The Braille Monitor                                                                                              March, 2004

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Effective Technology

by Jim Halliday

From the Editor: Jim Halliday has been a fixture for a long time in the access-technology field. For many years he was president of HumanWare, an access-technology provider. His title is now President Emeritus of HumanWare, and he is dedicated to doing what he can to improve technology for blind users. Here is an article that lays out his thoughts about what constitutes effective technology for blind people:

Jim Halliday
Jim Halliday

I was sitting in Dr. Maurer's office at NFB headquarters in Baltimore one morning when the idea for this article was born. He told me that he was ready to start downloading Braille books from onto his BrailleNote. His enthusiasm about having instant access to thousands of Braille books was the manifestation of a dream I've had since 1979. Ever since I saw the first electronic Braille book stored on a cassette tape being read on a VersaBraille, I've imagined a time when Braille would be every bit as available to blind people as print is to sighted people, a time when Braille users would own large libraries of books. Now a Braille user can store hundreds of Braille books on standard, compact flash memory cards that easily pop in and out of a BrailleNote. Because of technology our world has changed in a flash.

Technology is an amazing thing. When I was born, telephones were all black and had rotary dials and umbilical cords that were hardwired into wall boxes. Music came in the form of one tune on each side of an amazing new vinyl invention called 45s. Elevators had people rather than buttons operating them. There were rumors of televisions and vinyl records called LPs that could hold six songs per side and reel-to-reel tapes onto which you could record your voice or even your own music. In the world of blindness there was an exciting new Braille writer called a Perkins. Sighted people had a similar mechanical device called a typewriter. More than ever before in history, we are confronted today with rapid change. Some of it we embrace, some of it we reject, and some of it is forced upon us regardless of our desires (for example, Microsoft's switch from MS-DOS to Windows).

I visited my ninety-year-old Aunt Gertrude last week and noticed that, although she has a portable phone in the kitchen, in her bedroom she still uses the same old rotary phone that my grandmother was using in the late 1940's. Aside from some restored automobiles, my Aunt Gertrude's rotary phone, and the Perkins Brailler, it is difficult to find any technology from circa 1950 in daily use.

When I ask myself why people continue to use old technology, I come up with six key reasons: 1) No new technology has been developed to replace it; 2) The old technology still works; 3) People don't know about the new technology; 4) People don't perceive any value in the new technology as it applies to their own lives; 5) People can't afford the new technology; and 6) The new technology is intimidating and too complicated, and people don't have the time or energy to learn how to use it.

Let's talk about these six points.

1. No New Technology?

In the cases of my aunt's phone and the Perkins Brailler, we can't say that new phones or new Braillewriters don't exist. Every decade telephones have changed and added more power and more features. In fact today's phones are not just telephones, they are wireless communicators that also send and retrieve messages, tell the time and date, browse the Internet, check email, do calculations, and even send photos. Some phones are also PDAs (personal data assistants).

Modern Braillewriters, like the Mountbatten, not only write Braille, but do it with minimal physical effort, enabling preschoolers to explore Braille years earlier than old technology allowed. The new Braille writers are quieter when adjusted for different grades of paper. They talk so that Braille learners can auditorily verify the accuracy of each key press, promoting practice and self-learning. They also work with standard keyboards and have built-in Braille translators that enable both Braille and non-Braille users to generate hardcopy Braille. They work with printers to generate print from a Braille file, and they can even work as a Braille embosser when connected to a computer. No, we can't say that there is no new technology.

2. Why Keep Old Technology?

If the user has no need for all of the many advantages new technology offers and wants to perform only the basic functions for which it was originally designed, then the old technology remains valid. I can totally accept the fact that a user of old technology should have the choice to continue using that technology as long as he or she wants. However, we have now entered the twenty-first century, and I do not accept the notion that blind children should be expected to wait until they have enough finger strength to use fifty-year-old technology when sighted children are introduced to current technology at the preschool level. The world that our children will face in the next decade requires access to current technology if they are to be competitive. Old technology, even when it's free, won't make our children competitive in this rapidly changing world.

3. Unaware of What's New?

Companies in mainstream markets are known to spend millions of dollars on one thirty-second TV spot just to reinforce what customers already know. The combined annual marketing expenditure of all the companies in our industry would be a tiny fraction of the cost of that one thirty-second spot. Companies in our industry don't have much money for marketing, so they rely on customers to tell their friends, agencies to make demonstration equipment available, teachers to make the latest equipment available to their students, and trainers to educate themselves on the latest technologies so that they can make recommendations to prospective buyers.

The NFB's International Braille and Technology Center is the only place in the world that I know of where every piece of blindness technology is available for potential users to explore and test. Although more people should come to Baltimore to experience this fabulous center, the truth is that most technology buyers make buying decisions based on input from experts. Many of these experts are indeed very knowledgeable about certain technology, but few have in-depth experience with the breadth of technology available at the NFB's National Center.

