Episodes

First to the Party

13 Letters
May 7, 2020

It ain’t easy being the first blind employee. Sometimes the title alone, produced in a staff meeting or, often, when the person isn’t around to hear – is enough to make you cringe. Thank goodness for trailblazers like Victor Tsaran. Victor was the first blind employee on the Yahoo campus, and has a whole bunch of other “firsts” under his belt from a 20 year accessibility career that starts with the first Ukrainian screen reader and involves, most recently, the first screen reader from Google. Victor chatted with us from Mountain View this week to talk about everything from the state of accessibility in Southeast Asia to our best bets for the accessible future.

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Episode Transcript

Will Butler:

You're listening to 13 letters, I'm Will Butler, and being first isn't always easy. Victor Tsaran was the first blind employee to work the Yahoo campus and he went on to work at places like PayPal and Google where he also became a leader for accessibility. Victor was born in the Ukraine and came to the United States decades ago to pursue a career in technology. Today, he's got all sorts of accomplishments under his belt, including the first Ukrainian screen reader, but also some pioneering work on digital music software as well as an important role in Google's first screen reader talk back.


Will Butler:

Back in February, Cordelia McGee-Tubb and I chatted with Victor about his career, his travels, and the accessibility industry as it stands today. Here's our interview with Victor Tsaran.


Will Butler:

Victor Tsaran, thank you so much for joining us. Where are you calling in from? Are you at the Google campus in Mountain View?


Victor Tsaran:

Yeah, I'm right at the headquarters in Mountain View in one of the conference rooms.


Will Butler:

We're not too far away from you. We're just about 50 miles away in San Francisco. But you started out a long way away from Mountain View California. Can you tell us a little bit about where you grew up and how you got here?


Victor Tsaran:

I grew up in Ukraine, where I spent most of my teenage years and then after almost finished university in Ukraine where I studied philosophy, I got a scholarship to come and study in the United States and since then I changed my mind as to what I wanted to do in life. Philosophy was interesting, but I figured it wasn't as interesting as computers or at least as far as the job market went. At that time and still does go, and also was doing a lot of music before I came to the US. As I studied philosophy, I participated quite heavily in the music scene of Ukraine at that time.


Victor Tsaran:

It was very interesting time where the country just became independent and it was this renaissance period where a lot of Ukrainian literature was revived and lots of music was created. So, I was playing jazz and some acoustic music. And when I came to the US, I think the reason my life has changed so much after coming to the US, is because it was the first time that I encountered computer in my life. Before that I didn't even know how to type on a keyboard. And so, when I came to Overbrook School For the Blind in Philadelphia, in 1994 and saw the keyboard for the first time and the computer which was get ready for this, it was IBM compatible X86 and then 286 and 386.


Victor Tsaran:

When I saw these machines and I realized that I could actually talk, this was just like a life changing experience for me in a sense that I realized how much potential it held for me as a person because it enabled my independence but also for people that I could help through this technology.


Victor Tsaran:

So, then I came back to Ukraine and I established one of the first computer centers in Ukraine, where we taught kids to use the Word processor. We've managed to create our first Ukrainian screen reader. But when I'd done that, I realized that I needed to go on and do more. So, I went back to the States, got a scholarship to study computer science, and then just fast forward, my wife and I then traveled in Southeast Asia teaching also computers to teachers and the kids of vision impaired students and kids from different provinces. So, we traveled there, and then I got the job at Yahoo. But I guess we're going to talk about this a little bit more.


Will Butler:

What was it? I want to know what it was like growing up as a blind kid in the Ukraine back then.


Victor Tsaran:

Again, many ways it's not different from being a kid in any other country except probably that in the Soviet Union there was well-practiced to segregate kids into separate schools. If you are blind or vision impaired or deaf, you were inevitably put into one of the schools for whatever disability. Frequently enough, they would even mix disabilities so that you might end up in the same school for deaf kids. And so, it created strange social effect because obviously we could never communicate correctly with the kids of other disabilities. And when you're a kid and you grow up and kids tend to make jokes at each other. And so, I wouldn't call it a learning experience, even though we had other kids with disabilities around you. But that's just how the system used to work because there was no such concept as including other kids into mainstream education.


Victor Tsaran:

And so, other than that, growing up with just basically we're doing all the same things kids doing or play games. I remember I used to really like playing hockey and the way we played hockey is by using the tin can. Just using a regular stick, you would hit a tin can and hear where it went and that's just how it played the hockey and playing soccer. And I loved chess and literature. So, I mean, in many respects it wasn't much different. One positive, I think a fact of being in a separate school, a non-mainstream school is that we're given a lot of attention from our teachers.


