A Chat with Ahmet Ustunel

Anthony Vasquez: Alright, Ahmet. Thank you. Thank you again for joining us. Just give us a quick intro. Who are you?

Ahmet Ustunel: I am Ahmet Ustunel. I'm a teacher of the visually impaired in public schools in San Francisco. I mostly work with high school kids, but I have been working with kids ages from three to 21 during my career. But, recently I have been working with high school kids. I was born and grew up in Turkey, and I'm totally blind since the age of three.

In 2006, I moved to San Francisco to study and become a teacher of the visually impaired. And since then, I live in the U.S. I'm an outdoor enthusiast and also a ceramic artist. I have been kayaking, fishing, swimming, tandem-biking, rowing, and doing all kinds of stuff nature offers, pretty much all my life. And I have, I became the first blind person to paddle solo from Asia to Europe in 2018.

Anthony: And that's what, as a winner of the Holman Prize, right out of the Lighthouse in San Francisco, you were able to kind of get all the gear, and do that cool journey across the Bosporus.

Ahmet: Exactly.

Anthony: That's so cool. And we might talk about that a little later, but tell me, I guess, what got you interested in becoming a teacher of students with visual impairments? Was this something you kind of thought of as a teenager? You know, some people automatically know what they want to be when they grow up. I'm not one of them. But, was that for you, something that you had in mind from a long time ago?

Ahmet:  Well, to me, I think it was the challenges I had during my education. They affected my decision to become a teacher. I first went to school for the blind for elementary school for five years. And then after elementary school, I was sent to mainstream for middle school and high school. And I was the only blind student in both schools.

And back then, education meant just placing me in a regular classroom with no support, no special ed support, no Braille books, no assistive technology. It was kind of like a swim or sink situation. But, I was lucky because I had a good education in school for the blind. I knew Braille. I knew how to get around by using the cane. I knew how to explain my needs and talk to teachers. I was a good advocate for my needs.

But, it was very challenging to be the only blind person, only blind student with no support in those middle school and high school environments. Especially at that age, it was very challenging. But, I had great teachers, I experienced so many good things and one of them, one of my teachers, learned Braille just for me. And by using slate and stylists, which are the most, the oldest way of writing Braille. And the most time consuming way of producing Braille.

So, she learned Braille just to prepare materials for me, handouts and exams. And still today, she is probably, one of my biggest inspirations as a teacher. And the challenges, as I said, was probably the biggest influence for me to choose my career.

But, the actual moment, that moment when I thought, okay, I need to do something in this field, came later when I was in college. I was volunteering at this organization that worked with blind kids. Kids around three to five, before elementary school. And I was teaching a class and after I finished, one of my student's mom came in and she was surprised to see me as a blind person teaching a class. And she, because most of the classes were taught by sighted people at the organization. So, she started asking questions about how I do things, you know, how I get around, how I teach, all kinds of stuff. And I realized that she had a lot of worries, and she had a lot of anxiety about her kid's future.

And we talked for a long time, and I felt like, this person needs some guidance. This person, and a lot of other parents, need guidance in talking to a blind person, a blind mentor, not just a teacher in the classroom, but a blind adult to tell them everything will be all right, and their kids will be successful. And that day, after that day, I started thinking seriously about becoming a teacher and pursue a career in education.

And I knew when I was growing up, same thing happened to my mom probably, that she had lot of questions.

Anthony: Sure.

Ahmet: She had lot of anxiety, but she didn't know anyone to talk to about those issues.

Anthony:  Yeah, that seems to be the moment where you thought that you have accomplished so much in Turkey, you could further your career and also help reassure, of course, the parents of blind students, but also the blind students themselves. Right? You would be a good mentor, good role model. Right.

Here in the United States, we're focusing, of course, for the conference on American K12. How long have you been a teacher of students with visual impairments, now?

Ahmet:  About 10 years.

Anthony:  Okay. So in these 10 years, what have you noticed? I mean, what are your highlights? What gives you hope for the future of K12 accessibility? What keeps you up at night? What are those two things that kind of.

Ahmet:  Yeah, there are a lot of things.

Anthony: Yeah, go for it.

Ahmet:  Well, my experience, my education experience in education as a student is a lot different than students here. So, my first experience as a student was in, during my master's degree in San Francisco State. And when I came to SF State, it was kind of like a dream environment for me, in terms of accessibility.

You know, for the first time, I was able to get my materials in Braille, or whatever format I requested. It is something very usual, right? I mean, it is how it should be. It's very normal thing. And other students, college students, and high school students in U.S., they take it for granted. But for me, it was a huge thing. And it was the first time I was able to access my materials in any format, in any format I wanted.

