Welcome back to another interview! This week Ricky Enger joined me, Mohamed Deumah, in a fantastic conversation about some of her amazing work at the Hadley Institute for the Blind and Visually Impaired. Ricky leads the Assistive Technology Team at Hadley, who trains blind and low vision individuals how to adapt to technology and achieve their goals despite their vision loss. But that’s not all! Read on to find out more about Ricky and Hadley!
Mohamed: Do you mind introducing yourself?
Ricky: My name is Ricky Enger, and I am the Practice Leader for the Assistive Technology Group at Hadley. Practice Leader is essentially like a Team Lead.
Mohamed: How long have you been with Hadley?
Ricky: I joined Hadley in August of 2018. So, I’m actually a bit over three years now or coming, coming right up on that.
Mohamed: Congrats! Aside from the podcast that you have on your website, what else does your role at Hadley entail?
Ricky: So, what I do is a couple of different things as a Practice Leader. You know, I lead my team and we focus on assistive technology and, I guess technology in general. So, the ways in which we do that are: number one, we create basically training materials, we call them workshops. So, these are short between, you know, anywhere from three to ten-minute training modules on how to do certain things. And for, of course our section of that is technology. So, we’ll have things ranging from how to use the iPhone, the Apple Watch, getting familiar with the capabilities of smart assistants like Alexa, and then how to do things like, joining Zoom meetings from your computer, a phone, an app… that kind of thing. So, we write and produce those training materials. And then the other thing that I do is host a discussion group. So, this is a chance for people who want to know more about technology, we select the topic each month, we host it over Zoom and people can join and learn from me and from each other as well about the topic that we’re discussing.
Mohamed: Do you also provide or help them learn about assistive technologies such as screen readers or programs like JAWS?
Ricky: Some of that we do, and some of it we don’t. An example would be for instance where accessibility is built into a device. For example, Voiceover or Zoom on the iPhone for providing screen reading and screen enlargement, the same is true for Android. You have your magnification and talk back on Android. We do have training on using those things. How do you use a Gesture to Zoom? How do you use a Gesture to, you know, speak a word or character or that kind of thing? And then for other things, like you mentioned JAWS, and NBDA, we have some training on things like that. We have one for Windows Narrator, but in general, the way we approach that for Windows is to teach specific applications. So, Microsoft Word or Microsoft Outlook would be a good example of that. And then just in the process of showing how to use Microsoft Outlook, we will teach concepts for the NBDA screen reader. So, if I want to be able to send a message that is an application-specific task, but there are some things like reading your message before you send it that, you know, those things are screen reader specific tasks. And so those just become a part of the lesson in where we can’t teach those things, we do provide other resources. If someone has already created a tutorial for JAWS, for example, Freedom Scientific has some really great material, we can acquaint our learners to those things that we don’t teach directly.
Mohamed: So, could you tell me a bit more about your background, both professionally and educationally, and how you ended up at Hadley?
Ricky: Yeah, absolutely. When I began my college career, I was very interested in psychology. I thought that would be really cool and fun. And around that time, the internet was just starting to take off. It was definitely, you know, further back than I want to admit, but we were using dial up modems to get onto the internet. And there were bulletin board systems and we had one of the first online classes and it was sort of an experiment. My English class was done that way. And as this was happening in college, I thought, “wow, I really do love technology.” And I had used it to complete my schoolwork before then, but at that time it really started to seem like something that I could do professionally. So, I got a degree in Computer Information Systems with a minor in Business Administration.
So, I thought I would learn enough about computers, that I could be a jack-of-all-trades in that respect. And when I graduated, my first job was working with a nonprofit. And what we did was prepare those with any sort of physical disability to reenter the workforce or enter the workforce for the first time. So, part of that was training. Part of that was resume writing, interview skills, that kind of thing, but, you know, computer training was essential. So, I did that for a while. And then I took a little time off to be a stay-at-home mom. And later joined a very small assistive technology company where we worked with a screen reader that had been developed along with a network of content that people with blindness or low vision could access and created a podcast network.
