Robert Espero is a self-described “pure Irvine product.”
The technology coordinator for UCI’s Office for Disability Servicesholds up his right hand and ticks off his Irvine affiliations.
“El Camino Real Elementary. Venado Middle School. Irvine High School. UCI,” he says. “And since 1994, I’ve been a UCI employee.” There’s more: His mother, Nelia Rafael, works in the UCI admissions office. Oh, and did he mention he’s a public address announcer for UCI athletics?
“My biggest move was to Newport Beach, and that was just because I didn’t want to live at home anymore. I also love the ocean,” says Espero, an avid surfer.
Brimming with compassion and enthusiasm, Espero is a natural teacher. His primary role is to educate students with disabilities—including vision, mobility, speech and hearing disorders, as well as ADD, learning impairments and repetitive stress injuries—on the benefits of adaptive computer technology.
Adaptive technology offers auditory and visual feedback to students through “scan and read” software, which provides services such as optical character recognition, adjustable reading speed and outlining. Students with visual impairments or dyslexia, for example, can scan their textbooks into the system and listen to the words issuing straight from the computer, like HAL from the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Another technology offered is voice recognition software, which aids those who have carpal tunnel syndrome or limited mobility.
In addition to the computer lab in disability services, there are adaptive technology computer stations in the Main Library, the Science Library and Engineering Gateway.
The majority of students with whom Espero works have learning disabilities. He estimates he assists about 15 percent of the 300 students served by disability services. He also helps disabled prospective UCI students become acquainted with the programs.
“I recently worked with a transfer student who had a reading disability, and was terrified that she wouldn’t be able to succeed at a UC school. After our first meeting, she was able to scan in her textbooks and listen to them on the computer. She’s come in every day since and has kept up with all of her classes. She says she feels much more confident.”
Says Ron Blosser, head of disability services: “Robert is a highly committed and enthusiastic staff member. His job requires constant attention to technical details and time-sensitive services; for example, obtaining or producing alternate reading formats for blind or other print-disabled students, which must be provided to the student in a timely fashion.
“Robert is very service-oriented, and is a great asset to our office.”
Robert Rose, a graduate student in history, has found Espero’s help invaluable. Espero helps him with scanning his piles of textbooks into a computer or hiring readers to transfer the books to audio. Espero also is currently working in conjunction with the Braille Institute to procure a laptop that will enable Rose to bring such adaptive technology into the classroom.
“Robert exhibits an incredible amount of empathy,” Rose says. “He goes above and beyond the call of duty, if it enables a disabled student to function better.”
Adds Harold Lopez, a senior criminology major: “I transferred from a junior college last year, and my coordinator there wasn’t nearly as helpful. Robert is really attentive and accommodating, and always seems to enjoy his job no matter how busy he gets.”
Espero began his UCI computer forays in 1994 as a financial aid advisor. Computers were a hobby, and he was often asked to troubleshoot. Four years later, he decided to apply his technical skills in earnest, and attained his current position.
In addition to educating students about adaptive technology, Espero is in charge of scoping out trends and evaluating possibilities for future software and technology. Every March, he attends the Technology and People with Disabilities Conference at Cal State Northridge.
At last year’s conference, he got to test drive a software program called EyeTech, sort of the Ferrari of the adaptive technology world. The product is designed for those with limited mobility and speech.
“It was intense,” Espero says in a tone you might expect he’d use to describe a perfect wave. “You can run computer programs solely through the use of your eyes. There are video cameras that follow your eye, which acts as a cursor onscreen. You can move an object by looking at the area where you want to move it, and then blinking—it’s like clicking the mouse. I played solitaire on it. It was very impressive.”
His enthusiasm for his work carries over into his extracurricular gig as a sports announcer for UCI athletics, a job he’s had since he was an undergraduate. His deep, commanding voice has boomed over the loudspeakers at several men’s and women’s volleyball and basketball games.
Lately, Espero has been spending time teaching a transfer student with a brain injury how to use a computer. “She’s very independent, and learning computer skills has helped her improve her studying abilities,” he notes.
“That’s my job: to provide students with a greater sense of independence. This is what adaptive technology is all about,” Espero says. “It’s rewarding to see our students gain the confidence to excel in the classroom.”