As a young boy growing up in India, I walked away from my first computer class convinced that I could never put the technology to good use. My eyes were already beginning to fail me, the result of a degenerative eye disease. The visual impairment made it difficult for me to conceptualize the computing concepts the teacher described.
Over time, with the use of screen-reading technology, I learned ways to unlock the power of computers and smart phones. This opened up the world for me. For the first time, I could think about competing with my peers.
Soon after, I came over to the United States for advanced education in Information Systems. First a Masters, and then a PhD made me the first ever blind man to earn a doctorate in this field. As a doctoral student at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, I researched ways to make the internet more blind-friendly. Research institutions and organizations serving the blind from across the globe including the Association for the Blind & Visually Impaired partnered with me in this endeavor and more.
My research has placed me in a unique position -- a liaison between the 50 million blind people around the world and researchers interested in Internet accessibility and usability. I leverage this position to educate the world about the unique needs and strengths of blind people. I strive to change people's perception about the blind from one of a receiver of help to that of an untapped pool of special talents. Currently, blind people are second-class citizens when it comes to Internet accessibility and usability. Because the internet is sight-centered by design, blind people constantly face barriers in completing tasks a sighted person would consider routine -- sending an email or chatting with Facebook friends.
To combat this problem, my research, “The Mind of the Blind on the Web,” focuses on understanding the problems blind people face in today’s internet society, and removing obstacles by creating better interfaces and more effective user training.
At present, I am a faculty member at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee where I continue to work towards empowering the blind in the information society. I lead a team of researchers to establish a research center dedicated to this cause. My responsibilities at UWM also include teaching Information Science & Technology courses. I believe blindness is an inconvenience that can be reduced if we design the environment for non-visual interaction. Doing so benefits the entire society that can leverage the unique intellectual and technical skills of blind citizens for progress.
Since 2004, the Association for the Blind & Visually Impaired through its social worker, John McElheron, has been a part of my journey. John has helped me with my professional development while I was a student at Central Michigan University. As an advisory board member, John has been part of my research projects on empowerment of blind citizens in the information society. John and I have worked together mentoring and helping some individuals with blindness on their career development. Currently, we are in discussions on how to help the students at a blind school in my native place in India. In addition to these work-related interactions, we have become friends visiting each other multiple times over the years simply to socialize.