October 2010 Issue  Volume 11  Number 6


One Dream Comes True: An Interview with Jeff Senge, Cal State Fullerton

To dream is natural to the human condition. We dream of becoming doctors or inventors, of contributing to world peace or just peace in the family. More often than not, such dreams originate in childhood and take flight (or a back seat) as life nourishes or gets in the way.

Jeff Senge, coordinator of the Information and Computer Access Program at California State University-Fullerton, had a dream that didn't sprout until he was forty years old. While others his age were battling midlife crises, Jeff's imagination was on high alert, busy envisioning how his newfound fascination with late-1980s technology might one day spell complete and equal access to information for students with disabilities.

Jeff and his two brothers were born with a congenital visual condition, similar to juvenile retinoschesis, meaning their retinas never properly formed. Because of several operations throughout his childhood, Jeff retains some vision, but is fond of paraphrasing author Steve Kuusisto's summation of low vision, saying, "I can see more than you think I can, and less than I think I can."

Growing up, he had some braille instruction in a resource classroom, but reflects that it was never integrated into his other lessons. With braille as an additional subject and encouragement to struggle through large-print texts, he felt he had one foot in each of two worlds and limited access to information in either. By high school, braille was no longer in his educational picture. Recorded books on 5-inch tape reels were just emerging as an alternate format, and Jeff used them for all of his classes.

At California Western University in the 1960s, he chose a course of study that was less print intensive than some. He graduated with a Bachelor of Arts, with ceramic sculpture as his final project. For the next three or four years, he set up shop as a potter, throwing thousands of bowls and pots and vases, but was soon exploring options for a more financially stable employment choice.

He enrolled in a program where a person with vision loss could learn the skills involved in small engine repair, and he quickly landed a job working for a golf course. For the next 15 years, Jeff worked as a mechanic, responsible for some 250 pieces of machinery. He had a flair for it, he says, and for the first five years loved the challenge. The next five years were a kind of coasting time on his job. The work was now easy, and he could do it well. The workplace environment was a congenial one where "every employee got a case of beer with every paycheck." By the third five-year stretch, however, his career as a mechanic had become monotonous. He was bored and desperate to find a more interesting way to support his family.

At about this time, 10 years into his career as a mechanic, the early Apple computers were gaining popularity. "My wife wanted one," he recalls, "but I didn't think a computer was something I would ever be able to use." Then they heard of another blind man who was indeed using an Apple IIE computer, and Jeff Senge's life turned a corner. With an Echo synthesizer and the early WordTalk program running on the family's new Apple computer, Jeff found a new passion.

He took classes after work at a community college, began reading everything he could find about this new adaptive technology, and attended the first Technology and Persons with Disabilities conference at California State University Northridge (CSUN). At the next few CSUN conferences, he soaked up all the information available to him in workshops and exhibit halls, picked the brains of emerging leaders in the assistive technology field, and began to dream of how this technology could change lives--and be his ticket out of motors and lawn mowers and into his vision of making a difference.

His wife encouraged him to follow this dream of making the world of computers and information accessible to everyone, the first step of which was going back to school. It had been 20 years since he had been in college, and he had hated school. "Books and print, were the enemy," he says. As an undergraduate, his work had been consistently at a B-plus/C-minus level. As a graduate student earning a master's degree in education, however, he immediately saw more evidence to fuel his belief in the power of technology: With the advantages of computers for accessing materials, he found he loved school and learning, and maintained a solid 4.0 grade point average.

As a student at Cal State's Fullerton campus, he was hired as a graduate assistant to set up newly acquired assistive technology in a computer lab for students with disabilities, and was awed by his own good fortune. He was setting up technology and teaching students to use it, and "burning inside to take what I had learned from geniuses like Blazie, Henter, and Fruchterman and run the last mile with it."

The last mile, as he perceived it then, involved harnessing the power of computers to fill in where students with disabilities were traditionally left behind. "A computer without applications to integrate it into a course of study or life is just stuff," he said, "so I needed to work to manifest its power."

When he started this project in 1992, there were about half a dozen visually impaired students and only three computers. Today, his program serves about 35 blind and visually impaired students out of a student population of 35,000. (His office serves 60-plus students who identify themselves as having print-related disabilities, and about 750 students with disabilities altogether.) The office is responsible for 50 accessible workstations throughout campus, eight of which are in the lab itself. In the Information and Learning Commons (formerly the library), there are 500 computers, with a separate area that is an Adaptive Technology Center housing six of the accessible workstations. All accessible workstations have Jaws for Windows, PDF Magic, OpenBook 8 and 9, Kurzweil 1000 and 3000, Dragon Naturally Speaking, and various other applications. Computers are set up consistently throughout campus, so that a student who needs to work anywhere on campus will have access to a workstation that is both familiar and accessible.

