A Transmission from a Distant Planet

A few weeks ago, I found myself at a conference for blind high-school and college students. I got lost on the way there, riding my bike around the north shore of Lake Washington with a dead iPhone, already in a tizzy.

Talaris Conference Center

I gave a dreadful two-minute speech then slumped in a chair with nothing to do for hours except listen.

Then I noticed the person next to me writing software with a laptop screen angled down to the knuckles of his hands, plugged in via headphones to a text-to-voice transcription of his code.

He offered me one headphone cup. It sounded like a transmission from a distant planet. “That’s a thousands words per minute,” he said. “You speak at 130.”

Walking out of lunch into a blossom-strewn courtyard, I asked the young person beside me if she minded whether it was sunny or gray. She smiled and said, “I love the sun.” She had just earned a meteorology degree.

Listening to the talks that followed, I was surprised that everyone, even in 2014, had a story to tell of being excluded or dismissed, by websites that don’t explain their images to electronic screen-readers, or science professors who doubted that a blind student could work in their lab.

The grown-up world that most kids get to rebel against was what these kids were still counting on, to be fair and thoughtful, to be in fact grown-up. And still we let them down.

Hearing their stories reminded me that even in the magical-thinking era of the Internet, capitalism only solves the problems that pay, and that my days and nights have been so filled with those problems that I forget that any other type of problem can exist.

We all want to forget. During the often-serious talks, I watched a girl throw little balls of paper at a boy who had somehow managed a perfect knot in his pink bow-tie.

It was comforting to see her so young and happy in that ordinary, heedless way, but then her hands shook a few minutes later when she spoke to the group about what the conference meant to her, and she suddenly sounded like an old soul, earnest and sincere.

When she was done, the coder across the table told her, “I want to give you something; hold out your hand.” It was only a braille business card but she accepted it as a mystery, smiling.

Then it was time for all of us to go. Standing up, I asked another boy how he felt about getting out of the house and going off to college. I expected him to say, “Thrilled.” He said, “Very scared.”

I was going to tell him not to worry, a near-automatic response from someone who has never had much to worry about, but I didn’t say anything at all. I wish I had told him what I was thinking, which is that being able to admit that you are very scared means you must also be very brave.

Photo credit: Talaris Conference Center. Many thanks to my friend, the computer science professor Ed Lazowska, for the invitation to the conference.

This post was originally published on LinkedIn.

Discussion

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