George McKinlay

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Australian Bush Kid

“I am Scottish by birth and Australian by experience,” George McCinlay likes to say. Sometimes he adds “and Argentinian by choice.” He sips his coffee, broadly smiles and waves off his hand, implying the latter was not necessary.

George has a slight British accent. He is loquacious and delves into abstract discussions of Assistive Technologies (AT) and his personal life often. George is a middle age white male with green eyes, pale reddish skin tone and lively grin on his face. He is also father of a cute eight-year-old, Chu-Lan.

Before he started working in the AT field, there were remarkable twists and turns in his past. George traveled almost all over the world map from Europe to Australia, From Australia to Mexico, from Mexico to Argentina, from Argentina to United States. “Nevada is where I never expected to end up, I must admit. But I moved here, studied here, I have contacts with people,” says George about the latest, almost ten years old unexpected spin of his life.

George was born in the post war impoverished Scotland that had “dirty streets and absence of medical coverage.” His parents took him on a boat voyage when he was one year old. After a four weeks’ journey the family landed in Australia. This move effectively changed George’s perception of Scotland as a homeland: the place did not leave him with any memories due to his young age, and Australia became his native land, where he spent next 22 years of his childhood and youth.

George derives his first memories from the suburbs of Perth. Surrounded by stubby trees and dry Australian soil, the outskirts of Perth weren’t quite countryside and weren’t quite city. “The bush is Australian forest. I grew up in the bush with bare feet and often t-shirt went off as well,” says George. “During long summers my skin was constantly burned, and during the winter we had to take turns and bring firewood to our school to keep us warm.”

George ran to the one-story wooden school that had four classrooms in total at that time; he ran through the forest with other kids, jumping unshod and raising up road dust. The closest neighbors were half a mile away. Narrow dirt road connected houses into a sparse community back then, but today highly industrialized city of Perth has almost two million people living there. “We referred to going to Perth as ‘going to the City!”

His father was a builder and the main breadwinner for a family of four, always constructing houses where the family would reside, until the house was ready, and then he sold them and moved on to another building site. George moved from place to place every two or three years, but, fortunately, within the same neighborhood. “He had that immigrant mentality, when you have to get up and make yourself successful,” says George, referring to his father.

Boy GeorgeThe only exception from this pattern of constantly moving from one local house to another one under construction to another undone house and acres and acres of arid soil was 18 months spent by the family in New Zealand when George was at high school. The contrast was immense for the boy: his free, shoeless and t-shirtless childhood was all of a sudden swapped for strict school rules about students’ appearance: Australian freedom on daily basis was changed to a pair of uncomfortable blue pants, boots and t-shirts in an austere high school. “I liked New Zealand a lot. I just hated the British nature of it: it is very rigid. Australia is a little more of a mix of the American system and the British system”.

Then the return to Australia followed. He graduated and pursued his BS in Demographic Environmental Studies at Murdoch University in Perth during spectacular times in Australia. “I grew through the seventies, when Australia became enlightened. We moved from a policy of white Australia: the Socialist Labor Party got into power and changed that; we extricated ourselves quickly from Vietnam, and also we made education free.”

When a society goes through a dramatic transformation in a short period of time, people face a lot of social turbulence. For instance incarceration rates go up: one might find himself thrown into a jail or worse, while another one will start a new political party.

George was in the beginning of his twenties when he started working on a documentary about local prisoners in Australia. And all of a sudden the new world of organized crime in the ranks of police and the government became a great revelation to the young film maker. He was visited several times by police and gangs. He was threatened.  “I did not realize how sensitive that issue was and how tightly organized the crime was. Things were getting rather hot there, and I decided to move to Central America. I thought it would be much safer for me.”

 

Social Justice Issues

Mexico was the island of refugees and a political melting pot over the 60s, 70s, and 80s.  George was twenty three when he first saw snow on top of Popocatepetl, an active volcano located in Central Mexico. He got out of his political world in Australia and into science in Mexico: George worked at a private American School that provided him with the way to survive on a teacher’s salary. He taught biology to kids from affluent American and Mexican families.

He lived and worked there for seven years, married his first wife, an Argentinean national, and they moved to Argentina, where another four years passed by. Latin America opened a new world for an “Australian bush kid,” a world that accumulated “extensive amount of poverty and flow of resources away from people who needed it mostly,” says George. “Especially lack of self-determination, the ability of people to lead their own lives or have the opportunities. They were pretty blatant”. Also a strong class system, cutting off social services, massive inflation, soup kitchens, and very affluent people leading an excitingly good life next to that poverty.

