No (Small) Degree of Success
In 1976, Gayle Yarnall suddenly found herself the single mother of three young children. She was 30 years old, had never gone to college, had never held a job, and was a relatively recent resident of Colorado. She also happened to be blind. Today, she still has never been to college, and she is still blind. She is also president and owner of a company that is worth half a million dollars.
Caption: Gayle Yarnall helping a customer in the office of Adaptive Technology Consulting.
Through a governmental grant program that was designed for people who need education and training so they can work, Yarnall learned to operate the $50,000 Kurzweil Reading Machine that had been donated to the library at the University of Colorado. Thus, her first job--and introduction to the world of assistive technology--began when she was hired to train others to use the machine. Two years later, in 1978, Kurzweil (now distributing the $30,000 version of the machine) needed a training department, and Yarnall relocated to Massachusetts to assume the position of Kurzweil's first trainer.
At Kurzweil, she said, she realized she had found much more than a solution to feeding herself and her children. "I had found something I really liked to do--and was good at. . . . The engineers at Kurzweil taught me a lot and were good about answering all my questions." Eventually, Yarnall and others connected the Kurzweil to an Apple computer and the Apple to a tape-based VersaBraille, so that, probably for the first time, "we were scanning print and reading it on a braille display."
Taking the Plunge
By the mid-1980s, she had gone to work for Telesensory, first in technical support and eventually as the New England sales representative. "I was bonding with all the New England agencies," she recalled, "and began to realize that I was more of a service provider. Companies like Henter-Joyce and GW Micro were coming on the scene. There were lots of good products and choices, and I couldn't just tell everybody that they needed one company's products."
In 1994, when her new husband, Neal Kuniansky, took a new job that provided them both with good health insurance coverage, the moment she had been thinking about for some time had arrived. She took her small savings and a deep breath and plunged into owning and operating her own business. And she has never regretted it.
In the beginning, Adaptive Technology Consulting (ATC) was just Gayle Yarnall, lugging computer equipment around from agency to agency, selling and training her way to an eventual profit. She hired a driver-bookkeeper but took no salary for the first six months and only a small salary into the second year. "I didn't really mean to be so much into sales as we are now," she said, "but that's what happened." Eventually, she decided to set up a space for customers to come to her.
Stop and Shop
Situated in a small business area amid a cell phone store, a computer consulting firm, and an Irish dance studio, ATC sells and provides training for most of the well-known products in the field of technology for people who are blind or have low vision. The company now has eight employees and provides competitive salaries, health benefits, and a retirement plan. "Once you hire people," Yarnall stated, "you feel a certain responsibility to take care of them. We have to do well."
Customers can visit the ATC offices for a demonstration of Kurzweil and OpenBook, JAWS for Windows and Window-Eyes, a variety of video magnifiers, braille and voiced notetakers, braille displays, and more. Recently, Yarnall added a room where "walk-ins" can purchase a variety of low-tech assistive devices, such as talking watches and handheld magnifiers. "The key in this business is to diversify," Yarnall said. "You can never be sure what will be popular next year and which products will disappear. . . . With customers walking in off the street, we're also getting more publicity. Someone who buys a talking watch may think of us later when he or she wants to figure out how an elderly relative who is losing sight can use a computer."
Some training and consultations take place on the premises, but ATC employees also provide training in adaptive technology products in schools, agencies, universities, libraries, and businesses. Customers come from Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Rhode Island. By selling a wide variety of products, ATC is in a position to configure systems to meet individual needs.
Yarnall does not have time to do much training herself these days. Much of her time is spent at the computer (equipped with an old PowerBraille display and the JAWS screen reader), handling e-mail correspondence or logging telephone orders and inquiries. On the day of her interview with AccessWorld, for example, she talked with a dealer who was interested in selling low vision products, chatted with a customer who wandered in to look at the retail showroom, and prepared to meet with a parent and child who had scheduled a consultation. For years, she has maintained a daily log--a running list of every piece of business that is handled. Requests for information, literature that has been sent, products that have been sold--every contact--are listed in the log. "It's a wonderful way to keep a journal of the year's activities" she noted, "and to locate a piece of information." Since only Yarnall and one other employee are blind, it is important that the log be kept in an accessible format. Years ago, the log was kept in braille, but she now maintains it in Microsoft Word, so that anyone in the office can gain access to its information.
A Kid in a Candy Store
Yarnall took a huge risk when she founded ATC, and she knew it. Still, she did her homework well before she took that major leap. "You have to watch for just the right moment," she advised. "Pay attention, make your decision, and don't be afraid."
For Yarnall, the advantages have been many. For one thing, she noted, with every piece of adaptive technology on the market on hand, coming to work is "like being a kid in a candy store." She never wishes she were working for someone else, she said, and never wishes she were younger. "I love what I'm doing. I'm not a painter or a writer or even a very good cook, but here, I can exercise my creativity. Each year, I think, 'This is the best.'"
Adaptive Technology Consulting can be reached at P.O. Box 778, Amesbury, MA 01913; phone: (978) 462-3817; e-mail: <firstname.lastname@example.org>; web site: <www.adaptivetech.net>.
She Rules the Braille Domain: An Interview with Judy Dixon by Deborah Kendrick
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