Bio for Birkir (Dingba) Gunnarsson

Who am I?

Now that is a heck of a question, if this were a Philosophy website a book wouldn’t be enough.

I was born in the late 70s in the Viking stronghold of Reykjavik, Iceland. After struggling with Retinoblastoma for 5 years I had to give up my eyes, but I got cool prosthetic ones.

I grew up swimming, playing piano guitar and drums (not simultaneously) in various garage bands, and messing around with computers.

  • The swimming yielded a couple of parallympic bronze medals (1992 in Barcelona for 400 meter freestyle, 1996 in Atlanta for 100m backstroke), as well as a lot of traveling, a few more international medals and a lot of good times.
  • I have yet to make it big as a rockstar, though I do an excellent Britney Spears impression (now working on Adel).
  • But I had some success with computers.

From my bedroom to America.

As a proper computer nerd in the 90s, I spent many a night hanging out on IRC where I made a number of similarly oddball friends.
One of those friends was a Pakistani Yale University Computer Science student. In a late night chat I said Yale sounded awesome, and the following day she snail-mailed me the application forms.
I was sure I’d never get in, but since I had the application forms I decided to give it a shot and apply, why not?
Much to my shock and surprise, my Yale application was accepted, and I left Iceland for the bright lights of New York City (more accurately New Haven, Connecticut, it is only 50 miles away from NYC) in 1998.
At Yale I worked hard, partied hard, made great friends, played drums in the Marching Band, got a Microsoft Accessibility group internship (where I got invited to Bill Gates’ house) and, of course, racked up a collection of student loans. In my 4th year I attended on campus interviews for a financial analyst position at Wachovia Bank, why not? There was free lunch. Much to my shock and surprise, I got the job.

Before leaving Yale for the next chapter in my life I completed BS degrees in Computer Science and Economics .

Lost in bankruptcy.

I spent 5 years as a fixed income analyst/software developer with Wachovia Bank, in sunny Charlotte, North Carolina.
I learnt a lot about fixed income securities and coding. I developed backend applications using C, Perl, SQL and VB.net and Java with SQL Server and Oracle.
But I never coded front end desktop or web applications.
In 2006, a third of the way through an MBA, I collected cancer #2 (Hodgkin’s Lynphoma) panicked, and moved back to Iceland with my pregnant fiancé.
I got married, got rid of the Lynphoma, and we had our first child, but Wachovia went under. I snagged another banking job at the Icelandic (and now bankrupt) Glitnir Bank, as a market risk analyst where I learned all about Excel and VBA scripting,.
It was at this job where I started developing interest in accessibility, mostly as a result of my frustration with the CFA certification. This was a certification I sorely needed to get ahead in banking, but no matter how I tried, I found no way to get access to the study materials.
But before I could figure it out, major banking crisis number 2 struck and my job whent buh bye.

A change of pace.

In 2008, after an exceptionally cold, dark and stormy winter, even by Icelandic standards, me and my wife decided that we missed the sunshine and sweltering heat of North Carolina. She had an unfinished PHD in Philosophy and decided to apply to Duke University, why not? She got in and we left the land of Ice again. A month after we left, Glitnir bank went under and that effectively ended my dreams of becoming a wealthy banker.
I decided to try something more rewarding and started looking into assistive technology training and accessibility.
For the next 4 years I worked a number of accessibility-related jobs mostly in Iceland:

  • At Iceland’s Resource center for the visuallly impaired I worked on a number of tasks including evaluating screen readers. Me and my two colleagues translated NVDA into Icelandic), I chaired the committee responsible for developing the official Icelandic standard for 8 dot computer braille and integrated it into various libraries and screen readers. Importantly, I got to conduct assistive technology training with real end users of all ages and abilities.
  • At At BIOVI (the Icelandic equivalent of the NFB), I got a part time job as their first accessibility officer. I taught myself to do website assessments with a lot of help from the WebAIM mailing list and EASI, conducted accessibility banchmarking studies on over 250 webpsites, delivered accessibility training for developers , and campaigned for the creation of an Icelandic accessibility policy for public websites.
  • I was appointed as Iceland’s representative at two organizations:

    With these two organizations I primarily worked on drafting and improving the European UnionAccessibility Directive, which was finally approved in May of 2016.

  • I had an interesting but short-lived stint as a math accessibility evangelist at Design Science, makers of the MathPlayer, but it turned out not to be a good fit, we all have a few of those.

On the personal front things stayed interesting. We had child number 3, and I added a Sarcoma to my cancer collection. 2012 was a low point for me personally, as I was not expected to survive, but I am too stubborn and had the fortunate of being treated by some of the best medical teams in the world at Duke University hospital, so I managed to shake it off with my first clean scans in December of that year.

In 2013 I got a full-time position as a Senior Web Accessibility Consultant with Deque Systems.
Since then I have been utterly immersed in all things web accessibility. I have worked on a lot of projects with various companies, big and small, enjoyed them all. I joined the W3C as a member of the Protocols and Formats working group (now the ARIA taskforce), the ARIA Authoring Practices taskforce and the Automated Accessibility (now Accessibility Conformance Testing) working groups.
I participated in the European Internet Inclusion Initiative project and became a mentor for <a http://www.knowbility.org”>Knowbility’s Open Air competition. Needless to say I have picked up HTML, CSS, JavaScript and some JQuery knowledge along the way, but I am always learning more.

Every day I have the pleasure to work on something that matters, with incredibly smart, fun and dedicated people from all over the world, and I am constantly learning new things.
My biggest talent is the “why not” attitude, if you try you may fail, but if you don’t try you will certainly fail.

Author: Birkir Gunnarsson

Approaching 40 (at the time of this writing), blind since age 5. Born and bread in Iceland. Grew up in Iceland, came to the U.S. to attend Yale University. Spent 7 years in the Banking sector as a developer, where I grew out more than growing up. Started working in assistive technology and accessibility in 2009. I have dabbled in all things accessibility, from creating braille standards, to conducting website, PDF and mobile application assessments, delivering user and developer training, and campaigning for Icelandic and European accessibility policies and regulations. Started a full-time position with Deque Systems in 2013 where I have worked on all things accessibility with some of Deque's clients, many of them Fortune 500 companies. A member of W3C ARIA/ARIA Authoring Practices working groups since 2014. I am married, have 3 kids, love listening to good music and making questionable music in my spare time (which barely exists). See my extended BATS bio for a lot more information.

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