From Linguistics to Assistive Technology
Intro: How could living in Paris and pursuing a Ph.D. in French result in becoming a top notch leader in today's field of assistive technology? You'll be surprised to see the connection when you read this story.
The Story: Greetings! My name is Dawn Suvino. Currently, I am the Director of Information Services & Technology Training at VISIONS/Services for the Blind and Visually Impaired, a not-for-profit vision rehabilitation services agency located in New York City. VISIONS provides a full compliment of vocational, independent living, and recreational services to a multi-generational, culturally diverse population of blind and partially sighted consumers, serving over 3,500 people annually.
As Director of Information Services & Technology Training, I have administrative responsibility for a number of different programs related to our information and referral service, vocational skills training, employment initiatives, and the recreational computer training program. At any given time, I supervise a staff of seven to ten employees, including project managers, full-time and adjunct instructors, interns and trainees. Our IT programs have been growing by leaps and bounds over the past two years, and so the work keeps me very busy and intellectually engaged.
It is difficult to describe my "typical work day" since each of the programs I oversee has different administrative needs. Some of my time each week is spent in clinical supervision with my staff, meeting with colleagues to plan for agency-wide program development, analyzing data for program evaluation, teaching, reviewing student progress, testing new systems and software, and reaching out to other professionals in the field. One thing I can say with certainty is that some part of every day is taken up with writing: training curricula, grant development, marketing materials, web content, consumer progress reports and such. Thankfully, writing is my first love, so spending so much time in front of the computer composing is not at all burdensome to me.
As a totally blind person, I use a screen-reader to access programs like MS Word, Internet Explorer, Outlook Express, Excel, Adobe Reader, and to a lesser extent, MS Access and PowerPoint. I still occasionally rely on a scanner and optical character recognition program to read hardcopy materials, but since in today's workplace most documents are readily available in electronic formats, I find that there is increasingly less need for "scan and read" technology. I also make use of a laptop computer for note taking and off-site presentations.
Blindness for me is the result of a very severe neurological illness I suffered as a teenager. In 1977, at the age of 15, I was struck quite suddenly and unexpectedly by a rare and devastating form of meningitis. I spent nine months in the hospital, the first two months of which I was in a coma, attached to a respirator and various other life-support systems. When I awoke from the coma, I found that I was not only completely blind, but paralyzed from head to toe as well. Happily, my mobility returned over time, thanks to a very rigorous physical therapy regimen. However, my optic nerves were irreparably damaged. Besides vision loss, I suffered permanent neural damage to my fingertips and toes, making it all but impossible for me to read braille efficiently. The inability to read braille has resulted in many logistical challenges throughout my academic and professional life. Despite all my computer skill, I realize that there is really no hi-tech substitute for braille hardcopy. I strongly encourage all blind individuals who are physically capable of learning braille to do so before embarking upon a college education or professional career. Don't let anyone tell you that computers have made braille obsolete. Sighted folks still regularly use paper and pencil; so too should blind folks be comfortable using a slate and stylus.
Of all the "assistive technologies" available to me as a blind person, my favorite, and one which, for me, pre-dates the use of computers by almost a decade, is a dog guide. I am a proud four-time graduate of the Seeing Eye in Morristown, N.J. For the past 28 years, use of a dog guide has contributed enormously to my confidence and independent mobility. I have traveled across the United States and abroad, safely and independently with each of my dogs. In fact, I even spent my senior year in college living in Paris with my first dog guide who was absolutely adored and embraced by the canine-crazed natives of that city.
The reason for spending my senior year of college living in Paris is that I was a French major. I had pursued a fairly broad interest in the humanities while at college, taking courses in philosophy, psychology, political science, history, music, literature, and religion. Although I had begun studying French while in grammar school, I found it far more enjoyable as a college student, especially after I had the opportunity to visit France during the summer of 1982. When I returned to New York in the fall, I declared my major and immediately began making plans to participate in the "NYU Abroad" program, a decision that caused the department considerable consternation, having never before had a blind student enroll in the program. In time, though, the department came to support my interest and eventually even offered me a fellowship to stay on in Paris and pursue a doctorate in French.