Victor Tsaran:

Every teacher in the school knew braille and they could communicate to you using braille back and forth. We had lots of attention in terms of math and geometry, so teachers could really spend a lot of time explaining concepts. We had all the tools to draw 3D planes or to even construct our own models. And so, I think that's one thing, just jumping a bit forward. When I came to study to the US, I quickly realized just how much more I think privileged I was. Because a lot of kids here even in the college, they don't get as much attention to study calculus.


Victor Tsaran:

You just have to do it all on your own. But it's cool, back in Ukraine, we got all of that stuff, it was given by the state. But of course the negative effect of not being in the mainstream school is that, you had to learn all the social communication skills after you left the school, which for some kids was a bit too late. For me luckily, it worked out. I managed to quickly adapt myself to the world around, but some other kids I know, by the time they left the school they were 17 and it was just a bit too late to change their habits. That's really what it was growing up like a kid in Ukraine.


Cordelia McGee-Tubb:

Correct me if I'm wrong, did you mention earlier that when you went back to the Ukraine after being in America for a little while, you all made the first Ukrainian screen meter?


Victor Tsaran:

Yeah.


Cordelia McGee-Tubb:

What was that like?


Victor Tsaran:

It was very interesting because I obviously was envious there. I could do everything I could want to do in English and I could write in English, read emails and use Linux at that time and Unix and everything. And I was just like, "That's just not fair that I cannot do the same things in my native language." And so, we found a local programmer who incidentally enough was actually working on a, not necessarily a screen reader, but like a voice enabled app, which could do some basic things. And we said, "Hey, you've done so much cool work. Let me teach you about what the screen readers actually do and we can just repurpose your stuff and we turn it into a screen reader."


Victor Tsaran:

So, it was just like this natural instinct for, I could do this in English and I should be able to do this in any other language. And so, that led to the creation of the screen reader.


Will Butler:

But you were simultaneously a philosophy student, well, how does that dovetail with the work in computers? And was it just a totally different part of your brain or what?


Victor Tsaran:

Yeah, I mean, that's an interesting question because they say it's totally hearsay, but philosophers tend to be people who just like to question everything and they're generally, sorry, I don't mean to toot my own horn, but they say they're good musicians and they're really good in computers. And so, I don't know what's primary and what's secondary here, but maybe it's just a mindset. And partially the reason I studied philosophy is because my dad studied philosophy, but I don't think I went after his passion.


Victor Tsaran:

It was just something that I didn't want to put myself into a slot as a mathematician or geometrician or physicist. So, I was just like, "Okay, philosophy is cool because everything and nothing in particular. And so, that attracted me to that particular major. Now, of course I know better, but that time when I was 18 I was like, "Okay, I like the philosophy because it's like, yeah, I can do whatever I want, yay."


Will Butler:

What was the significance, you mentioned though, the keyboard... Now, today with touchscreens being all the rage, can you tell us a bit about the significance of as a blind person being able to communicate directly to the computer, through the keys?


Victor Tsaran:

Yeah, I think there are two issues I can think of. One is all of childhood years and all through that university, I used to use a slate and stylus. I don't know if the listeners will know what this is, but basically you have a slate which is like a grid with cells and you put a paper in between and then you just use a slate, which is essentially a needle and you had to punch the dots through to create braille on the fly. As you can imagine, it was very laborious thing because if you were doing this for six hours straight, I'm happy I still have my wrists and apparently they're still working fine. But it wasn't fun. The issue also is it's much slower, type in braille, I think today's a little bit better because of the devices have improved, but in general type in braille and read in braille is much slower than dealing with the keyboard.


Victor Tsaran:

And so, the second piece of the story was that I also knew that other people use keyboards. And so, when I saw the keyboard I realized that not only that I would be much faster doing things with a keyboard, but also I was doing the same thing that everybody else was doing it. It just made you feel a little closer to everybody else. So, I think maybe for me it was more of a mental shift like, "Oh yay, I can also use the keyboard and I'm just typing just the same way as everybody else. And guess what? I also can type on a typewriter now so that means I can actually type and print.


Victor Tsaran:

And then of course once the computer became part of the puzzle, then it became even more significant because not only you could type on the keyboard, but you can also execute shortcut keys and you could actually tell the computer what to do. And in many ways you could be faster at it than sighted colleagues. And I think those are the things really signify the importance of keyboard for me personally.


