I recently had the opportunity to spend a few valuable hours in one-on-one screen reader training with Nik Petersson of Miles Access Skills Training, LLC. What made this a particularly insightful experience is my teacher himself requiring the aid of a screen reader. Nik has been blind since he was 11 years old after a biking accident caused him to lose his vision. He and his business partner, Lisa Ferris (who has been deafblind since birth), use their business to help teach people how to use assistive technologies.
The Mission of Miles Access Skills Training, LLC
To improve the opportunities, self-determination and lives of individuals with vision loss and other disabilities by providing highly competent, respectful and current training and consulting in the skills of blindness.
I’ve been teaching myself how to use a screen reader for a few years now. But I am not blind, I don’t even wear my glasses consistently. So how am I suppose to really know what’s important or hindering to a screen reader user other than what I simply learn from the research into accessibility I do? As any scholar knows, study does not equal experience.
I was nervous at first. I was worried that my mediocre screen reading skill would prove I wasn’t a good advocate for accessibility. However, my anxiety quickly dissipated under the kind tutelage of Nik as he walked me through the organic process of using a screen reader. The order in which he navigated a webpage, which keyboard shortcuts were particularly useful and relevant, and of course, real-life examples of why accessibility is so important. Previously when I used a screen reader, I would keep a keyboard shortcut cheat sheet up on my second monitor and I would mechanically process a webpage. Since my training, I haven’t needed my cheat sheet and I can now navigate a website successfully using a screen reader with my eyes closed (literally!).
Between having a sibling who was severely developmentally disabled and dealing with a chronic illness myself, there hasn’t been a single point in my life where I wasn’t close to someone with a disability or wasn’t disabled myself. A lot of the reason I’m dedicated to accessibility is due to personal experience or being in close proximity to those who require it. However, I’ve never had someone in my life who was blind so that is an experience I’ve never personally been close to, so it always felt like I was advocating at a distance. As always, there is still plenty more to learn – a few hours does not equate to a potential lifetime of experience. We’ve all had that friend who goes to London for a week and comes back with an accent they swear “is natural” – I’d like to avoid becoming the screen reading equivalent of that.
I’m so grateful to have had this experience and look forward to working with Nik more in the future. This was truly an awesome experience that I know will help me help others. As accessibility advocates who don’t rely on assistive technologies daily, it’s so important for us to maintain a partnership with people who do. How else could we possibly know we’re correctly serving those we are advocating for? As my new friend Nik told me…
Nothing about us, without us.