_DSC0018Paolo Fiery, who was advocating for liberation of people through education, becomes one of George’s heroes. “I always thought the education is an opening thing. The only people who can afford the luxury of deep thought are people who are in an affluent position. You don’t have lifelong learners anymore, but lifelong trainees. And that it is a drawback to me.”

In 1990 he moved to California, then after three years to Reno, Nevada, where he pursued his doctoral degree in Educational Leadership at University of Nevada, Reno. At that time George gets more and more involved in the AT field. Working on a project for the Bureau of Alcohol and Drug Abuse, George got interested in an AT, first providing technical support because of his computing and teaching background. “I got more and more involved; with today’s technology you have to know about assistive technologies as well. That’s just not true, but it certainly helps in some ways.”

Today George is Data Collector at the Nevada Center for Excellence and Disabilities (NCED). AT occupies 45% of his regular activities. Yes, he has a somewhat pessimistic outlook for his job: “People are exceedingly thankful even for minor thing. But I always thought there is something missing. There is more that can be done”.

“It is hard for me to rest,” says George, referring to his habits and vision of his childhood when he moved from one house to another. “I don’t sit down under the shady tree and rest. I keep working. I derive satisfaction from building something, making new things. We built cubby houses when I was little, or tree houses. There was always something that annoyed me and we never used them when they were built. We moved to another tree to build a new one.”

Working with people with disabilities was something natural for George. At least he perceives it that way. He always believed in teaching and social services-related work. “My position really is looking for the ways to enhance lives of people with disabilities. Specifically in Nevada of course, but in a broader sense, for everyone. What I do is increasingly look at the changing assistive technologies and see how they could be enhanced, how to improve the delivery of the services and control that change in a positive sense. These technologies are meant to be for a maximum number of people possible, rather than are purely economically driven. So it is a social imperative rather than an economic imperative.”

 

Chu-Lan and New Technologies

Because of George’s conflicting schedule once he had to come to the interview with his daughter Chu-Lan. She was asked to stay quiet for a long and boring talk of the two adults. Who could imagine an eight-year-old sitting silently in the small puffy library chair at the corner of overly quite study room? But she heroically went through this long interview with her father with the help of his iPad. The iPad constantly produced soft musical background sound as the little girl held her new toy and slid her tiny fingers over the screen.  “Turn the sound down please,” said George to her, and the music vanished from our radars.

“The main focus of assistive technologies is about development of the resources of the state, extending them, creating them, enhancing them, especially in the modern world,” says her dad. “What was 10 years pre cycle in technology now is a two or three year cycle. Indeed sometimes six month at a time quite dramatic changes are occurring.”

_DSC0049Children’s toys may also be great personality-enabling tools for people with any physical disabilities, whether it is visual impairment or quadriplegia, and her or his productivity. Chu-Lan might not think about it, but George is technologically savvy and he asserts that while the technologies evolve fast, the government machine is too rigid and slow to provide adequate access for disabled people to something newly invented that might dramatically change their lives.

“I don’t believe in no government; it is like believing in no civilization,” says George. “But what the issue is these days is that the government is abdicating its responsibility. Or there is the wrong government when it comes to working on behalf of the people. Instead they are purely subservient to economic interests. You can look at productivity from the market perspective from the standpoint of being efficient, but I don’t think the market really truly defines our human experience.”

So, working with people with disabilities on the one hand, enriching their lives, and wrestling with government agencies on the other. Is that all? How about any big dream? Not that one, where George wants to live in Mexico at the edge of one endless ocean or the other, dedicating his time to self-education through great world of literature. But, how about a big professional dream? What would it be? Georges has more than one. The first you could call purely humanistic driven, and another is, well, the same.

“I would like to be in the place when we develop new tools, and those tools would have potentially wider base of users.” He refers to assistive technologies as “tools”. He wishes to get rid of this nasty medical term. “Tools, in order to participate in literacy, should be free and available to anybody. So I don’t think that I view it as a special item.”

_DSC0087Human-oriented interface of tools is something that George is also fascinated with. “But people don’t know what they need, they want to be told what they need. I don’t like that because I think they need to create the tools themselves. Human interface design was something I was always interested in. I’ve always believed that technology has to be human-defined. And I hated it when a technology or a society decides for you what you can do. You have to be a master of your own.

 

 

 

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