Will Butler:

Do you worry though that now moving into the touchscreen that we're creating another gap between the way that people with disabilities interact and the way that that people without?


Victor Tsaran:

I can't afford myself to worry about these things because technology moves forward. I mean, there is obviously, this inkling nostalgia that sometimes you think, "Oh, but the keyboard is so much quicker." But then on the other hand there's somethings you cannot do with a keyboard that you can do with touchscreen. And so, I try to keep myself from not falling into like, "Oh, back in my day, this sort of thing," because it's not going to change anything. We have to figure out how to move with the technology forward because keyboards are, if not disappearing, there are getting transfused into some other ways we interact with our devices today.


Victor Tsaran:

And I think the best approach, I think especially for young generation, is just embrace the new technology. Move forward. Because nobody's going to reintroduce, Nokia style phones, because I don't know, because we feel so nostalgic about. Maybe, it's 300 years from now, I don't know. But we're today in the world, we're still relying on keyboards a lot. I'm sure most of us use some laptop or desktop, so it's not like we're completely keyboard less these days. But just a realization that this is not the only input device today is something important to keep in mind that this is just one of the devices.


Victor Tsaran:

You know this old story that Steve Jobs at some point wanted to destroy arrow keys on the Mac keyboard.


Will Butler:

No.


Cordelia McGee-Tubb:

Really?


Victor Tsaran:

One time he came into the room.


Victor Tsaran:

... Mac keyboard.


Will Butler:

No.


Cordelia McGee-Tubb:

Really?


Victor Tsaran:

One time he came into the room and he said that he hated the arrow keys on the keyboard and he took the car key and just basically took the arrow keys out because he wanted to promote the use of mouse. And thank God he didn't do that because it would have been a disaster.


Cordelia McGee-Tubb:

Wow.


Will Butler:

A nightmare for the whole disability community.


Victor Tsaran:

Yeah.


Cordelia McGee-Tubb:

I wonder what he'd think of the touch bar. I have strong thoughts.


Victor Tsaran:

I have not. Well, I used to ... See, touch bar is one other thing that I don't, I'm not super fan of it, but on the other hand, I mean what I was supposed to do? You can just get used to it and just move on and struggle a little bit. There are worse things that I have to struggle with than the touch bar. But I do agree with you. I think for blind people, even though it's accessible technically, this is one of those things like face ID for accessibility. I don't feel that it was actually a step forward. We'll get used to it of course, but it doesn't necessarily mean we have to embrace the technology, right?


Will Butler:

You got such a great attitude about all this stuff Victor. I want to know a little bit about like what were the attitudes of the students that you were teaching in Southeast Asia and other places where maybe they didn't have the same level of access or education when it comes to their disabilities?


Victor Tsaran:

No, I think you bring up a very important point, which is some things we take for granted and we complain about virtual keyboard and things like that. For those students where getting a computer, five-year-old computer was just like getting the best Christmas present of your life. I think there wasn't even a question about, "Oh, do I love keyboards," or whatever. They were just happy they had access and they're going to ... Kind of like think of me back when I saw the keyboard for the first time. This is a kind of reaction you were getting from these kids. I mean they suddenly could go and chat for their friends.


Victor Tsaran:

And just to give an example, Philippines in its own has, I don't know, like hundreds of islands. Any of these Asian countries, they're huge, and some of them, they always wanted to be in touch with their friends across the country. And the computer really facilitated this for them. And obviously they also want to be cool, right? They want to be using WhatsApp, they want to be using Skype. Having access to this kind of technology suddenly made it possible for them to do that.


Cordelia McGee-Tubb:

Yeah. It seems like you travel quite a bit. Could you talk with us a little bit about just like accessibility differences that you've noticed across different countries or even continents?


Victor Tsaran:

Oh. Yeah, you know what, you probably needed a separate show for that because there's just so much. I mean, mobility is probably one of the biggest things that I'd have to point out. In general, the world hasn't been built with blind people in mind. And so as a result, there's just obstacles everywhere. And I think the one thing I did learn from my travels is you just have to accept the way the world is and just rely on people whenever you can. I also feel that Tongue is one of the best assistive technology we have, right? I mean ...


Will Butler:

The Tongue, huh? Is that what you said?


Victor Tsaran:

Yeah, the Tongue. Yeah, T-O-N-G-E. Yeah, the Tongue. And it's just a reality that wherever you go as a blind person you're just going to encounter all sorts of difficulties.


