Cynthia Ng

Cynthia Ng is a librarian, teacher, and technologist. You can find her talking about technology, accessibility, usability, the web, and other things on her blog, and on twitter @TheRealArty. When she has time, she mentors at Ladies Learning Code workshops, and contributes to Mozilla Webmaker.

Published Thoughts

Better than Christmas Morning

People frequently ask me whether I like or enjoy the work that I do.

In theory, I'm helping 10% of the population (though in reality, it's probably a lot less). It's not a huge percentage, but when you live in a country that has millions of people, does it matter?

In our personal lives, we spend much of our lives trying to make even just one person happy (usually our partner, or a family member). If you knew your work was making even just one person's life better, making them happier, would you continue to do it?

Honestly, my work day-to-day can seem very disconnected from the users. It's a lot of administration, organization/coordination, training/documentation, involving a lot of emails and other writing. I communicate with staff and other organizations, but (almost) never directly with the users themselves.

On occasion though, I get an email that tells a story. Every story I get is what keeps me motivated, keeps putting into perspective how important my work is to people.

It landed in our support email inbox, and while I don't remember every word, I will never forget these few words. The simple revelation that our service existed to a young girl made her exclaim that it was:

better than Christmas morning.

Until I saw it, I never thought about how much of an impact my work might have on another person's life, let alone that it actually affects a lot of people in a significant way.

Whenever I start getting the feeling that my work is pointless, I remember the stories, not just this one, but others as well.

If you haven't found your motivation for your work, then maybe you just need to look. Find even just one story of how you've improved someone else's life in a big or small way. Use it. Help yourself to keep going.

A Community Supported on Obsolete Technology

People frequently express their abhorrence, or at least dislike, of obsolete technology that people use: Windows XP, Internet Explorer 8, cassette tapes, VCRs, "dumb" phones, you name it; which is why I frequently wonder why I can't get past obsolete technology that is no longer supported in my job.

My job is to provide accessible formats to print disabled. Some people describe it as "books for the blind", but that's a misconception, because print disabled covers a lot more than blindness. Any disability that prevents someone from reading, but can be solved by shifting the format (typically audio or ebook) qualifies. Think certain learning disabilities, physical disabilities that prevent holding a book or flipping pages, or sight issues but not necessarily blindness.

To get the job done, I use a number of not (well) supported or no longer in development software to create DAISY books (an audio book format specifically designed for people with print disabilities). To do this, I have to work with:

* software last updated in 2011,

* a plugin last updated in 2011 that only works in OpenOffice 3 and loves to crash,

* a Word plugin that was admittedly ported to Office 2013 in January 2014 (so hopefully will be eventually ported to Office 2016), but then relies on Microsoft Word and currently only work on Windows (we tend to produce the audio on Macs because the voices are way better).

Side note: If you search for alternatives to these, you may find what look like perfectly viable solutions to the "old technology" problem, but most free or paid software will typically be for producing human recorded DAISY, not generated text-to-speech using computer voices.

While there is a new version of the main software we use, it still seems like it's very much in development. The last time I tried it, it wouldn't even run. I followed the documentation carefully, but no matter what I did, it just wouldn't start. Maybe I just need to give it another shot, but that will be for another day. Until then, we cannot upgrade our versions of OpenOffice or OSX, lest the obsolete technology we use stops working.

Technology has been great at moving us closer to providing books to people who have (print) disabilities, but technology is moving at a very fast pace, and without extra help, I worry that they'll be left behind.

That means we'll be leaving 10% of the population behind.

More and more of our books are becoming accessible due to being "born" digital (sometimes done with accessibility in mind) and from modern digitization, but more needs to be done. Hopefully, things like MIT's FingerReader become successful, but that's not enough.

And it's not simply a technology problem: a number of the big-name accessible format providers (at least in the U.S. and Canada) are privately owned businesses that print disabled people (or public organizations on their behalf) need to pay extra for, in order to read the same books that everyone else can read, and then don't even own them. Also, a lot of the public organizations that produce accessible formats don't always share their collections with other public organizations.

It seems just another, typical problem in technology doesn't it? 10% technology, 90% people problem.

What can we do? Like most (if not all) big problems, I don't think there is a single solution, but perhaps this thought can make each reader think about this issue, and maybe each thought will turn into a single action, no matter how small, that will contribute to making life better for those 10% of people.