Tuesday, May 23, 2017

NVDACon 2017: reflections from the founding chair

Hi,
A bit different from other posts in that I'd like to talk about and reflect upon a project that is now gaining recognition around the world: an online gathering that has sparked creativity and fruitful dialogue within a community: NVDACon.
It's been a year since I stepped down from leading this event, and more than three years since the debut of the modern NVDA Users and Developers Conference. What started out as a suggestion to hold an online chat between users turned into an international gathering of users, developers, enthusiasts, sponsors, advocates and many others coming together to talk about a screen reader that changed their lives. What started out as a suggestion to hold NVDA translations workshop in January 2014 turned into a weekend filled with fun and informative sessions, announcements, and a chance for people to talk to the gentlemen who brought NVDA to life in 2006. As much as I am happy with current results, there are things I believe we can do better in terms of promotion, diversifying topics, forging relationships and communication.
## NVDACon: history and ingredients
Painting the picture that'll eventually become NVDACon didn't start in 2014; rather, it began in 2007 when I organized a series of online chats between BrailleNote users and HumanWare staff. This meeting was in turn inspired by a meeting between users and HumanWare staff in 2004 that resulted in the introduction of BrailleNote PK, KeySoft 6.1, and BrailleNote mPower in 2005. From 2007 to early 2010's, I and other BrailleNote users gathered at least ten times to talk about the past, present, and future of BrailleNote family of products with no restriction on topics. This eventually laid the groundwork for open forums at NVDACon and served as the basis for one side of the NVDACon story: users.
Prior to NVDACon, NV Access held developer summits, focusing on what's new and changed, as well as discussing future directions. As I read about these events, the idea of having a meeting between developers sounded good, thus it was decided to include "developers" in the name of NVDACon. This also served as one of the inspirations for annual keynotes.
Then in June 2012, I joined the NVDA screen reader project as a Korean translator. During the course of translating NVDA into Korean, I and other Korean users held a series of meetings online, discussing translation status, gathering feedback on user guide, discussing ways to overcome ambiguities in terms used in translations and so forth. In some respects, these meetings became a model for interactive lab presentations at past NVDACon gatherings, as well as a model for regional NVDA conferences. To reflect the latter point, these meetings officially became NVDACon Korea in 2016.
In 2014, a member of the NVDA users mailing list suggested organizing an online chat between NVDA users. As I read that email, a picture formed in my mind: a conference like that of PyCon (a gathering of members of the Python programming language ecosystem)) except it was online. At that time, I was also thinking about organizing a workshop for current and new translators in hopes of forging relationships between translators and to discuss future of this project. In the end, I decided to combine these aspects along with ingredients described above - users, developers, open discussion, bridge between users and developers and so on, thus NVDA Users and Developers Conference (NVDACon) was born, with the first NvDACon held on March 1, 2014.
At first, NVDACon was a one-day event, featuring a keynote from Michael "Mick" Curran, an open forum, and other sessions. I experimented with two weekend events in 2015 and 2016, then it became a weekend gathering in 2017. During the course of NVDACon history, I was the founding chair from 2014 to 2016, with Derek Riemer (University of Colorado at Boulder) named chair for the 2017 event.
The 2016 gathering was notable in two ways. As NVDA turned ten that year, I wanted the conference to be a celebratory event, thus it had one of the largest collection of sessions. Also, it marked the debut of pre-keynote activities, including a countdown timer (with music) and inclusion of a promotion audio prior to the keynote itself (both were repeated in 2017), all inspired by keynotes in events such as Apple's World Wide Developers Conference (WWDC).
In the case of pre-keynote activities, I was aiming for two things: I wanted participants to feel as though they've stepped right into the midst of an Apple event, and to highlight the importance of NV Access keynote at these conferences. In some ways, I believe both aims were achieved, but I believe improvements could make it even better.
## Conference purposes
Although there are many purposes for organizing this conference series, two stands out the most: bridging and showcasing. I felt an online conference served as a great venue for a community to come together and exchange ideas, as well as to showcase how much NVDA has achieved and what can be done in the future to make it even better.
The first purpose is bridging. The conference should serve as a venue for NVDA community members from all walks of life to come together and exchange ideas, thoughts and experiencess. Although various bridging scenarios were targetted, the most important one was that of a relationship between users and developers, a relationship that went beyond paper and phone calls: a personal relationship through keynotes, presentations, general chats and so on (after all, NVDA developers are people).