Victor Tsaran:

Now the one thing that I do find helpful today, as much as I tend to sometimes complain about, in Silicon Valley for example, we tend to see everything through pink glasses. It's like, "Oh my god, we're already living in 25th century and artificial intelligence can do everything." And in reality we know assistive technology of today, yes, we've gone miles ahead. But we're so far away from what we're promised by some of the biggest companies, including my own. We know that some of these things are great when you sit in your room on the couch, but once you get outside and you start using these things, they either don't work or they really work half of the time and you feel like a kid happy if something does work, like, "Oh my God, it's actually scanned the words. Whoa. It really did it," you know?


Will Butler:

Yeah.


Victor Tsaran:

And it's great. Again, it's not to complain. It's just to say that there's a disconnect between what's promised to people on the website or on the internet and what's actually in the reality.


Victor Tsaran:

But one thing I did learn that I try to take as much advantage as I can of what does work, like Seeing AI on iOS or Lookout on Android. As much as these things might not always work, when it does work in a situation where you have no other way to deal, for example, I mean simple things. You get into hotel and you need to sort out what's a shampoo and what's a soap. They're only the same bottles, right? Like, how would you know which one is which? Well, thank god we do have something like Lookout and Seeing AI that I can actually, okay, it does take me probably a little longer than the sighted person, but you know what, in three minutes, two minutes' time, I can with garbled OCR text I can figure out what is what. And this is a small thing, but it's, you can't complain when things do work, right?


Victor Tsaran:

Or when I travel, I quite a lot to use Google Translate. And some people don't even, some of the friends they don't even know that I don't speak their language because I would send them like WhatsApp message in their native language and they're like, "Well, I didn't know you speak Italian." I was like, "No, I don't." But it's, again, something that sighted people probably take for granted, but for us, if I can grab Google Translate and point at a foreign text and is going to translate it to me on the fly into English, I mean, I can't complain because for me it's not just a matter, oh yeah, now it translated something, but it also not only translated, it also made it accessible to me. So yeah.


Will Butler:

What was Silicon Valley like almost 20 years ago? When you arrived, and when you stepped foot on a campus like Yahoo for the first time, what was your role there and how were you received?


Victor Tsaran:

Yeah, I was the very first blind person in the whole company. So that probably gives a little bit of an idea of what it might have felt like. Silicon Valley I think, the one thing that does go for is that people are generally very accepting and open minded, but it's a very wide field and you have to figure out how to act on it because people have to tackle priorities. And honestly, accessibility back then used to be something that people maybe heard about it, especially those who worked on the web. They might have heard about best practices and things like that. But nobody had any idea of how a screen reader worked, how to you even make things accessible. And one of the big challenges I think in Silicon Valley is reconciling, creating bleeding edge technology and making them accessible.


Victor Tsaran:

Because it's one thing to make something accessible that's existed for five years, for three years. We know how a link works, we know how a button works or whatever. But somebody created like an accordion, like some complicated widget that looks fancy and pretty. And then accessibility folks get into rumors like, "Well, we should do it this way or that way, but guess what, JAWS doesn't do this, or NVDA doesn't do that, or VoiceOver," and I would start having this discussion among ourselves. So now we have some background knowledge and we understand how these things could work.


Victor Tsaran:

Now imagine if you tried to say to someone who has never seen a screen reader like, "Hey, we need to work and make this successful." He was like, "Okay, great. Tell me how." And I was like, "Well, I don't know how, but I'm going to work with you to figure this out." So that's how Silicon Valley kind of felt. It was really, I think a Wild West for accessibility in many ways. Companies were different, various levels of success, approached it and dealt with this. Yahoo was in a bit of a better position because we were a web company, and web I think at that time was a bit more mature as far accessibility went than let's say any other field because mobile phones were just coming on the market, and so it was a bit easier in that respect. But there's still a lot of work we had to do to educate developers and then also just create a process because in Silicon Valley, companies are known for being decentralized oftentimes.


Victor Tsaran:

And so like you talk to someone. You made their product accessible, and then the next day you find out, oh, there's another team that's working on very similar product but didn't know anything about each other's work. And it's like, "Oh my God, so I have to do it again?" So that's when you kind of started to realize you need to create a process. Nothing is given for granted. And people mean really well, but because of the way Silicon Valley works, it's just hard to prescribe oftentimes. It's not a environment where things are easily prescribed.


