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From Low Tech to Access Tech: How Sean Dougherty Got on Board with Access Technology

From Low Tech to Access Tech: How Sean Dougherty Got on Board with Access Technology

While our physical doors were closed for twenty-six months, we continued to provide tons of virtual programs and to expand services, that meant hiring new employees. One of the employees who joined us during that time is Access Technology Specialist Sean Dougherty.
Originally from Cincinnati, Ohio, Sean has Cone Dystrophy, a genetic condition which causes a high degree of light sensitivity. Sean has low vision and, while he’s been a lifelong user of access technology, he admits that he wasn’t always comfortable using it.
“When I was younger, although I had challenges with reading the board in the classroom, I would kind of ‘get by’ by doing things like using high contrast mode on my computer and pasting text into Word and making it bigger. I would hide my use of access technology. People knew about my eye condition, but I wasn’t open about it. A lot of tools were presented to me at that time like text-to-speech, but I was pretty resistant to trying them due to a fear of standing out.”
Sean went on to study liberal arts with a focus in History at the University of Michigan for undergrad. After that, he started his career at a nonprofit he founded with his dad, called Education at Work.

“It was a company that hired college students to do customer support work for other companies in the tech and financial industries. We were able to pay those college students a wage, plus as a nonprofit we were able to pay them tax-free tuition assistance, too. Our whole mission was around reducing student loan debt and helping students gain entry level job skills and, then, when they went to graduate, we would try to place them into full time jobs with our clients.”
Sean was still not comfortable with his blindness, but he attended and volunteered at ReelAbilities, a national disability film festival, which was a turning point for him.
“Through that, I met some amazing people—like a Supreme Court Justice from the state of Michigan who’s completely blind. Just meeting people like that pushed me. It was exciting to see what people in our community were doing.”

After Education at Work was sold to a larger nonprofit in 2017, Sean went to work on the education team at Google, which is what brought him from Ohio to the San Francisco Bay Area. It was at Google that he really started using accessible technology in earnest.
“As I got more into the workforce, I realized I wanted to increase my productivity. When I got to Google, they were a very open and accepting organization. So, when I first started there, I was very transparent about telling them the condition I had. I realized that access technology was a different way of doing things to reach the same end goal.”
At Google, Sean’s focus was working on technology partnerships and co-marketing with education technology software and hardware developers. He also met Laura Allen, who works on the accessibility team at Google and is a LightHouse board member. Sean got to work with Laura on several accessibility-focused projects at Google.
“There was a lot of overlap between accessibility and education at Google. I really loved working in education, but I really wanted to make the transition into accessibility and access technology.”

In August 2021, Sean joined LightHouse as an Access Technology Specialist, and one of his main roles is teaching students. Asked what he would say to someone who wants to know why access technology is important, Sean said:
“I always try to focus on their goals and work backwards from there. I might say, ‘Okay, you know you want to get a new job, or you want to go back to school. So, what do you need to learn to do that successfully?’“
Sean’s work also includes accessibility testing of websites and apps. He highlighted one service in particular:
“One thing we offer is an accessibility walkthrough. The accessibility walkthrough is essentially where we’ll schedule a time with that client, and actually walk through their website or app with them. We’ll show them how it works with a screen reader and magnification tools. It’s helpful for them to understand the user experience of someone who utilizes a screen reader or magnification to navigate their website or app. Even if the code is meeting the accessibility guidelines, there might still be usability issues and it’s incredibly important to test the product with users from our community.”

Sean is continuing to learn more about Access Technology by completing his master’s degree online in Assistive Technology and Human Services at California State University Northridge.
And now, a couple of fun facts about Sean:
“I wear very dark sunglasses. I’m always looking for the darkest lenses I can find, and I found some lenses made for ice climbing that are incredible.” The brand Sean wears is Julbos.
In his free time, Sean enjoys traveling, tasting new foods, and outdoor adventures through activities like snow skiing, skateboarding, hiking and biking.
If you are interested in finding out about Access Technology services at LightHouse, visit the LightHouse Access Technology webpage. To sign up for access technology training, contact at@lighthouse-sf.org. For design consulting and user testing services, contact Jeffrey Colon at JColon@lighthouse-sf.org.

