An Address Delivered by
Marc Maurer, President
of the National Federation of the Blind
at the University of Queensland
October 16, 2009
From the Editor: In mid-October President and Mrs. Maurer made a flying visit to Australia. They attended the annual convention of Blind Citizens Australia, and he addressed that consumer organization and an audience at the University of Queensland. The Maurers were warmly welcomed by the Australians. Here are the remarks that President Maurer delivered to the university audience.
Max Planck observed that the power of new ideas does not capture the imagination and sweep the old from contemplation. New ideas become a part of the thought process because the people who espouse previous theories die.
Murray Gell-Mann, the man who discovered particle physics in the 1960s, said that most new ideas are crackpot thoughts, which is why they meet with such extraordinary resistance. Ideas that have survived time often have had to undergo rigorous examination. Discarding them is not only difficult but intellectually demanding. Adopting new thoughts requires effort. Gell-Mann observed, however, that a new synthesis of ideas in physics accounted better for the observable phenomena, and he demanded that an alteration in thought be adopted. He was regarded with skepticism or worse, until the experimental data demonstrated that he knew what he was doing.
In 1940 a small group of intrepid individuals formed the National Federation of the Blind of the United States, a nationwide organization of blind people that has now grown to a membership of more than fifty thousand. The idea behind the formation of the organization was that blind people had not been afforded the opportunity to use their talents. If circumstances for the blind were to change, if blind people were to be welcomed as participants in the activities of the broader community, an alteration in the pattern of thought was necessary. Blind people had been regarded almost exclusively as objects of pity and charity. Blindness was considered a devastating handicap, which could sometimes be mitigated but never overcome. It was proclaimed that blindness was a kind of dying. The thought that blind people might be normal, might have contributions to make to society, might be seeking participation in the activities of the community on terms of equality with others was novel, untested, and often dismissed. It was a challenge to the established pattern of thought, and it demanded effort and courage.
The National Federation of the Blind in the United States espoused this fundamental belief. From it the blind of the United States derived rehabilitation programs to teach the blind the method for using the talents we have, educational programs demanding excellence from blind students, technological development of products to give equal access to information to the blind, and a civil rights movement demanding equality of opportunity for the blind and otherwise disabled. Dr. Jacobus tenBroek, the founder and first president of the National Federation of the Blind, declared that the Constitution and the laws of the United States apply to all citizens of our country, not just to those with the ability to see. He drafted legislation proclaiming that the blind and otherwise disabled have a right to equal access to all public places of amusement and resort. That this legislation was necessary is an indication of how much discrimination had been practiced against the blind. I myself have faced such discrimination, having been told by a restaurant operator that I was not welcome in his establishment because he was afraid of what his other customers would think, and having been informed by a hotel operator that I could not rent a room because the only ones available in his hotel were on the second floor, and he did not have an elevator for me to ride.
When the nationwide organization of blind people came into being in 1940, schools for the blind had existed in the United States for more than a hundred years, but education of blind students in the public schools along with their sighted colleagues was almost unknown. Although programs to employ blind workers in segregated facilities and specialized jobs had been established, almost no blind people were employed in the private sector, and in most instances government employment of the blind was prohibited. Training programs for the adult blind were not identified in federal law in the United States until 1943. The leaders who rose among the blind synthesized the problem as one of misclassification and discrimination, challenged the assumptions upon which the problem was based, and brought people together who intended to create change. What was new was the idea that change was possible and that the blind themselves would be the principal agents of change—would designate the parameters for comprehension of their own lives—would assume the role of interpreting their own futures and demonstrating their own talents.
Conditions for the blind today are vastly better than they were when blind people themselves decided to take a hand in determining their own future. However, some of the misclassification of human beings—especially blind human beings—that has caused discrimination and deprivation still occurs.
Today American law permits payment of wages to disabled employees less than a federally established minimum. At the same time American law prohibits the federal government from purchasing technology inaccessible to the disabled. It does not prohibit the manufacture of such technology or the sale of it to members of the public or private corporations. The law declares that programs and activities conducted by government or those pursued by nongovernmental entities employing fifteen people or more must be accessible to disabled individuals and usable by them. Products need not be accessible to the disabled, but the programs using them must be. This distinction leads to fierce argument about what is a product and what is a program.