The second purpose is showcasing. A conference about a product would not be complete without a way to showcase strengths and weaknesses of the product in question. For this reason, I have envisioned sessions where community members can present ideas and demonstrate NVDA and its uses in various scenarios, including audio production, dictation, education, web browsing and many others.
There is a third major purpose that has emerged since 2016: community building and unity. As the conferences were organized by community members, it should have elements of community building, involvement, and unity. This was showcased in 2017 when most of the sessions were organized by community members, as well as highlighting achievements of the global NVDA community. Community building and unity was solidified through the theme for this year's gathering: community engagement.
## What NVDACon has  achieved, should achievd, and should improve upon
NVDACon has come a long way, and have achieved numerous things. But there are things that the conference should achieve and can do better in future gatherings.
In terms of achievements, NVDACon has instilled unity among NVDA community. By bringing together community members from all walks of life with the purpose of talking about a screen reader, it allowed people to feel a sense of unity under the banner of NVDA and work towards a more collaborative solutions such as organizing regional meetings, partnerships in projects and so on. It has also fostered improved relationships among community members, especially between NV Access and users. Lastly, the conference brought together some of the leading thinkers in the community who offered valuable suggestions for the future direction of NVDA, such as add-ons management, web standards support and so on. The conference also changed lives - even if there is one person whose life was changed through the gathering, I call it a successful conference.
As much as NVDACon achieved many things, there are things that could see improvements. First, better communication between organizers, presenters, participants and outsiders, as well as improved conference promotion  could help make the gathering even better, such as improved website, mannerisms of some participants, preparedness and so on. Second, it would be helpful to diversify topics to include things not many people talk about, such as using NVDA in enterprises, dealing with artificial intelligence and screen reading, app testing and so forth. Lastly, relationships matter in conferences like this, thus it would be helpful to foster improved relationships between translators, more users, developers and so on.
## My wishlist for NVDACon 2018
Now that NVDACon 2017 is over, I'd like to present a wishlist of things that could be done and would like to see in next year's gathering:
* Collaboration with PyCon and the wider python community: NVDACon should not be an event just for NVDA community members. As NVDA is written in python, I believe working with PyCon folks and the wider python community, including a session presented by a member of the python community or having python developers attend the NV Access keynote could foster relationships between these two communities.
* Diverse topic and presenter representations: although NVDACon 2017 had a wide variety of topics, I beelive we can make it even better if we had more diverse topics and presenters represented in future gatherings.
* Broadcasting and translations: NVDACon 2017 was unique in that parts of it were streamed live. Also, this is the second conference where live translation of the keynote took place (the first was 2014), which allowed non-English speakers to participate in the keynote.
## A word of advice for organizers of NvDACon 2018 and future conferences
If there's one thing I'd like to pass onto organizers of NVDACon 2018 and beyond, it would be being visionaries. NVDACon would not be possible without Derek Riemer (NVDACon 2017 chair), I and others working hard to transform this from a vision into reality, as without vision, there's no goal, and without a goal, there's no end product. My advice to organizers of future NVDACon gathering is this: become visionaries, think big and creatively, and plan ahead, listening to feedback from the community as you plan the next gathering. This advice is also applicable to the global NvDA community: become visionaries when it comes to promoting, sponsoring, and using NVDA.
## Conclusion
What started out as a spark in the form of a suggestion more than three years ago has become a world-renown online gathering of users, developers, sponsors and advocates of an award-winning screen reader. As the founder of NVDA Users and Developers Conference (NVDACon), I'm proud of what this conference has achieved: unity, fostering relationships, and changing lives. All those events many years ago, such as BrailleNote users chat, leading NVDA Korean translations and others laid the groundwork for NVDACon, and NVDACon has inspired creative projects throughout the NVDA ecosystem. With some improvements in place such as improved communication and promotion, fostering improved relationships and diversifying topics and presenters, I envision next year's gathering to be more epic than what we've seen so far (the word "epic" does not describe fully the life-changing gathering that is NVDACon) and become even more successful than NVDACon 2017.
Let me end this by reiterating several things emphasized during recent NVDA conferences: NVDA is more than a screen reader; NVDA is a global movement with a difference: community engagement. NonVisual Desktop Access is a screen reader of the people, a tool developed for the people, and a movement led by the people.
Thank you.

