September 2005 Issue  Volume 6  Number 5


Always Seeking Innovation: An Interview with Curtis Chong

I am sitting in the lobby of the Los Angeles Airport Marriott with Curtis Chong, beginning the second phase of the interviews that will become this article. He is relaxed and self-confident--the rare individual whose brilliance places him in high demand and whose engaging manner makes you feel that he has all the time in the world. Interruptions are inevitable, positioned as we are in the midst of a major assistive technology (AT) conference, but Chong handles them easily and slides back into our conversation.

A self-described bureaucrat who never thought he would be one, Chong has the kind of reputation in the field of AT for people who are blind that can be earned only with talent. In his 30-year career, in fact, he has technically been employed in the field of AT for only one five-year stint, but his roots in the field go deep, and his opinion is the one that is consistently sought.

 Photo of Curtis Chong speaking at a microphone.

Caption: Curtis Chong addressing a gathering during an NFB convention.

"I left one of our new units with Curtis," a top executive in one of the largest AT companies told me, and there is no question which Curtis he meant. "We're waiting to hear what ideas Curtis might have," another said a few days later, and again it was simply understood that anyone listening knew to whom he was referring. So who is this man who serves as an unofficial adviser to many of the leading developers and researchers in the field of AT, and why do people listen to him?

Lifelong Relationship with Technology

Curtis Chong was born in Honolulu, where he has fond memories of living near enough to the regional library for the blind that he could actually go there to select his braille books and Talking Books. He was an avid reader who excelled in math and read books on computer programming. "My grandfather typically drove me there," Chong recalls. "I stayed for hours, and by the time I was done, we filled up the back of his Volkswagen station wagon with my finds." He tried college, but found after a year that he had "no patience for it."

Chong landed a job with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) in 1972 and thus launched what has been an extremely successful relationship with technology. At the FAA, he said, his boss "gave me a lot of breaks," which enabled him to get a real on-the-job education. He learned about keypunching by reading a book about it and learned how to write a computer program when he was assigned the task. This was in 1972, when there were no talking computers, refreshable braille displays, or braille embossers, so Chong devised his own method (a piece of elastic affixed to an impact printer) for generating braille printouts of his work. That job, however, lasted only two years. Then, as he said, "I bummed around in California for a while and then in Minnesota."

When Chong could not get another programming job, he decided to enroll in a six-month course at the Brown Institute to earn their certification in computer programming. When the director of the Brown Institute saw that he was blind, he said, "We don't know what to do with you." Undaunted, Chong negotiated a plan: "I'll come in here and bring my stuff," he bargained. "The agency for the blind will pay my tuition--and if I don't make it after one month, I'll leave." Six months later, he graduated at the top of his class with a 98.6 grade point average.

Leaving a Mark on NFB

While Chong has held significant positions in the corporate sector--namely, a 17-year career as programmer analyst, team coordinator, and designer and consultant with Investors Diversified Services (which later became American Express Financial Advisors), what is most relevant to AccessWorld is the work that he has done in conjunction with the National Federation of the Blind (NFB). In 1984, Chong was elected president of NFB's Computer Science division, a volunteer position that he continues to fill. In 1997, he joined the organization's paid professional staff when he became the director of technology in NFB's International Braille and Technology Center in Baltimore, Maryland.

In addition to overseeing the procurement and installation for NFB's Technology Center of virtually every piece of AT that is designed for people who are blind that comes on the market, Chong left his mark on the center in other ways as well. When he arrived in 1997, the staff was still using dial-up modems for connecting to the Internet. When he left five years later, the center's Internet connections were high-speed ones, and every new employee was routinely given an e-mail account. It was under his direction that the fledgling Newsline for the Blind (a telephone-based reading system containing more than 150 newspapers and magazines) was expanded to a nationally based service with a toll-free number.

Perhaps Chong's most visible action while serving as NFB's technology director was to launch the suit against America Online for its (then) lack of attention to making its service accessible to customers who are blind. "I kept getting all these letters from blind people," Chong recalled, "who were frustrated that they couldn't use AOL, so I thought I should do something." When the company initially failed to respond, a discrimination suit was filed. Because of ensuing collaborative efforts, the suit was withdrawn, and today "AOL is pretty accessible for blind people who want to use it," Chong noted.

Becoming a "Bureaucrat"

In 2002, however, Chong and his wife Peggy returned to the Minnesota-Iowa region, where Chong assumed his present role as director of field operations and AT for the Iowa Department for the Blind. "This is one of the few agencies in the country I'd want to work for," Chong said, "and it's a great place to work." His responsibilities include the vocational rehabilitation programs, independent living programs, and Project Assist (the division that develops tutorials for blind and deaf-blind users of AT), and he serves as the agency's director of information technology. "I don't write programs any more," he quipped. "I'm a bureaucrat; I write letters."

Outside work, he devotes hours at home to his volunteer work with the NFB. He is passionate about encouraging other people who are blind to pursue computer careers and passionate about making the right tools available to people who are blind to do whatever jobs they choose to do.

His day job may involve policy making and paperwork, but his insights keep him connected to the arena of interactive kiosks, talking ATMs, and devices that are designed specifically for people who are blind. "Technology isn't our savior," Chong said. "It's one instrument among many that we have to deal with--and it can either help us or hurt us." Fortunately for other consumers who are blind, Chong's opinion is among those that are sought and valued by developers of AT who aim to make our technology better.

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