Hitting the Ground Running

Hitting the Ground Running

Back in August, we announced the launch of our early childhood intervention service called LightHouse Little Learners. LightHouse Little Learners will give us the opportunity to provide specialist services and bring our brand of blindness-positive philosophy to families with children ages birth to three who are blind, DeafBlind, have low vision or neurological visual impairment, or whose developmental delays include blindness or low vision throughout Northern California.
Since our launch we’ve been searching high and low for the right person to lead this new arm of LightHouse services, and we are thrilled to announce that we have found her. Pam Chapin has joined us as LightHouse Little Learners Program Director. She has a wealth of experience in this area and has hit the ground running. In the below interview she tells us how she became interested in early intervention, why she loves it and describes the reality of what families can face in these early, crucially important stages of their child’s life. Welcome to the LightHouse, Pam!

Early Childhood Intervention for children who are blind or have low vision is a very specific discipline, how did you become interested in this area?
I was working as a Child Development Specialist for Santa Clara County Office of Education, supporting inclusion services within the Head Start preschool system. I was contacted by a TVI [Teacher of the Visually Impaired] who was looking for a full-day preschool placement for one of her students whose working mom needed care for her daughter [Bianca] who was blind. At that time, the Head Start program had a half-day classroom that was blended with this TVI’s classroom. It was a great program but would not have provided care during the hours the family needed. My role was to determine what supports would help the child, teacher and classroom have a successful experience. I visited little Bianca in her vision program to meet her. She was playing in a huge motor room, exploring the entire space, climbing play structures, bouncing balls, and scooting on ride-on toys. Clearly, Bianca was unstoppable! I knew she would be successful in the preschool classroom. We met with her parent, followed her TVI’s recommendations, invited her [Orientation & Mobility] specialist to visit the classroom, and supported the Head Start teacher as we all learned together alongside Bianca. She was part of the classroom community, just like every other child, and she opened doors for other children who would come after her. After this experience, I went to work for the Blind Babies Foundation and eventually completed my TVI credential and MA in special education at [San Francisco State University].

How close is it to the kind of thing you thought you might like to do growing up?
I used to pretend I was a teacher when I was a child and remember trying to teach a neighborhood boy how to read while I was still learning myself. I initially studied psychology and planned to become a child psychologist or family therapist, but I often found myself working in different areas of early childhood or special education. I worked with a variety of age groups and in different settings, including a Montessori preschool, a classroom for students with learning disabilities, a home-based autism program, and a vocational program for adults with intellectual disabilities. Once I began working at Blind Babies Foundation, I fell in love with the community, the children and families and wanted to continue learning. I love the blending of early childhood education, infant-family mental health, blindness education and inclusion.

Give us a quick run-down of your career in this area so far?
During my tenure with Blind Babies Foundation, I also served as Regional Coordinator, Assistant Program Director and Program Director. My education in the field has come from many teachers, mentors, colleagues, and especially the children and families who have shared their journeys with me. I have been so fortunate to work with many exceptional mentors and to participate in research projects at Smith-Kettlewell Research Institute. We have learned a tremendous amount from our pediatric ophthalmology partners to better understand childhood vision diagnoses that may impact early learning. Babies and families motivate my learning, as well as educating the community about the importance of early learning experiences and family support. I am passionate about helping families access quality services for their child who is blind, has low vision, neurological visual impairment or complex needs.  

Over the seventeen years you’ve been working with children who are blind or have low vision, what are some of the developments you’ve seen in the practice over that time?
One of the shifts I have experienced is a movement away from a therapy model to a family centered coaching model. In a therapy model, the teacher arrives in the home with a toy bag and engages the child in activities, modeling for the parent and teaching them strategies to implement with their child throughout the day. The coaching model aligns with what we often call the Infant Mental Health model, in which the focus is on the relationship between the infant and parent, or caregivers, because we all learn through important relationships. Our role is to help parents understand their infant’s cues, which may be different than a sighted child. We observe together to learn how their child is using all of their senses to learn, explore, play and communicate, and to help parents integrate learning opportunities into their daily routines. We help families create experiences that are accessible to their child, and sometimes to increase their child’s ability to use their vision by adapting the environment or materials. As parents understand their child’s unique learning needs, they become very skilled at making concepts and activities accessible for their child, and confident in explaining these needs to others, setting the stage for their child’s future self-determination.

The other significant development is the advancement of the neuroscience, research and understanding of neurological or cerebral visual impairment (CVI). I recall an analogy when I started in the field that described CVI as “like looking through Swiss cheese.” We are now learning just how complex the visual brain is and how interconnected with the rest of the brain. CVI is the most common cause of childhood visual impairment in the US, so it is essential that we understand how varied the impact of CVI is on each individual, from difficulties perceiving movement or specific visual fields, to challenges locating or identifying objects, or navigating a room. This increased understanding has helped us more accurately observe how an infant or young child is accessing visual information and integrating that with other sensory information to learn. The more we understand, the more successfully we can individualize a child’s play and learning experiences to make them meaningful and engaging.