Sunday, January 1, 2017

Open letter to Foreign Accent Syndrome (FAS) speakers, audiences and researchers: you are loved, don’t lose confidence in life because of your accents

To people with Foreign Accent Syndrome (FAS), their loved ones, researchers, audiences and others,

I’m Joseph S. Lee, a blind student at Los Angeles City College majoring in communication studies. First, Happy New Year to you all. May 2017 be a great year for all of you as you go through your lives, conditions, FAS awareness, research and so on.
After reading an article about Foreign Accent Syndrome (FAS), I decided to do some research, and based on what I can find, decided to write this letter in hopes that this may encourage you as you bring awareness of your condition to others around the world. Since I don’t know many (or perhaps all) of you, I figured it would be best to start by describing my own blindness, how I got to learning about FAS, my assessment of current research findings, as well as offer some things I believe we should think about throughout 2017 and beyond when it comes to dealing with this condition.

First, I was born in South Korea and came to United States when I was eleven. Back in Korea, the first few months after my birth were spent on hospital visits in an effort to have an unneeded stuff removed from my right eye. After some operations, I was left with blindness on my right eye. More than a decade later, I lost most of my sight on my left eye due to glaucoma when I was a teenager, and now, almost all of my eyesight is gone. Still, because I do remember what things looked like years ago, I do remember colors, can describe visual controls on a computer screen, and studied the art and science of computer programming and competitive public speaking despite my blindness.
As a person who cannot see yet hear a bit better, I became interested in communication, computer science and languages from high school and beyond. I read books on basics of linguistics, read articles about language families around the world, and studied interpersonal and intercultural communication at LACC. Thus, my curiosity about people’s ability to speak different languages spontaneously led me to an article about FAS, and after reading an overview from Wikipedia and other scholarly sources, I decided to do some research.

At first, I wanted to find out how people with this condition sounded like, so I listened to some YouTube videos where folks such as Ellen Spencer, Kath Lockett, and Lisa Alamia were interviewed. I then found a Snap Judgement episode where Ellen told her story, as well as to listen to a brief sample of how her voice sounded like before the onset of FAS in 2009. Based on what I heard, I can see why many would confuse this Indiana native for a European immigrant due to her accent. Further searches led to testimonials and video interviews from others, including a series of videos posted by a lady in Pennsylvania who could have been mistaken for a foreigner, with many in this community describing their experience as disturbing and the loss of identity as a result.

As I was doing some readings (including various news articles where Dr. Nick Miller, an expert on FAS  was cited), several questions came to my mind, some of them unexpected and some I felt the FAS community may have not asked before. The first was effect of this condition on speakers (those with FAS) in terms of outlook on life, psychological changes and cultural issues. Although I can tell that FAS did leave some effects, I wanted to know exactly how much and contributing factors. For example, Sarah Colwill reported shocks at first, and her emotional health was affected once FAS kicked in, adding that it led to her leaving her job and other issues. Kath Lockett’s story was more intriguing, as mention of loss of identity caught my eye and led me to asking myself about how speakers compared the old and new identities and other issues.
The second question was implications beyond the brain and face – social, cultural, and so on. Testimonies of FAS speakers carried a common theme: prejudice and mistaken perceptions. For example, in various articles, some, including Ellen told stories of friends hanging up phone calls due to their newly acquired accent, while some lamented that society believes that FAS is just caused by brain injury or stroke. The conclusion I could draw from these was that there are still misconceptions about FAS, and that, and other factors such as lack of awareness in the past may have contributed to society’s current perception of this condition as just a speech disorder when in fact this has other implications such as misunderstandings, prejudice and so on, given that some parts of the world are less accepting of those with foreign accents (or those who acquired it due to trauma and other factors).
The third question I had was regarding potential recovery, solutions and computational and other scientific modeling and studies. One thing I did not find easily was progress towards potential solutions or computational models for ease of diagnoses and possible cure. Although I do accept that FAS is permanent for some, I do hope that, eventually, a possible helpful tool could be developed to lessen the burden of speakers and clinicians to a point where speakers can recover some of their former speaking patterns. For example, there is a case of FAS (documented on YouTube) where the speaker recovered her original accent by repeatedly practicing her speech patterns, but such a case is rare (rarer than the number of FAS cases).
Lastly, after some reflections and reading blog posts from Ellen and others, I felt there’s something parties involved can do to help FAS speakers. For medical professionals, it could be learning more about this condition and come up with more effective testing and treatment options. For speakers, it could be to raise awareness and taking the initiative to let the society know that they are just like the others, allowing their potential to be showcased. For audiences (including I and others), it could be to understand what the speakers are going through and help them achieve their dreams and goals, and in the end, embrace and support them.

I hope that, by publishing this open letter, the FAS community and those outside can reflect on what’s going on, as well as find encouragement, knowing that there is at least another person who is willing to accept them for who they are – not merely due to sharing the common theme of disability and accents, but because I believe that these people have immense potential to change lives.

To people with Foreign Accent Syndrome: First and foremost, on behalf of those who have just learned about your condition and came to an understanding regarding what could be going on, I’d like to apologize for our past misconceptions and mistaken perceptions about what you are going through. I’m sorry to hear about losses you had to endure – finances, jobs and others, but most importantly, loss of a part of you and dreams. Please forgive me and others for frowning at your conditions without realizing the vast implications that goes beyond your faces and ability to communicate effectively.
Second, as someone with a disability and a person with some accents when speaking English (not because of FAS but English being my second language), I’d like to assure you that you are not alone. You still have plenty of opportunities to showcase your talents in your lives. To me, what’s more important is seeing you overcome this condition by utilizing skills acquired throughout your lives – thick accents cannot stop you. Please don’t consider your new accents as something to be ashamed of – rather, think of it as though a host of new opportunities have opened up for you.
Lastly, I’d like to say that you are so much loved. Don’t forget those who are supporting you, and people (including I) who are willing to go beyond the accents and embrace you for who you truly are. Let your confidence and talents, as well as continued awareness efforts, be cornerstones for change of cultural, social, and scientific perceptions regarding Foreign Accent Syndrome. I love you all.

