The atmosphere is that of a group of friends gathered in one's living room—bantering, catching up on personal news, falling back on one-liners understood only by shared experience, and encouraging one another to succeed. But it is not a living room, although indeed those who are present vow they expect to be friends for life. Each one is in his or her own work or home environment, sitting in front of a computer, talking into a microphone and listening to the others through a headset or speakers. The occasion is an online class, taught by CathyAnne Murtha, founder of the Access Technology Institute (ATI). The format is called voice chat, in which the students and teacher talk "live" to one another from points scattered around the country in a virtual classroom that renders distance irrelevant. The positive energy they create as a unified group is palpable.
It is the final week of classes for this nine-month training course for will-be trainers of assistive technology. The class has met twice a week for nine months, and final presentations are due this evening. The participants have gathered 15 minutes before the teacher arrives, chatting, joking, and catching up. Asked about their teacher, they respond with exuberant praise. One after another, they praise her teaching style, her extensive knowledge, her patience, and her confidence in their success.
"This class saved my job, literally," says Paula Brannan, a teacher at the Florida School for the Deaf and Blind in Saint Augustine. "Teaching assistive technology just landed on me this year when another teacher retired, and I knew almost nothing about JAWS or Window-Eyes. I've learned more in this class than I ever dreamed, much more than in any college class." Brian Higgins offers several glowing remarks about Murtha's teaching and then says, "Let me sum it up this way. I was a photographer for 25 years and then I lost my vision. Because of CathyAnne and this class, I now have a great job teaching assistive technology to others at the Veterans Administration in Palo Alto."
The tone here is one of sharing skills, breeding success, and helping the one who lags behind. In this instance, the only one who is lagging behind is me, the visitor from AccessWorld! "If you press Alt-F5, you'll see Paula's web page," Murtha instructs in a conversational tone that one friend would use with another. Paula Brannan is making her final presentation to the class, and Murtha wants to be sure that everyone is literally on the same page with the presenter. As problems arise, Murtha calmly suggests solutions. With apparent ease, she remains aware of what all the students are doing—hearing their voices and their screen readers via voice chat and guiding them gracefully through the sometimes-complex world of Windows. Her teaching is not rooted in an understanding of just one or even two applications. Rather, as one student puts it, "Her approach is comprehensive. She teaches the whole computer in the way that some teachers teach whole language."
Murtha explains it another way: "I'm not just teaching them JAWS or Window-Eyes or Microsoft Word. I'm teaching them to understand Windows from the inside out." JoAnn Becker, a Boston-based blindness products manager for Optelec, praises the approach. "CathyAnne teaches you to listen to your screen reader," she says. "My screen reader was saying all those things like "dialogue box" and "combo box" and "radio button," but I had no idea what they really were or what my screen looked like."
Students who graduate from the class for trainers will be versed in Window-Eyes, JAWS for Windows, ZoomText, Microsoft Word, Excel, and Outlook. They will know how to design web pages and write tables and frames. And they will know how to teach others what they have learned. "When they're finished," Murtha says, "I really believe that my students are the best-trained trainers in the world."
"Diving Off a Cliff"
When she is not teaching trainers, Murtha is teaching beginning and intermediate students of assistive technology or writing the textbooks that are a large component of her business. ATI, this one-woman enterprise, is a thriving, growing business that was begun just four years ago in a gesture that Murtha refers to as "diving off a cliff."
At 43, this arguably brilliant woman has had a life that would make good Hollywood material. At 25, she found herself a single mother of three young children— and absolutely no prospects. Totally blind since birth because of an underdeveloped optic nerve, Murtha had never worked for pay. "I had no skills, no education," she recalls. I was living in a small town up in the mountains," in Pioneer, California, "and there was just no work there I could do. I couldn't work in a grocery store or department store."
The creativity that would ultimately find her pioneering on more than one front in the field of assistive technology initially showed itself in keeping Murtha and her children well and together. "I lived completely off the government," she says. "We wound up in homeless shelters three times and sometimes didn't have electricity. But my kids remember those times as adventures."
In 1993, Murtha was able to enroll in college, where she soon earned an associate's degree in English and communications. But the computer she was given as part of her college plan would have a much larger impact on setting Murtha on her path. "I was immediately so fascinated by the Internet," she recalls. Living in the mountains where she did, the calls her computer made with the modem were all long distance. "So I'd get on, grab my e-mail, and get off. Then get on, grab my e-mail, and get off." When she discovered online sources of information, there was no stopping her.
Computer users who are visually impaired who were using technology in the mid-1990s will probably remember the legendary "Cathy's Newsstand." The site was an enormous collection of accessible sources of information that Murtha compiled in her own relentless browsing. "I figured if I wanted to read them, other blind people would, too," she says, "so I just started putting them all on my own web page." There were newspapers from every state in the United States and several countries around the world and countless other sources of information. That insatiable appetite for accessible reading material was tangible evidence of Murtha's quest to know all she could about computers.