Can you give an example of a family or child who is blind or has low vision, who helped you learn and grow in your teaching?
One of the first parents I met when I began working with families had a son who had cerebral visual impairment and cerebral palsy. She was a mentor in the truest sense of the word and showed me what was possible at home, school and in the community. She would set up an experience of roller skating for her child who was blind and used a mobility chair by positioning him in an Active Learning Hopsa Dress that supported his body in an upright position while allowing movement, placing roller skates on his feet, and positioning him over different surfaces where he could hear the sounds of the wheels, feel the vibrations in his feet and body, and just belly laugh! She ran a neighborhood summer camp experience for local children. She advocated in school for her child to have access to learning materials, instructional methods, qualified teachers and peer groups that he needed to thrive. And I will always remember her presenting to a room full of educators, researchers, and physicians that the most important thing to her was that her child was free from pain, that this must come first before any other agenda. He was a child first, a whole person, and this must guide everything we do.

What’s the most difficult aspect of working with this population?
The greatest frustration is access. At a time when families are at their most vulnerable, they face a mountain of hurdles as they try to navigate medical and educational systems. Bringing a new child into your family is a beautiful and joyful time, and it is also a bit scary because you don’t yet know this little person and how best to care for them. Now imagine suddenly having to navigate multiple medical specialists, diagnoses, insurance battles, perhaps medications or a feeding tube, lack of childcare to return to work and the economic impact of that on your family. Then there may be barriers to receiving early intervention services to help your child, long waits before services begin, language barriers, or challenges understanding the array of services you are entitled to access. Families often have multiple appointments each day with doctors, therapists, specialists, teachers and early interventionists. It can be stressful, daunting, and often a fulltime job for a parent to navigate these systems. The experience of accessing help should be coordinated, integrated and welcoming.

What are you most excited about building a program like this from the ground up?
Starting from the ground up is so exciting because we can dream of new possibilities. We have the opportunity to design creative service models, to ask what families need, build community, and to reach out to underserved regions. I am excited to bring families into the LightHouse community where they will have access to innovative programming as their child grows, meet mentors, and share meaningful experiences such as attending camp. Little Learners will be part of a much larger mission to create access, opportunity, and connection from infancy through adulthood.

Ed Garcia: From Hired to Hiring

Ed Garcia: From Hired to Hiring

When it comes to getting hired for a job, having successful conversations with a company’s Human Resources Department is crucial. Human Resources employees are usually the first people who review your resume and cover letter and the first ones you’ll talk to in the interview process. 
Ed Garcia is LightHouse’s Human Resources Generalist and is the first blind person to hold a position in the Human Resources department at LightHouse. He does much of the recruiting and interviewing for positions at LightHouse and works closely with LightHouse hiring managers to help them find jobseekers who would be a great fit for the managers’ departments. Below Ed chats about how he got into Human Resources, and lessons he’s learned about blindness and employment.
Ed is a San Francisco native who played baseball and football in high school. For college, he went to the University of San Francisco. where he majored in psychology and minored in biology. That’s also where he met someone who he learned he had near misses with over the years. 
“I met this wonderful woman named Anne who happened to live seven minutes away from me. We learned that we had been at the same events over the years, but we had never met before.” Anne would become his wife.
After college Ed started working as a customer services representative in a call center and over the course of a few years worked his way up to director. He went on to work at a bank call center and was soon promoted to training director. As training director, he took some courses and learned how to recruit employees. He and his Human Resources team ended up hiring dozens of people for the call center. Eventually Ed started his own consulting company and would consult on HR and customer service matters. After doing this for six years, Ed experienced some medical issues that caused him to become legally blind. 
Ed continued his consulting work but realized he missed interacting with coworkers. He was ready to work at a “9 to 5” office job again but had never conducted a job search as a blind man.
Ed admits that he had no idea what to do next.