To FAS audiences (those outside this community and are intrigued by it): In 1963, Martin Luther King, Jr. outlined a vision of a society where people accept others regardless of color skin. I’d like to add “accents” to this vision. I’m sure some of us have ethnocentric views regarding someone’s accent. If our stereotypes and prejudice about accents of foreigners affect the self-esteem of the individuals in question, how much more would it affect native speakers who have acquired accents due to medical conditions? Because of our continued prejudice and ignorance, many FAS speakers are going through identity crises and are enduring emotional and other stresses.
The reason why I, a blind person was able to learn computer science and found talents in public speaking during speech competitions despite my disability was because many blind people in the past have managed to change mainstream perceptions about blindness through their advocacy, talents and confidence. The reason why you are hearing more about Foreign Accent Syndrome is because people like Ellen Spencer, Sarah Colwill, FAS researcher Dr. Nick Miller and other FAS champions and community members stood up and spoke about what they are going through and have researched. Although FAS speakers may have thick accents, they have unalienable rights to life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness – folks with skills and talents that can be used to improve their self-esteem and bring about change. I’d like to suggest and ask that we become Good Samaritans and show FAS speakers that we love and support them, and are willing to go with them on their journeys to understanding more about this condition and help them recover or rediscover their identities and confidence in life.

 Sincerely,
Joseph S. Lee
January 2017

Foreign Accent Syndrome: a brief overview, research findings so far, questions to ask

Happy New Year.

A bit different from previous posts, as I’d like to bring up a subject I just learned about on the last day of 2016. I hope this post could start a series of blog posts that could help me bring computer science, communication studies and other disciplines together, as well as to ponder some questions I think we should ask (some of them are deep, as I believe that we cannot progress in life unless we are willing to examine deep questions and statements). This particular entry is the first of a two-part series dealing with Foreign Accent Syndrome (FAS) – this one is an overview and a set of questions, with the second part being an open letter to FAS speakers and audiences (defined as those with this condition and others who interact with them, respectively):

As I'm preparing to study biological anthropology and review my experiences with intercultural communication, I came across an article on what's termed "foreign accent syndrome", a neurological condition where a speaker appears to have spoken what he or she thought was native accent but perceived by listeners as foreign. Not only this has biological and neurological implications with lots of research to be done as to the exact cause), it has cultural and communicative implications.

Whenever we want to say something, one of the first things we would do is listening to others (a crucial step in interpersonal communication). Once a stream of sounds are heard, perceived, interpreted, and organized, we would form a response in our minds. First, the context is checked (situation, who spoke, social role, etc.), then one would build a response framework (word usage, delivery method such as tones, conveying emotions, etc.). Once this is formulated in our minds, the brain would take that as an electric signal, pass it through an area of the left hemisphere of our brain that controls speech functions, which generates muscle movement on our face (lips, jaw, etc.) so our response stream can be delivered (I say “stream” because this is a chunk of speech that may include multiple sentences and recursive building blocks).

For folks who are considered by others to have native speaker accents, this is done as described above (a high-level picture, but you get the idea). However, those who have FAS have some things that are not working as intended; specifically, according to current research findings, the auditory generation functionality of the brain isn’t working properly, caused by brain injury, stroke and other conditions, and possibly others that does not really involve the brain.

For reference, for those who are algorithmically minded, here’s a “pseudocode” of what I just described:

Function SpeakAndDeliver(response from the other party, social situation, etc.):
Start:

  1. Organize information.
  2. Decode organized information.
  3. Formulate a response.
  4. Generate signals and patterns.

If FAS:

  1. Mutate speech delivery generation, taking a note of what’s not working and what’s available now.

Else:

  1. Speech delivery patterns generated successfully.
  2. Deliver.

End.

 
It should be noted that muscle movement plays an important part in speech delivery, as changing even one small jaw movement changes annunciation, tone, accents and so on. Based on this fact, I believe one way to check is examining facial movements more closely (I’ll leave it as a personal hypothesis due to my blindness), comparing muscle movement before and after acquisition of FAS.
 
A more scholarly introduction to this condition (a bit more academic than Wikipedia article and what I said above I think) can be found at:
https://www.utdallas.edu/research/FAS/

 
To a person like me who'd like to learn more about this condition despite not having it and attempt at putting the puzzle together, some questions I have based on my research so far (based on different disciplines) are:

