When I was getting the mail one day, there were the usual couple of manila envelopes, typically holding brailled versions of bank and credit card statements, and one small padded enveloped that grabbed 100 percent of my attention immediately. The reason? There was braille on the outside of the package. Beautiful braille. Perfect braille. I shifted the rest of the mail to my other arm in order to read it.
"Mystic Access," said that braille label, along with an email address and phone number. Somewhat absurdly, I found myself almost wistful that I hadn’t ordered more from Mystic Access, that I didn’t have another package on the way to me with beautiful braille on its outside surface.
Mystic Access: The Company
Good things come in little packages, the song lyric goes, and Mystic Access is, as a company, a very small package with just two staff members, Chris Grabowski and Kim Loftis. Even so, they are rapidly becoming that proverbial big fish in the small pond of technological products and training for people with visual impairments. They succeed because they understand what customers want and what will bring them back.
Maybe you want to work, but aren't attracted to typical workplaces like corporations or universities. Mystic Access is a picture of how two people solved this challenge for themselves. Both self-proclaimed introverts, Grabowski and Loftis not only created their own path to employment, they created the employment itself.
Grabowski lives in Buffalo, NY and Loftis lives in Burnsville, NC. They live hundreds of miles apart, in entirely different geographical environments, but they work together every day, teaching, creating products, and strategizing for their company’s future.
Mystic Access: The Products
Mystic Access has found success, in part, by developing and offering a range of products.
Grabowski and Loftis estimate that about half their time is spent developing audio tutorials. They have formed partnerships with companies like HumanWare, Dolphin, and BlindShell, to write and record audio tutorials for products like the BrailleNote Touch Plus (reviewed in this issue), the Victor Reader Stream, Dolphin Guide Connect and, most recently, BlindShell. If you own one of those products, you are already familiar with the work of Mystic Access, as the voice of Loftis or Grabowski has patiently taught and reviewed with you the features of your technology.
On the Mystic Access website, built and maintained by the company’s own two staff members, both of whom are totally blind, you will find tutorials for a plethora of specialized and mainstream products. Would you like to learn more about voice assistants like Google Home and Amazon’s Alexa? Are you interested in the basic function of an Android smartphone or tablet? Maybe you would like someone to metaphorically hold your hand through the process of moving from one screen reader to another. Have you wondered about products like Roku, Chromebooks, or the little robotic Roomba that can sweep your floor? Loftis and Grabowski love playing with all of these products, breaking down what they discover into manageable modules, and zipping it up as a single recording. All tutorials have DAISY mark-up, so you can navigate easily from one end to the other with your portable book player or an app on your phone. Speaking of apps, they develop tutorials for plenty of those as well!
Mystic Access sells a variety of physical hardware, too. If they find a speaker or headset or other piece of technology that interests them, they add it to the product catalog and make it available to their customers. The added Mystic Access bonus feature, of course, is that every product comes with an accompanying audio tutorial. What fun is a new speaker, after all, if you don’t know how to turn it on and use it and the manual is in print? Last year, they partnered with Barry Scheur of Guidelights and Gadgets and have now added some of those products, including a portable power bank for charging on the go, bone conduction headphones, and more. Each of these products, of course, was immediately fine-tuned with a customized tutorial, designed by Mystic Access to accompany each hardware purchase.
Classes and Podcasts and More, Oh My!
Grabowski began distributing podcasts about access technology back in 2007. In 2013, Kim joined him in the virtual recording studio, and Mystic Access was soon officially formed. Today, there are some 200 podcasts available for download from the website, with more coming regularly to your podcast catcher of choice. Although you can’t usually tell from the corny titles (such as "Would you Like a Candy Bar?” or “I Call It the Everything Bag”), the podcasts are a mix of new products the company is selling, new services or products the two have encountered, or announcements of upcoming classes. The classes are a mix of free and paid training. The free sessions, held monthly January through November, run the technological gamut from streaming TV services and audio description to fun sites for conducting your holiday shopping. All become free downloads, so are on the site to be enjoyed by anyone who comes there to browse. Then there are the in-depth online trainings, also on a variety of technological subjects that are held on the Zoom platform. You can join the class with your computer or smartphone or simply by making a call from your landline. Some classes last three weeks and some are longer, but all, when finished, are edited and packaged as a product that can be purchased at any time. If you participate in a class, you get that zipped-up product as a bonus for having paid for the class itself.