I co-hosted a weekly podcast where we talked about mainstream and assistive technology. So, what’s going on in the world of technology. And then how does that apply if you’re blind or low vision. So, we could talk about off-the-shelf accessible products, as well as advancements in assistive technology. And after that, I did some web accessibility consulting kind of being on the other side of it, looking at why are web pages not usable with assistive technology? And how do we guide corporations to making them more accessible? And it was a really great time until I was approached by Douglas Walker of Hadley. And he offered me a job where I sort of did a little bit of all those things. Some podcasting, some training, some, well not so much the web accessibility stuff, except to, you know, speak to others about that. And it was just a wonderful combination of all the things that I had done before. And I felt like it was my dream job.
Mohamed: That’s an awesome story! Can you tell me what Hadley is? What does it strive for and what does it do?
Ricky: So, Hadley has been around. We just celebrated our 100th birthday in 2020. It was perhaps one of the only good things about 2020. It [Hadley] began because of a gentlemen named William Hadley who had been an English professor. He lost his sight and of course still really wanted to read. He loved literature. He loved reading books and thought “there has to be a way for me to do this.” So, he set out to learn braille and as he was doing that, he realized that he wasn’t the only one in that position. Other people wanted to do that too. So, then people began learning braille through correspondence courses. It was kind of a distance learning before distance learning was cool. And we’ve changed a lot over the years. And of course, braille is still very central to what we do, but also, we’ve changed our focus to what we want to concentrate on is making sure that people can do what they want to do. They can remain independent, they can live a life in the way that they want, whether it be at work at home with their family and in the community. So, all these things, whether it is something practical, like cleaning your house as you’re losing your vision, or whether it’s something that is work-related, you know, how do I format my documents in Microsoft Word to remain professional? Those are the things that we concentrate on. Just making sure that people can still do everything they want, whether they are new to learning blindness skills and alternative skills for doing things non-visually, or, you know, if it’s something that perhaps they’ve been blind for a while and just need to brush up on those skills. But we try to teach just a wide spectrum anywhere from adjusting to blindness and low vision recreation, independent living tasks, technology, and being a part of the work.
Mohamed: So, do you know how many individuals work at Hadley? How big of a company is Hadley?
Ricky: It’s a fairly small company and I don’t have the exact number, but you know, we’re talking certainly below 100. So, you know, it’s a small company and there are people who work onsite at the Hadley building, which is in Winnetka, a suburb of Chicago. And then there are people who work remotely as I do. And we have people who work from all over the US so, it’s very cool.
Mohamed: So little people and you do so much! That’s truly great. Do you work with volunteers at all?
Ricky: There are volunteers in, you know, of course post-pandemic now, so things are a little different and we’re all figuring out exactly how that works in general. There aren’t volunteers but in terms of doing things like being out in the community, spreading the word sometimes fundraising, you know, there are things like that, but in general, it’s a pretty small staff and not a lot of additional volunteers.
Mohamed: Where does Hadley mainly operate? So, your services helping people learn about technology and how to be independent, where do those mainly take place?
Ricky: The great thing about Hadley is that it is sometimes assumed that this is actually sort of an on-campus facility or whatever, and people can come in and do these things. But the truth is that what we do is while we do have a building and people can come in and tour, that everything that we do is either provided by mail. So, in braille, large print or on a USB drive or DTB cartridge from NLS or it’s online. People can sign up on our website for free and access all the things that we’ve talked about, learning technology, independent living, or recreation. And as they’re learning, it’s sort of the self-service model where they come in and they watch and listen to the training materials, or they received those in the mail in braille, large print, or in audio format. And then naturally, people are going to have questions, right? So that’s where our team comes in. Not only do we create the material, but we’re there as an actual human that you can talk to on the phone or by email and say, “Hey, I have this question about things that I learned in the workshop,” or “I’m struggling with this particular thing. Can you help me?” So, it’s just a combination of learning what you like on your own, and then interacting with us as staff as much, or as little as you want.
Mohamed: Can tell us more specifically about some of the programs that Hadley offers? Where people can find these programs and sign up if they’re interested.