* Where exactly (neuroscience, biochemistry, chemistry, psychology): as noted above, researchers have determined that certain parts of our brain is responsible for speech delivery pattern genesis (not thoughts themselves, but transfer of thoughts to actual physical muscle movement for auditory communication and delivery). Usually, after a stroke or a trauma, a patient is often left with reduced cognitive functions, which, if triggered from speech generation area of our brain, may lead to onset of different conditions, including possible foreign accent syndrome (FAS) symptoms. But do we know exactly where this is happening? Perhaps it could be the brain alone, or could be a muscle issue (there is a case where a Texas lady developed a British English accent after waking up from a dental surgery, and this is an interesting case against single agent model (brain alone)).
* Detection and timing (neuroscience, biochemistry, psychology, environment, medicine): from what can be determined, a typical FAS is proceeded by something that affects the brain (a migraine, head injury and so on). Some patients recover their auditory communicative abilities, complete with their regular accents and speech patterns. Then some (including I) would like to know: what's different about this than saying that a certain part of our brain isn't working as advertised, and how can we detect it (either using what's out there, or via a new novel technology)?
* Speaker (neuroscience, biology, kinesiology, psychology, communication, identity, linguistics): various reports and testimonies of those with FAS report varying levels of coping with this condition, with majority of evidence pointing to lower self-esteem, loss of identity, as well as cases of those who have become more optimistic over the years. Although scientists and medical professionals may say that this is just malfunction of some parts of our brain, there is no scholarly literature (surveys, articles, etc.) I can find regarding overall quality of life, psychological implications, issues of identity, physical aspects and others that are indicative of how speakers (those with this condition) feel about what they are going through. This evidence is crucial, especially for interpretive communication scholars.
* Audience (linguistics, acoustics, psychology, communication): although there are anecdotes that point to supportive families, for strangers, this is a new and unfamiliar situation to go through. Although the question of perception and consequences for audiences may have been discussed, there is currently no known systematic study on FAS and audiences, including audience perception and reaction, degree to which speakers themselves can critically analyze their old and new speaking patterns, level of comfort between kin and strangers and so on.
* Culture and society (communication, sociology): do we know exactly how culture and society perceives FAS? In order to answer this question, it is helpful to examine this community (FAS speakers, audiences, observers and so on) as a distinctive culture, using Hofsted's dimensions, ethnography, co-cultures, behaviors and so on, along with negotiation, interaction with other cultures and so on. Without studying FAS community from cultural perspective, I believe we cannot continue on a progress towards more awareness of this condition, as well as changing perceptions regarding this.
* Other considerations (spirituality, psychology, biochemistry, computer science, communication, media studies): intrapersonal communication is real, and recent scientific discoveries and inventions point to some procedures used by our souls and minds in controlling brain and muscle activity. If intrapersonal communication is real, then before speech is generated and delivered, a FAS speaker would go through same neurological and other processes just like FAS audiences - thoughts, semantic and syntax-based construction, muscle movement planning, then delivery. Then a question becomes, can all this be modeled by computers (at least symptoms of FAS), and if so, can we progress towards a possible cure or something that could lessen burden of speakers?
* Ethical and/or some deep questions that intrigues me: is FAS all about issues with certain parts of our brain, or does it go deeper than this? Is the accent of a speaker a prominent marker of a culture, stereotypes, or ethnocentrism? Can we build cases that allows people with FAS to display their full potential, or do something to change dominant cultural perceptions of this condition (disability and ineffective communication skills with frowns) somehow and by what? What can FAS speakers themselves do to improve their lives and allow others to approach them more positively, knowing that they are just like others? What can I and others who knows about computer science and communication studies do to help these people (computational modeling, awareness, ethnographies, systematic studies, oral interpretation events about FAS at speech competitions and others)?

My wish throughout this research journey and this essay (as well as the subsequent open letter) is to learn more about this condition, as well as for those involved with this community and culture, as well as outsiders to work together in raising awareness of this rare and real condition, hopefully to get a dialogue and ponderings going. With the incidents of discrimination against immigrants on the rise, it is important for us to think about some who are indeed natives of a country yet have faced, are facing, and will face discrimination due to the way they convey their thoughts because of their new accents.

Hope this helps.
//JL

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

An open letter to students: Tear down the Great Wall of Ignorance, reasoned discourse, voice for the voiceless, privileged and minorities working together

To my fellow students:

Like many of you, I have mixed to negative feelings about what happened on the election night. Upon the election of a businessman from New York who caused a stir with his words and actions from the past, I became concerned that some of my friends, especially immigrants, would be in a disadvantage for years to come.

However, I believe that this should not be a cause to skip school, walk out of lectures, and just chant around campuses saying that we will not accept the president-elect to take the Oval Office. As students and intellectuals, we have the power and privilege to learn latest technologies and ideas, experiment with latest techniques, analyze information, and contribute to the political process through our voices and advocacy. Walking out of lectures just because our favorite candidate did not win is, to me, a disgrace to our forefathers who fought for universal suffrage to come to life, who fought for democratic process to take shape via reasoned dialogue, and saw long-term implications of student movements and laid the foundation to privileges we enjoy in 2016.

I believe that there are other ways of helping those in need, particularly those we feel would be disadvantaged in the future. Certainly we can go and embrace minorities, we can assist immigrants with advice, and can formulate changes through dialogue. As students, we are still learning, and we could use our intellectual capacity to inform and persuade the electorate. As students, we are given a mandate to learn principles and methods to guide the future generations. As students, we are given an opportunity to make a difference through reasoned discourse and critical analysis. As students, we are in a position of leadership to peacefully demand changes and let the new national leaders know that we are a force that cannot be ignored through reasoned advocacy. As students, we can serve as voice for the voiceless, champion for the oppressed, and participants in a historic moment to tear down the Great Wall of Ignorance.

