Photo of Deane Blazie, Euclid Herie, Marc Maurer, and Raymond Kurzweil. (18818 bytes)
Seated at the head table (left to right are
Deane Blazie, Euclid Herie, Marc Maurer, and
Raymong Kurzweil

Introduction

by Marc Maurer

 

Perhaps one of the most perpetually compelling issues in the field of blindness is technology and its power to enhance or frustrate the lives of blind people. When technology for the blind becomes the topic of conversation, there are many experts--often self-proclaimed--and an almost unlimited number of opinions. Technology for the blind is a field of endeavor which is relatively young and fairly diverse. Problems for the blind user of technology abound, and there is no lack of emotion--hope, despair, eagerness, frustration, annoyance, outrage, anger, delight.

The range of emotion exists because the promises made in the name of technology are sometimes astonishingly great, and the disappointments felt by the blind user when it doesn't work are of equal proportion. All too often, just when one vexing problem seems to be on the brink of solution, the technology changes and the target shifts. A completely new set of daunting technological conundrums is presented to the unsuspecting blind public. During the time it takes to solve the new riddles, the blind have diminished access to the information easily used by the sighted.

This is the set of circumstances that serves as the backdrop for the Fourth U.S./Canada Conference on Technology for the Blind, which took place on October 27 and 28, 1999. The fourth conference followed the pattern set by the first three. All major organizations of and for the blind in the United States and Canada were invited to participate along with the major manufacturers of technology for the blind and the governmental entities that are likely to have an impact on the development or distribution of access devices or systems. Because of the historic significance of this conference, we are devoting an entire issue of the Braille Monitor to reprinting the proceedings.

The concepts discussed at the meeting are far-reaching, but the Fourth U.S./Canada Conference could not have achieved the significance it did without the first three. The first of these conferences took place at the National Center for the Blind in 1991. It was unique in the field of blindness because no such gathering had ever before occurred, and some wondered whether relations and political differences among entities dealing with blindness would permit any collaboration. However, the conference, hosted by the National Federation of the Blind and the Canadian National Institute for the Blind, brought a measure of harmony and cooperation to organizations of and for the blind that had never before existed.

The second of these conferences was convened in 1993, and it was even more harmonious than the first. Many of the producers of technology for the blind welcomed suggestions from the users of that technology. A widespread recognition emerged that joint effort among manufacturers, public and private agencies for the blind, and blind consumers would assist the producers of technology to provide products that would best serve the market and give increased prosperity to all.

In 1996 the Third U.S./Canada Conference on Technology for the Blind was convened. For the third time Dr. Kenneth Jernigan, the long-time leader of the National Federation of the Blind and its President Emeritus, planned the gathering with the advice and assistance of Dr. Euclid Herie, President and Chief Executive Officer of the Canadian National Institute for the Blind and the President of the World Blind Union. Although efforts were still directed toward increasing cooperation at this conference, the desirability of joint action had already become readily apparent from the experiences of the first two conferences. The third conference concentrated on the topics of most immediate concern to blind users of technology.

In each of the first three conferences several people speculated about the shape of the future. These futurists were concerned about technology for the blind, but they also discussed technology for everybody. Some of this speculative dreaming suggested that the gap between technology for the blind and technology for the sighted would narrow. However, immediate frustrations made other participants doubt. In some cases the advances in technology for the blind would, some participants speculated, give a new perspective to the development of technology designed for the sighted. The Third U.S./Canada Conference focused sharply on technology itself.

The Fourth U.S./Canada Conference on Technology for the Blind gathered with the spirit, energy, and enthusiasm that had been developed during the first three. Advances in technology for the blind have continued to be made; however, technology in general has also proceeded, and with it new problems in gaining access to information have been created. Consequently, even with advances in technology for the blind, problems for blind users continue to exist. For example, at one time many stated with confidence that no system could ever be manufactured that would permit blind people to gain access to information presented through the graphical user interface. However, determined effort has, to a substantial extent, made this information available in voice and tactile forms.