Ricky: Yeah, absolutely. The best way to get started is to go to the hadley.edu website, then sign up. It’s really quick, and it is free. You can, as part of the sign-up process, you will select your contrast and font settings. If you need to change any of those things, when you’re signed up, what will happen is that you can select what you want to do. So, you say “I want to learn something.” And at that point you’ll be asked, all right, what do you want to learn? Uh, technology, independent, living recreation, or work. Once you’ve chosen from there, you’re going to see a list of things in those categories. So, for technology, for example, we have an entire series of using Android phones, a series on using the iPhone, Apple Watch, Apple TV, Zoom, Alexa. A huge list, Microsoft Word, Outlook, Excel, all these things that people would like to learn about when using their computer.
Then of course, there are things like our cooking series. So how do I tell when my food is done or how do I remain safe using sharp knives? What are some tips for all these different things that you would need to know as you cook or any number of other things? So, think about the things that people tend to want to do or use in daily life. And one last one I want to mention is that again, people are adjusting to low vision and that can sometimes be a difficult thing to do. And we have a series that sort of goes through and talks about the things that you might encounter as you are becoming accustomed to being blind or low vision. And so those series are available as well.
Mohamed: How has the pandemic affected Hadley?
Ricky: Yeah. It’s been fascinating for us. It’s been amazing. We certainly wouldn’t have hoped for a pandemic, but the good thing that has come out of that is that there are many professionals who are working with people and their job is to train those people. So, you might have professionals in state agencies or elsewhere, and they were accustomed to being very hands-on and being in person. And one of the things that they were able to do is number one, take part in our training courses by watching the videos with the workshops, which also have transcripts. And the videos are designed such that audio is the focus. And then the video is used to illustrate whatever is being narrated or demonstrated. And so they’re able to watch these videos, and then when they’re on Zoom with their own clients, they can either play that workshop while they’re there, or just impart that information in a way that says, you know, “Hey, I thought I had to really be in front of you to describe how this works.“ And yet this material was presented in such a way that it didn’t require a person to be present as you go through it. So, a lot of professionals really found that useful and others as well. We’re just looking for ways to stay active during the pandemic. We were all home and couldn’t really do the things that we were accustomed to doing, and suddenly things that people didn’t have time to learn before. For example, “It’s really time for me to learn more about how to cook safely and independently. So, I want to check out these workshops and really work on that.” It was definitely much busier for us, and we’re very thankful that people were able to find and benefit from that material.
Mohamed: Are either you or Hadley working on any new projects that you’d like to mention here?
Ricky: At this point we have, we’ve actually just come out of a major transition that being creating the new site, taking all these workshops online, whereas they used to be more of an academic instructor driven model. And so right now, I think that having completed that transition, we’re super happy to let things be as they are for about a year now that we’ve worked so hard to make that transition and just see how things go. I’m really looking forward to creating a series for the Mac computer for using Voiceover. So that will be happening soon. And that’s what we do. We just continue to create more and more series on how to use technology. And of course, other departments have things as well that they’re diving into and update their new workshops every couple of weeks on the site. So as much as we are, relaxing a bit, now that the transition has happened, we’re still creating things. So, keep updated on the website cause there’s always something new going on!
Mohamed: Our final question, is there something or someone that has inspired you or acts as your role model(s)?
Ricky: Wow, that is a really good question. I think in this, I guess it’s not one specific person. I think that it’s really the community that inspires me. I know that sounds a little bit cheesy, but I really feel inspired by watching the people that I interact with every day at Hadley. And they are my role models in some respects, and they are inspirational in the sense that every person is on a slightly different journey, and they all approach it differently. And I see people who go from being absolutely devastated and just watching their determination to get up and try it all over again until they get it right. That’s very inspirational. And then just seeing people who maybe come in initially to our discussion groups and they’re terrified by technology and within a couple of months, they are in that same group and they’re teaching the new people. And I think just watching people find their power, find what it is that they’re good at and find ways that they can give back and contribute is always just a pleasure to watch.
To say that the work that Hadley and Ricky do is moving and genuine would be an understatement. Accessible Pharmacy was delighted to be recently featured on Ricky’s most recent installment of her podcast, “Hadley Presents: A Conversation with the Experts”. To listen, please visit: https://hadley.edu/podcasts/hadley-presents-conversation-experts/accessible-pharmacy
To learn more about Hadley Institute for the Blind and Visually Impaired, please visit: https://hadley.edu/