To my fellow students who believe that they can exercise privilege to ignore minorities and partake in silent oppression: come, let us reason together. Bring your case, and students who have experienced oppression and ignorance can bring their case. Because of the physical and virtual wall called "ignorance and prejudice", you are creating a situation where America's progress has come to a halt. Please stop building this wall, or would-be partners (immigrants, minority students and others) will build a taller and thicker wall, thereby impairing America's capacity to recognize, accept, deal with, and move on from America's dark past of oppression and prejudice. Please learn while you are young, otherwise history will repeat itself. Learn while you can, because there will come a day in life where one cannot go back to change how things are then. You can, and you are more than capable of making a difference in making America great and whole again. As a student with disabilities and minority status, I offer you a hand in hopes that we can come together, embrace and work together to making this nation great again.

To my fellow students who were oppressed, ignored or prejudiced due to their minority status: do not pay back evil with evil, prejudice with prejudice, or ignorance with more ignorance. As much as those with privilege may have partaken in silent oppression, you are also responsible for partaking in divisions by building a thicker wall. Learn to have reasoned dialogues with others before it is too late. Represent the oppressed before it is taken away. You and the privileged have shared responsibility of kindling the fire of reconciliation, and even if it takes generations, be sure to let this flame going.

To all my fellow students, privileged, minority and what not: America is possible because we work together. America is possible because we are learning what to and not to do in the future. America is possible because we are united to make this nation better. America is possible because we are learning to reconcile our differences. America is possible because we have capacity to love, embrace and understand. America is possible because we can tear down the walls that separate us. America is possible because we can learn from mistakes of our forefathers together. America is possible because we can make history together. America is possible because we are building the future of this nation together. America is possible because we are all Americans - native or foreign-born, across race, ethnicity and cultures, different values and beliefs, all because we are created equal, endowed with vast freedom. All I, a fellow student with blindness and from a city with hundreds of diverse cultures, ask you to do is this: remember and learn from the glorious and dark past, reconcile the differences, and reach out to love, embrace, understand and work together. The future of this nation - from Washington to Honolulu and beyond - depends on us - students.

Thank you.

Sincerely,
Joseph S. Lee
Los Angeles City College
November 9, 2016

An open letter to President-Elect (Donald Trump)

Dear Mr. President-Elect,

My name is Joseph Lee, a student at a community college in Los Angeles, California. First, congratulations on becoming the next leader of the United States of America, especially at a time when we are facing realities of fame, security, uncertainty and anxiety. As the president of a nation with global influence in freedom, education, military and culture, I wish you success in your endeavor in making America great again.

I'm writing this letter in hopes that you would consider praises and concerns of members of this nation in regards to the rule of law and respecting the oppressed. More importantly, I would like to bring up the sensitive issues of immigrants, people with disabilities, and ensuring that the essence of justice are practiced in your administration.

First, without immigrants, we could not witness United States becoming a superpower in education, culture and influence. More importantly, the history of United States began with immigrants - native Americans settling in vast plains of this land, immigrants coming to this continent seeking freedom from oppression, to the immigrants who crossed the ocean and land to seek new economic and social opportunities. As a 1.5 generation immigrant myself, I came to this land more than a decade ago in hopes of getting a better education and to seek opportunities for those like me with blindness and other disabilities.
 
However, some in this society would say that we immigrants are taking away valuable jobs and opportunities. I would like to challenge this by saying that some in our society may have forgotten the fact that their ancestors are immigrants as well, and the notion of nativism and superiority may have caused us to forget struggles of our parents and grandparents who had to go through nighttly shifts and harsh working conditions, knowing that, one day, their progeny would have a better life in this land they are living. Instead of giving opportunities to a group of future leaders whose children can shape politics at Washington, some have erected physical and virtual walls of ignorance, ethnocentrism, supremecy and denial. Once a land of opportunity to immigrants, this has become a land of oppression of aliens, especially those who can make America greater than before. Thus, I would like to sincerely request repeating an accomplishment from another outsider in the 1980's: please tear down the Great Wall that divided this nation and the world, this time the Great Wall of of Ignorance towards immigrants, otherwise the immigrant community will build a greater wall of ignorance.

Second, I am one of millions of Americans with disabilities. More than two decades ago, a landmark law passed the floor of the House of Representatives, confirmed by the Senate, and signed into law by the man who congratulated you upon elected. Whereas the conditions of Americans with disabilities has improved thanks to healthcare, technology and more opportunities, there are visible and unseen gaps between what I and other disabled Americans can achieve versus realities of ignorance, hate, denial and discrimination, particularly for many young people who would like to receive an opportunity to make America great again. In case of people with disabilities, we can help you achieve your goals by giving us directions and ways in which we can dutifully fulfill our rights as members of this society, including access to education, working towards reduced discrimination and ignorance, and listening to those in need and thinking about what can be done to make this nation great in terms of opening up opportunities to minorities such as Americans with various disabilities.

