Field of Study: 
Human Computer Interaction Graduate Student

My name is Vincent. I have been using computers and computing systems to solve accessibility problems for more than twenty years. I’m currently working as a Senior Accessibility Developer for Region’s bank.  In additional to my other five STEM degrees, I also earned my master’s degrees in human computer interaction (HCI) and Computer Science with an emphasis in Human Centered Computing at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta, GA. HCI is a unique area in the computing field that studies the human perspective in the design and use of computing systems. When I started graduate school again, I was considering studying engineering psychology, but two fellow students steered me towards HCI, which they thought was a better fit. What I’ve enjoyed about graduate school is that I had the autonomy to study almost anything I want. I have enjoyed the conversations that I have had with the fellow graduate students in my lab and the classes that I have taken with others. Getting to know the other people that are in graduate school is what makes going to class and the lab every day a truly enjoyable experience.

Does your disability affect your education?

I am blind, with only light perception. I have a genetic eye disease called retinitis pigmentosa that started to affect me in my early teens. I was undiagnosed, until I self-diagnosed myself at the age of twenty-three. While I was in school, I had to continuously help my professors remember that I cannot see any board that they are writing on. Getting them to routinely vocalize what they write was the most difficult task in any class.  An unfortunate side effect of being extremely adept at “looking” like I can actually see leads to people actually forgetting that I can’t see!  

I always tried to stay ahead in all my classes to help me better understand the lectures. I read ahead and then visit with professors before they cover a topic. There are several classes in some of the object-oriented programming languages used for prototyping that just were not really accessible with screen reading programs.  My past education and training as an Industrial and Rehabilitation engineer was one of my most valuable skillsets as it afforded me the problem-solving discipline to do whatever was necessary to make platforms as usable to be as was possible.  At one time, I was actually using three different versions of the Eclipse IDE on three different computers and then sending the code electronically to a sighted assistant to paste into an inaccessible programming platform to complete a project using an Arduino.  There was also a multiplicity of programming environments that have a lot of trouble working with screen readers as well. Knowing which IDE to use with a platform or utilizing only a text editor could be my saving grace at times.  Dealing with truly graphical situations, as is the norm with storyboards and mock-ups required a lot of ingenuity on my part.  That is when my “visual” memory and spatial orientation skills really came in handy.  To be successful, I utilize an enormous amount of assistive technology. I have an Humanware Braille note Apex notetaker and a Versa Braille display, and I use the Freedom Scientific OpenBook Reading System for scanning documents. Most of all, I utilized five different screen reading programs. Back then, I use JAWS for Windows, Window-Eyes, HAL, Non-Visual Desktop, and System Access. I also had an Apple Mac-mini, iPad, and iPhone that all use the voice-over screen reading system.  Near the end of my tenure in my Computing graduate work, I also added an Android based operating system smart phone as well.

Why did you decide to go to graduate school in human computer interaction?

I had already worked in a variety of computing positions. I have been an assistive technology instructor, where I taught assistive technology and computer skills to low-vision and blind students. I have also worked as a rehabilitation engineer for twenty years. In that capacity, I spent most of my time modifying computer systems to ensure that they interfaced properly with assistive technology. I also did programming in several of these positions. The most recent job that I had as a research rehabilitation engineer and research scientist, before heading to do my additional graduate work in Computing, had me doing everything you could imagine that combined engineering, psychology, and computer science. I designed the interface for many devices that we created in our research projects. This is how I ended up choosing human computer interaction for the master’s portion of my graduate work. My supervisor at that job told me that in order to become a full investigator at the research facility, I would need to earn a PhD. In a relevant field.  

What are you going to do with your degree?

The problems that I want to research are multi-disciplinary. I want to study the interface design of assistive technology, especially in a manner that will allow me to deliver as much content to as many people possible with the least number of resources. Primarily for the blind and visually impaired, I want to create systems of information output that convey information about science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) to students and scientists more efficiently. I want to create a multi-modal input and output system that will allow for seamless integration of a person with a visual disability into any technical discipline. Computing systems have allowed me to have a career and to solve a myriad of problems—most importantly allowing me to access information and increase my ability to communicate. I have also gained the skills to give people with visual impairments the tools that they need to navigate the visual world by applying technical and computing technology in the right manner.

Now that I have actually finished, my focus has changed slightly.  In order to be the most useful, I felt that more information needed to be disseminated about people with disabilities and how they could be incorporated into all facets of life.  I originally started to do research and write what I entitled, “The Reasonable Accommodations Handbook”, but soon determined that the project was much more than one person could reasonably accomplish.  Now that I am working full-time, I have been recruiting a variety of experts in a myriad of areas associated with people with disabilities, research, and accommodations and commission them to write sections and chapters for the book.  With any luck, within a few years there will be an actual reference book that virtually any person in any situation can access that will be a good source of information that will assist them in working effectively with people with all types of disabilities.

What can I do while I’m in high school if I want to pursue a career in computing?

If you’re thinking about a career in computing, make sure you are ready for the rigors associated with any STEM field. This means that you should be ready to think logically and apply mathematical reasoning in all aspects of your technical area. Of course, a full course of study in Mathematics and Science is a must, but it is not the only area that will assist and prepare you for this endeavor.  You should also have a diverse background, by pursuing interests in fields such as social sciences and humanities. Computing is closely related to human behavior, so an understanding of psychology and sociology is a must.

What traits are important for computing students?

Discipline, discipline, and discipline! Perseverance solves problems with computing systems. The answer rarely just pops into your head or is just sitting in front of you. You may have to think abstractly or try many different methods to get the answer to a particular problem.

Why should I study computing?

Computing is a fascinating field to get into. The sky is the limit!  As is the case in fields as diverse as History, Medicine, Law, Mathematics, and Engineering, you may end up just studying or emphasizing one area as no person can be a true expert of all aspects of it.  There is always a position in the computing field for anyone who has gained the education and skills necessary. Since very few people actually understand how computers work, you will always be revered, because you "know" computers.