Victor Tsaran:

So you know, but I think what has changed over the years is that I just think the industry is much more mature today and accessibility is kind of cool. If not 100% cool, it's certainly way cooler today to do accessibility than it was 15 years ago, and it's actually a pretty solid job market today. If you have the right skills and you're willing to come and work, you're definitely much more likely to find job in accessibility with one of the big companies today than it was even possible I would even say five, 10 years ago. I think that's a great change.


Cordelia McGee-Tubb:

Yeah, I think it's 100% cool to work in accessibility. But then again, I think we're also very biased.


Victor Tsaran:

Yeah, we're biased and it's honestly, working in accessibility requires a certain mindset. You really have to be prepared to work with details because a lot of accessibility is in details. Right? I mean, like I mentioned before, you could say let's make something accessible, but really comes down to these everyday minutia where you really have to sit sometimes on a single button and keep discussing like, "Well, okay, if I press Enter key, what should happen," blah, blah, blah. And it's that kind of stuff. You need some sort of mindset to be able to do this kind of stuff. And a lot of developers, they're more like, "Okay, I'm going to throw something together, make it work again. It looks beautiful. I'm just going to make a presentation. And what's my next project?"


Will Butler:

When I watched your older TEDx talk, it struck me that since VoiceOver came on the iPhone back in 2009, the product, it hasn't changed that much. It's changed some but not a ton. And I wonder, correct me if I'm wrong here, but do you think the progress of assistive tech will always sort of lag behind the progress of mainstream tech?


Victor Tsaran:

VoiceOver has grown. I mean, the probably basic have not changed much, and maybe that's a good thing, right? I mean, I think that's why so many people adopted VoiceOver let's say versus TalkBack is because VoiceOver, you could pick up iPhone 3G and 4G and still you know what to expect. They might not have all the bells and whistles added later, but the product kind of works more or less the same way. Right? There was consistent development in the product. And I think you might be right, although they have been adding more and more. Things have been breaking and fixed. They're just a natural part of the software process.


Victor Tsaran:

But as far as about assistive technology, I want to be careful when I say that because I know so many people will listen to me and they might not take it in one way. But I feel that it's hard for accessibility to get ahead of mainstream technology because by its definition we're making something accessible, right? And that something needs to exist before it can be made accessible. You can't make something forward accessible. We can put some things in place, like standards, right? We can put some things in place, like best practices, but they're best practices at best. It's hard to predict exactly which way technology goes.


Victor Tsaran:

We are doing way better today because of the persistence of accessibility community. Some of the basics are already known and we've put in place, for example, WordPress is an awesome example where a lot of the accessibility went directly into the platform so that whoever creates WordPress website doesn't have to do as much work as they would have to if they were to do accessibility on their own. So we had some amazing successes that way. But the problem ...


Victor Tsaran:

... later on their own. So we had some amazing successes that way, but the problem is that just when we thought we made three most important frameworks accessible, guess what? 15 other ones have been written and introduced, because developer's like, "Well, I don't want to be using Bootstrap." Bootstrap is old news today, right. And it's only been created, I don't know. What, five years ago, six years ago? By today, I think, we already have 15 or whatever frameworks. And so this is kind of what I'm saying is that it's hard to make innovation accessible because by its definition you need to know what you're making accessible. What is it that you're trying to make accessible? And that needs to exist before we can answer that question.


Cordelia McGee-Tubb:

Yeah, and it's not just mobile apps and websites. Right now we have this smart device revolution happening where everything is smart, your speakers, your thermostat, your refrigerator, your jewelry. What are the implications for accessibility?


Victor Tsaran:

Yeah. And some of these questions aren't even answerable today, right. Because we don't know until we actually see the sufficient prevalence of these devices on the market. And I mean I think there are some good signs. Microsoft and Amazon and Google, I think, got together recently to develop some kind of protocol, the voice protocol that all these devices could sort of respond to so we don't have to have oh, here's how echo works and here's how ... Whatever. But so there is a realization, but again, for accessibility, before we get to the point where we can start standardizing on voice commands, or air gestures, or whatever it may be that the future will bring, we need to see enough of these devices on the market so we could say, "Okay, so here's some of the common patterns that we're seeing," right. You can't try to standard for something you don't quite know what it is, right.


Will Butler:

Are you able to talk with us a little bit about how that applies to your work at Google, and how do you apply all this experience you've had to the projects that you're given at Google?


Victor Tsaran:

Yeah, I mean I have to say everything I just described sort of applies to Google in a way. We're the company that constantly try to innovate in various areas, its mobile, its web, its designed, its smart home devices, and so on everyday basis we struggle with pretty much the same questions, and we don't have answers for everything, right. Not to mention that the company is so big, right, that people at Google sometimes don't agree on what the right approach is, right. And that doesn't just even concern accessibility, just in general, right. We constantly discuss.