And also I, during that time I was working at the disability office. I was working as an assistive technology tutor and I realized that they were able to accommodate people with disabilities, in all kinds of disabilities. I saw people in wheelchairs, I saw people in, using different accommodations, blind, deaf-blind. And that was the moment, that was very informative for me.

And that's, around that time, 2006 to 2009, there was a campus-wide accessibility initiative. We were trying to raise awareness. We were trying to make everything hyper-compliant. You know, we were talking to professors, faculty to raise awareness about document accessibility, web accessibility.

And that experience was very informative for me. And it created my foundation, my understanding of accessibility and inclusion in higher education. And then I applied that information, that experience, to other areas of education, middle school, elementary, and high school as well.

And during my career as a teacher, again, we have challenges. We, for the last 50 years or so, people, disabled people in the U.S. have been working hard to push for inclusion in education. So with the 508, Section 508, IDEA and ADA, we achieved a lot in the last 50 years, but we still have a long way to go. And, my biggest hope and belief is in the people, disabled people, because we got this, we got that far with our effort and I am, I believe we will be able to move forward with education and other issues we are facing.

But when I think about inclusion, you know, as an educator, as a teacher, first thing I think is the inclusion in education. But for me, it's much more than that. I mean, education is a big part of our lives, but after that people with disabilities, I'm talking about, especially for blind people, we have a really high rate of unemployment and we don't have equal access to housing. We don't have equal access to transportation. We don't have equal access to a lot of other things like healthcare, recreation.

And, then if we keep organizing, like the way we did before in, you know, during civil rights, during '60s and '70s and '90s to get the ADA passed, if we keep organizing, if we keep finding alliances, forging alliances, if we keep changing the attitudes towards disability in general, I think we will be able to see a lot more inclusion in every part of daily life, every section of the daily life.

Anthony: That makes sense. It's a slow going, slow road, but I guess progress happens that way, sometimes. It does take.

Ahmet:  So let's see what did, yeah.

Mariella Paulino:  Did he, I think he cut off. Anthony? Right where you said it's a slow going.

Anthony:  Sorry, am I? okay, go ahead.

Ahmet:  No worries. Yeah. So it's a slow moving process, progress. But, in 50 years, we got a lot of things done. And U.S. is ahead of a lot of other countries. So, there are people still fighting for basic human rights in a lot of other parts of the world. And I see ourselves, in U.S., a lot luckier in terms of accessibility and inclusion compared to other places.

And some, as education changes, as what we do in the classroom changes, our needs for inclusion also change. Like with the pandemic, we started integrating more and more technology in the classroom. And if it is right, if it is done right, technology is a great equalizer. So, it helps our kids to have equal access and very quick access, I should say, to a lot of things, to their books, to their materials.

I'm going to give you an example about Braille transcription. We used to, we still do, but not that much, we used to spend months to transcribe one textbook. It used to take at least two or three months to finish a book. But, with the technology, with Braille displays, and iPads and digital books, we can just start reading a book in a few minutes.

Just download, pair your refreshable Braille display with your iPad, and start reading the book. So, it is a very easy and fast process, but not all the technology works well all the time. So, whenever I hear from my students, they need to use a new website or they need to use a new app, I get some kind of anxiety attack.

I feel like, okay, is it accessible? You know, how we are going to make this accessible? Because, more than 50% of the time, the websites, they need to go to research or the apps they need to use are not very accessible. And it creates an extra barrier for half of my students to access their curriculum.

So, that's why we love technology. We use technology. But, we want to make it accessible so our kids can have equal access to their curriculum.

Anthony:  That's right. It's every time an update happens, even. Right? You gotta’ wonder.

Ahmet:  Exactly.

Anthony:  What may be broken in the, what may be broken in the next version. Can you give us a quick highlight of what you'll be talking about during your keynote?

Ahmet:  Well, during the keynote, I'll be talking about, I'll share a couple of stories from my childhood; how I used to make things accessible for myself and how my education helped me to become an advocate for accessibility. And then I will talk about my experience as a teacher, and some of the things we do in San Francisco Public Schools.

And I will share a couple of videos of the students when we work on different apps on technology and accessibility related topics. And I will also share some of the best practices from my experience about how to make things accessible for my students.

Anthony:  Very nice. Well, I think we're quite past our time already. But, you know, one of the things I want to also draw attention to is that, you've accomplished all this educationally. You're also known as the blind captain, right? You have kayaked from the Asia side of the Bosporus to the European side.

Ahmet:  Right.

Anthony:  In a kayak. Can you tell me, really briefly, what adventure, being an outdoors person means to you?