In the early 1970s a man named Ray Kurzweil was working on pattern recognition. He thought he had found a way to recognize text and manipulate it, but he didn’t know what to do with this knowledge. On an airplane he met a blind person who said that blind people could manage most activities of daily life, but it would be helpful to have a machine that would read print. This is an ideal technology to use the pattern recognition system invented by Ray Kurzweil, and, with the help of the National Federation of the Blind, he developed the first reading machine. To manufacture a reading machine, he had to have a multifont scanning device. This technology did not then exist. When the reading machine came into being, the multifont scanner had been invented. Ray Kurzweil sold it to the Xerox Corporation, which recreated the scanner for office use throughout the world. Because the blind wanted a reading machine, the sighted got scanners.
The Kurzweil effort has born much other fruit. When he had mastered the process of transforming visual information into audio form, Ray Kurzweil wondered if the process could be reversed. He developed dictation software that captures auditory information and transforms it into text. This is good technology for the blind, but most of the people who use it are sighted. The technology has also been used in telephone systems around the world so that people can select an appropriate menu item by speaking that selection into the phone.
Computers talk, giving access to information that appears on the screen in an auditory way. A little more than a year ago, the Apple Corporation entered into an agreement with the National Federation of the Blind to provide auditory access to its iTunes application. Apple computers, iPhones, and iPods now present information that appears on their screens in an auditory form.
Several years ago the Google Corporation began digitizing the information contained in books in the most prestigious libraries. It is estimated that between eight and ten million books have been digitized to date. Providing access to these books is as important for the blind as it is for the sighted. When we urged that the libraries consider this reality, accessibility provisions were included in the agreement with Google. Google plans to make at least twenty million books available in digital form to the public. Authors will receive payment for copyrighted material, but millions of out-of-copyright books will also be digitized. The plan is to ensure that, within a brief time after the agreement becomes final, the books will be usable by print-disabled people.
In October of 2009 the knfbReading Technology Company and Baker and Taylor, the largest wholesale distributor of online and hardcover books in the United States, announced a partnership to provide millions of digitized books to the public through an e-reader developed by knfbReading Technology. This reader will provide sighted individuals with a rich reading experience. The e-reader will also provide access to this information to the print-disabled.
Amazon.com has produced a handheld reading device called the Kindle. We have encouraged Amazon to create text-to-speech programming inside this device that will permit auditory presentation of the digitized texts. We have also urged Amazon to build controls into the device that will permit it to be operated nonvisually. In the winter of 2009 the Kindle appeared with text-to-speech built into it. Those purchasing the Kindle could read books visually on the screen or listen to them using the text-to-speech program. Shortly after this device came onto the market, individuals representing authors demanded that the publishers refuse to have material on the Kindle presented auditorially. They argued that to do this was a violation of copyright. The National Federation of the Blind objected, but a number of publishers turned off the text-to-speech feature of Kindle programming in the digital material they provided to Amazon, despite our arguments.
We invited all who felt the urge to have auditory access to books to join with us in the Reading Rights Coalition. More than thirty organizations joined, representing an estimated thirty million Americans. We staged a demonstration in New York City, outside the offices of the Authors Guild. We argued that the right to read is not only visual. Access to books is access to intellectual material in whatever format best serves the needs of the person receiving it. Within a few months a meeting involving the right to read occurred at the White House. The authors were arguing that providing material in an auditory form might interfere with the rights of authors to sell recorded copies of their books. It was pointed out that 95 percent of books are never recorded. The question was raised with the authors and the publishers: why should not the 95 percent of the books that were not recorded be presented in a format that would permit the text-to-speech version to be heard?
In the meantime the Kindle is being deployed on college campuses in the United States to present course materials. Discrimination complaints have been filed against five of these, and a federal discrimination lawsuit has been brought against a sixth. The National Federation of the Blind has created an accessibility guide which has been distributed to universities throughout the United States. Universities may not discriminate against blind students. The law prohibits them from distributing material to blind students that is inaccessible. The schedule for the federal lawsuit on the subject will bring the matter to trial in early 2010. Within the next few months alternative technologies to the Kindle will almost certainly be deployed by major corporations.
