If you tend to see a connection between biology and destiny, Dan Zingaro's career path holds little in the way of surprise. Raised by a computer programmer dad and a teacher mom, his own career choice as a professor of computer science rings of continuity for everyone in the family. One of his earliest memories, he says, is of sitting with his dad at a computer (not yet one that could speak to him or show him braille) and crafting a math game that played a happy tune when the player finished answering the addition and subtraction facts with sufficient accuracy and speed. He remembers the game and concocting the code. He doesn't particularly remember the details of how he kept track of what was on the screen.
Today, Zingaro teaches college students to develop computer programs. With a braille display in his hands, he rapidly types code that a few hundred students at a time observe projected on the overhead monitor. As students select multiple choice responses to his questions with their clickers, the percentages of their responses are available to him on the same braille display, enabling him to adjust the pace of instruction accordingly. He loves his job, his subject, and his students. And the love apparently runs both ways.
Early in 2019, as he approached the sixth anniversary of his teaching career in the mathematical and computational sciences department at the University of Toronto, he was selected as a recipient of the Early Teaching Career Award. The honor is given to those still within their first six years of teaching and the selection is determined, in part, by votes from the students themselves.
Professionally, Zingaro is an assistant professor of computer science. After spending a delightful slice of time in conversation with him, however, I could see how he might arguably add philosopher to his resume. A self-proclaimed introvert, Zingaro is intelligent, thoughtful and, despite only 36 years to date on the planet, extremely wise.
Although he doesn’t know the cause of his blindness, Zingaro has been completely blind his whole life. His parents both learned to write braille when he was small and made books for him to help him learn to read braille at an early age. He attended the public school that was within walking distance of his home, and where his younger brother and sister attended as well. Due to his mom’s strong advocacy, he had a resource teacher in his school building as well as a braille transcriber. By age 10 or 11, he had a computer and a braille embosser at school so that he could produce anything he needed to review quickly in hard copy braille.
His parents, he says, never discouraged him from doing anything that interested him.
Accessible Games and Philosophy
While still a student himself, Dan Zingaro wrote a number of accessible games with a programming friend and sold them to blind customers over the Internet. It was something he loved doing and he loved the popularity the games enjoyed. After college, getting a master’s degree and a PhD, left him little time to play or produce games.
About five years ago, he obtained permission to make the games available free of charge (look for BSC Games and Dan Z Games). While they are no longer being updated, he says many will still work on Windows computers.
Although building those games was once a priority, here is a perfect example of Dan Zingaro’s wisdom and calm demeanor: “There are other priorities now,” he says simply. “That door is closed, but closing doors can be freeing—closing one may open a few others.”
Zingaro takes the campus shuttle to work each day and navigates to and from the classroom with his white cane. When teaching, he uses his refreshable braille display to communicate the principles of writing computer code to his students and to read their collective responses. Today, it's all more or less unremarkable. Getting to this point, of course, involved work and thoughtful planning.
First, he had to work with the developers of the software employing the student clickers for voting to render its results accessible to him. Perhaps more importantly, he developed his own style of introducing himself and his methods to his students.
Introductory computer science classes may have as many as 1,200 students, with Zingaro lecturing to 200 or so at a time. On the first day, he shows them his braille display, (a HumanWare Brailliant), explains that it is paired via Bluetooth with the same computer that is displaying visual information to them, and then shows them his flip phone. The former dazzles them and the latter surprises. Unlike the stereotypical computer science expert, Zingaro is not one to race after the latest technology. He does not own a smart phone or tablet. He has a laptop, a braille display, and a flip phone. (I value walks and quiet time,” he says, “and people know not to send me text messages.”
If there is a message about his blindness that he conveys to students on that first day in class, it is perhaps that blindness is not relevant. “I love questions from students about disability,” he says. “Asking questions is how people learn. Once those questions are answered, they move on.”
That said, he is comfortable talking about his blindness and relishes those opportunities to share what he has learned with others. He recalls an occasion when an extremely distraught student sat in his office, overwhelmed by barriers and misconceptions, and who wept with relief that here, at last, was someone who understood his challenges.
All challenges, in Zingaro’s view, are opportunities. He credits his partner, Canadian poet Doyali Islam, with pointing that out to him. He sees challenges not as obstacles but as opportunities to find solutions.
Asked about essential tools on his job, Dan Zingaro’s answers came easily: white cane, braille display, and the NVDA screen reading software. Although he was once a JAWS beta tester, when that license expired he found he was already using NVDA and simply stayed the course.
After a moment’s hesitation, he added one more favorite tool: his Dot watch! The Dot watch (which enables him to read the time by inconspicuously touching the watch’s four braille cells) is a new piece of technology that he says he has embraced with a bit of evangelical fervor. Being able to check the time without attracting attention keeps him on track with his teaching and helps him maintain his desired image of the professor who has a few unusual ways of accomplishing tasks.
Dream Builders, Dream Stoppers
Dan believes that his success is largely due to the strong support and encouragement he has received most of his life from family, teachers, and others. First, of course, were his parents — both of whom learned braille in his early childhood in order to make braille storybooks for him as a beginning reader. Next was his resource teacher, a dedicated educator who, as it happened, had specialized in mathematics and computer science instruction before becoming a teacher of the visually impaired. Consequently, it was natural and intuitive for him to nurture Zingaro's early inclination toward mathematics and computer science. (Today, that teacher has retired and the two continue to be friends, occasionally meeting for lunch and conversation.)
Not everyone, of course, found Dan's academic pursuits to be inspiring or laudable. One naysaying professor, in particular, remains vivid in Dan Zingaro's memory.
"When this professor saw that I had registered for his class," Dan recalls, "he emailed me to tell me not to come." The class was too visual, the professor believed, too difficult. "I can not help you. ... You will not be successful."
Dan decided not to nurture the self-doubt that professor's negativism had sparked in his brain. He secretly vowed instead that one day he would keynote at that same university and be respected there for his knowledge and ability. That fantasy did, in fact, materialize as reality four years ago. When Dan was invited to give a presentation, he admits giving some thought to a vision of blasting that professor with caustic remarks. He didn’t. He did shake the man’s hand, concluded that this was simply not a very nice person, and said nothing to recall the unpleasant past interaction. Instead, he enjoyed the success of his presentation and the respect it earned him from colleagues.
He is grateful to have arrived at his chosen destination—a successful computer science professor, about to begin a year’s sabbatical during which he hopes to complete a book on computer science. His book, he hopes, will be completely accessible.
Although a self-proclaimed quiet introvert, Zingaro says he also has a bit of an attraction for danger. While accompanying his partner on a book tour to Seattle not long ago, he went sky-diving. One of his favorite pastimes, alone or with others, is indoor rock climbing. He loves hiking and walking and says he has a bit of a Netflix habit, too.
His gratitude and contentment for the life he lives radiate outward in his desire to share with others. Every professor, he believes, should welcome students with or without disabilities or they simply should not be teaching. He loves his students and welcomes challenges with eagerness.
Asked about advice for others who are blind or low vision and seeking a similar career, his responses come with ease and clarity. Don’t compromise. Pursue your own dream. Professors have expertise in one thing and not all things, so if one tries to discourage your dream, don’t listen. Finally, he says, regard your time as the valuable commodity it is. All to often, he believes, we are careful with our money but not so much with our time. His resistance to having a smart phone is just one indication that he follows his own advice.
Dr. Daniel Zingaro is clearly one sparkling example that the 30 percent of people with visual impairments who have found successful and satisfying employment may be growing.
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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