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Episode Flyer for #97: Education and Empowerment for People Who Are Blind in Puerto Rico- One Man's Journey
Episode Flyer for #97: Education and Empowerment for People Who Are Blind in Puerto Rico- One Man’s Journey

      Guest: Jose Manolo Alvarez          Date: February 28, 2018

Guest Title: Coder and Programmer, Founder of Manolo Net          Guest Company: Manolo Net


[Intro music]


Debra Ruh:                  Hello everyone. This is Debra Ruh and you’re listening to Human Potential at Work or watching us on Facebook live. Today, my guest is José Alvarez but he goes by Manolo and he was kindly teaching me to pronounce that properly before we started. So, Manolo is joining us from Puerto Rico, one of the United State’s territories and as many of you know, Puerto Rico was just stomped by the hurricanes in the season and so José was, or I should say Manolo was scheduled to be on the program a few months ago and you know, no electricity makes it very hard to do the program. So, we’re so glad to have you on the program today Manolo, welcome.

José:                            Thank you very much for the invitation, very glad to be here.

Debra:                         Yes. And before we start talking about you a little bit, tell us what’s going on in Puerto Rico. We’ve been very worried about you. We still hear numbers that million people don’t have electricity. Tell us more about what’s going on in Puerto Rico.

José:                            Oh yes, that’s right. It has been tough since the Hurricane Maria and a lot of people still have no electricity and basic services. We are improving, that’s true also. But definitely, our day by day living has been impacted and has been changed for us and we are hoping that this year would be better and positive things are in front of us.

Debra:                         And Manolo, what can people do especially in the United States to help more with what’s happening in Puerto Rico? Any suggestions?

José:                            Well, right now, the government are working and I believe that electricity is still have our main challenge. I don’t know if people can search for any specific associations or foundations if they’re related to any disabilities at all. And maybe they search or ask for a specific help but I don’t know, that’s my best advise.

Debra:                         Yes. Well, we’re thinking about you guys and sending you light and prayers and I’m hopeful that all the rebuilding of the electricity and all the goods and everything maybe will make the country even more stable for future hurricanes because I don’t know, the hurricanes seem to be getting much stronger now. My middle name is Maria and I know it’s a very popular catholic name so…

José:                            Now that people are… that name done that popular here in Puerto Rico.

Debra:                         Popular anymore.

José:                            Yes.

Debra:                         I’m Debra Maria. But it’s like not that popular anymore. Anyway, well, welcome welcome to the program. So, let’s talk about you. So, you are on a mission to really change lives in Puerto Rico and you’re already doing it. So, tell us more about the work that you’re doing in Puerto Rico to help people that are blind.

José:                            Well, I believe that everybody must have the same opportunity in life to have better educational and professional opportunities and better quality of life. And here in Puerto Rico, I am a blind person and as a blind person, I want that all blind person here in Puerto Rico have that equal opportunity especially with technology. We are now in an era that technology impacts us every day and technology can be a very powerful tool for us.


                                    Here in Puerto Rico we have another challenge and it’s the language. Our first language is Spanish and a lot of the resources are still in English. So, I really wanted by the technology trying to impact educational and professional way our people here in Puerto Rico. I am a programmer, a blind programmer and I’m very proud of that because it was not easy but what I really like to be a programmer is I can create. I can create apps, I can create software that can change other life and that make me very happy.

Debra:                         And you know, one reason why I wanted you on the program besides the obvious amazing work that you’re doing is because I agree with you. I agree that there’s some amazing resources in English and they were going more and more and more to empower people but what we find is often, these resources are not available in other languages including Spanish. And I know that David Pérez, who works with me in Costa Rica, we’re both on a mission that… and I’m not a Spanish speaker, I can understand Spanish pretty well but I’m not a good speaker but I am aware of this huge problem that we have. And as we were saying before we went live on air, people that are blind are disadvantaged.


                                    Okay. We agree. But if you are speaking any other language besides English, and you’re blind, you’re even more disadvantaged because so much of the educational material is just not available. And so, I think also a lot of people are surprised even though this has been happening a long time but a lot of people are surprised to learn that people that are blind can be programmers. And as you very well know, some of our best programmers in the world are blind and have been programming since DOS days, now I’ll be telling my age. And so, it’s exciting to see the work that you are doing there in Puerto Rico.