Where the Cal State Fullerton program seems to dazzle most, however, is in its delivery of textbooks and instructional materials in alternate formats to meet every reading and learning mode. It was the explosion of available printed information, after all, that had first led him to embrace the connection between learning and assistive technology. At first, the instructional materials and textbooks that students requested were produced right there in the assistive technology computer lab. From the beginning, Jeff integrated the role of teaching students about their rights and responsibilities into his job. His earliest recollection of interpreting the 504 regulations of the Rehabilitation Act (and subsequently, the Americans with Disabilities Act) was to recognize access to information as having equal importance and protection as physical access.

"As a person with a disability," he cites by way of example, "I can walk into the library. I can reach up to take the book off the shelf. But I can't get at the information encoded inside that book. The information I need to learn isn't accessible to me." Not everyone took his view seriously in the early years, but today, all major disability organizations are on board with the concept that access to information is a civil right and major priority.

At first, Jeff and his assistant in the computer lab produced the materials students requested in alternate formats. The drawback to this plan was that while braille embossers, scanners, and workstations were occupied by staff producing accessible materials, those same pieces of equipment were not available to students. About 10 years ago, Jeff and others received a $380,000 grant from the Department of Education to implement a plan to streamline the alternate format production for the entire Cal State network. California State University comprises 23 campuses, and each campus has students with disabilities requiring alternate format materials. Under the grant, all 23 were linked via fax and e-mail, with specialized technology and production staff processing materials from a central location. When funding ended, however, the individual campuses lacked sufficient funding to sustain the system, and today each campus produces materials for its own students. Fullerton's production is no longer done in the computer lab, but has space dedicated specifically for production. Much of the work takes place off site as well, and is done by experts who specialize in the various formats produced.

Under Jeff Senge's direction, the system for producing materials at Cal State Fullerton provides a smorgasbord of options for students with varying reading needs and learning styles, and is dedicated to efficient delivery. Students can request materials in braille, large-print, audio, or CD formats. Books provided on disc can be prepared as Microsoft Word files, BRF files, RTF files, or as Kurzweil 1000 or 3000 files. A small number of students have begun requesting (and receiving) materials compatible with VoiceOver for Apple products. In other words, each student can customize the order for his or her text materials and then read them in hard-copy braille or hard-copy large print, or listen to them on audiocassette or on an MP3 player. If the books are prepared on CD (the most popular format), the student can choose a format for loading the book onto his or her braille notetaker, laptop, or desktop computer and choose the computer application (Word, Kurzweil 1000, Kurzweil 3000, or something else) best suited to his or her individual learning needs.

Today, books are prepped in the production center--spines cut off, pages scanned and recognized--in a production center that comprises eight computers, two high-speed scanners, braille embossers, and production staff. Next, the resulting files (with accompanying hard-copy print) are sent out to the various specialists with whom Jeff has contracted--e-text editors, braille transcribers, braille music specialists--to organize the material into chapters and sections, insert page numbers, confirm accuracy, and put the finishing touches on a final product that is as clean and useful to the student as possible. Although some of these e-text editors and other specialists are in California, others are as far flung as Florida and Maryland.

Twenty years ago, Jeff Senge felt like he'd won the lottery when he was hired as a graduate assistant to set up assistive technology and show students how to use it. Today, the program has grown to a team of five professional staff whom he coordinates and who are responsible for 50 campus-wide workstations, and the production of about 500 textbooks and 1,000 other documents for students, staff, and faculty in alternate formats. He has taken the same 45-minute train commute from his home in San Clemente to the Fullerton campus for 20 years, and says, "I absolutely love my job and coming to work every day." He is proud of the programs he has seen flourish and proud of the evolution in student attitudes, too. "We see a lot of students coming to campus now who are completely up to speed. They have their notetakers, they know how to use technology, and they're ready to go." If, on the other hand, a student doesn't know how to get the information she or he needs, Jeff and his staff are poised and ready to show the student various viable options and methods for the use of specific devices.

After 20 years, Jeff's dream has been achieved. He wanted to change lives, to make a difference for others who, like himself, struggled to get the information they needed simply because they had a print disability. Now, he has another dream, that after he retires, his program will continue to flourish as it has under his lead. "When I do retire," he says, "I want to feel certain that things are running smoothly enough without me that the students won't experience any diminishment of services."

Far from retiring at the moment, however, Jeff Senge loves his job and takes pride in seeing the quality of information and access delivered on the Fullerton campus.

"Every day when I go to work," he says, "I feel like I'm making a difference both in a global sense and in individual lives."

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