Visions of things to be

”Through early morning fog I see

”visions of the things to be

”the pains that are withheld for me

“I realize and I can see…

“that suicide is painless …

That’s the first  verse to the theme music for the movie and TV series Mash, by Johnny Mandel and Mike Altman.

Bryan Garaventa is a highly successful software engineer, developer and entrepreneur, the founder of WhatSock.com and creator of the AccDC (Accelerated Dynamic Content) API.

He’s also a senior accessibility engineer at SSB BART Group Inc, which helps companies and organizations design and enhance their ICT (Information, Communication, Technology) systems, including Web sites, web applications, software, hardware, and IT services, making them accessible to everyone, including people with disabilities.

Many of SSB BART’s employees  and consultants are themselves disabled  in one way or another, which means they’re ideally suited for understanding the needs of people with similar difficulties.

But it wasn’t always like that. In August, 1994, when he was only 14, he held the barrel of a 20-gauge shotgun under his chin and pulled the trigger.

He didn’t die. Instead, he inflicted terrible injuries on himself, ruining his face and robbing himself forever of the ability to fully see the world outside.

“I started building AccDC because I saw a need for a simple-to-use system for developers to include behaviors within their applications, while also ensuring that the behaviors are automatically accessible to disabled Assistive Technology users,”  he says.

“This is where AccDC is different from all other programming APIs  (application programming interfaces.)

“I specifically designed it to make sure  its features are accessible to screen reader- and keyboard- only users. This allows developers, or teams of developers, to incorporate this functionality into their applications without requiring them to be familiar with how Assistive Technologies work to make their applications automatically accessible for all users.

“I hope that AccDC will revolutionize the future of automatically accessible application development in the future in all industries and sectors.”

Bryan’s  abiding interest  is in writing and developing  applications to make online life easier  for people with  visual and other disabilities. At one point  he was responsible  for making  the bad-boy  P2P file sharing application Napster, eventually  shut down by the Big 4  corporate record labels, more easily accessible  for  blind people.

How did that come about?

“It was an accident really,”  Bryan explains, continuing   “my wife, Cristina worked for a non-profit that accepted donations from technology companies in the area, and Napster was one of the donators.

 

The picture shows  Christina and Bryan  enjoying  the surf at Lake Michigan, Saugatuck, MI

“She mentioned my interest in technology, and Debbie (later to be my supervisor), said they were hiring and I should apply. “A month later  during the interview I was asked about my skills. I thought for a moment, and said I didn’t think that I had any.

Now, thinking back, it’s a miracle they hired me at all.”

That set Bryan firmly on the path he follows today. But why did he decide to kill himself?

Eighteen years on, “It’s hard to say exactly  what my reasons were,” he says.  “It was the culmination of many different factors — school,  loneliness, and stupidity among them. I grew up in a small town and I was always separate from my classmates.

“I’ve always had a vivid imagination, and would often get in trouble for daydreaming in class.

One of his father’s friends knew Bryan’s second-grade teacher, ”though the teacher wasn’t aware my dad and this person were friends.

”Somehow they got on the subject of students and when my name came up the second grade teacher said she didn’t know why, but she just didn’t like me.”

That revelation made a lasting impression on Bryan and became firmly embedded in his memory, together with many other perceived slights and ”situational injustices from my classmates and adults,’ he states, continuing,

”They seemed terribly important at the time.

“It sounds stupid now, but I was just a kid then, and the situation effected me deeply.”

When he was in his early teens, he tried to deal with his frustration and disillusionment by rebelling, “It appeared to me that most adults had as little control over their prejudices and biases as children in the school yard,”’

Was he bullied at school?

“I was stopped from doing things others were allowed to do for no apparent reason.

“I was kicked off the volleyball team before the final championship game for saying a word that I know for a fact I never said, and there were many other  similar incidents  during my years in grade school.

“Can it be called bullying when the adults are the one’s doing it? My answer is Yes, this was a contributing factor.

“I was extremely pessimistic towards the end. It appeared to me that no one could be trusted, especially the ones who were supposed to be in charge and presumably far wiser than I with age and experience.”

“This is a lesson I’ve never quite for gotten, which is one of the reasons why I don’t like paying attention to politics. Politicians always look like spoiled children to me, always eager to throw pudding at their rivals when the principal’s back is turned.

Like so many other teens with problems, Bryan started experimenting with drugs and was caught shoplifting a two-dollar pair of sunglasses.

He knew it meant he’d be kicked off the football team, and to make matters worse, ”this was the only activity holding me together, he says. ”I realize now I must have had some pretty serious depression back then, and the events in my life just compounded this.

“I felt trapped by circumstance, and I just didn’t care anymore.”

After he shot himself, he was kept in a drug-induced coma to allow his body to heal, but ”I had a high drug tolerance for some reason having to do with my metabolism, and I kept coming out of it unexpectedly”.

That lasted for about a month, Bryan says during which he was ”hallucinatory”, believing he was on a beach in Hawaii. ”I remember thinking the palm trees were nice,” he recalls.