Victor Tsaran:

And so you have probably noticed that there's been a lot of progress, I think, with accessibility, in Google products, and I think this is a result of huge efforts of many people to sort of try to centralize a lot of what we do, but I don't honestly feel like this challenge is going to go away anytime soon because, like I mentioned, we constantly come up with new stuff. All of us who work in accessibility here, I can definitely speak for myself, I feel that you constantly have to be on your toes. You can't just say, "Oh, we've made something accessible. Great, let's go celebrate," because you know the minute you say that there's going to either come in some bug, or tomorrow they're going to say, "Oh, we're just launched, or we're working on this new thing, but how do we make this accessible?" It's like, "Okay, great question. Let's talk about it."


Will Butler:

What are some of the big victories that you're proud of coming out of Google's shop as of late?


Victor Tsaran:

So I worked on the TalkBack team for a while, and so I think TalkBack has progressed as a screen reader within the last few years. At least that's my feeling. Some of the stuff that came out of Google, like Lookout I think is a great product. And also the biggest thing that I'm personally proud of that I see accessibility features make it into mainstream Google products, like recorder app, which it's a great app just for anybody who wants to record classroom material or just dictate. It automatically transcribes everything you're saying. I mean, it's just an amazing app, not just for people who just like recording and get transcripts, like doctors or whatever, but it's just a also great accessibility feature, even though it's not really advertised as an accessibility app.


Victor Tsaran:

Think of Live Transcribe, right. It's an app that allows deaf people see what someone is saying. So they can turn on their phone and the other person speaks, they can immediately see text transcribing come up on the screen. I mean, it's now been used not necessarily by people with hearing impairments, but you could be in a noisy place and you can't hear. So I mean people use it for all sorts of purposes, and I think this is where I always feel elated when I see an accessibility feature that's made it into a mainstream product, and nobody even called it an accessibility feature. It's like, "Yeah, that's awesome." It doesn't have to be that way. There are certain things that you need to create for people with disabilities, and I also think we have to be honest about it. Not everything can be mainstream, right. There are certain needs that people with different disabilities will always have, but there are certain things that can be released into mainstream and it could be useful for everybody, not just use for disabilities.


Will Butler:

A lot of people also know you for your kind of lifelong passion in music too. And I wonder how does that dovetail with accessibility? Are there accessibility barriers in music that might not be as intuitive to folks?


Victor Tsaran:

Yeah, so I've been a musician for most of my life, like I mentioned. I play with bands before, and guitar, and I recently started playing piano as well, recording, composing, things like that. And yeah, especially once we started getting into digital recording, you quickly realized that being a musician, especially if you want to make it your job, is super, super hard because most of the modern recording software is not accessible, especially with the coolest outlets. If you want to be doing looping, or you want to be a DJ, there's only very few apps that actually allow you to do that in an accessible way because everything is so graphical. When there was a software called Cakewalk SONAR for Windows, I worked with James Teh, who's one of the founders NV Access. We worked on this product called JSonar, which enabled people to use Cakewalk SONAR, and it was an open source project. So luckily today we have companies, like Avid have taken some serious stake in accessibility, and Pro Tools is accessible. Apple's Logic has become significantly more accessible. Those are all digital audio workstations, as they call them. Logic.


Victor Tsaran:

We have REAPER, which has recently become super popular among visually impaired musicians because it's inexpensive. And again, James Tay, who I already mentioned, he created a fabulous plugin called OSARA that allows people to use REAPER. And I wrote a small add-on that allows OSARA to be run on Mac as well. So you can also use REAPER on Mac and you get all the same features that you get on Windows. And so yeah, today, actually interestingly enough, I think, with a bit of squeaking and so on and so forth, you can get a job and work with music either as a recording engineer, or even today Avid recently released Sibelius software, which also provides accessible notation. And so you could technically already write charts and scores. Again, a lot of these things, they are sort of accessible in a way that they can be used. They're not the most efficient tools, but it's way better than what we used to have even five years ago. And so even the music field, I think there have been some serious advancements.


Will Butler:

I was just at the NAMM Show with Avid, and just checking out some of the ... They're doing a lot of work to improve Sibelius accessibility right now. It's really cool.