How do these experts determine what technology is best for the people they serve? Some experts depend on their own experience. What works for them should be okay for everyone else. If they don't use a particular product, the people they serve won't hear about it or they'll get a biased perspective. Some experts depend on product vendors or distributors, but if these folks don't sell a particular product or are poorly trained on demonstrating a new product, the expert who is trying to learn may be left with a false impression that is then conveyed to his or her clients.

Some experts talk to other experts. These discussions are excellent for expanding the in-depth knowledge of a given product, but unless one of the participants is intimately familiar with the latest technology, such discussions can entrench the participants still deeper in their existing comfort zones. Experts vary from those enamored with any new technology to those entrenched in the old. So how do end users decide whether new technology is appropriate for them?

4. How Does This New Technology Help Me?

One of the great challenges of choosing the right technology is understanding what it can actually do for us. I once bought a tool box on sale with a hundred different tools. What a deal, I thought. In retrospect, 80 percent of the tools have never been touched because I didn't need them. What's more, the tools that I did use were of such poor quality that I ended up replacing them with a few quality tools. What a rip-off. With technology we often think that more is better when more may actually mean only more complexity. Complexity is not necessarily bad, but the more complex the challenge, the greater the need for training. In the end, as with my tool box, we usually limit our use of the technology to a few critical applications.

How do we decide which applications are important to us if we have never used them? We live in a visually-oriented world, so it is important to determine how we can successfully compete in that world. The natural tendency is to say, "If sighted people use a particular technology, then we need to use that technology too." Windows is a good example. But is using Windows really our goal? Isn't our real goal to be able to work in an environment that is as friendly to blind users as Windows is to sighted users so that we all can be equally productive without sacrificing the quality or compatibility of our output? Equal productivity without jumping through extra hoops is our real goal. Does new technology do that for us?

We must assess new technology's ability to give us equal productivity. We must ask ourselves, "What are successful sighted people able to do with technology, and does blindness technology allow blind people to do those things just as efficiently and effectively?"

What are the critical elements of technology designed for personal productivity?

a) Is it truly portable? Laptops are quasi-portable due to their size and limited battery life.

b) Is the environment intuitive and friendly to a blind user? Windows was designed with a graphical user interface to make it easy for sighted users. A sighted person uses this friendly interface to access information. A blind user uses a screen reader to access the sighted person's user interface in order to access information. To be sure, many blind people are quite capable and effective PC users, despite the contortions they undergo when competing in a predominately sighted workplace. It is comforting to know that this is the case when such access is required.

c) Are the applications appropriate, and are they consistent with that friendly environment? Like my tool box, thirty difficult-to-use applications may not be nearly as useful as seven or eight key applications that are easy to use.

d) Is the output from the technology compatible with mainstream technology? For example, if a sighted person sends you an email with an MS Word attachment, can you read it? Or can you write a report in contracted Braille and automatically back-translate the file into an MS Word file?

e) What are the most critical applications that make you productive and competitive? Individual needs vary, but most technology users require a consistently friendly environment that gives them an efficient way to:

• Write, edit, and spellcheck;

• Send and receive emails with attachments;

• Browse the Internet;

• Download, store, and read Braille books, research materials, newspapers, etc.;

• Organize and schedule their time and activities;

• Store and retrieve names and contact information;

• Easily exchange data with sighted technology users either through direct connection, email, or transfer media; and

• Plan, follow, and monitor travel routes to and from walking or transportation destinations, including access to updates while traveling regarding street crossings and other points of interest (shops, schools, restaurants, etc.) along the way.

Our own unique technology requirements may or may not include applications beyond those mentioned above. In most cases additional applications require the power of a full-blown computer, which means the added need for screen access. Since portable personal productivity technology is not powerful enough to run full-blown computer applications, but instead uses stripped down versions, going to a real computer makes sense. If you are going to add the complexity of a screen reader, you may as well use standard computer applications.

5. Does New Technology Cost too Much?

We often get hung up on cost versus value. What is it worth to be more productive, effective, and successful all day, every day? What is it worth to own a library filled with electronic Braille books that you can always carry with you to read on a bus or a train or while sitting under a tree? Think about how much money we spend on little things every day. For example, a Starbuck's venti mocha costs $3.65. Let's say you drink one every day for three years. That would cost you $3,996.75. A BrailleNote 18 with the NFB member discount costs $3,890.25. Aside from the possibility of increasing your hyperactivity, the mocha is not likely to increase your productivity and effectiveness in the competitive world. The BrailleNote, on the other hand, happens to fill all of the critical requirements noted in the previous section of this article.

