Tuesday, May 23, 2017

NVDACon 2017: reflections from the founding chair

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.

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.):

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


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


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


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:

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.