Birkir Gunnarsson - Part 2

Photograph of Birkir Gunnarsson taken earlier this year, from the Icelandic news magazine Visir.is Part 1 of Birkir Gunnarsson's story was published in October. This month we follow him through his university days, his search for employment, challenges with getting accessible study materials, and his battle with cancer. This is Part 2 of Birkir's story.

Going global!

I had a hard time studying at the University of Iceland in part because the amount of course material put too much pressure on Iceland's accessible textbook production capacity. It was also difficult to obtain accessible books from abroad due to copyright restrictions, something that the WIPO Treaty may be able to solve for future students in my situation.

But I admit that I was also distracted by other ventures: particularly the Internet. I had discovered the Internet Relay Chat (IRC), the first popular real time online chat system. Through shared music interests I had become part of a closely knit group of virtual friends from around the world. I spent hours online
chatting with people when I should have been sleeping (or even studying).

I occasionally mentioned my frustration with my university studies in Iceland. One of my virtual friends, a senior at Yale University, asked me if I had considered trying something different and applying for a university abroad. She offered to send me the application forms. Much to my own shock (and fascination) I applied to Yale University's undergraduate program and was accepted (partly due to my swimming history).

Again I had learnt the importance of trying my best and not getting tangled up in fears of failure.

Sometimes You Have to Start at the Bottom

Birkir Gunnarsson playing guitar in his university days Yale was difficult and fascinating in equal measure, especially for a blind kid from a foreign country. I had set my heart on a degree in Computer Science, but obtaining a C- in my first Computer Science course put a bit of a damper on that ambition. My professor took me aside, told me I had come horribly unprepared, but that I should keep it up – he believed I could manage.

I made extensive use of Yale resources: readers, visual interpreters and people preparing electronic or braille documents for me. I certainly got my tuition's worth. However my real breakthrough in learning to code was discovering a mailing list of blind programmers plus finding accessible HTML books such as "programming for dummies". Sometimes it is important not to let your pride get in the way. Needless to say my grades improved, it would have been hard to do any worse.

At the end of my junior year I got a paid internship with the Microsoft Accessibility team in Seattle – mostly because my fellow students wrote off their chances and did not even show up for the on-campus interviews.

At Microsoft I continued dabbling in bad cover music, producing likely the most horrendous cover of the song "Pretty Woman" by Roy Orbison that has ever disgraced the ears of human beings (fortunately mostly the ears of fellow interns). The highlight of that summer was being invited to a picnic at Bill Gates' house along with 100 other interns; he was able to carry on detailed conversations about all of our projects. I have a tremendous amount of respect for that guy.

Transition: From University to Employment

Six months before my graduation I landed a job with a leading investment bank in the U.S. The manager who was doing the on-campus recruiting and I shared a passion for the English premiere soccer league, and despite not rooting for the same team, we connected and eventually I landed a job with the bank. I should mention that I was grilled extensively on more relevant subjects before receiving a job offer.

For the next 5 years I lived in Charlotte, a small city on the border of North and South Carolina. I did a lot of software development and data mining for security analysts, researchers and traders at one of the largest bank holding companies in the US. I wanted to become an analyst myself. In order to do that I had to obtain professional certificates such as the CFA (Certified Financial Analyst), but I constantly ran into brick walls when trying to obtain accessible study material, and slowly grew disillusioned with my work.

Access to Technology & the Woman of My Dreams

Birkir and his bride on their wedding day I did better on the personal front, where once again the Internet played a major role. Shortly after moving by myself to Charlotte I joined Hotbraille, a community bulletin board site for blindness related issues. I made a lot of friends through that site, which was good because my social life in the real world was not worth shouting about.

On Hotbraille I started chatting with a young lady who was working on her philosophy Ph.D. in Canada but was temporarily working as a braille transcriber for the CNIB. After 3 years of online chatting and emails we finally met one warm autumn night in Toronto – there was no way back after that. I proposed within 4 months, we had our first child a year later and were married in 2007. We now have three children and are still happily married. Access to technology, the Web in particular, had helped me find the woman of my dreams.

