Braille Monitor                                                                                                        June 2004

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The Topography of Technology, Blindness, and the Luddite

by Marc Maurer

From the Editor: On the first morning of the technology conference President Maurer addressed conferees, anchoring them in the reality of the blindness experience. This is what he said:

Marc Maurer
Marc Maurer

When I think about blindness and technology, the word that comes to mind is "ambivalence." What will the next generation of products do for us, or (which is more likely) what will these products do to us? The next generation of devices may give us greater opportunities than we have today, but they may make ordinary tasks more difficult.

I am reminded of the Luddites of England, who flourished from 1811 to 1816. Named, it is said, after Ned Ludd, who had smashed some frames used in industrial processes, the Luddites objected to the establishment of factories using labor-saving devices because industrial processes took jobs away from factory workers. The protests took tangible form with the Luddites breaking industrial machinery to prevent its use.

As part of my effort in creating the National Federation of the Blind Jernigan Institute, I spent some time recently examining kitchen appliances—stovetops, ovens, microwaves, dishwashers, and refrigerators. At one time or another all of these devices have been easily usable by the blind. However, the control mechanisms now being installed in these appliances are almost universally built with touch-screen technology. Much of the time they are interactive. Pressing the right spot on a touch panel illuminates a menu that offers choices available through touching other spots on the screen. Quite often the menu appears only for a few seconds. The operator of the appliance must be swift and sure in the touching. Without speed and accuracy in touching the right selections, the appliance will not work at all.

Needless to say, the blind, who cannot see the proper spots to touch and who cannot read the menu selections, cannot set the temperature on the oven, cook on the stove, set the temperature in the refrigerator, or set the amount of cooking time for the microwave. I have sometimes been tempted to take my palm and rub it over the entire touch screen just to see what would happen. When the inaccessibility has been monumental, when the day has been long, when the unwillingness of others to comprehend the need for the blind to be a part of society has been overwhelming, blind people sometimes have an appreciation for Ned Ludd. Smashing the stove or the refrigerator won't make it work, but at least there would be a recognizable protest.

Televisions, stereos, cellular telephones, and dozens of other electronic products present similar impediments. Some have buttons that can be felt; others do not. Even with the tactilely identifiable buttons, often the devices have visual displays that must be read to operate them. It is a temptation to say, "A pox on all this new-fangled technology. Give me back my microwave with the buttons and dials."

Just as in the 1800's industrial development could not be stopped, so it is in the twenty-first century—the so-called advances in technology cannot be halted. I remember a serious proposal in the early 1990's from some blind members of the National Federation of the Blind that we undertake to sue the Microsoft Company to prevent it from developing and distributing its graphical user interface—the Windows Operating System. In the 1980's a great deal of development work had been performed to make computers widely accessible to the blind for the first time. When the new technology came out, it was touted by Microsoft as a great advance, but it made computers impossible for the blind to use. Accessibility to computer information had become available through extraordinary effort, but it was being taken from us by a theoretical advance in technology. Because blind people were losing jobs through the dissemination of the graphical user interface, I was tempted by the proposition that we sue Microsoft for an order requiring them to stop distributing Windows. However, I judged that the groundswell had already reached proportions that could not be stemmed. It would be better, I thought, to hunt for ways to get at the information using additional technical development.

Today methods have been identified to make information presented graphically into audible or tactile form, and laws require purveyors of technology to make the systems they sell to government entities accessible to the blind. However, the methods necessarily employed to get at the information within the computer for audible or tactile presentation are inherently unstable because the operating system design does not take into account that audible or tactile presentation is needed, and the programs to offer these forms of presentation are, from the point of view of the designers, an afterthought. Consequently, even with computer access technology for the blind installed, the technology used by blind people is less useful than similar technology used by the sighted. Some programs routinely employed by sighted people will not run on a computer adapted for the blind, and even when the programs being used can be presented audibly with adaptive equipment, computers that blind people use crash more often than the ones used by the sighted.

During the debate about the graphical user interface (a debate that waxed hot and acrimonious), one question which often came to mind was one of fairness. Should the blind be able to prevent the development and dissemination of computer technology simply because it is not accessible in nonvisual ways? If a computer program can illustrate a scientific experiment through pictures that shift and change over time, should the sighted be prevented from having the experience of these pictures because the blind cannot see them? Or is this formulation of the question itself inherently unfair?