But this peaceful, but artificial, interlude soon came to end, especially when Bryan began to fully appreciate  the  full extent of the wounds to his face.

Now, ”’my true regret is the pain I caused my family,” he declares.

Who found Bryan?

”My dad,” he states, “and he still suffers from horrible nightmares. The doctor had to explain my nose was gone. I couldn’t speak, and I couldn’t see, and had to write blindly with pencil and paper until I was able to learn sign language from one of the nurses.”

Even now the extent of his terrible injuries is hard to comprehend, he says, continuing,

”The shotgun blast was from below my chin. completely disintegrating my jaw, teeth, upper pallet, my nose, my cheekbones; expelling them all outward. Pellets were driven into my left eye, puncturing it, ‘while ‘Others mostly severed the optic nerve in my right eye,[yet] others burned their way into the front part of my brain, where fortunately they were cauterized.

I say ”fortunately”, because the pellets are lead and can never be removed without breaking the  scar tissue enclosing them.

”The encapsulation protects my brain from lead poisoning.

“The pellets are what caused the physical damage,  and they show up bright as Christmas lights whenever I’m x-rayed.

“But I’ve had no adverse mental effects from the injury.”

Neuro-plasticity

Neuro-plasticity, the only recently accepted ability of the brain to rewire itself, creating new pathways around damaged parts, is almost certainly responsible for Bryan’s remarkable recovery.

”The doctors think that, when learning how to cope with my physical disabilities such as blindness, not being able to speak, and so on, and then re-entering school a year later, and being an avid reader of audio books, the neural pathways around that part of the brain rerouted themselves and grew new pathways as I learned new skills in subsequent years”, he says.

”This makes sense to me. From what my family says, I have the same personality now as I did back then, so I don’t appear to have any personality disorders relating to the injuries either. So other than the physical issues of life, I don’t have a need to cope with extra conditions mentally, which I must say is a relief”.

These days, Bryan is living a full and purposeful life as a software writer, specializing in accessibility support.

Does he plan to continue writing applications for disabled people? ”I don’t think I will ever stop building things,” he says. ”It’s what I’m good at and I love doing it.

The road to recovery …

Dr Larry Heiss in Ukiah Valley Medical started the process by cutting an opening into my throat so I could breathe, then I was air lifted to UCSF in San Francisco where Dr Cory Maas, started putting my facial structure back together, salvaging  what remained  of  nerve,  bone  and muscle  tissue.

“The reconstructive process was extremely  difficult and took years to complete,” says Bryan, “with more than 1,000 procedures with many operations and many setbacks.

”As far as I know, I’m the only person, at least as of 1994, to have survived such an injury.

”I discovered other things as well,” he adds, ”’For example hospitals are extremely dangerous places, subject to the same levels of human ignorance and neglect as with anywhere else.

”There were heroes and medical breakthroughs of course,  but there were terrible mistakes and agonies as well.

“I can’t forget, but I try not to remember these things.

Bryan says he was raised as, and still is a Catholic.

“Before I shot myself, I knew that I was committing a moral sin, but I didn’t know what else to do,”  he stresses.  “I said one Hail Mary prayer just before. Maybe that made a difference, I don’t know.

“ ‘Holy Mary, mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death’ I remember saying those words, maybe someone was listening.

‘But it never occurred to me to try again.

“There were times when the pain was so bad that I wished and prayed that I could die to end it, but I never thought of doing it myself.

“For a long time I lived from day to day, having no idea what my future held or what I could reasonably hope to achieve in my life. I felt sad about this, but not despair.

“I eventually went back to school, chose a career, and found dreams that I wished to pursue.

Does he have any recollection  of the moment itself?

“I remember a sound like a huge gong, and time seemed to slow down,”  he says.

“Everything went hazy and I heard the slow chopping sound.

“I assume this was the helicopter taking me to UCSF. But  I don’t remember anything else after that for a while except for someone saying ‘he’s waking up again’, and then sinking back down into darkness.”

How close did Bryan come to actually achieving his goal?  ”I was never expected to live,” he says.  “I was believed dead several times,.

”Last rights were given three times that I’m aware of, though I only heard about this later..

”I was also never expected to speak again, and it was believed  I’d never be mentally capable of living outside of a group home for the mentally impaired.

“This was what the doctors told my parents. I still have physical issues that I can’t avoid. I also have chronic sinus infections that become potentially lethal if not treated immediately with antibiotics.

”Pain from the aftermath of my suicide attempt is something I live with every day of my life, as well as pain from internal nerve and tissue damage.

”This is life for me though, and I’ve grown accustomed to the various symptoms and how to deal with them.

”Sometimes I have to have some surgery if something unexpected occurs.

”For example, I had a metal bar removed from my chin a couple of years back, which was initially installed to bridge the missing bone gap between the left and right side of my lower jaw. For some reason my chin bone grew back behind the bar in about seven years, which was a shock to the doctors.

”Other than this, I don’t really do anything special for treatment. I like to read a lot of books and go hiking.

