September 2009 Issue  Volume 10  Number 5


The Man for All Programs

Jamal Mazrui may already be familiar to some readers of AccessWorld. For the rest, a dip into the vast repository of unique and important programs that he makes freely available will likely be awe inspiring and valuable.

Jamal was born in Uganda. His parents were educators, his father a professor of political science and his mother a teacher of language. His parents met while his father was in graduate school in England. When one talks with Jamal, the influence of his British mother's upbringing contributes, charmingly, to his passionate and thoughtful way of communicating.

Life for the young Jamal changed dramatically at the age of 8, when the family fled strife-torn Uganda and the political upheaval of Idi Amin. The Mazrui family first settled in California, where Jamal's father was a professor of political science at Stanford University. Several years later, the family moved from California to Michigan when Professor Mazrui accepted a position at the University of Michigan. Jamal lived the life of a normal teenager until a second dramatic change took place. At age 16, he lost his vision to a rare hereditary condition. The same disorder also resulted in severe vision loss for his brother.

"I was so fortunate that I had a wonderful mentor in those days. I realized that I needed to continue my plans and move ahead, rather than sit around and not do what I had always intended to do," Jamal recalled. Indeed, the impact of his mentor and the community of blind people did the trick. Jamal attended Princeton University and graduated with a degree in operations research, followed by a master's degree in public policy from Harvard University.

"Public policy was always my intended career," Jamal told AccessWorld. Despite the challenges that so many people in his situation face, Jamal persevered. It was as a graduate student that he had another encounter that changed his life--this time with his first accessible computer. "I became obsessed with getting [the PC] to do everything possible. It started with what could I do with a word processer macro. Then I became interested in d-base programming." Suddenly he had twin passions: public policy and programming.

With his new master's degree and an interest in programming, Jamal set about finding a job. However, he did not have the same success finding employment as his Harvard classmates, which he found disheartening. "I thought that having an Ivy League education would make blindness less important. I found out that blindness was very significant because everyone else got jobs, and I didn't."

Jamal wanted his professional work to be in the mainstream and his service to the community to be a voluntary effort. "One of the best ways to change attitudes is to see a blind person doing work for which he was paid and that is unrelated to disability," Jamal said.

Eventually Jamal obtained a position programming for Advocate Development, which produced not-for-profit software. "The company didn't make it, so I moved to the Kennedy School at Harvard, where I was in charge of alumni records."

Like many other organizations in the mid-1990s, the Kennedy School shifted from DOS to GUI (Graphical User Interface)-based computer systems. At Harvard, this change caused a shift to Windows-based MS Access. Despite many attempts to design workaround solutions, none of the screen readers of the time worked well. Ironically, at the point of getting more responsibility, Jamal found that the technology that had provided opportunity and employment had betrayed him.

The advent of Windows meant that Jamal had to reconsider his plan to keep his disability-related work an advocacy effort. In 1995, Jamal went to work as an analyst for the National Counsel on Disability, a post he held for four years. In 1999, he moved to the Federal Communications Commission, where he is still employed. His work includes both disability and non-disability aspects.

In addition to forcing Jamal to obtain new employment, the Windows era inspired him to begin creating the many programs and utilities that so many computer users and professionals who are visually impaired depend on. He said, "I started to develop techniques of searching for tools, a Windows version of the d-base." Jamal also wanted to know whether in addition to a tool's accessibility, the end result was accessible to the user. He also wanted to develop programs that were useful to both visually impaired and sighted people.

After a number of years, Jamal had a breakthrough with a product called JAWS Script Exchange, which allows the creation of a self-executing package of JAWS Scripts. WinDig, a program that analyzes all aspects and every property of a program and creates a report, followed. Jamal went on to create special tools, including developer-oriented tools. He created a site called, which now includes more than a dozen programs for developers and end users. In addition, Jamal makes available 70 Window-Eyes scripts.

In his quest to address current challenges, Jamal created McTwit to provide a comprehensive client for the popular Twitter service. When he described the challenge of creating a nonvisual interface for the complex functions of Twitter that is satisfying for beginning, intermediate, and advanced users, he explained, "Existing applications were very mouse driven. To begin with, it was simple, but people began to request more complete access. Beginner and advanced users may have the easiest time. The status line will describe each control for the advanced user who is familiar with the controls; you have immediate access."

Jamal has designed several tools that are of particular value to web and program developers who are blind. One is a text editor called EdSharp, an editor in the cSharp language. It is intended as a replacement for Notepad and WordPad tools for manipulating text.

Jamal described several of his more esoteric applications:

  • HomerJAX, an interface that is used to interact with an application within a browser to develop an accessible client rapidly;
  • TestPage, which generates a quick accessibility report from Internet Explorer; and.
  • Layout By Code, which allows an individual who is blind to lay out a visually satisfying site.

Despite the time that he devotes to developing programs, Jamal manages time with his family. He lives with his wife and young daughter in suburban Maryland just outside Washington, DC.

After talking with Jamal Mazrui for even a short time, it is clear that our community is fortunate to receive the benefit of his combination of talent, passion, and clear understanding of the kinds of programs and tools that so many of us count on.

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