The objective in a scientific experiment is to learn information that has not already been discovered or to illustrate information that is known. Presenting the information in a book or on a computer screen is intended to illustrate what is already known. We believe that ways exist to do this that do not require vision, and we have seriously pursued the establishment of policies that require nonvisual access.

We do not object to pictures, and we would not inhibit the development of interesting new ways to present information—visually or otherwise. We do insist that nonvisual methods be employed in presenting information available to everybody else.

Failing to employ nonvisual techniques creates the Rapunzel effect. According to the fairy tale, Rapunzel, one of the most beautiful girls ever born was put into a tower by an evil witch. The tower had no doors and only one window high up in one wall. Rapunzel was trapped in the tower with no way to escape, and everybody else was kept out. Rapunzel eventually found a way to foil the wicked witch by letting her long hair hang out the window so that the handsome prince could climb up, look her over, fall in love with her, and eventually plan to go away with her to his kingdom.

In the case of the blind without adequate nonvisual tools, the computer doesn't even have the window high up in the wall. Getting into the system, the tower, is impossible, and we haven't had the good fortune to find a beautiful woman hanging her hair out of the side of the computer to help us climb up.

A few years ago a representative came to the National Center for the Blind from the Microsoft Corporation. Microsoft was planning to create the Microsoft Reader. The Microsoft vision was that all people everywhere would be able to read books—especially eBooks. The Microsoft Reader was going to make the world of eBooks available to everybody, including the blind.

Later Microsoft said that there had been a little problem. Some of the publishers thought that accessible books—those that could be read using speech—might interfere with the sale of audio books. Consequently the Microsoft Reader would not make eBooks accessible to the blind. This would remain so even if blind people paid good hard cash for the books themselves. Are books for everybody? Should there be universal access to information? Not according to Microsoft. Microsoft has decided it would rather lock its information in a tower with no doors.

In the early 1980's Microsoft created MS-DOS, the disc operating system. It was not accessible by the blind. With considerable effort a number of blind people built applications to speak the information presented in this computer environment. By the early 1990's Microsoft began widely distributing its Windows product with the graphical user interface. It was not accessible to the blind. Through considerable effort a number of blind people created accessibility software to provide the information within the computer system through speech or Braille. In each instance Microsoft periodically changed the operating system, distributing what they said were improved versions. Each time the accessibility programs had to be modified to make these new versions of the Microsoft system accessible.

During the 1990's Microsoft itself had a go at making its software accessible to the blind, but it abandoned the effort within a short time, saying in effect that it wished blind people well but it had no further interest in trying to help. Part of the problem was that Microsoft had built a program it called a screen reader. The screen reader was a dismal failure, and blind people proclaimed this widely because we did not want the uninformed to buy the product in the mistaken belief it would solve the problems of access to information. Microsoft did not say so directly, but many blind people got the idea that they were telling us that, if we didn't appreciate their hard work and good intentions, they would take their marbles and go home.

Today it is rumored that Microsoft is creating still another operating system which will be faster, better, and more robust than all of its previous ones. This new system is intended to take advantage of the advances in computer chip and hardware development. It will come as no surprise that the rumors also tell us Microsoft is not planning to make this software accessible to the blind any more than it made its previous operating systems accessible. Unless a way is found to induce Microsoft to include accessibility for the blind in its planning, we who are blind will be faced with building yet another accessibility program.

Programs to provide accessibility will of necessity be unstable if they have not been incorporated in the design of the operating system itself. These accessibility products are add-ons to the operating system—half measures to try to get at the information that the operating system manipulates. If the computer operating system is not designed to work seamlessly with access technology for the blind, other applications run on computers using these operating systems (or at least some of them) will not be accessible to the blind. Even when they are accessible, they will be slower, more cumbersome, and more subject to computer glitches than would be the case if accessibility for the blind were incorporated into the original design.

With this in mind we should insist that Microsoft and everybody else build products so that accessibility can be a part of them. However, Microsoft does not know about accessibility. It cannot do an adequate job of building its programs to be accessible. Microsoft tried, and it failed. In order for companies to build adequate accessibility tools, the blind must be a part of the process.

