Accessible Apple: Introducing Alex Jurgensen

This is Alex's guide dog Zandra -- read more about her at the bottom of this post in a description that is machine-readable.

This is Alex's guide dog Zandra -- read more about her at the bottom of this post in a description that is machine-readable.

It's with a great deal of pride that we're introducing a new Apple World Today column along with a new columnist. The column is Accessible Apple, and as far as we know it's the first time that an Apple-centric website has featured a regular column about accessible computing. In his first post for AWT, Accessible Apple columnist Alex Jurgensen introduces himself:

I started life in the tech industry in 1995, on a Macintosh given to me by a friend who bought it off a lease at the university where he worked. It was he who over the years would introduce me to the PowerMac G4, the Unix command-line, and ultimately the wonderful world of Apple accessibility.

Back in 1995, my sight was beginning to fail, but my ability to overcompensate meant that it would go unnoticed and untreated for several years yet. When it was finally noticed, I underwent treatment to stabilize the progression of my condition.

Once my condition was stable, I had very little usable vision left. I began to rely on Apple's Zoom utility to accomplish most of my daily computing tasks. At this point, I moved from my smaller all-in-one Mac to a 1997 Beige PowerMac G3 with a 19-inch monitor.

While my rather large computing setup worked well for stationary tasks, it was not optimal for mobile usage. Before too long, I found myself carrying a HumanWare BrailleNote. This was essentially a PDA running a heavily modified version of Windows CE and sporting Braille input and output. While I have fond memories of the BrailleNote days, I still remember how difficult networking and file sharing were under Windows CE. I will, however, always remember its interactive text adventure runtime that consumed many an hour of fun-filled afternoons.

In either late 2002 or early 2003, I received a Toshiba Satellite laptop running Windows XP and the JAWS screen reader from the same government organization that had provided me with the BrailleNote. For the next five years, I proceeded to use an odd combination of the laptop and BrailleNote while mobile and my trusty G3 while at home, though it eventually got replaced with a succession of PowerMac G4s.

By 2005, my light sensitivity was making it difficult for me to use the Zoom utility on my Macs for anything beyond a few seconds. At about the same time, my aforementioned friend - being aware of my plight - was keeping an eye out for any Apple-based accessibility solutions that could help. When he heard about VoiceOver, which was going to ship with Mac OS X Tiger, he excitedly told me about his discovery and once again helped me acquire an off-lease Mac - this time a PowerMac G4 Quicksilver.

In July of 2007, I was attending a summer camp program at Camp Bowen (a project I would later be involved in running) when I noticed that among the PCs available for campers to use was a rather sad-looking iBook G4. After asking if I could borrow it, the machine was checked out to me for the week, a rare privilege seeing as the machines were generally kept in the lab when not in use. Having fallen in love with the sleek and shiny iBook (yes, all 1.42 GHz of its single-coredness), I quickly contacted my friend to see if I could somehow purchase an off-lease iBook to replace my by then third failing PC.

A mere two months later, I received a gift that would alter the very course of my computing career as I knew it. I was sitting at home one day when my friend decided to pay me a visit. He said he had an early birthday gift for me and handed me a small box. Opening it, I found an Airport Extreme. He told me that it was one of the new ones and that it supported the draft of the new 802.11n wireless standard. When I explained to him that my PC didn't support the 802.11n wireless standard, he told me that he knew, but that there was a second part of the gift to go along with the first. This much larger box contained a 2007 MacBook, a unit I cherish to this day.

He had preloaded it with a copy of VMWare Fusion, Windows XP, Tiger and JAWS for Windows. This combination allowed me to return my Toshiba Satellite M70 and return to my Apple roots. Finally I had a machine that could run OS X and yet be portable. After a very short amount of time, I found myself using the Windows virtual machine less and less until I hardly ever booted it.

After working with OS X in a school environment, I turned my attention to promoting the use of Mac OS X and later iOS in education. I approached the very government agency that had previously issued me both my BrailleNote and PCs. I convinced them to begin investigating Apple products as cost-effective accessibility solutions, something that would later lead to blind students being allowed to request Macs and to an extent, iOS devices.

Once I left school, I began working on contract to one of our local Apple resellers. My job included promoting Apple's accessibility features and training customers on their use. During my time at the reseller, I met many team members who would later move to Apple itself and become strong accessibility advocates.

When I decided to pursue software engineering, I formed a company and began investigating how to bring the level of accessibility Apple is known for to the wider technology industry. This venture allowed me to support my work at Camp Bowen, where I had been volunteering since 2009, when its parent organization decided the then 47-year-old program had run its course.

Now, I am working as a team lead, the president of a summer camping organization and a part-time writer. However, it isn't merely my work that has become accessible through my use of Apple's accessibility features, it is the everyday moments I cherish. These encompass everything from my ability to use the iPhone and the Tap Tap See app (free with in-app purchases) to discover what can of soup I am about to eat, to my long FaceTime audio chats with my best friends.

Apple is alone among tech giants in showing such a high level of commitment to ensuring that everyone has equal access to its products. I am honoured to be covering the company's progress in this column, as I feel that Apple has a very bright future ahead where accessibility is concerned.

Description of photo for the visually impaired: Zandra is lying on the floor, wearing a black jacket. On the side of the jacket, the word "iWork" is written in white writing. This refers both to the Apple productivity apps and her status as a guide dog. On her harness is a black strap with a white Apple logo on it. The strap is holding an iPhone 4. Between her front paws is an Apple bluetooth keyboard and to the left is a Magic Trackpad. In front of her is an education model 2006 iMac CD with System Preferences open on the screen. She is looking left, towards the camera.