By Lisa Deaderick, The San Diego Tribune

Daniel Ortiz Merino has a lot of good memories from his participation in programs with the Braille Institute, so when he learned about their Techspert program, he saw an opportunity to return to a place that had been so positive for him.

“From the age of 7 and until I graduated high school, I participated in Braille Institute’s youth program, from which I hold many incredible memories. When I heard about the Techspert opportunity, I was very excited about the prospect of a homecoming, of sorts,” he says. “I also felt like I had matured as an instructor and that this would be the perfect opportunity to help several people in a day.”

The program trains visually impaired instructors to work one-on-one with visually impaired clients on using adaptive technology and devices. Merino, 31, lost his vision shortly after he was born due to a rare form of eye cancer. Today, he lives in La Mesa with his girlfriend, their two daughters and his guide dog and a pet Chihuahua. He’s been a Techspert since last summer and also works in the assistive technology field providing in-home consultations. He took some time to talk about his involvement in the program as an instructor, what he’d like to see employers understand about hiring people who are visually impaired, and his memories of riding his bike as a boy despite his vision loss.

Q: What do you do as a Techspert?
A: As a Techspert, I help people who have had vision loss from a young age — as well as adults who may have lost their vision because of age, disease, or trauma — through one-on-one consultations regarding assistive technology. These consultations include basic orientations to assistive software and devices, instruction on specific tasks (such as sending an email message on a smart phone), as well as demonstrations and assessments to find out which piece of technology is appropriate for a certain individual. I also lead group classes in the subjects of Jaws (one of the most popular screen-reading programs for the Windows platform), and Apple’s accessibility options. Occasionally, I help facilitate technology workshops for the community.

Q: You grew up in Mexico before moving to the U.S. as a young boy. What skills did you first learn in Mexico that helped you with your independence?
A: I have many fond memories of the school for the blind I attended in Mexico City. There, I learned to read Braille, use a cane, and also things that would help me survive in the sighted world, like signing my name, and writing a note if necessary. My family also was not afraid to include me in things like cooking, household chores, riding bikes and other experiences any child has.

Q: What was one of the first forms of assistive technology you ever used?
A: Other than the very rudimentary slate and stylus for writing Braille , my first piece of assistive equipment was a Perkins Brailler. A Perkins Brailler is essentially a Braille typewriter. Paper is fed through the rolls, and then the user presses a combination of the six keys to emboss the paper with Braille characters. This was much faster from the slate and stylus, which requires the user to punch each individual dot. I immediately fell in love with it when I began using them in Mexico, but then I was ecstatic when I was provided one to take home when I came to San Diego. My appreciation lessened however, when it became the tool that facilitated hours of homework.

What I love about La Mesa …
I like that La Mesa is close enough to the city, but still a little quieter and surrounded by a little more nature. There are also a lot of good places to dine and shop. I also really enjoy having the trolley nearby, as it really helps with my travel to and from work and fun.

Q: How has that particular form of technology evolved or improved over the years?
A: Braillers have evolved into Braille Notetakers, which are small Braille computers, and are mainly used by students and professionals to do anything from taking notes, as the name implies, to sending email and browsing the web. There are also electronic Braille displays that connect to computers and smart phones, so that one has Braille access to the screen, and that allow the user to manipulate the device with the Braille display itself. However, not everyone with vision loss learns Braille, so learning other forms of adaptive technology is vitally important to maintain one’s independence.

Q: What’s your favorite assistive technology to use currently?
A: My favorite, and currently most used assistive technology is VoiceOver on my iPhone. VoiceOver is the built-in screen reader on Apple devices. In the case of the iPhone, it reads items on the screen, and allows me to manipulate my phone through a series of finger gestures, such as flicks and taps with one or more fingers. I really like that mainstream tech companies, such as Apple, include this level of accessibility for their devices. This allows me to keep up with my sighted peers without having to purchase a separate, and likely very expensive, device or software.

Q: The American Foundation for the Blind reports that more than 40 percent of people of working age who have vision loss, are employed. Why do you think more employers aren’t hiring candidates who are visually impaired?
A: I think there is a significant lack of awareness of how visually impaired people live their lives. There is still the idea that the visually impaired need a great deal of assistance to complete daily tasks, much less to be productive in the workplace. With that idea, it would be cumbersome, inconvenient, and very expensive to accommodate a visually impaired employee. But the free programs offered by the Braille Institute enable persons with low vision or no vision to be independent and engaged in the community and, for some, the workplace.

Q: What would you like to see employers do to be more inclusive of visually impaired employees and in hiring more job candidates who have low vision or no vision?
A: I would love for employers to realize that, with the help of technology, it is no longer cumbersome, inconvenient, and definitely not expensive to accommodate a blind employee. Often, the technology is easily accessible through apps and software. There are a lot of intelligent, highly educated and qualified visually impaired people who are ready to join the workforce, and be a highly productive member of a team if given the chance. With that being said, the (current) statistic is an improvement from 10 and 20 years ago, but there is still a lot of work to be done. I would like to see employers open their minds, and maybe do a little research before turning down a job candidate who is visually impaired.

Q: What’s been challenging about your work in assistive technology?
A: Something I really enjoy about my work is that it is always challenging because of the variety of people and their needs. At times I find myself exploring apps or websites that I have never used, quickly learning my way around it, then instructing my student on how to navigate it on their own. It is especially challenging when there is not a lot of accessibility in the app or website due to unlabeled links or buttons, and then I have to figure out how to work around those issues.

Q: What’s been rewarding about that work?
A: There is nothing like having someone finish a session with a smile on their face, and feeling like they have accomplished something. I love the feeling of empowerment people get from their technology, especially when they were fearful or nervous to use it initially.

Q: What has it taught you about yourself?
A: Before working in the assistive technology field, I generally regarded myself as a very impatient person. Yet, throughout my work, I have gotten many compliments and thanks on my patience. I think if a student is not understanding a concept I am trying to explain, it is just my cue to find a better way to explain it.

Q: What is the best advice you’ve ever received?
A: My grandmother told me many times to always be aware of the way I talk and carry myself, because it would say a lot about me. To this day, this awareness has made me be able to communicate with people of different age groups, cultures and backgrounds. Because of this, I have been able to network and have the employment opportunities I have enjoyed.

Q: What is one thing people would be surprised to find out about you?
A: As a child, I used to ride my bike around the streets of Mexico City. I would use ambient noise for echolocation, in order to avoid crashing into people or obstacles. Of course, it came a lot more naturally then, and I would not dare do anything like that now, but I have a lot of fond memories from riding my bike.

Q: Describe your ideal San Diego weekend.
A: There is nothing like taking my little family out for a stroll around Balboa Park or the harbor, and end up at a delicious seafood restaurant, or a good spot to grab a California burrito.