                                    So, tell us a little bit more about the programming languages that you do yourself and that you teach to your students to help empower them.

José:                            Well, first of, I agree with you. We have… I always start having high expectancies with our blind kids especially. I started coding software apps, video games that support educational and they can improve to their skills. For example, Math. Math is something that usually teachers, parents and people in general have low expectancy with blind kids because it is a visual course. I have made a software and apps that can teach basic math in an accessible way with the braille display and video games that they can play and I really like that when you see a blind kid. And all of these software and apps and video games are in Spanish. I really like that when they use these software, they learn that skills. And what is the best for me is that they change the attitude. Because everybody before tell this blind kid, “You cannot do it.” And after they have this tool and it’s an accessible tool and they can learn a skill and master their skill, no one then can tell, “You cannot do it.” Because they prove by their self that he can do it and that’s very important for me when I’m developing software apps or video games that we are impacting life and that’s very important for me.

Debra:                         I agree. And you know, kids that are blind want to play video games just like kids that aren’t blind.

José:                            Yes. Agree.

Debra:                         So, that’s… it’s part of growing up these days and kids can learn a lot from playing these games. So, tell us more about your foundation.

José:                            Yes, I have a foundation. That’s my latest project that can teach coding to blind persons. And we started since elementary school teaching computational thinking; it’s a way that you can resolve a program with technology and then basic HTML to introduce to basic web design and later on we can keep adding Java Script or Python or even Swift if you want to make some apps.


                                    I understand that everybody will not be programmers but I have the responsibility to impact it and at least they know that there’s alternative. Because if you are a programmer, you can create and you can resolve problems. And in our society, if you are a programmer, you master a language, you will not be unemployed. You will be earning money and you can do a better opportunity for you and for your family.

Debra:                         Right. Right, it helps everybody.

José:                            Yes.

Debra:                         So, what is the name of the foundation?

José:                            The foundation is called Manolo Net. it’s called because in 1996, my first project, big project was my webpage. I have a webpage that is and I code it in HTML way back very basic HTML and I put it on the internet. I remember that my friends, professor of the university… when I said, I just made a webpage, I put it online and it’s related to technology for blind persons and everybody tell me, “Don’t do that. No one can read that webpage. There’s a very few person. Blind person doesn’t enter to an internet.” And I say, “well, but that’s the reason I do it because I want that other persons can benefit from the information.” There’s no significance at all for me, they have the knowledge and I can’t not share it because that’s a powerful way that we can grow as a person and do incredible things in our life; share our knowledge and information.

Debra:                         I agree. And I know that the work that you’re doing is really geared towards helping people in the educational system. And of course thinking about employment because employment is very important and part of our lives. And even more so, I think even more so for people that are blind or that have other disabilities. Because often, people with disabilities are discounted. All a person can focus on when they meet somebody is maybe their wheelchair or that they have a cane or they have guide dog. And so, there’s so much more to these individuals and that’s why your work really really impress me.


                                    But, tell us some stories about your students that you’ve had in the past and successes because I know you’re having a lot of successes. You’re impacting a lot of people’s lives. Not just in Puerto Rico but… I mean, I heard about you from people in Columbia and other countries. So, your work is definitely being noticed. So, tell us more about some of the success stories that you’ve had.

José:                            Well, I have stories that just tell me, “Thank you because you changed my life.” Or, “thank you because you’re inspiring Me.” or, “thank you because you show me a different way that I can see my life.” I always tell my students the first day of my courses, “you must always think big in your life. You believe in yourself. Don’t let anyone tell you how you can do it or no can do it. No one have the right to do that.” And that’s something that is very important to our blind kids and that is more important that even that they know these skills. And that was very satisfactory to me when they can tell, “well Manolo, I see life different after our courses and I now have a higher expectancies in life and I know that I can do it.” And I say, “Yes, that’s right. That’s true.” And that’s the most… the best stories that I can have. The way that the people react and have changed their attitude.