Cancer, Financial Meltdown & the Winding Road to Accessibility

My programming career for the bank and my pursuit of an MBA degree were cut short by a combination of cancer diagnosis (Hodgkin's Lymphoma) and the global financial meltdown. We moved to my native country of Iceland for a couple of years where I worked as a financial risk analyst and underwent chemotherapy. The treatment went well, the banking career, not so much. Again I was hampered by lack of access to information; this time it was the FRM (Financial Risk Management) certification that I was going for. My colleagues obtained it, one by one, but I got nowhere trying to get the necessary study material in an accessible format.

My wife always dreamed of completing her Ph.D. and I much desired to return to North Carolina. She was accepted into the prestigious Duke University Philosophy Ph.D. program and we moved back happily.

I was not sure what to do next in terms of my career. I wanted to offer banks to pay me not to work for them, as the two banks I had worked for had both gone bankrupt. Instead I wrote an article complaining about the poor state of Web accessibility in Iceland; the chairman for the Iceland Association of the Visually Impaired, Mr. Kristinn Einarsson, offered me a part-time position to help fix that problem. This, combined with an offer from the Iceland National Resource Center for the Blind to become a technology and braille consultant, kick started my accessibility career. Since then I have done consulting work with Icelandic and international organizations, most notably working part-time for the Icelandic Library for the Blind (now The Icelandic Talking Book Library) and their charismatic and energetic Director, Thora Ingolfsdottir. I have been involved with ANEC, the European consumer voice in standardisation, as well as the European Blind Union and its Web Accessibility Campaign – a fight that is very much still on-going.

I had ambitious plans to get more involved in the work of the DAISY Consortium, but my plans suffered a setback when I was diagnosed with Sarcoma. Ironically it was during the DAISY Board meeting in Washington in 2012 when I realized something was horribly wrong. After a month of intolerable pain I was finally diagnosed with Pleomorphic Sarcoma.

After a difficult treatment consisting of major surgery, radiation and chemotherapy, and a long and difficult recovery period, I have committed to Web accessibility full-time, making a fresh and exciting start working for Deque Systems, a small company based in Washington D.C. I work with some of the people who were my idols when I began dabbling in Web accessibility a few years earlier. It is a challenging job but I enjoy it immensely – I feel like I am actually in the business of giving people hope and access to opportunities.

Birkir holding his youngest child when she was born in 2012 I still have a passion for helping with access to technology and instructional material, eBooks, images and mathematics in particular, and have a multitude of ambitious ideas (along with ideas about bad cover versions of popular songs). However, in the short term, I must concentrate on Web accessibility, my family (we have 3 kids, ages 6, 5 and 1) who are wonderful but take up a lot of my time and energy, and hope that my battle with cancer is truly over, at least for years to come.

I am focussed on the European Blind Union's fight for better and more harmonized accessibility regulations. I will do my part to make sure these regulations cover access to mobile applications and other electronic documents as well as external hardware systems such as fingerprint or other types of identification. I am also passionate about the possible access revolution offered by cheaper electronic braille and better access to books and images, particularly science and mathematics. This is what keeps me determined to participate in the work
of the DAISY Consortium to the extent my time and ability allow.

As I said in the introduction to my story, my job is also now my hobby. Now I would like to wrap up by saying that I am grateful and humble to be a part of our community of accessibility professionals. Through our work we are helping millions of persons realize their potential and pursue their dreams through the power of knowledge, with the aide of technology – whether it is access to the Web, to images, mobile phones, eBooks, specialized software for highly advanced professions, or anything else.

Knowledge is power, and we are helping to bring power and opportunities to transform lives every day through the work we do. Sometimes the job becomes mundane. We sometimes get caught up in the specifics of standards and techniques. We may have heated discussions about how to do it. But keeping an eye on our ultimate goal, we should feel proud of the work that we do.

Photo Credit

The lead photograph is from the online Icelandic news magazine Visir.is which published an article about Birkir in March of this year.