You may not think that one person can be both a computer nerd and popular—but it's possible!
In reflecting on his own growth and development as a programmer, Jeff Bishop describes himself as a seventh-grade nerd at the Arizona School for the Blind, writing programs and figuring out how things worked. In contrast to the socially awkward, unstylish stereotype that you might think of when you hear the word "nerd," however, Jeff Bishop has an irresistibly warm and open spirit that draws others to him. His gratitude for where life has led him is profound. When he talks about computers, he sounds like a friend describing something wonderful, and you want to know more.
Today, Jeff Bishop is a program manager on the Windows Accessibility team at Microsoft. The idea for this AccessWorld article was sparked by an Internet presentation Bishop gave on improvements that had been made to the Windows Narrator screen reader. If there is one tiresome statistic that everyone connected with blindness and low vision has heard all too often, it is the 70-percent unemployment rate for people with visual impairments. What is it, I wondered, that leads one person who is blind to a job he loves, a job where his talent is clearly respected and where he has the joy of knowing he is contributing to a product’s usability for his peers? Why does he continue to be employed while other people with visual impairments do not? What are the steps that lead to success—and how can currently unemployed people with visual impairments learn from someone who has taken them?
Early Life and Attitudes
Jeff Bishop has always worked. He has always expected to have a career and earn a paycheck. His perception of the origins of his success are clear.
First, growing up as a blind child, his parents encouraged him to do everything he possibly could. He rode bikes. He roller skated. He played hard and worked hard in school.
His parents, he says, were absolutely involved in everything he did and encouraged him to reach higher. When a serious bout with spinal meningitis put him behind in school, requiring that he repeat the first grade, he struggled initially to learn braille. His mom worked with him every night at the kitchen table, learning enough braille herself to be a valuable coach.
His mom’s determination that he learn to read and write braille was critical, he says, as braille has had a tremendous impact on his career. In high school and college, before we had electronic braille, he lugged around multiple oversized volumes of braille books. Math, in particular, he says, would be impossible without braille. Later, as braille displays emerged, he has always used them in his work. From using that first 20-cell Versabraille II, to displays boasting 80 cells or as few as 14, braille has been essential to Bishop's professional success.
Both parents grasped every opportunity to encourage him to stretch mentally and physically. At the grocery store, his mom told him the prices of things and he added them mentally for her, using the math tricks his dad had taught him.
One day his dad told him they were going camping. When they arrived, it turned out that the core plan was to teach Jeff to water ski. He revels in the memory, describing it as a perfect example of how his parents never treated his blindness as an dead end, but rather a prompt for finding a detour. They dug in to find workarounds for anything that he wanted to do.
When he became interested in amateur radio, his dad studied theory with him. And when he became interested in computers, it was his dad who researched and found which product in the exploding field of home consumer electronics might be most accessible to a kid who couldn’t see the screen.
"Braille makes it possible to see layout and design in a way that I can’t imagine would be possible for a blind person otherwise,” Bishop says. “I see it as an absolutely essential tool to do my job."
For Those Before Us
Bishop attributes success to those who built the platforms he depends upon in his work. Louis Braille, of course, who invented the tactile reading system, and Dr. Abraham Nemeth, who invented a system for reading and writing mathematics in braille, are at the top of his list. He also has a long list of computer professionals, blind and sighted, who forged paths for him to follow.
"I owe my job today to all the many giants who came before me," he says, rattling off names like Ted Henter (creator of the original JAWS screen-reading software for DOS and founder of the company that is now Vispero), Doug Geoffray (formerly of GW Micro), Glenn Gordon and Eric Damery (Henter-Joyce), Clarence Waley (GW Micro), and 1980s tech support people like Randy Knapp and Christopher Gray (Artic and Telesensory Corp. respectively).
Finally, Jeff attributes his ongoing success to the colleagues and supervisors he has had on every job who have believed in his abilities and provided reinforcement for his efforts.
"They say it takes a village," Jeff says, "and in my case that has been true. … I have always had the support and collaboration of those around me.”
He cites examples of colleagues getting onboard with innovating and discovering alternative methods for him to approach what could have been inaccessible computing environments.