Debra:                         Yes. You know, I’ve heard often that, it only takes one person believing in you. One person. Especially when you’re a kid and maybe you don’t have a lot of support. I know when I was a kid growing up that there was a lot of negative things happening in our house and a lot of emotions and stuff. And there was one teacher, I remember it was her first year teaching, her name was Ms. [Stav] [PH 0:14:41.0] and she was a… to me, I remember this beautiful young woman, she’s African American and she inspired me so much. She was my history teacher, but she just inspired me so much and she just took a little, she gave me a little of attention and just really told me I could be anything, I could do anything and it’s amazing the impact we can have on each other’s lives. Especially, I think at any time, but especially when a child is young and they’re trying to figure out who are they and can they add value.

José:                            Yes. I agree.

Debra:                         Yes. So, your work, you don’t even know yet what your work has created. You know, just telling somebody you can do it, don’t let anybody get in your way and making sure we have the resources that they need to be successful. So, I just… I really really admire the work that you’re doing.

José:                            Also, one of very satisfaction that I have with my webpage; all the software that I put on my webpage so people can download it because cost is also a barrier and all of my software has been given for free for all our blind kids here in Puerto Rico and all Spanish speaking from all around the world and that’s all beautiful thing that happened to me. I just put it on my webpage and I started to receive during the years and years emails and communication from blind people from all around the world and it is… I sit down with my little girl and I say, “Wow. We can travel for a lot of countries.” And that’s because we want to support and we believe that everybody can learn and that was something that’s very true for me. Knowing that just for my work and just for my development; a lot of people from all around the world can benefit and they just say thank you to me. That’s very significant to me.

Debra:                         I agree. But let’s talk about a little bit of tactics. So, I think it’s amazing that you’re putting all these great content out there in Spanish on your website and you’re teaching but, if you’re giving it all away for free, how do you do it? How do we… are you getting corporate sponsorships? Are you getting support from United Nations agencies or other agencies? Because the reality is, you have to pay for the work you’re doing and we want you to do more work. So, how do we make sure that you’re getting the funding support you need to continue this really important work?

José:                            Yes. That is something that I… it will be very good if I can make a joint venture or I can receive any support so we can invert in the softwares and in the work and reinvert to make it more available. Right now, no, I don’t have any support. I just do it and it is a goal that I can… in the future, yes, I would like to do some specific projects that I can have any sponsor and do have a lot of resource, yes.

Debra:                         Have you worked with any big corporations or any corporations?

José:                            No. no. no. I collaborate in projects but not in this. Not to develop or… I learn since a kid that sometimes government it was very slow. Since I was a blind kid, when I was a kid, the help that I receive always is very slow.

Debra:                         Right.

José:                            The resources of the governments are limited. The corporations maybe does give it to you but just give it… not giving the priority. It was just like just helping to you and that’s all. Maybe you’re not their priority. And I just learned when I was very small, I have to do the things by myself and I will not wait for anybody. And if I believe in an idea, I will believe that this is the best idea and I will do it. And I have limited resources, but it is my idea and I would like to keep growing up and the internet helps me a lot and all the resources with that are philosophy. But definitely, I’m pretty sure if I can have more resources, we can do great projects that’s for sure.

Debra:                         I know. And there’s a lot of corporate brands that listen to this show which is really a blessing. And I think any corporation that’s interested in disability and inclusion and accessibility, don’t think about it only in English. Think about what can you be doing in some of the Spanish speaking countries to support the work like Manolo is doing there. And then, if we can teach the kids, I know, it’s not only about the kids that are blind but, if we can teach them to have remarkable skills, I mean, think what that does for them and their families. It just the benefits to society are huge and that’s why I always look for the really interesting people that are making a difference right where they are. “Bloom where you’re planted” as the saying. And I just think it’s really important and I know there’s a lot of corporations because I work with a lot of multinational corporations and they want to make a difference and they want to help and give back.


                                    And of course, I’m very engaged with the United Nations and they’re trying to make a difference as well. But, work like yours is just so important and I want to always try to connect the dots for anybody that wants to support Spanish speaking, training and education and really paving the way so that these individuals can find meaningful employment and support their families. I think it’s really critical. So, tell us more about some of the other things that you’re doing.

