”

- When did you first start using assistive technology and what kinds of systems or devices were you using then?

“I started my working life on an old manual typewriter. From there, I began using an electric typewriter and then, in 1984, was introduced to the Acorn BBC Micro and primitive speech synthesiser. For me, this was a real game-changer. It meant I could read back my own work, and while it was fairly basic, it provided an independence that was unparalleled at that time. From there I went on to DOS, then all platforms of Windows. As the years went by, the technology and what a blind person could do with it just kept getting better.”

- What types of assistive technology do you use on a day-to-day basis?

“I use Windows 10 with the JAWS screen-reader software and Braille display attached to my computer. This enables me to send and receive email, compose and proofread Word documents, work with spreadsheets, browse the internet and shop online, access my music collection, participate in online meetings and lots of other things.

“I have a smartphone with text-to-speech that lets me send and receive text messages, access email, use apps and keep in touch with people in the same way sighted people do with their bits of kit. I love using digital assistants like Amazon Echo and Google Home, and wireless speaker systems in the form of Sonos. I also convert print to Braille for embossing, and scan print to text using Optical Character Recognition (OCR). My whole life is geared around technology.”

- You run The Browns’ Place, a website with reviews of assistive technology products. How do you decide which products to review? And how do you approach reviewing the assistive features of a product?

“Generally speaking, if I purchase a piece of kit or a company loans me something, then I try to review it. I get some practical hands-on experience of the gadget first: learning where its buttons are situated and what it does. Once I’ve done that I write my review, describing it to readers in the way I would want something described to me.

“I try to be as honest and balanced as possible. If something isn’t particularly accessible for a blind person, I will say so. There is no point misleading your reader just to please whoever loaned you the gadget in the first place. I like to think I have a good reputation with readers and companies, but it takes time to build up a rapport and trust.”

Find out more about the British Computer Association of the Blind at the BCAB website.

Read Jackie’s product reviews at The Browns’ Place website.


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