Curiosity inspired Murtha to explore and master one application after another. In 1994 and 1995, she took her first stab at writing tutorials for other computer users who are blind. Looking back, she says now, "They were pretty lame. I just went through menu options for Eudora and Netscape Navigator and other programs, but back then, that was what people wanted." The tutorials, recorded on audiocassettes by Murtha, were fairly popular. Unfortunately, she made little money. "I had a business partner who handled all the money," she says. He wasn't a very good choice. In the end, she netted about $400 to his $10,000. Still, she has no regrets. "I honed my skills then," she says, "my writing skills for writing real textbooks and my business and marketing skills that would go into ATI."
In 1999, Murtha was hired as a computer trainer by the Society for the Blind in Sacramento. The story of her job interview is a perfect example of her resourcefulness and innate rapport with computers. The job interview required her to write a letter. As a blind person, Murtha needed a screen reader to use the computer, and Window-Eyes, a program that she had never encountered, was the only screen reader it had. Murtha panicked for a minute and then realized that it did not matter whether she knew the particular screen reader because she knew how to use Windows itself. She wrote the letter—letterhead and all—and was immediately hired. (She also downloaded the Window-Eyes demo when she got home, determined to have intimate knowledge of the program before she met her first group of students.)
Murtha began writing training materials for JAWS, Window-Eyes, and other applications while on that job, and she discovered that she loved teaching and had a natural talent for it. "But I didn't enjoy teaching students who didn't want to learn," she recalls. When suddenly faced with an ultimatum that involved working a schedule that was, for her, untenable, she took a sudden and impulsive risk. "I walked," she laughs, "and it felt great—until I got home and realized I had about $200 in my bank account!"
Her best friend, George Buys, an Arizona businessman who is blind and who founded Audio-tips, an online "voice chat" community, had listened to her talk about her dream of using the voice chat medium to teach. "To my knowledge," Murtha says, "it had never been done before." Buys persuaded her, reminding her that she was a "cliff diver," and eight days after she left her job, she was online teaching her first students.
That was in May 2000, and today, Murtha is more financially successful than she has ever been, and she is doing something she loves. She spends part of each day writing—constantly editing and updating her collection of textbooks—and the rest of the day either teaching or distributing information about upcoming classes. She gets the word out by posting announcements to a few dozen e-mail lists that are accessed by users of assistive technology and some direct mailings to agencies and schools. Frequently, her announcements are about upcoming classes that can be attended for free.
"What I want more than anything," she reflects, "is to be reputable. I take great pride in my work. I'm selling a product, and it's a quality product. I ask a fair price for my product, but I also believe that the more you give away, the more you receive."
In keeping with that conviction, she gives away plenty. On her web site, for example, prospective students can download for free the recordings of a two-week class in Windows 98/ME/XP that she offered (also at no charge) in December 2003. Also on the ATI site are free sample lessons that introduce potential students to her training in Excel, Word, Eudora, Outlook, and other programs. Murtha is confident, she says, that when people use her free classes and samples, they will probably buy textbooks for independent study or pay to sign up for an online training session.
About 90 percent of ATI's business, however, is in the sale of Murtha's textbooks. Murtha has written tutorials for using JAWS for Windows, Window-Eyes, Microsoft Word, Excel, HTML, and more. Each "book" arrives in the form of a single CD, clearly labeled in both print and braille. On the CD, each individual lesson is available in multiple formats—HTML, Microsoft Word, MP3, and RealAudio. Choosing either of the latter two, you hear Murtha's own teaching (sometimes including a bit more than in the Microsoft Word document, she admits) talking the user through the new learning process, each keystroke of the way.
"I was providing textbooks in digital files before anyone else," she says, "and at first there was a real uproar against it. People wanted tapes, good old familiar cassette tapes, and I'd tell them, 'No, this is so much better.'" Now, she says, with all her material produced in digital formats, only one file has to be changed when updating is necessary—not an entire set of tapes or another product—so that teaching materials are always current.
An Outstanding Teacher
Listening to her warm, articulate style, it is tough to comprehend that this entrepreneur and pioneer is actually shy. Murtha has never gone to a technology conference or organized blindness convention (with the exception of accepting two invitations to present papers). When her students chat about having ATI class reunions at future conventions or conferences, they all say, almost in unison, "But CathyAnne will be there via voice chat!"
Even granting this interview, she explains, was an unusual gesture. "I guess it sounds odd," she muses, "but I have my family, I have my boyfriend, I have my guide dog—I'm happy in my world! I don't want anything else."
When she looks back over the past decade, Murtha says it is clear to her now that, without planning it, every pursuit was ultimately preparing her to launch ATI. "My college English classes prepared me to do all the writing," she says, referring to not only her textbooks, but her web site, which is written and designed entirely by her. "My speech classes prepared me to communicate clearly and to teach." And all that insatiable curiosity about the Internet and every other piece of the computer world she has encountered prepared her to be an outstanding and successful teacher. If students come with a desire to learn, Murtha guarantees that they will.
For more information, visit her web site,