Most of the time the blind have been at a disadvantage when trying to get information. But occasionally we have had as much as anybody else, and sometimes we have had more.

In the 1970's the National Federation of the Blind participated in the development of Dr. Raymond Kurzweil's reading machine. We said that we would help him build the device if we could have the opportunity to assist in the design. The partnership worked, and the machine was much more useful than it might have been because of the contributions made by the blind themselves.

This partnership has been reestablished. Today the hand-held reading machine is a goal we are jointly trying to achieve. A proof-of-concept device has been built consisting of a very small computer attached to a digital camera. The user can snap a picture of a page of text, which the machine will read.

The objective is to make a pocket-sized reading machine. In the beginning it will probably be able to read only text, but it will read text in many, many environments. We believe that the machine will be able to read the displays on electronic devices or the words on a computer screen. We believe it can be used to provide the information contained in a cash machine, a voting machine, the devices at checkout counters, the labels on consumer goods, and other printed text. After a time, we expect the Kurzweil National Federation of the Blind Reader to give us the information on street signs, storefronts, and the sides of buses.

When the subject of text has been mastered, we believe the Kurzweil National Federation of the Blind Reader will be able to perform other jobs. The camera built into the machine could be used to record a library of objects. The machine could learn the appearance of an office, a recreation room, a gymnasium, or an auditorium. Those who come late to a lecture might be able to ask the machine to point out where in a lecture hall the empty seats are located, and the machine might be able to give directions.

The library of objects is only the beginning. The machine might also be able to store a library of faces. In a political gathering the Reader could identify senators and point out the direction to travel to meet these people—or to avoid them. These are only a few of the imaginative notions that might be built into the Kurzweil National Federation of the Blind Reader. As you observe from these comments, we are beginning the design of machine-based vision.

In the 1980's the prototype of the first hand-held notetaker for the blind was constructed by Dr. T.V. Cranmer, a member of the National Federation of the Blind. He called it the Pocket Braille. Deane Blazie studied the device and decided that there was a market for it. Working closely with Dr. Cranmer and other members of the National Federation of the Blind, Deane Blazie built the Braille 'n Speak—the first readily available Braille-based notetaker for the blind. From this early beginning came the Braille Lite, the Millennium notetaker, the PAC Mate, and the BrailleNote. I am told that there are other notetakers in development.

Deane Blazie came to the convention of the National Federation of the Blind and told our members what he had done to alter the Braille Lite and the other Blazie notetakers. During the course of his recitation, Deane Blazie was interrupted. A member of the audience asked him why he had spent time and effort creating the improvements that he had listed. Why had he not put his efforts into something else? Deane responded by saying, "These are the changes you asked me to make." In other words he had a continuing commitment to work with the blind to build the products in the way that blind people wanted them built. His wish to listen to the consumers helped him to build a company that was extraordinarily successful even though it was designing a completely new product for an unknown market.

Sometimes we have designed our own access technology. The National Federation of the Blind NEWSLINEŽ system was created by the blind themselves through the National Federation of the Blind. Through this newspaper delivery system with a hundred newspapers, we have a greater quantity of newspaper information available to the blind than has ever existed before in history. Most sighted people do not have as many newspapers as the blind who use NEWSLINE. One does not wish to be uppish, but it is nice to be ahead just once.

In my house I have a stereo, a VCR, a DVD player, a television, a tape deck, and a radio. They all have remote controls. So far my stove, my refrigerator, my telephone, my furnace, my microwave, my washing machine, my dryer, my freezer, and my computer do not. I have been able to use the remotes to get the machines to do what they were designed to do most of the time. If manufacturers insist on designing electronic products with visual touch-screen displays, I want the manufacturers to build these products so that I can use my universal remote to operate them. This is, of course, not the only way to make such devices accessible, but it is a solution that the manufacturers appear to understand.

What makes me ambivalent about the future of technology is the real possibility that such development may leave us behind. If we are unable to ensure that nonvisual access principles are incorporated in future designs, we will be cut out of commerce. Those who control information are in control of the entire society. One of the essential characteristics of a free society is freedom of speech, which implies freedom of thought. Unless we who are blind have the ability to get at the information which is used to compose the thought, we cannot be full participants in the planning and the discussion and the labor and the governance of the society in which we live. Consequently we will not tolerate a system that builds methods for obtaining information but prevents us from getting at the same sources.

