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Portrait of the month - Bart Simons

Q: Hello, Bart, and thank you so much for having accepted to be our guest for "Portrait of the Month", the new column of our newsletter.

A: It's an absolute pleasure.

Q: So, are you totally blind?

A: Yes, since birth.

Q: Tell us about your school education.

A: Fortunately enough, my parents found it very important that I was around sighted kids, so I went to a mainstream kindergarden, primary and secondary school (I was in a blind school only in the first year of primary, to learn Braille). It was really thanks to my parents, because thirty years ago mainstream education was definitely not common for blind kids: there were no technical aids such as laptops at the time, and teachers were not prepared to work with Braille. I really have to thank their stubbornness and dedication: many times I would come home with papers that they had to read aloud, exercises that hadn't been Brailled etc.

Q: Was it easy to find a mainstream school?

A: No, on the contrary: it was really an effort.

Q: Did any school refuse to take you on board?

A: I don't know if they literally said no, but it was easy to feel whether they were willing to co-operate or not. But my parents finally found a school, and one of the teachers was so enthusiastic that she even learned Braille over the summer holidays before I started.

Q: When did the computer magically appear during your schooling?

A: Well, I started with my first Braille note-taker when I was 8: a Perkins typewriter with a little device hooked up to it; what I wrote appeared on the screen, and it could also be printed.

Q: Oh, that's really amazing, especially at that time!

A: Yes... but it could store only one document, so I could basically work task by task, which is rather OK for an 8-year-old. Three years later, a more modern version came out which could store 200 files, but no folders. I started using a laptop only in 1998, when I went to university. I had already learnt to use a DOS PC, but only at home: in school we had to constantly move from class to class so the note-taker was a much better choice.

Q: Since you used your note-taker so much, I assume you're a very good Braille reader.

A: Yes. Even at university, I had everything Brailled: at the beginning of the academic year my shelves were empty, but in the summer they were stuffed with books! I even got my notes printed. I really couldn't imagine to use my computer only with speech: it's great for e-mails, Web browsing and everything you read only once, but if I have to study something I prefer having it in Braille.

Q: What did you study at university?

A: Applied Economics. It's less theoretical than Economics and focuses more on the practical side of things. I chose it because it encompassed a broader range of topics: marketing, computers...

Q: It sounds like a pretty coragious choice, considering all the graphs you must've encountered! Especially at a time when accessibility wasn't as advanced as it is today!

A: You're right, there were a lot of graphs and Maths, which is also why I preferred having my books in Braille. The Braille Transcription Centre had to work very hard for me indeed, to emboss the images and do all the graphs! And, even with everything printed, I still needed some help from my father every now and then: books didn't always arrive on time, or graphs were too complicated to figure them out by myself (a dotted line and a continuous line: which one was the blue and which one the red?).

Q: If you decided to study something with a lot of Maths, I suspect you had been prepared well for it in primary and secondary school.

A: I actually didn't have a lot, because I chose languages in secondary school, but I had good basics, and my teachers were very helpful: they always said what they were writing on the board (no slides and computers at that time!). I typed mathematical operations on my note-taker, but the text would be converted into "visual" when I printed it: for instance, I would write three fourths as 3/4, but on paper that would appear as a normal fraction, with the numerator above and the denominator below.

Q: So, going back to your university studies... I get the impression that they went very well, all in all!

A: Yes, I graduated on time, in four years... it's true that sometimes I needed more time for the exams, because I didn't always get the books on time, but all in all it went pretty smoothly.

Q: Did you immediately start looking for a job?

A: No, I felt like I was really not ready to work, so I decided to take a one-year degree in e-communication: communication science applied to the Internet. It was 2002-2003, so this kind of stuff was absolutely everywhere! We had courses on e-law, e-marketing, e-commerce... writing for the Web, researching the Web, online surveys creation... It was a rather easy year: very interesting, but by far not as hard as Applied Economics (I didn't even have a dissertation to write). And then I felt like I knew something I could actually use "on the field" and actively started looking for a job.

Q: And did you find one?

A: Yes, almost by chance. On a mailing list for visually impaired people I was subscribed to, someone was looking for a blind person who could give a demonstration of the screen reader JAWS. The company organizing the presentation had been employed by the European Commission to make Web content accessible, in line with a law that had just been implemented. And I guess it had decided to sell accessible content also to "more commercial" clients and wanted to start by showing them the actual benefits brought by screen readers. I was still studying e-communication, I had time on my hands and the company even offered to pay me, so I said "Why not?". The presentation went very well: clients were enthusiastic and really saw the benefits of accessibility (I showed them an accessible and a non-accessible website, and they realized that creating accessible content is not impossible at all). Some time later, the company asked me to do another presentation, but for their own employees this time: they were supposed to create accessible content, but did not have a clue as to why it was so important for disabled people. "We tell them over and over again that they have to fill in the alt attributes for images, but they still don't do it! We're sure they'll be much more motivated once they see the practical benefits of accessibility". After the second presentation, the company asked me to send my CV and a motivational letter... and before I knew it, I had my contract. I must say that the presentation was the ideal way to get introduced to my future bosses and colleagues: I got to know them informally first, they saw I could actually be very useful, and I overcame all the possible prejudices at a stroke, instead of having to convince them of my abilities as you always need to do with normal job applications.

