[AI] career of a blind technical writer

Sanjay ilovecold at gmail.com
Sat Feb 2 00:27:57 EST 2008


(Editor's Note: Some of you may remember Gynger Ingram, a scholarship winner 
in 1986. In 1995, she legally changed her name to facilitate her writing 
career.)

In 1986, the American Council of the Blind generously awarded me the $1,500 
Floyd Qualls Memorial Scholarship. Subsequently, the Louisiana Council of 
the
Blind provided an additional $300 to sponsor my trip to the ACB national 
convention in Knoxville, Tenn. to accept the scholarship in person. That was 
21
years ago, yet I remain most thankful for the award and the experiences it 
brought me. I used the funds for tuition, textbooks and a large-print 
thermal
typewriter, an indispensable tool for a visually impaired student in the 
days before laptop computers. As a measure of gratitude, I would like to let 
ACB
members know what they got for their investment in my future.

I went on to graduate summa cum laude from Northwestern State University of 
Louisiana in May 1989, earning a bachelor of arts in English. I then 
proceeded
to graduate school at Texas A&M University at College Station, earning a 
master of arts in English in August 1991. During my master's program, I 
developed
an interest in scientific and technical writing that augmented my original 
goal of being an author and university administrator. In the second year of
my graduate program, I earned a split assistantship, continuing to teach one 
class of freshman composition while also working as a technical writer in
the university's Supercomputer Center. This role defined the future course 
of my career. Better Communicators

In today's global work force, one cannot underestimate the value of clear, 
precise communication. In the fall of 1991, I took a teaching position at 
the
College Station, Texas branch of Blinn College, the oldest community college 
in Texas, which regularly prepares students for advancement to Texas A&M and
other four-year institutions throughout the state. I taught courses in 
freshman composition, introductory literature and technical writing. My 
department
head quickly discovered that I possessed an unusual gift for working with 
international students, who often began their course work at the community 
college
level to improve their language skills before moving on to their advanced 
degree programs. Between 1989 and 1995, I taught over 1,000 American and 
international
students to be better writers. Over the years, I have heard from many of my 
former students who have taken what they learned and successfully applied it
to their own careers.

Interestingly, throughout six years of teaching, I had only one student who 
blatantly took advantage of my low vision. His own peers called his 
treachery
to my attention and made him apologize to me. Ironically, the culprit was a 
physical therapy major studying to work with disabled people. I took him 
privately
into the hallway and encouraged him to evaluate more closely his career 
choice. The rest of the semester passed uneventfully.

A Safer World

In the summer of 1994, the head of Texas A&M's Department of Nuclear 
Engineering spotted me teaching a technical writing class and remembered me 
from the
Supercomputer Center. He was considering adding a technical writer to his 
staff pending an upcoming large-scale research project. I took the position 
in
December 1994, although I continued to teach in the evenings for another 
year. That research project turned out to be the Amarillo National Resource 
Center
for Plutonium (ANRCP), a program established by the U.S. Department of 
Energy to look into options for disposing of excess weapons- grade plutonium 
from
the Cold War era. For the next three and a half years, I worked with 
scientists from around the world as they investigated the best options for 
dealing
with the excess plutonium. My role involved everything from sending e-mail 
reminders about technical meetings to preparing abstracts and progress 
reports
to serving as the technical editor of a full- length book containing the 
proceedings of a NATO conference on nuclear waste management.

I also assisted professors in the department with their technical 
publications by typesetting their equations, correcting their English and 
checking galley
proofs of their articles prior to final publication. I felt particularly 
honored when one of the department's lead professors invited me to serve 
with
him on the university's Council of Principal Investigators. In fact, he had 
made it clear that he would not accept the CPI's nomination of him as 
secretary
unless he had my help. In this capacity, I worked with researchers 
throughout the Texas A&M University system by helping coordinate the 
meetings, taking
the extensive minutes, and streamlining the dissemination of electronic 
information throughout the membership.