I take for granted that blind people are normal human beings with the range of skill and talent that other people have except the ability to see. My experience tells me that the ability to see is important, but it is not as important as a dozen or a hundred other characteristics. I expect blind people to master complex ideas and to imagine complex thought. I expect blind people to want to explore the far horizons and to enjoy the daily aspects of living. Although I do not believe it is commonplace, I am not astonished when I encounter blind people who are planning to climb mountains, write screenplays, teach history and literature, practice law, conduct scientific experiments, manage political careers, or pursue hundreds of other endeavors. Not all of the people I meet share this point of view. Many of the people I encounter express the notion that blind people are like sighted people except they are broken. I spoke about this mistaken belief at length at the 2009 convention of the National Federation of the Blind:
Despite the obvious reality that human beings are composed of hundreds of characteristics—physical, mental, spiritual, natural, and artificial—a phenomenon often occurs in which a single characteristic personifies an individual or a group. Ronald Reagan was the great communicator. Donald Trump is the tycoon with hair. Mother Teresa was the embodiment of saintliness. It is not only individuals who become known by a single characteristic but groups, societies, and sometimes nations as well. Germans are fierce, Italians are lovers, and the British are unemotional.
Our characterization is that we are blind—that we cannot see. This characteristic is one of many physical traits that may make up the physical aspect of a human being. Nevertheless, it is often the primary trait considered by others who estimate the value of blind human beings, and sometimes it is the only trait—imparting meaning to all others as if this one characteristic is irresistibly dominant. Do blind people possess beauty, artistic talent, mechanical ability, or the capacity to inspire love and trust? Some would say we do not because we are blind. According to these, we possess only one characteristic of significance. Its presence within our being leaves no room for anything else.
The incapacity or unwillingness of a person to judge another on the basis of the characteristics possessed by that person ensures that the estimate of value will be wrong. This fundamental fact is at the heart of nondiscrimination legislation. It is also a basic element within the struggle of the organized blind movement to ensure that the blind are incorporated in society on the basis of equality. Blindness is one characteristic among hundreds, and judging blind people on this characteristic alone is an elementary and destructive error. It signifies that our ability to contribute is undervalued, and it limits our opportunities. It also deprives the society in which we live of the full expression of our talent. Following this erroneous pattern of thought to its logical conclusion leads to absurdity.
Blindness, being outside the norm, is often regarded as abnormal. Normality is rarely defined, but being abnormal is frequently regarded as bad. Furthermore, blindness is often thought to be a medical condition to be repaired or cured. The important information about blind people, we are sometimes told, is not what we can do to build our own lives or what contributions we can make to our society. The important information is what must be done for us, what the doctors have to offer us, what is needed to comfort and support us. We are told that the thing we need most is sight. Those who cannot be repaired or cured are permanently diseased or broken. In our society broken artifacts must be fixed or discarded or (if they are sufficiently rare) preserved for display under glass. This pattern of thought leads to the conclusion that blind people are sighted people—who are broken.
The diseases that cause blindness are, of course, medical conditions, which should be cured when this is possible. However, the blindness which results from these diseases is not a medical condition but a physical characteristic. Eyes that work can see; eyes that do not work are blind. However, it is false to say that eyes which are broken signify that the person who owns them is broken.
Value is measured not by a single characteristic but by the aggregate of those possessed by each individual. Each characteristic contributes to the whole, and each may strengthen or hinder the person possessing it. To say of a person who fails to possess a certain characteristic that the person is broken is to express an attitude of affinity for that characteristic, declaring allegiance to those who possess it. This is more a statement of political faith than of truth.
The blind do not need to be fixed; we are fine the way we are. We are not diseased carriers of contagion who must be shunned or kept in isolation to prevent our blindness from rubbing off. We are not abnormal weirdoes to be placed under observation for the entertainment of others. We are the tough, independent, spirited people who have brought the organized blind movement into being, who have established its objectives, and who have carried its program into effect. Would we accept assets that we do not already have? Yes, of course, if the strings attached are not too many, if the demands made upon us are not too restrictive, and if the costs are not so high that they outweigh the advantages to be gained.
We in the National Federation of the Blind have decided to seek full opportunity for all of the blind, and we intend to reach this goal. We have found through the examination of the strength within our hearts that our lives have meaning and purpose without modification or alteration. The meaning does not depend on vision or the lack of it. Each of us has the value created by the characteristics of which we are made. Every one of these characteristics can be an advantage or a disadvantage, depending on the circumstances and depending on the inventive intelligence employed in managing it. We declare that we are not broken sighted people—we are the blind, we have value, and we intend to use it.
