Chase Crispin has always had a passion for three things: technology, music, and teaching. Born in 1997, he isn’t quite old enough to remember the days of manual typewriters, but he certainly has seen assistive technology for the blind come a long way in his 23 years on the planet. That technology, along with a lot of hard work and attention to detail, has enabled Crispin to become a gainfully employed young man who just happens to be totally blind. In the following paragraphs, you will learn Crispin’s story and possibly discover some tips that might help you or someone you know land a really good job without letting the challenges of blindness become an insurmountable hindrance to that goal. There are no quick steps to success, no formula to follow to ensure that all the obstacles will melt away. Instead, you will see a pattern of hard work and optimism that eventually paid off for Crispin, both literally and figuratively. I play a part in Crispin’s story, but only a small part. The conversations I’ve had with him in preparing this article have been both enjoyable and enlightening. I trust that readers of his story will come away as refreshed from your reading as I have been from the writing.
In 2007, Crispin was at home when he should have been in school. He wasn't playing hooky; he had pneumonia. His orientation and mobility teacher knew how much Crispin loved assistive technology, and thought he might enjoy working with the new Braille Plus the school had just acquired from The American Printing House for the Blind (APH). She brought the notetaker to Crispin's home, and he immediately began working with it during his recovery. By the time he returned to school, he couldn't wait to show his teacher what this new gadget could do. She asked him if he would be willing to record some videos of him working with the device for the benefit of other students, and he was interested. His teacher had connections at APH, and the company eventually placed links to Crispin's videos in their newsletter. He tells me they still exist on YouTube to this day.
In 2008, to celebrate its 150th birthday, APH held a writing contest where students were invited to submit an essay on the importance of technology in their lives. Crispin won the contest and got to visit APH headquarters. It was during this time that Larry Skutchan, APH's director of technology product research was producing the wildly popular Blind Cool Tech podcast. Sadly, archives of this podcast are not currently available on the Web. Crispin has a vivid memory of hearing Skutchan's familiar voice in the hall at APH, and had the privilege of going to lunch with him later that day. Over lunch, Skutchan recorded a podcast where he interviewed young Crispin, who spoke with a maturity beyond his years. Product demos followed, and Crispin's voice became familiar to the blind community. His task-oriented approach to teaching, along with his attention to detail, made his demos a hit. He stayed in touch with Skutchan, and was a beta tester for various APH products over the years.
In 2009, I was a part of Main Menu, a weekly technology show produced for ACB Radio. I eventually hosted and produced the show until the fall of 2011. During one episode, I brought together several high school students to discuss how they used technology in school. Crispin was on that panel. I eventually invited him to become a regular part of the Main Menu team. When I left the show at the end of 2011, Crispin became its executive producer until September 2014, when he realized his high school and college studies should take first priority.
For years, Crispin thought he wanted to become a computer programmer and work with his mentor Larry Skutchan at APH. During his junior year of high school, he took a computer programming class and realized that programming didn't interest him in the way he thought it would. He liked to move around too much to be tethered to a desk all day. Besides, he wasn't as interested in what made technology work as he was in actually getting the most out of it and teaching others how to do the same.
For most of his life, when he wasn't playing with technology Crispin was playing music—piano in kindergarten, clarinet and sax in 5th grade, and choir throughout his school years. Crispin was as serious about his music as he was about technology, entering competitions and playing in his school's Jazz band. He decided to combine his love for music with the teaching skills he had acquired while producing all those videos and podcasts on how to use assistive technology.
He decided to major in music education and attended Nebraska Wesleyan University near his home in Lincoln. During an earlier visit to another college, a professor expressed doubts about a blind person being able to successfully teach music. NWU had no such reservations, and he was soon a part of regular college life, even visiting Spain for six weeks at the end of his first year.
Crispin didn't learn braille music when he was in high school, but developed a system of his own that worked well in conjunction with recordings and his ability to play by ear. By the time he reached college, he realized he needed to know the braille music code. A course from Hadley got him up and running with braille music, and he hasn't looked back.
Crispin now teaches 6th- through 8th-grade music classes for the Lincoln, Nebraska, public school system. He uses a door alarm to alert him when students enter or leave the classroom. He uses a Macbook Air at school, and posts information such as the day's agenda to an Apple TV. BARD from the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped offers many of the music books and scores he requires, but software from Dancing Dots allows him to emboss volumes of music in hard copy braille.
When I asked Crispin what piece of technology he would most hate to give up, he told me that he could not do his job as effectively without his Dot Watch. He is able to keep track of time, read text messages, and deal with many other notifications without the need for speech. Crispin says fast speech and fast braille reading help him be as productive as he can be.
Sighted people often have never had extended interactions with a blind person, and Crispin is very open to answering their questions, demonstrating how he uses technology, and any other topics of interest to them. Dressing professionally and looking in the direction of the person to whom he is speaking are also important. Crispin is not shy about making his colleagues aware of mistakes they may be making when working with blind children, such as the time the teacher in a classroom allowed a blind student to face the back of the room because, after all, he was listening and couldn't see content being displayed anyway. Crispin asserted that this was not okay, and that the professionals involved with this child's education were doing him a disservice by allowing this behavior.
As much as Crispin uses cutting-edge technology, he also uses devices as simple as a braille labeler to more easily identify file cabinets, and to keep track of bleach and hand sanitizer bottles that feel the same.
Crispin does a lot of freelance work for various churches in his community, playing piano and organ for Sunday services. He uses Uber and Lyft to travel to his job sites, and the ever popular AIRA and Be My Eyes services are close at hand as well.
Finally, Crispin is an iPhone user. When he was in Spain, his host family didn't speak English and he didn't speak Spanish. He now has a minor in Spanish. He has a lot of food allergies, so he frequently looked up the ingredients of dishes he was eating to make certain they were safe for him.
Crispin currently teaches part time, and in light of COVID-19 he is okay with that. He needs to get close to students and touch instruments to do his job successfully. Eventually, he wants to teach full time, and grad school is in his future.
When asked what areas of technology he would most like to see advancements in, he mentioned Web accessibility improvements in Google Classroom, which he uses in his daily work, and more automated music translation that would come closer to current OCR software.
Throughout the course of my interview with Crispin for this article, I was repeatedly struck by his attention to detail. One example of this is the fact that, although students must call out to him in class because he can't see their raised hands, he asks them to go ahead and raise their hand as they call out to him. This keeps them in the habit of raising their hands in class, which is the accepted practice in most every classroom. After student teaching for a group of young students, their teacher later told him that even after he left, the students still called out their name as they raised their hand. It was as though they associated this particular protocol with music class.
So what can we learn from Crispin that will help us on the road to successful employment? First, work hard. Second, take nothing for granted and pay attention to the details. Third, think outside the box. Whether it's a simple solution or one that requires the use of multiple screen readers to accomplish a task, it's important not to give up when you may be just in reach of your goal.
What does the future hold for Chase Crispin? It's anybody's guess, but we probably haven't heard the last of this inspiring young man.
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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