The most rewarding aspect of my position, though, involved helping nuclear 
engineering graduate students prepare their theses and dissertations. Again,
I strove to impart principles of good writing and clear communication to 
these young professionals who would go on to work at nuclear power plants 
and
serve as stewards of nuclear arsenals. After all, I reminded them again and 
again, the Chernobyl accident was a direct result of miscommunication.

By April 1998, the ANRCP investigators had identified vitrification and deep 
burial as the best methods for disposing of excess plutonium. Vitrification
involves combining the plutonium with a glass-like medium from which 
extraction is extremely difficult. The plutonium/glass material is then 
encapsulated
in safe containers and buried deep in the earth at a secret location. These 
processes deter future recovery and destructive use of the plutonium. With
the project at an end, it was time for me to move on with my career.

A More Sustainable Rio Grande Valley

During my time with the Department of Nuclear Engineering, I worked on a 
number of proposals, including the original proposal for the ANRCP project. 
I marketed
this skill across campus, and in May 1998 I joined the Center for Housing 
and Urban Development in the College of Architecture, also at Texas A&M. 
There,
I worked as a proposal development specialist for the center's nationally 
recognized Colonias Program. Colonias are unincorporated settlements along 
the
Texas/Mexico border that lack even the most basic infrastructure such as 
paved streets, municipal sewers, telephone service, health care facilities 
and
so forth. To help the colonias become more sustainable communities, the 
Colonias Program established a series of local community centers to provide 
housing,
education, health care, senior care, employment and other essential services 
and information to residents. Beneficial as these programs are, they require
money, and lots of it. While with the center, I helped other Colonias 
Program team members develop proposals to institute helpful programs in 
these needy
communities.

Of course, I found the outcomes of my efforts rewarding, but the intensely 
collaborative environment proved quite stressful. The Colonias Program is, 
by
its nature, a very social entity, whereas I find myself to be a very 
scientific entity, much more effective and productive as an individualist. 
Call me
odd if you will, but I missed editing technical conference proceedings and 
typesetting equations. Hence, I requested and received a departmental 
transfer
that brought me full circle back to my days with computers, technical 
abstracts and lots and lots of equations.

A Cleaner Environment

After a year with the Colonias Program, I transferred to the Institute for 
Scientific Computation. As a communications specialist, I primarily assisted
the Institute's director, who was and is by far the most versatile 
scientific professional I have ever had the honor to serve. A mathematician 
at heart,
he worked extensively within the petroleum industry developing computer 
models to simulate fluid flow through porous media. In plain English, that 
means
he studied how oil and other petroleum byproducts or contaminants might 
behave if they leak into the soil or groundwater. From this knowledge, he 
developed
recommendations for preventative measures and contingency plans to mitigate 
contamination incidents. His work necessitated frequent travel to 
conferences
to give presentations on his work, presentations which I often prepared for 
him. I also maintained his numerous publications, edited articles for him 
and
his colleagues and assisted with scientific grant proposals.

More To Come

By late 2000, I was in trouble. Despite my reliance on a CCTV and a catalog 
case full of magnifying glasses, I suppose all that technical editing had 
taken
its toll. Or perhaps it was just because I had officially reached middle 
age. Either way, my residual vision was going, and I knew it. I started 
making
too many typos of my own and failed to catch those of others. My time as a 
technical writer and editor was ending, so I started to investigate my other
options, such as medical transcription. Then, a secondary near-fatal illness 
sidelined me completely in early 2001.

The illness is improved now, and I am becoming accustomed to living with the 
lowest visual acuity I have ever had. I worked in supportive roles during my
first career, and I hope you find that I attached myself to worthy 
coattails. I am currently researching options for a second career with a 
leadership
role this time, perhaps as the proprietor of my own business. Whatever the 
outcome, I will always remember the generosity of the American Council of 
the
Blind and other sponsors who contributed to making me a productive 
individual. Thank you.





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