Speaking of minorities, I would like to stress that the optimal solution to making things work great is to use different parts to create a cohesive whole. In other words, just because some citizens are minorities does not mean they deserve oppression and injustice. One way to achieve your aim of making America great again is to listen to minorities, especially the members with little power who can offer great advice and who can show that they are more than capable of making your administration a success. Please do not turn away from them, especially those who can influence Washington to their will: children, students, professors, religious leaders, men and women with wisdom, and those who, if called, would be ready to reshape the capital in more than 700 days from now: the electorate with different backgrounds, beliefs, values and experiences. Also, please do not trump yourself above the law and justice: as the new leader, you are more than capable of showing three hundred million strong Americans and others watching around the globe that you are a model citizen, listening to the oppressed, caring for the weak, and to go down in history as a respected administrator.

In closing, I would like to offer two quotes that sums up the current state of affairs around this nation, something a war hero and later president rightfully said and did not live to see America become great a few decades later:

"The qualities of a great man are vision, integrity, courage, understanding, the power of articulation, and profundity of character. To be true to one's own freedom is, in essence, to honor and respect the freedom of all others."
- Dwight D. Eisenhower

Sincerely and with respect,
Joseph S. Lee
Los Angeles, CA
November 9, 2016

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Open letter to Windows Insider Program members around the world: Our duties, what we should have done for Redstone 1, what we can do for Redstone 2

To my fellow Windows Insiders, especially for those using screen readers and assistive technologies:
As a fellow journeyman in software testing and development, I'm proud of the fact that we have done our job when it comes to testing Anniversary Update builds (Redstone 1). We faced issues, sorted through bugs, provided millions of feedback and served as an influential partner with Microsoft in shaping the Windows 10 ecosystem for months and years to come.
As I reflect back at Redstone 1 era, I'm reminded of how much we've accomplished, as well as the need to remind ourselves that our mission isn't over. In particular, I believe that we need to take proactive steps in making sure that we carry out our duties: continuous feedback, and serving as a guide to those who will follow. As Insiders, we are called to help, give back, and support one another, and in extension, people who'll get to know what we've been testing for a few weeks.
However, I must say that I'm disappointed with the way we think about the privilege of our participation, especially when it comes to testing for accessibility regressions, not thinking about certain aspects of being Insiders, and championing progress rather than support and guidance to others. To me, an ideal Windows Insider is someone who can give guidance to many, an influential representative of a population who may not know what's going on behind the scenes. As representatives, Insiders should serve as a voice for the population we serve, as well as to give essential guidance in times of need, especially when a stable build appears in Current Branch. Unfortunately, we have witnessed the opposite in certain cases, notably misinformation floating around when Anniversary Update came out that caused some to resort to risky behavior (for example, removing a screen reader completely when it was sufficient to remove the unnecessary driver unless if this was necessary). Although the cause of this issue was due to compatibility flag from Microsoft (subsequently fixed), I believe we Insiders are also to blame, seeing that we did not serve as helpful guides in some cases.
After thinking about what some users went through last week, I came to the conclusion that we Insiders should re-evaluate how we think about why we join the program and train ourselves to serve as supportive guides as well as champions of change. Progress and change is nothing unless we give guidance to others, especially to a population who does not have resources to obtain needed information on time. Instead of rallying around a cool feature, I believe it is also important to provide ropes for Current Branch users so they can have painless experience as much as possible. Instead of just being soldiers of change, we Insiders should also be counsellors who are ready to help in times of crisis.
The events of last week (Anniversary Update upgrade attempts and display compatibility issues for screen reader users) clearly showed what Insiders should not have done and some underlying causes (the actual cause of the display flag problem, according to Freedom Scientific, Microsoft and reputable sources, was due to errors from Microsoft's upgrade tool, now fixed), with one of the issues being Insiders not taking proactive steps to step up and help. For some, this gave us an opportunity to think about what we Insiders can learn from what happened a few days ago, as well as what we Insiders can do better to prepare for Redstone 2 (Windows 10 Version 170x), especially the first few days during which the kind of event we witnessed may happen again.
In light of this, I'd like to ask my fellow Windows Insiders to ask the following questions as we prepare ourselves to board next round of flights:
* Why did I sign up for Windows Insider Program?
* Did I sign up for Windows insider Program just to play around with new features or to help stable build users in the future?
* Am I willing to try the unknown and constantly changing feature sets, knowing that stable build users will use them later?
* Am I willing to give my best when giving feedback, such as steps to reproduce and serving as a representative of a population?
* Am I willing to serve as helpful guides in times of crisis, confusion and need, such as when new stable builds are released?
Few remarks for audience groups:
To users of stable builds, especially to users of screen readers and other assistive technologies: as a Windows Insider and a screen reader contributor, I take user feedback seriously. At this time, on behalf of other Insiders, I'd like to apologize for not doing our real work in times of need. I regret that we Insiders should have been more helpful when you first came to know Windows 10 Version 1607, especially when it comes to upgrades. I and other Insiders will try our best to make sure that upgrade to Redstone 2 will be painless for you.
To other Insiders (not just screen reader users, but also to millions of fellow WIP citizens): As noted above, I'd like to kindly request that we think about our duties as Insiders: not only being champions of change, but also to serve as counsellors in times of need and support.
Thank you.
//JL

