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Linux for visually-impaired (developers)

On Sunday, the day before LCA 2008 officially started, Kelly and Rusty asked us first-timers to blog about events, specifically about what we liked and disliked. So far, this conference has been really enjoyable and busy, and I have not found the time to write about its content. The talk I just heard leaves me without an excuse, so there:

I have recently had a very interesting and enlightening discussion with a blind Debian developer. When I saw on the conference schedule that Jason White would talk about using Linux with speech and Braille output interfaces, I passed up my opportunity to hear Andrew Tridgell talk about clustered Samba and attended his lecture instead.

Jason covered a great number of aspects: from the history of the Braille system, and current, Free implementations thereof, via speech output, to strategies of integrating these techniques into existing programmes — which are generally not designed with visually-impaired users in mind. He has a collection of references on his webpage, to which I shall refer for the technical content.

His presentation left me very excited and impressed. Excited to see him giving a presentation with such enthusiasm and energy, and impressed because his talk (without notes or slides) was by far better than the job of the average presenter with access to notes and slides to display. Jason conveyed a lot of information in a very well-structured, capitivating report. I think he left most of the audience "speechless" (figuratively speaking; there were good questions).

I feel uneasy with thanking Jason explicitly, or even writing this blog post. If you bear with me for a minute, then let me bridge to women involvement in open-source software. My position on this topic is quite clear: I make no distinctions where they are not obvious, and simultaneously I think it's awesome that more and more women are joining the predominantly male crowd (and their influence undeniably makes the community a more comfortable place). Every now and then, I would like to comment on that, such as "I think it's awesome that you are working on this, being a woman" (an oversimplified example). What I am trying to say is "given how few women are involved with OSS, I appreciate all the more what you are doing." This is non-judgemental, I don't say this because I am trying to highlight someone's gender or sex. It's a communication issue, and I am learning, but I'd also rather not limit what I say by making absolutely sure never to offend anyone. But when I utter such a comment, it might still greatly annoy someone or yield vicious returns. This is not always the case — in fact, less than it used to be — but I've encountered it here and there, which made me more careful.

So when I write about Jason's presentation and how great it was, I want to highlight how it's a greater achievement for him than it would be for me, because he is blind and I am not. I don't mean to single him out or put him on the spot. I am simply impressed, very impressed. And being who I am, I'd like to say so.

Thanks, Jason.

Update: David Schmitt makes an interesting point:

The important question is now, why are we blind people doing great presentations more impressing than people with working eyes doing a great presentation? My personal answer isn’t so great: “because I didn’t expect it.” No wonder people get offended if you tell’em to their face that I’m impressed with his achievements, because I wouldn’t have expected it.

I don't agree, or at least I fail to see it. I was impressed, I did not expect it (which isn't to say that I came in to Jason's talk expecting it to be any less than a good talk, I had no expectation! Please think for a second if this isn't immediately clear!)… is that offensive? I didn't know Jason, had no way to know whether his presentations are great or less so, but then he pretty much blew me away. The presentation was better than what I am used to (from anyone), and the achievement is all the more greater because it seems to me that he has had to put much more effort into it, purely for accessibility reasons.

I guess I should know better, but I still, after all these years, have a problem seeing through the end of it, understanding it. Kant to the rescue, my intentions are good (I claim), but this goes both ways regardless: in any communication, one ought to try hard never to offend. At the same time, one ought to try hard not to be offended until one can be reasonably sure that offence was intended. When I brought this up in Adaora Oniya's miniconf talk on communication challenges, Bdale Garbee recalled the policy in use when he was involved in protocol design work groups: send politely, receive with an open mind. I don't remember his exact words, but I think I got the gist.

Update: I just talked to Jason and got his feedback on the issue. It boils down to a quote I'll transcribe: "I want my work to be judged by its merit and not by who I am." It only leaves me wondering about the situation at hand: I was impressed by his very well-structured and presented talk and by the fact that he did such a good job given his visual impairment.

In any case, I'll close the issue. Jason told me he'd happily engage in further discussion and I stated that he is not offended.

There is another lesson I learnt: the next time I blog about someone else in such a way, I should really get his/her clearance before publishing! Just to be sure…