Randy Horwitz says that he's "one of those lucky people who knew from about 7th grade what he wanted to be." That was the year that his mother's friend was studying how blind people interacted with technology. So, the 12-year old became the proud owner of an Apple IIe with 180K of memory and an early screen reader called the TextTalker. After getting a taste of using a computer, Randy was hooked and he took as much programming in high school as he could; a pilot test for majoring in computer science in college.
When it was time to choose a college, Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT) was a logical selection because their computer science program was one of the top 20 in the nation. RIT and the state of New York provided some accommodations such as personal readers, books on tape, a computer, and a Braille display. Randy feels that this was the first time he was truly on his own and is proud to have graduated such a tough course of study—Bachelor of Science degree in computer science with a concentration in software engineering—with minimal help.
During his required year of internships, Randy was able to experience the work environment, and its challenges, first-hand. As a junior-level programmer for a lawyer's publishing co-operative, Randy did some database management and worked on data manipulation programs. This assignment was disappointing in both the work the company gave him and in their treatment of him. The office gave him less challenging duties and seemed content to shunt him off in a corner.
His other placement was more promising. Randy scored a coup by landing a coveted internship with Hewlett-Packard in Boise, Idaho. In his work there, he developed a Web-based project-tracking application and used PERL and CGI scripting.
The quality of his work led to an offer of full-time employment with HP, but Randy chose to stay a little closer to home and accepted a job with IBM in Poughkeepsie, New York. He immediately began working on IBM WebSphere® on the mainframe. One of his early successes was programming parts of the Systems Management End User Interface - SMEUI - a Swing-based Java application. Randy was originally asked to conduct accessibility testing on the project, but when the team lost a developer, he was assigned to do accessibility coding.
"I got the most opportunities to use my technical skills in that job. I stayed on that project for a longer time than might have been normal. We worked an insane amount of hours — but you don't mind working those kinds of hours if you're happy with what you're doing."
Randy believes that the accessibility of programming tools is one of the biggest challenges to people with disabilities who decide to pursue a career in the IT industry. For example, at the time he was using it, the WebSphere Application Developer program was not accessible. Randy explained to his manager that because the tool was inaccessible, it was almost impossible to do about half of the work that he needed to do.
Over time, those tools have been made more accessible and ongoing efforts are underway to continue the focus on IBM product accessibility. "Certainly, things are better than they were. When I came to IBM in 1999, you never heard of people doing usability tests with people who are disabled. But, now it's more commonplace. We're on the way, but not there yet."
Randy hopes that more businesses and people think about incorporating accessibility as early in the development process as possible, especially as the industry moves to new technologies and the tools to develop them like 3-D virtual worlds, Linux GUI, and AJAX applications. "It's especially important to have accessibility built into the development tools because then it becomes as automatic as possible."
Societal attitudes are changing, too, but Randy says he's still asked at an alarming rate how he is able to live alone and sometimes his guide dog gets more attention and conversation then he does. And, he feels that in pretty much all jobs he's had, there has been a need to "prove himself" as a person who happens to be blind instead of a blind person. "Part of the problem is that you don't see that many blind people doing 'normal' things — doing a job — and that's part of the cycle. As more people with disabilities enter the 'mainstream,' then we'll see these attitudes changing."
Randy's current job as a technical staff member of the IBM Extreme Blue program, IBM's premier internship for top-notch students pursuing software development and MBA degrees, affords him the opportunity to interface with college students. In this job, Randy believes he can provide "education, education, education" to help ensure that the next generation gets comfortable with people who happen to be blind.