While I did accept the fellowship, I elected to return to New York and restrict my graduate studies in French to a Master's degree since, while in Paris, I had grown increasingly interested in linguistics rather than in any one language in particular. As a graduate student, I also began working with the linguistics department on a series of projects involving the production of synthetic speech output, a subject that was especially intriguing to me as a person with impaired vision. After completing my MA in French at New York University, I went on to pursue a Ph.D. in linguistics at the University of Pennsylvania. It was during my time at Penn that I became more familiar with the theoretical concepts and applied research that would eventually lead me to a career involving computer technology, training, and curriculum development. People often ask how linguistics relates to what I do today. Although the connection may not be immediately evident, I can assure you that much of what I learned about language acquisition, syntactic structure, and semantics has been invaluable to me as an educator.
For a number of personal reasons, I did not complete my doctorate in linguistics, and left Penn after my second year in 1989. I returned to New York and began looking for work. Finding my first "real job" (as opposed to a university-sponsored fellowship) was difficult given that my formal education had been entirely geared toward an eventual career in academia. But without a completed Ph.D. a university appointment would be impossible. I wasn't willing to give up completely on my dreams of teaching at a college, and so I began looking for work at community colleges, continuing education programs, and in other academic settings. I had obtained my first PC in 1988 and found that I had a strong affinity for the practical logic and syntactic structure, if you will, of the then current operating system, DOS. I therefore determined that I might make a very good computer instructor.
Eventually, I found work at my alma mater, New York University, teaching blind, partially sighted, and learning disabled students to use DOS, WordPerfect, Lotus, and the Kurzweil Reading Machine. Later, I was hired as an adjunct instructor by both LaGuardia Community College and Brooklyn College, where I taught sighted people to work with some of these same applications. In 1992 I gave up my adjunct positions at the colleges to begin working full-time for the White Plains office of Lighthouse International, where I was the primary technical liaison to the regional office of the Commission for the Blind. In that capacity, I was responsible for conducting hi-tech assessments, training consumers and evaluating the technical viability of various job sites. In 1997 I was promoted to Senior Technology Instructor & Curriculum Development Specialist, which gave me the opportunity to design the curricula that were implemented throughout the agency's many computer training programs.
In the fall of 1999, I left Lighthouse to accept an academic appointment with New York Medical College, where I had the privilege of teaching graduate students, most of whom were teachers, medical professionals, and other rehabilitation providers. This work was particularly fulfilling as it gave me the opportunity to influence the ways in which assistive technology services would be delivered throughout New York State and beyond. At the same time, I continued to conduct research, publish various articles, book chapters, and monographs. In 2000, while conducting background research on a book I was writing with the Computer Center for Visually Impaired People at Baruch College, I met a woman who was then the Director of Policy Research and Program Evaluation at the American Foundation for the Blind (AFB). Soon thereafter, she asked me to be the Project Coordinator on a very exciting research and development grant AFB had received from the National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research.
The three year research grant at AFB focused on the development and implementation of a nationally standardized data collection instrument related to independent living services for the older blind population. Several state agencies and not-for-profits across the country participated in the pilot project, including VISIONS/Services for the Blind and Visually Impaired. Thus, when I heard about a position opening at VISIONS in 2006, I was already familiar with the agency's work and well acquainted with key personnel. Once again, my professional network served me well in locating a career opportunity, getting my resume noticed, and preparing for the interview. I cannot stress enough the importance of developing professional networks, so readers, please take note.
Today, I am extremely satisfied with my position at VISIONS, and while I am not looking to leave the agency anytime soon, I continue to reach out and develop professional networks with my colleagues at other vision rehabilitation facilities, academic institutions, and city and state agencies. Collaborating with my colleagues in the field helps me to discharge my current responsibilities better, plan for the expansion of our programs at VISIONS, and be prepared for any unexpected future changes in my career. To be successful in a professional career, one must be actively engaged in the field, participate in conferences and other networking events, and remain interested and well-informed. A formal education is also extremely useful, though as my own experience indicates, the specific course of study is perhaps not as critical as the research and writing skills one gains from a well-balanced liberal arts education. Hard work and persistence, combined with intelligence and creativity, will go a long way towards helping you reach your career goals. As Joseph Campbell said in The Power of Myth, "Follow your bliss"; first find the work that interests you, makes you happy, gives you a feeling of satisfaction, and then follow that path to success. Only work that makes you happy will make you successful.
The Contact: Dawn Suvino