Q: Amazing story. It really shows how a little, apparently unimportant thing can lead to great ones! So you were employed as what, exactly?

A: As accessibility tester: I was part of the team that checked websites before they were declared ready for the client. I learned a lot on the job: of course I used JAWS and I knew what was accessible for me, but I didn't know the ins and outs of the International Accessibility Guidelines, especially because they concern different kinds of disability, not only blindness. Another thing I really loved was the fact that the environment was very international, as we worked for the European Commission: we had colleagues from China, South America, Africa...

Q: I notice you talk about your job using the past tense. What happened?

A: We had a 5-year contract with the European Commission, but already after two there was not too much to be checked anymore: my colleagues knew what to do by then and didn't really need my accessibility check, especially because the websites we were dealing with were always of the same kind. I felt that I didn't have much more to learn and that I wasn't really growing in the company, so I decided to quit the job... but not before I had found something else, of course. Once again, I was quite lucky because I knew there was a vacancy at the Belgian Blind Association. They did accessibility testing as well, but for all kinds of clients. The project had been launched in 2000 and was called "BlindSurfer": too much stress on blindness, but that's no wonder, considering it was an association for the blind. The fact that I was already working as accessibility tester definitely helped me to get the job, because it meant that they didn't have to train me and I could start working from day one, which is a great advantage for an NGO. I started working in Leuven, the city where I already lived, with other colleagues working from other cities, but then our team was moved to an office in Brussels. And I'm still there, after more than 10 years!

Q: So, tell us about your job.

A: We assist people to make digital content (websites, apps, PDF files...) accessible, by either training them or checking that what they've already done complies with the International Accessibility Guidelines: we explain where the problems lie and suggest how to solve them... which is also a way of training, but on their own content. More important still, we try to prevent accessibility errors: we work with schools that teach to develop apps and websites, as it is much harder to re-train someone who's been making websites for 10 years than to teach him the correct way right from the start. That is why we try to get accessibility included in Web development curricula and we go around Belgium to give guest lectures. We see more than 1.000 students every year and schools invite us again because they understand the benefits. However, it only works if professors include accessibility in their courses: we can't teach it to students in a 2-hour guest lecture, we can only stress that what they learn about it in their courses can really make a difference. We definitely raise awareness, but if students have never heard anything about accessibility techniques, they are not going to learn it in one day! We also try to convince schools to include accessibility in exams, giving a lower mark if the assignment contains accessibility errors. So, all in all, we try to intervene as early as possible in the creation of content, because asking to make substantial modifications to something which is already finished is definitely not rewarding, whereas working with developers while they are creating ensures they won't have to re-do the rest of it.

Q: How common is it for clients to look for your help? I know that accessibility is finally going to become compulsory for public and governmental content, but what about the rest of the market?

A: Indeed, it's a completely voluntary choice. Somehow, we always have enough work, even without promotion, but it's still a very small amount of websites and apps, and not always the most useful ones. However, sometimes we get asked for help also by very common services, especially banks: they are not many and they know that everybody, whether disabled or not, needs a bank. The same cannot be said for restaurants, for instance.

Q: Do you make accessible content for all kinds of disability?

A: Yes, we apply the International Accessibility Guidelines, which contain rules for visual, hearing and motor disabilities. So, even though we're paid by an association for the blind, we still ask for videos to be subtitled or for keystrokes to replace the mouse gestures (for people with visual or motor disabilities). It actually happens quite often, that accessibility starts from the blind sector, maybe because the offline world is often so inaccessible (paper forms, restaurant menus, encyclopedias...) that blind people resort to the online one, which has at least the potential to be accessible.

Q: Do you think that an IT background is not necessary, to do your job? I'm asking because you didn't study IT, but that doesn't seem to have been a problem for you.

A: You definitely need an interest in technology, which many blind people develop naturally anyway. You have to talk to developers, so you need to know how websites and coding work, but you don't need to do these things yourself. For instance, I can read codes, but I couldn't come up with them myself. You don't have to be afraid of diving into coding, but that's basically plain text, so it's accessible at least! All in all, the job is indeed a bit technical, but you don't need to be a developer or a programmer to do it well.

Q: Can you also contact developers, if you see that their content is inaccessible, or can you only help if they ask you to?

A: Being an NGO, we don't advertise ourselves, e-mailing and telling them we'll fix their inaccessible website if they pay us. However, we encourage the many disabled people e-mailing us about inaccessible content to complain to the developers and tell them we may be able to help. The message gets through much better when the complaint comes from a disabled person.

Q: Do you also get international work?

A: Well, we use the International Accessibility Guidelines, so theoretically we could help developers all over the world... but we're not actively looking for work abroad, as we have enough here in Belgium. What happens often, though, is that we work with the European Institutions, as we're based in Brussels.

Q: Your job sounds quite extraordinary and helpful. You're not planning to quit this one as well, are you?

A: No, not at all, I really like it... but, then again, we hope that some day we won't be needed anymore, when all digital content will have finally become accessible. It's a long-term goal though, probably more for our grandchildren than for us.

Q: Well, I think we can stop here, unless you have something to add. Thanks for sharing your amazing job experiences with us, Bart: I'm sure they'll be of great inspiration to the readers.