Victor Tsaran:

I still have to say once we have what we have, my biggest complaint right now is that a lot of the accessible software is not efficient yet, so it still takes me longer to do something than it would take someone who is just clicking with the mouse, and that is the next big step is how do we not just think about accessibility, meaning I've done everything according to accessibility standards, but how to also make sure that what people use is also efficient. I shouldn't be pressing 50 shortcuts to do something that takes three mouse clicks, right. And that is kind of the next big level for accessibility is think about efficiency. And especially in today's world of information, it's harder and harder because our ears, we have to rely so much on ears as blind people, there's only as much as you can possibly handle, right. And you just naturally start thinking okay, what can I cut out of my daily information load so that I can allocate that time to do something else? Because that something else just takes a little longer to do.


Cordelia McGee-Tubb:

It's interesting because I feel like a lot of the efficiency benefits of "mainstream products" are actually things that were rooted in the accessibility space, whether those be just keyboard ways of quickly saving something, like control S, but I don't see the same thing happening in the other direction of efficiency, innovation outside of the accessibility space being brought into and being made accessible. So I totally agree that's the next thing we need to do for accessibility is combine that with efficiency.


Victor Tsaran:

Right, because you see, if you're a sighted person, that's an option, right. I mean people may complain like, "Oh my God, I wish this worked better, this like that," but they can still accomplish the task and just move on and forget about it, right. If you need to do the same thing as a person with disability, you don't have a choice. You can't just say, "Oh, I can just move on and forget about it." No, because it becomes a barrier. And so I think that's why it's a great question because it's been asked a lot, why don't non-disabled users appreciate the efficiency? It's because, I think, they can live without it, right. It sucks if something's not efficient, but again, like I said, you can sort of move on without it, and yeah, it's inconvenient but it can be done, right. For people with disabilities, that lack of efficiency becomes a serious barrier to employment and to other things, right. And so I think, in my view, this is where the big differences lie.


Will Butler:

Your youth and your young career was sort of defined by your need to sort of defy the expectations that people had of you, whether it was with your teachers or just being the first blind person to step foot on the Yahoo campus as employee. Do you still feel that way today? Do you still feel like you are defying expectations at every turn, or have you settled down a bit?


Victor Tsaran:

I think yes, because sometimes you have to explain to people how you do things, but I think what has changed is that I don't kind of worry about it anymore. I just sort of do my thing, and if somebody asks me to explain how I do things, and how is it different then I just simply consider this part of my work to sort of educate people. It's probably less noticeable today because oftentimes people will come for my expertise, but I feel it less today than I felt before. It doesn't mean it doesn't exist, but it's just either I care less about it or maybe there is an improvement overall. I don't know.


Will Butler:

Yeah. I don't know if it just comes with experience and age or whatnot, but so much of this job, I think, or being in accessibility is sort of putting people to a challenge, or challenging and authority that maybe is ignorant of accessibility.


Victor Tsaran:

Right, yeah. Again, this is just my personal experience as just one person, because if you look on Twitter and social media, you definitely see people feel like they're still being discriminated. So I guess, like with everything, it could be also place and time, and also personal attitude does matter a lot, right. Unfortunately, for various reasons, I think a lot of kids with disabilities don't get the right social-


Victor Tsaran:

Think a lot of kids with disabilities don't get the right social exposure. And so when they are faced with a situation where they have to maybe stand up for themselves or be a bit more accepting, they don't know how to do that because they've never been taught to stand up for themselves.


Victor Tsaran:

And that lack of self-assurance then converts into low self esteem or possibly even frustration and worse, anger. And so that's probably like a different set of issues. But I think that sometimes plays into why people think that there's a lot of social stigma.


Victor Tsaran:

And there probably is but I also feel there could be less of it if people with disabilities would learn how to accept it themselves and just deal with it as opposed to getting frustrated about it.


Cordelia McGee-Tubb:

I've been seeing a lot of great trending hashtags on Twitter about people being proud of who they are and sharing photos related to disability. So I feel like online communities are helping to create those spaces where people can embrace their own self-value. What do you think of just in general, the use of Twitter and other online forums for creating these mass movements?


Victor Tsaran:

It's probably something people have to make their personal choice. I'm not a big fan of mass movements. I'm not an advocate, but that's just me. I just do my work. But if that helps someone to overcome their personal difficulties or some kind of discomfort, I think by all means social media is an amazing tool to do that.


Victor Tsaran:

And for all the blaming that people put on Facebook and Twitter and all others. For our community, I think the social media has been an amazing asset. Because I mean just how many people get connected? How many people find jobs? And it's just, yeah, I could not agree more. I think social media is just fabulous. And if people feel like this helps them to promote the message, then by all means I think it should be done.


