Braille Monitor                                                                 December 2006

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Massachusetts Appoints the Right Man

From the Editor: Joe Lazzaro is the newly hired manager of a new accessibility group in the Information Technology Division of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. He addressed the NFB in Computer Science meeting at the 2006 NFB convention. According to Curtis Chong, president of the NFB in Computer Science, he and Joe have formed a positive and productive working relationship. In late July Curtis passed along his remarks when introducing Mr. Lazzaro at the division meeting along with an interesting article about Joe Lazzaro that appeared in the July 13 edition of the Newton, Massachusetts, Daily News Tribune. Here are Curtis's introductory remarks followed by the text of the article:

Last fall the Commonwealth of Massachusetts announced plans to convert to something called the Open Document Format (ODF). According to the announcement, all executive branch agencies would be converted to this format no later than January of 2007. This announcement resulted in a hue and cry from the disability community because nowhere was there any mention of accessibility to ODF. While the National Federation of the Blind in Computer Science has no objection to ODF per se, it has adopted the position that Massachusetts's initial approach to the ODF implementation effort did leave something to be desired in assuring continued access to documents and other data stored electronically and used by blind employees of the state. We expressed our concerns and called upon the commonwealth to maintain the status quo until accessibility to the Open Document Format could be assured.

I think it is fair to say that today you can buy no software that provides nonvisual access to documents coded in the Open Document Format. Microsoft certainly does not support ODF, and while IBM appears to be making strides allowing its Workplace software to be used by the blind, so far we have seen nothing on the market.

Enter Joe Lazzaro, the manager of a new assistive technology group that has been created in the Information Technology Division of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. Mr. Lazzaro is blind. He was the director of the adaptive technology program at the Massachusetts Commission for the Blind until late May, when he assumed his new position.

You may be interested to learn these things about Joe Lazzaro: He is a freelance fact and fiction writer. He has written three nonfiction computer-related books and hundreds of magazine articles. His latest book is entitled Adaptive Technologies for Learning and Work Environments, Second Edition. Joe has appeared in such notable publications as the New York Times, Time Life Access, Byte, Computer Shopper, MIT Technology Review, IEEE Spectrum, Windows Magazine, Isaac Asimov's Science Fiction, and Analog.

Joe is committed to accessibility. It is significant that the Commonwealth of Massachusetts has chosen a blind person of his caliber to lead its information technology accessibility efforts. While I don't know for certain how all of this will turn out, I do feel much better knowing that somebody like Joe Lazzaro is in charge, and I have pledged our help as an organization.
The draft mission statement for Mr. Lazzaro's newly formed group reads as follows:

The ITD's Accessibility group mission is to assure all ITD information technology procurements and deployments are fully compliant with recognized accessibility standards; and usable by persons with sensory, physical, learning, cognitive, and other disabilities. This will be accomplished by building and maintaining links between ITD, assistive technology vendors, open source and COTS (commercial off the shelf) hardware and software vendors, standards bodies, and disability-related stakeholders and contractors. The program will have sign-off authority on RFRs in areas pertaining to accessibility standards and will monitor and test applications during the development cycle to assure they meet with state and federal accessibility requirements.

As I say, all of this is an encouraging beginning. Let me now introduce to you Joe Lazzaro.

No Sight? No Problem for City Computer Whiz Joe Lazzaro
by Galen Moore

Sunglasses on, inside his office in downtown Boston, Joe Lazzaro is in his element. His left hand taps a keyboard, navigating a Web site in audio. His right hand holds a take-out coffee cup at an odd angle--listing badly, but not spilling. "I hate to admit it, but I was a geek long before I went blind," he says. Lazzaro, forty-nine, a resident of Waltham, began working for the state Information Technology Division this May, making government Web sites accessible for people with disabilities. The commonwealth is spending just under $1 million this year on his project.

Blind people can navigate the Web, he demonstrated, using software that recognizes Web site headings and links and reads them out loud. However, some sites won't work with the software.

"I'm going to show you a Web site--the Target.com Web site, or as I say, ‘Tar-jay,'" he told a reporter earlier this week. "It appears to be accessible, but if you go beneath the surface, you'll see it's not." As he scrolled through the headings on the page, a clipped mechanical voice read: "Target baby; wish list registry; club wed registry."

"So far, I'm doing good," Lazzaro said, but when his keyboard cursor moved on to catalog items listed for purchase, the voice read out an unintelligible string of numbers, letters, and symbols. "If you can tell me what that means, I'll pay you," he quipped.

Ensuring that won't happen on state Web sites is costly, and Massachusetts may be one of the few states undertaking the task.

According to Dennis Cannon, an accessibility specialist at the U.S. Access Board, states' efforts in this area vary greatly. "I'm afraid they're all over the place," he said. Meanwhile, federal standards have had to change rapidly with new technology. In some cases they remain unclear, he said.

For example, the Americans with Disabilities Act requires government buildings to be handicapped-accessible, but "Does the ADA apply to Web sites?" Cannon said. "It's kind of up in the air."

For Lazzaro the answer is clear. "We have a responsibility to make sure we get it right--that we don't disenfranchise citizens of the Commonwealth," he said.

Lazzaro lost his sight at age fifteen, when his retina became detached from his right eye. He was walking with a friend along Commonwealth Avenue. He stepped over a curb, and, "Suddenly it was as if someone pulled a [curtain] down over my eyes," he said. His left retina had become detached as a child. From age fifteen to twenty-five surgery allowed him to see things vaguely out of the corner of one eye, but gradually all went dark.

His most cherished memory of sight is one many can remember, but it could only top the list of a confessed high school nerd. "I thank God I got to watch Neil Armstrong land on the moon," Lazzaro said fondly. He was twelve on the day the astronauts landed, thirty-seven years ago, next Thursday. "It was a life-changing moment. I wanted to be there so bad."

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