A Passion for Technology and Helping Others: An Interview with Amy Ruell
Amy Ruell came to computers later than most of her peers, busy as she was with her career and family and other life issues while other people who were blind were divining the mysteries of Apple IIs, early speech synthesizers, and MSDOS. There were advantages to her inadvertent delay in coming into the world of computers and assistive technology. When she jumped in, it was full immersion, and because she did not have the earlier operating systems to impede her progress, she learned Microsoft Windows quickly and was often considered the expert among her blind friends. So it was that in 1996, having obtained her first computer, she joined and rapidly rose to the presidency of VIBUG (Visually Impaired and Blind Users Group, originally a subset of the Boston Computer Society and the oldest computer users group for people who are blind in the country).
Caption: Amy Ruell at her desk at work.
From 1998 to 2002, Ruell became more widely known throughout the blind computer-using community because of her subscription-based distribution list, Amy's Filters and Forwards. Mining a variety of sources for technology-related information that was of interest to computer users who are blind, she sifted the items of greatest common interest and distributed them as routine compilations. She discontinued the service when she went to work full time for the National Braille Press (NBP), heading a program of braille literacy for young children. In the ReadBooks program, Ruell, on behalf of NBP, distributed bags of learning materials to blind children and their parents, giving parents just enough braille instruction to serve as cheerleaders for their budding readers of braille, and giving age-appropriate books to keep the children interested. The service has blossomed into such spin-offs as a web site called Everything Braille (www.everythingbraille.com), which identifies sources of braille publications, tactile graphics, and braille toys; and a series of webinars, all focused on braille literacy for young children who are blind.
Ruell's passion for braille literacy grew out of personal experience. Blind from birth, Ruell attended public school "before it was fashionable for blind kids" and was an adept user of the Perkins Brailler at age 7 and the slate and stylus a year or two later. She learned to type on a standard typewriter in the second grade. These basic tools--a brailler, a slate and stylus, and a typewriter--were center stage in Ruell's methods for acquiring a bachelor's degree in sociology from Smith College and a master's degree in social work from Simmons College. For 25 years, much of it while also raising her two children, she worked in clinical practice, most of that time as a therapist and clinical supervisor for the Massachusetts Department of Mental Health. Although other blind people were using computers, she continued to type reports on clients, inserting them into records without rereading her own work.
All that changed in 1996, when Ruell obtained her first computer and discovered that she had a real aptitude for technology. Although she was off duty from VIBUG for a few years, she is once again president of the group and has a passion for bringing computer information and know-how to other people who are blind.
In September 2008, Ruell attracted attention from the blind computer-using community when her name was drawn from nearly 2,000 entries for Serotek Corp.'s Summer Sizzle contest. When Ruell received the call from Marlaina Lieberg of ACB Radio, announcing that she was the winner, it was not surprising that her initial comment was that the prize would benefit her friends and colleagues among the VIBUG membership.
Serotek launched its Summer Sizzle contest in June 2008, offering a prize that the company called an accessible digital life makeover. Worth more than $2,000, the prize consisted of an Asus 8G Netbook PC, a Victor Reader Stream, a Zen Stone MP3 player, a copy of Mobile Speak, the System Access software for two computers, and a four-year subscription to the System Access Mobile Network. To enter, applicants filled out a brief survey identifying the types of assistive technology they used. One lucky winner would receive the prize, and Serotek received some useful information regarding the technological preferences of 2,000 computer users who were blind or had low vision.
Ruell said that she was already a user of Serotek products, although she had used only the free online System Access To Go (SAToGo) product (www.satogo.com). "If I needed to work in another office at work, where the computer did not have a screen reader on it," Ruell explained, "I would just run SAToGo, and I could do everything I needed to do." She also used SAToGo while traveling. For example, at a conference, she went to the hotel business center and ran it on the computer there to check her e-mail messages. Similarly, while looking at colleges with her daughter, she was able to get MapQuest directions and other needed information on a public computer by running the free screen-reading software. Since part of her Summer Sizzle package included a license for System Access for two computers and on a U3-enabled USB drive, she said that she now uses the software much more extensively than she has in the past.
Upon receiving the on-air phone call announcing that she had won, Ruell immediately commented that she would use the prize to benefit her work with VIBUG. Here's how. Each VIBUG meeting features a demonstration of mainstream hardware or software, which is used in conjunction with adaptive equipment. Recently, the group purchased a computer to facilitate streaming its meetings and demonstrations on the Internet, thus reaching a broader audience. The Asus Netbook, Ruell said, will be perfect for use as the demonstration machine. Her System Access license allows her to put the software on two machines--her current computer at home and the Asus for use at VIBUG meetings. Of course, her prize also includes one "key"--putting the System Access software on a USB drive--which will make using computers anywhere even easier than in the past. Because she already owned a Victor Reader Stream, she packaged the remaining items to use as a fundraiser for VIBUG.
Recently, Ruell changed careers again, going to work once again for a managed care company. "I'm delighted to be using my clinical skills again," she said, "although it was difficult to leave the many professionals and families with whom I was privileged to work during my tenure at NBP."
While the work itself is similar, the techniques are different from those Ruell used 20 years ago.
She enjoys using her small Asus laptop, she said, which is now getting plenty of mileage because of its ease of use and portability. Working with the company's software is a challenge to screen readers, but Amy Ruell is no stranger to technological challenges, and she is figuring it out.
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