Mystic Access: The People
Chris Grabowski and Kim Loftis are two people who are totally blind and who love sharing the journey of using technology with other blind people, and who love making it easy and fun for those who may not be so technologically inclined. The irony is that, in both cases, things didn’t start out that way.
I interviewed Grabowski and Loftis separately and it interested me that each of them described early interactions with technology in the same way. “I came into it kicking and screaming,” was Loftis's’s amused reflection, and Grabowski, similarly, told me of the teacher in high school who tried, in vain, to interest him in computers.
Clearly, each somehow overcame that early disdain. Turns out that the turning point, albeit in schools that were hundreds of miles apart, happened similarly for each.
The teacher for the visually impaired in Grabowski's Buffalo high school showed him the new Braille ‘n Speak one day. She didn’t know how to use it, but she told him to take it home and see if he could figure it out. “It was really a pivotal moment for me,” he recalls, because with the device came a recorded cassette. The calm and encouraging voice of Fred Gissoni, the blind pioneer who was a consummate teacher and distributor of knowledge, introduced that little Braille ‘n Speak to a teenager who hated computers. For the first time, Grabowski could learn all about a product on his own, without anyone else in the room. He learned it and loved it!
“I ate that thing up,” he says. “When I took it back to school, I knew everything about it.” That was 1989.
Although Loftis was only 11 years old when she had her similarly enlightening moment, for her it was the Braille ‘n Speak 640, a sibling of that original Braille ‘n Speak, that captured her heart.
She carried it everywhere, wrote stories and poems in it, and like Chris, knew everything there was to know about using this remarkable device.
Eventually, each of them would come to appreciate and value computers The both fell in love with the original BrailleNote, introduced by HumanWare in 2000. They came to that product, however, by completely different paths.
Now in his late 40s, Grabowski remembers that he always had difficulty seeing when he was young, but could read the large print in his schoolbooks and read the smaller print under his CCTV. Then, one day near the end of his fourth grade year, the book on his desk that had appeared perfectly clear only a day ago, was now impossible for him to see. The substitute teacher thought he was playing a prank, but his parents had him at the hospital the next day.
Glaucoma was the explanation and braille lessons would soon begin. By the time he was out of school and working, Grabowski was totally blind.
As a senior in high school, Grabowski worked as a paid intern for a Buffalo assistive technology center. He had held summer jobs there before, and would continue in that job, teaching and testing technology products, for another 15 years.
In 2006, an opportunity he still considers serendipitous and magical came his way. At the university of Buffalo where he was teaching others to use technology, it was in the natural course of events that Grabowskie would become acquainted with the HumanWare BrailleNote. He wasn’t and still isn’t much of a braille reader. What captivated him was the Sendero GPS. Long before GPS receivers were in every car in America, Sendero and HumanWare put them in the hands of blind people. Chris was completely smitten and was soon participating in the Sendero adventures called Way Fun. Arriving in San Francisco for the first time, Grabowski was asked by Sendero CEO Mike May to meet and escort three other blind people from the airport to a train and yet another train to join the rest of the Way Fun group in the city. A new city, a new experience, but thrilled by the challenge, Chris led the party with style on what he would later recognize as his job interview. He left the University of Buffalo and worked for Sendero for the next seven years. There was plenty of travel to interesting destinations, but most of his time was spent providing technical support to Sendero customers. He loved the mix of routine and adventure.
In 2013, when iPhones were overshadowing the allure of GPS on BrailleNotes, Chris and Sendero regretfully parted ways.
Mystic Access was launched by then, but Chris says he really didn’t do much with it until 2015.
His first tutorials were for Sense Navigation and the Sendero Maps, logical progressions from the GPS-related work he had been doing. He did tech support for GW Micro and other assistive technology companies for a time on a contract basis and was following conversations on various access technology related email lists.