When we are a part of the development of new technologies, everybody benefits. The machines work better for us and also for the sighted because the interfaces designed for their operation are less ambiguous. But there are also other advantages. A reading machine designed for the blind can also be used to provide information to sighted people who have not become literate. The Jobline for the blind program can also give the sighted access to job information. When we have created machine-based vision systems, they can be built into automobiles so that sighted people can drive more safely. The lesson of our experience is clear. We must be a part of the development process.

Many people believe that building devices for the blind is a matter of charity—an afterthought—a part of business that is unimportant. Our task is to change this comprehension. We do this through argument and persuasion when we can. We do it through an appeal to enlightened self-interest when we find somebody prepared to listen. We do it through more confrontational methods when we have no alternative.

Some years ago AOL's online information service was sweeping the nation and fast becoming the standard for the design of online information services. AOL was not accessible to the blind. When we asked that the service be made usable by blind people, we were told that this would be accomplished when AOL had the time. However, that would not be until the online weather service, the online television service, certain streaming video functions, and a number of other products had been perfected. To add insult to injury, one blind person who was solicited by AOL sales personnel was told that although AOL was not accessible to the blind, blind people should buy it anyway because it would become accessible sometime—probably.

When we sued AOL, a number of its officials wondered what all the fuss was about. They seemed to think that we were overly aggressive and unreasonably demanding. However, AOL is now accessible to the blind. But it would have been accessible earlier and AOL might have retained its market share if it had been prepared to work with us in harmony to seek methods for achieving accessibility for the blind.

Which brings me to the Diebold Corporation. We became acquainted with Diebold by observing that this manufacturer of ATM systems had placed a number of inaccessible machines in public places in and around the District of Columbia, and we sued them. Diebold's president, Wally O'Dell, asked us why we had done such an unfriendly thing, and we responded that we wanted his ATMs to be accessible to the blind. From this strange beginning a partnership has developed in which we have joined with Diebold to promote accessibility through ATMs, voting machines, and other devices to be built in the months to come. Diebold understands manufacturing, and we understand accessibility for the blind. Not long after our partnership came together, we approached members of Congress about the urgent need of the blind to be a part of the political process, with the result that the Help America Vote Act incorporates provisions requiring nonvisual access to polling places by 2006. Diebold builds voting machines with state-of-the-art access technology included in them.

What do the blind want, and how do we intend to get it? We want access to the same information that is available to everybody else. We want to be able to use the machines that other people use. We want an interface with digital equipment that will permit us to get at the functions of the machines without the use of sight. In the past we have had buttons to press, and this is acceptable if the interface does not demand vision. We would be willing to have voice control rather than push-button control, but the interface must be nonvisual.

The telephone, the tape recorder, the MP3 player, the computer, the radio, and the digital camera (we are told) are coming together with wireless worldwide communication built in. We want to be able to use the resulting devices for the purposes they were intended to fulfill with the same ease that other people use them. Furthermore we expect to be consulted in the process of designing the nonvisual interfaces.

In the past many people have told us that they know what kinds of specialized products we need. A man came to me once from a benevolent organization to tell me that blind people needed a special cigarette lighter. The cigarette to be lit was placed in a tube attached to the side of the lighter. The flame came from the lighter at the very tip of the cigarette within the tube. The man brought me such a lighter, and I lit a cigarette with it. I wondered as I did so if he had thought blind people were unable to smoke before he created his invention.

We are no longer prepared to have others tell us what we need. We will participate in the development of technology, giving advice about how to make things accessible, and sometimes creating accessible systems ourselves. We will work to ensure that policies are enacted that promote the design and construction of accessible products. We will continue to support legislation to ensure nonvisual access to information, and we will ask that the courts enforce the law.

When the blind are involved in the design of new products, everybody benefits. When we are not involved in the design of new products and when these designs are configured so that we are kept out of the channels of commerce, the systems of education, or the framework of government, there will be conflict. We are not prepared for the blind to be brushed aside or ignored or forgotten. Above everything else we must be a part of the process. In the creation of the National Federation of the Blind Jernigan Institute we have made a powerful commitment to participation and to growth within our culture, and this is a commitment that we intend to keep.

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