Friday, July 8, 2016

Thoughts on responding to NFB 2016-04, who is responsible for making apps accessible

Hi,
As I read responses to NFB resolution 2016-04, I'm reminded about the state of accessibility of universal apps in Windows 10, particularly more recent releases posted on Windows Store. While I do see potential of this platform, I'm still unsure as to whether our suggestion on improving accessibility was received and acted upon by app developers. This is more so now that Microsoft is shifting focus towards shipping Windows 10 Anniversary Update (aka Redstone 1,Version 1607), as there are certain places that are still not labeled correctly, presents challenges for some audience members and so on.
One of the crown jewels of any operating system is third-party programs. Thanks to various API's in place, Windows, OS X (recently renamed to Mac OS), Linux and other operating systems allow programmers to take advantage of possibilities offered by API's, thereby enhancing lives of people through their apps. But we're seeing a trend where quality is sacrificed in the name of polished user interface, some of which affect accessibility. So the question becomes, who should be responsible for making apps accessible?
Before answering the above question, I believe it is important for us to remember that software development is a collaborative process. If a software is going to be used everywhere, communication between users, designers, developers, testers and outsiders is essential. Users should tell software developers what they want and need; developers should be ready to listen to feedback from users; designers should work closely weith coders and users in finding a balance between functionality and appearance; and testers should be willing to act as ambassadors between users and developers in finding potential issues.
In case of accessibility of application programs, it is crucial that users, assistive technology vendors and app developers (and sometimes, operating system architects) should keep fruitful channels of communication going. Users should be willing to give feedback to app developers, telling them exactly what's going on and providing helpful suggestions. Developers should be willing to listen to feedback from potential customers, including those with accessibility needs. Finally, screen reader vendors should facilitate communication between users and developers in providing their expertise to developers on best practices, and to let users know that they are not forgotten.
First, users should be willing to learn how to submit practical and constructive feedback. Just saying to others, "I want such and such features or found a bug somewhere" does not really qualify as feedback. Ideally, a feedback communication should include the name of the app in question, steps to reproduce a problem, expected versus actual outcome and helpful suggestions or workarounds. Also, after submitting feedback, users should be willing to provide follow-up information such as clarification, thoughts on workarounds and so on.
A particular point to consider is attitude one sees when user submits feedback. If it comes off as rude, developers would not be able to understand the true nature of a feedback (remember that developers are humans, too). If a feedback was given without steps to reproduce a particular problem, developers would not be able to pinpoint the code path that causes a bug to surface. If users don't follow up with developers, it becomes just a one-way street (feedback is a multi-way stream).
Second, app developers should be willing to listen to feedback from customers, including feedback on accessibility. Although a recent NFB resolution mentions quality issues with iOS and Mac OS releases, I believe it applies to app developers as well, particularly on Mac OS, Universal Windows Platform (UWP) and other platforms, as people with disabilities are a rising market force in software consumption.
A particular serious case is Facebook UWP. Despite numerous suggestions to Facebook accessibility team and tests, as of July 2016, Facebook UWP isn't accessible (rather, introduced accessibility regressions). For example, while using Facebook UWP, under some circumstances, one cannot use object navigation and similar features in various screen readers to navigate to various parts of the app (unfortunatley, this affects Narrator users as well).
This brings us to the question posed earlier: who should be responsible for improved accessibility of apps? I would say both users and developers are involved, but I would put greater emphasis on developers. As consumers, users are responsible for providing practical feedback to app developers and operating system architects in hopes of making various parts of an app (or an operating system) accessible. Developers are also responsible for this, as they should be willing to work with users in identifying issues, learn from others and provide fixes so users of various assistive technologies can use their apps and be drawn to them.
So where does screen reader developers stand in this picture? As they are both users and developers, they should serve as communicators between users and developers and provide guidance to both parties. If app developers are willing to listen to users, screen reader vendors should encourage users to send feedback to app developers and let app developers learn from other programmers in making their apps accessible. However, if app developers are unwilling to listen, screen reader vendors should serve as an understanding advocate for users, letting fellow app developers know what's going on and offer assistance upon request from the viewpoint of a fellow developer.
I'd like to conclude by asking those debating the merits and outcome of NFB 2016-04 to not send out words out of passion. Although I respectfully disagree with the resolution (which was passed), I'm concerned that we have found ourselves sending words back and forth out of passion rather than calm reasoning. As someone who have tried public iOS betas and am a screen reader contributor, I do understand that Apple is trying its best yet has quality issues in recent iOS releases. I think rather than having perpetual flames, it is better to teach others how to give practical feedback, as this not only helps Apple, but also helps consumers in the long run. The more feedback Cupertino (and Redmond, Mountain View and others) receives, the probability that we'll meet a more polished iOS (and Windows, Android, etc.) release (and apps) increases, as users and developers have their share of responsibilities when making apps and operating systems accessible for people with disabilities.
Thanks.
//JL