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University of Connecticut Assistive Technology Oral History Project

Director's Notes

As I listened to these professionals, I was interested in how they entered the field of disabilities and assistive technology. One pioneer fell in, several accidently were led in this direction, sometimes there was a disability facility near by, and sometimes it had to do with the person having a family member with a disability.

It turns out that I became invested in this Assistive Technology Oral History Project based on my working experience in the disability field and assistive technology, but also by getting a push from a friend.

Early in 2007 I was invited to be a member of the Alliance for Technology Access (ATA) history committee for their March 2008 Gala Event at the CSUN conference in Los Angeles in celebration of their 25th Anniversary. This was a large and very active committee and we were able to collect over 100 AT devices that covered 12 tables. I suggested that I'd be willing to bring along a digital recorder and describe all the items on the tables (these are on the Links page), and I suggested that I might interview a participant or two for the event. At that moment my friend Dave Edyburn said, "Sounds like an oral history."

After the gala, the push provided by Dave got both of us thinking seriously about AT oral history. In 2007 I began recording speakers and vendors at AT conferences for the ConnSENSE Bulletin. By October 2007 Dave and I were serious enough about this that I attended the Closing the Gap Conference in Minnesota. I was thrilled to have the first interview be with Dolores Hagen of Closing the Gap fame. While Bud Hagen did stop in to make a few comments, Dolores primarily told the CTG story.  There is a YouTube video of Megan Turik, Managing Editor at Closing the Gap and Dolores Hagan addressing the conference participants on the Links Page.

Later that evening Dolores invited me to have dinner with her and Bud in their penthouse room. When I got there I discovered that Milo Street, who invented the first speech synthesizer for Apple, was also there.  To be in this company was quite exciting.  Milo and I left after a nice meal and conversations.

In the next days at the conference I was on a roll. I was able to interview Don Johnston, Founder and CEO of Don Johnston, Inc. and while I had often spoken to him, I still learned a lot from him in the interview. What he and his company have done for people who need technology has been extremely important.

I was able to catch Milo Street in a hallway and got the full story on his ECHO speech synthesizer, of which he was able to sell a few hundred thousand.  In addition to what the ECHO could provide, Milo set a very reasonable price of $99.95 when everything else was far more expensive.

I had met Barry Romich much earlier at a conference on technology at Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C. before I interviewed him at CTG. Barry also volunteered to provide a posthumous story of the important contributions of Ed Prentke, his early partner in Prentke Romich, Co.  You'll have to explore Ed's transcript to learn more about him and his unusual penchant for yellow, cars, boats, etc.

Incidentally, Barry flew me home to Hartford in his small propeller plane from that conference in Washington, D.C., but that's another cloudy story.

At CTG I went on to interview Elliot Pludwinski, a man who started up a successful software business because of a need for software appropriate for his daughter, and R. J. Cooper, who has been producing devices for individuals with disabilities since 1983. So the Closing the Gap conference of 2007 really launched the AT Oral History project.

So here we go -- I won't go on commenting on every pioneer because the website with snippets and transcripts is much more comprehensive.
We were reminded that our first interviews were all with our AT friends---true. What could be easier than interviewing long term friends? We took this to heart and branched out to other important pioneers that we didn't know as well and we made sure to cover as many professions as possible.

Podcasting was fun and the editing was fairly easy. I started with a small hand-held Olympus digital voice recorder which was small, inexpensive, and very easy to use. Somewhere in 2008 I decided to bite the bullet and begin video interviews. It would still have the audio component, but we decided that adding the video provided a much better sense of the person being interviewed.

With support from Dr. Mary Beth Bruder at the Pappanikou Center, I was able to use a Canon camcorder. Although audio work was fairly easy to learn, the learning curve for video turned out to be much longer and steeper. My best investment was signing up for Apple One to One, which meant I could travel to the Apple Store about two or three times a month to work with an expert for an hour, as I worked on learning to use iMovie for video editing. While I'm still not an expert, I continue to learn from my mistakes, and still haven't mastered lighting, but I keep at it.

I continued to learn and the project expanded as I attended many AT conferences where I could arrange to meet several pioneers and interview them in my hotel room, which is why in several videos the pioneers seem to be sitting in the same chair in the same room, and they are. Another important factor was that I began attending the Oral History Association conferences, always coming away with many new ideas for this project.

So when does this project end? There are a few people who must be added to this group of AT specialists.  For example, Paul Schwejda and Judy McDonald invented the Adaptive Firmware Card, a device praised in several of the interviews. In one of Gregg Vanderheiden's snippets you'll hear what Paul did to impress Judy when he met her. Judy has promised her version of this story when I interview them.

The Assistive Technology Oral History Project is all about preserving the legacy of these AT pioneers so that people now and in the future will have access to their stories. We hope it will be an inspiration to present and future folks in assistive technology and hope it will be incorporated into AT courses and workshops at colleges and agencies around the country.  

So thanks for stopping in. We hope you will enjoy your trip through these stories and we certainly welcome your feedback.

Chauncy N. Rucker