Several years ago, I owned my own business, and provided a service to my customers known as Adaptive Technology Training. I don't know whether that sounds glamorous to an outsider or not, but most of the time it wasn't. I was an independent contractor, and primarily worked for a state agency called the Texas Commission for the Blind. TCB, as they were known then, had a very simple goal, help blind or visually impaired people become employed. I was hired when a counselor decided that one of his or her consumers needed computer training. In the majority of cases, this meant providing instruction in PC basics such as word processing, e-mail, accounting software, using the Internet, and so on. Far from complex concepts, I grant you, but the training was specialized because my students were all either blind or low vision, and were, by necessity, using print enlargement or screen reading programs to accomplish these tasks.
The nice part was that, as an independent contractor, I could pretty much set my own schedule. No one was looking over my shoulder, so I could be just as busy or take as much time off as I wanted. Of course, if I didn't work, I didn't eat, so the motivation to stay busy was pretty high.
The not so great part? That was a two headed monster, perhaps something like Amphisbaena from Greek mythology. In my case, the head on the left was named Location, and the head on the right was called Unaware.
If everything worked the way it was supposed to, a counselor would contact me, give me the name of a consumer, and explain what sort of training they needed. Unfortunately, some counselors apparently couldn't be bothered to call me themselves, and simply had the consumers do so. I got pretty good at interviewing people on the fly, but one thing I never quite managed to figure out was a polite way of asking, "What sort of place do you live or work in?" As rude as that might sound, it ended up being a very important question.
Location was crucial because it always affected training. There were the high rise business centers refrigerated to subzero temperatures, forcing the student and myself to both wear jackets, regardless of the outside temperature. On the other end of the spectrum, I once worked in a home with electricity, but no functioning plumbing. After the first day, I went to the bathroom before arriving, and drank absolutely nothing until I left. On another occasion, I traveled to a community made famous by college kids on Spring Break vacation, and discovered that my student lived in an oceanside mansion with live-in servants. And then, there was the apartment where the electrical work was so shoddily done that a crackling noise and sparks immediately followed the computer being plugged in to any outlet. No matter what the training environment was however, my job was to come in, work with my student until they were proficient at the tasks they needed to complete, and then leave.
Location could be bad, but Unaware was ever so much worse. No matter how good I got at interviewing people, there was almost always something which slipped in under my radar.
On one memorable occasion, I was hired to provide computer training for a gentlemen who was a published author. Now, I've always loved books, and have nothing but respect for anyone who's successfully managed to get published, but a question occurred to me almost immediately while discussing the training with his counselor.
"If he hasn't been using a computer," I asked, "how has he been submitting his book transcripts to the publisher?"
"He's been narrating the text on to a cassette tape, and then his mother's been typing them," I was told.
"Oh, okay," I answered cautiously, "but he's ready to use a computer now, right?"
"Absolutely," the counselor responded, "he wants to be completely independent."
At this point in my career, I'd heard enough agency double-talk to realize that I'd better interview the consumer pretty closely, just to be certain that this independence and desire for computer training was his, and not his mother's or counselor's. When I got the chance to talk to him though, everything seemed on the up-and-up. He was reasonably well spoken, seemed to be looking forward to the training, and even asked several questions about how my classes would be taught.
Although all the portents seemed to be in my favor, the day of training, once it finally arrived, was an overcast and gloomy affair. My student lived in a small coastal community about forty-five miles outside of Corpus Christi, Texas, which meant that I would have to fly to Corpus, and then travel the remainder of the way by car. Actually, since I hadn't been able to get a direct flight, I would fly from Austin to Houston, and then to Corpus. Still, I had an early morning departure, and had therefore told my student to expect me around noon.
Wishful thinking. My flight started on time, but Houston was surrounded by thunderstorms, and we circled for what felt like hours before the pilot was finally able to land. Then, of course, I was stranded in the airport for actual hours, while flights were delayed, rerouted, and cancelled. I did eventually make it on to an outbound flight, and got to Corpus around 4:30 PM. By the time I found a taxi, loaded my luggage, and traveled forty-five miles, it was getting close to 6:00 PM, and I had no desire to do any sort of training.
Of course, I knew that my student had been waiting all day, and was probably anxious to get started. I called, was told that, "Yes, I'd love it if you could come out this evening," and reluctantly agreed to do so.
With a title like Adaptive Technology Trainer, you probably wouldn't imagine that unpacking the computer and connecting all of its various and sundry components would be part of my job description, but it often was. In fact, counselors preferred that I perform the initial computer setup, because it prevented an inexperienced consumer from inadvertently destroying something. In this case, everything was intact, and I had it all setup within an hour of arriving.
"This is great," my student said, sitting in front of his newly assembled computer. "That took you a lot less time than I thought it would."
"Thank you," I answered, trying to come up with a polite way of delaying the commencement of training to the following morning. My only meal that day, an unfortunate encounter with airport nachos, had left my stomach feeling rather unsettled.
"There's something I need to tell you though," he said next.
"Okay," I agreed, not really caring what his revelation would be.
"I can't type!"
I stared at him in disbelief. Inconceivable!
Although there have been few constants over the years where adaptive technology purchases in Texas are concerned, the one thing counselors have always agreed on is that any consumer receiving a computer system from the state must be able to type at a reasonable speed. My student had gone through the evaluation process just like any other consumer, had his needs and abilities assessed, and on more than one report, it had been noted that he would require typing classes before the computer was purchased. Whether his counselor was unable to read or was simply too lazy to do so, the unavoidable fact was that my published author never received any instruction in typing before I arrived.
Even so, despite all of the trials and tribulations, I must confess that I often miss my training days.