You may say, "I can buy a laptop computer that is far more powerful than a BrailleNote for $1,000." That may be true, but does the laptop computer meet any of the criteria noted above? The reason that millions of PDAs are sold every year is because they serve a different purpose from a laptop computer. A PDA's ability to store and retrieve bits of information instantly is critical to one's productivity when on the go. Booting up a laptop simply is not an option for such applications. Besides, if you add a screen reader for $795, Office XP for $395, and the cheapest Braille display on the market for around $1,995, you would be paying $4,185 for a heavy, complicated, nonintegrated collection of hardware with about 10 percent the battery life of an appropriate PDA with Braille display.

6. Is New Technology Too Complicated and Difficult to Use?

Indeed new technology can be complicated until one learns to use it. Complicated technology generally costs about the same amount as the training required to learn to use it effectively. In other words, when we decide on a particular piece of technology, we need to take into account the hidden costs associated with training or the additional time it will take to train ourselves (assuming this is possible), or the possibility that we will learn only the basic functions and leave it at that. If we haven't budgeted for training or can't find a trainer we can afford, then we must ask ourselves whether purchasing complicated technology is the right decision for us. Here again, powerful technology does not necessarily mean the same as complicated technology. In fact technology with an intuitive environment may be even more powerful because the user can put all of it to good use.

When evaluating technology, it is important to look at the power as it relates to your needs, but it is also critical to examine the environment, the applications, context-sensitive help, and the user's manual. Is the environment intuitive? Do the applications all feel the same, and can you exchange information among the various applications? Can you be anywhere within any application and get help? Is the manual instantly available on your device? Is competent technical support available to you from your supplier if all else fails? If the technology you are considering has "yes" answers to all of these questions, then your need for training goes down in direct proportion to each "yes," as do the related costs. Complexity and hidden costs are part of the same package, just as intuitive environment and personal productivity are related. Of course there are times when complexity cannot be avoided, but then and only then should one have to live in such an environment.

Equal Environment in the Twenty-First Century

As people begin to understand the true purpose of a PDA, they start to realize that the traditional idea of access is not valid when personal productivity is being measured. Equal access generally means that a person who is blind has to adapt through the use of access technology to a sighted environment. Thank goodness such products exist when such access is absolutely necessary. However, the fact remains that sighted computer users live in a visually intuitive environment, an environment designed to help make sighted people productive. Access technology users, however, live in a complex environment that provides access to a visual computer environment, an environment that is fundamentally unfriendly to a blind user. To create a truly equal situation, both blind and sighted people must live in equally friendly, intuitive, and productive environments. In other words, equal environment is the path to personal productivity in a competitive world.

Historically the problem with creating an environment specifically for a blind person meant that that person was restricted to varying degrees when interacting with the sighted world. Understandably that was unacceptable, and thankfully access technology was developed to accommodate the problem. However, in the twenty-first century, we have entered the E-age. Email, e-commerce, eBooks, and other uses of the Internet mean that people are increasingly exchanging data electronically, so a deaf-blind BrailleNote user can communicate with a sighted computer user, and neither person knows or needs to know whether one party or the other has a disability. Furthermore, when a device like the BrailleNote is capable of automatically converting Microsoft Word files into contracted Braille files and vice versa, the traditional concerns of exchanging data with a blind person disappear. Synchronizing with Outlook is just frosting on the cake.

We are often asked, "Why do blind people so enthusiastically embrace products like BrailleNotes and VoiceNotes?" There are three simple reasons:

    1)An intuitive, easy-to-use environment to work in means that a user can be immediately productive.

    2)A set of meaningful and appropriate applications designed to work in that friendly environment means that a user has all of the primary tools needed to compete effectively in a sighted world.

    3)The ability simply to exchange data with a computer or to save files in standard Microsoft Windows formats means that a user can work in contracted Braille yet produce documents that are readily usable by a sighted person and vice versa.

If a portable device does not meet these three fundamental criteria, it could actually impair personal productivity. Although the BrailleNote and VoiceNote do not eliminate the need for access technology in mainstream computer environments, they do address all of the primary requirements of a personal productivity tool. Whether we are sighted or blind, we are all measured on our personal productivity. Having powerful yet intuitive tools that unleash our innate ability to compete successfully is a critical step toward personal productivity. BrailleNote and VoiceNote have been enthusiastically embraced by thousands of blind people because the traditional obstacles of access do not exist in an intuitive environment, where users are free to compete equally with sighted people without compromising the compatibility of their output.

Effective technology must ultimately empower the individual user of that technology. For some, full-blown computers are essential. For others, a Perkins Brailler or a rotary telephone will suffice. For most of us a personal productivity tool that makes us productive wherever we go while remaining compatible with mainstream communication needs is critical if we expect to compete effectively in this world and also for our quality of life. Sometimes relaxing with a good book is just as important as doing emails or writing reports.

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