“I had been working for 25 years. I had a nice career going, and all of a sudden, I can’t see like I used to anymore. I was wondering how am I going to look for work?”
Ed was referred to the Department of Rehabilitation (DOR) where he met a woman who told him about her husband who was a blind computer programmer.
“I was astonished. How can someone be a computer programmer when they’re blind? That’s when I learned about accessibility tools like ZoomText, JAWS and CCTVs. I was referred by DOR to the LightHouse to work with the Employment Services department including [Director of Employment Services] Kate Williams.”
That’s when Ed’s perspective on blindness began to change.
“Kate taught me a lot of things, including how to accept my blindness. Before then, I think I was in denial. Soon I realized you can learn skills that you can use to advance yourself and be independent.”
An opportunity opened up in LightHouse’s Human Resources department. Ed applied and got the job.
Though the general economy took a beating in 2020, Ed is proud that despite those challenges Lighthouse still hired 40 people between the San Francisco headquarters, East Bay office, LightHouse Industries: Sirkin Center and Enchanted Hills Camp. With interviews happening virtually, Ed relies on his years of experience to compensate for cues that are harder to pick up when an interview is not in person.
“One of the things that I’ve gotten pretty good at over the years is a technique called active listening. It’s not just listening; it’s also playing an active role in the discussion. When you’re interviewing somebody, you want to make sure that you ask questions and you confirm that you understood what it is that they’re saying.”
Ed, also known as Edward Garcia V (“my son is Edward VI, so you know what the family tradition is,” he says laughing) notes that one of the most important things to do during a job search is to network. He also takes it a step further: He believes that blind jobseekers must include other blind people in their networks. “Immerse yourself in the blindness community. I had a very extensive work history and I had a lot of contacts, but guess what? None of them were blind. Learn from other blind people.”
Of the nearly 40 people who were hired by LightHouse last year, 70% of them were blind and many had learned about the jobs at LightHouse from others in the blindness community.
Ed explains the best thing about his role as an Human Resources Generalist.
“Nothing brings me more joy than once we’ve gotten to the point where you’ve interviewed someone and you’ve done all your background checking. You get to call somebody and offer them a job and you listen to how excited they are.”
LightHouse is hiring. Check out the career opportunities webpage.

Meet LightHouse Access Technology Specialist Amy Mason

Meet LightHouse Access Technology Specialist Amy Mason

The Lighthouse Access Technology Department offers up-to-date training in the latest accessible methods. Meet Amy Mason, one of our Access Technology Specialists, who trains students who are blind or have low vision on ways to make their phone, computer or other devices easier and more comfortable to use.

Amy began her journey with access technology while in high school in Cedar Bluffs, Nebraska, when her vision was changing. At first, she learned to use a rudimentary screen magnifier, then she moved on to using the popular screen reader, JAWS. But in college, although she used a computer, she had no idea how to set one up and did not keep up with newer versions of Microsoft Windows.

After getting her Bachelor’s degree, she continued her education at South East Community College in Lincoln, Nebraska, focusing on computer networking. She also taught computers to kids during the summer. It was important to her that her students learn not just how to use a computer but how to problem solve when their computer didn’t work. One of her teaching tricks was to unplug all the computers and disconnect the cables in the classroom. Her students were required to put them together before class, including troubleshooting if something wasn’t working. For example, if their computer wasn’t making sound, even with the cable for sound plugged in, Amy would prompt them with questions like, “Did you plug the auxiliary cable back into the right place?”

Amy has brought her sound techniques for getting students to problem-solve and explore to LightHouse. “It’s okay to try things,” she says. “It’s a lot like exploring a new neighborhood or cooking a new dish. You have to learn new skills, new information, and new landmarks, but a lot of your key concepts stay the same.” When students encounter something unfamiliar while using technology, Amy encourages them to apply the skills they’ve already learned and problem-solve.

Amy’s experiences have informed her teaching strategies. She relates how when she was growing up, her father brought a computer home with several tutorials, including one that taught computer basics. One sentence really stood out as she was going through the tutorial: “The computer is no more intelligent than a toaster.” Now, in explaining her approach to teaching, Amy uses the metaphor of a toaster to help her students understand the basic functions of a computer. “What you’re doing with a computer at its most basic level is no more complex than what you’re doing with a toaster,” she states, with amusement. “With a computer, you’re giving input, with a toaster, you’re giving it bread. Then you add in variables, such as ‘I want this input to be put out in this format’, or ‘I want the bread to be medium dark’. Then you execute the program. If you’re using the computer, you might get a spreadsheet. If you’re using a toaster, you get toast.”

During the course of training our students learn how to use a number of technologies. Among the things Amy can teach you are how to use a screen magnifier such as ZoomText, screen readers such as JAWS, your smartphone, email and other programs on your computer, and for braille users, how to use refreshable braille.