Will Butler:

You've worked on so many projects across the course of your career and things, everything from just the the scripts for REAPER to the big projects at Yahoo and Google. What are some of the things that you're most proud of when you look back?


Victor Tsaran:

That's a great question. I need to think about this. I would like to think that everything that I've done, I'm super happy about. Happy for my work on TalkBacks, [King Vear 00:38:59], because that sort of felt really close.


Victor Tsaran:

I'm super happy about my work on music stuff, the [Jay Sonar 00:00:39:07], because I knew even until today, people still come back and say, "Oh, I'm still using this old version of Sonar and I use your scripts. And they're so cool." So I think because everything I've done, I always felt like I put the best of myself into it. I would like to hope that all of it is dear to me and none of the project is worse than another one.


Will Butler:

Yeah. Well you want to be just every time you build something, challenging yourself to do it better than the last time, right?


Victor Tsaran:

Right. Yeah, exactly.


Will Butler:

Put your heart and soul into it.


Cordelia McGee-Tubb:

And what are you most looking forward to accomplishing this year?


Victor Tsaran:

Well, I would like to release my album, because the last one I recorded 2009. And it just like, it takes so much effort to put out something. At work, obviously, keep working on making life easier for everybody. Especially people with accessibility needs through whatever products I'm working on, but on personal level, yeah, definitely music. I hope. I hope. I hope.


Will Butler:

Victor, you got to come over and get into the studio with me in San Francisco.


Victor Tsaran:

I know, right? Maybe that's what's going to force me. Right. And also I hope to prove my piano skills. I've been progressing quite a bit, but always computers fight with music because both need a lot of time. For music, you need time to practice, you need time to create. And for computers and you need time to practice, you need time to create. So there you have it.


Cordelia McGee-Tubb:

Yeah.


Victor Tsaran:

And then there's work.


Cordelia McGee-Tubb:

I think a lot of us in the accessibility community are kind of overachievers. Where we've got our day jobs that we throw ourselves into and then we've got all of our passions outside of work that we equally throw ourselves into. And there's only so much time in the day.


Victor Tsaran:

Yeah. Or like to give a small example. So when I was working with the REAPER or Sonar for example, I would spend countless hours writing this script. And I would think to myself late at night like, "Wait a second, I've just wasted eight hours or whatever this week, writing the scripts that I could have been writing music."


Victor Tsaran:

And that's a constant struggle because yes, of course I was doing it because partially for myself, because I wanted to use that software, also to help other people. But you constantly thinking of accessibility of one being a blessing. It also, it puts a little toll on our other things, creative things that we have to do. Like music for example.


Victor Tsaran:

I would have loved to, if I didn't have to script, somebody said, "Okay, just wave the magic wand. You will never have to write those scripts but you could use that time to write music." I would definitely choose the time to write music because it's kind of like... But I'm happy that the work that I was doing for myself was also useful to other people. And so in that respect, this kind of impact is obviously nothing that could compare to let's say recording just a song for yourself or whatever.


Victor Tsaran:

But to your point, Cordelia, I think there's this always balance you have to... When you try to make something accessible, you're also thinking, "Okay, well yeah, this is true. But then also I'm stealing time from my own passions."


Will Butler:

Well, working in accessibility is a beautiful and noble profession. But at the end of the day it is work that is to clear the way for people with accessibility needs and disabilities to pursue what they're really interested in.


Victor Tsaran:

Yeah, exactly. I mean, and I think a lot of people who get into accessibility, they're very passionate about what they do. And I think this is one of the unique fields, especially I see young developers that realize that they want to... It's oftentimes associated with human causes and social causes.


Victor Tsaran:

Because accessibility is that. It has that uniqueness minus all the battles we have about WCAG and things like that. The premise of accessibility is really beautiful. Right. It's really making people's lives better. And I think you can take away this from accessibility.


Will Butler:

Well, I can't think of a better note to end on than that. Victor, you're a legend in this field and we're really honored to have you take some time out of the day to chat with us. Thank you so much for joining us on the podcast.


Cordelia McGee-Tubb:

Yeah. Thank you so much and we can't wait to listen to your album.


Will Butler:

Thanks for listening everyone. We'll be back next week with another interview with an accessibility leader for all of our loyal letterheads. Please leave us a review on Apple or Google podcasts. They mean a lot to us. And as always, send us feedback to 13 letters. That's one three letters at bemyeyes.com. Take care.