This sentiment, expressed only a few months ago, is more than a declaration of a social ideal. It is the basis for political action. This concept is at the heart of the legislative program being pursued by the National Federation of the Blind. It is the underlying structural component of the litigation we bring to protect the rights of individual blind people. It is the center of the philosophy that is the inspiration for the programs we create. We believe that much should be demanded of blind people, and our experience demonstrates that more will be forthcoming than the amount demanded.
As a result of the work of the National Federation of the Blind, within the past year the Louis Braille Bicentennial Silver Dollar has been struck by the United States Mint. This coin bears the likeness of Louis Braille and the Braille dots that symbolize his name. Two of these coins flew on the space shuttle a distance of more than five million miles. The reading system for the blind has traveled from the hands of its creator to earth orbit.
We believe that access to information is a fundamental element of education, employment, and many other pursuits. We believe that blind people have a right to access to information. With the expansion of the Internet, with the presentation of vast quantities of information in digital form, with the adoption of electronic technologies to make virtually any piece of knowledge available to those who have the tools to use it, we believe that the blind have a right to share in this vast resource. Some years ago we sued the company that deploys the largest number of bank machines in the United States. When the suit concluded, something like thirty thousand additional bank machines had become accessible to the blind. The Target Corporation, which is one of the largest retail outlets in the United States, refused to make its Website accessible to the blind. When the lawsuit was settled, Target was required to pay our attorneys’ fees and $6 million to those who had been denied access. People in the United States who want to become lawyers apply to law school through the Law School Admissions Council, which has refused to make its Internet application process accessible to the blind. Now those who want to control entry into law schools are facing legal action on behalf of the blind. We believe that the law applies to everybody—even the lawyers.
In 1990 the Americans with Disabilities Act was adopted. The concepts incorporated in that act are derived from the philosophical thought of the founder of the National Federation of the Blind, Dr. Jacobus tenBroek. In 2007 the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which had been adopted by the United Nations, came into force. The concepts incorporated in that document also derive (at least in part) from the philosophical thought of Dr. tenBroek. These realities signify that statutory protection for the disabled must be developed with the informed voice of disabled individuals. Freedom is won—not given.
At the end of the 1990s, Dr. Kenneth Jernigan, the second great president of the National Federation of the Blind, contemplated the need for an institute in which we would conduct experimentation dealing with blindness, formulate programs to serve the blind, plan innovative educational opportunities for blind youth and adults, and conduct research. Most of these things have been done for the blind. We decided that progress would be increased if these were conducted by the blind. We said that among the many tasks we would pursue would be the instigation of a program for the construction of an automobile that the blind can drive. In the summer of 2009 the first version of this vehicle, a rudimentary effort, was deployed during our program to teach blind youth technology, engineering, math, and science. We are continuing the work on the development of such a device. We believe that the blind have the capacity to operate such a technology safely, or at least as safely as similar technology is operated by the sighted.
If it becomes technically feasible to build automobiles that the blind can drive, will it also become a violation of the law to refuse to build them that way? Equal access to programs and activities for disabled individuals in the United States is a requirement of the law. Will it be easier to build an automobile that the blind can drive safely, or will it be easier to convince legislators and the members of the public that the blind should drive it? If the blind are normal capable human beings, blind people have a right to use the technology available to others as long as it can be done safely. Incidentally, I predict that the blind-drivable car will have enormous benefits for the sighted.
Independence of spirit requires the capacity to reject assessments that others make of an individual when they are wrong. All of us tend to believe of ourselves what others believe of us—especially when the others are in positions of authority. Rejecting a misassessment may be easy if there is only one. When these misassessments come routinely, a system for evaluation must be adopted that is independent of them. We call this the organized blind movement. We join with each other for mutual inspiration, mutual protection, and mutual evaluation. We challenge each other to exceed our expectations, and we share the joy of accomplishment. With this independence of spirit we change our minds and alter our future.
When I first became a part of the National Federation of the Blind forty years ago, I would have regarded as complete idiocy the thought that we might build an automobile, an airplane, or a spacecraft that the blind could operate. I would have rejected as impractical the thought that blind students could launch rockets. In our science programs teenage blind youth launch the rockets every year, and, although we have not yet started on the airplane or the spacecraft, we are working on the car. I don’t think this is idiotic. Instead I speculate on how far we might go; how much is possible to the human spirit; how exciting can we make our tomorrows. In the process of teaching others, I myself have learned something.
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