The fourth conference discussed more than technology. It explored the rights and responsibilities of manufacturers of technology--both producers working exclusively with the blind and those in the broader market. What laws should be adopted to assure access to information for the blind? How can entities dealing with blindness take joint action to bring maximum advantage to blind people? How can governmental agencies be persuaded to assist with access solutions before products are released so that the long and painful process of retrofitting is unnecessary? What role should publishers play in providing fundamental information to the blind as well as to others? These and other similar questions were considered by the conference.

The harmony and perceived need for joint action continued to be as great as they have ever been. In 1991, when Dr. Jernigan and Dr. Herie planned the first of these conferences, they undoubtedly anticipated that the gatherings themselves would assist the participants to comprehend the community of interest that all organizations dealing with blindness have. The consolidation of action within the blindness field may be the greatest accomplishment of the series of conferences on technology for the blind.

They have, of course, had other salutary effects. The need for the blind to have access to information stimulated the development of the NEWSLINEŽ for the Blind Network and the America's JoblineŽ system that bring job listings and newspapers to blind people throughout North America by touch-tone telephone. These two systems, pioneered by the National Federation of the Blind and conceived by the imagination of Dr. Jernigan, have resulted at least in part from the stimulus of these conferences on technology. And other developments, too, have been inspired by the cooperative efforts of these conferences. Some of them are laid out in the presentations made to the Fourth Conference. Here, beginning with an alphabetical list of conference attendees, are the proceedings as they occurred:

David Andrews, Minnesota State Services for the Blind

Susan Benbow, Rehabilitation Services Administration

David Best, Canadian National Institute for the Blind

Deane Blazie, Blazie Engineering

John Brabyn, Smith-Kettlewell Eye Research Foundation

Michelle Brul`e, Canadian National Institute for the Blind

Brian Buhrow, University of California

Geoffrey Bull, Braille International, Inc.

Pat Cannon, United States Architectural and Transportation Barriers Compliance Board

Chris Chamberlain, Frontier Computing

Curtis Chong, National Federation of the Blind

Charles Cook, Roudley Associates

John Cookson, National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped

T. V. Cranmer, International Braille Research Center

Frank Kurt Cylke, National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped

Judy Dixon, National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped

Oscar Fern`andez, O.N.C.E.

Len Fowler, T-Base Communications

James R. Fruchterman, Arkenstone, Inc.

James Gashel, National Federation of the Blind

Michael Gosse, National Federation of the Blind

Jim Halliday, Humanware, Inc.

Dale Hatfield, Federal Communications Commission

Euclid Herie, Canadian National Institute for the Blind

Janice Hertz, Microsoft Corporation

Mary Ellen Jernigan, National Federation of the Blind

George Kerscher, DAISY Consortium

Chuck King, IBM Special Needs Systems

Raymond Kurzweil, Kurzweil Applied Intelligence, Inc.

Luanne LaLonde, Microsoft Corporation

Mary Frances Laughton, Industry Canada

Jos`e Luis Lorente, O.N.C.E.

Marc Maurer, National Federation of the Blind

Peter Merrill, Betacom

Paul Mitten, Compusult Limited

Betty Nobel, Canadian National Institute for the Blind

Gilles P`epin, VisuAide 2000, Inc.

David Pillischer, Sighted Electronics, Inc.

William M. Raeder, National Braille Press

Lloyd Rasmussen, National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped

Richard Ring, National Federation of the Blind

Carol Risher, Association of American Publishers, Inc.

Mohymen Saddeek, TFI Engineering and Myna Corporation

James Sanders, Canadian National Institute for the Blind

Tony Schenk, Enabling Technologies Company

Fredric Schroeder, Rehabilitation Services Administration

Paul Schroeder, American Foundation for the Blind

Dick Scribner, Recording for the Blind and Dyslexic

Dave Skrivanek, Repro-Tronics

Larry Skutchan, American Printing House for the Blind

Susan Spungin, American Foundation for the Blind

Graham Stoodley, Canadian National Institute for the Blind

Linda Studholme, Canadian National Institute for the Blind

Joseph Sullivan, Duxbury Systems, Inc.

Tuck Tinsley, American Printing House for the Blind

Dennis Tottenham, Project Online, Canada

Jutta Treviranus, University of Toronto

Robert Wynn, Hadley School for the Blind