Training people who are blind or partially sighted in IT skills can be extremely rewarding as it can give them access and a lifeline to the world. IT trainer David Brown has also obtained another sort of reward in the shape of this year's BCS Trainer of the Year Award sponsored by APMG. Helen Wilcox spoke to him about his work.

What's a typical working day like for you?

I train for the charity, UCanDoIT, as my bread and butter work, usually two days a week in people's homes. It allows me to give something back to the blind and partially sighted community. I also train commercially in the workplace on how to use access software with various applications.

I usually do a couple of days a week for UCanDoIT training in the homes of students, who can range from age 18 to 88. Some people lose sight later in life.

UCanDoIT covers quite a large geographical area: Lancaster, Greater Manchester, Merseyside, and occasionally Cheshire. I try to arrange lessons on one day in the same area, so I may give something like three lessons a day. Each session usually lasts about one and a half hours, sometimes longer.

UCanDoIT can only provide 10 lessons to each student, so I have to work out quickly what users want to get out of the computer and know about a very wide range of different applications. Students may wish to use anything from Word to setting up a home music studio, or online shopping or banking.

One chap wanted to Skype his family in Australia, as he had some vision. What they learn also depends on their level and which of the varying access technologies they want to use.

What are the access technologies that you train on?

There are two types of software that we use: magnification software (which magnifies on screen - for instant ZoomText and Lunar) and screen reader software, which reads everything on the screen - all the option files, text, links and so on. Examples are Jaws, Hal and Window-Eyes, and there's free software called Thunder. It's not as versatile as the other three, though.

Then there is software, such as Supernova, which mixes magnification and speech technology. It's also possible to install a refreshable electronic braille display under a conventional computer keyboard, which allows the user to read the computer screen by touch in braille. You get one line at a time and then scroll down to get the next line.

Whether you use the braille reader depends on whether you can read braille. As I lost my sight at 32, which was eight years ago, I find braille awkward and slowgoing. However, a lot of people who have not had sight from when they were young do use the braille reader.

As well as knowing about the access technologies, I have to have a grasp of how they interact with Microsoft software. The students need to learn them too and need to remember all the shortcut keys for Microsoft. For each item on the menu, there is a shortcut. The students have to learn all the shortcut commands, and you soon run out of simple ones, such as Ctrl+C, and they become more complex. Access technologies also usually import another set of commands, for example a shortcut for reading text back to you.

Do you find the work rewarding?

Yes, it's very rewarding showing people that technology can help them and make life easier, and that it is easy to do things on computers and not as technical as they might think. Computers can help them become independent, email their family, or manage their finances.

There is also technology that can read mail and scan it in. If I hadn't got into computers when I lost my sight, I would have gone mad if I'd had to ask people to read and write letters for me.

What about your commercial work?

I subcontract to T&T Consulting, which trains on a software interface between Dragon - voice-to-text software - and Jaws. It's called J-say, which is middleware, which means it works with Jaws to give you feedback on what you've typed. The organisation covers the country from Aberdeen to Hastings, so I travel a lot.

How do you get about?

I have a support worker, who drives me to students and settles me in. It wouldn't be practical to get the train to a lot of places I go to. They can also help with issues such as if the screen goes blank, they can close it down and start it up again.

What did you do before you lost your sight?

I was in the Middle East working with Inchcape Plc for six years and then Coca-Cola in Saudi as a marketing manager until a terrorist attack in December 2000. A car bomb disguised as a soft drinks carton was left on my car bonnet. As I worked in the soft drinks industry I assumed it was a sample. I lost my sight and my right hand.

Why did you go into IT training?

I could do it and was pretty good at it. I enjoyed it and realised the benefits it could bring to others. I was very disillusioned by the training on offer by other support groups to the visually impaired and blind. Courses were often held in places that were difficult to reach, and training was not offered in the home.

I was very fortunate to come across UCanDoIT, which then only operated in counties around the M25. I said I'd like to offer training in a new region, and they said they couldn't guarantee clients. I knew there were so many. In the last four years I've trained 40 to 50 people. The work is a natural fit for me.

How did you find your students?

Before I got into IT training, I set up Blindsite Ltd to sell access technology and other hardware and magnifiers, for instance to help read a television screen, and I found many students through that. I couldn't reach all of them via the website, though, because you generally need to talk to blind people, especially if they can't already use computers.

I got to know many of the blind societies by going to exhibitions. I have to keep knocking on doors, though, and networking. You need to find the right people in the societies, which means talking to all levels.

How do you keep your own skills up-to-date?

I'm forced to keep my skills up-to-date because new technology is always coming out, and access technologies, as well as Microsoft products, are updated on a regular basis. Often there are good new features in new versions but a whole load of fluffy features that you don't need too.

I also spend time reading about the topics on various email lists and find information on manufacturers' websites. I'm also a beta tester for J-say and was also one in the past for Jaws.

What are your plans for the future?

With UCanDoIT we're looking at how to make computer equipment for the partially sighted or blind people either subsidised or free, and offer them training with UCanDoIT up to the point where they can teach themselves.

I'm also looking at the possibility of supporting some ITQ programmes, as colleges just don't have enough funding to train their trainers on how to use accessible technology. I need to get ITQ qualified first.

How do you feel about winning the BCS award?

I am delighted and extremely grateful to UCanDoIT for nominating me. It highlights the importance of the need for good accessibility design in ICT. Many blind and visually impaired people see their computers as a lifeline to the world, but to ensure everyone has this opportunity, training needs to be at least more affordable if not entirely free.

About UCanDoIT

UCanDoIT is a charity formed 10 years ago to teach blind, deaf and disabled people computer and internet skills in their own homes.

Tutors are specifically trained both to work with disabled people and with accessibility software. They teach on a one-to-one basis on the learner's own computer in the learner's own home. The charity believes this ensures that the learner is able to learn at their own pace and to learn what they need or wish to learn.

If you'd like to help the organisation, its foremost need is funding and donations. It also needs IT volunteers who can help with one-off problem-solving if learners run into technical problems, for instance internet settings going wrong, or email not working. Also, volunteers are needed to receive and answer emails from learners, allowing them to practice sending emails to different people.