Ahmet:  Sure, yeah. Well, I grew up by the ocean and most of the things, most of the activities I enjoyed when I was a kid was water related, like swimming or going to the beach and fishing and finding different creatures. And, then when I moved to U.S. in 2006, I started kayaking. And I really enjoyed it because in a kayak, you are really close to the water and you feel every movement, like, currents and the waves and how the boat turns and all that stuff.

You're kind of like a sea turtle upside down in a shell, right? So you feel every movement of the kayak. And, when I was growing up, my high school was right on the Bosporus. And I used to sit by the water and listen to the ships passing by. And at that time in my literature class, we were learning about Greek mythology. And there was this blind king called King Phineus.

And his role was guiding the sailors through the Bosporus in the dark as a blind hero. He was helping all the sailors. And you don't see that many blind characters in real life or in mythology or in, even in media, portrayed as heroes. Right? So when I read his story, I was like, wow. You know, there was this blind king and he was doing this cool stuff on the Bosporus, and I was thinking, maybe one day, you know, one day, I could sail a boat or maybe row that boat, or maybe, do something on the Bosporus alone, solo, with no sighted assistance.

And back then, when I go fishing with my friends, I used to row a boat, but always somebody used to tell me, oh, go left, or right. All that kind of stuff. So my dream was okay, one day I will do something, solo. But, of course, this was in mid-90s, early '90s, and before GPS, before smart phones, before any kind of technology.

And then I came to U.S. and I learned about self-driving cars. I, we even started seeing those on the roads. And I thought, wow, if they can do this in heavy traffic like San Francisco, it should be much easier on the water because it's all open. You don't need to follow a straight line. Like, you don't need to be on a street, like a car. And the obstacles are less on the water.

I mean, what are you going to run into? Maybe a ship, maybe a couple of rocks, you know. You're not going to run and cause an accident. So, I start thinking about this and I, you know, talked to people, engineers and people who know about that stuff.

But, of course, this was a really expensive and labor intensive project. And, I didn't have the financial means back then. So, it was just an idea. And, after about 10 years, 11 years, in 2017, I heard about Holman Prize from the Lighthouse for the blind. And I said, wow, you know, this sounds really cool. They were giving these grants to blind adventurers, explorers. And the grant, named after Holman, James Holman, who was a 19th century, blind adventurer.

He traveled the world alone with no sighted assistance. And he wrote some best seller books about his travels. But for some reason, he was forgotten after a while. And the Lighthouse was just using his name in the grant to attract attention to his adventures.

And I applied in 2017, I got the grant and I worked on this kayak. Kind of like a semi-robotic kayak. So, I still do the paddling, but, I have a bunch of sensors and GPS and navigation systems, talking compass, you know, a lot of electronics on the kayak. And I was able to paddle from Asia to Europe from one side of the Bosphorus, to the other in 2018.

It's a symbolic place. You know, it is a geographic border between Asia and Europe. So, that's one reason why I chose the place. And another reason is, as I said, it was the poem of King Phineus who was blind and a hero in Greek mythology.

Anthony:  Great. Well, I think for now, I mean, we could talk for a lot longer, right? There's so much we could touch on. But, I think for now, just maybe, one last thought here, maybe you could just share with our viewers and listeners, why they should attend our accessibility conference next, in two weeks.

Ahmet:  Oh, well. [chuckles]

Anthony:  Make a pitch for your keynote and also for the conference.

Ahmet:  All right. Well, accessibility is for everyone. Let me say accessibility, we always, first thing we think is the people with disabilities. But to me, accessibility is a lot more than that. You know, a lot of things start with people with disability. A lot of accessibility initiatives start with the mind, with the disabled people in mind. Like putting ramps in buildings, right?

So, wheelchair users can use it, but I mean, it's good for everyone. Or let's say texting. Text messaging was actually used by deaf people before it became a widely used communication system. And now everyone is using it. Or I can give you a whole bunch of other examples. Like, you know, the audio traffic signals.

People used to think that it's only for blind people, but it's great for everyone else. In these days, we don't pay that much attention. People are looking at their phones. People are paying attention to millions of other things and just having an extra audio reminder is always good.

So, when I think about accessibility, it is for everyone and this conference, I think will be great to learn from the experts, what is being done. What is new in web accessibility, in document accessibility, accessibility in general. And I'm very excited to be part of it. And I'm looking forward to learn more from the experts.

I am not an expert. I should say, I'm not an expert in terms of regulations, in terms of codes or rules. But, as most blind people, I have a passion for things to work and things to work well. And that is my focus. So, I love to use technology that is designed with all kinds of users in mind, including people with disabilities. And that's a good experience for everyone. Not just for me, not just for anybody with disability.

Anthony: Knowbility logo. Text reads: the K12 Access Summit. Bringing digital equity to education. Go to Knowbility.org/K12Access.