Jeff Bishop's first computer was a Commodore 64 where Jeff cut his teeth in basic programming and assembly language and enjoyed old-style Infocom games when he wasn’t studying for school. Jeff continued to study programming in high school and even partnered with schoolmates to develop a way of getting computer code output using Morse code. "There were short beeps and longer beeps," he says, poking a little fun at those rudimentary beginnings. (It worked well enough that he got an A in the class.) Bishop also received assistance from others to read the computer screen, which laid the groundwork for his future career.
He studied computers in college, both at Pima Community College and the University of Arizona, but went to work before graduating. He had married, was beginning a family, and was offered an opportunity to work as a technical writer for Interactive Information Systems. On a 20-cell braille display in Tucson, he worked on mainframes that were on the east coast. It was the beginning of a long and happy career working out accessibility wrinkles with the support of fellow workers.
Next, Bishop had an opportunity to move to California to work for Disney’s Imagineering. He would be writing the software that was used by developers to track the building of thrill-seeker rides like Space Mountain.
Always moving forward, he worked for the coding industry, the automotive industry, on software used to screen new employees, and more. When Microsoft opened a call center in Arizona in 1995, he went to work for his favorite company for the first time. Until then he had been using Artic Business Vision, JAWS for DOS, and an 80-cell braille display that made layout entirely feasible for a blind person. Windows was introduced shortly before his 1995 job with Microsoft began, so he was excited to learn Windows and the program he supported, Microsoft Access. Coworkers and supervisors were quick to help him innovate and problem solve, always working around accessibility issues. Sometimes, he recalls, he was able to perform necessary tasks in Access faster than the sighted customer he was coaching.
In 2001, he had an opportunity to go to work for the university of Arizona, a job that would hold him longer than any previous rung on his career ladder.
At the University of Arizona, Bishop became an IT analyst, working on student information systems and learning management systems. Most tools were fully accessible. When technological barriers meant his career was temporarily thrown into disruption, he was moved to work on a fully accessible platform called Desire to Learn.
Even beyond the work environment, Bishop has found generous support. As professional and advocacy opportunities required that he do more public speaking, he enrolled in Toastmasters to polish his skills. Like most people blind from birth, gestures and facial expressions were not instinctive for him. "Sighted people do things with their hands, their eyes, their faces to help communicate ideas," he says, "that we as blind people aren't always aware of." Toward the goal of learning those visual nuances, he recalls a time when a fellow toastmaster stood behind him while he delivered a speech, in order to coach him through newly learned gestures.
Moving to Washington
Bishop says that his 16 years at the University of Arizona were great years, but in 2017, he was offered the opportunity to work for what many in his field might see as a career pinnacle, Microsoft. He and his wife moved to Kirkland, Washington in July of 2017. Bishop is totally blind, has always worked, and is currently at the top of his game. In his new role as a program manager on the Microsoft Windows accessibility team, he is exploring and innovating ideas that benefit blind and low vision computer users everywhere.
He attributes his success to 1) parents who believed in his abilities, 2) learning to read and write braille, and 3) always being surrounded by people who are supportive of his work and willing to innovate and collaborate when workarounds are needed. And how has he managed to tap into such supportive environments? He is thoughtful for a moment and then explains: “When something doesn’t work for me—a form isn’t accessible, for example—I explain that to others. I try to do it gently and clearly, and the result is that I am teaching them something and they are usually teaching me as well. Sharing that needed approach to make something accessible to me makes me more effective, but it makes other members of my team more effective as well. It’s important to be careful and to be kind."
Bishop is effusive with gratitude, for the mentors and “giants” who paved the way, as well as for sighted coworkers who work alongside him. “I have always been so lucky to work with tremendous, amazing people. I am so thankful for that.”
What he doesn’t say is that his own nature goes a long way toward enlisting that appreciated support from others. He clearly learned at an early age to give as well as take, to teach and encourage others to innovate with him rather than demand. He is generous with his time, giving back by advocating for other blind people in his role as a board member of the American Council of the Blind or making online presentations to share information that might enhance the lives of other blind people. His easy manner and affability are a winning combination that entices others to engage in problem solving with him, and are qualities that aspiring blind professionals in any field would do well to emulate. Bishop loves his job, and the rest of us will undoubtedly benefit from the talent he brings to enhancing computer accessibility.
This article is made possible in part by generous funding from the James H. and Alice Teubert Charitable Trust, Huntington, West Virginia.
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