Amy is concerned with accessibility, but also has expertise in the user experience. Besides technology training, the LightHouse Access Technology Department works with developers to evaluate websites and mobile applications for accessibility. Amy likes to educate developers on the impact poor accessibility or a poor user experience has on a blind person. For instance, developers may not realize that many blind people do not use a mouse at all though the software they use assumes they do. As Amy explains, “if a someone has to press tab 52 times on a keyboard to get to where a mouse user can get with one click, well that is not a great user experience.”

Amy trains her students to become their own teachers, so that when they finish their training program at LightHouse, they are confident enough to problem-solve when their technology downloads an update. With her help she hopes they will be able to work through any changes the update brings because “they’ll have the tools they would need to explore.”

When Amy is not training you may find her hard at work on hobbies such as drawing and crocheting. Amy is owned by two especially opinionated cats.

Let LightHouse get you connected with access tech. If you are interested in Access Technology Training at LightHouse, visit our access technology webpage or email skuan@lighthouse-sf.org.

Meet Amber Sherrard, our new Health and Wellness Program Coordinator

Meet Amber Sherrard, our new Health and Wellness Program Coordinator

“At the start of my childhood, I remember being happy, fearless, and free. But as I reluctantly grew up in a world designed for people to live with sight, I developed a deep fear characterized by tough questions with no answers.” Amber Sherrard has a knack for summing up the existential fear that can come with a major change in vision; and with Retinitis Pigmentosa setting in early in her life, Amber needed to develop a strong sense of who she was, outside of the level of her eyesight.

Before Amber began hitting the gym on a regular basis, finding dignity and self-worth through her ever changing situation at times felt impossible “I found bits and pieces of solitude in poetry, music, and theater,” she says, “but each time I was alone, the thoughts of ‘what if’ and ‘why me’ returned. Deep in my innermost being, I knew I was called to a higher purpose, but when the negative thoughts and intense fear were upon me, it seemed like ‘someday’ would never come.”

Today, Amber is a powerlifter, a yoga instructor, and an incredibly motivating person to be around. Amber might seem like she’s got it all figured out to other blind people who find just stepping foot in a gym a little intimidating – but she started from square one, like everyone else. Amber also knows that health and wellness is about more than pumping iron, which is why in her new role at LightHouse, she is hosting regular workshops on healthy eating, yoga and inner-body exercises to improve the health of the “whole you.”

Amber remembers her ah-ha moment well: Fresh out of high school and on the first day of her blindness training program, her travel instructor, Arlene, told her about the gym across the street – a place called Curves. Arlene showed her how to get there, showed her the ropes and in doing so, eliminated the anxiety Amber might have felt getting to know a brand new gym.

The result was what Amber calls a “frenzy of independence.” Within a few short weeks, she was hooked, suddenly taking joy in a body that she once thought of as ordinary, now amazing. “I can remember people walking up to me and asking if I was an athlete or what sport I played,” she recalls, “those were my favorite compliments. I felt unstoppable. I felt as if my mind and body were so sharp and strong, that I could handle anything in life with grace, dignity, and ease.”

After graduating her blindness training program, Amber had a new mission: helping people find complete freedom, independence, and self-worth through health and fitness, just as she had done.

Amber received her bachelor’s degree In Nutrition and Dietetics from Louisiana Tech University.  There, she enjoyed a vibrant new social life and joined the Powerlifting team, competing in two nationals and one world competition, “I was the only blind person on my team and at nationals, but that meant nothing to me,” she says, “I was out to author and create a life that I loved. My entire being radiated with freedom, joy, and happiness and people noticed. For a young, single, black woman, who was legally blind, my life was extraordinary.”

Going on to become a Registered Nutrition and Dietetic Technician (NDTR) and a Registered Yoga Teacher (RYT 200) Amber taught yoga full-time through grad school, eventually earning a masters degree in Health and Human Performance with a concentration in Health Promotion from Northwestern State University. Finally earning a credential as a Certified Health Education Specialist (CHES), Amber wanted to turn her education into a new opportunity to mobilize a community in a bigger way than she had before.

We are pleased to welcome Amber to the team at LightHouse, and hope that you’ll sign up for one of her upcoming classes. Check the LightHouse calendar for all Health and Wellness events!

Interested in learning more? Contact Amber at asherrard@lighthouse-sf.org or 415-694-7353.