July 2010 Issue  Volume 11  Number 3


An Interview with Nolan Crabb

A fondly remembered toy Nolan Crabb received for Christmas in 1965 may well have been the precursor for a career he would find and adore several decades later. The then seven-year-old wasn't as enamored with the plain old push cars and trucks enjoyed by his siblings. Instead, he wanted a bit of magic. The amazing all-metal locomotive that he received that year was right up his alley. It had whistles and bells and could zoom anywhere in the house. It even knew how to back up when it banged into the furniture.

There were later indications during his youth of a future in technology. He recorded "radio shows" and then broadcast them from his own transmitter, proudly listening as an audience of one sitting in his dad's parked car. As so often happens, though, his educational and professional journey would take numerous twists and turns before he would finally arrive at what he describes as "the best three years I have ever spent anywhere"--the three years he has served as director of assistive technology for The Ohio State University (OSU).

Many AccessWorld readers may remember Nolan Crabb as the editor of Dialogue magazine in the 1980s or, later, as editor of The Braille Forum, the publication of the American Council of the Blind in the 1990s. Those roles, like others at newspapers and newsletters of varying sizes that have dotted his career path, were in line with his bachelor of arts degree in communications, received from Brigham Young University in 1981. Along the way, however, he was bitten by the technology bug, as he puts it, and had an increasing awareness that working with assistive technology was where he wanted to be. There were a few stints cutting his teeth in assistive technology early in this decade--training users of assistive technology with the Missouri Rehabilitation Services for the Blind, for example--where he learned he loved sharing the power of technology with others and simply wanted more of the same.

As director of assistive technology at OSU, Crabb is the sole staff member called upon to assist faculty and staff with all matters related to assistive technology. He reports to OSU's Americans with Disabilities Act coordinator, Scott Lissner, and currently has only one assistant, a student named Hannah Schroeder (yes, she is indeed the daughter of our first editor, Paul Schroeder), whom he describes as brilliant and incredibly hard working.

Crabb's role is multifaceted. First, he is responsible for keeping faculty up to date with regard to assistive technology available to students in their classrooms. Many professors, for example, employ the use of wireless devices called clickers for students to reply to verbal or written test questions. A professor might ask his or her students to click on their answer to a multiple-choice question. The responses are then registered electronically, providing instant feedback. For blind and low-vision students, Crabb installed braille clickers--that is, the same device with tactile markings and a vibrating capacity to enable blind students to participate in the same exercise.

Crabb frequently talks to faculty to make them aware of the latest assistive technology options so that students with disabilities are not excluded from participating in the classroom. He is responsible for maintaining accessibility in all labs and classrooms falling under the jurisdiction of the chief information officer. This means that screenreaders are readily available at workstations for anyone studying in those classrooms, libraries, or labs.

However, Crabb's work is by no means restricted to assistive technology benefiting staff or students who are blind or visually impaired. If a staff member has a learning disability, has had a stroke, carpal tunnel, or some other disability that interferes with typical use of computer applications, Crabb's role is to install and provide support on such applications as Dragon Naturally Speaking or Read and Write Gold. He is also responsible for supporting the assistive technology needs of blind or visually impaired graduate student employees.

When the university purchases applications to be used campuswide, Crabb is involved in those discussions to ensure accessibility. When OSU was ready to purchase new antivirus software, for example, and was considering Symantec, Crabb tested the program extensively and reported that the software was not particularly compatible with the JAWS for Windows, Window-Eyes, or System Access screen-reading programs. Thus, another choice, for at least the time being, was selected.

Similarly, for online courses created by professors, the campus choice has been a system called Desire2Learn. Crabb works with faculty, teaching them how to create online material that is accessible to students using assistive technology. He also has provided input to the company, which has led to its being a product of choice for other universities around the country.

Crabb was perhaps the first blind director of assistive technology on a large university campus to purchase and install the Remote Incident Manager and Remote Access Manager from Serotek Corp. With these applications, he is able to remotely assist faculty members having difficulty with assistive technology products, such as Dragon Naturally Speaking. Even though the faculty member being helped may be sighted and therefore not running any text-to-speech software, Crabb can access that individual's computer from his own, which is running with speech, and trouble-shoot the problem.

Although he is not responsible for the technology lab operated under the auspices of the Office of Disability Services, Crabb interacts with the staff there and is aware of its composition. Although the lab may not have the absolute latest version of every blindness-related product, he says that a laudable effort is made to keep all versions of screen-reading and magnification software up to date and that, if not the best in the country, it is certainly a lab that serves its population well.

He speaks with deep affection and pride for the myriad forward strides OSU has taken to provide a genuinely inclusive environment. One impressive example of this is the way in which any blind person with a phone capable of text messaging can receive up-to-the-minute campus bus information. From his iPhone, for instance, Crabb can send a text message asking when the next bus will arrive at stop #39. He instantly receives a text reply providing that information, which the system has gleaned via GPS technology to identify the location of specific buses.

Totally blind from birth due to retinopathy of prematurity, Nolan Crabb learned to read braille early on, and that medium, along with tape recorders of various shapes and sizes, was the tool he used throughout his college and early career years. Despite the disclaimer that he is "an old curmudgeon," Crabb displays far from curmudgeonly attitudes toward the differences between his own struggle as a college student and the tools he sees used by the many blind and visually impaired students on the campus where he is now employed.

"I'm not inclined to take the approach of recalling how I walked uphill both ways to school," he says with a droll chuckle. "If you say to students today 'You have it so easy,' it simply isn't productive. You could say they are coddled, but technology exists today to do things differently and they have access to that advantage. That doesn't make them lazy."

That said, this father of four and grandfather of four does believe that there are relevant trade-offs for the comparative luxury enjoyed by blind students on large campuses today.

Those of us who were students in the 1960 and 1970s, Crabb points out, developed by necessity certain interpersonal skills that are not required for survival today. We bought print copies of our textbooks, ordered the recorded versions from Recording for the Blind and Dyslexic, hired personal readers, and needed to have conversations with our professors about our personal accommodations. In his case, he says, he would ask professors if he could record lectures (listened to later at double speed with speech compression), and would make his own arrangements for test-taking. With a wry laugh, he recalls the time he and the young woman acting as his reader rode up and down in an elevator to complete a test because it was the only spot in the building they could find where talking was permitted!

Because many of the same accommodations are now handled by the Office of Disability Services on his and other large campuses, Crabb believes that students may be missing out on the opportunity to build the interpersonal and self-advocacy skills that are so essential after graduation. He further reflects, however, that technology has had an impact on the entire generation. Text messages and social networks pose a possible danger for all students, he says, of isolation in the dorm room.

"I think that students today should be responsible to the extent that it makes sense with regard to checking on the status of accessible textbooks and other accommodations," he says, "and certainly not just hand over a list of books one day and come back 10 days later to whine that the books aren't ready yet."

The road from journalism to assistive technology director may seem a circuitous one, but Crabb considers all of the stops on his career path to be fitting nicely together. He can't say that he misses writing because he still has plenty of writing to do. He puts together brief tutorials for faculty and staff learning new applications and, in addition to his "day job," is compiling a beginner's handbook on assistive technology for Guiding Eyes in New York, where he trained with his own beloved Golden Retriever/yellow Labrador dog guide.

The list of benefits in his current position is long, in Crabb's view. Not only does he get to satisfy the technology bug that bit him so long ago, he gets to walk past the OSU marching band en route from one technology lab to another.

"I have a real sense of appreciation every day for the young people who surround me," he says with feeling, and then adds with a touch of his characteristic humor, "even the ones who seem to come within an inch of my dog's face with their bicycles!"

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