For Kim Loftis, braille was a key element in her world for as long as she can remember. Born three months early and weighing in at a whopping 1 pound, 10 ounces, Loftis's parents felt fortunate that all of the possible outcomes of the excessive oxygen their baby received never materialized. Their daughter was completely blind, but she had no other disabilities. She was a feisty, healthy kid. Like Grabowski, Loftis attended public school, where she was actively involved in everything from theater productions and marching band to hanging out with other smart kids in her academically gifted class and creative writing society.
Her mom learned enough braille to help her daughter learn to read, and Loftis remembers as early as age three finding braille labels on everything important to her, starting with her toy piano.
She read her textbooks, when possible, in braille, and used braille music some of the time for her lessons in piano and trombone. At her small college, not far from home, she majored first in music, then extended her time for a psychology degree, thinking that might lead to employment. But attending so much more school started to seem daunting so she opted instead to set up business as a life coach for a while.
When she was ready in her mid-twenties to get out of her parents’ home, she had a house waiting. Her grandfather had given her a little house when she was only a teenager and, although she rented it out for a while, Loftis ultimately made it her home.
Although she never pursued a career in music or theater, you can hear that early training in her teaching and encouragement on the Mystic Access tutorials. You can also hear remnants of her life coaching days as she gently cheerleads her students through difficult concepts.
Grabowski and Loftis met online when Loftis was looking to buy a second-hand braille embosser. One thing led to another and one day, Grabowski asked her what she thought of developing a tutorial for the Victor Reader Stream.
They both clearly recall that her initial reaction was, “Why?” She had figured out how to use the device easily enough. But when she discovered that a tutorial wasn't available, the two gave the project a try.
They introduced the news of that Victor Stream tutorial on a Tek Talk teleconference program in May 2015, and the two have been full steam ahead with Mystic Access ever since.
That first tutorial was such a success that HumanWare approached them to develop a tutorial for the first BrailleNote Touch. From there it was the Brailliant BI-14 and the Touch Plus. Other companies soon followed. Most recently, they completed a tutorial for the BlindShell mobile phone, which will be distributed for free to every BlindShell customer.
While Mystic Access has not made Grabowski and Loftis wealthy yet, they are doing well and constantly developing new ideas. They have written books together for National Braille Press, have provided group and one-on-one training throughout the blind and low vision community, and keep those entertaining podcasts and monthly free online sessions coming.
Lessons Learned and Next Steps
Grabowski and Loftis both use much of the technology they teach and talk about. Grabowski says his daily companions include Google Home and Amazon Echo, his iPhone, his PC, and many other devices including several in the home automation arena. He uses his voice to turn on the lights or lock the doors and he installs all these tools and toys himself. Loftis says her iPhone and BrailleNote Touch Plus are her constant companions, and she spends as much time as she can making music on her favorite keyboard. Lots of other tools and toys, including Apple Watch, her laptop, and some voice assistants keep things in her little rural cottage lively.
They both love what they do and look forward to growth.
Grabowski advises others interested in building their own employment to develop their brand and build or have someone build a website. Sometimes, as Loftis puts it, there’s too much time on the hamster wheel, working nonstop, so it’s important to remember to take time for fun and pleasure. Grabowski expressed similar sentiments, saying, “It’s important to know when to shut it all off and just read or get together with a few good friends."
Eventually, they hope to have more members on the Mystic Access team, but for now, they are just loving sharing what they know, encouraging others on the technological journey. The company motto is “Where the Magic is in Learning." Grabowski and Loftis have found their personal employment magic and are assisting countless other blind people to have fun while learning.
Loftis says it is just so gratifying to know that they are creating materials that are actually going out into the world and benefitting people. It is, after all, those little touches, knowing what customers really want—like a braille label on a merchandise package—that makes a business work.
Find out more about Mystic Access, download information and podcasts, or browse products at the Mystic Access website, or call 716-543-3323, or write Chris@mysticaccess.com or Kim@mysticaccess.com.
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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