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Follw Friday With Leo Bissonnette

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Good Morning! Good Afternoon! Good Evening! Whatever part of the day it is for you I hope that you are having a splendid day. I know I am. Why? Well, for starters, Daylight Saving occurs this weekend which means spring has definitely arrived. Now if we can just get Mother Nature to cooperate with the weather.

The other reason I am so happy that today is the end of the week is because another edition of Fedora Outlier’s Follow Friday series is ready and waiting for you to read and share with family and friends. Who am I showcasing this week? You’ll have to keep reading to find out.

This week I had the pleasure of interviewing Leo Bissonnette, PhD of Montreal, Canada. While attending college to obtain his doctorate in Sociology, he was introduced to the early stages of assistive technology and from that moment Leo was hooked.

Dr. Bissonnette would eventually become the Coordinator of Disability Services at Concordia University where he helped students learn assistive technology and how to integrate the skills learned into their daily lives. He also took it upon himself to increase the level of accessibility at the University as well. These are just a few reasons why Fedora Outlier chooses to follow my dear friend Leo Bissonnette, and why he was chosen for our Follow Friday interview.

Brie Rumery: For some of our readers who do not know who you are, would you please take a few minutes to tell us about yourself?

Leo Bissonnette: I am 62 years of age; happily married to my wife, Coralie, for 30 years; and I have one daughter, Alison. I live in Pointe Claire, Quebec, Canada, a suburb of Montreal. I retired at the end of November 2012, after managing the DSS Office at Concordia University in Montreal.

I also taught sociology on a part-time basis in the department of sociology at Concordia, specializing in the Sociology of Education.

In the 1980’s I got into rehab teaching at the Montreal Association for the Blind at a time when the first generation of VersaBrailles came out. Then I was asked to take on the teaching of the Apple IIE and the first PCs using DOS and screen readers. That got me into assistive technology teaching and that brought me to Concordia where I became the Manager of the DSS Office at Concordia. Although retired, I offer private consulting services to students with disabilities wanting to prepare to go on to college and university here in Montreal.

BR: What was the major reason for pursuing the field of assistive technology instead of Sociology?

LB: There were some practical economic reasons for going into the field of assistive technology. Teaching positions in sociology were few and far between; only available on a part-time basis. So, when I was given an opportunity to teach assistive technology at the Montreal Association for the Blind on a full time basis I took it. I also had a passion for teaching and I found that I had a passion for technology. So, that was it. Assistive technology teaching was where I stayed and when I had the chance to work at a university where I could further AT use, I was more than happy to do this work.

BR: When it comes to accessibility, do you think that the education system is performing an adequate job for future generations of our blind youth?

LB: Looking at the university/college system in Quebec and other provinces in Canada, I am of the opinion that we have a way to go. While we have in place programs that issue aids/assistive technologies, the training is very basic and done in an isolated teaching situation. This means that when a student comes to university with their shiny new laptop they don’t know how to use it for good note taking and term paper writing. DSS offices have to pick up the slack and offer sessions on note taking and how to write according to discipline specific writing styles such as MLA or APA standards. In some cases the powerful AT ends up sitting on shelves gathering dust. As a braille user, I am concerned that some AT specialists are moving students away from braille, believing that screen readers will serve the user’s full set of needs. Maybe economics in terms of producing books plays a role here, but it concerns me that braille for some is not presented as an option.

BR: When it comes to teaching assistive technology/accessibility to the blind by the blind, do you feel it is necessary for the teacher to have some type of official certification?

LB: My own example is one where I came into the field of assistive technology teaching without official certification. I had an opportunity to be asked to take on the challenge of figuring out the VersaBraille and the first generation of screen readers at a time when all we had were the manuals. I took on the challenge and developed a teaching curriculum that was very much from a user’s perspective of a visually impaired user. I would argue that others did the same and got our field started. When I think of others I know in our field our stories are similar. Indeed, the Fedora Team reflects the best of how the blind are the best teachers. No doubt, there are some agencies for the blind who today want people with certificates, probably based upon funding and job hiring reasons. But I say that some of the best teachers come from the blind community….

BR: Do you feel that there are any particular age groups within the blindness community that are being “left behind” in regards to assistive technology and/or accessibility?

LB: Yes, I do. I am especially concerned about the seniors – that is, those over 65 years of age. This is a population where vision loss often occurs – at times with other medical factors that complicate things. Funding and AT teaching are not always available to this group. Here where I live in the province of Quebec, Canada, our medicare/health insurance coverage does not provide AT for this group. Because they are not students and are not working, they don’t qualify; so they are left out. I’ll illustrate with an example. I am presently working privately with a client who has lost vision due to macular degeneration. My client prior to his vision loss, used an iMac; so, when I was hired to work with him we looked at VoiceOver. I recall that day when he went into TextEdit and used VoiceOver to write a letter! His excitement is not adequately described in words. This example, illustrates how powerful AT is and finding ways to get it into the hands of all is the societal challenge. My client is no longer isolated. He feels involved and indeed is because he enjoys sending e-mails. He is proud of the fact that he can write still, something he felt that he would not do after his vision loss.

BR: How important is it for the blind individual to integrate their use of accessible devices into their daily life?

LB: Assistive devices are The tools that enable us to do many of the tasks that our sighted friends and family members would never think of doing with their devices. Reading using apps such as Read2Go or the Kindle app give us access to books at the same time as books are released in hardcopy. I shared that fact with a friend, telling him that 2013 was the year of book apps for the print impaired. He replied to my comment that he would never have thought of reading on his iPhone. I then introduced him to iBooks on his iPhone. Now he has started to read e-Books. That’s one example, and it indicates that for many of us we have taken the time to look at finding apps to help us do things more easily on a day-to-day basis.

BR: Who was your mentor and how did he/she impact your life as a blind individual?

LB: My mother was my mentor. At a time when integration into the regular education system in the 1960s was still not the norm, she advocated for me to be integrated into regular high school at a private school here in Montreal. Her advocacy got me in. Her support in getting me textbooks in braille and on tape made the difference. As a result I learned much about self-advocacy—a skill that has helped me throughout my life. Indeed, I should note that there were and are many parents who have done similar advocacy work and have made a difference. My mother’s mentoring gave me three words to focus on and live out: attitude, opportunity and learning. By attitude, I came to learn about being positive and a problem solver. By opportunity, I learned how to take advantages of opportunities to work with people and to become involved in projects. Finally, learning, which meant life long learning in courses, books, and through people.

BR: For someone who does not use social media such as Twitter or Facebook on a regular basis, what are some of your thoughts in regards to how these platforms are important to the blindness community?

LB: Brie Rumery’s invitation to participate in the AccessChat got me to look at what some are doing with Twitter. We have yet another way to exchange and discuss. It’s another tool that will draw some into our community. I am impressed by the number of people who exchange info on trends that are emerging around topics and how people get involved in the immediacy of offering views and opinions. I have found many people with similar interests; indeed the list of people I am following has just passed the 125 mark; and the number of people following me is now 21 in just a few weeks of being active on Twitter.For me, who traditionally did more on e-mail lists and in webinars, certainly my Twitter experience over the past 6 weeks leaves me looking at ways to use Twitter to do things. I am still working my way through the TweetList app, so yet another tool to use. Learning never stops….

I want to extend a very warm thank you to Dr. Leo Bissonnette for taking the time to chat with me. Please feel free to follow Leo on Twitter by adding @Maxnugg96 to your list of followers.

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