Volume XIV Number 1, March 2014

It's Not a Destination; It's a Journey

Susan Kelmer
University of Colorado

Like many of my colleagues in adaptive/assistive technology and alternate format production, I fell into this field backwards. I was a geek; I worked with computers. I had a degree and experience in management and found myself managing a computer lab in a library at a community college, with the expressed task of making it a multi-use, adaptive lab for students. The year was 1999. I knew nothing about adaptive/assistive technology.

That wasn’t that long ago. But in the evolution of adaptive technology and the production of alternate format, it is lifetimes. 

My specialty now is alternate format production. I love what I do, and I continue to build my skills and find shortcuts and easier ways to do things. In those early days, more than a decade ago, I created alternate format with a flatbed scanner, editing files in What You Need Now, and using it to record sound files into a tape recorder I had connected to the speaker output of a desktop computer. My first book, a large psychology text, took five weeks and 60 two-sided 4-track tapes to record. That first semester, I was creating a book for a student because we couldn’t get it from Recording for the Blind & Dyslexic (RFBD). 

I had to be creative to figure out how to do it. I had yet to hear of anyone else doing this, although there were others, I found out later. I just rubbed my brain cells together and got it done to serve the student. But of course, this created a new expectation and with it, a pile of additional books to produce. The second semester, I produced six textbooks. The third semester, there were 18. That semester, I attended my first Accessing Higher Ground conference alt-format track. I came back to my campus, cornered my boss, and ordered almost $20,000 worth of equipment and software.

What he saw, and I did too, is that the need for alternate format was not going to lessen, much less go away. We needed to find a way to produce more efficiently, more quickly. “Work smarter, not harder,” was his favorite phrase.  And I did. I manipulated a budget line away from the library to fund extra staff for production, set up four production stations that included scanners and high-end computers loaded with software, and had my IT guy find me some space on the server. 

And I never looked back. 

Every year, I make it a point to participate in alternate format discussions at conferences and consortiums, to work with others to learn new techniques or share information on things that have worked. I continue to participate on the board of the AccessText Network, one of the biggest shifts in publisher cooperation to have happened in years. I advocate for students, but I also advocate for our colleagues in the industry. We are all facing the same struggles in how to provide alternate format to our students. We all have varying resources and experiences, and we all have something to share, something to learn, and something to teach. Alternate format is not going away. 

I look back on a very brief history. We are many miles from where we started. We will traverse many more in the coming years. We have big dreams. We dream some day that publishers will produce alternate format that we don’t have to manipulate first. Huge repositories of already-available files will be accessible to anyone needing them. Students will be able to ask for their own alternate format directly from its source. Big dreams. Some would say pipe dreams.

I say anything is possible. I say that we don’t really know where alternate format will be in two years, much less in another 10. By the time I retire, where will things be? There will never be an alternate format destination. There will only be the continued journey. Just around that next turn, something else will change. And it will all be for the good, because we aren’t looking backward. 

If you had asked me 15 years ago what I thought I’d be doing now, I wouldn’t have been very accurate. I never knew this is where my path would lead. It wasn’t where I was heading. But I’m happy to be making this journey and excited to take the next turn in the road. 

Kelmer, S. (2014). It's Not a Destination; It's a Journey. Information Technology and Disabilities E-Journal, 14(1).