“I was still recovering off and on through my high school years, and even into college, so it was about seven years or so with intermediate procedures having to be done when the occasion demanded.

”My dad lives in Ukiah, California, and my mom lives in Hopland, California. They’ve been divorced since I was two.

My wife is now a Certified Rehabilitation Counselor (CRC) with the Department of Rehabilitation. Cristina and I were friends when I was in high school.

“We work about half a mile away from each other in San Francisco, and commute together every morning.”

Cristina worked for the California School for the Blind; though she left before I graduated we still kept in contact. We started dating when I was in college, and we got married in 2001 when I was working for Napster.

“At  Napster I was an engineer specializing in accessibility support. Basically I was in charge of testing the software to identify accessibility issues so the development team could then address these issues in later releases.

“That was what exposed me to the field of accessibility related development, which paved the way to all of the independent projects I’ve worked on since then”.

Why did Bryan  write AccDC?

”It’s basically a programming interface that automates dynamic behaviors for complex web applications” says Bryan. ”I started building AccDC because I saw a need in the world for a simple-to-use system for developers to include these behaviors within their applications, while also ensuring that these behaviors are automatically accessible to disabled Assistive Technology users.

”This is where AccDC is different from all other programming APIs in the world. I specifically designed it to make sure that all of its features are accessible to screen reader and keyboard-only users.

”This allows developers, or teams of developers, to incorporate this functionality into their applications without requiring the developers to be familiar with how Assistive Technologies work in order to make their applications automatically accessible for all users. I hope that AccDC will revolutionize the future of automatically accessible application development in the future in all industries and sectors.

But that’s not all Bryan has created. ”I recently built a free day planner service, called the WhatSock Day Planner, he explains.

It uses Facebook to enable users to login and easily keep track of daily events.

”I built this service so that every feature is fully accessible to screen reader and keyboard only users he states.

Where does he get his inspiration? ”Typically I just get ideas out of the blue, and start tinkering,” he says. ”These usually evolve into additional projects.

”I believe I turned out to be a pretty good person, with a happy life. I don’t intend to be going anywhere.”

How exactly does he manage to write code? Braille?

“I use a screen reader called JAWS For Windows, in combination
with a couple of development tools that I use for programming.

“One of these is named BX, which is a plugin script available within JAWS and built by a coworker of mine at http://dlee.org . This allows me to examine the results of my projects as I’m building them and to diagnose issues as they occur. I also use a free text editor called EdSharp, which was built by another blind developer to aid with programming tasks in a fully accessible editing environment. Using these tools is how I built AccDC, and all of WhatSock.com.

Actually I visualize the code before I begin writing it. I started doing this when I wrote poetry in college, often composing the stanzas over and over in my mind before writing them down. It was surprisingly easy to adopt the same process to code writing. I just imagine all of the lines as pathways that perform specific actions. When I want to build something, I break down all of these into manageable components that I can write independently from the others, so I can test each one thoroughly before putting all of the pieces together in the end. I’ve never used Braille for this. For me Braille is too slow and cumbersome for me to use effectively for electronic media. I still use Braille occasionally for labeling things, but not really for any other purpose.

Some blind people make clicking,  or other, sounds  and then listen for the rebound  to steer themselves  around  objects.

But not Bryan.

“I just use a foldable white  cane for navigating outside,” he says.

“The same for inside in unfamiliar places.

“I’d like to get a guide dog one of these days, but I’m not ready to commit to such a labor intensive endeavor at this time.

“It’s incredibly rewarding, but it does take a lot of time and care to ensure a productive relationship, since you and the dog are more than working companions but also friends. I would like to make sure I could commit the time that such a working relationship  deserved.

I think the whole sonar thing is an awesome skill to have. Unfortunately I’ve never managed to figure it out though.

“Apparently it’s much easier for people who have been blind since birth to learn how to do this effectively.

“I would probably get annoyed with myself if I was clicking all over the place though, so I don’t think I would do it very often even if I could do it. Having been blind for so many years now though, I can sometimes sense my surroundings in a general way, such as whether I am in an enclosed space, if there’s a wall or person beside me, and so on. This seems to depend on the acoustics of the area and the weather, for instance it’s much harder for me to sense these things when it’s raining. I guess this is from the echoes of so many drops at once.

When he’s not  conceptualizing  or writing  software,  Bryan  enjoys audio books,  “especially science fiction and fantasy.

“I also have a soft spot for travel accounts written by Bill Bryson, an excellent and hilarious travel writer.

“and I love exploring new countries and cultures, hiking, and doing all of these things with my wife.

“Programming too, I get a thrill and sense of accomplishment whenever I manage to build something new that nobody’s heard of before, and the idea that I can create such things from scratch from nothing at all.

“Suicide is a hard thing to contemplate, and those who haven’t had the desire or resolve to do this will never understand the underlying levels of despair that force this alternative to appear preferable to living.

“Still, all events in life shape us into who and what we are, and we wouldn’t be the people we are without those experiences.