José:                            Well, as I tell you; right now I have six webpages, six that I created. That’s the advantage that you have the knowledge, that you can code. I have the Manolo Net, I have a podcast, it is called Tiflo Audio of 10 years, just demonstrating how it works, different braille and talking technology for blind person for all around the world.


                                    I have one that is called [Exclusion stem] [PH 0:22:14.1] that I teach and I have a software that to teach values and math for blind methodology. I have inclusion code, that is a software that I have developed so blind person can learn how to code in web-based HTML doing an ED, it is another one that I have.


                                    So, that is… since I have no… I don’t have to pay anybody to code. I can do it by myself and I can do those specifics. I have my foundation. I have the opportunity to travel thanks to my foundation and for people from a lot of countries that invite me to give a training and to talk to them.


                                    My work is, I am a professor of the University of Puerto Rico. I teach technology courses, I teach assistive technology, I teach coding courses and I teach special education. The coding courses that I teach are not for people with disability; I’m for regular students so it is just a great experience for me. The first day of my courses when all of the students see that their professor that will teach is blind and…

Debra:                         Oh I love it. I love it.

José:                            Yes. It is a silence in the classroom and I tell, “You know what, no one can give me excuses. I really want great projects. Extraordinary projects. And I don’t have said excuses. I am a blind and I do it so no excuses is valid for Me.” and at the end, all of their projects are just great. I teach all of my students to use all their senses; that be aware of all their senses and it’s just great to be a mentor of these great students.

Debra:                         Wow. That is a powerful powerful story. I’ve always… when I train, I remind the students often that Google is the largest blind and deaf user. Because you know, it’s not the way you… you’re not using your senses necessarily on the internet. So, the search engine optimization benefits that you get from making sure things are fully accessible to all. This is very powerful. That’s a powerful story and I do want to say, we have a network called Global Impact Today where we’re featuring podcasters that are really making a difference and we’d be honored to put your podcast on Global Impact Today. So I’m going to…

José:                            Thank you very much.

Debra:                         Yes. I’m going to try to talk you into that so that our viewers can go to Global Impact Today on and get access to your 10 years of podcast which is very impressive.


                                    So, I know that we’re at the end of our 30 minutes but, I could talk to you all day. I love the work that you’re doing. But, are you on social media? Tell our audience how they can find out more about your work. You’ve mentioned some of it. We certainly will put it in the links on the show but also tell us how to learn more, donate, become a corporate sponsor, get you invited to more speaking or training events. You know, tell us how to get hold of you.

José:                            My website… I will give you my main website, it is Manolo net, www.manolo.netand my email is [email protected]. And then you will find all of the links related to my podcast, to my foundation, to my pages, to my software, my apps, you can find it all over there.


                                    I would like to tell you at the end that it is true that I have just make a lot of achievement with my knowledge by the technology that I have develop but it is also very important that I tell you that as a person, I am very happy person and one of the joy, one of the best joy of my life is to be a parent. I have a daughter, a little daughter and my daughter can see. I just take her to the school and just give her a hug, that’s just amazing story and it is just make me a better person. So, it’s very important in your life to have a balance and you have a dream and you can do in education, in a professional, in a familiar and I’m very happy because I’m able to do it in all of those areas.

Debra:                         Yes. And I have the same philosophy. So, you know, be happy with what we have, make a difference and you just… you’re really really doing that so thank you so much for your work and thanks for being on the program and I’m going to come back and get your podcast on Global Impact Today and introduce you to some of my friends from the United Nations. And also, I’m going to introduce you to D3ICT that is creating a big educational program that I think you’d add a lot of value in as well. And I hope that our viewers and our audience will take the time to get hold of Manolo and see how you can support the work he’s doing and let’s keep making the world a better place for everybody. So, thank you so much and good luck to everybody in Puerto Rico as you all continue to walk the clean-up of hurricane Maria.

José:                            Thank you very much.

Debra:                         Thank you. Bye everyone.

[outro music]


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